Category Archives: Writing Advice

Wrapping Up

Reading Time by sinlaire

 

Well, folks, you have a little more than one day left to submit your stories. By now, the story is written, probably polished, and you’re basking in the glow of creation. You wrote a thing and soon, other people will read that thing. The gift of story from you to the world.

Who will read it? Once you submit it to the Friends of the Merril Short Story Contest, it will be read by the Contest Administrator, who has no say whatsoever in what happens to your story, but who enjoys reading. Then, it will be passed to one of our first readers, all of whom are experience slush readers from other SF/F/H magazines and publishers.

If they like it? That’s when it will be passed on to our final judging panel. All three of our superstar judge/authors – Leah Bobet, Julie Czerneda, and Caitlin Sweet – will read your story and they between them will decide which three will carry away the prizes.

But what then?

Because the FotMSSC is a contest and not a publication, we do not publish your story. We do not claim any rights. Your story is considered completely unpublished – and you can still publish it elsewhere.

If you have been at the short story game for a while, you probably know where you want to send this story – you might have sent it already. If not? Here are a few resources to get you started.

Ralan.com has been listing SFFH markets online now for 18 years. One of the oldest net resources for writers, it remains nevertheless up to date, thorough, and free. You can browse potential homes for your story by pay rate, but just as helpful are the other writing resources Ralan provides. It’s hard to beat the institutional knowledge that has built up here.

The Submission Grinder is another free database of short fiction markets. Though it doesn’t focus on SFFH in particular, the bulk of its listings some from SFFH writers. Submission Grinder also lets you track your submissions, giving you a handy way of keeping track of who you have submitted to, how they replied, and in how much time. Of note: they don’t list contests or poetry markets.

Probably the biggest of the market databases, Duotrope.com lists just about everything – poetry, literary, SFF, contests. But to get access to this mother-of-all-databases, you have to pay – $5 US/month. The fee is absolutely worth it to many writers. The data Duotrope has built up over time will give you as complete a picture as you will be able to find of what a market’s response times are like, their acceptance rates, and more. if you’re not sure if that’s worth it – give them a try. They offer a 1-month free trial.

Need something a little more human-scale? There are also Facebook Groups dedicated to listing submission opportunities. OPEN CALL: SCIENCE FICTION, FANTASY & PULP MARKETS and OPEN CALL: HORROR MARKETS are lightly-moderated communities where submissions calls are not only posted, but can be discussed with other writers. These groups aren’t as thorough or easy to search as the database sites, but they give you the opportunity to compare notes with other writers submitting to the same places.

Good luck out there! We look forward to hearing from you in the next 36 hours – and hearing about you after that!

Spit & Polish

Repair by Cuson

Repair by Cuson

There is just a little less than TWO WEEKS left to submit to the Friends of the Merril Short Story Contest! If you’re ready, delay no more and submit now. But if you are still polishing your piece, you might find yourself fretting. Is it ready? How will you know if it is ready? How does anyone ever know?

Well, you don’t ever really know (and, probably, there is no such thing as really ready,) but when you’ve done everything you can in your writing pod, the next step is to test the story. That’s right: you send it to readers.

Beta readers, writing groups, and critique swaps are an invaluable part of the writers’ process. You will never see your story the same way a reader will. They will read things into your story that you never dreamed and they will see the holes that you had subconsciously filled in. They provide feedback, even if it’s not as critical – or too critical – as you’d like.

Even experienced writers can always use new first readers. People move on and grow tired, and you can always use a new perspective. But where do you find these readers?

Critters

There are a lot of writing forums on the internet. There’s the Online Writing Workshop for Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror (OWW), SFFWorld.com‘s writing forum, and Codex for more experienced writers – but Critters is the grandmother of them all. Conceived as a hub for getting your work critiqued in exchange for critiquing the work of others, it now does that and more. With (literally) tens of thousands of members, extensive tools, industry information, and codified participation rules, Critters is easy to drop in to, participate in, and use. You are all but guaranteed to get some useful feedback here.

Wattpad

Wattpad is a platform for posting your work and having it made available for free to millions of readers around the world. These readers can then like, favourite, or comment on your work. While the comment system is not designed for (and is not very good for) thorough critical feedback, it will give you a far more personal idea of whether your story is resonating with your readers. Readers are not shy about cheering when they need to cheer and hating when they need to hate! You can get useful information from the site’s metrics as well: have you got five thousand reads on your first scene, and ten reads on the second? You’re losing readers. Something needs to be changed. NOTE that Wattpad and other sites like it (e.g. BookCountry) are public, and so anything posted there counts as “published” in the eyes of other publishers.

Your Local Convention

Fan-run conventions are a great way to network as a new or established writer. Most cons will have programmed events and workshops for writers, but even when they don’t, attending panels dedicated to craft can be helpful. The other bums in the chairs next to you? Those are probably other writers, and probably eager to swap stories! Don’t be shy about “outing” yourself as a new or emerging writer. Those panels and workshops are for your benefit. Likely, most of the attendees would be happy to help you meet the right people in your local scene.

