Unseen Horde

“I often wondered why some established authors sounded so bitter and cynical…”

5,000 words is the perfect length for making my job very hard.

I do not pretend to understand it. I’ve sharpened my skills on flash fiction submissions anywhere from 2,000 to 4,000 words in length. I feel I’ve actually gotten quite good at it too, having just enough room to tell some kind of story. So I strip out excess description, go bare bones and just make it.

And 6,000 to 10,000? That’s where I feel I really shine. Plenty of room to pack in character development and that extra prose that really makes it. Yet plenty of breathing space to carve out a nice plot. I can spin a yarn and craft a world doing these lengths.

But 5,000 words. For some reason, this magical number always screws me up royal.

I always end up creating a plot that is just a little too big. Characters who are slightly too developed. It’s so easy to say, “Tell a story in less! Just pretend it’s 4,000 words!” But it doesn’t work that way. It’s probably quite similar to television, where you try to cut off a second here, edit out a scene there, just to keep it below 30 minutes.

That’s what I’m doing right now.

I finished my latest piece just in time for Halloween. But in doing so, I crossed nearly 500 words over the border, and have gone back for editing. I’ve been picking out words or condensing statements like I’m nickle and diming it. I’m sweating a little, trying to decide whether I can cut a whole scene just to spruce up the ending.

Yeah, I wish editors could be more open about lengths. But it’s not their fault they have to craft and enforce these policies and rules. The larger the company’s name, the more submissions they invite. “Corporations are/aren’t people!” is a point of political contention these days. I won’t voice an opinion on it, but I will say that after dozens, if not hundreds of submissions, a company and/or the people who run it can get extremely tired.

You see, even the small press has its fair share of beggars, ego cases and story spammers. And good authors too. They are the competition. The unseen horde. Behold…

By the way, their KickStarter had only been opened for 8 days...

By the way, their KickStarter had only been opened for 8 days when they posted this… and this tweet is 6 days old.

With a 7,500 word upper limit and rounding up, that’s a minimum of 39 stories. Probably more than that. Though to be fair, those statistics might include the already invited authors. But between now and the close of their fund raiser, that number is only going to go up.

Some submissions will be blatant plagiarism of existing franchises. A portion of it will just be bad; meaningless action with no character development or plot to speak of, basically Call of Duty fan fiction with the name scratched out. More will have a decent story, but not quite fit the theme.

Those that are good actually just get added to a particular pile marked, “Good enough for now”, where they’ll sit and wait until a better tale comes along to knock it into the rejections pile. Or, if they’re good enough and the author does nothing to tick off the editors, their story will be among the last standing.

I often wondered why some established authors sounded so bitter and cynical when some budding writer asked for advice or admitted that they wanted to be an author too. But I take heart in the fact that at least in writing, you can supplement your luck by improving your skill.

Well, back to cutting words.

Never Get Comfortable

I started to write some bit about “what it means to be a writer”, prefacing the idea with it being my current philosophy on it. Then I realized, “Who am I kidding?” I don’t feel accomplished enough to claim that yet. I don’t even feel like a writer.

It’s easy to think about your precious successes, but what about your failures? People always try to say something about not letting the past bug you. Or that it’ll tear you down. But trying to get published is reality’s way of reasserting Murphy’s Law.

Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.

-Murphy’s Law

The most common thing I am told is that my story does not quite fill their needs or isn’t quite what they’re looking for. Many rejections go on to remind me that they receive hundreds of stories despite a very limited number of slots.

A fresh reminder that Murphy’s Law is in effect can make the unseen obstacles incredibly clear. You could have a phenomenal story that is well polished, with grammar and spelling that are sharp, good characters, great plot and memorable prose. And despite these confidence inspiring aspects:

  1. The general theme of the story might not quite fit what the publisher is looking for.
  2. Someone else happened to have a similar idea and got their story in first.
  3. The anthology has to be cancelled (it happens.)
  4. Your story is sharp but you forgot to check the manuscript requirements, so you get rejected on a technicality.
  5. A number of better known and better followed writers submit stories, and their reputation allows them stronger consideration.
  6. The slush readers have a mixed collective reaction to your story.
  7. Your story is the 13th best for an anthology of no more than 12. Unfortunately, those dozen authors get their acceptance contracts in.
  8. A trait of the story goes against the maturity rating (ie too much blood.)
  9. Your story is good but fails to stand out among 3,000 others they receive.
  10. The publisher changes their mind, rejects all stories and continues to only use work produced by their in-house writers. They welcome your submissions but really have no plans to publish them.

Every possibility of rejection is a sobering reminder of the challenge. And little by little, I can’t help but feel some of the cynicism I’ve detected from reader the blogs of established writers. You or I might have a few dozen rejections, but they could very well have hundreds.

And professional writers can even seem to jealously guard the keys to the kingdom. The shining new author from nowhere can be a threat to what they want to do and what they’re already doing. I’ve spoken before about the benefits of writers cooperating. But there are bottlenecks where competition is inevitable.

Yes. During submissions, you are competing. Though unseen, you are fighting dozens, hundreds, even thousands of other writers who are just trying to get one more notch on their Amazon publishing list. It’s hard. It’s rough. And I don’t think anyone can get to the top unchanged.

You’re pushing your way through mobs of little recognized or unknown writers who have varying degrees of talent.

You’re being pitted against medium-weight authors who have dozens of stories in various anthologies or even novels.

And afterwards are the big names. Names who have cult followings. Authors who have important publishing houses on their cell phones. Writers whose work is being fought over in Hollywood, or will be once they’re gone.

And there’s only one real constant.

Nobody likes competition, especially when everyone is a dark horse.


Why I No Longer Do Book Reviews

Picture filler for fun.

Picture filler for fun.

It’s been a while since I’ve written a book review of any kind. While I have no problem doing reviews for television, movies and games, books are not on my list anymore.  I’m still reading of course. The writer who doesn’t read is basically covering his ears, screaming at the top of his lungs. Very annoying and very close minded. But I don’t want to do book reviews anymore.

I have my reasons.

There are many books out there that could have been great if the author put a spot more effort into it. Or editing that could have used more polish.

Sometimes, the only reason a story suffered was due to production limitations. Other times, maybe the writer needs considerable practice.

One of the interesting aspects about writing, from an economic perspective anyway, is the incentive for writers to cooperate rather than compete. We’re very used to the concept of competition in the marketplace. And fictional books belong to a very, very wide market with many, many alternative products. Why read a book when you can watch a movie, play a game, go drinking with friends, take a vacation, so on? It’s all the same thing: Entertainment.

But cooperation has considerable value as well. Some have argued, and I am inclined to agree on many points, that cooperation is more valuable than competition. As such, we find ourselves pitching for story anthologies rather than striking out on our own. We swap stories for review, proofing and editing. Word of a new anthology or publishing company is passed around.

Your writing rival today maybe your editor tomorrow, so consider that incentive to mind your words and actions.

That is the primary reason why I no longer wishing to judge the work of others, at least not openly and publically. Or at the very least, not in a negative tone. When in doubt, silence is golden.