Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Writers' Groups

Yes, this is the blog for the Stop-Watch Gang, and I am a member of the gang, thus, I continue to "drink the Kool-Aid" when it comes to being objective about the merits of belonging to a writers' group. But my weekly writing tips column wouldn't be complete without a discussion on the pros and cons of belonging to a writers' group.

Writers are solitary creatures. We stuff headphones into our ears, sit off in the corner with a notebook or a laptop, and live in our heads. This job requires alone time. The office must have a door that closes. The kids must respect my need to be left alone. That said, once the zero draft is complete, we sit back and say, "Yeah, baby! Best I ever wrote."

Then we give the project some space while we work on something else and the doubts creep in. Did that character have an arc? Could I have added more sensual experiences? Should I explain more or cut out the info dumps? Was the ending satisfying?

Writers require feedback.

So we form groups. Each group provides something that perhaps another group cannot provide. It's okay to belong to more than one group.

If you're fairly new to writing, and you've submitted a few stories that have come back rejected, you're probably wondering what you're doing wrong. A writers' group can help, not only to read your work and help you to see the particulars that you cannot. On the flip side, each time you read other writers' work and have to find the great parts and shortcomings in their work, you will become that much better at seeing the same problems in your own work. Each critique provides Free Practice (FP) -- the chance to improve your own writing through the pens and keyboards of other writers.

FP is the main reason to join a group.

The other benefits are all secondary. You will make contacts in the business that can help you to network in your pursuit to build a brand. Your group members can cheer from the sidelines when you succeed and provide a shoulder to lean on during the dark moments of self-doubt and rejection. The extra sets of eyes and ears will help you to be more aware of emerging markets, tight deadlines, and related opportunities such as conventions and appearances.

FP keeps you going. Sometimes, when you put your butt-in-chair and you don't quite feel like writing, you can always begin the session by reading one of the stories you promised to critique but haven't gotten around to yet. FP is like the transition drug for a writer, it gets your critical juices flowing, and provides accountability when you need it. After all, if you promise you will do something, meet a particular deadline or post to your blog, and you make that promise in front of ten other people who will call you on it when you fall short of the goal, you have all the more incentive to succeed. To meet that deadline.

At this point, you're probably wondering what the negatives could possibly be. Because I've sold you on joining a group. I've basically knocked you over the head and insisted you join a group. Really. You should! But...

Remember that it's your story. First and foremost. You must advocate for your story, even in the face of critique.

The way the Stop-Watch Gang works, the person receiving the critique must listen, without responding, as each member of the gang speaks for their five minutes (we USE a stopwatch) mostly about all that is wrong with the story.

That's a tough pill.

Once everyone has had their say, the writer has time for rebuttal, follow-up questions, etc, and the critiques becomes more free-flow.

Then I go home. And for me, that often means a long car ride where I stew and wonder about all that was said about my "baby" and all of its flaws. That is the part where all writers must develop a steel-enforced-backbone. The story is MINE. I understand and embrace its purpose. Its goals. Its theme. I must sit down, with my butt-in-chair and do whatever work is required to bring the story to a happy fruition, without being too emotionally attached to any one part that might need to be cut.

I reiterate: It's YOUR story.

You don't have to make any changes unless they feel right to you; unless they help bring your story closer to exactly what you were hoping to say. If you feel that the group members didn't "get" your story, then perhaps their crits don't apply. (Though you may very well have plenty of work left, to ensure that future readers will "get" your story.)

The best piece of advice I can give you is this sliding scale.

If only one person mentions a point, think about it, but don't make any changes.
If two or three people mention the same point, you probably need to change it, maybe not in the manner they suggest, but with some type of modification.
If four or more people make the same point, you need to heed their advice, because they're probably right.

Yes, math, once again, has a practical application in the real world. Aren't you glad you learned to count? And you thought you didn't need to know math to be a writer.

The other negative you must consider is that writers groups tend to turn all stories into "circles." Think of your story as a rectangle. Or a polygon with plenty of corners. (Yes, I have a math degree, work with me here.) As each member applies their critique, their comments essentially shave another corner from your story. The more shaves, the smoother the edges, until what's left is no longer a rectangle/polygon, it's a circle.

If every story is a circle, then they'll all feel the same. No edges. No sparks of brilliance. No outliers. No bumps that make the reader sit up and take notice, for good or for bad.

You as a writer must always hold this danger in the back of your mind while you're digesting critiques. I cannot stress enough how important it is to keep a copy of the "old version" of a story before you sit down to make post-critique-session edits. Because in a week, you might go back to that old version and keep most of what you had before, throwing away the majority of the edits you made to please your writers' group members. If you try to please every reader, you will end up pleasing none, you will have a story that is so smooth, it is soulless.