How did you meet your readers? Everyone has a story. A good reading and critiquing relationship is one of the more engaging ways to know a person!

Don’t forget: the deadline for submissions is February 14th, 2015. Polish those stories and send ’em in! Guidelines, as ever, right here.

FAQ Elaboration: Is My Story Speculative?

If you write science fiction or fantasy, you’re usually confident about where your work would be shelved in a bookstore. Fantasy? That’s dragons. Science fiction? Spaceships. Dragons on spaceships? Now you are “cross-genre”. But if your work does not happen to contain dragons nor spaceships, it isn’t always as clear where it might be shelved. Surely any fiction is “speculative”! What does it mean in the context of the Merril Collection and this contest?

The Merril Collection of Science Fiction, Speculation and Fantasy collects “science fiction, fantasy and speculative fiction, as well as magic realism, experimental writing and some materials in ‘fringe’ areas such as parapsychology, UFOs, Atlantean legends etc.” Broadly, fiction that includes any element which has not yet been found in the real world is speculative. But behind that is a complex history of the fantastic in literature that defies easy classification – all of which can be found in some form in the Merril Collection.

Myth and Legend

From St. George and the Dragon to Fafnir of the Volsungs, the Greek Titans to the Mabinogion’s Bran the Blessed, and unicorns from Pliny to Marco Polo, early literature is full of fantastic things. These original tales are not generally thought of as “fantasy”, however, though contemporary retellings are. The difference? Early dragons, giants, and unicorns were presented in earnest. Even if they were not always meant to be taken literally (the dragon slain by St. George is, probably, an allegory,) they were not invitations to the imagination. The stories and their monsters were to be taken seriously.

What does this mean? Interpretive retellings of myths and legends are definitely speculative – but the inclusion of religious symbols is not. Whatever you think about today’s big religions, they are not considered fantasy from a literary standpoint.

Fairy and Folk Tales

Fairy tales, on the other hand, were and are considered flights of fancy. These “little stories” were always intended to light up the imagination for the purposes, usually, of entertaining us. Despite being muddied from time to time with superstitious folk beliefs, a fairy or folk tale is distinguishable from a legend by an explicit statement that it takes place in another world, be it “once upon a time” or “in a land far, far away”.

What does this mean? Fairy tales, folk tales and retellings of both are definitely speculative!

The Paranormal

We have always been fascinated with the unexplained. There is a great shady area in literature (and life) where unexplained phenomena are hashed out. Ghosts, cryptozoology, near-death experiences, parapsychology and a lot more are still taken quite seriously by some, and lumped happily into “folk tales” by others. Is it real, science fiction, or fantasy?

Because the paranormal is unproved in real life, any fictional accounts are going to necessarily be speculative. What if this ghost were real? What if everyone had ESP? Whether you consider paranormal elements to be true or fantasy, your story will need to invite the imagination to turn it into a narrative. There are holes to fill, and you will fill them.

What does this mean? Unless you are writing a non-fiction manual or treatise, paranormal elements are absolutely speculative. If you believe in them, your account will be science fictional. If you don’t, call it fantasy or horror. Either way, you had to make things up to make it work!

Magical Realism

Magical realism is a term given to stories where something wondrous or fantastic happens in an otherwise mundane setting. It is different from urban fantasy in that even the inhabitants of your world find the magical elements to be out of their world. There tends to be an aesthetic to magical realist novels that is distinct from conventional “fantasy” – an acceptance of magic in every day life without trying to explain or systematize it.

What does this mean? Though magical realist novels are often exempt from the fantasy shelf at the bookstore, they are still considered speculative by us. If your characters consider it magic, so do we!

“Weird”

Weird or slipstream fiction invites the imagination in ways that defy conventional genre categories. The imaginary elements might be more inherent to the world than in a magical realist novel, but they also aren’t presented with nonchalance the way they would be in a secondary-world fantasy. Aesthetically, weird stories can be creepy or off-putting, as strange and unexplainable things appear in order to unsettle us and/or the characters.

What does this mean? Is there something about your characters or the weird phenomena which is mis-matched because it simply isn’t found in the real world? It’s speculative! You don’t even need to be able to put a name or face on the phenomena, as long as it is otherworldly.

Horror

Horror is broadly anything which is scary, but that can cover a lot of territory, from war and death to ghosts and monsters. You might be very creative about putting your characters in mortal danger, but that doesn’t always mean it is speculative. Simply being horrifying does not make a story speculative.

What does this mean? If your horror element could happen in the real world – however unlikely – it isn’t speculative. Cannibals, serial killers, extremely creative engineers of death-traps, kidnappers and sadists – these are messed up, but not otherworldly. Monsters, zombies, alien invaders, invented diseases and parasites: these are made up, and therefore considered speculative.

Alternate Histories

Whenever you write history, you are writing an alternate history. You weren’t there, so what you are writing probably didn’t happen the way you are going to tell it. Historical fiction has been a huge genre since Sir Walter Scott and even earlier, but has never really been considered fantasy or speculation.

