The other night, my wife and I were watching old episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation (we own the whole series on disk). We’re on season 5 right now, and we came to one of our favorite episodes: the first episode with Bajoran Starfleet Ensign Ro Laren (played by Michelle Forbes). Ro was an amazing character — and this is a terrific episode — because she was everything a Starfleet officer wasn’t supposed to be: rebellious and disdainful of authority, prickly and opinionated, and more devoted to her own people than to the principles on which Starfleet was founded. Adding her to the cast shook things up a bit, and freshened the series at a time when it might otherwise have started to grow stale.
As I watched, it occurred to me that other shows of which I’m a fan had done very similar things with their casts. Season 2 of The West Wing, my all-time favorite television series, introduced a new character, Ainsley Hayes (Emily Procter). Ainsley was a Southern conservative Republican who, through a series of events too complicated to recount here, winds up being hired as an Associate Counsel in the Bartlett White House. She had little in common with her progressive Democratic colleagues, and again her presence upended expectations for the show and had the added benefit of adding a good deal of humor to the episodes.
Much the same dynamic accompanied the introduction of Faith Lehane (Eliza Dushku) in season 3 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Up until Faith’s arrival, all the members of the Scooby Gang had been pretty much on the same page morally. Yeah, I know, Angel. But he was never really a Scooby. He was a vampire and then a love interest, and then a villain, and then a love interest again. Faith, on the other hand, was a fellow slayer, a Scooby of a sort. But she didn’t follow the rules, she didn’t care about the things Buffy and her friends cared about, and she proved to be a corrupting influence on Buffy. Her addition to the cast elevated the show, made season 3 incredibly powerful, dramatic, and suspenseful.
Three different series, three different cast additions, three very similar results.
Here on MW, we have often suggested that one way to shake things up in a story gone stale is to add a new character (that is, if you’re not following our own Faith’s advice and killing someone off). Any new character is bound to bring a certain degree of change to your story, and not all stories need to be completely upended.
But simply adding a character isn’t always enough. Sure, a love interest can spice things up, or a new villain can ratchet up the tension. But sometimes what a story needs is both more subtle than those options, and also more dramatic. Perhaps what you’re looking for is someone who doesn’t fit in quite so well with your other characters, someone who may seem to be just another sidekick or secondary character, but who will actually force the rest of your characters to adjust, rethink, change.
Storytelling, whether in a television series, or a novel, or a series of novels, is about character and conflict. More often than not, the characters we begin with when we first conceive our stories will be enough to carry our plot through to resolution. Occasionally, we may need to add in a character, just to move things along. But every once in a while, we need more than that. We need to throw a grenade into the mix, in the form of a character — like Ro, or Ainsley, or Faith — who will reorder everything.
Think about it the next time your manuscript seems to be dragging.
Best of luck, and keep writing!
“There’s no money in short stories.”
“Nobody buys novellas.”
“All the short story markets are dead or dying.”
I hear these things a lot. And if you built a career in the 70s and 80s selling stories to major magazines for $.05/word, and could count on selling 2-3 stories a month, then selling stories to anthologies that again paid $.04-.06/word, and sold one of those each month, then yeah, that business model is dead. There a far fewer print magazines today than there were even ten years ago, and the ones out there there that still pay real money are harder to find than a place to pee in North Carolina. I promise, that will be my only reference to bathroom legislation in this post and I will keep this space apolitical after that.
But if you’ve been paying attention to trends, and watching some of the things that people have been doing for the past five years, you know that you can still get a short story sold into an anthology that pays well, it just might have to have a Kickstarter first. You know that there’s actually a greater market for novellas now than there has been in decades, but they’re largely digital-only releases. And you know that most of the people making real money in short fiction are taking the reins to their own career and self-publishing their short work, or working with a small press that can adjust to the market quickly.
That’s a key part of it, too – being nimble. You can’t get locked into an old way of thinking, and nowadays, conventional wisdom from two years ago is and old way of thinking. So let’s look at ways to make money off short fiction today, in the market of this particular moment.
