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Writing Tips Are Like Diet Advice 15 January 2014

Posted by Camille Gooderham Campbell in Advice For Writers.

If there were a magic solution for dissolving avoirdupoids — a secret formula that really worked, for everyone, without other factors and regardless of life’s complications — we’d all have movie-star bodies. And if there were a secret formula for perfect, readable, saleable prose, there’d be no writer left behind. The fact is, no magic combination of kill-the-adjectives and active voice will automatically perfect your writing, any more than grapefruit-cucumber milkshakes or an all-protein diet will make you thin.

It’s a good idea to learn the rules before you break them, in the same way that learning about calories and nutrition and exercise can help you become healthier and stronger. Understanding grammar is good. Figuring out what said-bookisms are (and why modifiers should be used sparingly, and why the active voice is generally stronger than the passive voice, and what that show-don’t-tell thing means, etc.) is even better.

But then… you have to read. And read, and read. Read the best writing you can find, in as many genres as you’re willing to try. This is like eating good stuff. And all that great writing, and the techniques and style therein, are absorbed into your brain. It fuels your writing just like healthy and varied meals fuel your body. There’s no secret reading list that will set you right up, of course, any more than there’s one perfect meal plan for everyone. We all need to find our own way, with variety and balance and experimentation, and even occasional guilty pleasures — you won’t stick to reading any more than you’ll stick to a diet if it’s an unpleasant bore.

(Oh? Don’t have time to read because you’re “too busy writing”? Isn’t that essentially starving your writing rather than feeding it, sacrificing long-term development in favour of short-term gains? Sure, it’s fine in temporary bursts, but how many literary meals can you skip before you start losing writerly muscle mass and energy?)

And of course, you write. It’s like doing push-ups; you’re maybe in poor shape at first and can barely get yourself off the floor, but start doing more and more, regularly, and one day you realize that you’ve gotten all strong and toned and whatnot. There’s no substitute for doing the work.

The most entertaining similarity is that literary preaching is just as annoying as lifestyle-and-diet preaching. Think about it; in both of these areas — where no two people are the same, where the measure of success changes from person to person and even from day to day, where getting it right involves endless trial-and-error, learning, experimentation, hope, small successes and failures, and ongoing hard work — it’s intensely irritating to hear “you’re doing it wrong” and “if you’d only do it my way you’d get a better result”. (Also, anyone who doesn’t know the difference between preaching and discussing is probably beyond help.)

Ultimately, we’re all entitled to choose what our own goals are, and what means success to us, right? So I don’t get to tell you what your body ought to look like, what I think you should eat, what makes you beautiful to yourself and those who love you. I’m pretty sure that, likewise, your literary voice can be unique and awesome in so many ways that might not fit with what I currently see as perfection. If I choose to be judgmental about the way you look (and yes, that’s hypothetical… we all try not to do that, right?) or the way you write (um, possibly guilty, depending on who you are?), that’s on me. As an editor, I can tell you what I want and don’t want to see, but only with regard to magazine and book projects I control; as a reader, I can only choose what books to buy or not buy, and how to spend my reading time. But you’re still free to choose your own path.

Here’s A Tip: Be Someone We Want To Work With 20 April 2013

Posted by Camille Gooderham Campbell in Advice For Writers.

I’m not going to review the obvious here — reading guidelines, polishing and proofreading your work, etc. — on the assumption that you’ve already got it covered. This is about how to be someone an editor wants to work with.

Let’s start by assuming that you’re a good (or at least competent) writer, able to produce work at a level suitable for the magazine or publishing house you want to build a relationship with. No amount of schmoozing or game-playing is going to get you there if you’re not up to standard; there’s no secret way around that. And, fortunately or unfortunately, you still need to get noticed by the editors (whether with an acceptance, a revision request, or an “encouraging” rejection that indicates interest in seeing more of your work) on the strength of your writing. But from there, you can become a writer editors see as a pleasure to work with, or a kind of neutral entity who doesn’t trigger any thoughts one way or another, or a writer at whose name editors roll their eyes and shudder.