On the other hand, historical fiction that tracks wildly from the path history is generally understood to have followed becomes more and more speculative. The more your history deviates from what “really happened”, the more speculative it becomes.

What does this mean? If you are at the point where your historical fiction has to invent new technologies, nations, social orders, cultures, or major figures in order to account for the changes you have made to the timeline, you are well into speculative territory. Think of it as historical science fiction!

Dreams

We can dream up anything. That’s what we do here, that’s what this contest celebrates. The raw imaginative power of dreams is often a theme or device used in speculative fiction – see Neil Gaiman’s Sandman for a case in point. But a story whose speculative elements occur entirely in the context of a dream and have no connection to the story’s “real world” is not a speculative story.

What does this mean? In short, if there is any possibility that the dream world is any more than “just a dream”, it is probably speculative. If a character wakes up at the end of a flight of fantasy and nothing carries over, it probably isn’t.

Anything else?

When in doubt, query! But if after you have read through all of this, you still aren’t sure where your story stands, it is probably speculative enough for us. Submit and see what happens! You have a little less than three weeks left – we hope to hear from you!

Not Far Now: Two Weeks Until the 2014 FoMSSC Opens

Just a (very quick) reminder that the reading period for the 2014 Friends of the Merril Short Story Contest opens in a little less than two weeks, on November 15th. The reading period will run until February 15th, 2014.

As previously mentioned, this year’s prizes include a first place prize of $500.00 (CDN), and two Honourable Mentions of $50.00 (CDN) each.

Please feel free to browse the site for more information. You can find more information about the 2014 Final Panel Judges on the Judges page. And it’s highly advisable that you have a look at both the Contest Rules and FAQ pages (both have been updated for the 2014 FoMSSC) if you’ve never entered the FoMSSC before.

We’re looking forward to seeing this year’s crop of stories. Our preference for the kind of fiction we like to see holds fairly consistent from year to year. But for those of you not already familiar with some of the posts we’ve put up about the kind of content we always hope to see, you might want to have a look at the “It’s Time: The 2012-2013 FoMSSC Reading Period Opens at Midnight” post (scroll down to “That Content Advice I Kept Promising and Am Finally Getting Around To“) from November of last year.

Luck to everyone entering the contest this year. And, as always, everyone is welcome to direct any queries to Michael Matheson at fomsscontest@gmail.com. Or you can find us on Twitter @fomcontest.

The 2013 Winners and a Look at Where We Go From Here

Announcing This Year’s Winners

After much deliberation, we are now ready to announce the winners of the 2012-2013 Friends of the Merril Short Story Contest:

First Place ($200.00 CDN + critical commentary from Julie Czerneda) goes to:

Ada Hoffmann (The Mother of All Squid Builds a Library)

Second Place ($100.00 CDN) goes to:

Matt Moore (The Binding)

Third Place ($50.00 CDN) goes to:

Ursula Pflug (A Room of His Own)

As discussed previously, we are not purchasing the winning stories this year, merely awarding prize funding (in the belief that winning money for a story, and then still being able to sell its first rights at a later time – and effectively having two primary paydays out of it – is an ideal outcome), so these stories will not be appearing on the website as was the case for the winning stories last year.

And, as promised, the other three stories that made it to the finalist round this year are attributed to their authors below:

Sarah Ennals (Open the Doors, and See All the People)

Silvia Moreno-Garcia (Snow)

Christina Vasilevski (One Thousand and One Cuts)

Congratulations to everyone who hit the finalist round, and a huge thank you to everyone who sent in work to this year’s contest. We appreciate all the support, monetary and otherwise.

We’ll be getting in touch with all of the finalists over the next couple of days to discuss the other non-monetary prize that was up for grabs: the option for any of this year’s finalists interested in doing so to pitch a novel to ChiZine Publications while ChiZine is otherwise closed to submissions.

And with that settled, we now move on to a discussion of what’s coming up down the line.

A Discussion of the Coming Contest Year

With each year of the contest we have been trying something a little different. Effectively, we’ve been seeing what kind of model works best for this kind of contest, in combination with what best serves our entrants, and, of course, our end goal: fundraising in support of the Merril Collection itself.

Interestingly, this year we, again, came a few dollars shy of breaking even (by about $6.25 CDN as I recall). We kind of thought that might happen again when we lowered the prize funding, even with the additional non-monetary prizes on offer. Still, it was worth seeing what this model produced.

And now that we’ve seen what worked and didn’t work with the last two years’ worth of running the contest, we’re going to reconfigure the contest again in advance of the coming contest, the reading period for which will open November 15, 2013.

Also, just a note that (mostly for collective sanity’s sake) going forward we’re going to be referring to the contests by the year in which the winners are declared and prizes are awarded. So, the coming contest will just be the 2014 Friends of the Merril Short Story Contest, or 2014 FoMSSC.

