Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat revolutionised my writing–or rather, my storytelling. It’s primarily a screenwriting book, but the principles apply just as well to fiction. My favourite part is the Beat Sheet: a list of elements making up the classic Three Act Structure.
Snyder is quite exacting about the timing of these elements, down to the script page number. A story can be more flexible than a film, but this still provides a great sense of timing. Your Act 1 doesn’t necessarily have to finish at precisely 25%, but if it finishes at 72% it’s a good indication that your pacing is off (or your story needs to be a lot longer.)
Some writers find the concept of structure constricting, but for me it was liberating. I would often find myself with cool characters in an interesting scenario, and then sit there wondering what should happen next. Keeping the Beat Sheet at the back of my mind helps me realise what HAS to happen next. It provides a natural progression for the story.
Snyder’s 15 point Beat Sheet can be found here: http://www.blakesnyder.com/tools/
The blog section of the site also provides some fascinating breakdowns of films, which are well worth a look. Once you know it’s there, you start seeing this structural skeleton everywhere–it’s like having X-ray Vision.
I use a 12 point adaptation of the Beat Sheet, and it’s served me very well–even for very short stories. To show a working example, my dark fantasy Never Leave Me, recently published at Daily Science Fiction (free to read here: http://dailysciencefiction.com/fantasy/magic-and-wizardry/michelle-ann-king/never-leave-me) is only 1,280 words long–but the Beats are still there:
Normal World: MC’s current struggles, in their current environment.
The opening paragraph is a reference to fairy tales, both to set the tone for the story and to introduce Katrine’s problem: the reality of her ‘happy ever after’ hasn’t matched her expectations.
Inciting Incident: An event caused by the Antagonist that changes the situation.
The Antagonist here is Aron–even though he doesn’t know it. He provides opposition by not being the kind of husband Katrine really wants. He sets things in motion by going hunting and leaving her behind.
The Challenge: MC debates what this means & what to do about it.
Katrine makes Aron swear not to leave, but it’s not enough–she’s not satisfied. She wants to guarantee it.
Start the Revolution: MC takes action towards achieving their goal.
Katrine goes to the village witch for help.
Reactions & Progress: MC learns info, gains skills, discovers problems.
Katrine learns that the spell she wants does exist, but the witch won’t perform it for her.
Midpoint of No Return: A game-changer, risk or revelation that raises the stakes.
Katrine kills the witch and takes her magic.
Setbacks & Complications: Antagonist fights back, MC is demoralised.
Aron is horrified by what she’s done. Their relationship sours.
All Is Lost: Defeat. The Goal looks lost.
The marriage breaks down completely: Aron no longer loves her and Katrine no longer wants him to stay–but the spell keeps them together.
Bonus Whiff of Death: an image of rotting fruit.
Dark Night of the Soul: Emotional reaction to the All Is Lost moment.
Demonstrating the flexibility available to a short story, the whole beat here is contained in a single line: Katrine wept, and he did not comfort her.
The Comeback: MC decides to give it a final go.
Katrine tries to break the spell.
Final Battle: MC fights the Antagonist.
Unable to loosen the magical binding, Katrine attacks Aron and kills him.
New World: MC in their new situation.
In Never Leave Me, this beat is not actually on the page. It’s still in the story, but it takes place totally in the reader’s mind–which is probably why people have found it so haunting. As is so often the case, the scariest monsters are the ones you don’t describe.
Michelle Ann King writes SF, dark fantasy and horror from her kitchen table in Essex, England. Her stories have appeared in various venues, including Daily Science Fiction, Penumbra Magazine, and Untied Shoelaces of the Mind.
She has worked as a mortgage underwriter, supermarket cashier, makeup artist, tarot reader and insurance claims handler before having the good fortune to be able to write full-time. Find details of her stories and books at http://www.transientcactus.co.uk
Since I’ve spent the last the weeks on a non-fiction kick, and more importantly since my entire database of markets was wiped off my computer, this week’s markets are all for fiction. Today’s markets are new and don’t pay much, but they caught my eye for varying reasons.