It’s not so much of an issue if you’re a brilliant master of the craft and rolling in awards and praise in all directions — editors will put up with a lot (though not everything or indefinitely) for the reward of genius-level work to publish (and hopefully profits to go with that, if we’re talking actual books for sale or paid subscriptions). It’s also true that nothing will save you if you can’t write.

But when you’re at a  journeyman level, working your way up from more-than-competent to potential-star-on-the-rise, you’re most likely submitting work to places that get more acceptable-quality submissions than they have publication spots. So it stands to reason that you want to have every possible advantage on your side. You want editors to see your name and smile, to think, “Oh, yes, I like working with that one.”

How to make editors smile

  • Regular, ongoing submissions are the best way to show that you’re really interested in being part of a magazine. Don’t give up after one rejection. Learn from the feedback you get, and keep trying. I can think of many instances where an acceptance came after four or five rejections, as the author got closer and closer to what we look for. By the time you get there, we feel like we know you, and we’re cheering for your success.
  • Have a professional-looking, genre-appropriate, up-to-date blog or website. This really is the first place most people will check for more information about you, and that includes editors who’ve noticed you and want to learn more. A polished website (especially one with a nice list of recent publications and updated news) goes a long way to cementing any positive first impressions you may already have achieved.
  • Our confidence in you increases when you consistently behave in a professional manner. This isn’t a one-time thing or a badge earned, it’s more of a growing assumption based on a past record — we know the plagiarism & previous publication check will come up clean, we know you’ll respond promptly to a revision request or other correspondence, we know if/how you’ll interact with readers once your story is published, etc.
  • Editors like to feel appreciated. Not in a fake formal-thank-you-note way, and I don’t think there’s any specific technique or set of instructions for how to “do it right”, but genuine appreciation makes a natural impact, so don’t be shy to show it if you feel it.
  • Social media groups and communities are a great way to get to know your editors and let us get to know you beyond routine correspondence, without the risk of imposing as you might with personal emails or friend requests that come too soon. It’s not wrong to send an editor a Facebook friend request or an email about something that isn’t strictly business, but there’s a very fine difference between slowly developing a connection and rushing forward at an inappropriate pace. Personally, I’m always thrilled to get to know writers at any level, but I feel better if I’ve had some discussion/interaction with you before I get that friend request or your quarterly writing news email.
  • Be a fan! It’s tried-and-true advice to read a few issues of a magazine (or a few books from an imprint) before you submit your work — but there’s an ocean of difference between having looked over a couple of “representative samples” and being a follower/fan/subscriber/reader/participant. When someone wants to be a part of our community and what we do, as opposed to just having us on a list of a few dozen potential markets, it’s only natural that we’ll want to help make that happen. It may mean extra feedback from the editorial team, or improved likelihood of getting a revision request instead of a rejection for something that might be close — these are the two biggest areas where fractional impressions can influence what we do: the amount of time and care spent on crafting editorial notes, and the moment of wavering between an outright rejection and a chance to rewrite.
  • We love our volunteers. Most magazines and smaller publishing houses depend heavily on volunteers, and no matter where you live or what your background and skills are, there’s almost always something you can do to help. It never hurts to offer your time and talents, and see what can grow from that.
  • Be (or at least act) sane and pleasant. All else aside, if you seem like a decent human being, we’ll probably enjoy whatever contact we have with you.

Now, I’m in no way suggesting that writers need to be all sweet and agreeable and self-effacing to be liked — “pleasant” basically means that we don’t walk away from a conversation with you thinking ugh, that was a bad scene. Editors aren’t infallible and good ones should be reasonable; if you don’t want to make changes to accommodate an editor’s opinion, you can be firm (and if publication is contingent on you making particular changes, you can always respectfully decline and take the piece elsewhere, with no harm done). The point is not to argue with your editor, but to explain your concerns and see if there’s a solution that will satisfy everyone.

A writing career is a long-term thing, and nothing is gained from short-term “victories” if you’re the only one feeling good about them.

