Tips

5 Tips and Tricks for Submission to: The Lane of Unusual Traders - Stage 2 - 31 May (HT: @tinyowlworkshop)

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I've just finished reading and judging (ie. slushing) the Flash Fiction component of the Lane of Unusual Traders Part 2. The Lane is a part of a large collaborative world building project managed by the excellent Tiny Owl Workshop crew, based in sunny Brisbane, Australia. As part of reading through the submissions, I thought I would give some tips and observations to any potential submitters to the Short Story component of the submission window (due May 31, people). I'm judging for that too, so you probably should pay attention if you want a submitting edge.

If you don't know what I'm talking about at all, check out the market listing link above, or go here to the 'LoUT' homepage for a quick introduction: http://thelaneofunusualtraders.com/

Finished? Keen to submit? Cool, then read on!

Tip 1: Anonymity

All submissions are read blind. This means the judges don't know who submitted what. If you tell me your idea or identify yourself in some kind of way that lets me match the submission to you, I can't fairly judge your story anymore, so don't do it!

How would this work against you? Say I have 2 stories I love and can only keep one. And say one of those is yours and I think you are super awesome and great and everyone knows it. If I don't want to be accused of favoritism, it's probably safest for me to pick the other story, and since I was having a tough time picking which one to keep, I only needed a small nudge to help me come to a conclusion. So don't do it!

Tip 2: Familiarity with the Content

Firstly, I strongly urge you to read as much of the existing fiction as possible. This will give you a feeling for the world, and for the various styles of writing that have been published before.

Some flash stories are here: http://tinyowlworkshop.com/2015/03/29/stories-from-the-lane-of-unusual-traders/

The Midlfell Wiki, a constant work-in-progress, is here. Information in this Wiki is free to use and integrate and expand on in your stories, and is in fact encouraged. But don't get too greedy and lock down huge swathes of the empty world with detailed descriptions, because you're just taking away possibilities from other authors (eg. "Everything north of Lind was a giant nuclear wasteland, and no one could ever write in ... uh ... I mean nothing could ever live on those plains again.").

Tip 3: Some criteria we use to choose between stories

  • We're trying to fill one of the lots on the Lane with a shop or feature, and so your story, though it might capture the interstitial atmosphere of the Lane perfectly, is more likely to be picked if you do fill one of the spaces with a 'thing' relevant to your story. There is always room for a tale that happens on and not in the Lane, but...well, the guidelines say we need to pick one of the lots! As a corollary to that, if you put a shop in your story, but in the course of your story remove the shop through explosion, accident or otherwise...well, we're still left with an empty lot. We're trying to fill in the physical space of the Lane with stories, don't leave the space empty.
  • We want a cool shop idea or Midlfell contribution.
  • We want a story, not merely a vignette show-casing your cool shop idea or Midlfell contribution.
  • We like it when the elements you are adding to the Midlfell canon serve as stepping stones for future writers and Midlfell projects.
  • We don't want you to create too much of the world in your story. If it's not relevant to the story but you want to expand on Midlfell, try to keep it vague (see the previous dot point) and not too broad (eg. don't say, all Javain have nightmares whenever they sleep).
  • Personally, if your submission has a story, it has a cool shop idea, and then that shop idea is subverted somehow which then ties back into the story? You're probably onto a winner right there.
  • Last but not least, you need to write well. There is a certain amount of leeway we will give a submission that ticks all the boxes but needs a little bit of editorialising, but again, if we're stuck between great story A and great story 1, things like 'I'm not going to have to spend several hours tweaking great story 1 with the author' will work against you.

Tip 4: Things We've Seen a Lot

This is not a criticism of any specific story, merely a comment of the types of special shops in the Lane that we've seen a lot of already, either published or submitted. All of these things we've seen at least twice in the last submissions pile, and sometimes up to four times! Although each story might have a specific take on the notion, they are similar enough that we could only ever pick one even if they were all great!

