Guidelines 2

Check an agent or publisher’s guidelines. It sounds simple enough, but it’s an important detail so many wannabe writers miss. Most have them, and many are readily available either on request or if you have internet access on their website. Also, check that the guidelines are up to date. There’s no point in looking at what a publisher wanted ten years ago, or even ten months ago. Their requirements may have changed only last week.

Use the guidelines as any writing tool. It’s important that the writer check they are sending the right piece of work to the right publisher. It may be difficult to believe, but it’s amazing how many people still send a romance book to a horror publisher, or vice versa, but it happens. Some writers seem to think a publisher is a publisher, and it doesn’t matter, or that their work is so brilliant the agent or publisher will still help them even if they don’t deal with that type of literature. This is not the case. If a writer sends a romance to a horror publisher that publisher is going to put the manuscript in the bin the moment they realise its contents. The chances are they won’t even reply, or they’ll dispatch a terse note advising the writer to ‘check our guidelines’. Save them and yourself a lot of time, money and aggravation, by doing this prior to sending out anything.

As well as advising on content, guidelines may also provide further information such as formatting requirements. Most publishers want standard manuscript formatting, but this can vary a little. If it states a certain layout, then follow it. If not, set your work out in standard manuscript formatting. Another thing to be aware of are submission calls and deadlines. There’s no point sending in an unsuitable story, or even a suitable one, after a deadline has passed. On that note, when answering submission calls, I’ve seen it suggested sooner rather than later is preferable. Many publishers wheedle through that pile right away, throwing out rejections, placing others in a possible pile, a few in another in case they’re left with a space to fill. A few wait until the deadline passes, but not all. If there’s a minimum and maximum word count, some publishers will say it may increase your chances to write closer to the minimum count. Longer stories fill an anthology length, and too many of those leaves less space for the number of stories the publisher wishes to include. Therefore, they’re more likely to take more of shorter lengths. Always research individual requirements of each publication.

How it all began…

Some posts like memories are worth keeping. Looking back, it’s hard to believe my social media journey started way back in October 2006 with Myspace, a site many writers (including me) have left in the dust since its focus now seems to be music.

Still, it’s the time I’m thinking of here. It’s difficult to believe it’s been that long because that also means that my first book came out fifteen years ago. Where has the time gone?

I can still remember in 2004, I wondered ‘when’ would I have a larger writing credit out there. Up to that point, my credits had been for poetry, essays, and (mostly) short stories.

Though I rarely read such books, I was in the middle of a decent self-help book. Like many similar volumes, the information told me nothing new, though it’s nice having beliefs and feelings confirmed. One particular chapter talked about not sitting around waiting for things to happen but ‘making’ them happen. Not surprising, but that day, forced to face reality, was the kick I needed.

I knew with writing there were two ways to go. You write what you like and hope to find a publisher or you look for a market, and write for it. Most writers have more success that way, and I’d done pretty well dabbling with both options. For a novel, I chose Loose-Id as a market and wrote a story for them… which flopped, big time. They totally rejected it for three reasons, two of which I agreed with and one which I did not… but that’s neither here nor there, and I’m unsure I can even remember those details now. The strange thing is, I was wholly grateful for that rejection for two reasons. Most important: I learned a lot from their comments.

Determined, I studied what was selling and return to the ‘drawing board’. Second, I was trying to write for a genre I’d never attempted before and the likelihood of my story being snapped up first try would have been extraordinary. With so many vanity and unscrupulous press out there, if Loose-Id had snapped up my first book, I think I wouldn’t have trusted them nearly so much and therefore believed their good comments on my second submission attempt.

So, I wrote for Loose-Id. Why? This is a special question because my heart most lies in dark fiction, although I read all genres including an occasional romance. It’s no lie when I say I like to write as I read, and my library is eclectic. Mostly, I wrote a romance because the first stirrings of a story came to life. I chose Loose-Id because I liked the concept. They published erotic romance, and many of their books were authentic stories, not just a poorly disguised series of events loosely linking a load of sexual content. I had to get over the embarrassment of writing such scenes, but told myself I would worry about what my friends and family would think when I came to it. Before that, I had to come up with a plot so concentrated on a story I believed they couldn’t reject.

I formed my idea in June 2005. In fact, I still have all my hand-scribbled notes, not only for that first book but for books two and three of the trilogy. Looking at them now always provides me with a few moments of smiling. These notes on their own make no sense and some last scenes differ from those first images that flashed into my head, but in that large envelope of messy, nonsensical notes I have my story. But all stories begin in the mind.