The Epiphanist pays $.02 per word up to 8,000 words for short fiction. They also accept serial fiction with no stated word limit. What about this magazine caught my eye? I love the name and upon reaching the site, the pictures are breathtaking. They’re not going to make you rich, but wouldn’t it be nice to see your work beautifully illustrated?
Plunge Magazine caught my eye because they only accept stories involving queer women. They can only pay $15 for short stories of up to 5,000 words, but it’s the only magazine themed around queer women that I know of. Go team.
TM Magazine I checked this one out because its name seemed odd to me, and discovered that they pay $0.05 per word for both short stories and novellas up to 60, 000 words. What’s the catch? No matter what you’re sending them, they want a pretty complete submission package.
Metro Moms: Metro Fiction is a fiction extension of Metro Moms, a site I’d already come across in my web adventures. On this trip I discovered that they’ll pay you $25 for a short story of 900-1100 words that will appeal to its large audience of women. They accept all kinds of genres.
If you think you’ve run out of markets, never fear–magazines go up and down all the time. By the time you’ve been through all the markets you knew, there will be half a dozen new ones springing up. Maybe even more.
Have you found any other interesting markets lately? Share them in the comments.
I finished school two days ago and my brain was too dead to think up a theme for today’s listing, but I do have three markets for you which accept fiction AND non-fiction, so I guess that’s a theme of sorts.
And, without further ado:
42 Magazine Any fan of Douglas Adams will enjoy the title of this magazine, and maybe even the rest of it, too. What’s cool about this magazine is that they’ll accept stories written in any genre, of any length–though I’m sure they’re less likely to take stories beyond 10K–and from anyone who can write well. They also take “Extras”, which can be anything from political essays to how to articles to cartoons to video games sent on CDs to their subscribers. They’ll pay $20 for anything you can dream up–and do well.
AE Sci Fi–The Canadian Fiction Review is looking for short stories between 500 and 3000 words in length, and they’ll pay you six cents per word, which is one cent above what the SFWA deems a ‘professional market’. They also accept non-fiction, primarily interviews and profiles of important science fiction authors, preferably Canadian ones. They also have something called capsule reviews, which they pay $7 for. Articles get $20, and an interview will earn you $30–but remember to query first, because they don’t take unsolicited non-fiction.
Black Warrior Review is looking for poems, short stories of under 7000 words, and non-fiction of under 7500 words. They also accept artwork and comics, though it seems they take fewer of those. Being published in Black Warrior Review nets you a one-year subscription to the magazine and an unspecified amount of money.
Remember that while I tell you a bit more about the magazines than their names–what they pay, what their word count limits are, what genres they accept–it’s still important to read through all the guidelines on their page and make sure you understand it. The number one reason why stories are rejected is because the author didn’t follow the guidelines in an obvious way. Each editor wants you to format your story a little differently from the next–don’t hurt your chances of publication by not paying attention.
When was the last time you submitted work? Where did you submit it to?
Lately I’ve been working on a lot of background stuff for Moonshadow’s Guardian, also known as my Novel of a Thousand Drafts. I’ve had a lot of fun exploring characters’ pasts and writing pieces in side characters’ point of view. Really, it’s all just procrastination because I’m sick of editing this darn novel. But I have enjoyed it, and I’ve worked with a lot of interesting themes. In particular, I’ve been developing the relationship between one of my main characters and his bastard son–who I only found out existed fairly recently.
Working on their relationship has taught me quite a bit about the character in question. I’ve learned that he spent almost two years with Calder’s mother before she left him because he couldn’t marry her. It wasn’t really his decision, it was the king’s–his brothers’–decision, but she left him for it anyway and turned to the bottle for comfort. He’s got a bit of a guilt complex about it, and in the set of stories I’m working on now, he’s finally convinced Jacob to let him recognize his son.
The best part? I’m writing short stories that I might be able to sell while fleshing out my characters for the novel. This way, I’m able to work towards two goals at once: my goal to write–and submit–more short fiction, and my goal to have MG ready for submission by the end of the year.
