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That Genre Known As Literary 6 February 2011

Posted by Camille Gooderham Campbell in Random Thoughts.
6 comments

I’m not sure exactly how “genre” fans get away with bashing “literary” writing, and “literary” readers and writers get away with mocking “genre” fiction, given that “literary fiction” is just another genre. It has its various styles, techniques and conventions, just as every genre does; it has its past masters and its modern greats, as do all other genres; and it has just as much imitative dreck as any other genre, too.

I think the problem might be that the word “literary” is confusingly close to the word “literature”, which suggests that there may be some relationship between the two (other than that both involve reading, obviously). But to make that assumption presents a serious problem: it means that either you have a special limited genre only open to total geniuses, and less-than-perfect writers are not allowed to call their work literary, or you have a situation where free passes to the genius club are issued to anyone who writes literature… er, literary fiction.

Can you imagine a world in which only the most skilled writers were allowed to term their fiction romance, and anyone learning his or her craft who attempted a romance piece would be mocked and told to call it humour or just “other” instead? Or a world in which any science fiction story was automatically considered literature?

So, no. The literary genre does not somehow equal great literature.

Literary fiction does mean an emphasis on style, form and language. The literary voice is often distinctive. Story arcs in literary fiction are often more subtle than in other genres, and may appear in the form of a character arc, a moral or emotional arc that takes place within the protagonist. Does this make it automatically better or worse than any other? No. That would be down to the writer’s skill.

I don’t believe in a free pass for any genre, I don’t believe in a genre label that excludes the less-skilled, and nor does it make sense to me to deride any genre as a whole.

In my work for EDF, I read stories of every genre and style from writers of all skill levels, and there’s just one thing I know for sure – a good story is a good story, and when it grabs you and won’t let go, you don’t even notice the genre label.

Always Read The Contract 1 February 2011

Posted by Camille Gooderham Campbell in Advice For Writers.
1 comment so far

I just read a great blog post by Robert Swartwood. Go read it.

This is exactly why, when I talk to high school writing students, I always emphasize how important it is to read every contract, every time, even for respected and trusted publications. Especially when the publisher or the competition judge or the prize is extremely tempting and/or seems like a door you’d really like to have open for you, it’s easy to get so excited that you don’t do your due diligence stuff. But is any competition or publication so wonderful that you’d give away all your rights to a story forever?

Read the contract. Every time. And if you don’t understand the legalese, ask someone about it before you agree.

A Fascinating New Measure of Story Appeal 9 January 2011

Posted by Camille Gooderham Campbell in Uncategorized.
3 comments

There are a variety of ways we can gauge how much any given story appeals to Every Day Fiction readership.

First of all, anyone who reads EDF knows about the star rating system. Underneath the story there are five clickable little stars; it’s the old scale-of-one-to-five, and while it isn’t a perfect system, it does overall give a general idea of how each story is received by our readers, especially when taken in the context of how many votes the story has received. For example, our all-time highest-rated story, “Snowman” by Shaun Simon, is currently at 4.5 stars with a total of 553 votes to date, and a newcomer to the top stories list, “Seventeen” by Virgie Townsend, is already at 4.3 stars and 78 votes less than a week after publication. By contrast, an average story is rated in the mid-3s with a vote count in the 40s.

Since we also allow reader comments on our stories, those are another measure of how a story is received by our readership. In some ways it gives a more accurate picture of a story’s appeal (or lack thereof) since the opinions and discussion tell us more than a simple star rating can, but at the same time, less people take the time to comment, and sometimes the comments and star ratings can present two different pictures — a mid-3s rating with lavish praise and “best story in a long time” type comments, or  a higher rating but comments full of nitpicks and debate. For us as editors, and for readers who follow the story comments regularly, there’s also a difference between from familiar commenters (our regular commenters who offer their opinions about many or most stories, and whose  preferences and pet peeves have become apparent over time) and unfamiliar commenters (who could be random newcomers to the site, friends of the author, or longtime readers who generally read without commenting). There are some downsides to allowing comments on the stories, but that’s a subject for another day, and in any case, many of our authors cite the reader feedback as one of the best things about EDF.