As long as there are writers there will always be readers who will ask, ‘Where do you get your ideas?’ The answer is everywhere. Life. Playing the ‘What if’ game. Putting two seemingly disconnected events together. That first book I entitled Uly’s Comet, and it began when I pictured a man sitting on a bench in open parkland and a thief about to steal his money. I did not know who the man was or why he sat there. I did not know the identity of the thief. Later, I came across a name: Shavar, ‘Comet’ and suddenly I had the answers. This story nagged for me to write it. I loved the world, characters, and story I created and lucky for me, so did the publisher…

Sadly, as many of you may know, Loose-Id closed recently enough for it still to sting. A fine business and group of people which did amazingly well and should have lasted even longer, and while I have republished some tales I wrote while with them, I have yet to revisit the world of my comet. I’ve also gone on to write other things, and here’s the point of this blog. Had I not tracked down a publisher, chosen to write something good enough to submit to them, and worked hard at it, achieved my goal, started with social media, I wouldn’t have networked. I wouldn’t have made other contacts, or written for other publishers, and series, including several novels in the Lethbridge-Stewart world (The Brigadier of Doctor Who fame), or even, by recommendation, my short eleventh Doctor audio story for Big Finish. All because one day I decided it was time I achieved a larger writing credit… and took the next necessary steps, refusing rejection.

Submission Guidelines

All publishers have them, and most are online nowadays, so make a note, pay attention, and follow the guide. The instructions will often explain not only how to present work but also what type of stories the publisher is looking for. This may be for general publication or a specific submission call, such as a magazine putting out a themed issue.

PAY ATTENTION. Seriously. Occasionally, writers have cause to moan about the publishing industry, but we can say equally the same in reverse. I’ve witnessed a publisher’s submission call receive hundreds of questions, the answers to which were in the call itself. Some publishers will display immense patience. Others, especially those inundated with submissions, will dismiss work from those individuals they view as acting less than professionally. Before the writer queries, best to make sure they’ve not provided the answer, so read the guide more than once.

Another good reason to read guidelines is it’s amazing how many writers waste their time and that of agents and publishers by submitting the wrong thing to the wrong market. I’m not talking about not *quite understanding* what an editor is looking for—sometimes this is hit and miss at best—but it’s pointless to send a romance title to a horror market or vice versa, and yet it continues to happen. Result: Binned. The writer may receive guidelines in reply or hear nothing.

Study the market. Make sure the right story goes to the right publication or as close as is possible so it has a genuine chance. Also buy and read at least one copy of any magazine or a book from a publisher when considering the market. Not only does the purchase help keep these markets going, it gives the writer an insight to what the publisher requires. Reading is really the only way to tell whether a work fits and whether the author even wishes to consider a specific publisher. Send out work randomly and it wastes everyone’s time.

What’s in a Name?

One question I never thought I’d need to address was whether to write under a pseudonym. Pen-names weren’t for me. My dream was to be a writer. Why wouldn’t I want to ‘own’ that?

I came to a stuttering halt when my first novel turned out to be erotic romance (heavier on the romance/adventure aspect). Why? I had an idea which nagged me and a market to submit to, delighted to take it. I dithered over what name to use with a few friends coming up with some (truly) ridiculous offerings. I had to explain the publisher I was with would never allow such jokes to stand, and neither did I wish to use one.

Then a writer/friend advised I should never write something I wasn’t willing to put my name to; speaking from experience, if I were to put out work without owning it, I might come to regret it. My thoughts were similar: “What if this is the only novel I ever publish?” I had nothing to hide, though I have to admit I never gave a day job a thought. Never occurred to me an employer might object to something one of their employees wrote, though I’ve since come to realise that for many writers, their day jobs are foremost on their minds when publishing.

This still seems unfair to me. Especially with certain genres, of which romance and/or erotica appear to get the brunt of dislike. I believe a writer should have the right to depict an accurate reflection of the world. Sex? For goodness’ sakes, be an adult. No one seems to object when the teenage couple slink off into the woods to have their kissing interrupted by an axe-wielding maniac, or cannibalistic family living in the wilderness. But depict consenting adults doing what makes the world go round, and too many will advert their gazes. If you don’t like something, don’t read it. Simple as.

Still, I now realise many writers choose pen-names for protection. They don’t want their writing to affect them in their workplaces, or halt their non-writing careers. They don’t want to encounter abuse from friends, family, colleagues, or neighbours. They don’t want a super fan right from the pages of Stephen King’s Misery to track down where they live.

So, it’s a serious question worth considering before you’re ever published, although these days one can never guarantee keeping an identity secret. Still, I wish I had given it more consideration for another reason: although never my intention, I’ve slipped into the precarious category of multi-genre author, not an enviable position to be in.

I’ve often said I write as I read, meaning anything and everything. When you’ve varied tastes and the muse strikes, it’s hard not to follow where the ideas lead. Yet it’s not the wisest choice. Writing can be as much about branding as the work itself, but success in one genre does not guarantee success in all. Readers, even devoted ones, will not necessarily follow you everywhere, especially if you’re a lower-end or mid-range author (perfectly acceptable levels in which to have excellent publishing careers) rather than that of the household name variety. Writing in two (or more) genres often means twice (or more) the amount of work. Hence, unenviable. You may also want to avoid confusion. Readers come to expect a certain something from a brand (name).

