Thursday, May 31, 2012

Deathwatch now for the Kindle!

Deathwatch and other tales, my collection of science fiction, horror, and fantasy short stories is now available for the kindle at Amazon.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Deathwatch and other tales

Deathwatch and other tales is a collection of previously published science fiction, fantasy, and horror short stories now available at Smashwords and Kobo. 

Mike Rimar

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

A Contest at Suzanne Church's Blog

Following the theme of today's writing-tip post on beginnings, I am running a contest at my personal blog.

The prize is a Paperblanks journal. Everyone is welcome to enter.

The task: write a 100-300 word submission in the word-a-day style, that uses the word "habit" somewhere in the first sentence.

Read all of the details and post your submission in the comments section of my Canadiansuzanne-on-LJ blog post found by clicking on this link.

Please spread the word to all writers you know.

The deadline is Tuesday, June 5th at 10pm EDT.


One of the most important parts of a story is the beginning. For so many reasons.
- slush readers who are deciding whether or not to buy your story/novel/poem might only read the first sentence. Or the first paragraph. Or the first page.
- readers who are shopping for their next read might only read the first sentence. Or the first paragraph. Or the first page.
- critics might only read...are you starting to see a pattern here?

To be effective, your beginning must:
- capture the reader's interest
- say what the story is about
- establish the story's voice

Allow me to explain these points in elaborate detail, and with examples.

Note: Most of the excerpts are from my word-a-day blog. I cannot emphasise how important it is for a writer to practice writing openings. To encourage my own practice, I began a blog whose sole purpose was to practice openings. I choose a word (or someone gives me a word), and then the word MUST appear in the first sentence. I try to write between 100 and 300 words, and it has to be off-the-cuff immediate (no time for thinking or enlisting my internal editor). Whenever I aim for a Club 100 (as outlined in my post on Establishing the Habit) victory, I use the word-a-day exercise to make sure I've written 100 words on days when I don't have time to work on my current novel-or-short-story-in-progress.

Capturing the Reader's Interest: The Hook

The first sentence must have a "hook" that reels the reader in, like a fish on a line. How might you hook this elusive reader? A vivid description of a unique world/situation can spice up a reader's curiosity (a common technique in speculative fiction). Irony can grab a reader. A dichotomy can tweak interest. Suspense can set a reader's heartbeat racing. A particularly juicy bit of dialogue can do the trick (though I have heard in many cases, that stories opening with dialogue don't sell well). If you can manage a combination of these elements, (or another fabulous technique) then you'll hook the reader right from the get go.

Hook: Vivid Description
A particularly descriptive passage will instantly transport you to another world, full of strange and unexpected marvels. In the interest of a little shameless self-promotion, I will use a two sentence example from my story, "Synch Me, Kiss Me, Drop" which just happens to be live in the May issue over at Clarkesworld Magazine:

When my nose stopped aching, I smiled at Rain. She had snorted a song ten minutes before me, and I couldn't quite figure why she waited here in the dark confines of the sample booth.

As a reader, you're wondering, first, why is the narrator's nose aching? Who is Rain? How does anyone snort a song? What is a sample booth? And what sort of dark-and-confined space are these two people in? Where and when is the story taking place? With the simple phrase "snort a song" I have managed to create a world where people can somehow inhale songs through their noses, which (hopefully) makes the reader want to keep on reading.

Hook: Irony
Nothing peaks my curiosity more than irony. Situations dripping with irony can make you laugh, cry, or simply stand, staring in dumbfounded, open-mouthed shock. An example of an ironic opening sentence from my word-a-day blog:

When the yeti stole my tuna sandwich, I knew it was going to be a long day.

As a reader, you're wondering, how in the heck can a yeti steal a sandwich? In what sort of world do yeti's and tuna sandwiches exist together? What else could possibly happen after that?

Hook: Dichotomy
A dichotomy involves two events that can't possibly exist simultaneously. When the two events occur, despite their improbability, the reader will want to read more to find out how exactly this unlikely situation came about. An example of a dichotomy in an opening sentence from my word-a-day blog:

Bob thought one of the most terrifying creatures in the world was the munchkin.

As a reader, you're wondering, how on earth Bob could find a munchkin terrifying? For crying out loud, you could kick one like a puppy if it got in your way, couldn't you? (Okay, I wouldn't actually kick a puppy or a munchkin, I'm trying to make a point here.)