In addition to the star rating and comments, we can also track the number of reads a story gets. This is what you might call an invisible measure of the story’s appeal, tracked behind the scenes. It also isn’t an obvious measure of a story’s appeal or lack thereof, since the fact that someone navigates to the story’s page and stays there for more than a few seconds doesn’t necessarily mean the reader liked the story, but when a story’s reads spike up, that tells us that the story is spreading — and some of them really spread: “Darren Is Updating His Facebook Status” by Sylvia Spruck Wrigley has been read over 24k times, “The Only Difference Between Men and Boys” by Nicholas Ozment has been read over 57k times, and “Photographic Memory” by Nadia Jacobson has been read over 84K times. Readers blog, stumble and tweet about stories that catch their interest, so when a story starts to reach wide numbers of people, that’s a pretty strong measure of its appeal.

These three things are, to me anyway, old news. We’ve been following the comments and noting the number of reads for our stories since the beginning, and the star rating system was introduced shortly thereafter, early in our first year of publication. So it was particularly interesting for me to see a new measure of story appeal emerge.

Hello, Facebook. Yes, you can now “like” EDF’s stories on Facebook. At the bottom of each story, just below the star rating, there’s that little pale-blue thumbs-up “Like” button with the tiny darker blue Facebook “f” beside it — when the story is first published it exhorts you to “Be the first of your friends to like this” — and as time goes on it gives the number of “likes”.

I didn’t pay too much attention to it at first. “5 people like this.” “3 people like this.” “7 people like this.” Big deal, right? Occasionally a story gets no love and only has that lonely “Be the first of your friends…” message hanging on next to the button. And then I started noticing some slightly higher numbers. 16 people here. 42 people there. But it really hit home to me that this has value as a measure of the story’s appeal when I saw that “Seventeen” by Virgie Townsend had an unprecedented 75 “likes”. Yes, 75 people had told all of their Facebook friends and family and co-workers and ex-classmates and vague acquaintances and random strangers who friended them to play Farmville or Sorority Life that they liked this one little gem of a story.

And that is why it’s significant.

Because star voting is totally anonymous, and even leaving a comment on a story can be done with a pseudonym and in any case is only seen by readers who’ve already arrived at Every Day Fiction — it doesn’t infringe on any other part of the commenter’s world, and commenters can, if they wish, craft an online persona for the EDF community that is quite separate from anything else they do.

Social media, on the other hand, is your real life — when you click that “Like” button, you are telling your people, mostly (hopefully) actual friends whose good opinions you (presumably) cherish, that you’ve found a story worth reading. It’s not anonymous, it’s not about creating a persona, it’s not restricted only to people who are already up to their elbows in reading and writing.

So I’m watching those Facebook “Like” numbers. It’s fascinating to see which stories people are actually willing to tell their friends about.

A Sad Divide 13 December 2010

Posted by Camille Gooderham Campbell in Random Thoughts.
10 comments

I’ll start right out by saying that I’m not going to name names or link to blogs or anything like that, because I’m not pointing fingers here – this is more a general commentary on the state of things in the publishing world, as underlined by a few things I’ve read recently on various blogs and sources of publishing news.

What I want to know is, why are we fighting each other?

The whole publishing industry is in flux right now. No one knows how things are going to roll out down the road, though it’s pretty clear that publishers (and agents and editors and writers) who refuse to change with the times are going to get left behind. All of us are trying to feel our way forward in a maze of shifting technology and access points that connect the writer to the reader.