Caveat – I’m not going to discuss Kindle Unlimited or any one distributor’s business models. These are ways to make money without gaming the system in any way, because then you aren’t living and dying at the hands of someone writing code half a world away.
- Write a lot. This should go without saying, but it’s very hard for a writer to make a living today on one best-selling novel per year, much less on one or two short stories a year. I was first introduced to this idea by a panel that Kevin J. Anderson led at DragonCon. Kevin calls it the popcorn method, and talks about how you can prepare the pan perfectly, place the kernel of popcorn in the exact center of the pan, heat it to the exact right temperature and watch it until it pops into the perfect piece of popcorn. Then you can repeat the process. One kernel at a time. or you can throw a shitload of popcorn into a pan, mix it up with some butter and Pam, throw heat to it, and pop a shitload of popcorn. Short stories are a lot like that. If you want a lot of popcorn (money) then you have to dump a bunch of kernels in the pan, understanding that not all of them will pop. So write a lot.
- Write in series. Surprise – the guy who is currently writing 3 different urban fantasy/horror series is going to say write in series. But it’s a simple economic truth – people love series. They fall in love with a character, and so do you, the writer, and you both want to know more about her. So you write more stories. Then your fans buy them, and clamor for more. So you writer more. And more. And before you know it, the novella you just published is the 24th Bubba the Monster story out there. And then you realize that there are fans for that stuff, and the audiobook is selling well enough to be the #1 seller for you and your producer, and then you’re bringing in enough to pay some bills.
- Diversify. It’s rare that a writer with one property can make a living off of it. I publish three series relatively consistently, and a ton of other stuff in between, and between the audiences for all that stuff, I can feed my family. I couldn’t do it just off Bubba stories, or Harker novellas, or Black Knight novels. But by publishing a mix of products, I manage.
- Find a home for the work. If you don’t want to self-publish, then look for open anthology calls, magazines, and publisher websites. Some publishers will accept short story collections, which is what my buddy Edmund did. He found a publisher (me) that was excited about a collection of his short stories and agreed to publish the collection. So here’s my big announcement – talk about burying the lede – Falstaff Books is thrilled to be publishing This Giant Leap, the newest short story collection by Edmund R. Schubert. Here’s the cover, and I promise there will be buy links as soon as such things exist.
Happy Friday, Magical Words folks!
Today I’m going to talk a little about short stories and how much to include in the tale.
There are several directions you can take a short story, but two of my favorites are what I call pulling a thread or taking a snapshot.
The first story type is “pulling a thread.” Here you can tell a larger story, but the focus has to be laser sharp. In this type of story, you’re following a particular character’s particular story. The important part to remember is that you should start and stop the story in the proper place. The story should start (as has probably been said here before) when the action starts to matter. It’s the moment where everyone would start listening and watching if they thought a fight was going to break out in that group just over there. Or when the wedding party starts dancing and the guests make a circle around them. It’s the point when the reader starts to pay attention.
Likewise, the story should end when the action feels complete. Think about how a television show often ends. The characters may be knee deep in dead bodies, but if the threat is over, so is the story. The reader doesn’t necessarily need to see the Medical Examiner arrive or the main character take a shower. These things may happen in a novel, but the short story just follows the thread that led them to the room full of dead bodies.
Stephen King says of short stories that they’re “like a kiss in the dark from a stranger.” I’ve given this quite a bit of thought. What would a kiss in the dark from a stranger feel like? Suspenseful, intense, thrilling, exhilarating, frightening, and leaving you breathless? This is where the “snapshot” story comes from. A short story can be a brief moment in time–from a scandalous encounter with a mysterious woman to a birthday party where you finally come to peace with your ex-husband. The backstory is there in the context. It’s hinted at in the word choice and the showing. It conveys the complete picture but lets the reader take some freedom in imagining what lies just beyond the edge of the frame.
Here’s a challenge for you. Write a bit of flash fiction taking one of those two approaches and post it in the comments below. I can’t wait to see what you come up with.
