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Archive for the ‘authors’ Category

Cover Letters 101

Or…”Don’t Shoot Yourself in the Foot Before You’ve Even Gotten Started”

So I have a small confession to make:  we here at FFO have a Wall of Shame.  Yep.  Sure do.  And on it are the cover letters  (names redacted… we’re not *that* heartless) that make us weep, pull our hair out, or basically snort coffee through our noses in disbelief.

How do you know if you’re on our Wall of Shame?  Chances are, you’re not.  At this point in our collective careers, we’ve seen and heard a lot of craziness so it takes a doozie to make the wall.  But statistically speaking, someone reading this now… well.. yeah, you in the yellow shirt… ahem… we need to make a few things clear.

1.  What a professional cover letter should be:

It’s a quick, clean note attached to your manuscript that basically lists your publication credits (if any).  For example:

Dear Ms Vincent,

Please consider my previously unpublished, 600 word story “The Best Thing You’ve Ever Read” for publication in Flash Fiction Online. 

My short fiction has appeared in This Magazine and That Magazine.  I attended a Very Fancy Writing Workshop.

OR

I am currently unpublished.

Thank you for your time.

Sincerely,

An Aspiring Writer

See how easy that was?

2.  A cover letter should fit the submission guidelines for the magazine you’re sending it to.

We don’t want any of the following:  your entire life history, everything you’ve published since you were six (ie. technical or medical journal publication credits much less your stint on the high school newspaper), a synopis of your story, photographs, a link to your blog or an invitation to check out your latest self-pubbed novel.

3.  A cover letter is not a place to schmooze.

We know we rock.  Thanks.

4.  A cover letter is not the place to tell us how awesome you are and how your story is going to revolutionize fiction.  Nor should you have to explain the premise of your story or give any background to make your story comprehensible.

Let the story speak for itself.  We’re going to read it.  Promise.  If it’s that good, we’ll notice.

If your 1000 word story needs 1000 words of contextual background crammed into a cover letter so we can understand the super cool alien tech going on in your plot, there’s something wrong with your story.

But usually, if you have to *tell* us it’s that good?  Well, you know… this is awkward…but it’s not usually all that and a bag of chips.

5.  A cover letter is not the place to tell us how awful you are as a writer.

Yep.  If you say you suck as a writer, we tend to agree.

6.  And it definitely is not the place to solicit the editorial staff for submissions to your own magazine, try to sell us something, ask if we have back copies of a story you submitted to us eons ago, or ask if troglodytes really live in caves.

Basically, stick to the point.  Otherwise, don’t put it in the cover letter.

Otherwise, you’ll end up on the Wall of Shame.  And who wants that?

So keep submitting.  But write a clean, professional cover letter.  For all of our sakes.  And sanity.

Much love,

Anna
Publisher, FFO
annayeatts.com

Wall-of-Shame-300x199

The Hollywood Formula – How to Write Flash Fiction With Style!

Nancy DiMauro, FFO staff, blogger, and writer, breaks down the infamous Hollywood Formula: Flash Fiction style.

I have a confession to make.

I’m not a natural short story writer. I have to fight to keep myself from haring off after one plot thread or another. Writing short fiction is hard.

So, I look for anything that helps me confine a story into the appropriate length and still have it be a story. One of the reasons we reject a submission at Flash Fiction Online is that it’s only a scene, not a story.

How do you fit all the necessary story elements into 1000 words?

Writing Excuses did a podcast on the “Hollywood Formula” in Season 6. Lou Anders visited the podcast and talked about how his mentor, Dan Decker, divided any story into its three parts (beginning, middle, end). I recommend you check out the entire Writing Excuses podcast.

A story has three main characters and three parts.

The short version of the Hollywood Formula: a story generally has three main characters and three parts.

The three characters are the Protagonist, the Antagonist, and Dynamic or Relationship character.

In a non-modified formula, the first act takes about 1/4 of your word count, the second has 1/2, and the third has the final 1/4. When writing a flash fiction story that means roughly 250 words for the beginning, 500 for the middle and 250 for the ending.

Certain story benchmarks happen in each act.

