Saturday, 22 February 2014

Brief Guidelines for Submitting Work

 I was putting together some notes for my Tuesday writing workshop and thought it was worthwhile sharing my views and experience with a larger audience.
Make sure your work is as good as you can possibly make it. Editing is a slow process, which should be undertaken in several stages. Don't just rely on your computer spell-check; the computer will happily accept the wrong word as long as it is a word. If you've got a friend who is good at spelling and grammar, do use them, but beware that they don't 'grammarise' the vitality out of your work, especially your dialogue. The whole point of editing is to make your submission as professional as possible. If the first thing that the editor sees is a typo or punctuation error, they will assume that you don't know your trade. It is hard: you know what you've written and can read it a hundred times without realising that's not what's actually on the page.
If you have time, it is a good plan to put your work aside for at least two weeks, to 'go cold', then you can edit it more dispassionately.
It is also useful to edit in as many different ways as possible: on the screen, on paper and even looking at it again using different fonts and colours.

The most important thing is to send for (or download) the guidelines, read them carefully and obey them implicitly.
When submitting a manuscript on paper, the standard way to do so is double spaced, with reasonable sized margins and an indent at the start of each new paragraph. Pages should be numbered and, if submitting to a magazine, your name and the title should be included in the footer as well. (The same rules apply when submitting manuscripts to agents or editors.) Many competitions will not want your name on the work, although some will want a pseudonym; they all have their own ways of maintaining entrants' anonymity. Use an envelope that doesn't require you to fold your manuscript and put on correct postage.
When submitting on-line it is probable that they will not want an indent at the start of each new paragraph. All you can do is ask for guidelines and follow them.
Only submit one story at a time. Don't bombard the editor with mass submissions, it simply doesn't work. Your submission letter should be brief, business like and pleasant; bear in mind that they get hundreds of submissions and will be irritated by unnecessary 'waffle.' Never include drawings of how you'd like your story to be illustrated or photographs of you with your grandchildren or pet dog. (You may laugh but it has happened and probably will again.)
Always make sure your submission is clean and professional looking. Although it's tempting to 'recycle' returned submissions, be absolutely certain it doesn't look in any way second-hand.
Over the years, many students have asked me anxiously, 'What if the editor steals my story and publishes it without acknowledging me or paying for it?'
I can only say, 'Why should they?' The money they pay is nothing to them. What they want is a successful, prolific writer that's going to keep on sending in stories to revitalise their fiction with new, exciting work. But please bear in mind that I'm talking about reputable publishers who are in it for the long haul. If it looks dodgy then it's better to steer clear.
Bear in mind that you should not pay an agent or editor to read or publish your work. If you wish to employ a copy editor to read your work and give feedback or edit it, then you must expect to pay a professional rate. You have to pay an entry fee for many competitions. This is standard practice and no problem as long as you know what you are paying and what you're agreeing to.

Dealing with Acceptance
If you send a short story to a magazine, with any luck you'll receive a phone call, email or a letter saying they like your work and offering you a sum of money for First British Serial Rights. If you accept they will have the right to publish your work in Britain but, in most cases, after a couple of years, the rights will revert to you and you can sell it again. The magazines may even facilitate translation offers. Woman's Weekly once passed my contact details to a lady who wished to translate my Christmas story, Silent Night, into Norwegian for a Norwegian Magazine. She paid me £100 for a story I'd already been paid for in Britain. My only regret is that I was so stunned I forgot to ask her to send me a foreign copy for my archives.
Once you have agreed to sell your story, the publisher will have the right to make small alterations if they wish to. Quite often these are just to fit into narrow magazine columns. (Warning, never give your magazine characters long, double-barrelled names.) Occasionally these alterations are slightly irritating, (especially when they remove all your jokes) but my stories are products and, as I want to sell them, I have to accept the alterations.
In the world of novels, both agents and editors will have a say in editing and, from all I've heard, will often bombard you with conflicting information.
Occasionally a magazine editor may tell you they love your story but need some changes made. However I suspect that this happens more frequently with writers they have already published than newcomers. In my personal experience, whenever I've made the changes they requested, they have accepted the story.
With agents and editors for novels, it is a far more varied experience. The only general advice I can give is, as soon as you receive a contract, join the Society of Authors; their advice can prove invaluable.

Dealing with rejection
The important thing is, don't take it personally. Your story is not your child, even if it's a novel you've worked on for many years, it's a piece of craftsmanship that you have offered for sale.
Isaac Asimov said, “Rejection slips, or form letters, however tactfully phrased, are lacerations of the soul, if not quite inventions of the devil.” I'm afraid my response to that would be, “Get over it.”
The reasons for rejection can be many, down to the unfortunate fact that they have just published another story with a similar theme. This happened to me with my short story The Last Tree house Conspiracy. I was sceptical that I was being fobbed off but put it to one side and, two years later, got it out, revised and polished it and sent it off again. It was accepted on the second try.
Far more annoying was the editor who had agreed to consider my Victorian Murder Mystery and kept it for six months. When I chased her for a decision she wrote that she 'loved it' but unfortunately they had a long-running Victorian detective series already on their books and didn't want to divide their readers. And she didn't know that when she'd taken my book and hung onto it for so long?
There are several reasons for rejection of a short story by women's magazine editors: the characters or situation may be too clichéd; the story may be too dark or challenging, (not necessarily for the editors but for their perception of their readership); or the story may be too complicated for its short story framework. However the main reason for rejection is that it simply wasn't what they were looking for at that point.
If you get feedback try to benefit from it. Analyse what the editor is saying and, more importantly, the subtext. You may decide not to alter your work, but it's worth considering. If you don't get feedback, don't take it personally; all it means is that the editors are drowning under piles of paperwork.