The plans for the 2014 contest (already being discussed in some quarters but not yet finalized until we can get everything in order) are to move to a model closer to what we did in the first year, while reorganizing several other things from the ground up and offering a higher total prize than we’ve previously managed. Specifically, we’re looking at the following (bear in mind that everything listed under the “What’s Changing” section is still under discussion, so it’s not fixed yet) in order to produce a more competitive environment, while still trying to fundraise effectively:

What’s Staying the Same: The entry fee will remain $5.00. The reading period will again be three months (November 15th, 2013, through February 15th, 2014).

What’s Changing: We’re trying to figure out the financing for offering a single winner a cash prize of $500.00 (CDN). We will not be having a finalists’ pool, and will instead be awarding two (2) Honourable Mentions (we’re looking at $50.00 each right now) in addition to the winning purse. We’re reorganizing some of the internal workings of the contest as well, and seeing about getting some additional non-monetary prizes to offer. There will be more information coming down the road, as we clarify exactly what we’re doing for the next contest.

Ideally, we’re looking to make this contest a truly competitive environment for submitted fiction. Now, that doesn’t mean we’re looking to exclude anyone working early or mid-career. Instead, it means that we want everyone to try to raise the bar on their own work and send their very best in order to have a shot at that purse. Speaking as an editor, ideas are seldom the issue with any story: it’s almost always the execution where things fall apart. Some ideas, too, end up underutilized or not fully enough explored. But, the point is that revision is a writer’s best friend. I, personally, am a strong proponent of the theory that with revision and careful crafting a story at any level can progress to a more advanced state (work that might only be appropriate for a token market can, with the effort, become appropriate for a semi-pro market, and semi-pro work can, with the input of the required effort, be made good enough for a pro market).

And because we want to foster the pursuit of excellent work we’re trying to put a high enough monetary incentive in place to reward it. Quid pro quo, if you will.

This year also saw the first tentative steps toward a more inclusive vein of fiction in the kind of work we were receiving: we had our first few entries featuring or utilising QUILTBAG characters, and some work that also played with or explored gender identity. We’re looking forward to seeing more of that next year.

In any case, things are on the move, as it were, and good things are coming down the pipeline.

Once again, we’d like to take the opportunity to thank everyone who participated in, aided, or supported the contest this time round. We also want to once more congratulate our winners and finalists, and hope you will do likewise. And if you have any questions, or need to get in touch with us for any reason, you can do so either by e-mailing me, Michael Matheson, at fomsscontest@gmail.com, or you can hit us up on Twitter (@fomcontest).

It’s Time: The 2012-2013 FoMSSC Reading Period Opens at Midnight

Come midnight (UTC-5 for us) tonight the 2012-2013 Friends of the Merril Short Story Contest reading period will begin. It will run until midnight (again, UTC-5) February 15th, 2013.

If you’re new to the site, or have no prior knowledge of the contest (it is only the second year, after all), the boilerplate looks like this:

The Friends of the Merril Collection are running our second annual Speculative Fiction Short Story Contest in order to raise awareness of, and funds for, the Merril Collection of Science Fiction, Speculation and Fantasy through the Friends of the Merril Collection (whose stated objectives, codified in the organization’s constitution, can be found at http://www.friendsofmerril.org [which is technically still being rebuilt and should be back online shortly]).

The annual Friends of the Merril Short Story Contest distributes cash prizes to three winning entrants, as judged by a panel of authors, editors and other notables in the Canadian Speculative Fiction community. The 2012-2013 year has also seen the addition of several non-monetary perks to the prize pool, including possible publication with ChiZine Publications, and a chance to have your work critiqued/evaluated by writer and editor Julie Czerneda.

The contest is open to international entrants without restriction on country of residence, entrant’s publication history (or lack thereof), or any other delimiting factors (though entrants not of age of majority will need a parent or guardian’s permission in order to enter).

Entries must be original, previously unpublished short stories with a maximum length of 5,000 words, and must be submitted as an e-mailed .doc or .rtf attachment (composed in Standard Manuscript Format) to fomsscontest@gmail.com.

Again, the reading period runs from November 15, 2012 through February 15, 2013, and each entry must be accompanied by an entry fee of $5 (CDN). There is no limit on the number of entries you may submit this year (we’re going to try taking the limit off completely and see how that goes).

For full rules see either the Contest Rules or FAQ pages. For all other information please use the menus and tabs to navigate the site.

If you have questions relating to anything about this website or the Friends of the Merril Short Story Contest please address them to Michael Matheson at fomsscontest@gmail.com.

That Content Advice I Kept Promising and Am Finally Getting Around To:

For a while now I’ve been meaning to post about the kind of entries we would like to see this year. I’ve been talking about it so long and not actually getting to it that it’s beginning to feel like a running gag. And now that we are all but literally down to the wire on the opening of the reading period, this seems like an excellent time to finally get around to addressing what we would like to see from you, our entrants, in this, the second year, of the FoMSSC:

We want diversity. We want inclusive fiction. We want to see QUILTBAG characters (as protagonists or secondary characters, not as stereotypical homophobic or other phobic depictions of QUILTBAG characters please). Send us your weird stories, your unclassifiable stories, your work that pushes the envelope. Send us your interstitial work, or something that falls neatly into genre lines. Whatever. As long as it has a speculative element (SF/F/H, magic realism, slipstream, fabulism, surrealism, etc.) we’ll read it. Challenge us. Make us pause in awe at the beauty of your craft and your extraordinary prose. Evoke wonder.

