As we stand on the edge of another new year, it seems like a good time to look back on what I’ve managed to achieve in 2019. I’ve always found it helpful when other writers share their submission stats, so I’d like to do the same here.
2019 is the first year I’ve gone on the attack with submissions, so to speak. It’s fair to say I was lackadaisical about it up til last January: I wrote the odd short story and pined for somewhere it could live. No more.
No more staring wistfully at submission guidelines like a far-off lover. No more dreaming of having a story perfect enough to present as a token of my affection. Get it written. Get it sent. Then get it sent again. And again. And again.
So how many times did I get a story sent in 2019?
Number of Submissions: 17
Submissions Declined: 13
Submissions Accepted: 3
(No response received: 1)
Only 17? Dang, it felt like a lot more.
This comprised 11 shorts sent to various literary magazines, websites, and anthology open calls. Some were written specifically for the submission call; many were not; many were tweaked. They ranged from weird horror to dystopian sci fi and contemporary fantasy. In some cases I waited mere days to receive a rejection; in at least one it took six months. 3 out of 17 stories accepted doesn’t sound bad, though.
Oh, wait. Let’s look closer.
2 of those were stories accepted by Storymart, a little start-up that never actually got its feet off the ground. (Here’s the post I wrote about it back when I was deciding whether or not to submit to them.) Storymart’s creator ‘pressed pause’ on the project in July 2019 due to what sounds like a very stressful personal situation.
I hope that things improve for them, and that eventually they’ll be able to return to Storymart in the future. I remain incredibly grateful that they thought my work was good enough to become part of their catalogue, and also that for the story they rejected they provided some very helpful feedback on it – practically gold dust!
The other Accepted Story I only heard about a couple of weeks before Christmas. It’s early days yet so I can’t share details, but all being well, I’ll have my first short story ‘officially’ published in an anthology next year.
I’m so excited! I get a paycheck from it and everything.
(I know, I know, I shouldn’t still measure my worth as a writer by whether or not I’m being paid… but it feels good to say it, damn it!)
I know what I’m doing now, and pressing that ‘Send’ button is no longer such a monumental task. If you’ve been submitting this year, I hope things have improved for you too. And if not, we’ve all got next year to work on it.
Lately I’ve been pursuing publication for some of my short stories, and I feel I’m settling into a good rhythm of submissions and rejections. My current goal, at its barest bones, is to be paid professionally for a piece of my work. A lofty one, I know. Anyone familiar with writing submissions knows just how low the acceptance rate is (I rather like this author’s breakdown of their submission stats, for context) and I know I’ll be waiting a long time for that elusive payout.
However, I came across an intriguing opportunity for short story writers recently. It’s called Storymart.
Storymart is a reader subscription service aimed at lovers of short stories. The creators envision a Netflix-like model, where the reader’s monthly subscription gives them unlimited access to the site’s story content which is provided by writers all over the world. And the writers, rather importantly, get paid.
However, the platform is very new. In fact, it’s not yet open to reader subscriptions as they are still in the process of gathering content from writers. This makes sense – why ask readers to pay for content that doesn’t exist yet?
I’ve been mulling over the concept for a while now, and to help me figure out whether I want to jump onto this infant bandwagon I decided to lay out my thoughts in a simple Pros and Cons list…
Pro 1: Storymart offers curated content to readers.
The platform practices a submissions process which promises to narrow stories down to those which are of a high enough quality – I’ll give you their own definition of what that means:
Welcome words for writers tired of the bellowing halls of Wattpad-esque establishments, where readers and writers alike are drowning in angsty vampire/werewolf/shapeshifter romances, invariably set in a highschool and demonstrating varying grasps of the english language.
The website seems to promise short stories worthy of appearing in established literary publications like The New Yorker, and so they are actively encouraging writers to only send their best.
Con 1: Storymart does not edit any of the content.
This might be a Pro if you hate other people fiddling with your words. In any case, it’s worth noting that submissions are expected to be polished upon entry, and you shouldn’t expect any hand-holding from Storymart in that respect.
How harsh their submissions standards really are is something that remains to be seen – we probably won’t truly know until the site launches for readers. Obviously there’s also chance those submission standards might lower over time. Will they stick to their principles further down the line?
If you’re a writer who has submitted to Storymart, what’s your view on this? Did they accept everything you sent them; did they give feedback on rejections?
Pro 2: They accept previously published stories.
If you’re in the business of trying to submit to professional markets, then hopefully you understand why this excites me. The majority of submissions guidelines invariably prohibit writers from submitting previously published work, whether it was in print, online, another magazine, a competition, or on a personal blog. This is a barrier I find intensely frustrating: it seems as though once I put a story out there, anywhere, then that’s kind of it for the life of that work. This is what’s putting me off submitting to the huge number of magazines which offer no payment to authors – I’d love the chance to be seen by your readership, but if I do then I effectively give up the prospect of being paid professionally for that story.
(Side-note: I know ‘re-prints’ of published work are sometimes presented as a submission option at a vastly reduced pay rate – and I’d be interested to know how many writers have any success submitting under this category.)
Storymart offers a chance to put some of those one-offs back in front of paying readers. Say you have a competition entry that didn’t win, but was good enough to place on the shortlist and got published online. This might be a way to give new life to an already-proven story.
Similarly, once you’ve placed a story on Storymart, there are no restrictions on where/when you can publish again. A lot of publications will, for example, require that you don’t re-publish your story for a specific period (typically 3-6 months) after it has appeared on their own platform. This means you can publish a story on Storymart and then continue to submit it anywhere else you choose. Of course, this does immediately throw up the very obvious…
Con 2: Publishing on Storymart counts as publishing.
If you put a story on Storymart, it’ll run into the exact barrier I was bemoaning above. Other publications may reject it out of hand for already being published.
However, the site is still in Beta stage for the moment. So I suppose during this window where it isn’t open to readers, you still have the option of removing your work from Storymart if it does find a home elsewhere.
Another counter-argument for this is…
Pro 3: Storymart is a paying market.
It runs (or will run) on a pay-per-read model.
Readers will pay a monthly subscription of $4.99 to have unlimited access to as many short stories as they want to read. Every time a story is read, the author is paid $0.10 USD. Payments will apparently be made monthly, via Paypal.
Con 3: The author is only paid $0.10 per read.
That means a hundred people could read your story over a period of months… and you’d only earn $10 for it.
But wait, let’s compare this to other industry prices…
Based on various bits of advice and my current experience hunting suitable markets, my perception of a ‘professional’ short story rate is around $0.06 per word. However, realistically there are also a very large number of publications offering much less (eg. some that offer around $0.02 per word; some that only offer a flat fee in the $20-50 range per story) and of course an abundance of completely unpaid opportunities that nevertheless offer exposure to their already-established audience.
Let’s go on the lower end and consider a 5000 word story which is paid $0.02 per word = a flat fee of $100 for that story. With Storymart’s model, you would need 1000 people to read your story to earn $100 from it.
I suppose the question is… are you confident your story will get at least 1000 reads?
This is where it gets interesting. Instead of receiving a one-off payment, there’s the potential to accumulate money over time… a very LONG time. Remember, if you only get ten reads a month, you’d need to wait 8-9 years to earn that $100.
At the moment we have pretty much no data to look at to determine what a realistic number of reads per month could be at Storymart. Could be in the hundreds – a hundred reads per month would take less than a year to earn the $100. Or it could be in the tens, and the payoff becomes minimal.
At least the principle is simple: the more readers you have, the more you earn. This will then probably be down to the individual author to market the shit out of their work to gain those consistent reads. And in order to get those reads you need…
Pro 4: A captive audience.
This, theoretically, is the big draw for writers at Storymart. Readers subscribe because they want to read short stories. They are, in theory, readers as opposed to other writers – which is a flaw I think is endemic of many fiction platforms (Wattpad, I’m looking at you).
I hold the apparently unpopular belief in wider publishing that short stories are an extremely under-rated and oft-forgotten (despite being popular) genre of fiction. I can’t fault the idea of pushing new ways to make short stories more accessible, and a platform dedicated to them sounds somewhat ideal.
