Story submissions to magazines, anthologies, and competitions
Number of Submissions: 23
Submissions Declined: 15
Submissions Accepted: 1
Still under review: 7
Wheeeeeee! We’re only halfway through the year, and I’ve already bested last year’s results (which, let’s face it, were pretty abysmal anyway). I expect to slow down on submissions towards the end of this year, but only because I hope to be extra-focused on handling edits and the publishing process for Season Two of The Jack Hansard Series.
The Accepted story on this list is a flash triptych called ‘Denizens of the Deep Dark’. It will feature in the upcoming July issue of Copperfield Review Quarterly.
Why are my submissions going better this year?
Having been at this for a while now, I’ve built up a larger catalogue of short stories to send out. This means I can have several different pieces out at the same time, rather than waiting for just one to be assessed by a publisher before being able to submit it again. I’m also quite proud of some of my newer works (tangible evidence of improvement in my writing) and this confidence keeps me eager to edit and resubmit after every rejection.
I’ve also been helped by some very fast turnarounds from a few journals. While it can be disheartening to receive a rejection in less than 48 hours (24 hours, in one instance!) this does then immediately free up the story for submission elsewhere, as many of these publishers don’t allow you to submit to multiple markets at once.
An extra note is that I’ve broadened my horizons this year by making a return to poetry, which I’ve dabbled in on-and-off over the years. There are just two poems of which I’m proud enough to have included in the above submissions list, and one which I’ve entered into a humour competition that will announce winners in August. Let’s see how we go!
How are your submissions going?
Do you keep track of your submission stats like this? How’s this year shaping up compared to last year? Tell me all about it, I’d love to know! We can celebrate our wins and commiserate our rejections together. And if you’re yet to submit anything, then I’m here to shout you some friendly words of encouragement.
I talk a lot about writing submissions and lately have had questions from friends about where I find these paid writing gigs – and how they might find their own. So I thought I’d share the resources I use the most, for anyone who might also be wondering how to find a home for their short stories.
Below is a mix of blogs and lists, some of which are geared just toward speculative fiction (fantasy, sci-fi, horror, etc) and others that encompass all genres. Take a look, and hopefully you’ll find a market you want to submit to!
A regularly updated blog which keeps abreast of opportunities in the industry. As the name suggests, The Horror Tree focuses on posting submissions calls for horror-themed writing, but does include entries from other speculative fiction genres as well. This is where I first heard about The San Cicaro Experience, an urban fantasy anthology which I submitted to and was published in last year,
At The Horror Tree you’ll mainly find open calls from journals and anthologies, and then the occasional competition and novel/novella opportunity. You’ll find a fair number of lower-paying markets here (often less than 4 cents a word) and many publications that might only pay an honorarium (such as $10 or less for a short story). But pro markets do pop up as well: regular calls for Fantasy Magazine and Cosmic Roots & Eldritch Shores are good examples.
I do think you’re more likely to come across opportunities here that you might not find elsewhere, and the themes are so varied and interesting that you have a higher chance of stumbling across one that makes you go, “YES. I want to create something for THIS.” (Recently I’ve seen calls for ‘found footage’ horror stories, ’31st century monsters’, and ‘mad queens’.) This is what makes The Horror Tree my favourite site to scroll for submissions.
Writer’s HQ is both a source of free writing resources and an organiser of British writing retreats on the cheap. They maintain a continually updated list of competition opportunities each month, and have recently changed their policy to only include listings that make an effort to be financially accessible to writers. I’m a massive fan of this approach. My personal policy is to not submit to publications that require an entry fee (the aim here is to make money…) though I’m not averse to supporting journals which provide the option of a donation or have a tip jar feature.
The folks at Writer’s HQ seem to have accessibility built into their attitude, and they make this whole business of writing feel achievable with their pragmatism and sense of humour. They also host their own weekly Flash Face-off contest (like a community writing exercise) and will pay you for blog posts on the writing process (currently closed to submissions, but worth keeping an eye on if this is your thing).