And, conversely, there are a couple of things we need you to refrain from doing. We’re not buying and displaying fiction (just awarding monetary and other prizes to jury selected work), but that still means we won’t be able to consider your stories if they don’t have a speculative element or if they use copyrighted characters (unless you own the copyright to that character). And, though it goes without saying, send your own work only please.

And now, to quote myself a couple of times (from this post: In the Green Room: Thoughts on the 2011-2012 Contest Submissions, and Some Advice), here’s some additional advice regarding the kind of things we’d like to see:

[S]everal pieces of advice.

The first couple, from Julia Rios, from her article “Reaching into the QUILTBAG: the Evolving World of Queer Speculative Fiction“, which appeared in the March 2012 issue of Apex: “write complex characters”, and “actively encourage diversity”. Careful readers will note that that second piece of advice from Julia was intended for editors and publishers, but I think it applies to writers as well. And you’d do well to read the entirety of that article, if you haven’t already.

The next comes from Catherynne Valente, from her stint as editor at Apex, and was the heart of the submissions guidelines page while she was editor (and Lynne Thomas left that section in when she took over as editor last year):

“We do not want hackneyed, cliched plots or neat, tidy stories that take no risks. We do not want Idea Stories without character development or prose style, nor do we want derivative fantasy with Tolkien’s serial numbers filed off.

What we want is sheer, unvarnished awesomeness. We want the stories it scared you to write. We want stories full of marrow and passion, stories that are twisted, strange, and beautiful. We want science fiction, fantasy, horror, and mash-ups of all three—the dark, weird stuff down at the bottom of your little literary heart. This [venue] is not a publication credit, it is a place to put your secret places and dreams on display.”

And we, too, would be interested in seeing the kind of work Stone Telling‘s statement about the kind of diversity they would like to see covers:

“[W]e are especially interested in seeing work that is multi-cultural and boundary-crossing, work that deals with othering and Others, work that considers race, gender, sexuality, identity, and disability issues in nontrivial and evocative ways.”

And, lastly, you should read Expanded Horizons‘ list of what they want and what they don’t want to see, as discussed in the Expanded Horizons submission guidelines. You will write better stories for thinking about what they’re talking about.

The other thing I’m going to quote myself on was an answer given in the comments of that same post. The question was “[H]ow far can we go in describing sex or violence? What about cursing or political criticism?” And the answer was this:

A story has X words to work with. Everything that is included in the story which doesn’t move the plot forward or address your themes hinders your story. The overtly sexual isn’t generally an issue if it’s handled well, but sex scenes rarely, if ever, work in a short story because they detract from the time given to something else. The obvious exceptions are the works of Poppy Z. Brite among others, and stories like Kij Johnson’s “Spar“, which is a brilliant exploration of a whole host of themes, using the central pivot of “sexual” interaction as violence and trauma. It’s also one of the most disturbing (and potent) horror stories you’ll ever read. And, yes, if something as explicit as “Spar” came in and finished in the top three, we’d post it on the website with a disclaimer warning people that it contained adult level content.

Violence is trickier. The shorthand is that if it serves the story (and that story isn’t a blatant case of torture porn or revenge/rape fantasy) then it’s admissible. If the violence is just there to shock, offend, or experiment without purpose, take it out and do something more interesting in that part of the story instead. I routinely see stories coming my way in the slush pile at Apex where the violence is unnecessary, painted in loving detail, and falls into that “personal fantasy” category that submissions editors cringe when they see hit the inbox. And worse still it’s almost uniformly directed at women. I don’t really expect anyone entering this contest to be doing that, but it should be on record that we don’t want to see that.

You can feel free to curse in the story – but in most cases it detracts from, rather than strengthens, a story. And you’re welcome to engage in political criticism, but remember that subtle is better, defaming actual people is libel, and polemics don’t make good fiction (well, alright, they can, but it’s pretty rare). Also, Clarkesworld in their submissions guidelines mentions the following as something they’re not interseted in, and it’s true for us as well: “stories where the Republicans, or Democrats, or Libertarians, or the Spartacist League, etc. take over the world and either save or ruin it”.

Final Notes Before You Head Out and Start Submitting Your Entries

Before everything gets going we wanted to take a moment to thank everyone who was good enough in the inaugural year of the FoMSSC to submit their work, to help us promote the contest, and to otherwise help us aid and support the Merril Collection. We’ve appreciated the help every step of the way, and we look forward to all the entries we’re going to see over the course of the coming reading period. As always, if you have questions or concerns, please feel free to direct them to me, Michael Matheson, at fomsscontest@gmail.com, and you can either follow the website here, or the contest Twitter feed (@fomcontest) for updates.