Con 4: Currently, a small audience.
Here’s something that only time will illuminate further. At present, Storymart is still in Beta stage. That means it is actively seeking story submissions from writers, but is not yet taking subscriptions from readers. As I said, I’m a big believer that short stories are a vastly underestimated market, and there definitely is a passionate audience out there for them. But, will that audience choose to pay a monthly subscription, when there’s so much short fiction available for free elsewhere?
One response, I suppose, is that readers do already pay for subscriptions – to all those short story magazines I’ve been submitting to. That’s what the professional paying market for short story writers is.
Pro 5: The chance to grow alongside a growing platform.
Wouldn’t it be great to discover the next big thing while it’s still shiny and new and has opportunities ripe for the taking? Before the big boys muscle in and the playground gets swamped by thousands of other voices all peddling their own fantastical narratives?
At this early stage, while the audience might be small, the pool of writers is as well. Would that, potentially, make it easier to be discovered? To snap up the interest of new readers as the platform grows? Getting in early could make all the difference to growing a presence and a following, and if Storymart grows and grows and grows… well, it’s an exciting thought. But, therein lies the risk.
Con 5: The whole thing could flop.
Storymart isn’t quite on its feet just yet. Readers could flock to it in their thousands… or they could give it a passing glance and shrug, and go back to their tried-and-tested tenders of online fiction instead. There’s no data to look into yet, so your guess is as good as mine as to whether or not Storymart will still be here in a couple of years’ time.
But, even if it isn’t… what have I got to lose?
This is the thought I keep coming back to.
The main ‘Con’ which seems to bother me is that publishing a story with Storymart might restrict any future opportunities for that piece of work. But if that story isn’t being accepted anywhere else anyway… and let’s face it, the odds are massively stacked against us in submissions, simply due to the sheer mumber of other stories we’re competing with… well then, what’s holding me back but myself?
I’m not convinced that Storymart won’t have the same problem as other publication routes further down the line. If they do grow successful they’ll probably find their own inboxes at breaking point eventually, despite their best intentions to give submissions the quickest turnaround possible. More reason to jump in early, perhaps?
I suspect I’m overly cautious when it comes to making these kinds of decisions. I’ve doubtless missed opportunities just for fear that it might not be The Right One.
Wouldn’t it be better to earn a few dollars from a story – and to know that it’s actually being read and enjoyed by people – than just letting it languish in the ‘Submissions’ folder on my laptop?
I think what I’m saying is that I’m going to jump in. Because, really, what have I got to lose?
What are your thoughts on the Storymart concept? Just another online magazine subscription, or the Netflix-inspired service they aspire to? Are there better alternatives already out there?
If you’ve submitted stories to Storymart, I’d love to hear from you! Why did you choose them? What’s your experience been like so far?
If you want to read more about Storymart, their FAQ section for writers is here.
A little update here on The Jack Hansard Series. Thanks again for sticking with me – we’re making steady progress! I know it’s proving to be a long wait, but I promise the end result will be worth it. I know it’s a bit dull to just hear ‘I’m editing’ over and over again, so I thought I’d give you all a little insight into what I’ve been working on, and exactly what ‘editing’ the series means in practice.
For a start it involves…
The original version of the series (still available to read for free on An Inspired Mess and on Wattpad) is written over 20 episodes. The final version will be just 15.
Wait! Don’t worry – nothing’s been cut, just condensed. The original episodes were written and published on a fortnightly basis, and realistically I could only churn out up to 5000 words in that time. This meant that several stories got split over separate episodes, and the episode lengths weren’t consistent. So you’d finish reading a satisfying 5000 word episode, to then stop short at the end of a 3000 word ep like: ‘Where’s the rest of it?’
So I’ve been working on evening out those word counts, and putting full stories into one episode wherever possible. For example, remember where Jack first meets Ang in Ironbridge? This was needlessly split into two episodes – there’s not even a proper cliff-hanger to lead from one to the other! So now they are joined together in one seamless story to be enjoyed without any interruption.
What this also means is I’m…
Adding New Content
Some of those stand-alone episodes are still too short, especially near the beginning of the series. You see, when I started out my episodes were only 2000-3000 words each, but as the series developed the characters found their voices and the plots became more rounded, demanding longer stories to see them through. You can see this in the explosive Phoenix finale, which took a whole five episodes to complete!
So I’ve been adding in extra details, and occasionally whole new scenes. Remember Episode 1, where Jack gets cornered by Scallet and makes a lucky and quick escape? The story no longer ends there. You now get to see a fraction of London’s underworld as Jack goes on to encounter an old ‘friend’ at the Black Friar and… I won’t spoil it for you.
A bizarrely shaped building, the Black Friar took up a corner of Queen Victoria Street and had a habit of playing tricks on the eyes. Viewed from the side, it appeared as a long, unrealistically thin building. From the front, a V that seemed to occupy more space than was possible. Rows upon rows of art nouveau windows gave the impression of crowded bedsits built for high society. And, naturally, there was a statue of a jolly black friar with his pudgy hands folded over his stomach, beaming down from his spot right above the front door.
You can also expect more interactions with characters like Ang, Officer Jo Neills, and Mark Demdike. Oh, and the lovely Devin Tracey gets a much-needed spot in the limelight as well. You might recall he’s the devilishly handsome Irish siren from episodes 8-10. It always bothered me that I never wrote him a proper purpose other than to act as a sounding board at the Market. Why have a siren if you don’t get to glimpse their ability in action? So you can expect just that – a glimpse.
But unfortunately, as well as adding I have also been…
Alas, it is necessary. But again, don’t get too concerned. The whole point of editing is to cut details that the reader won’t miss, like clunky, slow dialogue or a lengthy portion of exposition that would be better used later.
Perhaps one of the biggest chunks I’ve cut so far is from Episode 6: Cockermouth where Jack’s internal monologue became horribly clogged up with an explanation of his different types of customers. It was awfully long-winded and not really relevant to the situation at hand – so now it’s transformed into a much more enjoyable argument with Ang over the subject.
‘He falls into the ‘spurned lovers’ category of our demographic, Ang,’ I said knowingly. I ignored her mouthing ‘Demo-what?’ under the table. ‘Desperate people, angry people, these are our favourite customers. They have an axe to grind and I’m here to provide the grindstone.’
I should also say that if you’ve read the series’ most recent iteration on Wattpad (or here on An Inspired Mess after January 2017) then you’ve missed most of the drastic cuts already. The version currently published online is actually the second draft, which had an extensive overhaul of its own. So don’t worry – you won’t recognise what you don’t miss.
On a more cheerful note, editing also involves…
I suspect this is what a lot of people think editing is, while forgetting about the dirty work of necessary cuts and story structure. Technically all of editing is a refinement, but here I’m talking about the more enjoyable, low-level edits that are designed to just make the writing easier to read.
These are usually quite simple changes, a matter of phrasing and word choice to make a sentence read more smoothly. Also checking grammar and consistency – you won’t believe how long I agonised over what form my ellipsis should take. Google did not give me a straight answer.
Would you believe that in publishing it’s usually a matter of house preference? Some publishers will put the ellipsis in the middle of words like this … while others will join it on, like this…
Yet others will use a spaced out ellipsis like this . . . which was always my favourite until I discovered it caused no end of formatting problems online. A comically simple, but frustratingly time-consuming issue to overcome.
This is always the most important part of any editing process, and it feeds into everything I’ve outlined above. A lot of self-published authors apparently pay for professional editors to proof read and critique their work – but I’m afraid I cannot even slightly afford such services. So I did the next best thing: assembled a pool of people I trust to give me real honest feedback and help pick the series to pieces. They played a large part in shaping that initial, harsh edit.
This second round of editing is largely influenced by the voice of genuine readers; that is, people who came to read the series because they wanted to, not because I asked. If you’ve ever left a comment or shot me a private message about an episode – whether it contained praise or criticism – you can guarantee that I’ve considered carefully how it should impact on the writing.