How to make editors shudder

  • When you receive editorial feedback on a story, whether accepted or rejected, email us to justify your choices, explain what we should have understood from your story, and show your disdain for any revision suggestions. I’m not sure which version of this is less appealing: the overtly arrogant challenge or the self-deprecating humblebrag.
  • Be precious about your deathless prose and strongly object to seeing the least punctuation mark or verb tense adjusted, even when it’s grammatically wrong. Dish out attitude to anyone who wrongfully corrects a misused semi-colon for you. Ferociously defend every adverb.
  • Submit previously published work as unpublished, especially if the original publication isn’t available online to be found by a Google search. If asked about it, lie: why, that review must have been written by a friend who was emailed the story, mistakenly thinking it had been published somewhere, right? For advanced credit, submit the same story to us multiple times, on the assumption that we won’t recognize it from the time before. If you can’t deliver previously published work of your own, consider plagiarizing from sources such as Moby Dick.
  • Ignore guidelines about no simultaneous submissions, and routinely withdraw stories because they’ve been accepted elsewhere, or wait until you receive a rejection or acceptance to let us know that actually the story isn’t still available. When the no-sim-subs rule is politely mentioned, rant about how refusing simultaneous submissions is being controlling and denying writers the opportunity to seek the best deal for their stories.
  • Send queries that completely ignore any nicety of salutation or courtesy: “When will I get a response about my story?” Don’t include any useful information such as the title of your story or when you submitted it. Don’t check the submission guidelines or FAQ page to see if the answer is readily available.
  • Respond to rejections with emails full of anger, swearing, denigration of the magazine or publishing house and its editors, threats, hatred, etc. For bonus points, make accusations of bias, prejudice, and/or cronyism. Then go gripe about us to your online writers’ forum.
  • Troll the comment threads of other people’s published stories, looking to start arguments and cut down other writers. Make cutting remarks about the editors’ choices and skills. Create sock puppets to agree with you and add to the fun. Learn the publication’s commenting guidelines so you can stay just barely on the right side of them, giving moderators no technical grounds on which to expunge your venom.
  • Be a loose cannon on your blog and social media, and don’t restrict your posts to just friends either. Make every disagreement public and unpleasant; name names, point fingers. Get into drag-out arguments on sensitive topics. Self-promote aggressively and offensively. Overshare personal drama and private business. Turn your “author platform” into a polarized battleground full of political and social minefields.

In terms of public persona, there are several successful writer-bloggers who take strong stances about various things and aren’t known for pulling their punches, and usually editors want to work with writers who are passionate, who are willing to stand up for issues that matter to them, who enjoy engaging with the wider community and aren’t afraid of a spicy debate. The thing is, spicy debate is elite-level stuff — if you’re still trying to work out where the line is between wit and vitriol, if you’re wondering why your public persona shouldn’t necessarily extend to your business communication, or if you’re not sure what makes a comment “inappropriate” or “offensive” instead of “daring” or “edgy”, you’re not there yet.

Finally, as to being sane… I believe it was F. Scott Fitzgerald who said good writers are “a whole lot of people trying so hard to be one person” (in The Love of the Last Tycoon), so I totally get that ‘sane’ may be a negotiable term at times. But you know, quirky is just fine. Eccentric is fine. Tortured and melancholic are unfortunate for you but fine for us. Just… don’t be a psychopath, okay? You know what chaotic evil is? Don’t be that. Then we’re good.

The Dunning-Kruger Effect 21 April 2012

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

I’m not making this up.

From Wikipedia:

The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which unskilled individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly rating their ability much higher than average. This bias is attributed to a metacognitive inability of the unskilled to recognize their mistakes.[1]

Actual competence may weaken self-confidence, as competent individuals may falsely assume that others have an equivalent understanding. As Kruger and Dunning conclude, “the miscalibration of the incompetent stems from an error about the self, whereas the miscalibration of the highly competent stems from an error about others” (p. 1127).[2]

I have no doubt that this interesting effect applies to every area of life, but I was particularly struck by its relevance for writers.

Given the grey area where formal grammar and creative licence intersect, and the degree to which each reader’s perspective colours the reading experience, there’s no objective and measurable way to define what constitutes “good” or even “competent” fiction writing. We tend to “know it when we see it”, and when we read the work of others — especially published work or in the context of a critique group — consensus can validate our impressions. Even then, there’s debate: select your choice of wildly-popular novelist reviled and sneered at by at least half the writers you know on Facebook… is everyone who loved those books wrong, or is it a matter of taste?