The soul of a story is what makes it brilliant.

In summary:

Join a group. Digest their comments. Use what works, Discard the rest. Remember that your story belongs to you, and you must treat it with the respect it deserves. Don't cut out its soul. But make it as strong and independent as you want your child to be that day they move out and take on the world on their own.

Great, I've convinced you. Now, you're probably asking, "How do I find a writers group?"

--> The Online Writing Workshop for Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror

--> Critters

--> Codex (A group for more experienced writers who have won an award or attended a major workshop)

--> Post a flyer at your local library.

--> Take a class/workshop. Two of the groups I belong to are made up of members from a workshop I attended.

--> Network. In my field (SF/F/H) conventions are the best way to accomplish this goal. (This is how I weaseled my way into the Stop-Watch Gang.)

Wednesday, February 22, 2012


Personally, I have a love/hate relationship with deadlines.

For a writer, a deadline can be a wonderful thing. Because it forces you to finish; to get the story to a publishable state by a certain date and time. Otherwise, I can tend to allow a story to sit, be ignored, and generally linger on my laptop in a neglected state.

Now it may be possible that I am unique in this procrastination/avoidance cycle. That plenty of writers treat their stories with tenacity and respect, and that they don't require anything as artificial as an external deadline to force them into getting their butts-in-chairs and working.

I will now wait while you stop laughing.

Because, honestly, I have plenty of company in the procrastination/avoidance department. Writing is solitary. It doesn't have a time-clock that docks your pay if you're fifteen minutes late sitting down in front of your netbook. It doesn't have a manager who ticks the "doesn't meet deadlines" box on your quarterly performance review so that you might not make level 12 with the union this month.

Case in point, I'm posting this Tuesday writing tip on Wednesday.

Hence the love of deadlines.

Being in a writers' group can also help you to love deadlines. Because often, several of you will be submitting to the same anthology or contest with the same deadline. And as a group, you can cheer each other on, nudge each other closer to perfection, and create a bit of healthy competition.

But I also hate deadlines. Because they force me to turn off the television, or close the exciting book I'm reading, and get back to work. When I really don't feel quite "up to working." Self-motivation is such an exhausting nuisance.

I spoke in a previous blog about Club 100 and how having that daily routine can help to produce a continuous flow, so that you won't procrastinate, and you will make all of those deadlines.

Did I mention I've fallen off the Club 100 wagon, and am now back to day zero?

This post is morphing into a lament over procrastination, which is the younger, annoying brother of deadlines. The two fight constantly, punching each other for no reason, stealing each other's toys and jockeying for the better seat in the car.

As a writer, consider buying a monthly calendar for your deadlines and goals. I would suggest a paper calendar, rather than the one on your phone or tablet. The kind you can place in close proximity to the spot where you love to write. Mark all of the deadlines for projects that matter to you. Do it now, because I will admit I have missed far too many deadlines simply because I swore I would remember them, only to the open the email or find the note two months after the deadline has passed. I also number the weeks on my monthly calendar, to give me a reminder of the submission goal of "one sub a week" that I don't exactly follow, but at least strive for.

I know that cookie looks tasty, and that you only want to watch one episode of [insert your favourite show here] which should only take forty-five minutes, and you're not quite in the right headspace to write at this very moment.

Write anyway.

The Tesseracts 16 deadline is February 29th, and I must now finish polishing that story or I am going to miss out on a great opportunity. I will now stop using the blog as a procrastination tool and get back to writing...

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Market Listings

If you are going to write a story, or a novel, eventually you will send it out into the world for publication.

But where?

For novels, you must either deal with the publisher directly (these types of submissions are called "over the transom") or you must first acquire an agent and have them shop your novel around. I will discuss novel submissions more in another post.

Hundreds of markets exist for short fiction, magazines catering to specific interests from gardening, to women's health, to cars, to adventures for the young and young at heart. Fiction markets also exist, ranging from the Literary (L), to Mystery (M), to Young Adult (YA), to Horror (H), to Science Fiction (SF) and Fantasy (F). I write SF, F, H, and YA, making me more familiar with those particular markets, but I have sent the occasional L and M stories out into the wild. Anthologies are produced as well, usually with a specific theme, and their guidelines are also available at the sites below.


For speculative fiction, the traditional "big three" markets are: Analog, Asimov's, and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. If you intend to publish speculative fiction, you should probably read several issues of these three markets. Period.

Yes, if you've never read them, stop reading this blog and go to a magazine store and buy one of each issue right now. I'll wait...

Which brings me to the notion that if you're going to submit to a market, you should probably read at least one issue of their magazine/anthology, to get a feel for what they like. "That's daunting," you might say. "How can I read one of every magazine? Who has that kind of time?"