If you want to incorporate one of these ideas in your submission, do go ahead, just make sure to think well out of the box or surprise us in some way:

  • A shop or person that extracts/resells memories or emotions (good/bad)
  • A shop or person that sells dreams
  • A shop whose primary purpose is spying for the revolution or Kraken (although this is a recurring and often unavoidable notion throughout all the Lane stories past and present, this should at most be an element of your story, not its primary reveal).
  • A shop that has bugs in it (we get lots of these, because bugs are awesome, but there's only room for so many bug shops on the Lane)
  • A story that doesn't fill one of the lots on the lane with a home, place, feature, shop, memorial, etc. Read the guidelines folks.
  • Untitled stories. If your story is untitled, call it 'Lot [x]' where [x] is the Lot number that relates to your story. If you can't find a lot number that would be meaningful to your story, check out the previous dot point. Or pick several lots, that's cool too. We need a pin on the map, though!

Tip 5: Don't Fret Too Much

Writing is a lottery. Once you get good enough at it technically, you are allowed to enter that lottery. At that point, ideas, execution and style will win you lottery tickets. After that you're susceptible to any number of random events from 'the story I just read was a bit like yours, but I read it first, so I chose that one' to 'I have a headache today and I don't like the way you introduced this character'. The quality of submissions is so high that often small things make the difference, and these are things you simply cannot control.

For example, in the Flash round, there were only about 4 stories that overlapped in the top 10 of both judges. Some that I had pipped out of the top 10 but that my fellow judge really liked only required a little convincing from her to make it back in. And, once in, that new addition might easily knock another piece that is too similar back out of the top 10, since we have to choose stories that complement each other, too. It's all really ephemeral. Just focus on getting those lottery tickets.

In Summary

Write well, write an idea that complements and extends the existing Mildfell canon, surprise the reader, then submit and hope!

How to Write About Characters Who Are Smarter Than You (via @Medium)

This is a great article by Graham Moore, the Academy Award nominated screenwriter of 'The Imitation Game':

[A]fter our scientist has finished, the camera turns to a second character. This would be our scientist’s normal-dude buddy. He’s just a regular Joe. He is the audience’s stand-in during the scene, and the character with whom the audience most identifies. This guy makes an incredulous face in response to the scientist’s technical language. And then he says the following line:

“WHOA, Doc. Say that again in English!”

You know exactly what I’m talking about. You’ve seen this moment on screen, you’ve seen it on TV, you’ve read it in novels. I find this moment to be extremely condescending to its audience. The moment essentially signals to the viewer that all of that mumbo-jumbo that this smarty pants has been blathering on about, well, we filmmakers do not understand a word of it. Moreover, we don’t care to. And we have no interest in your understanding it either.

Graham walks through how he avoided this in his screenplay about genius mathematicians, with examples from Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes works. It's clever, you'll recognise it, and it doesn't condescend to your audience.

Read about it here: https://medium.com/@MrGrahamMoore/how-to-write-about-characters-who-are-smarter-than-you-c7c956944847

On the lack of cultural estrangement in SF (via @cstross)

Charles Stross writes last week about how rapidly even our own cultures can become alien to us, and how too often that isn't reflected in future SF writing:

It's worth noting, incidentally, that much of the social change that led up to the current cultural matrix was driven by technological change. Better medicine and family planning techniques gave us the basis for a society in which we don't go to a different infant's funeral every month, in which bananas are cheaper than potatoes, people aren't worn out unto death by fifty, civil rights for people who aren't rich white males are at least recognized as theoretically desirable, and in which you probably aren't dying of tuberculosis. So why do repeatedly we see the depiction of far future societies with cheap interstellar travel in which this hasn't bought about massive social change as a side-effect (other than the trivial example of everyone having a continental sized back yard to mow)?

Worth a read, and worth absorbing for your own writing: http://www.antipope.org/charlie/blog-static/2014/12/on-the-lack-of-cultural-estran.html

Six Ways to Power Through Writer's Block (via @lifehackerau)

It can never hurt to glance over other people's strategies for overcoming Writer's Block (even if younever suffer from it, there might be some creativity tips, at least). This Lifehacker article focuses on these six points (details at the original article, as always):

 

  • Leave things when you’re doing well
  • Just write anything to get the words flowing
  • Write about how it feels not to be able to write
  • Keep an exciting scene or idea on hand
  • Maintain a writing schedule
  • Get verbal

Have a look, see if it speaks to you: http://www.lifehacker.com.au/2014/10/six-ways-to-power-through-writers-block/