I’m not saying that all fiction is good if you just look at it right. Mediocre-to-poor writing does exist. But would you recognize it, if it were yours?

When it comes to assessing one’s own writing for quality and skill, there’s no grid or checklist to apply; even writing-class “rules” are only general advice and current fashions. Killing all the modifiers and avoiding the passive voice doesn’t automatically produce great writing, and being structurally on trend for 2012 doesn’t guarantee popular appeal now or in the long term. So is that glowing feeling of I-just-finished-writing-the-most-awesome-thing-ever the satisfaction of a job well done, or the Dunning-Kruger effect?

Apparently Dunning & Kruger and some other psychologists did some further research, and came up with this (again from Wikipedia):

They conclude that the root cause is that, in contrast to high performers, “poor performers do not learn from feedback suggesting a need to improve.”[4]

So, first, find some feedback. Join a serious writing group/critique circle (not a mutual-praise-and-smoke-blowing club). Pay a reputable editing/critique service to assess your work. Submit stories to publications that provide editorial feedback. Participate in a workshop or go on a writing retreat that includes an instructional/critique component.

Then learn from the feedback. Don’t be That Writer (everybody knows one) who refuses to hear anything but praise, argues with editors about why a piece was rejected, takes offense at suggestions for improvement, and generally thinks every last comma and modifier and dialogue tag was divinely inspired and embodies perfection.

Above all, for your own sanity, try not to spend a lot of time thinking about how your abilities stack up against everyone else’s. Writing is a solitary pursuit — in the dark hours, it’s easy to project imagined levels of competence (or lack thereof) onto one’s perceived competition, and assess one’s own skills accordingly.

The good news is that if you’re about to burn your latest manuscript on the assumption that you’re totally outclassed, you’re probably wrong.

Playing Your Way to a Plot 6 January 2012

Posted by Camille Gooderham Campbell in Advice For Writers.
Tags: , , , ,

Some of us play a few rounds of solitaire or sudoku before settling down to write. A ritual? A focusing technique? Procrastination? Whatever you call it, some of us need to do it and can’t get started writing without it. I’m much more of an editor and publisher than a writer these days, but when I do write, whether it’s fiction or non-fiction, copywriting for hire or a project of my own, I simply can’t get started without a round or two of something calming (usually solitaire for me, but sudoku will do, or Minesweeper or Bingo Blitz — anything seems to work as long as it’s pattern-oriented and not too complex). I don’t think this need is uncommon, and most writers who admit to it don’t seem overly embarrassed about it. After all, it’s just a matter of routine, like needing your tea or coffee in a particular mug, adjusting your chair for comfort before settling down, or putting on your preferred “writing music”. Creative people are supposed to have quirks — something to admit to in an interview once you’re wildly successful, as your secret to the brilliance you put on the page: “Well, I always have my round of solitaire before getting started, but just one, you know?”

Many writers are also gamers who take their MMORPGs and quest-based games very seriously. Although I think the character and story elements of those games have a lot to do with why writer-gamers enjoy them, there’s also enough game-culture and respect out there that dedicated gamers don’t tend to be embarrassed or in denial about their enjoyment. One can have a rich engagement with a MMORPG character and world (my World of Warcraft paladin has plenty of backstory and personal life) but it doesn’t tend to do much in the way of idea-sparking and plot generation since serious games come already fully fleshed out with complex worlds and quests and so on. Unless your goal is to write media tie-ins, and there’s nothing at all wrong with that, you honestly do NOT want to have a warrior, a hunter, and a priest setting out from a Goldshire-like village to… well, you know.

Writers are much less likely to confess to playing (and enjoying) social and app-based games that don’t fit the “ritual” model or a big-name gaming franchise — we’re supposed to be much too busy and creative to be entertained by FarmVille and its ilk. However, I suspect that many more writers do enjoy these sorts of games than will admit to it… because they are essentially world-building games, and that’s what writers do.

