Learning something new about your characters

I recently had an interesting experience. I asked a friend of mine to read a piece I’ve been working on for three years, on and off. After countless revisions to the piece, workshopping it with a group, and many teeth gnashing attempts to re-write the ending I had to admit it: I was stuck.

The overall flow of the story was fine, and I thought the characters were in good shape, but I just couldn’t figure out why the story didn’t have a natural conclusion point to resolve (or not resolve) the dilemmas the characters face in the story.

After hanging onto the story for about a month, my friend sent me the piece back with extensive notes. One of the notes mentioned why the husband and wife were so different and how that was probably the key to the story and its conflicts.

When I read my friend’s comments, I was struck dumb. I couldn’t believe it – he broke the whole story open for me again in a way I hadn’t previously considered but which made perfect sense. Thankfully, he really liked the main character in the story and gave me encouraging comments about keeping her as ‘troublesome’ as I was portraying her to be.

As my regular readers know, I struggle mightily with longer form stories and this story is now about 2600 words, over 10 pages, which is absolutely the longest story I’ve written to date – and I’m nowhere near finished.

Readers are so important for critical feedback. I’m hesitant for anyone to see ugly drafts of my unfinished stories (my writerly perfectionist tendencies) but I’m glad I invited this person to read and give me the sober advice I needed to make some essential changes to tone and tension.

What’s so fascinating to me is that I feel like I’m writing a new story. After three years of working on this piece, it was extremely challenging to go back to it time and again knowing I’d be facing the same issues. Now things are flowing and falling into place with these characters. Their motivations and inter-relationships are becoming clearer to me.

I still don’t have the ending, but at least I’ve got many more options for an ending than I had before this reader gave me the insights I was lacking on my own characters.

What about you, fellow writers? Do you believe in getting feedback from trusted first readers?

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The Duotrope Dilemma

Writing and placing short stories may be fun and gratifying, but it’s not a way to get rich. Short story writers  write their work and submit to journals without expectation of payment most of the time. That may be unfortunate, but it’s the truth.

And it used to be true that the whole process was free from looking up your market in Duotrope to submitting via Submittable (formerly SubMishMash) as long as you didn’t submit to a place that charged reading fees, or contest fees (something I’ve discussed on the blog previously. In short, I don’t believe in paying reading or contest fees.)

But beginning Jan 2013, the Duotrope database has started requiring payment – either $5 a month or $50 if you sign up for a full year. Here’s what Duotrope says about what you can no longer access:

If I don’t subscribe, what will I miss out on?

  • You will no longer be able to run searches or browse the index of listings.
  • The information shown on individual market listings will be limited.
  • You won’t be able to access our calendar of deadlines, statistical reports*, or RSS feeds.
  • You will lose access to your control panel, including your submissions tracker

I have mixed feelings about it because I think Duo is a fantastic resource and I’ve enjoyed using it over the years, however, I think $50 for a one year subscription is too steep for most writers who are not getting paid for their work. If it had been half that I would have grumbled but signed up. At $50, I’m not signing up on principle, for now.

Also, I don’t see how the statistics on Duotrope will improve if they have a much smaller number of users reporting their submissions. I suspect the veracity of those statistics will plummet in usefulness unless they achieve a critical mass of people willing to pay. For the sake of Duotrope’s long term viability, I’d suggest they report on the number of paying subscribers they have in order to make clear the total population available to report their subs, but that’s my opinion.

And as for tracking my submissions on Duo, I was doing it more as a service to the editors of the journals where I submitted my work. I keep a separate tracking spreadsheet on my computer that has many more notes and information I find relevant. But individual markets — especially new markets — will potentially suffer from being under-reported due to a lack of user base for Duo because I strongly suspect the majority of users will not pay that fee.

Here are some alternatives for people who need to be able to browse listings to find small press markets to target.

Alternative small press literary magazine listings:

I’d like to hear from people on this one. Have you signed up for Duo, and if so, what was your thinking? If you decided not to use it, was it because of the expense or some other reason?

Court Merrigan’s “Failure” – Insight and Inspiration

I first came across a Court Merrigan story in PANK Magazine. The Cloud Factory is one of those stories I read, then re-read and thought WHOAthis guy is seriously talented. And so he is.

But even if Court Merrigan wasn’t as supremely talented and didn’t publish a passle of stories (29 pieces to date), you could go to his blog and learn a lot by reading his “Failure” page.

CLICK to check out The Failure blog page by Court Merrigan: http://courtmerrigan.wordpress.com/failure/

Yes, his stories have been rejected 279 times  between 7/31/10 and 1/14/12. He’s got a 9% acceptance ratio. He makes all of his stats publically available on his blog.

What is even more helpful is his detailed commentary, beginning in April 2011, from each market rejecting his work. His most recent set of rejections (14 grouped together in one post) talks about A-minor and then the editor of the journal put comments on the post in response to what Court wrote. Can you get any better than that?

As a short story submitter, insights into how an editor thinks is the key to the castle. You’re not getting into the journal unless the editor (or editors, or editors and readers…) line up behind your piece. Any opportunity to peek behind the veil is welcome.

I learned about the Rejection Wiki by reading through Court’s “Failure” pile. The Rejection Wiki is a Wikipedia site and a great resource. You can search through by the name of a magazine, and find out how a “standard” rejection slip is worded, or if a rejection is more customized. For those of us submitting regularly, this is important. You want to know if you missed by a mile or if you were just off by a hair’s breadth.

REJECTION WIKI Click Here: http://www.rejectionwiki.com/index.php?title=Main_Page

Carol’s Failure wiki

So, what about Carol’s “Failure” you may be wondering? Yes, I’ve tracked every submission and response since January 2011.

Thusfar I’ve gotten 183 rejection slips, which shocked me. I never counted them until now, and I hadn’t realized I sent my work out that frequently to be reviewed but I guess I have.

My work is currently submitted to 33 markets for consideration on about 12 different stories awaiting placement.

I’ve had to withdraw pieces from submission consideration 17 times when those stories were accepted by other markets for publication.

My non-failure? 13 stories: 10 published, 3 more accepted and forthcoming soon.

Anecdotally I do get commentary from editors fairly regularly, and it so helpful and encouraging. I revise my stories obsessively – whether I get feedback or not – but the feedback helps with the revisions.

I got very nice comments passed on to me from the Smokelong Quarterly staff when Myfanwy Collins guest edited about a week ago. She and I had a lovely exchange on her blog (I left a thank you note based on her comments,) now we’re following each other’s blogs.

Just today I receieved an email from Chris Heavener, editor of Annalemma with individualized feedback which resonated with me. I’d already been in the process of revising that story (6 times since I submitted to Annalemma in November) and Chris’s insights and comments made perfect sense.

So there you have it. Court Merrigan has inspired me to share my failure with you all, and if this is something you obsess about too, you should go to Court’s blog and read through his postings on the subject. Read through the commentary too, you might just find an editor’s name you know. You can visit the Rejection Wiki to see if you got the “standard” treatment, or if you are just one more submission away from getting the almighty acceptance note.