In a world where any self-styled “editor” with internet access can set up a “magazine” or a “publishing house” (and any self-styled “writer” with internet access can self-publish his or her books), we are right to be cautious and use common sense, but sadly I have noticed an us-against-them mentality that I don’t like to see. Naturally when a publishing house is caught in wrongdoing, it should be brought to light and the writing community needs to be warned, but too many agents and writers seem to take the attitude that publishers in general are evil and out to get the poor good-hearted writers who only want to make a living, while too many publishers seem to feel that writers in general are greedy and want to grasp all they can and leave the poor broke publishers struggling to make ends meet. It’s ridiculous – no one goes into publishing or writing to get rich, so we must be in the game for the love, right? And if it’s for the love, why hate half the players?

I’m not saying that anyone should literally do it only for the love, as in, for free; it stands to reason that writers want to be paid something, and that everyone who supports the writing field (agents, reviewers, editors, publishers, book designers, publicists, agents, printers, web monkeys, you name it…) would like to make the odd dollar too. It also stands to reason that readers would prefer to read for free or at least as cheaply as possible, but that’s a whole other story. I just don’t understand why any writer chooses to see all publishers as the bad guys, or anyone who works in publishing chooses to see all writers as the bad guys. I don’t doubt that there are bad guys on both sides, sometimes, but it doesn’t justify all the negative attitude I’ve been seeing, especially when single isolated incidents are translated into industry-wide generalizations, and assumptions are made and disseminated without fact-checking or personal experience.

Seriously, it would suck to be a small starting-out publisher who wakes up tomorrow to find that a rising-star author whom you’ve never even met has pinpointed your fledgling house as something so pathetic that one is better off self-publishing. It would suck to know that the “token advance” you scraped together to attract your first writer wasn’t seen as good enough, that the pricing and and royalty spreadsheet that you’d painstakingly worked out so you could be sure of breaking even was being mocked, and that your presumed lack of big-game experience made you unworthy of even taking a shot.

Seriously, it would suck to be a cutting-edge literary author whose bold choice to self-publish led only to a trainwreck . It would suck to have listened to internet advice about how books should be priced rather than paying attention to your own mathematics and common sense, leaving you literally losing money on every book sold, and to have believed that “real bookstores” don’t take print-on-demand books and so committed to a print run that produced boxes and boxes of books whose pages curled and whose cover colour wasn’t what you’d wanted.

Seriously, it would suck to be an old-school editor downsized from a big traditional publishing house in this economy, maybe without the technical skills to compete, maybe in an age group where employers start to look at you as a liability. Or a brand-new graduate with a Master’s degree in publishing, answering phones or slinging coffee because there are no (paid) job openings in your field.

Seriously. This game is hard enough for everyone. Let’s not hate, ‘kay?

Picture Me Blinking In Astonishment 11 March 2010

Posted by Camille Gooderham Campbell in Hall of Shame.
4 comments

Theoretically, writers who submit their work for publication want to hear back from the publisher.

So I was surprised, a while back, to come across a writer who had set up an email spam blocker that would only accept incoming mail from an approved list — our response to a query generated an auto-reply email asking us to click on a link and “fill out a short request form to be added to the list of approved senders”. The automated email noted: “I apologize for this one-time inconvenience”. Did we click on the link and fill out the short request form? No, we did not.

Ever since then, I have mentally enshrined that particular incident as the most counterproductive author communication effort possible. It couldn’t possibly be outdone — send a query, but make it impossible to receive the response without an extra step that involves clicking a link and filling out a form. Quite apart from it coming across as a phishing trip (you don’t know me! click this link! give me your personal information!), neither I nor any other editor that I know of has time to go around filling out little forms. Brilliant strategy for getting published? No. Gold star for total bemusement factor? Yes.

Today, I encountered something that rivals even that one.

The subject line of what was clearly an auto-response email read: “I am no longer communicating via e-mail”. In the body of the email, it said: “If you wish to get in touch, please write me at [snail mail address here]. My website, [website here], is still active and contains a list of my recent publications. Thank you!”

So, picture me blinking in astonishment. Gold star for arrogance in thinking that I’m seriously going to go get a stamp and send a snail mail letter. Welcome to my Hall of Shame.