Six Problems with Writing Realistic Space Battles (via @mythcreants, HT: @qldwriters)

We always like a good space battle, don't we, but space is ... different. The MythCreants have a detailed look at 6 ways the real world interferes with a good space battle, with some tips for how to turn that to your advantage:

  1. Space is really big
  2. Weapons advance faster than armor
  3. Planetary bombardment is really easy
  4. Everything happens super fast
  5. Maneuvering will kill your crew
  6. Everything should be done by robots

If any of these sections sparks your interest (and how could they not!?), read on here: http://mythcreants.com/blog/six-problems-with-realistic-space-battles/

How to make the Time to Write (via: @RosBaxter, HT: @altait)

Ros Baxter gives some advice on finding time to write. I need this, because I suck at time management:

I once read that Capote would write lying casually on a couch (probably a chaise lounge), with a glass of sherry in one hand and a pencil in another. TS Elliot had a hideaway above Chatto & Windus, a publishing house on St Martin’s Lane. Edgar Allen Poe could only write in black; Mark Twain in white.

I suspect if they had a smartphone with a constantly scrolling newsfeed and/or Angry Birds it might have had some impact on their productivity.

Ros gives us 7 things to help get that time in. I've used 5 quite effectively, with just a low '300 word' requirement.

  1. Become a voyeur.
  2. Staple a notebook to your arse.
  3. Set goals.
  4. Make time to write every day.
  5. Set yourself a daily word count.
  6. Not feeling creative?
  7. Finally, be grateful

Details and explanations at the original article if you're keen: http://www.allisontait.com/2013/03/starting-out-10-how-to-make-the-time-to-write/

Become a Better Storyteller Through Dungeons and Dragons (via @lifehackerau)

I've been a proud player of Dungeons and Dragons and other tabletop role playing games since 1990, and I insist to doubters that running a communal storytelling game like this is good for all sorts of real-world skills, from conflict management to brainstorming to improvisation and more. It's also good for—surprise!—story telling:

As a storyteller of any kind, the way you weave your narrative determines whether people stay engaged. The classic role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons can teach you how to construct strong stories and how to collaborate with others in a way that’s fun.

There are a few links to other stories in that article, too. They delve deeper into both the phenomenon of the Dungeons and Dragons product and the benefits of storytelling.

Read more here: http://www.lifehacker.com.au/2014/08/become-a-better-storyteller-through-dungeons-dragons/

Writers Festivals are a Place to Connect (via @antloewenstein)

I'm at the Brisbane Writers Festival doing crazy things (scroll down to Sunday) on the first weekend of September. Come say hi and ask me why Literarium isn't live yet (it's looking good, does that help?)

The growth of literary festivals in Australia and globally is a cultural phenomenon that deserves more discussion. India’s annual Jaipur literary event attracts over 100,000 people in a frenzy of debate, colour and energy. When I spoke in Jaipur in 2011, there were “only” around 50,000 visitors. The event’s reputation and stature has grown exponentially since then.

Writing Festivals are a really great place to connect with your colleagues and discover new friends, or even meet online friends in meatspace!

Why do we love these annual institutions? Founder of The Hoopla, Wendy Harmer, launching the Newcastle writers’ festival in April characteristic style, argued that a communal need for spiritual and intellectual nourishment, along with disillusionment with the political process and its media followers, draws populations to discover new places to share ideas.

Worth a read if you're going (or thinking about going) to any events: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/aug/07/writers-festivals-are-a-place-to-connect-during-a-time-of-global-insecurity

You've Been Fictionalized! (via @parisreview, HT: @ElectricLit)

As writers we have the extraordinary power to take our experiences and turn them into fiction. But that power also allows us to take individuals and turn them into caricatures, angels or monsters. Use your powers wisely, oh author:

It isn’t as if a writer merely records life as it unfurls. Reality does not automatically transcribe as literature; real people are not shapely, compelling characters to be harvested. Charming facts and sharp observations rarely slide seamlessly into whatever narrative is at hand. To fictionalize material—any material, real or imaginary—is to subject it to the demands, the conventions, and rigors of the project at hand. A fictional narrative is constructed, shaped, and sized, its raw material muted, amplified, trimmed, and minced, recombined and recolored.

