Eight Is Enough Q&A Interview

My Eight is Enough Q&A interview is up on Sarah-Jane Lehoux’s blog, where I answer eight questions about writing and what ebooks I got coming out in the near future. Please take a moment to read and leave a comment.

The last question was fun: “This is the most important question you ever answer. Your life depends on it. Zombie pirate or zombie ninja?”

Everyone interviewed so far went for zombie pirate. I actually gave two answers. Here’s the first answer that appears in the Q&A:

Zombie pirate. I can see a zombie pirate chugging down a bottle of rum and jumping overboard for shark brains.

Here’s the second answer:

A zombie ninja doesn’t make any sense. Ninjas are all about precision, which was why they took over consumer electronics and work for Steve Jobs at Apple.

This answer made realize that I needed to hone my reputation as being a Silicon Valley writer. Too many of my early short stories have generic locations to appeal to the widest audience. Of course, those were literary short stories. Unless a literary short story featured New York City, anywhere else would make that short story suitable only for the regional markets. The West Coast is a very small regional market.

When I found my grove in writing speculative short stories, the location sometimes became more important than the characters. This year I let all my unpublished manuscripts fall out of circulation from the slush piles to rewrite each one to fix any structural flaws and re-slant for the Silicon Valley locale before submitting again. Silicon Valley will be a prominent location in future stories whenever possible.

Does Borders Closing 200 Stores Mean The End of Writing?

After Borders made the announcement that they were filing for bankruptcy and closing 200 stores, my father asked me if I was going to give up writing. This was a rare conversation. I came from a non-reading family where the daily newspaper and a rare New York Times bestseller was the maximum threshold for reading material.  When my father stayed with me for two months after being discharged from the hospital last year, he became bored because he had nothing to watch on television. (Over-the-air HDTV in Silicon Valley has many clear channels in different languages but none of the major networks in English.) I pointed to my personal library of 400 books. He told me he wasn’t that bored. Being a published writer secured my reputation as being the eccentric uncle in the family.

Does Borders closing 200 stores means the end of writing? Uh, no.

As I explained to my father, Borders having 200 fewer outlets to sell books may impact dead tree writers in the short-term. Independent bookstores have been going out of business for years—usually one at a time—without raising any questions about the general state of writing. With Borders closing so many stores over the next several weeks, the general public may conclude that the end is nigh for writing if they can’t walk into a big box bookstore to find the New York Times bestsellers lining the entrance.

Then again, they’re just ignorant Americans educated not to think too hard about anything or question the status quo around them. For serious readers and intellectual anarchists, Amazon, Barnes & Noble and independent bookstores are still around to fill the void.

As short story writer, I’m still writing short stories. I’ve seen many snail mail magazines go belly up during the Great Recession because they haven’t transitioned over to online submissions and selling their publications over the Internet. Many new magazines, anthologies and ebook publishers have popped up in their wake.

The challenge I have isn’t having enough places to submit my short stories but finding the right places that will accept and pay for my short stories. (Would the world have known about Shakespeare if he didn’t have any paying customers?) There are plenty of publications that accept short stories for free or contributor copies.

I’m encouraged to see some publishers are starting to pay for the first time or pay pro rates (i.e, $0.05USD or better per word). If for some reason I can’t place a short story somewhere, I can always make it available as an ebook and make a nice profit for myself. Writing is alive and well in my nick of the woods.

Anyone else being asked if they are giving up writing because Borders are closing stores?

The Fiction Reprint Market Is Dead!

The most frustrating thing about being a short story writer is that the fiction reprint market is dead. A non-fiction writer can write an article for one magazine, slant the focus of the article for other magazines, and have a back catalog of articles to sell as reprints with minor changes. (Since I rarely write non-fiction outside of my blogs, I’m assuming that the Internet hasn’t killed off the non-fiction reprint market as well.) Once a short story is published, its life cycle comes to a dead end.

Very few print magazine and anthologies will take reprints, and some e-zines will take reprints if they haven’t appeared on the Internet. Most will pay little or nothing for reprints, and aren’t worth the trouble in chasing down. A short story collection is good for entering the annual contests, but don’t expect to find a publisher unless you’re already a prize-winning literary writer and/or best-selling novelist. The fiction reprint market is dead—or is it?

Several months ago I was finishing up some maintenance work on my websites when I caught the tail end of the #blogchat conversation on Twitter, where Georganna Hancock mentioned something about publishing ebooks for the Amazon Kindle. I asked a few questions and she pointed me to Kindle Direct Publishing.