Hook: Suspense
Watch any action/suspense movie, and you'll know what it feels like to be worried about a character. Typical ways to build suspense are: life-threatening situations (gun to the head, teetering on a precipice, ticking clock, terminal illness, etc.), car chases, discovering dead bodies, mysterious phone calls, etc. An example of a suspenseful opening sentence from my word-a-day blog:

Roger had a maximum of twelve days to live.

As a reader, you're wondering, why twelve days? Who is Roger? Is he captured by pirates? On death row? Is the entire world under threat of an impending doom?

Hook: Dialogue
Since I subscribe to the "dialogue doesn't often work as an opening" philosophy, I don't have many examples of this type of opening. One of the advantages of using dialogue is it allows you to establish the voice of your character instantly. (Of course, that means you need to enrich the sentence with a good voice-soaking or the hook will fall flat.) In movie lingo, starting with dialogue means your main character speaks to the audience instantly (showing the "who" of the movie), rather than the wide, sweeping shot-from-a-helicopter (showing the "where" of the movie). An example of two sentences utilizing dialogue for the opening from my story, "Everyone Needs a Couch" which was originally published in Oceans of the Mind, and is included in my collection, "Elements" due to be published in the spring of 2014:

"Crap. Double crap."

As a reader, you're wondering, who is speaking, and why they're in such a horrible mood that they feel the need for a double expletive right at the start? In this story, "crap" becomes a bit of a running, gag, so I felt it worked best at the start.

Saying What the Story Is About

Often, the first sentence of a story or novel will give the reader a good idea of the upcoming plot and/or theme of the work. Including this aspect in an opening sentence doesn't always work, especially if you want to include a few twists that keep the reader wondering what might happen next. But when you can work the story's concept into the first sentence, you should do so.

Going back to The "yeti" example from my word-a-day blog:

When the yeti stole my tuna sandwich, I knew it was going to be a long day.

The sentence tells the reader that the story will be about how the narrator had a long day, starting with the theft of his sandwich by a yeti. The sentence's playfulness gives the reader the hint that the story will likely be a comedy in which a bunch of unlikely-but-frustrating things happen to the protagonist.

Establishing the Story's Voice

One of these days, I will do an extended post on "voice", but for now, a quick definition: The tone or feel of a story, portrayed via word choice. Right from the first sentence, the reader should get a sense of how the story will feel as the plot unfolds. Voice is like the "flavour card" in front of the ice cream selections at Baskin Robbins, a few words that describe to you how the ice cream will taste. The next few sentences are like the ice cream sample--an itty, bitty scoop that tells you exactly how much you will enjoy the cone if you choose that flavour.

One of my trademark-suzanne-church voice-flavours involves my use of either made-up words or the-long-hyphenation-of-weirdness word structure. An example of a voice-intensive first sentence from my word-a-day blog:

I had the post-awaffleyptic blues, which is the state of mind one finds oneself in, after consuming too many waffles during Sunday Brunch.

The sentence tells the reader that the narrator likes to come up with interesting ways to describe their quirky personality, while also outlining their love of the waffle and of over-eating on a Sunday morning. Like the yeti example, the sentence's playfulness gives the reader the hint that the story will likely be a comedy, that might include a bevy of food indulgences.

In summary, beginnings are crucial. You need to rock them, big time! If you head over to my word-a-day blog, then you will see that all of the posts are simply beginnings of stories. They aren't meant to be complete stories at all (besides, I wouldn't be able to sell the stories for "First English Language Rights" if I posted them in their entirety on that blog). My goal is simply to practice beginnings.


Didn't your mother (or your piano teacher) ever tell you that practice makes perfect?

Do it now
- Write five openings to five different stories. For each one, use a word prompt, and make sure the word appears in the first sentence.
- Post your yummy word in the comments section for me to use in my next word-a-day blog post

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Breaking the Rules

Last week, I explained how at the beginning of a writing career, you spend a great deal of your time learning and following the rules. This week, I am going to explain how and why authors break the rules.

First, allow me to reiterate that you must follow basic rules of grammar, punctuation, spelling, and jumping-through-the-guideline-hoops. Maybe you've sold a couple of stories. Or perhaps you've come close with a few rejections and you're sure this next story will be the one. Now you're looking for suggestions on what will set your story apart, make the slush reader drop his or her pen and say, "Wow, this story is so awesome I simply must buy it."