Today’s prompt came from the story I started yesterday:
Write a scene in which a young boy is reunited with his father after a tragedy only to discover that his father is blind.
The tragedy can be anything you choose–a war, an earth quake, a hurricane–just have some fun with it. If you can use characters from one of your novels for this story, do so. If not, make up some new ones and have fun getting acquainted.
Please post the first sentence of your response in the comments.
Feedback is crucial to any serious writer’s progress. It’s nice to have someone read your work and tell you it’s awesome, but that’s not really why feedback is important. In fact, if somebody’s looking at your first draft and telling you it’s awesome, odds are they’re just trying to flatter you.
The reason why feedback is so important to a writer’s progress is because we’re often too close to our writing to see what’s wrong with it. We love those pretty sentences that just don’t belong. We’re so deeply in love with our world that we forget our readers don’t know anything about it. We already know the story, so we tend to skim instead of slowing down to find the spelling mistakes. A second pair of eyes helps us catch those mistakes.
The people who give feedback are generally known as critique partners or beta readers. They usually work on a friendly exchange basis–they read something of yours, you read something of theirs. The best critiquer is another writer with different strengths than yours. For example, my newest critique partner is someone who has never completed a novel, but who’s written lots of short fiction. This is mutually beneficial because she can help me tighten my short stories and I can help her stay motivated through longer projects.
There are lots of places where you can find feedback on the web. Most writing communities have a section designed for giving and receiving feedback. Not all of them are active or helpful, but there are some gems. There are also websites with a structured critique function, where you earn points or credits by critiquing others’ works and then use those credits to put your own work up for critique. One that I’ve found very helpful is Critique Circle. With their queue system, you often have to wait three or four weeks before your story goes up for critique, but I’ve gotten many useful critiques and read some amazing stories on critique circle.
Some critique groups are run by email loops. These include the Internet Writing Workshop, which has several lists for different kinds of writing, and Critters. I’ve used both Critters and the Novels-L list of the Inernet Writing Workshop. Critters is pretty demanding and I found it too hectic to keep up with. Novels-L sends me a lot of email, but they don’t expect me to critique very many of the chapters that pass through my inbox.
Critique groups can be wonderful things, but sometimes you want a long term partner. It’s nice to develop a relationship with another writer, to have someone to bounce ideas off of and someone who will always read your work. These relationships can be hard to find, and I’ve started many only to have them fizzle away into nothing. Most writing forums have a board dedicated to finding beta readers, but it can be difficult. It’s quite likely that you’ll go through several critique partners before you find somebody you can work with in the long term.
I found my latest critique partner using a site called Ladies Who Critique. The site opened last year and it’s helped many people find their critique partners. So far the critique partner I found on Ladies Who Critique is a great match. It’s a really interesting website designed specifically to match up writers with the critique partners they need. I don’t know of any other sites like Ladies Who Critique, but if you find one, I’d love to know about it.
Next week I’m going to talk about etiquette when giving and receiving critiques.
Do you have a critique partner?
Over the last week of December and the first week of January, we worked on fairly long short stories. Now it’s time to talk about editing.
Editing a short story is a much less painful process than editing a novel. It’s a shorter process, and if you go through each of these steps you can make it a lot easier for yourself. I recommend taking a day or two away from your short story before you start editing it. You don’t want to stay away a long time. Particularly if your end goal is to make money, it’s a good idea to have several of these on the market at one time.
When I edit a short story, I usually follow these steps:
1. Proofread on the computer. Sure, you don’t see all your mistakes on the computer, but spelling and grammar aren’t necessarily the most important things to focus on at first. It’s a good idea to reread it on a computer first and edit anything that stands out to you. If you can, read it somewhere other than where you wrote it. Your brain will automatically pay attention because of the new surroundings, and that should be enough for you to see the worst grammatical mistakes. If you can already see a flaw in the structure of your story, you can try to fix it now. If not, move on to the next step as soon as you’ve proofread your work.