Today we’re welcoming a longtime friend of Magical Words, Barb Hendee! Barb is the nationally best-selling co-author of the Noble Dead Saga, along with her husband J.C. She is also the author of the Vampire Memories series and the recently launched Mist-Torn Witches series. Visit her website at: http://www.nobledead.org
If You Want to Get Your Manuscript on the Desk of a New York Editor, You Need an Agent.
Okay, that title probably lays out the point of this blog post pretty clearly, but this is a complex topic.
Of late, I’ve heard some rather “loud” voices in the industry telling new/hopeful writers that not only do they not need an agent to be successful, but that an agent will actually be damaging to their careers.
In one online discussion, I recently (stupidly) jumped in to say, “Well, of course if someone is self-publishing, he or she doesn’t need an agent, but if a novelist wants to be traditionally published, an agent is necessary. How can a writer get a manuscript on the desk of a New York editor without an agent?”
I was instantly—and quite vehemently—told that I was “wrong,” and that no writer requires an agent to get a manuscript on the desk of a New York editor . . . and that unagented writers sell novels to New York editors all the time.
I bowed out of this discussion quickly, but I did worry that a lot of new/hopeful writers were listening to what I considered very poor advice.
Arguments Against Going with an Agent
These three issues are commonly discussed:
1) Issue: An agent has too much voice in what gets written and doesn’t get written . . . and what gets shopped and what doesn’t get shopped to publishers.
Response: Yes. This is certainly something to consider. I have a friend who wrote up a proposal for a project that crossed a few boundaries on the “disturbing” level, and her long-time agent said, “I can’t sell this in the current market, and I don’t feel comfortable submitting it.” Ouch. What do you do when your agent won’t send out a project?
This does happen
But . . . I don’t think it’s common, and I’ve never personally had it happen, and I’m beginning to realize that in some cases, I should have listened to my agent. J.C. and I are with John Silbersack at the Trident Media Group. John is a very experienced agent who handles the Dune estate for the Herbert family.
Recently, I decided to try my hand at a romance novel. John told me, “Either do Regency or contemporary. At present, very little else is selling.”
I didn’t want to do Regency or contemporary (smiles), so I wrote a Victorian romance. The book is a lot of fun. John read it. He liked it. He was happy to submit it all over New York, but he told me to be prepared because he’d probably have trouble selling it due to the setting. That was last November and . . . so far, no one has made an offer (even though a number of editors have liked the book). Several have said, “She’s good, but this setting isn’t selling right now. Can you get her to write contemporary?”
So, our agents may limit us, but I think for the most part, they just offer advice. Most agents will shop our projects even when those projects are not the most marketable.
2) Issue: Agents work for the publishing industry, not for the writer.
Response: This kind of statement makes me bang my head against the desk slowly. Of course agents work for/with the publishing industry. But . . . of course they also work for/with the writer. The writer works for/with publishing industry. The publisher needs the writer.
In traditional publishing, this is a three-way symbiotic relationship.
I am familiar with an agent who hates the publishing industry, who views it as one great mass of evil whose only goal is to cheat writers of their last dime. As a result, this agent does not make many deals.
As writers, if we’re going to pay our rent and buy groceries, we need an agent who is at least willing to go into negotiations. Of course our agent must look out for us first and foremost (and the editors know this), but you are much better off with an agent who is trusted and respected by editors in the publishing industry. You might even be able to make a living.
3) Issue: Are you really going to trust a complete stranger with your money?
Response: This is another somewhat misleading statement. One does hear horror stories now and then, and a few of these have become legend.
But in reality, a literary agency is a business like any other business.
Any writer with sense will research an agency before he or she signs on. There are a number of well-established literary agencies with solid reputations. Most of the established agencies have accounting departments. Checks flow from the publisher to the agency’s accounting department. The accounting department cuts a check for 15% to the agent who negotiated the deal and 85% to the writer.
If a writer is uncomfortable with this arrangement, he or she can simply set up separate accounting. This is what we did.