Doing some more research, I came across Smashwords and their fantastic style guide for formatting ebooks. I soon uploaded my first ebook, “The Uninvited Spook,” my first published short story that I long had the reprint rights for, to both Amazon (Kindle) and Smashwords (all other ebook readers). Since then I have published a half-dozen ebooks featuring 10 reprints and seven original flash stories to earn $12 USD on 17 copies.

The traditional fiction reprint market is dead, but publishing reprints as ebooks is alive and well. Short stories published in hard-to-find magazines can now be read by new readers in widely available electronic formats. The one question I hated to hear from my readers—okay, only one person ever asked—is where they can read my work. I used to point readers to my credit list and anthologies page. Now I can point to my ebooks page, where my work is available for reading.

Half of my ebook sales came from the reprint of a Christmas shopping essay about how far my mother went to get her granddaughter a Cabbage Patch doll. While releasing a holiday-themed essay before the holidays may explain why it may be my most popular ebook title to date, I read elsewhere that original non-fiction sells well as ebooks. I’m planning to release a dozen ebooks coming over the next two years, mostly reprints and some original essays.

A NaNoWriMo Flash Story Collection

Last year I had planned on participating in the 2010 National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) competition by completing the remaining 50,000 words for my second novel this month, which 1/3 done at 25,000 words. I also expected revising my first novel would be done by now, but that didn’t happen since editing a novel-length manuscript is really, really hard. Abandoning the revision of my first novel to continue the second novel wouldn’t be right. Besides, I haven’t reviewed what I had previously written and outlined for the second novel. Skipping NaNoWriMo like I had in previous years was the only option I could see as I wasn’t in the mood to start a new novel to gather dust next to my second novel. Two days into the competition I had an idea: why not use NaNoWriMo to create a collection of 100 500-word flash short stories?

Here’s my “Flash In The Pan Short Story Collection” for NaNoWriMo:

This is a fantasy/horror/science fiction/supernatural collection of 100 flash short stories of 500-word each. The collection itself will never be published. Each flash short story will be edited, lengthen or shorten where needed, and submitted for individual publication in 2011.

Why are writing 100 different 500-word flash stories easier than a novel?

I have written 53 short stories of various lengths over the last five years, with 18 short stories published or slated for publication. I think I will always be a short story writer since it’s easier for me to focus on something shorter than longer. I’m also one of those people who would prefer to see a long credit list of short projects than spending years creating a long masterpiece.

Writing four 500-word short stories for 2,000 words per day will be easy to do. Each story idea will exist in my mind only long enough to write in longhand and put aside without interfering with my novel revision. The writing itself doesn’t take the most time; I can pop out a flash story in a half-hour. Editing the flash story to stay under the 500 word count while telling a good story can take up to three hours to complete. I plan to edit and submit all these flash stories for publication throughout 2011. If I get stuck on revising my novel or run out of ideas for short stories, I can pull out a flash story to finish working on.

The trick for writing 100 flash stories in one month is to make sure I don’t run out of unique ideas. One way to avoid that is to have serial characters.

The first four flash stories I wrote featured the cannibalistic restaurateur owner Charles Goodwin of The Giggling Mongoose (“Salt of The Air,” “Swine of The Earth,” “Honey of The Fire” and “Rice of The Water” published in Elements of Horror anthology). I have since written a 5,000-word short story about Mr. Goodwin and an old goat with three young things following him (“Scarlet Hearts” is still floating in the slush pile).

Writing another set of flash stories would be a good way to explore his character further before plunging into another longer piece. I had also written about two computer science students using Jewish mysticism to create a computerized golem for their class project that ended with a blue screen of death (“Golem Got The Blues” published in Daily Flash 2011: 365 Days of Flash Fiction anthology).  If you fail once with Jewish mysticism and computer technology, try again. Or is that, rinse and repeat?

Tonight I’ll do some brainstorming to line up the first set of story ideas and tomorrow I’ll start writing my flash short story collection. Perhaps the creative rush will help me finish revising my novel.

Letting Short Stories Lie Fallow

This summer I took a break from the boring admin task of keeping 35+ short stories in circulation by letting them lay fallow after coming back with rejection slips. My tracking spreadsheet turned red over the last three months as I revised my first novel. A few recent short stories that garnered positive feedback from editors were kept in circulation. All the rest I didn’t bother with when they came back.