Feeling the Love 18 February 2010

Posted by Camille Gooderham Campbell in Random Thoughts.
3 comments

It’s been tough lately. EDF’s slush pile is mountains high, and the decisions ultimately come down to me. With nasty commenters lurking around every corner, hating every story and casting aspersions on my editorial skills and integrity, I was starting to doubt myself and second-guess every decision I made. 

The EDF team made a decision to crack down on nastiness in the comments, and that helped a bit, but my confidence was still seriously shaken.

And then I saw THIS. And then THIS. And I’ve been smiling all day.

When a story sticks in someone’s mind and speaks to him or her, when someone is compelled to re-read a piece two days later, when someone feels she or he would have been sorry to miss it… that story has done its job right. When I’ve had a hand in bringing that story to publication, when I was the one who said ‘yes’ to it, I know I’ve done my job right too.

None of this is even about me — it’s all about the stories and their authors — but I’m feeling the love anyway.

Decisions, Decisions 8 February 2010

Posted by Camille Gooderham Campbell in Uncategorized.
2 comments

So, an editorial decision is just that — a decision. And like any decision, it is subject to all the factors of the moment.

How badly do we need stories to fill the calendar right now? At the end of the month, when I’m desperate for pieces to fill open spots in the upcoming calendar, and I’m actively hunting for one more humour piece and two to three speculative genre pieces, chances are that I’ll feel a little more generous toward a marginal piece if it would meet one of the urgent needs of the moment. In fact, if I have 48 hours left before the calendar posts and I’m still a story or two short of a full month, that critical decision sometimes becomes one of panic rather than a calm, cool intellectual selection — not “is this good?” but “will this do?” At the start of the month, when I’ve just put a calendar to bed and have at least two solid weeks before I start to worry about the gaps in the next one, I can afford to be more critical and pass up something borderline on the chance that something else decent will come along before I get into a jam again.

How does this stack up against what I’ve just been reading? After a string of uninspired failed-relationship and spousal-murder pieces, dead-cat and dead-baby stories, and a few more variations on the bad-humans-punished-by-wise-aliens-or-deities theme, even Jesus-on-a-motorbike starts to look halfway decent in comparison. On the other hand, if I’ve just read something that blew my socks off, even a very solid and moderately original piece is going to suffer by comparison. And because we have to keep up with the avalanche of incoming submissions, I can’t just read one thing at a time with palate-cleansing breaks in between. Comparisons are odious, yes, but they’re part of this game.

What’s going on in my world? When I’m busy up to my neck, with a stack of book orders to fill and queries to answer and authors to pay, an editorial team to manage, potential problems to defuse — and a teething baby on top of everything else — maintaining a calmly objective frame of mind is challenging, to say the least. I tend to trust my slush readers’ opinions more when I’m under pressure, when there isn’t time for debating and conferring. I never intend to be hasty in my decisions, but sometimes there just isn’t the leisure to reflect critically on every aspect of a piece before giving it a final yes or no. Did a slush reader like it? Did I enjoy it? Did I notice any hugely glaring flaws? Okay, done.

There are times when I say yes to something, send out the acceptance, and then later wonder what it was I’d liked about it (sometimes EDF’s readers hate these ones, and sometimes they love them — there doesn’t seem to be a predictable correlation between my post-acceptance doubts and subsequent reader reactions). There are also times when I say no, send out the rejection, and then wish I’d said yes after all. The fact remains that something made me say yes or no, and it’s futile to second-guess that all the time.

But here’s the thing:

To snarky commenters who think that what gets rejected can’t be worse than what we’re publishing… yes, it can. A lot worse.

To snarky commenters who think they know something about the quality of what we’re rejecting… no one is objective about their own work, or their spouses’ work, or even their friends’ work. If you’re not one of our slush readers, you don’t know anything about what we’re rejecting, beyond your own little circle, so don’t pretend that you do.

To snarky commenters who think gratuitous rudeness makes them look insightful and clever… it doesn’t.