In the first act, you introduce the three main character and what they want.

About a tenth of the way into the first act (or at about 25 -30 words), the protagonist makes the fateful decision. I think of this as the red light moment. If the protagonist says no, the story’s over. Do not go past “go”, do not collect $200. When writing flash fiction, you probably have until about 100 words for the protagonist to make that choice.

BUT the protagonist must make a choice.

In the middle of the story, the protagonist needs to be asking and answering questions.

This section starts about 1/2 way through the story’s first act (or 120-130 words) and ends about 1/2 way through the second act (word 500).

Once the protagonist knows what the questions are, he needs to start answering them.

Right about word 650 or so, the protagonist hits his “low point” – the place in the story where things are at their worst and he’s as far from his goal as he could be.

Act II closes around word 750.

From the story’s “low point” to the end is the final battle.

In this act, the protagonist must defeat his antagonist, obtain his goal, and reconcile with the relationship character. The closer these events happen to each other, the more emotional impact your story will have.

But wait, you say, my short story only has two characters, does that mean I need to add someone else?

No. The three-act pattern is modified based on your story.

Some stories are all about the final battle. Some are all about asking and answering questions.

But, a story needs to include all these elements. Stories that fall flat are missing part of the formula. If you can’t find these elements, you might have a scene, not a story.

Now you know why short stories, and flash fiction stories in particular, are so hard to write.

But you can do it. I know you can.

 


Nancy DiMauro is a writer, blogger, and Flash Fiction Online staff member. If you can get a story past Nancy, you’re golden. And whatever you do, don’t use “alright”. It’s “all right”. You’ve been warned. You can find more of Nancy’s writing advice as well as links to her own fiction at http://nancydimauro.blogspot.com.

A Peek Behind the Editorial Curtain — The Winnowing Boards

So your beautiful little story has survived slush! Hurray, right? You’ve officially passed a major milestone. The vast majority of submissions never make it any further than the slush round, and here your story is, scooped out and passed along to the second round we call the Winnowing Boards.

Now, only a couple dozen stories out of the four or five hundred we get every month actually make it to Winnowing. So make sure to give yourself a pat on the back. A writer’s life is tough, and you’ve got to see seize those little moments of validation when you find them.

When the stories go up on the Winnowing Boards, the entire staff scoots on over to take a gander. And this is when the blood begins to flow. There’s no simple yes/no/maybe in this round. Oh no. This is where the scalpels and magnifying glasses come out. The plot holes are teased out. Dialogue is poked and prodded. Errors in tense and grammar are brought to light.

Basically, it’s brutal.

And still some of us will fall in love with your story, ready to defend it to the Editor until the bitter end. Or some of us will hate it, thinking it too dreadfully flawed to ever be saved. But still, most stories will fall back into that dreaded middle land of “good but not great”.

Then comes the vote. Quite democratic, eh? And here you thought we threw the manuscripts into a cauldron and any that bubbled blue smoke were the ones that we published… Silly hobbitses…

Finally, watching all this very closely, is She with Great Power aka our Editor in Chief, Suzanne. She reads all the comments with the staff has left, takes in the voting, and most of all, the merit of the stories themselves.

Cannot stress that enough. The merit of the stories themselves. Not their message. Or author. Or group popularity. Or what’s trending on Twitter.

The story.

And the acceptance letter is sent.

But let me tell you a secret…

If you can make the slush readers fall in love with your story, they will lobby the Editor, battering her with pleas for your story, and sometimes…sometimes…they can change her mind.

So my advice for all three wooden nickels it’s worth is this: write the best story you can. Write from your heart. But most of all, keep writing. And submit!

Much love,
Anna

Confessions of a Slush Reader — The Big Ten to a Rejection Letter

Today’s list is compiled by Nancy DiMauro, Flash Fiction Online staffer and slush reader extraordinaire.

In an average month, my FFO team will have about 80 stories to review. Only stories with two votes for publication are guaranteed to move into the next round. A story can still be sent on if someone likes it enough to fight for it. So, when you submit a story for consideration your first hurdle is to get the slush pile reader to like it.