This one is a single static list compiled by speculative fiction author S.J.Budd. Unlike the ones listed above, these are not submission calls with specific themes or deadlines and are not (to my knowledge) regularly updated. It’s simply a great list of journals which (usually) accept unsolicted submissions. Being a writer of speculative fiction myself, it’s refreshing to see a list which encompasses simply ‘dark’ fiction, as this can range far and wide across fantasy, sci-fi, horror and beyond. I find similar lists on a singular genre under the speculative umbrella can be a bit limited for my purposes.
Like any static list, you will find that some publishers on this page have sadly gone out of business, or that submission windows are currently closed. But the high number of listings and the amount of info included next to each one makes this a really great resource to quickly scan and identify markets that might be the right fit for your work.
Submittable is really a submissions manager – many of the journals in those lists above will require you to upload your work via Submittable. You’ll need to register an account for this (don’t worry, it’s free). It’s quite useful in that it saves (and automatically fills in) your personal details, and you can create a cover letter template to save you writing out nearly the same thing each time. It also tracks your submissions so you can see which stories are currently in progress/accepted/declined.
Under the Discover tab is where you can actively search for opportunities. I’m pleased that it lets me filter by deadline and ‘No Fees’, but I admit to finding the search function a bit lacking. I don’t come here to seek out new markets very often – mainly because there are just SO MANY submission calls that’s it’s difficult to narrow down exactly what you might be looking for.
This is because Submittable opportunities encompass a really wide range of subjects – from applying for research grants and job vacancies (I recently discovered and applied for a job at a small press here actually; sadly didn’t get through) to entering competitions, submitting short stories to journals, and even whole novels to presses. There are opportunities for writers, artists, animators, musicians, journalists, and more… Basically, if you know anyone looking for anything in the creative sphere, Submittable isn’t a bad place to start. Play around with the search tags and filters, and eventually you’ll find something that fits your niche.
This one feels a bit nostalgic for me because it’s the list I’ve used for the longest time, but have neglected of late. Prizemagic concerns itself solely with writing competitions. The website looks quite dated now, but the listings are still regularly refreshed. Each entry has a note to say when it was added or last edited, which is very useful when considering those evergreen contests which roll around every year.
It’s also made extra-fun by the occasional humorous remark from the website’s owner, Michael Shenton, and I enjoy reading the little success stories from people who have written in to share their competition triumphs. The listings themselves contain more info than you’d find elsewhere, as the author takes pains to provide some context for what each contest is looking for in your entry.
I should also mention that this list is much more UK-centric than the ones above – which is BRILLIANT for British writers like me, who too often are mentally converting dollar amounts in our heads when weighing up fees and prizes.
Let us know if you found somewhere to submit your story from this list! And if you want to recommend other places to look for new writing opportunities, please do mention them in the comments.
I’d like to thank Nicole over at InkWell Spills for hosting me in an Author Spotlight this week. We covered how I ended up writing The Jack Hansard Series, my turning point in becoming a ‘professional’ author, and a few tips on how to see the value in your work and to make that crucial step towards a professional writing career. You’ll also find a wealth of free writing resources on her website.
Story submissions to magazines, anthologies, and competitions.
Number of Submissions: 14
Submissions Declined: 12
Submissions Accepted: 0
Still under review: 2
Dang. I was hoping to beat my previous score, but unfortunately I made 3 fewer submissions in 2020 than in 2019. But, global pandemic aside, at least I have some good reasons for not being on top of my short story game – and some reasons to celebrate, as well! The biggest one being:
So on a purely personal level, it’s been a good year. My family has remained happy and healthy, and we know how lucky we’ve been throughout everything that’s happened over the last twelve months.
I’m going to try to give my blog a bit more attention in 2021. I’m not a natural blogger, so I tend to only post when I have newsworthy updates or some advice which I think others may find useful. I really enjoyed doing the Virtual Bookshop Tour, so I might aim for more pieces like that in the future.
If you want to receive more regular updates from me, you can subscribe to my newsletter here. I email once a fortnite with a short update about what I’m working on – sometimes with links to free books and recommendations from other indie authors. (Subscribers also receive a copy of Deus Ex Machina, another fun little story set in Hansard’s occult world.)
My goals for 2021? Keep submitting stories; publish Book 2; enjoy more time with my family.
I hope the new year has found you well, and that it brings us all a little more joy than the previous one. Remember to take care of yourself, and the people around you.
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. =)