Although it took me a year to write a 120,000-word, 700-page rough draft manuscript of my first novel, it took another year to figure out how to revise it. The next draft after a three-month break had split the book into two volumes and removed all the material that didn’t work or wasn’t developed enough. And then I got stuck. I spent the remainder of the year on a speculative fiction bender that saw many of my recent short stories being accepted for anthologies. Meanwhile, I kept waiting for my novel manuscript to revise itself (not surprisingly, it didn’t).

What was the problem? The rough draft was crap. Unlike the rough drafts for many of my short stories, it wasn’t even brilliant crap. Just plain old crap that I couldn’t motivate myself to finish revising. The nagging doubt that haunted me was that the manuscript was too long for a first novel, and, even if it was split into two 80,000-word volumes, was still a hard sell for a first time novelist.

The solution to this problem became clearer over the summer: 1) revising a novel is hard work and not for the faint of heart; and, 2) I’ll need to write a shorter novel to increase my chances of finding an agent and/or publisher.

I spent three weeks summarizing each chapter on a notepad and outlining the first volume in Post-It Notes on a poster board to visualize the overview of the story. This is what I should have done a year ago. I started revising each chapter as many times as needed until it was good enough for me to move on to the next chapter, and update the outline—now spread out on four 30″ x 20″ sheets of mouse-colored paper pinned to a wall—with a breakdown of each chapter. I’m averaging two finished pages a day. If I’m lucky, I’ll finish revising the current draft by the end of the year.

Another reason to let short stories lie fallow is that many literary publications affiliated with universities don’t read the slush piles during the summer. If you sent a bunch of submissions at the end of the school year, don’t expect a response until September or October. Waiting for snail mail responses in the dog days of August is a painful exercise in patience when checking the post office box every week.

If you’re dependent on writing to pay the bills, taking the summer off to focus on a big project wouldn’t be wise. If you’re writing only fiction, you’re not making that much money anyway. (I’m lucky to get $20 USD here and there over the last five years.) The long-term payoff for fiction writers is having a successful career as a novelist. As much as I love to write short stories, I had to get serious about revising my novel this summer. If you’re successful enough to make a living from writing, you need a paid vacation anyway.

Now that summer is almost over, it’s time to get those short stories back into circulation. With The Iowa Short Fiction Award accepting submissions until September 30th, I’m reviewing my first collection manuscript as a way to focus my attention on the 32 short stories therein. I should have that done within the next 10 days. I’ll be assembling my second collection from October to December to submit for the 2011 Prairie Schooner Book Prize Series next year, reviewing all 21 speculative short stories that I wrote in the last year. The boring admin task of keeping so many manuscripts in circulation has returned.

Ye Olde Short Story Collection

Last week I got notification that my short story collection wasn’t a winner in the 2010 Prairie Schooner Book Prize Series. A real disappointment, but I knew the contest was a long shot. The winner was “Destroy All Monsters” by Greg Hrbek, who has such an impressive literary resume that he makes me look like a penny dreadful pulp writer in comparison.  (The title was also that of a 1968 Godzilla movie, so figure out what that prize-winning shot story collection is all about.) Why did I enter this contest that I have no hope in winning?

If you’re a short story writer, you will eventually put together a short story collection. Entering a contest like the Prairie Schooner Book Prize Series is a good motivator for putting a collection together if you have enough short stories to exceed the minimum manuscript requirements.

After I got a postcard four months before the contest opened for submissions in January 2010, I pulled together a 186-page manuscript with 27 short stories written from 2006 to 2008, with the shortest being 350 words and the longest being 6,000 words. I learned how to be a better editor after extensively revising each short story before adding to the collection. Some of the revised short stories that got rejected a dozen times before got accepted for publication after being submitted elsewhere. That made the $25 entry fee a worthwhile investment.

Besides, what writer doesn’t want to win $3,000 USD in cash and a book contract?

The biggest challenge to putting together a short story collection was the lack of information on how to put one together, probably because short story collections are the bastard children of the publishing industry. The days of writers making a living on writing only short stories are long gone. Most publishers will not consider a short story collection unless you have several novels that appeared on the bestseller lists, and even then will reluctantly publish one if only as a teaser for the next novel. When looking at various short story collections, the organization of each one is about as idiosyncratic as the author who put it together.