My decisions may not be perfect, but they’re my decisions to make. So to snarky commenters who think they could do better… go start your own magazine.

EDF’s Calendar for October 30 September 2009

Posted by Camille Gooderham Campbell in News & Announcements.
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It’s the end of September already, and the lineup of stories for October is up at EDF. This will be an interesting month, since it’s the first one where Jordan has had virtually no input — September’s calendar still had a few stories that had been accepted by him but this one is all mine — and it’s also the first one where our new editor Elissa has had some influence. It will be interesting to see how the readers respond to the different stories.

October’s Table of Contents

Oct 1 K.C. Ball Canticles
Oct 2 Alexander Salas The Hungry Squirrel
Oct 3 Donna Gagnon Ilker Drennan
Oct 4 Scotch Rutherford Harvest Moon
Oct 5 Matthias R. Gollackner Real World Heroism
Oct 6 Harry Steven Lazerus We Had No Right
Oct 7 Megan Arkenberg Grown from Man to Dragon
Oct 8 Jim Steel Enemy of the Party
Oct 9 Mickey Mills Trajectory
Oct 10 John A. Mackie Destination: Beach
Oct 11 Rachel Lim Water Bottle Musings
Oct 12 Fred Meyer Blind Spots
Oct 13 G.T. MacMillan Evidence
Oct 14 Sarah Hilary Invisible Mend
Oct 15 Essie Gilbey The Love Stone
Oct 16 Erin Ryan Fark Those Takkloving Aliens
Oct 17 Wayne Scheer Stripped of Innocence
Oct 18 Martin Turton A Song for Cara
Oct 19 Krystyna Smallman Miss Flossy and the Ferals
Oct 20 Karl El-Koura Beat-Down
Oct 21 C.L. Holland Beauty Sleeping
Oct 22 Eric V. Neagu The Vegetarian
Oct 23 Shelley Dayton Identity Crisis
Oct 24 Kendra C. Highley When Mom’s Sick
Oct 25 Sharon E. Trotter The Haircut
Oct 26 Karel Smolders Brains
Oct 27 Stef Hall Fingers
Oct 28 B. J. Adams A Hearty Breakfast
Oct 29 Patrick Perkins Feeding Time
Oct 30 Barbara A. Barnett Dumping the Dead
Oct 31 Stefan Bachmann The Pale Lean Ones

Professional Writers — How An Editor Can Tell 21 September 2009

Posted by Camille Gooderham Campbell in Advice For Writers.
1 comment so far

A couple of weeks ago, Robert Swartwood posed a question on his blog: “what is a professional writer?”

The various responses interested me, not so much because of the different arguments on how one determines professionalism, but because of what the responses had in common — they were all from the writer’s perspective. That is, all the responders were discussing either how they determine their own status as a professional or amateur, or else how a writer could hypothetically be pinpointed as one or the other. All assumed and required some inner knowledge of the writer’s life (a professional is paid to write, a professional makes a living at writing, a professional writes every day…), knowledge to which no one but the writer and maybe family and friends might be privy.

My own response to the question was instantaneous: professional behaviour makes a professional writer.

And this is why: it’s the only thing that the editor sees.

As an editor, when a story comes up on my computer screen, I don’t know if the author has ever been paid for his or her writing. I don’t know how many hours a day he or she writes, I don’t know if it’s a full-time occupation or a hobby (or therapy, or a compulsion, or a dream being chased, or some combination thereof). I can’t make a judgement based on those things. But there are writers I believe to be professionals, based on what I see.

Quite apart from the usual suspects — abiding by submission guidelines, submitting only their best and most polished work, and so on — there are certain things I notice that make me think, “that one’s a pro”.

One is regular submissions. Professional writers are constantly submitting work; they don’t pack up and go home after one rejection (or one acceptance, for that matter). So when I start to recognize a writer’s name because I’ve seen it in our slush regularly enough, I find that I start to take that writer more seriously — he or she is obviously committed to the craft.