In all our book contracts, our agent arranges for the publisher to send 85% of monies earned directly to us and for 15% to be sent to the agent. This is becoming a common practice.
Okay . . . onward.
Part Two of Barb’s excellent post, Why You Might Need An Agent, will appear on Thursday, April 28th!
As some of you know, I just spent 11 days in New Mexico. I flew back in on Monday night and am now, Wednesday at 2pm, finding a moment to type up my helping post and I’m gonna wing it today, because my head is still a bit foggy and my heart is still in NM (evident by the photos I’ve chosen to share on this post).
While I was there, I had almost no internet or cell service. I had enough internet at breakfast on the last 5 days of the trip to post photos but not video and I had cell service in small bursts but nothing solid, ever. Note: If you move to NM, don’t use switch to Verizon if you don’t have it already, because Sprint, T-Mobile, and AT&T were not great.
However, no connection to the outside world for that long helped keep my head in the game of research more and I met more people because I wasn’t looking at a little device in my hand. Sure, I still was on intake mode and didn’t write much, but I really had time to sit and just be in the space and it made ALL the difference in my view of this project.
How often are you just in the space? When you write do you have other pages up like Facebook and Twitter? Do you turn your phone off or put it somewhere not in reach? If you find your productivity is not where you want it, examine your outside stimuli. Is it bombarding you, this addiction? And it is one, trust me, I felt the withdrawal.
However, I realize now, looking back, that I…
A) Only missed my phone because I wanted to receive photos from my travel buddy and I wanted to check up on my dog.
B) Only missed the internet because I wanted to use GPS (thankfully my travel buddy’s phone was able to do that and save it even when offline) during the day and scroll FB at night before bed because after dark, there is really not much to do in Lincoln. There are no bars there anymore (The Silver Dollar is closed at the moment) and other than a nice dinner with the art students in town for a sculpture class and another with a local historian there (both of which ended at 8/8:30pm…aka after dark) events other than dinner…so hence. —Side Note: Now I know why all those people back in the day went to bed so early, got up early, and had a lot of kids…LOL!—
Sure, if I’d been writing, I’d have missed the ability to research. But that’s it though. It made me wonder about how much time I do spend online liking posts, watching videos, and so on. Then I saw this article today, ironically enough, on Facebook: “This is the New Loneliness”
So I thought about writing and the internet. Many folks are always linked to it and the world via their phone or computer as they work. My suggestion? Turn it off. Be creative without the distraction and see if your productivity improves or if your writing does. It can’t be good for the continuity of your (or my) storyline to stop all the time to see if that new cat video your friend told you about is as funny as she says. In order to connect to your characters and your work, you need to disconnect from other things. Not all things…heck, I write with music on 80% of the time (at Paragraph NYC it is so quiet in the Quiet Room, go figure, that I don’t need music at all unless I’m writing fight scenes).
Then I remembered another thing I do…if I’m not using my phone for music, I tend to leave my phone in my purse on vibrate when I go write somewhere other than home. I’ll post an update on FB that I’m writing and I put it away (unless I’m waiting on someone to join me, then I keep it handy until they arrive). If I am using it for music I’ll turn Airplane Mode on to halt all other functions.
At home, again, if I’m not using it for music, I put my phone on the other side of the room on silent. And unless I’m doing research, I do not log onto the internet at all. I’ve gone to Argo Tea before, requested an Internet code and never used it…for 5 hours or so. Why? Because I was writing and when I write, much like when I watch a great TV show or movie, I don’t want to be interrupted from the flow of it.
Some people, writers and non-writers alike, say they are impressed that I get so much done. I love hearing that. Why? Because I feel like I’m running in quicksand most of the time. That’s likely a shock for some of you to hear, but it’s true. I feel like I’m behind, that I’m playing catch up, and still learning the game. I run, I fall, and I get back up…and that is why I turn the internet and phone off.
