I Learned More Than Just Writing Tips From My Critique Group

I submitted my short story, The Ravenous Flock, to http://critters.org/ on 7/8/2012, where it sat in the queue. On Wednesday, 8/1/2012, it was released to their community of over 15,000 members. Later that week on a Saturday morning, I received my first 3 critiques. Verdict: It was worth the wait!

I learned some valuable lessons about my writing that I can now consciously pay attention to so that I can avoid them in the future. Some of which were just bad habits that had been formed long ago that had never been brought to my attention. For example, pay attention to the punctuation on this sample sentence: A dangerous voice spoke to him, weighted in a thick accent, “You will tell your king what I have done here this day, or I will come to reclaim your life.”

There should be a period after the word “accent” instead of a comma because it is actually a sentence and not a dialogue tag. This was an error that I had made a couple of times – an old habit that simply stayed below the radar of my critical eye. But the ability to learn things about your writing that you weren’t conscious of before is invaluable! The line by line corrections/suggestions that I received are immensely useful and will aid me in my next revision.

Another bad habit of mine shows in this sentence: The weight was lifted from his chest and Grindor began to hack and cough between his sporadic breaths. Did Grindor actually hack and cough? Or did he only begin to hack and cough? Words like “began” don’t help when trying to describe the actions in the scene and should be removed.

Lastly, I had some POV shifts that jarred the reader. Occassionally, the narrator switched from the point-of-view of Grindor to Ocamyr. I think I was trying to have an omnipresent narrator, but since the narrator spent so much time describing everything from Grindor’s perspective, it was odd to suddenly be in the mind of Ocamyr. These shifts in POV will be addressed and corrected so that the reader’s perspective of the events are all described through the eyes of Grindor.

I believe that by incorporating these edits and reworking the ending a little bit will strengthen my short story and prepare it for submission to magazines. Had I not taken the time to receive critique on my work, I may never have learned these flaws in my writing until it was too late. Having patience as a writer is a virtue. Take a moment and let that sink in. Maintaining one’s patience while on the cusp of achieving career-making milestones is difficult beyond measure. If a magazine purchases the rights to publish my short story, then I can join SFWA as an associate member. These two small events are what agents and publishers like to see on a submission and will get my foot in the door in this industry. Selling this short story could be the deciding factor as to whether my novel sees the light of day. So deciding to delay submitting it to magazines and patiently await for critique was unimaginably tortuous on the mind, but my desire to have the best chance of success for my short story overcame it all.

Selling your Short Story to a Magazine

I strongly advocate that all new fiction authors begin their career with writing and selling a short story. I’m not saying that a short story is a good warm up before you start a novel – as I believe that a short story is an entirely different animal from a novel, but what I am saying is that it is imperative to your author-resume (and subsequently your potential success as an author) that you have publication credits. This is an industry that everyone is dying to break into, and you need something in the bio section of your query letter in order to distinguish you from the crowd. In addition, selling your work to a magazine may also qualify you to join one of the mega Writing Associations such as SFWA, RWA, or whichever one applies to your genre. Being a member of one of the Writing Associations is also a resume booster.

I’m not trying to work the system just to obtain resume boosters; joining SFWA is a legitimate goal of mine, and their conditions for membership are a great road-map for launching a career. Once you are a member, even more networking, resources, and opportunities become available to you, so it is a worthwhile milestone to achieve. And one of the ways to get a publication credit for membership is to sell an original short story to a qualified magazine (as shown here for SFWA: http://bit.ly/Q4jmBQ).

How much money can I sell my short story for? It all depends on what the magazine offers and the length of your story. The minimum seems to be 5 cents a word (offered by places such as Apex magazine and Lightspeed Magazine), and they also seem to prefer stories around 5,000 words in length. So that amounts to $250! That’s more than enough to cover a Writer’s Association membership fee! (No money out of pocket!) Other magazines such as Tor.com offer 25 cents a word… that’s $1,250 for a 5,000 word story! (However, Tor.com just happens to be WAY behind on reviewing their submissions as they are still reading ones from last year). Be sure to check the submission guidelines of each particular magazine to see word length requirements as some do accept stories above the 5,000 word threshold.