On this note, a general tip for other writers out there: heeding feedback is not the same as always following feedback. As your spidey senses develop, you begin to learn how to differentiate – when to follow the advice of others, and when to follow your own instinct. But don’t throw out criticism just because you disagree with it. First, try to understand where that criticism is coming from, why you disagree, and then why you might be wrong.
So that’s where we’re at, guys. I think I’m about two thirds of the way through this process, and I’ll let you know when we’re close to publication. If you’ve been wondering, the series will be available through Amazon Kindle as an e-book later this year.
Thanks for reading! If you liked this post you might also enjoy:
When writers consider publishing options there are two main routes that spring to mind: you either go traditional, or you go it alone. But the world of publishing isn’t as firmly divided as you might think. Among the host of options available to authors, crowdfunding is now one of them – and prospective publishers are beginning to take notice.
Unboundis one such publisher, and they’ve got a great twist on the crowdfunding trend. Like a traditional publishing house, you must first submit your book proposal for approval. If you are accepted, then the fun begins: you launch your crowdfunding campaign.
If you’re familiar with Kickstarter (and it seems most people are, these days) then you already have a good idea of what this entails. You pitch your book idea to potential readers and do your utmost to persuade them to pledge funds towards your book in return for rewards. Rewards usually include a digital or physical copy of the book, and the more creative authors offer things like exclusive artwork, manuscript tutelage – and in some cases a date with the author themselves!
If you manage to hit your target, Unbound step in to provide all the services you’d expect from a traditional publisher. Editing, graphic design, printing, distribution, and marketing is all covered by the Unbound team.
To find out more about this process I spoke with Erinna Mettler, an Unbound author who successfully met the crowdfunding target for her short story collection Fifteen Minutes, and is now in the editorial phase. She gives us an insight into her experiences so far:
Erinna, why did you choose to publish with Unbound?
“It’s extremely hard to find an agent or a publisher in the UK for short stories unless you are already a known writer. It’s a great shame really but agents simply won’t look at new collections and most publishers aren’t that keen either. ‘Come back when you’ve written a novel’ (preferably a crime thriller – with ‘girl’ in the title!) is the way most queries get answered.
I was sick of trying to get an agent. I think that short fiction writers have to work a lot harder than other writers to get published. We’ll try anything.
A fellow author told me about Unbound. I had a look at their website and was sold in minutes. They have a promo video explaining the way they work and it says something like ‘authors write the books they want to write and readers get to read real books that in a crowded, celebrity-obsessed marketplace wouldn’t normally get to see the light of day.’ I sent my manuscript in immediately.”
What was the toughest part of the process?
“Getting the pledges was definitely the hardest part. It took four months in all and it was a full-time job – or at least every spare minute was spent in the pursuit of pledges. At the same time you have to be mindful of bugging people too much. It’s a fine balance. You spend a lot of time explaining what crowdfunding is and why you can’t just publish the book without it.
Family and friends are your first point of contact and for the most part they were very accommodating. The generosity is astounding, you get pledges from people you don’t expect – but then you also get no response from people you think will be right behind you. Some people say they’ll pledge and don’t.
You have to learn not to take it personally. I only had one very rude reply from someone who was on a professional mailing list, telling me off for begging and hoping the project failed; needless to say it just made me more determined to succeed. One of out a few hundred isn’t so bad.”
How did you approach the challenge of reaching your funding target?
“I thought it would be a lot easier than it was. I have a lot of social media followers. I co-run The Brighton Prize for short stories and a spoken word group called Rattle Tales and we have a considerable mailing list. I’m also in a professional group in Brighton called The Beach Hut Writers. I’ve got a lot of contacts but after the second round of emails I was no-where near even half way, so I had to go all out.
I sent out press-releases and got on local radio and had a short film made about the project by Latest TV. I wrote articles for craft magazines and websites, did blog interviews, got short stories placed in literary journals. I called in any favour I could think of.
For me though, Twitter was the key. I’m a writing mentor and my biggest pledge options were for manuscript appraisals. A Twitter friend mentioned that I should be pushing these rather than the short story angle I’d been going for and after a day of constant tweeting I’d sold about £800 worth of mentoring. I carried on with what I’d been doing, but those big pledges are the ones that make the real difference to your percentages.”
Does a writer need to already have a strong fan base in order to be successful with Unbound?
“I don’t think it’s absolutely necessary but it helps. I had quite a good fan base but I still struggled, so if you are starting out from scratch it could be very soul destroying. My advice would be to start as soon as you can building a social media following, blog regularly, comment and converse, go to events, be bold.”
Fifteen Minutes is now in the editorial stage as Unbound prepares it for sale. What has it been like to work with Unbound through this process?
“It has been an incredible editorial experience. They give you a lot of encouragement if you ask for it at the early stages of the funding but don’t expect them to do the work for you, this is about you being able to raise the funds. Once the funding target was met I had a couple of weeks to submit because the manuscript was as ready as I could make it.
It’s been edited 3 times now, each one more in depth than the other. I’ve had two editors look at it. I agreed with most of the suggestions but not all. It’s a collaboration and the book is a million times better than it was before the edit. We have cut whole stories and changed POVs and the order is completely different. The book is at proof reading stage now but I haven’t seen any cover designs and I don’t know when it will be released yet.”
Your first book Starlings was produced by indie publisher Revenge Ink. Crowdfunding aside, how has your experience of publishing with Unbound differed, if at all?
“There’s not that much difference: both are indie publishers and both had a subversive take on publishing, their aims being to push boundaries and publish books that otherwise wouldn’t be.
In both cases things moved very fast. With big companies it takes over two years to get the book out, whereas both of mine will have taken less than a year. You need to be prepared – one minute you’re waiting for emails and the next your book is coming out next week.
The edit was less stringent for Starlings and Revenge Ink had very little money for publicity. I was so new to it all then: now I know that to make it work I’ll have to be responsible for my own marketing. Unless you are already a big name, most authors have to undertake their own marketing as budgets for new authors are almost non-existent.
I had a strong relationship with Amita, the MD of Revenge Ink, and she was nothing but supportive. The Unbound team are all very enthusiastic and really help you move forward with the project. I’m hoping the book will get a little bit more publicity this time.”
In the race to gain pledges, you’ve essentially done all of the sales work so far. How will Unbound help sell your book after publishing?
“Fifteen Minutes is an e-book so I’m currently teaching myself how to market an e-book. I have to wait until there’s a review copy available to send out to reviewers, journals, radio stations. It’s the usual dive-in strategy. There will be paperback copies available for events and signings. I’m hoping Unbound can help with contacts that might get the book seen.”
Is there a community of loyal Unbound readers? People who look out specifically for new and interesting Unbound projects, in the same way Kickstarter has a strong base of funders who are very attached to the platform itself?
“I went to the Unbound birthday party in November and they had invited their top pledgers to come along and meet their authors. It was great talking to them; they are completely committed to this kind of publishing. If you look in the back of the books the same names do keep coming up. Some people will only be drawn to the author they know, but I think more and more are going to be drawn to the crowdfunding concept and to the idea that this will be the place where interesting books are distributed from.
If you mention Unbound to anyone in publishing the praise is almost universal. The company is only five years old so it’s early days, but their sales are increasing year on year.”
Fifteen Minutes by Erinna Mettler is a collection of short stories about fame and how it affects ordinary people.
Often the famous have only a bit part in the tale of an ordinary individual, existing just outside the action but still influencing the outcome. From the story of a tramp in New York on the day John Lennon was shot, to a doctor remembering a childhood visit to a Muhammad Ali fight, and a woman’s obsession with Harry Potter following the death of a child. The collection is experimental, cinematic, moving and always thought provoking. You can support Erinna’s book by making a pledge through her Unbound page.
In The Easy Cut: Editing Tips Part 2 we looked at quick and easy ways of improving your writing by making small aesthetic cuts. The reason these cuts were quick and easy was because they were largely superficial – they tightened up your work without making you lose anything you’d really miss. The Easy Cut was all about polishing the writing. The Hard Cut is all about polishing the story, and that means cutting where it hurts.