The writer Susan Taylor Chehak said that she was fictionalized once, “But by the time she got me to fit, I wasn’t me anymore.”

Have you ever succumbed to the temptation of injection someone into a story?

Not all are as cool-headed as Chehak. Some of the fictionalized share a wide streak of solipsism—for them, a few recognized facts can trigger a strong response. I have one friend who, years before I knew her, lived in Round Rock, Texas. She told me how, drunk in her youth, she’d once called some policemen “pin dicks” as they were driving her down to the station. I stole that line and gave it to a young man as he was being hauled to the police station in my first novel, Round Rock, which was named for a drunk farm near Piru, California, where round rocks occur naturally in the riverbed—it had nothing to do with Texas. My friend read two pages of this novel and phoned, furious. Not only had I named my novel after the place where she used to live, I’d put her words into my character’s mouth. “You stole my life!” she said.

There's a lot more there, and I think it's worth reading.

Read it all here: http://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2014/07/28/youve-been-fictionalized/

And don't forget this hilarious McSweeney's article on the same idea.

The best work is always unofficially collaborative (via @alanbaxter)

Alan Baxter talks about the secret ingredient of many published works:

My most recent short story is all my own work supposedly. But it was critiqued by three of my best writing pals. It has significant additional scenes in the middle from one pal’s suggestions, a completely reworked end from another pal’s suggestion, much juggling of motivations from the third pal’s concerns and greatly polished final words from the input of all three. All of those things I’ve just credited separately were actually raised by all three because they’re bloody good advisors. It’s the solutions I used that I’m crediting really, all of them tempered with my own ideas. The best critiquers don’t tell you how to fix something – they just tell you what doesn’t work and maybe why (for them). It’s your job to decide whether to take that on board and it’s your job to fix it.

Read it here. I couldn't agree more: http://www.alanbaxteronline.com/work-unofficially-collaborative/

When Should You Give Up (via @frippet, HT: @Louise_Swinn)

Sounds like pretty depressing advice, but sometimes it's worth reading:

I’ve read a few things over the last month or so which have made me realise what a tiny step towards being an author this getting published business is. First, there was this piece from author Annabel Smith about looking for an agent when you have two published novels and a third on the way. Basically, she says, it makes no difference that you’re published. Nothing has changed, it’s still the case that no one wants you; no one cares. If you haven’t sold big, you might as well have never been published. Other authors talked about how if you haven’t sold big, it might even be an impediment to have been published – all the data about your crappy sales lives on forever on BookScan, where prospective publishers can see it and decide you’re really not worth the risk.

Read on: http://janebryonyrawson.wordpress.com/2014/06/18/when-should-you-give-up/

How Writers End Up On NSA Watchlists (via: @cantrelljason)

When talking about writers and their search histories I've joked that there are only two types of people who search for 'How do I dispose of my wife's body with a woodchipper'. Jason Cantrell talks about the realities of quite how dodgy a writer's web search history can look, and how you might end up on totalitarian government watchlists:

And of course, in addition to researching ponies and Mesopotamian slave names, I did extensive research into decay rates of human bodies. As you can see, I spent quite a bit of time visiting multiple websites on this topic. It’s almost as if I’m planning to enslave someone and I want to know how long it’ll take the body to decay when I finish killing her. But that seems unlikely . . . maybe if we go a bit further back, there’ll be something in my search history that will shed some light on this and explain what I’ve really been up to.

I tried to do this to find out what mad story ideas are shown in my own history, but it seems an earlier version of me had proactively disabled Google's web search history tracking for my account. Good thinking, yester-me.

Click here and check out Jason's history, if you dare: http://writingpossibilities.com/2014/07/07/how-writers-end-up-on-nsa-watchlists/

He Said/She Sighed - Part 1 (HT: @ginad129)

A great article here from Catherine Austen, which could be 'here are some rules about writing rules':

Big picture rules are good, like: A book should spend more words on important scenes and fewer words on unimportant scenes. That rule is hard to argue with.

Rules I roll my eyes at are nitpicky particulars like: Use “said” as your only verb in dialogue. That is a stupid rule. Or, rather, it is stupid to think of that as a rule.