Just remember one thing. However disappointed you are by rejection, never throw anything away. At least two of my 'competition' short stories that I'd have never thought of as suitable for women's magazines, with some revision, were accepted and published by Woman's Weekly.

Saturday, 8 February 2014

The Three Ps of Writing Fiction. Number 3: Place

Vivid settings add a sense of reality to your work and some settings can almost be a character in your story. In a novel you can introduce several places, but in a short story it's better to stick to one or two.
You may wish to use real places as your setting, in which case a some people will read your book to remember a place they have known or to enjoy a new exotic setting. When using a real life setting, especially when your story is set in the recent past, there is a danger that the reader will remember things differently to you. If so, be prepared for cross letters or indignant reviews.
When writing about a real setting in the more distant past, if it is out of living memory you have to treat it as you would a fictional setting and introduce the place at that time to your reader, putting in clothes, smells, garbage in the streets and horse-drawn vehicles etc. You need to do your research and include buildings and trades that were present at that time.
Strangers and Angels is my Victorian Murder Mystery, which will be published later this year. It is set in Gosport in 1850. I had great fun imagining a winter journey on the Floating Bridge, the great chain-propelled ferry that conveyed passengers between Gosport and Portsmouth. Its modern successor was still around when my husband was a child. Unfortunately, by the time I moved to Hampshire it had been abandoned.

The ferry was not crowded. The Victualling Yard had not yet turned out and, since Portsmouth had gained their own railway, there were fewer consignments of goods travelling by train to Gosport and across on the Floating Bridge to stock Portsmouth's shops.
Few people chose to travel across the harbour for pleasure in December at dusk, so Molly's wish that they would not meet any of Lady Adelaide's acquaintances seemed likely to come true.
She found a secluded, sheltered corner and sat down. She felt cold and tired. The Floating Bridge would never seem quite so much fun again.
Or maybe it would if she could see it through Kemal's eyes. She loved the lively interest with which he prowled the deck, clearly considering how the mechanics of the ferry worked, as, with a creak and clanking of the giant chains and the throb of the two great steam engines, they chugged away from the shore.
The need for historical plausibility doesn't mean you cannot insert places or features that were not in the original town, as long as they could have been there. In Strangers and Angels I invented a cooper's yard that had never existed and the well-to-do tradesman's house that adjoined it. I placed it in an appropriate location, the Weevil district of Gosport, not far from the Royal Clarence Yard.

In the narrow hallway Mrs Dorrington set down her valise and turned to take the basket from Adelaide. "If you'd like to go into the parlour, Molly will kindle the fire. I'll bring refreshments as soon as I've brought the kettle to boil. Molly, is the range still alight?"
"Yes Grandmama, but damped down, the way Pa left it this morning."
"Please, I'd rather go to the kitchen with you." Adelaide could not endure the thought of sitting alone in the chilly formal room.
Mrs Dorrington's finely arched eyebrows lifted. "As you wish, Lady Adelaide."
Adelaide wished Mrs Dorrington would not mention her name and rank whenever she spoke to her. She wondered if it was deliberate; a reminder of her position and the folly of stepping out of it. Then Mrs Dorrington smiled at her. It was a warm smile, with a sparkle of mischief that reminded Adelaide of Molly.
"Please sit down." She ushered Adelaide to a chair beside the scrubbed, pine table.
As she spoke she looked appraisingly around her small domain. Adelaide thought she should be pleased, everything looked spotlessly clean; on the softwood dresser, pale from years of scrubbing, copper jelly moulds gleamed and the white dinner plates were neatly stacked.
"I was here yesterday, Grandmama. I tidied up and made sure Sally had scrubbed the kitchen floor," said Molly, her tone still uncharacteristically meek.

Of course, whatever genre you are writing in, there is no reason why you cannot invent your own places, but remember to give your setting some memorable features and names that tie in with the time and location you are writing about. Sometimes it is easier to use some features of a real place in a suitable location that you are familiar with and then give it your own twist. For my two contemporary police procedurals, The Terminal Velocity of Cats and About the Children, I created two fictional towns, Ledleigh and Saltern, but situated them on the south-coast of England. I was so successful with Ledleigh that Charlie Cochrane (author of the Cambridge Fellows Mysteries) made a very good guess at the area I had in my mind. Strangely, the features I created, such as the deserted, derelict houses in Bridge Road (The Terminal Velocity of Cats) and Stone Park, an everyday public park that could not escape its sinister history (About the Children) became so real that I could give anybody an in-depth guided tour.
These descriptions of Stone Park appear in the first chapter of About the Children, along with a quote from the First World War poet, Isaac Rosenberg. (I can have a literate cop if I want one.)