Good luck to everyone entering the contest this year.

New Wonders to Unveil: Further Updates re the 2012-2013 Contest

In our last post, wherein we detailed the revised guidelines for the 2012-2013 Friends of the Merril Short Story Contest, we announced that there were two parts to the prize we were awarding to the first place winner of the coming contest: a monetary prize, and a critique of the winning work put together by one of Canada’s foremost authors and editors.

Since we had to make sure several things were in place before we could make the announcement as to who the luminary we’re working with is, we’ve had to hold off on doing that. Until now. Our apologies for keeping you waiting so long, and so I’ll make this brief.

The author, editor, and educator who has agreed to provide the critique to our first place winner?

Julie Czerneda

Julie Czerneda

Yes, Julie Czerneda. A gifted writer, a generous editor, and an educator possessed of a wonderfully keen mind, Julie is also one of the nicest people I’ve ever met (an opinion widely held, and with good reason).

And for those rare few of you who are unfamiliar with Julie’s work, in her own words:

Since 1997, Julie E. Czerneda has turned her love and knowledge of biology into science
fiction novels and short stories that have received international acclaim, multiple awards,
and best-selling status. A popular speaker on scientific literacy and SF, in 2009 Julie was
Guest of Honour for the national conventions of New Zealand and Australia, as well as
Master of Ceremonies for Anticipation, the Montreal Worldcon. She’s busy writing short
stories as well as her next novel, having finished her first really big fantasy, A Turn of
Light, to be published by DAW March 2013. Most recently, Julie was guest speaker at
the U. of South Florida’s symposium on Women Writers of SF, and co-edited Tesseracts
15: A Case of Quite Curious Tales with Susan MacGregor. (No matter how busy, she’ll
be out canoeing too.) For more about Julie’s work, visit http://www.czerneda.com or visit her
on Facebook or Goodreads.

We’re absolutely delighted to have Julie on board for this year’s contest. And given all the prizes available to be won it’s going to be a fantastic year. The reading period opens November 15th, and we’ll be posting about the kind of stories we want to see from entrants (and offering some advice) between now and then.

But, for now, here’s the short version:

Give us stories that show an inclusive approach to fiction. Give us three-dimensional characters. Give us characters, protagonist and/or secondary, who run the spectrum of the QUILTBAG. Give us unusual and/or experimental structures. Give us stories told through structures or ideas used a thousand times before, and tell them in new and fascinating ways. Give us the stories you want to tell but haven’t found a home for yet; consider this a testing ground where no one is going to tell you not to run too far or too fast. Show us work that blazes like a comet across heavens full to bursting with starlight and wonder.

We’ll be talking more about the contest in the days to come, but in the meantime please feel free to share this news. And if you have questions, or need to reach us for other concerns (I don’t know what that would be right now, I’m just putting it out there), you can either write to Michael Matheson at fomsscontest@gmail.com, or contact us via Twitter at @fomcontest.

In the Green Room: Thoughts on the 2011-2012 Contest Submissions, and Some Advice

[Edit: It’s been brought to my attention that one of the points below can be misinterpreted as complaining about the quality of the fiction submitted to the Contest. I’m going to leave the post as it is, but let me make this absolutely clear: No disparagement on the quality of the stories submitted, and especially on those which hit the finalist set, was intended. I was merely commenting on the fact that we had hoped to see more stories (in general) with a diverse perspective than we did. I have taken responsibility in the Comments below for not making that clear enough when the Contest began – you should probably read the Comments on this post, incidentally, since I have responded therein to a question about content admissibility for next year]

While getting the website ready to house the winning stories, and dealing with the rest of the preparatory work that goes into the final stages of a fiction contest, I’ve been thinking back on the body of submissions we received for this contest. We did a statistical overview of the contest entries already, but there are several things that occur to me about this body of submissions. And, since the Friends of the Merril Short Story Contest is to be an annual event, I thought I would share those observations with you all now and give you some time to think about them before the 2012-2013 contest opens to submissions later in the year.

Oh, and before I get started, now that we’ve put our submissions process to the test over the course of the 2011-2012 contest year, we’re going to up the word limit on entries to 5,000 words per story going forward. Just thought you might like to know …

So, you may recall from our statistical breakdown that we had 102 total submissions for the 2011-2012 reading period, and our statistical breakdown actually aligns perfectly with what most pro rate Spec Fic magazines see in a given period (based on publicly available statistical information). The male/female ratio of submissions, as well as the higher female to male ratio of advancement is standard. As are the country of origin numbers: magazines that do not exist solely online, but which have a physical presence in a specific country tend to see higher submissions from that country. So it is with us, and the fact that we saw a much higher percentage of submissions coming from Canada was expected. And, because the Merril Collection itself is based in Toronto, we saw a great many submissions from Toronto, though our Canadian submissions did come from many, though not all, of the Canadian Provinces.