Catherine gives a good analysis of why there are apparent 'rules' like 'just use  s' as a dialogue tag'. Like all 'rules', you can break them once you understand their purpose. This article is about the why:

You can have people spew their words, spit their words, growl them, bark them, bray them if you like. None of it is grammatically incorrect. Just as you can have your character drag her heart to the door, once she gets there she can sigh hello if you want her to. Readers love a good metaphor; why bar them from dialogue? The question is not whether it’s correct usage. (It is.) The question is whether it works. If it enhances the scene and makes it clearer, more vivid, more real and alive, then it’s good usage. If it obscures the action and slows the understanding and annoys the reader, it’s bad usage.

There's a lot more in there, with this great little smackdown:

Note to nitpickers: The hiss of speech doesn’t have to be on sibilants. Humans do not hiss. The meaning of “hiss” in dialogue is not “sssss. If someone is hissing “ssstay away sssilly” you’d better spell it out because no reader is going to assume the speaker is actually hissing the sibilants – unless you’ve already said they’re insane and one of their symptoms is hissing like a snake. Hissing in dialogue means to speak in quiet anger. Like the hiss of a snake or a cat, it is a small noise with a big angry warning attached to it. It is a perfectly good word for a whisper-shout. So please don’t show off your ignorance by calling out an author for saying a character hissed, “Pick that up” to her unruly child in church. You might not like the usage, but it is not bad grammar.

It's only part 1. Read it and bookmark it so if I forget to link you to part 2 then you won't miss out: http://catherineausten.wordpress.com/2014/06/20/he-saidshe-sighed-part-one/

We’re losing all our Strong Female Characters to Trinity Syndrome (via @thedissolve, ht: @jacklscanlan)

With diversity finally getting a bit more stagetime in the industry (or at least discussions of diversity) it's tempting for lazy artists to pay, effectively, lip service to the notion of having female characters. For example, having stories with more female protagonists does not mean you can just genderswap a character and end up with female male characters, women saying man-things or navigating a man-world like a man. Or as Tasha Robinson discusses in this article, you can't just make an interesting female character then...just...forget about her:

There’s been a cultural push going on for years now to get female characters in mainstream films some agency, self-respect, confidence, and capability, to make them more than the cringing victims and eventual trophies of 1980s action films, or the grunting, glowering, sexless-yet-sexualized types that followed, modeled on the groundbreaking badass Vasquez in Aliens.

[snip]

[E]ven when they do, the writers often seem lost after that point. Bringing in a Strong Female Character™ isn’t actually a feminist statement, or an inclusionary statement, or even a basic equality statement, if the character doesn’t have any reason to be in the story except to let filmmakers point at her on the poster and say “See? This film totally respects strong women!”

Very good overview (with extra links) about the mistake of introducing Strong Female Characters who then are superfluous to the plot. The concern is summarised as:

For the ordinary dude to be triumphant, the Strong Female Character has to entirely disappear into Subservient Trophy Character mode. This is Trinity Syndrome à la The Matrix: the hugely capable woman who never once becomes as independent, significant, and exciting as she is in her introductory scene.

Important stuff, and a good checklist/questionnaire for writers to help figure out if you're inadvertently making some of these mistakes: http://thedissolve.com/features/exposition/618-were-losing-all-our-strong-female-characters-to-tr/

Death in modern culture (via @guardian)

An interesting discussion about the interest that the younger generation has in death and things related to death. Death is a bit of a taboo in modern Western society, as is its close friend, 'old age'.

As a teacher of writing, I am often asked why my students read such “morbid stuff”. Why do teenagers seek out stories about vampires and zombies and death and violence? Parents are particularly interested in this. Should they be making sure their kids are reading something more “wholesome”? Something about junior detectives solving local, non-violent crime perhaps? Something about the rescue of native animals and the hijinks they get up to?

I'm approaching this as a way to get an appreciation of what motivates readers to seek out, for example, horror fiction.