If you find you are distracted easily, turn yours off too, or close yourself in a room with a Do Not Disturb sign (I have a great writer friend who, now that her kids are old enough, she tells them not to disturb her unless someone needs the hospital or the house is on fire). If you can, turn the ringer down on your home phone (if you still have one of those things) or take it off the hook. Then, unless you need it for research, turn your internet off and put your cell away.
My head goes really fast, a positive and negative quality of my mild ADHD, so that is part of my speed (which also causes errors when I write, so hence the + & – effects) but mostly it’s because I turn off everything but my brain when it comes time to write. I LOVE living in the worlds I’ve created or in the heads of the characters that have graced me with their story…I prefer to focus on them when I can. You should too.
Focus is important. Most women don’t have the ability of single-focus like men do (until that estrogen begins to deplete later in life and testosterone is more prevalent) so the ladies may find it harder to turn off all the other things than the men reading this post will…but everyone should try disconnecting during writing time and see how your connection to your work improves.
That’s it for me this time around…until next time, write hard, bathe in imagination, and put the “social” network away for awhile!
Originally from Michigan, Tamsin L. Silver is the creator/writer of two YA Urban Fantasy Series, Windfire and The Sabrina Grayson Novels, as well as the Web Series, Skye of the Damned. She graduated from Winthrop University with a BA in Theatre/Secondary Education and a minor in Creative Writing/Shakespeare. She has taught both middle school and high school theatre and run two successful theater companies, one of which in the place she currently lives: New York City. You can learn more about her and find links to all her things at www.tamsinsilver.com
Quick Tip Tuesday
I’m on deadline to finish my third Golgotha novel, The Queen of Swords, so this week’s tip is going to be short, sweet, and to the point. It just occurred to me that “short, sweet, and to the point” is a very long-winded way of saying, to be brief…
So, to be brief, this week my tip is a tip of the hat to the wonderful folks who will soon be reading and commenting to me on my new novel, my beta readers.
These are the folks you trust with your baby away from home for the first time. They see your raw work and you trust them to tell you what’s good, what’s not, and how to best improve it. Also if you’re lucky, they have a good grounding in grammar, structure, and spelling.
Stephen King says in On Writing, to write with the door closed and edit with the door open. I agree wholeheartedly with that sentiment. Your beta readers get first dibs when you open that door, they are your test audience. I have worked with different beta readers on different projects and over time, you find the folks that are going to help you the most with getting the very best out of your writing. A few tips I’d offer that have worked for me.
1) Punctuality: If it takes your beta reader as long to read and get your MS back to you as it took you to write it, they may not be the person you need. By the same token, if you get it back the same day you sent it off to them to read, chances are they skimmed it, so take their advice with a grain of salt.
2) Consistency: If three of your beta-readers all pick up on the same thing, LOOK AT IT and consider their advice. I’ve found that that trait is a flag for readers who I can count on to be giving me good, consistent feedback on trouble spots in the book.
3) Objectivity: If all a friend, family member, or loved one can give you as feedback is how awesome every word is, that is great for the poor writer’s ego but not much help to the professional writer. By the same token, if all you get is negative feedback, you may need to take that advice with a grain of salt too. Some beta readers are glass-half-full people and others are more glass-half-empty.
Be sure to thank your beta readers. They are doing you a great service at the expense of their own time, and usually for nothing more than your gratitude, so don’t skimp on that. If you have good betas they are helping you become a better, and hopefully, more successful writer. I can say in all sincerity that I really don’t know what I would do without my League, and I am very grateful for each of them. And I’m pretty sure my editor at Tor is grateful for them too.
R. S. (Rod) Belcher is an award-winning newspaper and magazine editor and reporter. Rod has been a private investigator, a DJ, a comic book store owner and has degrees in criminal law, psychology and justice, and risk administration from Virginia Commonwealth University. He’s done Masters work in Forensic Science at The George Washington University and worked with the Occult Crime Taskforce for the Virginia General Assembly.
The Grand Prize winner of the Star Trek: Strange New Worlds Anthology contest, Rod’s short story “Orphans” was published in Star Trek: Strange New Worlds 9 published by Simon and Schuster in 2006. It was his first professional fiction sale.