Unlike last time, I can’t tell you exactly what to cut without reading your work: every piece will need a different kind of editing. Instead, I can give you a series of checks you should make – questions you need to ask – to highlight where your work needs alteration.
So get your scissors out; we’re going deeper this time.
1. Check your driving
In the Hard Cut we’re looking for problems in our story’s structure and composition: do all the parts fit together and do they tell a coherent, entertaining story? One of the first questions you can ask is: “How are the events in my story driven?”
Does stuff just happen to your protagonist, or do they make it happen? Do they have a habit of escaping bad situations through sheer luck, or by the agency of another character rather than by their own skills and cunning? Exactly how many decisions does your main character make, and do their decisions affect the progression of the story?
If you answered ‘no’ to that last one in particular, then you’re in a heap of trouble. A main character who doesn’t drive the story with their decisions is barely a character at all. Why would I want to read about a protagonist who just bounces from one random event to the next? Your story might as well be called ‘A List of Stuff That Happens to Some Guy’.
There are ways to make a character vulnerable to the influence of others while firmly rooting them at the steering wheel of your story. I’ll point out Discworld’s Rincewind as a good example. Here’s a very cowardly character who appears to be bounced between unfortunate incidents as if the universe has something against him, but in fact it’s usually his own bad decisions that place him in these situations. He decides to run away, and ironically runs head first into another dangerous predicament and thus advances the plot. He also makes plenty of decisions – who to side with, how to escape, and, on the odd occasion, when to face his fears – which ultimately lead to the story’s conclusion.
So bear in mind that a little bit of luck to save the day isn’t a bad thing, but it shouldn’t be the only ace up your character’s sleeve.
2. Check your conflict
This is an easy way to make sure your story has a sensible structure: ask yourself “What is the central conflict?”
The vast majority of stories follow a similar structure: we begin with a status quo, a conflict is introduced, the main character/s go through ups and downs to try to resolve the conflict, and finally the conflict is resolved.
That conflict is what ties your story together – it’s the core of the plot. To see how well your conflict is written, try this experiment: ask your Beta Readers to sum up your story in 15 seconds. If they can’t, then it’s possible your central conflict isn’t clear enough.
Sure, you can argue against this by shouting about your ‘multi-faceted conflict’ and ‘diverging sub-plots’ and whatnot, but what’s the glue that holds it all together?
So let’s try this with AGame of Thrones, a book written from several viewpoints and spanning a series of vastly interwoven political intrigues. What’s the main conflict of the story? Let’s see:
Game of Thrones is about a power struggle over the Iron Throne.
Right? Right. It’s right there in the title. Yes, the book is also about a lot of other stuff and foreshadows plenty more besides, but the central conflict is that power struggle: it ties in all those other sub-plots under its bloody, bloody wings.
Another exercise you can try is drafting a blurb for your story. How would you sum it up in, say 100 words? Now try 50. That. That’s your conflict.
3. Check your motivation
Next: What are the motivations of each of your characters?
It doesn’t matter how small a character they are, they will have some kind of motivation driving their thoughts, words and actions. That barista doesn’t politely serve you a cup of coffee because she is a barista by nature – she does so because she needs to pay her rent, and the desire to keep her job tends to stops her from spitting in the milk.
It’s important to know what your characters’ motivations are, because those motivations will help to drive the story. You should pay special attention your protagonist’s motivation, because this thread should wind through your entire plot and the way they try to resolve the central conflict. At every step, the reader should be clear on what your main character is trying to achieve – again, ask your Beta Readers what they think that character’s end goal is. If they can’t figure out why your character is doing what they’re doing, it’s time to consider a re-write.
You should also consider how your characters’ motivations might change over the course of a story, and this brings me onto…
4. Check your arc
I feel this is perhaps the most important question of all: is your main character exactly the same person by the end of the story as they were at the beginning?
If the answer is ‘yes’, then you probably have some major editing to do.
Generally, all stories follow one or more main characters – it is their story we are telling. If your character hasn’t changed by the end… then what was the purpose of the story in the first place?
This is something that has always bothered me with the structure of TV sitcoms. It’s always the same: status quo, conflict, character learns a humorous ‘lesson’, everything returns to the status quo . . . and the next episode proves the character never actually learned anything as they make the same mistakes over and over again. Consider How I Met Your Mother: how many times does Ted continue to make the same douche-baggy moves, fall for the same girl, despite professing to have learned otherwise?
That’s kind of OK in a TV show which has to run for 10 seasons of 20 episodes or something silly like that – but only because we’ve gotten used to that kind of poor writing and atrocious structure being the norm. On the flip side, there’s now plenty of episodic television out there with stellar writing and character development. The Walking Dead is a good example: every character is constantly changing over the course of the series in line with their harrowing experiences. There is no status quo.
I’m not suggesting your character needs some soul-searching, personality-changing inner transformation to occur. But it is necessary to understand that humans are subtly ever-changing creatures, and we are inexorably shaped by the events around us. So figure out how your story has shaped your protagonist, and you’ll have found the cornerstone to their character arc.
5. Check your purpose
This might be the quickest cut you can make, but also one of the hardest. Do all your side-characters serve a purpose? By which I mean, do they either advance the plot or add depth to your main cast?
You might find a couple of your favourite side-characters are just fluff, taking up unnecessary space if they don’t serve either of the above. You need to give them a reason to be in the story, or cut them completely.
An example where I’ve fallen into this trap myself: I once gave a teenage character a whole roster of pointless friends with too much page-time just because he was in high school and ‘ought’ to have friends. Each one had a personality, back story, and . . . next to zero impact on the plot. They were just decoration, an unnecessary detail in a story where the main character spent most of his time not-even-on-earth. All I actually needed to do was pick out one key friend to play the role of confidant and flesh out the protagonist at the start of the story, and drop the rest into the background, where they belonged.
So give your side-characters purpose, or get rid.
Taking this a step further, you can apply the same philosophy to actions as well as characters. It’s a hard rule to live by, but the majority of your words should be on the page for a reason. Consider a plot where a character called Bob gets up one morning to catch a train which will then crash on his way into work. How long do you describe his toast-making ritual? Do you go through every getting-dressed action before he leaves the house? Do you list every item in his fridge that morning, the way his wallpaper looks, the way the tap whines when he’s pouring water to boil for coffee?
Of course you don’t. You tell the reader just enough about Bob’s morning routine to show the reader something of his background and his personality. For example, you might point out the lack of creases in his suit to highlight his fastidious nature; you can tell us that he eats a few mouthfuls of unbuttered, burnt toast to show us he doesn’t look after himself well; and then you could mention the picture of his wife that he knocks over in his rush to get out the door. Each of those points is there to tell us something specific.
Cutting back to these purposeful details can greatly improve the punch of your story, allowing us to get into the meat of the conflict quicker and with more decisiveness in the storytelling.
6. Check your research
Here’s a fun question that every author hates asking: where did I go wrong?
Here you want to be actively searching for the plot holes in your story. Ask your Beta Readers to find reasons that your story wouldn’t work – and then explain to them why it does. If you don’t have an explanation, then you have a plot hole, my friend.
Sometimes these can be big plot holes; for example, if a jet engine is key to saving your character’s life, but you’ve misunderstood how a jet engine works, that’s a pretty massive hole that the reader will fall all the way into. Sometimes they can be quite small; the one that will always stick with me was not understanding how hard it would be for a driver to miss a flat tire in their own car. A hole not big enough to topple the entire plot, but certainly enough to make the reader trip over it.
You want to smooth as many of these holes over as possible, and sometimes it’s going to change how your character tackles the problem at hand. Jet engine won’t work? Well, is there another kind of engine that would work, in this scenario? If not an engine, a parachute?
Science isn’t the only thing you want to study for. If you’re writing in the ‘real world’, spend some time researching the locations in your story. Have you done something silly like describing Northumberland as flat? Have you done something even sillier like calling the Northumberland coast hilly? Because it’s not. It’s flat. Specific locations require specific knowledge.