When I put my short story collection together, I kept each short story stapled together in a three-ringed binder. I used a 3×5 card with the title, word count and short description for each short story. The sorting process was the hardest to figure out. Alphabetical (too many titles started with “The”) and chronological (suck more to suck less) sorting orders weren’t considered. I ended up splitting the cards into four broad categories—family, people, spirituality, weird—and shuffling them all together. I further re-arranged the order to ensure a proper balance with alternating categories and length sizes. Satisfied with the order of the short stories inside the binders, I put the final manuscript together on the computer.

That arrangement worked well for me. But keep in mind that some editors and/or readers will reject reading unrelated short stories that don’t have an overriding theme to tie the whole collection together. I selected these stories from the first two-and-a-half years that I started writing, representing my “literary” period. After I put this collection together, I went on a non-stop “speculative” writing bender that will form my next collection for the 2011 Prairie Schooner Book Prizes Series. That collection will fly or sink on the whims of the evaluating editor.

What will I do with my “rejected” short story collection manuscript? Nothing.

I’m still circulating the unpublished short stories to find a home for them. I could find a publisher to publish the collection, but I’m going to hold off until I have an agent for my first novel that I’m working on. Since I started selling my short stories to the anthologies, the contracts I’d signed often contain a year-long exclusivity clause that prevents the short stories from being reprinted elsewhere. Timing becomes a huge factor when pulling a collection together. Having an agent to double-check all those contracts and perhaps negotiate waivers will be useful.

Of course, winning a contest to catch the attention of an agent wouldn’t hurt either.

Write, Revise, Submit, Repeat

Note: This is a special blog post for the “My Best Advice to New Writers” blogfest organized by Peevish Penman.

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If you want to be a prolific short story writer like Ray Bradbury, who wrote 400+ short stories during his long career, you need to write, revise, and submit your short story. And then write the next short story and submit that. You need to keep on writing and submitting your short stories until you have so many manuscripts floating around in the slush piles that a handful of rejection slips in one day won’t faze you. If you’re going to be a short story writer, rejections will always be waiting for you like a dear old friend waiting for you to buy him a drink on payday.

Most new writers stop writing after the first submission and wait to be discouraged by the inevitable rejection slip that arrives six weeks later in the snail mail—or the next morning, if submitting by email. Discouragement will make writing the next short story more difficult. Unless you’re one of those literary writers who must take ten years to write that next prize-winning masterpiece, you can outrun discouragement by writing and submitting as often as you can.

I wrote a dozen short stories each year for the last five years. Sometimes the stories came one at a time, with a month or two going by before the next one demanded to be written. Other times I have short stories raining down like fish from out of the sky, which can be quite overwhelming if you’re not ready for the deluge. No matter how fast or slow a short story arrives, I get it written and submitted ASAP. If a short story returns home with constructive criticism on the manuscript page or rejection slip, I make the revisions and kick it out the door.

My first short story wasn’t accepted until two years after I started writing. By then I had a dozen short stories in circulation and a hundred rejection slips. My second short story wasn’t accepted until a year-and-a-half later. By then I had a four-dozen short stories in circulation and another hundred rejection slips. And then something happened. My writing and editing got better. The floodgates were open. I had a dozen short stories accepted for publication in magazines and anthologies in the last nine months.

Even now I still have 35+ short story manuscripts in circulation. I’m still too busy with writing—and sometimes trying to keep track of everything—to be discouraged by rejection slips. That doesn’t mean I don’t take the rejection of some submissions more personally than others. Whenever I’m disappointed that The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction or Weird Tales haven’t accepted my wonderful short story, I allow myself a fifteen-minute hissy fit. But only for fifteen minutes. I’m too busy with writing, revising and submitting my short stories to do anything else.

The Non-Universal RTF File Format

Over the past year or so, I have switched from submitting my short stories via snail mail to email. That decision was driven by both economics and practicality. Being without a full-time non-writing job for 16 months had forced me to reduce expenses to live on my unemployment benefits. Fewer snail mail submissions means buying fewer reams of paper, envelopes and stamps. Since I’ve been on a speculative fiction writing bender for the last nine months, many of those markets accept submissions only by email. The manuscript is submitted either in the body of the email, or attached as a Word (.doc) or RTF (.rtf) file. Of the two file formats, RTF (Rich Text Format) is the universal format that should open in any word processor on any system.

Several editors had recently informed me that wasn’t true. They could view the contents of the RTF file on the screen without problem. When they try to format and/or print out the text, strange symbols appear on the end of each line. Two things became quite obvious: I’m using a Mac and the editors are using Microsoft Word 95 or another older word processor.