The standard answers apply:
- a unique and complex idea
- a vivid setting
- a cast of compelling characters
So your story has these things. Your idea rocks, and your setting is so vivid the reader can taste and smell it, and your characters are worth dying for. But so what? Don't all stories have these qualities? Doesn't every story in the slush pile meet these criteria?


That means your story needs a little more. A shot of uniqueness. Well, that means you need to take story structure and massage it, kick it, spray paint it, and then you might have a truly unique submission.

Countless ways exist to accomplish this task. And I don't want my blog post to be overly long, so I'm going to cite a few examples.

Submit on pink paper?
No, no, no, and if you didn't hear me clearly, "NO!"

Have a killer opening sentence?
Yes! Now you're on the right track.
Spend a week writing opening after opening, until you come up with a whopper.
This notion applies to short stories, novels, and even query letters. The slush readers have limited time so grab them right from the get-go.

- use non-linear timelines
- create a protagonist who is passive and doesn't have a complete arc
- use minimal description
- use minimal punctuation
- tell the story from the POV of a real jerk, or a pet cat

At this point, you're probably rolling your eyes and asking for a puke-bucket, because you've read stories that play in such ways and these stories stunk worse than city streets during a garbage strike.

The rule you must follow while you're breaking the rules?

Only do what makes your story BETTER!

On the rule-breaking front, I must now discuss an area that fills me with dread, but I must address the elephant in the room...

Send simultaneous submissions?
[FYI - A simultaneous submission is one where you send THE SAME story to two or more markets AT THE SAME TIME.]

The teacher in me, the person who feels a certain comfort in following the rules says, "NO!" And for short fiction markets with quick turn-around times, etiquette clearly dictates that you do NOT simultaneously submit, especially if their guidelines state emphatically not to do so.

For novels, you must do the math.

I'm in the middle of my 40's, so I would argue I might only have 30 good years of writing left. (It's a math example, not a social comment, so don't go all seniors-contribute-just-as-well on me, here. That's another story, and I hope I can write for longer, but I want nice round numbers for my example, so work with me. I'm a math teacher, remember?)

- The average agent query takes 3 to 6 months.
- The average novel submission to a publisher takes 1 year (or more) for a response.

If I don't do simultaneous subs, and I want to submit "Novel X" to 6 agents and 2 publishers from the top of my lists, then do the math...

6 agents x 6 months = 3 years
2 publishers x 1 year = 2 years
Now I've spent 5 years of my life trying to sell ONE novel. And if it doesn't sell, how many more years will I wait?

30 years / an-average-5-year-cycle = 6 novels.

Really? Only six novels? That's not much of a career.

I haven't even taken into account the fact that it can take a year or more for a novel to be published once it's accepted for publication.

And what about all of those true-life-anecdotes about people who endured 30 to 50 rejections before they finally sold their novel? Agents aside, at one year per rejection, that's 50 years for ONE novel.

I don't have 50 years.

That's why we break the rules.

To avoid being tarred-and-feathered (or immersed in a flame-war) I won't speak about breaking any more rules. But the next time you consider simply following the rules, remember:

- we don't have that kind of time
- everyone else in the slush pile is following the rules
- you want to stand out

Now go out there and break some rules. But only if you understand WHY you're breaking them AND the choices INCREASE your chance of a sale.

[Please don't use my name as a reference as to why you chose to break the rules. :) ]

Do it now:
Write 200 words that break the rules. I mean really break them. Then take some time to decide whether the rule was worth breaking, in other words, is the story better?

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Following the Rules

At the beginning of a writing career, you spend a great deal of your time learning the rules and then following them. This week, I am going to list some of the most important rules that generally MUST be followed.

Grammar and Punctuation

Without proper grammar and punctuation, your work will look like it's written by a third grader. None of us want to be compared to a third grader.

Buy yourself a copy of "The Elements of Style" by Strunk and White and also a copy of "Eats, Shoots, and Leaves" by Truss. Place these two bibles next to where you write and use them. Often. As a matter of fact, internalize them. I mean it.

You will look like a framer-who-forgot-her-hammer if your writing is full of grammar and punctuation errors. If you want to be taken seriously, then act like a pro and follow the rules of grammar and punctuation.

(I actually break a couple of punctuation rules below...see if you can find them and post them in the comments section)

In my February 14th post on Market Listings I discussed the importance of following Standard Manuscript Format (SMF).