Don’t think you’re off the hook just because you write high fantasy, either. Do you know what rocks your mountains are made of? I can guarantee your dwarven/gnomish/goblin miners are going to need that piece of information. How does your army’s trebuchet work? Is it possible that you’re actually describing a mangonel instead? When your hero starts life as a farmer, do you know as much about working the land as they should?
Proper research adds richness and depth to the storytelling, and if you’ve done it right then you’ll have sealed up those hole before the readers can get to them.
7. Cut and Paste
Time to apply a bandage, a final tip to make the pain of cutting a little more bearable: save your favourites.
I keep a document stowed away called ‘Bits and Pieces’, and it is literally bits and pieces of stories I have chopped up. From five lines of dialogue to 500 word paragraphs, down to an odd five-word phrase… I keep things that I can’t bear to lose forever, and I keep them for a rainy day when I might need them again. It’s my personal cure for Writer’s Block; if I’m having an off day I can browse this cutting-room floor and pick up a discarded remnant and buff it into a shine. Sometimes a line of dialogue, an odd word is all it takes to spark those neurons into a creative fire once again. And I find it dulls the pain of cutting out beautiful, but utterly pointless writing.
There is no such thing as a ‘one size fits all’ approach to editing. Some of these tips will work for you, and some won’t, and that’s OK. Editing, just like writing, is a skill that you develop with experience: you can’t just teach it in one go. If you want to hone your skills, then I highly suggest you join a writing group of some kind – an online forum, or a social writer’s circle – and I urge you to critique other people’s work.
We can always find faults with the work of others more readily than with our own, and we learn to identify faults that we can’t see in our own writing. Then, in providing constructive criticism for others we are forced to explain why we think something doesn’t work, and as we get better we can explain how to improve it. And gradually this translates into how we edit our own work. ‘Teaching is the best way of learning,’ and all that.
This wraps up our little mini-series on editing. You can find Parts 1 and 2 below, if you missed ’em. Excuse me while I go back to… more editing. I suspect most writers are masochists at heart, especially once we hit the point of enjoying our editing process. Good bye for now, and best of luck on your own road of pain!
Do you have burning desire to tell me how wrong I am about my approach to editing? Light it up in the comments! Are you in the middle of editing your work now? Come share your own tips, tricks, and bitter frustrations with the rest of us. Misery does love company 😉
Editing is a skill that you need as a writer, regardless of whether you intend to self-publish or not. The first draft will never be your best (it certainly isn’t for most great writers) because it’s the editing that makes it great. In this three-part series we’re looking at three keys elements of fiction editing, with some simple guidelines that will help you hone your work from first draft to final.
The Easy Cut is a simple first step you can take to tidy up your work. You’re looking specifically to cut bits out in order to streamline the text and make it flow more smoothly. The word I like to use is tight – you’re tightening up the writing.
So what kind of things should make the Easy Cut?
Cut the Unnecessary
A good rule of thumb is to remove words that are unnecessary, or redundant. See that sentence you just read? That’s a prime example. The words ‘unnecessary’ and ‘redundant’ essentially mean the same, why do I need both?
You don’t need to apply this rule to everything, but you’ll find most paragraphs read better once you have. A couple more examples:
Try saying ‘they gathered’ instead of ‘they gathered together.’
Because the ‘together’ is already implied by the verb of having gathered.
Try cutting words like ‘quite’. Eg: ‘He quite liked the look of it . . .’; ‘She was quite artistic . . .’
Ask yourself, why are you qualifying your statement with ‘quite’? Is your character artistic, or is she not?
I am so guilty of having too many ‘quites’ in my writing. I could argue that it’s part of my character’s voice, but really it’s my own creeping in. You can (quite!) often remove this word and end up with a punchier sentence.
Cut the Repetitive
Pay attention to where you may have repeated the same kind of word within a short space. Read the paragraph below and think about how easily you could improve it by changing the repeated word:
The wind was howling outside the bedroom windrow. Melissa shivered and pulled the covers up to her chest, stealing a glance at the clock. Almost time. When would he arrive? Would he come at all? Finally the clock struck midnight, and the wind howled louder. She couldn’t remember when the town had last been struck by such a howling gale.
That’s a very exaggerated example, but not uncommon: the writer is overly intent on creating atmosphere with the howling wind and can’t let go of the word. Do we need all those howls? If you are certain you have to describe the wind at those three points, perhaps you could vary your description? Instead of howling, perhaps the second time it roars. Instead of sound, perhaps you can show us the chill it pushes through the window. Maybe the shadows of tree branches clawing at the walls.
This is one of the easy jobs you can give your Beta Readers – ask them to highlight words they think you’ve used too often, or too close together.
Cut the Weak Action
Another way to make the Easy Cut is to get rid of some of your adverbs. Adverbs are often rather weak descriptors and can be replaced by a much more expressive verb. For example:
‘He walked slowly . . .’ could become ‘He ambled . . .’ ‘She said quietly . . .’ might be better as ‘She murmured . . .’ ‘He leaned forward quickly . . .’ becomes way more assertive as ‘He lunged . . .’
Here’s a nice little resource that might help you find the active verb you’re looking for to replace some of your duller adverbs.
And if in doubt, pick up a thesaurus! (Or search for synonyms on Google.)
Cut the Weak Description
Similar to above, look out for where your adjectives have words like ‘very’ in front of them. Is there a better, stronger adjective you could use – one that punches harder?
‘very hot’ could become ‘scorching’ ‘very small’ could be ‘minuscule’ ‘very angry’ could be ‘fuming’
There is a certain satisfaction to be gained from being precise with your phrasing. Why just be close to what you mean, when you could say exactly what you mean?
Cut the Dialogue Tags
Sometimes less is more, especially where dialogue is concerned – at least, where your dialogue tags are concerned. A dialogue tag is a word that attaches to dialogue primarily to identify the speaker, and sometimes to convey tone of voice. Words like: remarked, demanded, exclaimed, muttered . . . you know, all the ones your English teachers drilled into you to replace boring old ‘said’.
Thing is, there’s nothing wrong with ‘said’. Go pick up a book and flick to some dialogue. Read a page or so. I’ll wait.
Bets are that the section you just read included more ‘said’s than any other kind of tag. Also likely that it didn’t include many tags at all. There’s a simple reason for this: dialogue tags are distracting and can break up a nice flow of speech. Your eye is trained to slide right over ‘said’; it gets stuck on words like ‘shouted’. So this means that if you spend every other line telling the reader how she shouted then he exclaimed then she raged then he groused then she screamed . . . you don’t get an intense argument, you get a string of lumbering, clunky verbs.
An expressive tag carries a hell of a lot more weight if it occurs in isolation. Use them wisely to add impact at key moments in your characters’ conversations.
Cut the Stalling
If up to now you’ve been staring at your first draft wondering how you could possibly improve it, start with the simple cuts I’ve suggested here. By all means, don’t cut everything that falls under these guidelines – you have to learn to trust your gut, after all. But this should help you recognise the places where you can tighten up your writing, and hopefully I’ve helped you understand why some things will read more smoothly than others.
So what are you waiting for? While your Beta Readers are still plowing through your work, you can be getting on with your Easy Cut.
Save your tears for Part 3: The Hard Cut.
Are there any tips you’d like to add for other writers going through the Easy Cut? Share them in the comments!
If you want to be notified when Jack Hansard episodes have been updated with their final edits, you can follow the AIM Facebook Page to receive these updates, or check the An Inspired Mess homepage each Monday for a link to the most recent one. =)
I thoroughly believe this. The first draft from even the best of writers is likely to be a pile of crap – and that’s because they know the important thing is to get that first draft finished, not perfect. If you are constantly polishing and editing as you write, you run the risk of never being satisfied with what you’ve created, and in the end you create nothing.
You may have seen this video by Jake Parker doing the rounds; if not, watch it and get pumped.
This is why I think the second key to good writing is to let the first draft be crap. Just get it out there, in the open, onto that blank page. This is why exercises like NaNoWriMo are brilliant: it encourages you to pour your soul out and get something finished in a set time-frame, to a deadline.