My primary word processor is Pages (Mac) for creating and maintaining my manuscript files. I also use Microsoft Word 2004 to double-check my manuscripts against the grammar checker (expect a rejection slip if you don’t do this) and ensure that the Word file exported from Pages work without problem. The only reason why I don’t use Word by default is that it runs slower than molasses on my MacBook, which uses Rosetta to emulate PPC CPU software on the Intel CPU. I might switch to Microsoft Word 2011 when it comes out later this year. I’m overdue to upgrade my writing tools.

Why are some editors still using Word 95 that came out for 15 years ago? Beats me.

I can’t imagine an editor being more cash-strapped than a writer when it comes to writing tools. Perhaps these editors are working for bootstrap publishers that haven’t let go of the bootstraps yet. The full version of Microsoft Office is always expensive, but the student version is quite affordable.

Some academic editors still use WordPerfect because their colleges upgrade software at a glacial pace. I very much doubt I’ll ever run into a hard-core WordStar fanatic who lives and die by the 1980’s word processor. An instructor warned me that I might encounter such a person when I took a technical writing course San Jose State University in 1994. These older word processors have problems reading the newer RTF files that have unsupported features such as character encoding and password protection, and don’t recognize that files created on the Mac have the end of line encoded differently than Windows.

What’s the solution for this problem?

Export the file from Pages as an RTF file, open the file in Word, and re-save the file as a Word 95-compatible RTF file (you will need to select this option from the pull-down menu). You could also use TextEdit to re-save the file, but that would be a Word 97-compatible RTF file and I’m not sure if that would be compatible with Word 95.

If I submit a manuscript to a market that requires an RTF file attachment, I’ll send it out as Word 95-compatible RTF file to avoid having problems. Some editors are willing to work with you on a file compatibility issue. Most editors will find it easier to reject a submission for having a “corrupt” file attachment.

Aiming For The Prairie Schooner Book Prize

This week I got a post card in the mail for the Prairie Schooner Book Prize Series that will be accepting contest submissions for a collection of short stories (150+ pages) and poetry (50+ pages) between January 15, 2010 and March 15, 2010. The entry fee is $25. The grand prize is $3,000 and publication through the University of Nebraska Press. I’m planning to enter my short story collection. This is a strong motivator to polish off all my short stories from the last four years that are languishing in the slush piles.

If you search the Internet for how to put together a short story collection, you won’t find much information. Most articles start off with the caveat that publishers won’t accept a short story collection unless you’re a well-established author, and even then somewhat reluctantly. Surprisingly, The Wall Street Journal reported that short story collections are breaking out this year and e-readers might make short stories a viable form again. I found this article and the arrival of postcard to be most encouraging for my own short story collection.

Since I had four short-short stories accepted for an anthology that I wrote after looking at the submission requirements two months ago, I started looking at the submission requirements of various anthologies and publications to match up with the short story ideas that I had previously thought up or recycling the ones that I started but never finished, letting the deadlines determine my writing priorities for the next three months.

My first non-fiction essay, “The Cabbage Patch Doll Fight,” about how my mother got a Cabbage Patch Kids doll for my baby niece by punching out two other mothers in a Toy “R” Us brawl in the early 1980’s, was accepted for publication in a special Christmas issue of Soft Whispers Magazine. I originally threw this story idea out on the Editor Unleashed forums since I didn’t think I had the time to write anything new when I got my hands full with revising my first novel and a short story with a submission due date at the end of the month. The editor wanted the story and I found the time to write. This became my fifth accepted story in the last two months and I have seven stories appearing in the next six months.

I’m going to be busy during the holidays. I’m wrapping up and putting aside my first novel after cutting 30,000 words from the 125,000-word rough draft and splitting the novel in two volumes. I got four short stories I’m writing to submit to different anthologies. I write on average eight short stories a year, but I’m on track to write 13 or 14 short stories this year. I’m revising my 20,000-word vampire novella for submission to an ebook publisher. The New Year will begin with me polishing off the 27+ short stories in my collection to submit to the Prairie Schooner contest by March 2010, and working on the next draft of volume one of my first novels.

Maybe I should find time to look for a job since I‘ve I been unemployed from non-writing work for the last nine months. Rejection slips and contributor copies don’t pay the bills, which is why I put a PayPal donation button my author website. If you got some spare change, please help out a busy writer get ahead financially. The grand prize from the contest is still a long ways off.


NOTE: This blog post was first published on Once Upon An Albatross… blog.