Why use SMF?

To look professional.

If you don't use SMF, you look like you don't know what you're doing. Many editors will delete/toss your manuscript unread if it doesn't follow SMF and their guidelines. None of us want our babies tossed in the bin, so following these rules simply makes good sense.

What is SMF?

Generally, for pretty much every submission under the sun, the basics of SMF below must, must, MUST be followed.

- one inch margins: top, bottom, left, and right
- left justified text
- 12 point-sized, readable font (used to be Courier, but the new norm is becoming Times New Roman)
- double spaced
- printed on one side only
- your contact information in the top left: name, address, phone, email, website
- the number of words in the top right (rounded up to the nearest hundred for a short story)
- the title of the story halfway down the page, centred
- your byline one double-space line below the title (the name you want the story published under)
- each paragraph begins with a half-inch right indent (or tab)
- page header in the upper right corner of every page except for the first page, in the format:
last name / one important word from the title / page number
- scene breaks indicated by centring one "#" character on its own line
- italics shown with underlining
- emdashes shown with two dashes "--" and no space on either side

Market-Specific Guidelines

After the basics, most markets will make available their specific guidelines (GLs) for submitting a story to them. For instance, some markets will insist on Times New Roman. Some markets will ask for an EXACT word count instead of rounded to the nearest hundred. Some markets will ask for the indent to be made using indents and not tabs, or not to have indents at all.

In a short story, text is emphasized using italics for (a) a word that really stands out to emphasize sarcasm or inflection or (b) dialogue that is an internal thought to the Point of View (POV) character, or (c) long sections of different timelines (like flashbacks) or lengthy quotes. As is listed in the SMF rules, italics are shown using underlining. If you must submit your document via "text only" you can show underlining with the _underlinecharacterbeforeandafter_ instead. Some markets will ask for italics to be in italics, not underlined so make sure you check the GLs before you submit.

Some markets prefer "blind" submissions, so they may ask that you do NOT include your name in the header, only the story title and page number. Some markets want no header at all, so check GLs.

Many markets will ask that straight quotes be used rather than "smart quotes" which slant to the right to open a quote and slant to the left to close a quote. These characters can become formatting nightmares from platform to platform. Also be aware that in North America, "Quotes are double," while in the UK and Australia, 'Quotes are single.' Know your market, and submit according to their standard.

Which brings up the notion of Spelling. Since I'm Canadian, I do tend to put "u" where my US friends think it doesn't belong, not to mention spelling the word as "centre" rather than "center." (You'll notice I did so a couple of times above.) Check GLs carefully, as many markets will list which spelling they prefer. Personally, I always change the spelling for the country where I'm sending the story. This means I might have several copies of my story on my hard drive, named as "Story X cdn sp" or "Story Y us sp" so that once the story comes back, I can tell which spelling it is saved as before I send the story out again. Being very Canadian, (I am, really, I kid you not) I tend to be very diligent about spelling, since I believe, at my Canadian core, that it's the polite thing to do to send a story in the home country's spelling format.

With your manuscript in "rule-following" shape, you will be ready to submit it out into the world.

Do it now:
(1) Buy the two books I recommended above, and put them where you write.
(2) Read the webpage on SMF.
(3) Do a spell check on the story your about to send out. Then read it over, out loud, to make sure you didn't miss any words. (Like "your" in the above sentence, that should've been "you're" but is still spelled correctly so spell checking software won't find the mistake.)

And you thought I couldn't spell...didn't you? Bazinga!

Remember that some rules (NOT the ones outlined in this post) can be broken. Watch for next week's tip on Breaking the Rules.

Friday, May 04, 2012

WotF Honorable Mention

I recently received my second honourable mention from the Writers of the Future contest. It's an honour being honourably mentioned, so I feel doubly honoured now.

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Another story success by the Gang

Suzanne Church's story, "Synch Me, Kiss Me, Drop" is now live at Clarkesworld Magazine.

I am tripled excited! This story was critiqued by the gang, so thank you, all of my fellow SWG members for the help.

Plot Noodling

Yes, it`s a weird title, but work with me.

Plot Noodle
The act, by a writer, of constructively analyzing the makeup of a story with one or more humans.

Note a few important words in the definition.