So I’ve complied my top ten reasons why I reject a story. Keep in mind that the items on the list are my reasons for saying “no,” other slush readers may, and probably do, have different reasons for rejecting stories. When I started the list I thought I was going to have to work to fill it up. Sadly, I didn’t.

10. The “Meh” Response. Sometimes there’s nothing technically wrong with a story, but it still isn’t working for me. Often this is because I can’t find anything “special” in it. What do I mean by “special?” If you are using one of the tried and true tropes (girl meets vampire, they fall in love, she becomes a vampire to be with him forever, for example), you need a new take on the trope to set it apart from everything else out there. Stephanie Meyers had sparkly vampires – that was new. The more tried and true your base storyline, the more you’ll need those “special” elements to make the story stand out for me. It could be your main character (MC) doesn’t have any particular strong traits and doesn’t make me hate him enough to love him, or there’s no real setting (or a “usual suspect one”). In every story you write, something and usually several somthings have to be special. It has to draw me in and make me take notice. Stories that get the “Meh” response are often at the “close, but not quite there” level because they don’t hook me.

9. The Main Character Is Too Stupid To Live.  Okay, we’ve all done it. I’ve done it. If an MC is making obviously dumb choices just to move your story along, the writer will have a problem convincing me to move that story to the next level. Often this problem is because the MC doesn’t have enough of a personality to make the stupid choice. We’ve all picked a path that was obviously wrong even when we knew it was. Why’d we do it then? Because that’s who we are. The same has to be true for characters. A teenager making a bad choice (like shoplifting) on impulse, I’ll find plausible. I won’t find the same action plausible if the person is a fifty-year old male who is successful, rich, and a pillar of the community if I haven’t seen in advance that he has poor impulse control, or some other credible reason why he’s suddenly willing to throw his life away to snatch a t-shirt. A character’s actions must line up with her personality traits and motivations.

8. Overuse of a thesaurus, “denseness” or other forms of “purple prose”.  In my definition, “purple prose” or “dense writing” happens when the writer is busy showing us her style and that style is getting in the way of the storytelling. Fifty cent words are great when the character, and not the writer, would actually use them. Yes, use all five senses, but not in the same sentance. Not every noun needs an adjective. Not every verb needs an adverb. This type of “dense” writing is hard to read. My attention wants to stray to something else.

I tend to be guilty of “sparse” writing. I don’t get into interior thoughts or scene setting enough. My editor’s comments are often – “add more X here.” As a result, when someone else is laying it on thick, I notice. Pare your work to only use the descriptions that matter. While 66 word sentences are fine on occasion, they shouldn’t be the norm. If your sentences look like paragraphs, you might have a problem to address.

7. Numerous Grammatical Errors. Bet you thought this would be higher didn’t you? No matter how many times you go over a manuscript, there will be typos, dropped words and other errors. I can forgive some. If you have a lot, you’re telling me you don’t care enough about the story and don’t respect my time enough for me to waste any more on the story.
By the way, knowing when to break a paragraph is essential. Knowing how to write dialog, including internal dialog, is essential. Sixty-six word sentences (no joke, I do count) almost always need to be broken down as they express more than one thought.

Check to make sure your pronouns link to the noun you wanted. After a 66 word sentence with numerous nouns the word “it” in the next sentence refers back to the last noun, which is probably not the one you wanted.

6. A Forgettable Main Character  Or One I Have No Sympathy For. I don’t have to like your main character, but it helps. If you are writing an unlikable main character you have your job cut out for you. You need to make me care about John the Bastard if you expect me to read his story. The anti-hero story can be wonderful when done right. And I can reject a story about a perfectly nice main character. Whether your character is likable or not, I need to have some connection to her. Without a connection, you make it easy for me to reject the story.

5. Lack of Clarity. I’m not going to work too hard to figure out what’s going on. If I can’t do so in a paragraph or two, you’ve given me a reason to stop reading. I MIGHT go back and look at the story again to see if my confusion was because I was tired or preoccupied, but I might not. Don’t risk your story on that chance. Stories that I end up saying, “huh?” or “what just happened?” get voted off the island.