One is attention to detail. Queries specify submission ID numbers, story titles, dates submitted. The submission form is fully and correctly filled out; the author knows what a byline is, has selected an appropriate genre for his or her story, and has included a bio. The word count is accurate.

And here’s a funny one: the author bio had better be in the third person. All of EDF’s author bios are in the third person — all of them, and it’s been that way every day since September 2007! — so when I see a first-person bio I think, “Well, here’s someone who hasn’t bothered to check out the magazine before submitting to it…” I have no problem with the goofy and humorous bios, the story-related bios, or the sparse and bare bios. But the first-person bios trip me up every time. On that note, bios which announce that the author writes as a hobby (or otherwise advertise a less-than-professional self-perception) do take away from the professional impression a bit.

A professional writer’s correspondence with editors is appropriately businesslike and even a touch on the formal side, unless we’ve published a number of your stories and have naturally moved to a friendlier level over time. And for whatever sweet sake you believe in, if you want an editor to think of you as a pro, don’t argue with a rejection notice!

A professional writer has a professional website. Now, technically I know that this may not always be true, and I’m sure there are plenty of well-respected technical recluses who refuse to cooperate with the information age, but we’re talking about perception here. A professional-looking website with regular updates (the “latest news” on the site shouldn’t be from January 2008) is virtually essential if you want to be taken seriously, especially in the world of online magazines. Bonus points are awarded for having your own domain name, a growing list of publication credits, and current news about recent acceptances and publications.

And finally, a professional writer always shows professionalism and restraint in comment threads and forum topics and other public places. Whether in receiving criticism on one of his or her own stories or entering into a discussion about someone else’s work (or a publication, contest, editor, book retailer, or anything else under discussion), a true professional will be aware that anything posted online can travel far and wide — participating with a degree of dignity, intelligence, and restraint shows that the individual has the ethics and responsibility to go with his or her creative skills. Whining, bitching, rudeness, gratuitous unkindness, holding grudges and slinging mud… that stuff just doesn’t scream “pro” to me.

So now you know what I look for, and what it says to me.

Would You Tip a Guy Handing Out Free Lattes? 7 September 2009

Posted by Camille Gooderham Campbell in Random Thoughts.
2 comments

Imagine a guy standing on a street corner handing out lattes. Or chai, hot chocolate, whatever suits your fancy. And he’s just handing them out, not asking for anything in return — he’s got a tip jar, though, on the pavement near his feet.

A little further down the block, there’s a smiling girl with a tray of sandwiches and an empty paper cup marked TIPS. “Help yourself,” she says. “No charge.”

There is also a café that serves hot drinks and sandwiches, right there in the same block: eight-dollar paninis that you can have cold or grilled, the coffee made from expensive beans.

Do you buy the $8 sandwich and $4 latte from the café? Or do you take the free ones from the nice people standing on the street?

You take the free ones; of course you do. We all do, and if the supply of free food is constant and continues for long enough, the café goes out of business. The real question is: do you give the latte guy and the sandwich girl a tip? (Oh, and you might also wonder who’s paying for the food.)

Just in case anyone has missed it, this is really about web content.

Online readers don’t want to pay, and they (you) don’t have to. It’s the street where free food is handed out. The donate-now buttons are easy to ignore.

Writers want to be paid. It’s a profession, it has value, those pennies-per-word are earned, dammit!

The publishers are supposed to figure this thing out: pay the writers what they’re worth, don’t charge the readers anything, hope the Google Ads at least cover the webhost bills. The way I see it, there are currently only two solutions — backing from a group with money and an agenda (which kind of moves away from the point of pure unbiased journalism or an untainted commitment to quality fiction), or else sales of tangible products and commercial services (books, t-shirts, training courses, etc.).

This means that if Latte Guy wants to make money, he’s going to be selling you Amway (or at least an enviro-friendly travel mug) while he makes your free coffee. And Sandwich Girl would like to talk to you about faith and the state of your soul.

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