The answer is simple: you should. But you do only have so much time. So, prioritize. Read the big three first, then catch some markets online like Clarkesworld. This reading will take some time, like when you're at the library with your kid who's researching volcanoes, or when you're at a Starbucks in a book chain and you peruse the magazine rack with your latté in hand.


An anthology is a novel-length book filled with short stories written by a variety of authors. (Novel-length books filled with short stories all written by the same author are called collections.)

The stories are often collected to explore a particular theme. These themes can range from stories inspired by Sherlock Holmes, Zombies, the Dark side of Fiction, or stories written specifically for Young Adults. Note each of these anthologies is produced by the same publisher, EDGE Science Fiction and Fantasy Publishing. Of course, plenty of publishers produce anthologies.

Some produce "Year's Best" types of anthologies, which collect a series of short stories considered the best in the previous year. If you're looking to read some of the best short fiction out there, try searching out Year's Best Science Fiction 28 or Year's Best Fantasy 9.

So let me assume you've done your homework, and now you're ready to submit. You must polish your manuscript into what's called Standard Manuscript Format and then read the Guidelines or GL's to see if there are any more specific hoops you must jump through to submit in a manner that makes the market happy. Hoop-jumping is a crucial step. Do NOT skip the hoop-jumping, because most of their GL's state rather emphatically, that if you do not follow their specifications, they will delete your submission unread. And nobody wants their baby to be deleted unread.

The following websites provide essential market listings.

Ralan's Webstravaganza. I usually go to this site first. This is a comprehensive list of magazines and anthologies for SF, F, and H.

Duotrope Digest. If my story leans more towards mainstream, Duotrope has a fantastic and comprehensive list of every market of every genre.

If you write children's or YA stories, check out Eugie Foster's Children's Market List.

If you have sold a story and wish to re-sell it to foreign markets where you can be translated into a myriad of languages, try Douglas Smith's Foreign Market List.

Each of these websites is extensive and comprehensive. If you've never visited one before, take your time and familiarize yourself with all of their information.

You can find links to all of these websites as well as links to writers' blogs and websites at the links page on my website: suzannechurch.com.

Once you've done your research and you've hoop-jumped your story into shape, go ahead and submit a story. Yes! If you're hesitating, DON'T! No one ever got published by hiding their baby in a filing cabinet.

Be brave and submit!

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Shameless Self Promotion

Authors must promote themselves and their work. The more people who know about our work, the more people will seek out and read our work. Even though self promotion makes some of us feel a little uncomfortable, it is a skill we must all perfect.

Embrace promotion. Be shameless.

Let us face the truth: the person most invested in an author's work is the author of the work -- a solid reason why we, as authors, must relentlessly and shamelessly promote ourselves.

One of the best ways to promote your work is the web. Many authors have a blog, and/or a webpage. I have both. As a matter of fact, I have more than one blog, but that's beside the point. I also have a presence on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+. The pluses: more professional connections, more readers, more exposure. The negative: some people might hear your message more than once, as they, too, might also have web presences on multiple platforms.

Writing is a solitary adventure. So many writers tend to be introverts who don't enjoy self-promotion. Let me assure you, many of us feel that way on the inside. However, we must put on our professional faces and confidently promote, promote, promote.

One of my tutors once told a story of how he sent out bookmarks of his current book when he paid bills, from credit card to hydro bills. Because the person handling the bill might be interested in his work. Too bad that most of us pay our bills online now.

When awards season rolls around, many authors dream of being nominated for an Aurora (in Canada) an Aurealis (in Australia), a Hugo, a Nebula, a World Fantasy, or a Stoker Award. And those are only a few of the possibilities in the speculative fiction genre. There are also big awards like the Booker, the Giller, and, of course, the Nobel Prize. Coming back to reality for a moment, I don't stay up nights writing my Nobel Prize acceptance speech. But I do work to be nominated for awards like the Aurora.

Why work you might ask? Shouldn't the fiction speak for itself? Aren't good stories always at the front of everyone's mind?

As if!

Even for awards as well known as the Academy Awards, a whole pile of backroom promotion goes on. For some of the bigger films, copies are distributed to every single member of AMPAS to get noticed.

Think of your award-nomination-promotion as a part of your job description. Just as you must be competent at using a word processor, or reading aloud well at a convention or book launch, you must also confidently promote your work for award consideration.

Be polite. Be specific. Make sure to mention all other works you deem nomination-worthy. Provide a list of all eligible works so the reader is able to make an informed decision. You are merely opening their eyes to one more possible story to consider placing on a ballot.

In keeping with this shameless self promotion, watch this blog for pointers to all Stop-Watch Gang stories that are eligible for this year's awards.