4. Telling me the character’s bored or it’s just an ordinary day. If the character’s bored why should I want to go on a journey, even the short one in flash, with her? The same issue exists with telling me that “the day started out like any other. . .” I groan a bit when I see that. While common wisdom says start your story before your MC’s world gets blown to heck, common wisdom is also wrong. If you need an “establishing shot” of every day life, it needs to be short and absolutely required for me to understand what happens.  I’ll give you a paragraph (which in flash is generous) to give me an issue or a character to get involved with.

3. Not submitting a complete story.  This is actually easier to do than you would think, especially in the flash (500 – 1,500 word) format. I’ve seen some wonderful character sketches and scenes, but that doesn’t make them publishable. A complete story has a beginning, middle and end. If your story doesn’t have all of these it will get the “NAS” (Not A Story) label and a reject vote.

2. Withholding the main character’s name.  You aren’t creating mystery; you aren’t making your main character “any man.” You are annoying me as the reader. There are a precious few times when you should withhold the main character’s name like when your story is told in the first person, but the MC doesn’t interact with other characters right away. But as soon as the MC does run into someone else, you should tell me the MC’s name.

1.  Withholding information the Point of View character known as a means to create a mystery or a twist.  This is PET PEEVE #1 for me so be warned. I see many stories where the writer withholds a critical piece of information that the point of view character knows, like the ghost in the story is really the main character’s little sister, to “create suspense” or a “twist.” If your suspense is based on hiding information from your reader, you don’t have suspense, you have a trick.

The Sixth Sense worked because the main character didn’t know the twist, and early on in the story the viewer is told the critical piece of information that makes the main character’s lack of knowledge credible. If you dissect The Sixth Sense, you’ll see hints scattered throughout the movie leading up to the “twist.” It’s why we accepted it.

If you are going to withhold information you have to be very careful which point of view you use so that person doesn’t know the truth and the reader figures it out with him. Otherwise it’s a quick trip to the reject bin for the story.

Anyway, those are some of the reasons I’ll turn a story down. They apply whether you’re writing flash or an epic fantasy. Hopefully knowing how this slush reader thinks will help you get published. Good luck and keep submitting.

Nancy DiMauro is a writer, blogger, and Flash Fiction Online staff member. If you can get a story past Nancy, you’re golden. And whatever you do, don’t use “alright”. It’s “all right”. You’ve been warned. You can find more of Nancy’s writing advice as well as links to her own fiction at http://nancydimauro.blogspot.com.

A Peek Behind the Editorial Curtain

So now that you’ve submitted your story, what happens next? Other than shaking in your sneakers at the idea of fearsome fanged slush readers ripping it apart even as you read this.

Your manuscript has been whisked away into our submissions software and is headed toward potential storydom.

….I have an odd compulsion to sing the “I’m a Bill Song” at this point but I’ll spare your bleeding eardrums…

All those hundreds and hundreds of manuscripts land in a big electronic pile in our submission sorting system. Only myself, Suzanne the Editor in Chief aka She with Great Power, and our slush editors can see your identifying information and cover letters.

And what cover letters they are… Wowza.. I really did NOT need to know about Bernie your seventh grade goldfish. But we’ll save cover letters for another blog day.

Suzanne, aka She with Great Power, assigns all that slush into two piles. Each pile is assigned to one of our slush editors, either Anne, Sabrina, or Chris. All the personal information gets scrubbed away and each story gets checked to make sure it fits our guidelines.

Now on to the serious slushing work… the slush readers extraordinaire are assigned stories by their respective slush editor. Usually at least two readers, sometimes three, are assigned to each manuscripts in addition to the slush editor.

Now remember, the slush readers are reading anonymous manuscripts. It could belong to their neighbor, a stranger across the world, or a best selling short fiction author. But the slush reader has no way to know. They read. And vote:

YES: fireworks, love, sparkles, and send this baby into the next round (winnowing… More on that later)

MAYBE: it’s a good story but no fireworks. Or maybe not their personal cup of tea. More like a gin and tonic when you really wanted a lemonade.