An ‘easy’ way to separate genres is to choose different names, regardless of whether you keep them unrelated and/or secret. In retrospect, I wish I had made a better selection for all my romantic endeavours, but it’s far too late now. Changing at this stage might confuse those who love my work. When I came to write steampunk, and then Doctor Who related fiction, I simply dropped the middle name — originally added because I thought it sounded better. But, though these works have dark elements (as so, too, do some of my romances), they’re not as dark as several short stories, or the horror novel I’m working on. How do I brand this fiction?

For a long time I toyed with writing under the name Sharon Kernow (much of my original interest in myths and legends arose from holidays in Cornwall/Kernow, but I grew to love Devon and other counties as well), and even attempted this with some short works, but now I’m not so sure. Though I don’t consider my name to have a particular ‘author-like’ sound, I don’t wish to feel detached from my writing. So, I switched to using initials, as there’s still some belief that, as men have and still use pseudonyms to write romance, women still struggle to achieve recognition in horror. But I’ve seen a few women who are breaking these barriers, and I’d feel proud to be one of them and part of women in horror month.

For now, I remain torn. Do I discard the middle name, use initials, or change my name entirely? Some days I feel like calling myself Sharon Savage, but that’s more to do with my mood than reflective of anything I’m writing.

What do you think? Anyone who has thoughts on the subject or a similar experience is welcome to comment.

Public vs Private

During this pandemic crisis, with political tensions running high, this may be the perfect time to ask when should a writer (or anyone with a public persona) keep their beliefs private and when should they make them public?

Not all of us share the same beliefs. I’m glad of this. Not only would it make for a boring world but imagine if we all believed something horrible, such as cruelty to children or animals was fine and the fate of the planet wasn’t our concern. Strong beliefs make us stand up, speak openly, defend and protect those who cannot do so for themselves. Standing up for one’s beliefs can lead to changes for the better. Differences of opinion lead to breakthroughs.

Alas, the sad, simple fact is that not of us can agree to disagree. That’s why the advice to be careful what you state publicly can be perfectly understandable. They say never discuss sex, religion, and politics…considering some things I’ve written there’s at least one of those topics that’s occasionally been unavoidable, but that doesn’t mean I have to let the public into my private life. Besides, what do you want to know? I’m a normal person, like my readers. I crawl out of bed in the morning, brush my teeth, stumble into the kitchen in search of that first coffee. I also wash clothes, clean the house, cook, shop…have friends and family. In addition, I make mistakes, apologies, laugh, cry, get sick, heal, and hurt, for myself and for others.

There are some things that are unavoidable. I can hardly write romance without declaring that I believe people should be free to love whom their heart tells them to love. I can’t write darkness without delving into the mysterious and questioning justice. You only have to read my work to know that. I realise there are those who will vehemently disagree with me and may even hate me for it. All I can say is that there is more than one element to my personality. I feel a view that dictates because our beliefs differ we cannot be friends is short-sighted.

Do I agree with all the things my friends believe in? Do I agree with all their decisions? No, of course I don’t. I have friends who are homophobic and rather than attack them for this, if they wished to discuss the topic I would hope we could do so sensibly and intelligently. I would like to know why they feel the way they do, and I would be open to explaining my viewpoint. Ultimately, they are entitled to their beliefs as long as they don’t victimise others for it. I don’t expect all my friends to like each other, but I expect all of them to respect they are all my friends and to be civil should they ever meet, especially if it’s under my roof. I don’t believe to like another person you both have to share the same sexual, religious or political belief. I’m capable of agreeing to disagree, and that’s one thing I wish was more widespread.

There are limits. There are some things in this world I couldn’t tolerate but they are usually in extremes and no one should want someone around who feels certain forms of abuse are fine, but I’m not talking about that level of animosity. I’m a different person to you. If we all wanted to love thyself to this extent, there’d be no reason ever to say hello to another human being.

Therefore, don’t assume that because I’m friends with someone in my private life, or elsewhere, is someone with whom I share the same beliefs, especially in this world of social media. I don’t know what may lurk in all those dark hearts, though the horror writer in me likes to explore this question. Never assume all the viewpoints in the stories I write are from my personal viewpoint. One aspect of a writer’s job is to show all sides of the argument, without getting into a public, personal disagreement.

Chances are…

You will write something you love.

You will write something you hate.

Something you once loved you will come to hate and wonder what in the world you were thinking.

Something you once hated will become loved because you will realise there was more going on in the story than you first thought.

Something you love and even believe is one of your best works will flop.

Something you consider to be weak will be well received and even be a huge success.