Check it out: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/jun/08/young-people-are-dying-to-talk-about-death

The 3 golden rules of writing a science fiction book (via @standoutbooks)

I like this, as it concurs with my 'Yeah so Star Wars isn't Science Fiction' position which invariably starts a drunken debate:

Science fiction is just that, fiction about science. The science might be invented, and it might be of any stripe: political science, psychology and sociology, electronics, or the type with beakers and skeletons, but all sci-fi revolves around a central ‘what if..?’ question that addresses a deeper query

.As is my wont, I'll make you go to the original article to get to the juiciness, but here are the three rules:

  • Rule #1 – Know your thesis
  • Rule #2 – Do your research
  • Rule #3 – Don’t be afraid of the new

Read on to get the details: https://www.standoutbooks.com/3-golden-rules-writing-science-fiction-book/

Things I knew About Creating Characters When I Started Writing (via @ChrisAndrewsAU)

Well! It seems to me that the most important parts of crafting an excellent story go in this order*:

Character -> Plot -> Setting/Concept

The order in which I craft stories is this:

Setting/Concept -> Plot -> Character

You may notice a slight problem.

In practice, my backward approach means that the stories I sell are the lucky few that happen to have good characters. What I ought to do is stick with my setting/concept bias, sure, but immediately engage the emergency writing brakes and think about character foremost. Sure, the setting will inform the character. But crafting characters after you've written the plot? Feels a bit like Prometheus to me. The crappy movie, not the helpful Titan.

Without good characters, I think you're really making it hard for yourself to compete with other submissions.

To that end, Chris Andrews has collected a bunch of great responses about the things other writers have learned about creating characters:

I’d tell myself to figure out what my characters want, what they need, and to understand the difference, but that’s just a tiny part of creating characters. Here’s some more fantastic responses to that question.

Read them here, they're quite good: http://fandelyon.com/things-i-wish-i-knew-about-creating-characters-when-i-started-writing/


 

*This is a high level overview. I realise all these steps are intertwined and sometimes the setting is the character.

5 Ways To Write Characters That People Care About (via @WritersRelief, HT: @KCHerbel)

I suck at consciously putting characters together. They kind of...coalesce...out of my writing. I don't think that's a very useful professional super power, and so this article helps character-deficient folks like myself:

Creating characters that evoke empathy in the reader can be challenging, but these five methods will ensure that your efforts are successful. And keep in mind that empathetic characters don’t always have to be likable.

It's not a long article, but it provides some structure around crafting solid characters, so check it out here: http://writersrelief.com/blog/2014/05/write-characters-people-care-about/

What Is The Right Length For a Chapter? (via: @NatRusso, HT: @qldwriters)

Nat Russo talks about dividing up all those immaculate words you are putting down for your novel into good chapter lengths:

Let me just preface everything I say in this article with "In the case of my style of writing..." That should drive the point home that I'm not trying to establish any "rules" I think people should follow.

He looks at:

  • Pacing
  • Characterization/Point-of-View
  • Suspense
  • Transitions

Spoiler: There is no right length, it's a trick question! This article is more about making you think about the purpose of each of your chapters, which feeds directly into their best length.

Now, as a reader who tends to try to pause a read at the end of a chapter, shorter chapters are more likely to make me keep reading. 'Well,' I ponder, scratching my cheek, 'The chapters aren't very long so maybe just one more.' Balancing that against Nat's points should help you find the right length for your chapter.

Read Nat's breakdown here: http://www.nat-russo.com/2014/04/what-is-right-length-for-chapter.html

The Secret to Overcoming Writer-Envy (via @ZenaShapter)

Zena Shapter writes about writer envy, and it's a helpful read for anyone (like me) who has had any combination of the thoughts, 'Oh man that writer is so much better at writing than I'/'If only I had the time/connections/personal hygiene standards that Amazing Writer X has...' and so forth:

My hubbie is a successful business owner and entrepreneur (all thanks to his supportive wife of course!). So naturally when the opportunity came up, he wanted to go and see Mark Bouris talk about his success. When Hubbie came home, however, he wasn’t busting full of ideas as I expected him to be. He was mellow… almost content. And what he told me about Mark Bouris changed my life too (or at least the way I looked at success). It’s funny really, because what Mark Bouris said I always knew deep down. I just hadn’t accepted it.

Yes, so that's a tease, and you can find out what helped Zena mellow out about how great other writers were at the article here: http://www.csfg.org.au/2014/04/15/the-secret-to-overcoming-writer-envy/