When you build your village, your farm, your castle, or whatever else the build-it game of the moment has to offer, aren’t you — as a writer — actually imagining a whole lot more into it than is there in the game? Don’t you start to find it boring and quit as soon as the game stops introducing new plot-worthy elements?

Instead of cringing at the admission that you (sort of) find the latest sim-whatever fun, ask yourself what it has to offer you as a writer. (And if you’re a scoffer at these types of games, give one a chance and see what it can do for you.) Literally, play your way to a plot.

I got an iPad for Christmas, and subsequently discovered Tiny Tower by NimbleBit LLC, which I think may be the best-ever idea sparker available for writers. And it’s free, even. All you need is an iPad or iPhone (though from a creative point of view it’s more inspiring on the iPad as the graphics are bigger and you can see more detail), and apparently there’s a version for Android too. Best of all, it’s not a “social” game, so you don’t have to annoy your friends with it.

Basically, you build a tower, floor by floor — here, have a look at mine. You choose whether the floor is going to be residential, food, retail, recreation, service or creative, and then it generates the details for you (with the option to edit background colours and business names, but that’s it). My first food level came up as a coffee shop, my second came up as a sushi place. My first retail floor turned out to be a toy store, and my second was shoes. The residential floors work the same way, with widely varied and random decor; the selection I’ve seen so far includes ghastly 70s with macrame flowers, trendy safari decor, budget student place with cardboard boxes, pretty New England beadboard wainscoting, and more.

Then the characters, called “bitizens”, move into your residential floors and you put them to work in your shops and offices. Everything is pixellated just enough to leave your imagination room, but drawn clearly enough to spark ideas. The bitizens are generated randomly enough to please any writer, from a full complement of skin tones and hair colours, with an assortment of facial hair and eyewear details, and accessories from Alice bands to hard hats — and I’m not sure the random generator thing altogether differentiates male from female accessories, as I definitely saw one with a mustache and something that was either a hair bow or cat ears. There are also some costumed ones — I’ve seen a mime, a Star Trek red shirt, and the Phantom of the Opera — most of which just travel up and down the elevator, but I had a female in a pig costume move into one of my apartments. A pig costume. There’s a plot starter if I ever saw one… why would anyone be wandering around in a pig costume? Oddly enough, her dream was to work in women’s fashion.

Yes, the bitizens all have dream jobs, names, varying levels of employment skills/preferences, and they even come with birthdays. So you get your tower going, and you look around for a protagonist. Reginald, working at the coffee shop and dreaming of owning his own diner? Tracy, who’s found perfect happiness at the laundromat, even though she’s not very skilled (could she have a disability to account for her low scores)? Wilma the paintball enthusiast, working at a comedy club to pay the bills? Jesse who works at the bank and wishes he were a private eye? Tiny Tower has offered me all of these possibilities and more.

And then there are the plot cards. At least, I call them plot cards. A little blue square randomly pops up at the bottom of the screen asking you to find a particular resident because… his long-lost sister is looking for him! There’s a singing telegram just arrived for her! The president has been kidnapped and he’s the only one who can help! (The plot cards pop up fairly frequently, so you can either go with what you get or wait until you get one that piques your writing interest.)

Then earn some coins, build some more floors, watch more characters move in… and off you go, with friends and foes and love interests galore.

So next time you’re stuck for inspiration, try Tiny Tower (or any build-it game) instead of solitaire, and see where it takes you.

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.

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.

Record Keeping — It’s A Pro Thing 28 August 2009

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

I am reminded once again of how important it is for writers to keep clear and precise records of their submissions, including pertinent details such as the date submitted and the title of the piece. It’s part of being a professional, of being serious about your work. A nice spreadsheet does the job quite well.

Writers, you do not want to be querying editors with phrases such as “I think I know which ones I might have submitted to you” and “this would go back 3-4 weeks ago”.

Accurate record-keeping also prevents inadvertent resubmissions of pieces that have already been rejected, simultaneous submissions where they’re not welcome, and querying before a publication’s specified timeframe has elapsed.

You may also want to back your records up. You’d be surprised at the number of queries we get where a dead computer is blamed for the author’s lack of specific information about his or her own submissions.

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