You will write jokes no one else gets.

People will laugh at points in the story where you least expect.

You may try a writing contest and get nowhere. The winning entry will leave you scratching your head or possibly sobbing into a pillow.

You will fall out with at least one editor, or one will fall out with you. (This doesn’t mean a screaming match. Fall outs are often quiet. It happens. Personalities clash. Opinions differ. Most publishers understand this and will assign the writer to a new editor.)

You will worry.

You will read something outstanding and wonder whatever made you think you could write.

You will read something lousy and wonder why you are getting nowhere when your work is so much better.

You will want to give up…

…and then get an idea you ‘must’ write.

You will be determined never to stop…

…until the next time you want to give up.

My Parents Will See This

Many years ago I wrote an amusing and eyebrow-raising short piece of prose called My Parents Will See This. It was in answer to an exercise someone set on a forum about how people have a mistaken view of writers. Although many laughed and were possibly slightly scandalised by my offering, there was a lot of truth in it. People DO look at something an author has written and raise an eyebrow or two; maybe they even whisper behind said author’s back. Or, these days, get up in their face.

My first published novel was a gay fantasy romance. I wrote it because the idea nagged at me. I had no other agenda in mind other than I had chosen a publisher I wanted to write for, and I had found the perfect idea to fit them. Even if I hadn’t a publisher in mind, I would have written the story. It bugged me, kept me awake, distracted me, begged. The only way to get this story out of my head was to write it down.

The publisher I had chosen produced erotic romance. I knew the story had to be explicit. Talk about a jump in the deep end. My first full-length novel and I made it not only explicit but at heart a gay romance. Try explaining that to the relatives.

Writing anything in the least sexual is probably the most difficult to contend with. People will come to peculiar conclusions. The romance genre has expanded in recent years to include cross-genre writing from paranormal through to erotica and even BDSM. Some writers have experience in some of these categories, but not all. So how does a writer ‘write’ a BDSM story without being involved in the life? How does a straight woman write a gay romance?

Research. The writer reads. The writer asks questions. The writer studies how other writers are doing it. The writer dissects a book he or she enjoyed in that genre, and although I’ve mentioned explicit content here as a prime example, these basics apply to any work. It never ceases to amaze me people can get so fired up over sexual content, yet those same folks won’t say a word against the latest horror novel or film. Some do, of course. I’d like to protest and claim no one approaches the crime or thriller writer and asks them where they hide the dead bodies, but they probably do. Crime or horror writers get asked as many peculiar questions as erotica authors. I know they have asked King how he sleeps at night and he has apparently answered, “Very well, thank you.” Still sex seems to receive the highest negativity. What two consenting adults do isn’t okay, but a ski-masked killer hacking up young virgins is? Many an erotic romance writer shakes a head over this—just not one they’ve decapitated.

Sex is another part of the human condition, same as death, same as fear, or joy, any other experience or emotion. Writing sexual content does not mean the author spends the weekend trying out the latest ‘toys’ for review or even as research. It does not mean the writer is a nymphomaniac. Not all erotica writers wear corsets on the weekends. A roundabout way to get to my point.

BE TRUE TO THE STORY.

It doesn’t matter what you are writing, IMHO the writer needs to be true to the content. If the story needs sex, then consider in what context. Same for anything explicit—there shouldn’t be gratuitous sex, same as there shouldn’t be gratuitous gore. What counts as gratuitous is another argument. The quick answer is everything in a book has to propel the story. Everything a character experiences must change that character. If writing for an erotic romance publisher, the writer has to include sex so the trick would be to come up with an idea that allows sex to occur, but includes the other elements of story and plot. Another genre might approach this from the other direction—the story may require sex and the author will include it only if needed, but if writing for a market that requires such content, it’s the writer’s job to work it in as part of the storytelling. The same with horror. The writer knows it’s necessary to scare the audience.

There are distinct styles required for different books, and various markets, and if the author wants to write for them he or she must accept this. Don’t worry who will read it. No one need read it until the author is ready to put the story out there. Even then it can always go out under a pen-name, although be aware this does not guarantee anonymity, especially these days.

I’m saying, don’t be afraid—if you want to write, you can’t be—and that applies to whatever the author is writing. Maybe it’s not a sexual scene. Maybe a character needs to die horribly. The writer just knows his or her mother will be terribly turned off by it, even sickened. Who and what should the author be loyal to? The parent? The story? One could say the writer should be true to the reader, but before that the writer needs to be true to the writer. Put into a story everything it requires, regardless of what others might think. No more, but definitely no less.

Not convinced? Try it. If the writer is lucky enough and has found the right genre and the right voice to work with, that’s wonderful. If not, then write something with all those worries and barriers in place. Then write it again with those barriers lowered. No one need see it. See if that changes the outcome. I know it did for me.