So what happens when you sell the publication rights to a magazine? Often times they are purchasing First World publication rights, which means that if it has been published before, it is an automatic rejection. They also want an Exclusivity period, so that no one else can publish that same story during that time. I’ve seen the exclusivity period last anywhere from 6 months to 3 years. Following the Exclusivity period is the non-exclusivity period, meaning that you can publish your short story in other places like your website, anthology, another magazine, etc. (Remember, after it has been published for the first time, your ability to sell it again to a different magazine will dwindle close to nothingness as they usually want First World and exclusive rights, which is no longer available after the first publication). So if you tried to sell it elsewhere after the first publication, you would be trying to sell your reprint rights. Reprints offer a very small amount of compensation ($25 flat fee at Apex, and 1 cent per word at Lightspeed). In addition, they limit the amount of reprints that they publish in each issue because the magazines favor publishing new original content, which is also made evident in the fact that they don’t seem to accept unsolicited reprint submissions. Lastly in the contract, the magazines want the option to publish your story in an anthology, and there are additional royalties that will be paid to you in that case. Here are two sample contracts so you can see for yourself: http://bit.ly/NtUpNd (Lightspeed) and http://bit.ly/NvuuSs (Apex).

After I had reviewed the contracts, I still had questions… but I did get answers. Here is my email correspondence with John Adams, the Publisher/Editor from Lightspeed Magazine:

1) If you publish a short story that I have written, am I allowed to post it on my website 6 months after the publication date?

Yes. After the 6 month exclusivity expires, you can do whatever you like with it: publish it on your website, sell it to another magazine [as a reprint], reprint it in an anthology, etc.

2) If you publish a short story that I have written, am I allowed to enter it in writing contests during the time that it was published?

Sure, so long as the writing contest doesn’t insist on the stories being unpublished, and so long as they don’t insist on publishing the story during the exclusivity period as part of the contest.

Are There Only 7 Basic Plots?

According to Christopher Booker’s THE SEVEN BASIC PLOTS, he has been able to reduce every fiction novel down to its most basic plot element and discovered that there are only 7 different plots possible.  I did not have the time to read such a voluminous book, so I read this article instead: http://bit.ly/LsM6Sm

When my good friend showed me the article (which summarizes THE SEVEN BASIC PLOTS), it left me disheartened. I felt a wave of discouragement, as if it’s all been done before. I felt like my goal of ‘being as original as possible’ had just been rendered null. However, I realized that despite the lack of variety in plot choices, every story is unique because it’s always about the story, and how the characters choose to overcome the specific challenges that face them. The story and their characters are what make each novel unique, not the plot.

THE SEVEN BASIC PLOTS goes more in depth into the psychology as to why we are ‘programmed’ to imagine stories in these ways. Please read the article and/or book for a more in-depth look at what the seven basic plots consist of, but I have provided a short list below:

  1. Overcoming the Monster
  2. Rags to Riches
  3. The Quest
  4. Voyage and Return
  5. Comedy
  6. Tragedy
  7. Rebirth

On the flip side of this argument, I just finished reading On Writing, A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King and he talks about how you do not need a plot to write a book. When he writes a story, he conceives of a single situation and then a book is born.  For example, what if a girl that was bullied through high school had telekinesis? Carrie. However, in my opinion, the ending to a situation-based story can feel like it is lacking closure when compared to the ending of a plot-based story.

My story (as I’m sure many of you will also say) does not fall within one specific category listed. I have some of The Quest, but mostly my story falls into Overcoming the Monster. However, the “monster” in my novel does not fall into the 3 basic roles listed in the article. Regarding the Quest, while I do have a party of companions that follows my hero, they did not encounter obstacles on the actual journey… the obstacles they encountered (among discovering a runaway traitor or “monster”) happened to them at home and are the reason why they left to go on the journey.

So, are there really only 7 types of plots? I welcome all your thoughts and opinions on this subject. Please leave a comment.

Public Poll RE: Publishing a Series of Novels (Agent’s & Publisher’s Opinions Wanted)

When a proposed series of fiction novels are in the works, what caters better to the market: A continuous series or an independent series of novels? These are the things that keep me up at night. =) I would love for agents and publishers to cast a vote (and leave a comment to share their opinion) to see if there are any negative connotations associated with this subject. Authors and readers are also more than welcome to answer the poll as they represent the market.

Without being a published author myself (yet), I can only deduce the pros and cons of each with an outside perspective, and as such, my logic could be completely wrong (hence the need for this poll and for other’s professional opinions).