Actually, one of the most surprising things about the submissions, totally unrelated to who, or where, they were coming from, was the total lack of any stories with QUILTBAG protagonists. There are a couple of stories that come to mind where secondary characters might have been something other than cisgendered heterosexual characters, but if so that was something that was never addressed. It’s … unusual … in a submissions pile that large to find a total lack of protagonists, or even secondary characters, of any of the many QUILTBAG orientations. And I find it troubling.

Though I think it may speak to a larger issue in the slush pile for the 2011-2012 year.

And here is where I pause and say that, yes, all the opinions on this page are being issued by one person, i.e. me: Michael Matheson. And I will also take this opportunity to remind you that there is a Comments field at the bottom of this page where you are free to refute, conversely agree with, or debate anything I say herein. This is not a dais. I am not on a soapbox. I am giving you a view behind the scenes of this contest’s submissions process with an eye to opening up discussion, and hopefully getting you thinking seriously about what you’re going to put together for the next contest year. And, just possibly, getting you thinking about what you’re writing next for anywhere else you’re sending work as well.

Now, when I say that there is “a larger issue”, what I’m talking about is the fact that none of the submissions that came in were pushing the envelope (though you’ll note that didn’t prevent us from picking winners, or from picking a full complement of finalists, either). That’s not a throwaway line here, nor an easy out: fiction should push boundaries, and seek new ground. It should challenge the reader’s perceptions, or seek to do something innovative (in terms of content and/or execution). I could, technically, take that point further and talk about the impetus placed on all artists to comment on, and change, the society in which they exist through their work. But I know that not all writers write for the same reason and that some of you are bound to be uncomfortable with the idea of giving your work a social, political, or more controversial basis, so I will simply say this instead: it is entirely fair to say that every single submission that came in for the 2011-2012 contest year was written from an author’s comfort zone.

You don’t have to engage a sociopolitical agenda in your work to have it break new ground. The sheer totality of ideas not yet addressed in fiction is literally immeasurable, and their complexity only bounded by the limits of your own imagination. Science Fiction is probably best at pushing that particular envelope, but going fascinating, mind-altering, consciousness realigning places can be managed in any genre. And this is not to say that what we saw was not good, because the bulk of the submissions were at least competent. Many better.

Let me give you an example of what I’m talking about.

In many cases entries were paying tribute to famous authors – and I can only assume that this was intentional. At least, I hope so. And while it’s excellent that people are fans of classic SF authors, playing in someone else’s sandbox only gets you so far, and you end up with things like the following:

One submission was an inversion of Isaac Asimov’s “Profession”. Another was a variant of Damon Knight’s “Not With a Bang”. Yet another story borrowed heavily from Steven Vincent Benét’s “By the Waters of Babylon”, and married those elements with other readily recognizable components from non Spec Fic sources. And we saw several stories that were homages to the works of Kurt Vonnegut and Philip K. Dick. Incidentally, the Vonnegut/Dick tributes were the most interesting of those by far, which is kind of what you’d expect, actually, given how far both Vonnegut and Dick regularly managed to push that omnipresent envelope.

And there were, admittedly, times when homages just struck too close, and two stories did end up disqualified because they had actually moved into fan fiction territory. One because it used Kilgore Trout (Kurt Vonnegut’s recurring character who began as a fictional alter ego of Theodore Sturgeon and later metamorphosed into Vonnegut’s own alter ego in his fiction) as a central character, and the other because it name dropped Fafhrd (of Fritz Lieber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories), claiming him as a relative to a central character.

But these instances were in the minority. In fact only three stories were disqualified over the course of the reading period: the two mentioned above, and the one story that was subbed to us which had no speculative element whatsoever, and was in fact passable, if not inspiring, Lit Fic social commentary.

And that’s not to say that there weren’t some delightful titular homages as well. I particularly enjoyed seeing a story titled “Toronto My Destination”, among others, show up in the slush pile (for those, likely quite few of you, who are not familiar with the reference, that title is a tip of the hat to Alfred Bester’s novel The Stars My Destination).

Another point that kept coming up, too, is the large number of stories that came through which were just ideas with no substance to back them. A good idea is a great starting point, and I’m not one to argue for Aristotelian plotting as the most engaging form in which a story can be told, but a story lives or dies on how you utilize the themes it’s built on; there’s a reason people who spend their lives talking about how to write fiction advocate for active characters and stories where things happen. Stories are far more engaging, especially in shorter form, when something occurs. The opposite can, of course, be interesting, though it’s often … problematic.

Waiting for Godot, for example …

Ultimately, if you’re going to take anything away from this post – and you’re not obliged to, though one can hope – it should be that we hope to see a field of very diverse work in the next contest year: different – inclusive – viewpoints, ideas that make us stop, take a deep breath, and say “wow”, and breathtaking writing.

So, let me leave you with several pieces of advice.

The first couple, from Julia Rios, from her article “Reaching into the QUILTBAG: the Evolving World of Queer Speculative Fiction“, which appeared in the March 2012 issue of Apex: “write complex characters”, and “actively encourage diversity”. Careful readers will note that that second piece of advice from Julia was intended for editors and publishers, but I think it applies to writers as well. And you’d do well to read the entirety of that article, if you haven’t already.