NO: ahhh…. The infamous no button…. Guess you’ll have to keep reading this blog to find out why the No button gets pushed…

Each slush reader votes. If there’s a tie, Anne or Sabrina is the tie breaker. Feel free to bribe them with plushy robots. They totally dig cute ‘bots. Just FYI…

The YES’s fly off to winnowing. The NO’s and any MAYBE’s left hanging around are rejected.

Next up: Round Two. Winnowing aka Where She with Great Power Flexes Editorial Muscle.

Much love!
Anna

Confessions of a Slush Reader — Thoughts from the Slush Pile

Today’s confessions come from the slush pile wisdom of Nancy DiMauro, FFO staffer and slush queen.

If you write, and submit those stories, you dread the slush pile. It’s an inevitable part of the process. The way you get out of the slush and into print is to impress someone like me. Someone who has volunteered or is low man on the totem pole and has no choice but to wade through the slush and pan for gold. So, I decided to give you another peak into the heart and mind of a slush reader (me) at Flash Fiction Online.

Sometimes what wins the heart and soul of the slush reader – to the point I’m willing to fight for the story – is hard to precisely define. Over the last several months we had two stories that illustrate the point. One of the stories I’ll call a message piece, while the other was a funereal/memorial piece.

How were these very different stories alike:

(1) They were both well written. It was obvious that both writers were talented, and knew their craft;
(2) The stories were polished – no obvious typos;
(3) Both stories had voice and presence.
(4) Both took unexpected routes along the way/ presented something new.
(5) It was argued that both were not stories but rather vignettes capturing a moment in time. Usually the “NAS” notation is a death knell, but these two merited consideration regardless.

So, why did I choose to recommend one, and reject the other?

Tone.

The memorial piece was soft. It invited the reader in. Many of the memorial pieces we see are bitter or drowning in grief. This one was tinged with grief, but the act of moving through grief rather than wallowing in it was the story. It was painted with the lightest brush strokes. It also used a tried and true speculative fiction trope in a new way. Because the tone and emotion was so inviting, I was willing to overlook some things which might otherwise resulted in a rejection – such as a main character that did not sound age appropriate

Message pieces are difficult. You always run a risk of losing the story to the message. The best ones, in my opinion, are the message stories where you don’t realize that it was a message story until it’s done. If the message is laid in too heavily, no one is going to read the story. In my opinion, this second story was strident and very heavy handed. It relied on a gimmick to beat me over the head with the message if I couldn’t glean it from the prose. It was rejected because of its tone. If you are working on a message piece, my advice for you would be to use a soft touch.

When we’re writing, we need to pay attention to the mood of the story. Sometimes a mood will draw people in. Other times it will repulse them. Sometimes you will want to repulse the readers, but realize each time you do, you make it easier for the reader to put the story down. In a longer work, you’re going to mix in the heavy moods with the lighter ones. But short stories don’t give you that leeway. You can hit one emotional note. Make sure you’re hitting the right one with the right intensity.

Good luck, and good writing.

Nancy DiMauro is a writer, blogger, and slush reader extradoirdinaire. If you can get a story past Nancy, you’re golden. And whatever you do, don’t use “alright”. It’s “all right”. You’ve been warned. You can find more of Nancy’s writing advice as well as links to her own fiction at http://nancydimauro.blogspot.com.

Confessions of a Slush Reader

So you want to be a writer. That’s fantastic.  I love writers. Writers are some of my favorite people.  They’re brilliant and quirky and often tend to daydream (which is why they tend to thrive in their own internal worlds). You have the passion.  You even have a manuscript you know will revolutionize the world.

So why aren’t you published?

Me. That’s why. Well, not me in particular so please don’t stink bomb my house with sparkly vampire poo.

Slush readers.  We’re the legion of readers you have to get through in order to reach the big boss — the Editor aka She Who Sends the Acceptance Letters.

And here’s the thing:  slush readers are loaded in manuscripts.  Hundreds of them, every one submitted under the assumption that it was unique among all the others. The problem is that in the end, they all begin to be the same.  Writers fall into the same traps over and over.  Why?  I’m not sure. Maybe because as a collective unconscious we’ve all watched the same movies, read the same textbooks, been spoonfed the same tropes and mythos.