Composing A Continuous Series (1-2-3)

  1. Pro: This is the traditional form that I think the mass market is familiar with. You can follow the adventures of a single character from beginning to end
  2. Pro: You can lock in your audience with each installment as they immediately connect with your protagonist
  3. Pro: Having captured fans of your novel, you can begin to expect a certain amount of sales to follow
  4. Pro: Movies and TV series favor this type of format (which in turn sells more books)
  5. Con: Obtaining new fans requires that they “catch up” in the series before they read your newest release
  6. Con: Most of the time, a reader knows the protagonist lives at the end because there is a sequel

Composing A Non-Sequential Series (can read in any order)

  1. Pro: If trying to attract new fans, readers can feel comfortable purchasing & reading the newest novel without worrying about reading those released before it. I could be wrong, but I would imagine that in a long series of novels, sales of new books would trickle down over time as not all readers have read the installments before it. (Shouldn’t the first book of a series ALWAYS sell more than the last?)
  2. Pro: This type of series allows readers to engage with a range of colorful characters, and fosters an environment for the author that promotes new creative endings (as opposed to the good guy always wins)
  3. Pro: You can still capture fans in the same way as above, but they purchase your books because of the author’s storytelling ability as opposed to a connection with a particular character, and your connection with that fan ends with that character
  4. Con: Movie/TV deals might be off the table if there is no single character to follow
  5. Con: With sci-fi/fantasy genres, the author will have to continually re-introduce the world in every installment of the series

So cast your vote now! Or leave me a comment to tell me how far off base I am! =)

Should I add an Epilogue?

Of the many articles I have read about querying an agent, many of them stress the fact that the novel you pitch should be able to stand on its own as a single novel. Reason being, is that your novel shouldn’t depend on any sequel for its strength. It should have an ending all its own, as opposed to an ending that feels more like a pause-point because the true ending is in the sequel. In fact, it is even recommended to mention in a query letter that “your novel can stand on its own, but you have outlines drafted for the sequels.” Additionally across my smorgasbord of blog-readings, I have found that while waiting to hear a response from a query, that is the best time to begin composing your next manuscript.

As I developed the story arc for my novel, it became apparent to me that the world and unique pantheon I had created supported a much larger over-arcing story line. As with almost any movie or book ending, I realized that the ending to THE SOUL SMITH should have some ambiguity to support future planned sequels. It’s just good business. GAME OF THRONES didn’t even attempt an ending, it was the true definition of a pause-point between novels.

So without ruining the ending of THE SOUL SMITH for anyone that plans on reading it, I left a few pearls that would make any reader beg for more. However, is that the level of closure a reader will want if I am never to write the sequel?

No. After finishing a self-contained novel, a reader will want a full, complete story that instills a sense of accomplishment, of closure, of fulfillment. All of which would be addressed in an Epilogue. So, should I add an Epilogue? Even though I keep it in my back pocket, my answer is no. I will do everything possible to ensure that my “Epilogue” will be the seven books I plan to write after THE SOUL SMITH to complete The Blacksmiths series.

My 200 Word Pitch-A-Palooza Entry

Now that the World Literary Cafe’s Pitch-A-Palooza contest officially closed last night, I can safely reveal the query letter that I submitted. 200 words was very limiting, but it forced me to be succinct, which was a good thing. Let’s see what happens on May 22 when they announce the winner! My entry is below:

Dear Mrs. Eckstut & Mr. Sterry,

When the world of Thornwall was left abandoned by the true gods, eight human Black Smiths succeeded their rule, altering the elements, the land, and its inhabitants with their godly forging hammers. Such is the setting for THE SOUL SMITH, my 100,000 word completed epic fantasy novel.

Stylistically similar to ERAGON and targeted toward young adults, THE SOUL SMITH redefines the genre, permeating every reverie of your mind with superlative fantasy that challenges the imagination. Filled with high impact action and fantastical unique races of creatures, it’s a page-turning tale of survival, honor, companionship, and sacrifice. As a handful of adolescent elkin, a savage race of men endowed with antlers, attempt to seek vengeance for the massacre of their elders, the traitor plots to make an old war anew, and overthrow the Soul Smith himself. 

While THE SOUL SMITH stands alone as a novel, I have outlines designed for a potential octalogy, with each installment aptly named after each Black Smith. I’d be happy to provide a partial or complete manuscript for further review.

As a member of International Association of Aspiring Authors, thank you in advance for your consideration.


Adrian Diglio