That’s what I set out to do with the Jack Hansard Series, and I’ve now completed that first crucial step. Season 1 is finished, exposed, and ready for stage two. The Big Edit.
If you’re a regular reader or you follow my Facebook Page, you may have noticed that I’ve already begun this process. Every Monday I re-upload an episode with its final, truly polished edit: I’ve gone through four episodes so far, and Episode 5 will receive its facelift on Monday 19th. Over the next few blog posts I’d like to share some editing tips and observations which might help guide your own editing process, especially if you feel at a loss as to where to start. In this article we’ll be looking at what is possibly the single most important step towards editing your work: finding Beta Readers.
What should you look for in a Beta Reader?
Finding a group of Beta Readers to give feedback may sound like an eyebrow-raisingly obvious tip, but it might be harder to achieve than you think. What you need is a group – I suggest a minimum of four, but aim as high as you can – that will read your work in its entirety and provide meaningful feedback. Where do you find the people who will make up this select group?
First, Find An Author
A good way to do this is to join a writing community and find someone to exchange work with. You’ll (hopefully) get knowledgeable criticism from a fellow writer who understands the craft and can help you with sentence structure, grammar, tone and voice and so on. They will also be able to provide a totally detached viewpoint: they don’t know you personally, and they have no reason to hold back on the constructive criticism.
By reading their work in exchange, you’re likely to pick up editing skills you didn’t know you had. Evaluating someone else’s writing style is an easy way to learn what does and doesn’t work – and why. And because you have to explain that why to your fellow author, you end up with a deeper understanding of it. They say that to teach is the best way to learn.
What’s the downside? This internet stranger might not actually be enjoying your story – they may be more interested in what you have to say on their work, rather than providing meaningful input on yours. Furthermore, if they are not enjoying your story then you won’t get a true reader’s reaction from them, and it will lack the emotive response – they won’t be able to tell you how it makes them feel, and why – that a truly interested reader can provide. Thus I feel a read-for-read deal like this is best for picking up on technical issues in the writing, but might not inform well on how the actual story is received. I’d certainly suggest taking the time to find a fellow writer who is on a similar wavelength to yourself: make sure you are both clear as to what you are getting out of the arrangement, and that you are both genuinely interested in reading each other’s work (at the very least interested in the genre you write!).
If you can’t find someone to exchange work with, then participate publicly in a writing forum or similar community. Critique lots of people’s writing, learn how to evaluate a range of styles and voices, and occasionally offer up your own work for collective criticism.
However, be prepared to put in a lot of time and effort if this is your only group of Beta Readers, and remember that skill level and effort from others will vary. From my own point of view, I dabble in writing forums here and there but often find I don’t get out the same as I put in: where I might take two hours to write a thoughtful review spanning five hundred to a thousand words, in return I’d receive a short paragraph telling me to change a piece of phrasing and remove a comma. I don’t mean to gripe – I believe it still helps me to understand and improve my own writing techniques. By picking out the flaws of others, you begin to identify those same flaws in your own work, and you can heed the same advice you’ve given people before you.
Now, Find A Reader
So you’ve got your outside perspective from someone completely detached from your writing; good job. Now you need an inside perspective.
This is the section of your Beta Reading group that should be made up of people who have a genuine interest in what you write. I’m going to say something controversial here: Don’t automatically pass off friends and family as being unable to give honest critiques.
I know the standard line is that ‘your friends will lie to make you feel good’, but if that’s always true then I feel you have shitty friends. The thing to remember is that they need guidance: you need to start by teaching them how to be good Beta Reader. As with anything, you need to invest a little time in them in order to expect a good return.
You should be able to explain to your Beta Readers the sheer importance of honest feedback, that they shouldn’t feel obligated to only mention the good stuff, and that criticism is generally the most helpful kind of feedback – challenge them to find the flaws, to search for the things they’re unsure of. If they point out something in a vague way, question them until they make it specific.
And . . . allow them to give you good feedback too! Good feedback isn’t bad, and it can equally inform you how to improve. Instruct your readers to think deeply about why they might like a particular part of the story; why they are responding so well to this character; why they smiled at that sentence. It will help you understand what you are doing right, and what elements you should pay more attention to.
So reach out to friends and family who genuinely want to support you, and reach out to current fans of your work – if you explain things properly, they should be able to find something to criticise. In fact, I believe they are more likely to go out of their way to help you improve, because they are already invested in you and your writing. The key is helping them understand what they need to identify, and that you aren’t going to get all teary-eyed over an ill-received chapter. They are likely to surprise you with the things they pick up, and the additional knowledge they can provide.
Every one of my Jack Hansard episodes went through a single, reliable Beta Reader before being published for the first time on An Inspired Mess: my husband (did I mention I got married last week? News! =D) He’s great at pointing out plot holes and errors in my reasoning, and isn’t afraid to tell me he doesn’t like some of the more surreal aspects of my story-telling. Here’s a great example of where a Beta reader can pick up on something the writer missed:
In Episode 12: Shadows, Hansard’s car suffers from a flat tire at a dangerous time. In the unpublished draft, I wrote that they had been driving on the flat for some time without noticing it, until suddenly the car couldn’t effectively drive any more and that was that.
“How could they not notice it?” said Husband, in response to this. “You bloody well know if you’re driving on a flat tire. And even if Jack has realised and was trying to keep it quiet, there’s no way that his passenger wouldn’t notice it as well. The wheel would make a sort of thumping noise. You’d be an idiot to keep going.”
“Oh,” said I. “Oops.”
That outside perspective is truly crucial for picking up on little details like this. Someone simply asking: “But why did he do that, if it would have been simpler to go the other way?” can make you totally re-think part of the story. It might not change the plot, but it might add a motivation you hadn’t considered, or define more accurate details.
Now that I’m on Round Two: The Big Edit, I reached out to friends and readers of the series to act as my main Beta group. There is an interesting variety in the feedback I’ve received. One reader tends to splurge enthusiastic praise for virtually everything – but she’s brilliant in expanding on the reasoning of why she likes things, and the criticisms she does point out tend to make me pause for thought. Another has very little to say, but what is said is always poignant and useful, and will pick up on character traits I hadn’t considered. Yet another likes to make comparisons with other works in the urban fantasy genre, and has helped me think about the bigger picture where my little world is concerned.
The one thing they all have in common is that they enjoy reading the series – they are a part of my actual reader base, and that makes their reactions the truest reflections of my audience. Think of it as a kind of market research: you focus on gathering information from the audience you are trying to sell to. I’m not trying to impress a fellow writer who prefers sci-fi and knows a lot about sentence composition (though they were very helpful in my early growth as a writer) – I’m writing for the people who want to read this kind of story, therefore their feedback is now the most valuable to me.
This concludes my advice for searching out and utilising your Beta Reading group. Stay tuned for Editing Tips Part Two: The Easy Cut, where we take a look at some quick and simple techniques for editing your work, and Part Three: The Hard Cut, where the soul-wrenching edits happen. Take care y’all!
Was this helpful to you? Do you agree or disagree with how I approach Beta Reading? Let me know in the comments!
Since my last blog post I’ve been doing a lot of reading into how one goes about reaching an audience for their episodic stories . . . and I’ve learned that there are no clear-cut search terms to help navigate the topic, and no clear definition of what this form of writing actually is. And part of the reason, I think, is due to the digital age we live in, where eBooks and self-publishing have expanded the possibilities open to authors today.
At its simplest, episodic or serial fiction is a narrative presented in separate installments over a period of time. But that’s about as specific as defining a novel as a book with words in, and this vagueness of meaning seems to be frustrating readers in various corners of the internet who perhaps didn’t know exactly what they were buying into when the author described their work as ‘episodic’.
Below I’ve attempted to collate my own understanding of the two main types of serial fiction, and the challenges faced by both readers and writers using the form.