2. Get feedback. Some writers go through several edits of their work before anybody looks at it, and I’ve always done that with longer works. With short stories, I find that getting feedback right away is the best. I see stories as movies in my head, and most of the time I don’t notice when it doesn’t look quite as nice on paper. There are a lot of critique groups out there and forums where you can look for a long term critique partner or beta reader. Feedback is a great thing to have.
3. Print it out. Armed with the feedback that you’ve gotten, look at your story again, this time on paper. Make a note about anything you find awkward either on the margin or on the back of the page. Cross out sentences you don’t like. Add details you left out because the image is so clear in your head. Proofread. You can either do this in one really long reading, or you can read it a few times, each time with a different goals. I like to take the intense, one read approach to my short stories. After you’ve gone through it, list the important changes you need to make on the back of the last page.
4. Edit your story. This is the long part. While it takes only a couple of minutes to notice most of the errors on any given page, it can take a while to fix them if they’re structural. Of course you can always get stuck looking for the right word too. Either way, it has to be done. Armed with your annotated story, go into your word processor and start editing. Make all the changes you’ve already noted, but take your time to read through it and fix anything new you notice. While the proofread on the computer was just a skimming to make sure it wasn’t awful, this is an edit to try to make it good.
How long this part of the process takes depends on two factors: how long the story is, and how badly it’s messed up. If you’ve written a ten thousand word story, it’s probably going to take longer to edit than a two thousand word story. However, if your ten thousand word story is relatively clean grammatically and sound structurally, but the two thousand word story is just a mess, the shorter story might take longer to edit. No matter how long it takes you to edit, don’t forget to reward yourself after you’ve done it.
5. Get more feedback. Now that you think you’ve got an awesome story, it’s time to send it back out into the world. Get more than one opinion if you can. If you’re lucky, people will notice improvements and they’ll only be pointing out grammar issues and spelling errors. Odds are that your readers will still see something that throws them off, but that’s okay. That just means it’s time to start the process again.
How many times should you go through this process? Well, that depends on how much experience you have as a writer, and it also depends on the story itself. Some stories take a long time to really become what you’ve envisioned. Other stories come together almost fully formed and only need the most superficial polish. Only you can know when it’s time to send a short story out into the world.
Over the next couple of weeks I’ll be talking about the process of finding feedback, critiquing etiquette, and the submission process.
How do you usually edit a short story?
While I am hoping to use several of these prompts to create standalone flash fiction, writing responses to these prompts from the PoV of one of my novel characters is a really good way to build character. Today I’ve got not only a prompt for you, but a small response to it that I wrote from the PoV (point of view, for those of you who don’t know) of Riana, the main character in Moonshadow’s Guardian.
It’s been thousands of years since I protected Eternia, but I will never forgive myself for failing her.
She was just a little girl the first time we met. I remember her cute smile, her little head all covered in long black hair like a curtain. I remember her parents explaining the politics to me, the threats that made them so afraid for their daughter that they summoned me.
It never occurred to any of us that she would be the murderer.
I remember going to magic lessons with her. She was so powerful that when she was being trained in offensive magic we took her out into the woods, away from anyone she could hurt. I was so proud of her, it was almost like she was my own daughter. She was almost as powerful as me. Sometimes I wondered why they’d summoned me in the first place.
I knew she was powerful, but I had no idea what she was capable of. I spent too much time in the pubs pursuing human lovers. I never saw the darkness growing inside of her heart.
I still don’t know what drove her to it. Nobody ever explained to me. With all the blood, all the bodies she left behind, I knew I’d failed her. I knew that I missed something, that I could have stopped it. Normal girls don’t kill all the guests at their wedding. I knew I failed, but nobody told me how. They just stuck her in limbo and sent me Home to contemplate my sins. I wish I knew.
I still dream about Eternia. I don’t think it will ever stop, not until I know what happened to make her that way.
Last week I challenged you to work on a longer short story. I’m going to spend 2012 working on writing stories shorter than anything I’ve written before–under 2, 500 words–but there’s a short story that I wrote in the summer which I think will be better if I don’t try to restrict its length. I’m working on a full rewrite of it now and considering extending the plot.