(1) Writer

No one else would endure the plot noodle session save a writer. Sure, we sometimes sit in a café and discuss the movie we've just watched and extol its virtues or ridicule its shortcomings (or both). But a writer wants more. SO. MUCH. MORE.

(2) Humans

You can certainly tell your cat or dog or rat all of the details of your novel. But I'm guessing that they are unlikely to provide any constructive feedback. You can argue that the cat's disdain counts, but it doesn't.

(3) Constructively

Plot noodling is NOT about ridicule, or power trips, or indifference. You don't plot noodle with your mother because she's going to love your novel no matter what. (It's her job, she can't help it!) Choose someone you can trust to give you honest feedback. Someone who is capable of having a coherent debate. Plot noodling is NOT story editing, or copy editing. You're painting with a roller, not a finely-tipped brush. Expect to get paint in your hair and wear washable clothing, because you never know what can happen at a plot noodle session.

(4) Analyzing the Makeup of a Story

You and your buddy (or buddies) are going to look at every aspect of your novel. A short list includes:
Concept - your elevator pitch
Characters - personalities, goals, obstacles
Plot - introduction, high points, low points, climax, resolution
Subplots - connections, relevance, high points, low points, climax
Setting - relevance, world building (climate, geography, social structure, etc), palette
Voice - POV, language, relevance, dialogue
Market - genre, comparative similarities, timing, goals, length

Now that you understand the what, I will explain the how.

Generally, a plot noodling session requires some time. A long lunch probably won't cut it. A weekend is ideal, especially when several writers want to discuss their respective projects in a back-and-forth situation, but not everyone has that kind of time. Give yourself a minimum of two hours to hash out the big ticket items.

Start with your elevator pitch. This gives everyone a chance to decide if the initial premise is lame or needs some work. Once you've answered the quick "what is my novel" question, you can move on to the details.

Bring plenty of stationary supplies with you. I find it helpful to use index cards, but not everyone does. I use one for each character, one for each of the major plot points, and a few for setting, etc. (I even color code mine, to make it easier, but I'm a bit of an organization-junkie.) Many "novel writing software" programs will include ways to keep track of all of these details, so you might only need to bring your computer to the meeting. But let me stress this:

Visual Aids Help!

You know this, deep down. A power point presentation is more exciting than the boring, droning manager in a dark room (where your colleagues tell you how loudly you snore and you have a drool stain on your shirt).

Some plot noodle sessions use huge pieces of paper to which you can attach post-it notes, so that by the end, you have your own story board. (Hey if it works for the movies, why not for novels?) [At this point, you probably realize why it's harder to do this at a Starbucks using those tiny little tables.] You can move the post-it's around as you make changes. Color code, again, to help keep track of plots and sub-plots. There's something really easy about moving the bits of paper around, freeing you to be brutal about what works and what doesn't.

By the end of the plot noodle session, you will be more confident about your novel. You will have a better sense of the plot, scene by scene. You will know your characters and they will be more rounded. You will have worked out the kinks that niggle at you every time you sit down, freeing you from worry and opening your mind to easier, faster, more productive writing sessions. And most of all, you will have friends who will be eagerly anticipating the book to see how well you pulled it off!

For those of you who eagerly join the ranks during NaNoWriMo, you will find it's much, much easier to hit the 50,000 word goal in a month if you've plot noodled first.

Do it now:
- Make a list of possible plot noodling co-conspirators.
- If you're ready for a session, email your writing buddies/friends/co-conspirators to begin the process of committing to and confirming a date and time window for your session.
- Head to Staples to buy what will work for you, like post-it's, flip charts, index cards, and sharpies.

Have some brilliant tools/techniques for your noodle-fests? Share them in the comments section.

Overheard at the Stop-Watch Gang Meeting - April 29, 2012

A: “Anybody get it? ‘Starsky & Hutch’?”
B: “Wow—I can’t believe I didn’t get that reference from forty-five years ago.”
A: “Hey! There was a movie not five years ago!”
B: “If by ‘not five’ you mean ten, then sure.”
A: “Whatever. You know what I mean—you’re not children.”
A: “Neither are the children who were alive when Starkey & Hutch was on.”

“Yeah, this wasn’t as funny as last time...but because I wrote it, I liked it.”

One: “...And I wrote it all down so you can just read the paper, in case you didn’t get to type all that up.”
Another One: “He just typed S______ is mean instead.”

“You guys gave me a lot more than I expected. Which is great. And which you always do. Except for Steve.”