The Serialised Novel
With the availability of e-publishing, a lot of authors are now experimenting with serialising their novels. This means the author has written (or is in the process of writing) one complete story which can be broken up and sold as stand-alone segments. Sometimes these segments have been designed with serialisation in mind, ending on a cliff-hanger to keep the reader hooked waiting for the next installment; sometimes the installments are just normal chapters released for sale separately over time. This means the author can charge a small amount, say 99p, for each individual segment or chapter, potentially making more money than if they’d just sold the complete novel on its own. As a plus, readers might be persuaded to also buy the completed novel in order to have the story sections collected together.
Ultimately, a serialised novel can be presented equally well as a novel or as a series. But it has a relatively short run, to the length of an average novel in its genre.
From my Googling efforts and conversations with friends and family, I get the impression that most people, when talking about ‘serialised fiction’, are referring specifically to serialised novels. This frustrated me no end when I was trying to find advice tailored to the kind of serial I like to write, which is:
The Episodic Series
I would liken this form to a television series. The individual installments are more likely to stand up on their own within an episodic series, much like how you can watch a single episode of Supernatural or Game of Thrones without having seen the rest – you might not get to grips with all the character background and world lore, but you’ll be able to follow the plot that’s presented directly in front of you for the course of that episode. (You won’t understand why it was important that so-and-so’s dad killed so-and-so’s aunty five years ago, but you’ll understand why the character you only just fell in love with was horrifically murdered in this episode with nary a warning. And then you’ll curse George R. R. Martin and resign yourself to watching the series from the beginning.)
In this sense an episodic series is often longer and more likely to be without a fixed end. It might be composed of wildly disparate settings and characters, but be tied together by an underlying motif or intertwined plot. An episodic series also has the potential to be divided into seasons, where a set of episodes are bound by one overarching plot arc. E.g. There are twenty episodes that make up Season 1 of the Jack Hansard Series.
Whereas a serialised novel is a complete story that has been broken up, an episodic series is a story that is constantly unfolding with each episode and could (potentially) continue unfolding infinitely. Y’know, just like a beloved TV series that jumps the shark and goes on way, way too long. (Lookin’ at you, Supernatural.)
Here I feel it makes sense to call the installments ‘episodes’, whereas the installments in a serialised novel could sensibly be called ‘chapters’ or ‘segments’. Crucially, I feel the key thing about an episodic series is that it would not work as a novel. I’m not saying you couldn’t edit and adapt it into novel form. I mean that if you collected a season’s worth of episodes together, it would still read as a season of individual (though connected) stories, rather than as one story where all the segments run seamlessly into each other.
I don’t claim to be a pro, and the definitions I’ve given are hardly rigid. Even my Jack Hansard only loosely fits, as not every story can be consumed separately from the rest: because I’ve restricted myself to very compact installments (4000-5000 words a piece) some stories spill over into several episodes, so that the overall series contains mini-arcs of three to five episodes long. But again, I’d liken it to a TV series, where script-writers will often create two-part episode arcs to build suspense.
Do People Read Serials?
Short answer: YES, and then some.
Nowadays it’s easier than ever to access serial stories: you can buy them easily through Amazon and other e-publishing services; read them on your phone, tablet or Kindle. Websites like Wattpad offer a free platform for readers and writers of all types of serialised fiction, and the idea seems to be pretty successful: with an audience of 45 million readers a month on Wattpad, it suggests there’s plenty of demand for this form of writing. But whether serial fiction is a good or bad idea varies from reader to reader, and probably depends on how much you enjoy the anticipation of waiting for the next installment to arrive – and how effectively authors present their work.
For instance, the self-publishing platform Smashwords has been decidedly lukewarm to the concept of serial fiction, and although serials are recognised as a viable form in their Terms of Service, there’s a handy section that declares a publication must not be an “unfinished work-in-progress”. Y’know, a definition you could easily apply to an episodic series if you didn’t want them hanging around, cluttering up your webpages.
I can understand why. In the past some authors have abused the system and annoyed readers by flooding an online shop front with images of their multiple ‘serial’ works, instead of a solitary entry for a novel. A cheap trick to get attention. Readers have also explained their dislike of having to pay for separate installments, seeing it as a tacky device to make them pay more for each chapter. Sometimes this negativity is because the reader didn’t understand they weren’t buying a finished story at point of purchase, or because they jumped in halfway through a series by accident.
So what can we do, as writers, to help readers enjoy the serialised story form? More than anything, I think we need to be clear about what we’re selling. If you’re selling chapters of a book that you’re eventually going to release as a completed novel, be upfront about it: readers may prefer to wait and pay for the finished deal. Letting them know they have a choice matters, and hopefully curbs feelings of ‘I’ve been cheated’ from those that don’t enjoy cliff-hangers or the anticipation of waiting.
If you’re selling an episodic series, I think you need to start by explaining exactly what that is, in relation to the story you’re presenting. It’s going to suck balls if the reader thinks they’re subscribing to a series of novels and then receives short stories for their money. Will you be releasing a collected ‘season’ of your episodes, so that readers don’t have to buy them separately if they don’t want to?
In particular, we need to avoid the temptation to abuse the episodic form for attention. Don’t upload all your episodes at once to spam a reader’s page. If you promise to update to a schedule, meet your deadlines. Even if you are charging a pittance for each installment, make sure it’s still worth the price, and if you use cliff-hangers keep them inventive and thoughtfully planned – not thrown in at the last second to keep your reader dangled on the line.
Now more than ever I think episodic storytelling is coming into its own. With our busy, frantic lifestyles and device-addiction, it makes sense to present stories in easily-digested chunks that can be served up during a long train commute or snatched during a coffee break. When people are finding they have less time to read, we can try to make the reading easier for them.
Was this helpful? Do you agree with my definitions of serial fiction? Perhaps you have a completely different understanding of how it works, or a better idea of how to classify it – let me know in the comments! =)
Now that Season 1 of Jack Hansard is complete, this seems like a good time to take a step back and reflect on the lessons I’ve learned over the past year and a bit. I’ve made plenty of mistakes, and the beautiful thing about mistakes is that they cause you to evaluate the way you work and the way you write. And, crucially, they make you figure out how to do it better next time.
So I present to you the mistakes I made and the lessons I learned from them. Although Jack Hansard is only a free series I publish for fun, these same lessons are applicable to all kinds of serial or episodic writing. Whether you’re publishing webcomics, writing weekly articles for an online magazine, maintaining a daily blog, serialising your novel or working on a short story series, I hope you find some useful pointers here.
Give yourself enough time to write.
I gave myself two weeks to write each Jack Hansard episode. It was just enough time to fit in around my job. I know there are writers out there who seem to be able to churn out a thousand words a day on top of working 40 hours a week, but I’m not one of them. And that’s okay. The important thing is to know your limits, and my limit is one Jack Hansard episode – or about 4000 words – per fortnight. Any more than your limit, and you run the risk of burning out.
You should also consider the quality of your work. Two weeks is the minimum I needed to write an episode, with full proof read and some minimal editing before it was published. And no matter how hard I tried, it was never, ever perfect. Because of course it’s not. For a perfect short story, ideally you want to leave it a few days, and then come back and re-do the whole shebang. The question is how important ‘perfect’ is to you.
At first, I was okay with imperfect – Hansard’s journey was intended as more of a training exercise from my perspective, a challenge to write consistently and meet deadlines. But as the story and characters grew, I grew endlessly attached to them and wanted to do them greater justice. I have made countless edits to the Jack Hansard stories – cleaning up the little niggles, polishing here and there – but it still frustrates me that I can’t pull it all down and piece it back together so that’s it becomes even better. If I were to rewind, I would give myself at least a month to write each episode, and I’d spend more time working out how they all intertwined in the wider scheme of things.
So before you set off on your episodic journey, before you publish anything and set the clock ticking, take some time to work out how long each episode, article, or strip will take you to produce – and make peace with the schedule you set yourself, because later on you’re gunna have a lot of fights with that bastard.
Once you’ve worked out your time-table, stick to it.
I’m quite proud that I met my fortnightly deadline most of the time, even if it did result in a few episodes I wished I’d spent more time on. It proved to me that I really could work under pressure and still produce something of a decent quality.