They stripped off their scene of crimes’ protective suits. They'd need to put on fresh suits before they entered the other crime scene to avoid cross-contamination.
He paused a moment to consider the position of the Children's Assault Course in relation to other features in the park. On three sides the playground was bordered by undergrowth and sheltering trees. Within easy reach there were two exits, one leading through allotments, the other onto a quiet, residential road. Three hundred yards away, over to the west, he could see the grey shimmer of the lake.
Five years ago, this park had been the scene of the first serious assault he'd investigated, when he'd returned to Saltern as SIO of a new hand-picked Serious Crimes Team. Stone Park had always had a strange reputation... and a strange feeling. Like there was something under the surface; something cruel. Sunlight pierced the grey clouds, briefly bathing the park in pale light. 'The darkness crumbles away – it is the same old druid Time as ever.'....
.Then he strode across to the second crime scene, a formal garden bordered by a wide circle of seats. The paving slabs were creamy white, except where they were strewn with autumn leaves. A patch of brighter colour caught his gaze. Someone had lost a scarf. It was delicate, rainbow-beaded and woven in silver thread.
The vivid strands had filled with blood and, as Tyler looked, the outline of the scarf lost definition. Before his tired eyes the sparkling shapes transformed into a grotesque mosaic, the symbol of some primitive sacrifice.

Writers of Science Fiction and Fantasy create their own worlds all the time, but they still have to maintain consistency within their worlds and make them come alive. Often they do this by inventing Future World parallels with things we are familiar with, so that their worlds are more accessible. Writers of distant history often use the same skills as SF and Fantasy writers.
When bringing your settings alive for the reader, whether in the past, present or future, it's important to use the senses: sight, sound, smell, taste and touch and that other less tangible sense, the'feel' of a place. You must build upon what most readers know about everyday places then add the twists of individuality that make your settings unique and memorable.

Monday, 3 February 2014

The Three Ps of Writing Fiction. Number 2: Plot

The plot is basically the structure of your book. The skeleton which maintains your story.
The basic requirement is that there is a problem or conflict. Without conflict you are merely telling an anecdote.
The the other plot requirements are:
A beginning with a 'hook' to grab the reader, which introduces characters and setting and gives some hint of the conflict or problem.
A middle in which the conflict is developed and there is some attempt to resolve it, probably not successfully at this point. The pace should vary, with fast tense bits and other slower paced situations. The 'rule of three' is often a good way of structuring, with two unsuccessful attempts to sort the problem followed by a final successful resolution. This is a classic structure, obvious in many traditional children's tales. For example, in the Three Little Pigs, the pigs make houses of straw and wood before they take refuge in the brick built house.
The end should have the final resolution of the problem. This does not have to be a 'happily ever after, clichéd ending, but it does have to be satisfactory to the readers. Yes, I know you cannot please all the people all the time, but you have to make sure you've played fair and done your best. Disappointed readers won't come back for more.

How do you plot your novel?
That is up to you, the writer. Some people start with an opening scenario and starting characters and play with the action. This can be great fun but sometimes it paralyses the writer when they end up thinking, 'what do I do now?' or 'Help, this novel is totally out of control. Just letting it flow can make the novel incredibly fresh and exciting, but it does involve the willingness to not just do a quick edit but to rewrite meticulously and occasionally go back to near the beginning and take a completely different path. If you write crime, as I do, it's a great way of fooling the reader about whodunnit or what's going to happen next. The important thing is that when you've completed and are ready to publish the work, you have it all in control.
Many people plan their novel, meticulously; often taking nearly as long to sort out the plot as they take to write the novel. That can be great, as long as you don't turn the novel into a 'write by numbers' trudge. Never be afraid to explore the wonderful diversions that the writing process reveals and that your characters suggest.
One vital rule: as with characters that serve no purpose, if a scene in a story serves no useful purpose to further the story, it has to go, otherwise it will bog down the story, whether it's a 100,000 word novel or a 1,000 word short story.
Of course, if writing a novel, you can have sub-plots to enrich the action but in a short story the important thing is to keep it simple and stick with a single plot-line.
I love the word clue, which in its Old English form is clew, and means a thread. Whatever you are writing you need that thread of plot, place and people, which, like Theseus in the labyrinth, will lead you safely through.

In a workshop last week, the students grew very excited when fitting books they had read and their own work into the scholarly guidelines of the seven basic plots:

Overcoming the Monster; Rags to Riches; The Quest; Voyage and Return; Comedy; Tragedy; Rebirth.

Give it a try. It's interesting to work out the plot that fits your book and may help to clarify your structure.

The theme is part of plotting, but it can be argued that it's also part of characterisation and setting. It's the essence of your story; it is the deeper meaning within it. The theme can be defined in a few words, which will have some relevance to the problem your central character has been dealing with; for example: survival; loss; regret, self-discovery.