Rod’s first novel, The Six-Gun Tarot, was published by Tor Books in 2013. The sequel, The Shotgun Arcana, was published in 2014 and the third book in the Golgotha series—The Queen of Swords is currently in production. His novel, Nightwise, was released in August, 2015, and his latest book, The Brotherhood of the Wheel was published by Tor in March of 2016. Sequels to both of those books are forthcoming.
He lives in Roanoke Virginia with his children, Jonathan and Emily.
Contact Rod at:
Facebook: Author RS Belcher
We ask so much of our fiction–we want action, adventure, a-ha moments, and most of all, we want it to make us feel. We want dramatic moments that make our heart pound and tears run down our faces. We never forget moments like that–like Sam and Frodo after they destroy the ring, sure they’re going to die, or Harry Potter, hit with Voldemort’s curse, talking to Dumbledore’s ghost. Emotions make a book real.
Writing those emotionally packed scenes takes a light touch, and it’s an area where new writers often go a bit overboard. When I’m reading a manuscript from a new writer, I can almost sense the desperation to make me feel what the writer wants me to feel because the words start taking on the finesse of a punch to the jaw. And yet, sometimes a whisper is more heart-breaking than a scream.
I beat my characters up a lot, and put them through hell. I’ve written a lot of death scenes, had a lot of characters see their lives shatter, put the people in my books through the emotional wringer. So let me offer a few things I’ve learned about breaking hearts.
- Less is more. There’s a temptation, especially with new writers, to over-describe, trying to pound the reader into noticing ‘this is it, the big scene, time to feel’. You don’t have to do that. In fact, a sparsely-written interaction can be a lot more heartbreaking because the reader has time to process the emotion without being bombarded with an onslaught of words.
- Don’t try to dictate the reader’s reaction. All we as writers can do is put the story that moves us in front of readers. We can’t predict or control how the reader reacts to the words on the page. New writers often are trying so hard to force the reader to feel sad or angry or happy that the words pile up and go on and on. Stop. Prune. And trust the reader to ‘get’ the scene without being pushed.
- Watch your language. ‘Over-writing’ is the easiest way to unintentionally turn a heart-wrenching scene into an accidental comedy. Understated is always better than over the top. If you start seeing words like ‘pain-soaked’ or ‘anguished’ or ‘agony’ in your big scene, be wary. If you show a character badly injured and he/she screams, we can pretty much figure out it’s in agony without being told. And please, if one character grabs a fistful of another character’s shirt in a tear-jerker scene, do not–do NOT–refer to it as ‘fisting’ the shirt. To quote Inigo Montoya, “I do not think that word means what you think it means.”
- Don’t tell us, show us. If you describe the scene and actions well, a reader will fill in the reaction from his/her own life experience, making the scene extremely personal and poignant for the reader. That can’t happen if there’s too much stage direction from the author, or we’re being force-fed an observing character’s every thought.
- The rest of the book has to be just as good as the big emotional scenes. Often, it’s the heart-breaker scenes that stick in our minds as writers when we come up with the plot for a book because those are the pivotal moments. New writers often pour everything they’ve got into that tear-jerker scene, and sometimes neglect to put as much care into the rest of the book. They’re in such a hurry to get to the big scene, they forget that the rest of the plot is important, and the key scene means even more with the right, slow build-up.
The late style-maker Coco Chanel advised that when you think you’ve dressed appropriately for a big event, stop and remove one piece of jewelry to avoid being overdressed. That’s not bad writing advice. Before you let your big scene get out the door, stop and remove a few adjectives, descriptions or over-used phrases and see the difference it makes!
Reviewers and bloggers–my upcoming book The Shadowed Path (Solaris Books, June 14), a collection of Jonmarc Vahanian short stories in the world of The Summoner, is now on Net Galley. And if you missed reviewing Vendetta or Shadow and Flame, let me know and I can arrange to get you a review copy. Thanks!