I found my biggest set-backs came when I took some time off. Now, sometimes this is very necessary – in my case there was a funeral to attend, there was a massive adventure in Belgium, and there was Christmas reserved for friends and family. There’s no reason not to take these times off – if anything, I’d recommend that you build a holiday into your timetable so that you don’t burn out during periods you know you’ll be too busy to fully commit. But where I went wrong was in not setting a proper ‘return-to-work’ date. Particularly after Christmas, this was a deep holiday hole I fell down where a long stint away from writing the series left me very complacent and lacking enthusiasm.
My key advice would be to keep your holidays short. And just because you’re having time away from the series, doesn’t mean you should have time away from writing altogether. Try using the time to pursue other projects, or enjoy writing just for the sake of it – anything to keep your eye in.
And how can you make your brief holidays easier on both yourself and your readers?
Get started before you start.
Before I launched An Inspired Mess and Jack Hansard, I’d already written the first two episodes to give myself a head start. And, even more cunningly, I’d written two future stories (which became Episodes 11 and 16, both sparking their own sub-plots lasting several very fun installments).
These future episodes were there to give me breathing space, to cover my ass if I couldn’t finish the time-tabled episode in time, in case a family emergency came up, and to provide content during my planned ‘holiday’ in the middle of the series.
All very good in theory. My mistake: I didn’t use my breathing space. I should have kept at least one episode ahead, but I didn’t. If I had, there wouldn’t have been month-long gaps in the summer and winter where nothing was uploaded.
So make sure you have several stories or articles written before you publish the first one, and save one or two for those unexpected gaps that will undoubtedly crop up.
On the subject of planning . . .
Other people might say ‘make plans’, but I say that’s up to you. Best-laid plans work for some, and the advantages of knowing the plot in advance are obvious. But I’m someone who prefers to plan off the cuff – I’ve the rough plot for the next three episodes, and a vague sense of the overarching story, but I don’t want to be hemmed in by details. The brilliant thing about a short story series is that some very unexpected details can unfold if you just go with the flow and allow the series to take a different direction from time to time.
But if you don’t write plans, write notes. These are those unfolding details that might become very important later. So you just introduced a side-character who you whimsically gave a sense of humour that revolves entirely around fish puns . . . five stories later a joke about a haddock might end up the turning point of the whole plot. Or perhaps it’s the colour of his eyes? Her eyes? Damn, where did our main character meet this person again?
Going over these little details can also help you in times of Writer’s Block, as well as in tightening your overarching storyline. If you’d forgotten that one particular character loved fish puns, reading over the notes could spark that very turning point in the plot.
I was a lousy note-taker, and I wish I’d created a binder full of them for easy reference. Instead I found myself leafing through the hand-written drafts and scanning the published episodes for references to personality quirks and physical descriptions I couldn’t quite recall. In particular, the way Ang speaks – I was constantly referring to the Coblyn’s previous dialogue to refresh my memory. Character profiles: wish I’d bothered.
If your episodic writing is more non-fiction based, I would still suggest keeping notes of the subjects you’ve covered. Say you blog about a different 80s glam metal album cover each week – you probably want to keep a record of what you’ve featured so far, and a list of your favourite words for describing fabulous hair.
And finally . . .
Remember to believe in yourself, and the fact that your work isn’t as terrible as you sometimes think it is. Show it to your friends and family and believe them when they tell you they like it. If they don’t – take on board their advice, it’ll only make you stronger. And it’ll make them more invested in helping you; they’ll care aboutyour work when you show that you care about their opinion.
I wouldn’t have got this far without my fiancé nagging me in the background. Even though my genre isn’t really his cup of tea, he’s dutifully proof read and mercilessly criticised all of the Jack Hansard series for me (and half of these blog posts, too). He gave me the push (shove) I needed to get that final episode done when I was suffering from prolonged Christmas/New Year’s/Springtime/GotANewJob blues (read: excuses).
So find someone, or a group of someones, who you can rely on to give you that extra little push when you’ve lost your mojo, and remember that a bit of tough love and self-discipline will get you further than you expect.
If you have any tips of your own I’d love to hear them – just leave a comment below. Take care y’all.
A monumental event occurred in my life today. I was rejected by a leading Science Fiction magazine.
You heard (read?) me right. At the top of my inbox, only three hours after I’d checked the online status of my short story (‘Under Review’), a nondescript email arrived with the news that my submission was not accepted.
And it made me happy.
Thank you very much for letting us see “Sleeping Mother.” We appreciate your taking the time to send it in for our consideration. Although it does not suit the needs of the magazine at this time, we wish you luck with placing it elsewhere.
*******, Editor Asimov’s Science Fiction”
Nothing special. Fairly impersonal, no critical advice offered; of course not, because editors don’t have that sort of time to spend on every budding would-be in their slush pile. So why did it strike such a chord?
This is the sort of news that’s meant to knock a writer to the floor with doubt and self-pity. It’s meant to rock your belief in yourself and the skills you thought you possessed. It’ll make you angry with yourself and question why you even bother writing this dumb shit anyway.
Yeah, I was actually worried those things would happen. I knew, after all the online articles and advice columns I’ve read, that it would be highly unlikely for my very first submission to get accepted. I knew to expect a rejection. But I still kinda dreaded it.
Problem is, that kind of dread can lead to inaction, which can be even worse than self-pity. I’ve been writing since the age of at least ten, maybe younger. I’ve got these cute exercise books full of my ridiculous, badly-spelled, early fiction. By the age of fourteen I knew I wanted to be a published author, and I’ve had that goal in the back of my head ever since.
Funny how it’s stayed at the back for so long, where it’s safe and comfortable.
I made some small, tentative steps – short story competitions, writing forums, even the Jack Hansard series has been arguably tentative. Not once have I approached a professional market, taken myself seriously in a professional capacity… until now.
Ultimately, I feel happy with this rejection because it’s my very first one. First blood. A rite of passage. Proof that I’ve crossed some invisible barrier in my head. Proof that, actually, rejection isn’t all that bad. That rejection, if anything, should make you work even harder.
First thing I did was review my manuscript and make changes. Re-read formatting guidelines. Tightened sentence structure. And then I went to the next magazine on my list, and submitted to them. I feel it’s worth a second opinion.
But while I wait for a reply, I’m going to give the story an overhaul, and make it kick even more ass. It might take another ten, twenty rejections, but eventually I’m going to end up with a story that kicks so hard somebody is going to have to help pick the editor up off the floor.
I want to frame my first rejection and stick it on my wall, and it will sit there as a reminder that there’s no reason to be scared of taking that step, because literally the worst thing that can happen is that you make yourself a better writer.
Sure, I know that sounds easier said than done. It’s one of those things that can’t really be taught – only you can make the changes required by improvement, and only you can make yourself want to pursue that difficult road. But there are some small nuggets of advice and encouragement we can share among ourselves. For my money, after a rejection (and, in fact, before you consider submitting anything, anywhere) an easy first step is to check your manuscript has been formatted correctly. It won’t save a poorly written story, but it might stop a good one sliding out from under the editor’s gaze. They do a crap-ton of reading – so make it easier on the eye for them. For an excellent guide, I sincerely recommend William Shunn’s comprehensive, and above all illustrative guide to achieving the industry standard: http://www.shunn.net/format/story.html I’d read descriptions of correct formatting elsewhere, but missed crucial elements until I saw it laid out clearly on the page like this.
I would then recommend reading this article by Sarah Olson for some seriously helpful and down-to-earth advice from slush readers. Even if you’ve heard all this advice before, it’s still incredibly interesting to get an insider perspective. I wouldn’t have guessed that cannibalism themes were apparently so prevalent. Or that starting sentences with ‘It was…’ can be a major turn-off for some editors. They’ve read it all before. Our job is to find the uncommon denominator.
And finally, keep writing, and don’t lose faith. A rejection doesn’t mean you’re a bad writer. It might mean you misjudged the market, or you landed the editor who has already read several alien invasion stories that day, or that your work was good, but not the best. So keep writing until you are the best, and don’t let dread get the better of you. And frame that rejection letter. Wear it as a point of pride.