A longer short story in this context is between 10, 000 and 15, 000 words. The word count allows you to cover a bit more ground without going into a complete novel. With the rise of ebooks, works of this length are becoming more and more viable. For me, whose short stories generally cover the span of a few days, aiming for this kind of a word count allows me to write these stories without restricting them.
The story I’m working on right now, Birth of a Vampire, is currently sitting around 3500 words. I’ve got three days and three nights left to get through, and I expect it to be a little bit less than 10, 000. In order to do this story justice, I can’t give myself a strict word limit. Always remember that it’s more important to follow the story to an end you’re satisfied with than to meet a certain word count. If you leave out something vital or you feel like it would be more effective if you made it longer, then do it. Making sure that you feel your story is the best it can be is the only way to make your story resonate with editors.
Originally I intended this to be the first in a series of short stories trailing a couple of characters through Europe over a few hundred years. I’m debating extending the current story to include the two characters escaping to Edinburgh, the capitol of Scotland, but I think I like the story as it is. That’s fine. I don’t have to force it to be longer. There is room for stories of every length, especially in a world where epublishing is on the rise.
This week I plan to follow the story to its current end. It’s very different from what it used to look like, but it follows the same basic storyline. I hope you can finish your longer short story by next week as well, because I’ll be talking about editing it right before I dive into the process of editing novels. This year, it’s all about making my work the best it can be and getting my name out there.
Welcome to 2012 everyone. Let’s use this year to explore new writing territory together.
So this week I’ve edited three chapters, written one short story and published one lens on Squidoo. I’ve also signed up for Camp Nanowrimo, with a goal of 80, 000 words for the summer. What I thought would just be a severe edit has turned into a full rewrite, and to be honest, I don’t think I’m going to use any more chapters from the last draft of Moonshadow’s Guardian. This will allow me to reach a much higher word count.
Around the end of the school year I applied for a summer job program. I told myself that if I didn’t get in, I would spend my summer writing instead. I didn’t get in, probably because I had pretty much nothing to put on my application, but I did get a new laptop and I have been writing my butt off. In fact, I’ve been writing almost full time hours-from eleven or twelve until five or six, and yesterday from noon until eight.
Unfortunately writing doesn’t make a lot of money. This leaves me with a lot of inner conflict. I’m supposed to get money from the government and I’ve already been waiting for a month and a half. All the food I eat, the chocolate milk I drink (it’s always on sale in my area), the places I go, all of that is paid for by either my grandmother or my boyfriend. And while my grandmother agreed to be my caregiver and doesn’t fuss about it, and my boyfriend likes spending money on me when he has it, I feel very much like a parasite.
When summer started my biggest internal dilemma was telling myself that yes, I could take a break. That it’s okay to go out for a couple hours with some friends and have a bonfire, because I’ve got all summer, with all my days free, to get this work done. Now I’m in the process of convincing myself that it’s okay not to have a real job, as long as I focus on my goals and my dreams. Writing isn’t going to make me a 500 dollar or more pay check in two weeks. Someday it will be my career, and someday I might even be rich and famous-though I’m not holding my breath for that. I feel bad because right now I don’t have money to throw at the wonderful people in my life and I have no material wealth to share.
I’m seventeen years old, and as much as I always tell other people that not every kid needs a job in their high school years, sometimes I’m not so convinced of it myself. I need to remember that writing books and short stories and whatever else I might write isn’t about a pay check in two weeks, it’s about making money and enjoying life for the rest of my life. The time I spend writing is more of an investment in my future than a summer job.
For that reason, I keep writing on Squidoo for advertising royalties which will only go up from here, and I’ve started a fundraising page for Camp Nanowrimo, hoping that I’ll be able to raise $80, or $10 for every 10, 000 words I write. You can read my lenses here, and you can sponsor me for Camp Nanowrimo here.
In the meantime, I’m going to put on a brave face, tell myself that I’m awesome, and write a book.