This blog is for you, the writer, to help you navigate your way through slush and, hopefully, onto Suzanne’s desk.

I’m pulling back the curtain.  Beyond that, good luck.  The FFO staff is somewhere under that mountain of .docs and .rtfs.

In the meantime, keep writing.  And dash off a question or two for me.

Much love.

Anna

Diversity in Fiction aka Vanilla Slush

I’ve been reading a lot of slush this past month.  Mountains of it, really.  So much slush that I have imprints of the little yes/no/maybe buttons burned indelibly into the inside of my eyelids so I can see them staring back at me even in my sleep.

That’s a whole lot of slush.

But the biggest problem for a slush reader is that so very much of it is the same.  Well not really.  The setting changes a bit.  This one is set in a car.  That one is on a far away planet.  There’s a cute setup about a mystical creature under a bed.  But more times than not they all come back to the same thing.

Vanilla slush.

A white, middle class, educated protagonist.  Heterosexual.  Generally male.  Sometimes we get an educated, middle class, heterosexual white female.  Usually she’s fairly angst-ridden and she’s looking for love.  Or she’s bitter about love.  Or she has a cat.

We get an awful lot of cat stories.  You submitters sure do love your cats.   And I’m glad you love your cats…. *sigh*  But that’s beside the point.

So I’m challenging you to throw some other flavors into the slush.  Send us some rocky road.  Some pistachio chip with sprinkles.  Avocado with bacon chips and a dash of honey drizzle on top.

The world’s too big and diverse and wonderful.  Not that vanilla isn’t wonderful.  I’m about as vanilla as they come.  But vanilla is so much tastier with a zesty side of Latin   transgender astronaut.   Or a QUILTBAG family battling to stay together after the alien apocalypse.

Send us every age, sex, gender, sexual orientation, race, religion, and creed you’ve got.  Send characters with disabilities and physical limitations that make us reexamine our stereotypical expectations.  To the LGBTQ community, Flash Fiction Online is your ally in a search for equality.  This is an open invitation.  We don’t publish erotica or gore.  But we do love characters and story plots that push the boundaries and make us think.

Now, a caution.  You can send the best flavor ever conceived, but if it’s not well written as a story, it’s still not getting through slush.  If it’s dripping all over the sides of the cone and puddling on my good shoes, that literary Harlem deliciousness isn’t getting a yes.  Craftsmanship is everything.  Hone your skills.  Make your characters sing.  Because slush needs them.

Flash Fiction Online needs them.

Now go write!

Much love,

Anna Yeatts, Publisher, FFO
annayeatts.com

SF Great Frederik Pohl Dies at 93

To paraphrase an IO9 commentor, the dual Nebula/Hugo choice for Frederik Pohl’s SF novel, Gateway, was simply dreadful…in the sense of instilling deep dread in the reader, as any horror writer would wish to do. Pohl won three Hugos, in successive years. That says it all, doesn’t it? Oh, and another Hugo and three Nebulas, a W. Cambell, and a National Book Award. And others.

 

Self-Publishing Super Hero–William Blake

Venerable poet William Blake, author of sometimes mysterious and sometimes brilliantly simple works, was a self-publishing super hero who might serve as an inspiration to would-be self-publishers. He’s perhaps best known for his illuminated “Songs of Innocence” (example plate below) and “Songs of Experience.”

The Lamb–Example Relief Etch, Hand-Painted
Image in public domain according to Wikipedia, from which it came.
Notifiy Flash Fiction Online if you believe it is not in the public domain.

He had a soup-to-nuts approach to publishing, illustrated by the unpoetic list below:

  • wrote the poems
  • created a new printing technique, relief etching, whereby the illustrations’ line art and text were etched on copper plates in reverse, whereby the negative and color spaces were etched away. (This is in opposition to the practice of making plates for each color.)
  • printed the pages on the printing press in his living room.
  • hand-colored each illustration, making each copy unique.
  • bound the books and mailed them to his customers.
  • marketed them, somehow, in the late 18th century.

If you see an original Blake publication at a garage sale, pick it up. It would be considered a museum piece. Then you can sell it and make the transition from waiter/writer to writer.

 

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