The next comes from Catherynne Valente, from her stint as editor at Apex, and was the heart of the submissions guidelines page while she was editor (and Lynne Thomas left that section in when she took over as editor last year):

“We do not want hackneyed, cliched plots or neat, tidy stories that take no risks. We do not want Idea Stories without character development or prose style, nor do we want derivative fantasy with Tolkien’s serial numbers filed off.

What we want is sheer, unvarnished awesomeness. We want the stories it scared you to write. We want stories full of marrow and passion, stories that are twisted, strange, and beautiful. We want science fiction, fantasy, horror, and mash-ups of all three—the dark, weird stuff down at the bottom of your little literary heart. This [venue] is not a publication credit, it is a place to put your secret places and dreams on display.”

And we, too, would be interested in seeing the kind of work Stone Telling‘s statement about the kind of diversity they would like to see covers:

“[W]e are especially interested in seeing work that is multi-cultural and boundary-crossing, work that deals with othering and Others, work that considers race, gender, sexuality, identity, and disability issues in nontrivial and evocative ways.”

And, lastly, you should read Expanded Horizons‘ list of what they want and what they don’t want to see, as discussed in the Expanded Horizons submission guidelines. You will write better stories for thinking about what they’re talking about.

As I said earlier, feel absolutely free to use the Comments section below to discuss any and/or all of these things. If you haven’t posted any Comments on our site before your Comment is going to get caught up in the moderation filter (which we leave in place because we’ve had literally hundreds of spam Comments since this website went up). Your comments will be approved in short order (although trolling or flaming might conceivably prevent that), and then once you’ve been approved you can post freely on the FoMSSC website as often as you like.

Thanks for listening, and luck to everyone pitching something our way next time round.

Michael

Clarifications and Advice: Story Length and Proof Reading

Since we started promoting the Friends of the Merril Short Story Contest back in 2011, people have been checking in with us about the maximum allowable story length. Now, I don’t mind answering questions that people want to run by us about this, or any other topic concerning the contest. However, there seems to be a general assumption of leeway concerning this particular entry rule.

Specifically, the question that keeps coming up starts a little something like this:

“I know the maximum word length is supposed to be 4000 words, but …”

The short answer is, yes, the word length is fixed. We’re checking the word count of stories as they come in, and while we will allow a couple of words over the limit – we realize that not all word processing programs perform a similar word count function – if you are only a few words over the limit there’s no reason not to go back and trim until your story stands at 4,000 words, or less.

I can hear the words of protest now, and I entirely understand where those objections are coming from. You’ve crafted a piece where every word flows seamlessly into the next; there’s nothing you can do with that story that will make it more perfect than it is now; every single word is integral to the story that unfolds as your plot hurtles inexorably toward its [insert overly enthusiastic superlative here] climax.

Except … that’s almost never true. Whether it’s a first pass you’re working on, or a tenth revision, your story is going to have words, phrases, and probably some minor plot elements or flourishes that hinder, rather than enhance, the piece.

Think of it this way: all stories have a natural rhythm. The ones that work, anyway. That rhythm is a function of multiple elements; some of these we can define (pacing, language use, narrative drive, and plot, among others), and some we can’t (things which are intrinsic to each writer’s own style and manner of expression).

The easiest, and move effective, way to tell when a story’s rhythm is right is to read it out loud. Anything you trip over needs revision. Any dialogue that doesn’t sound realistic or plausible when you try to speak it should be cut or revised. Sections that sound needlessly repetitive are. You don’t have to read your work to someone else – though that gives you feedback on the way someone else hears your story, which is equally useful – but this will let you hear the way the words actually flow together.

Any awkward constructions, clichés, and those things that sounded perfectly fine in your head but really, really aren’t when you put them down on paper, won’t stand up to a reading, and you’ll be able to catch them fairly quickly.

The other reason to read your work out loud is to address an issue that is cropping up in numerous submissions we’ve received so far: we’ve seen an extraordinary number of errors such as typos, fragment sentences, and some formatting issues in the work coming in (like header information embedded in the body text …). One or two typos are forgivable; between faulty and/or inadequate programming on the part of word processing spell check features, and exhaustion, typos happen. The rest … the rest looks like what it is: sloppy editing. Reading your story out loud will help you catch these errors too. Even typos.

Anything that makes your story hard to read, that causes us to trip over it as we progress, makes it that much harder for your story to compete. All story submissions are really participations in contest format anyway, no matter where you send them; the Friends of the Merril Short Story Contest is just actively referred to as a contest. But, from the get go, we want to be blown away by your extraordinary command of the English language, your exquisite gift for phrasing, by your ability to make music with the written word, and tell a story that pushes boundaries (not the boundaries of good taste though, that’s just … no), takes flight, and soars.

The bottom line? Every story can do with revising. Remember, you’re competing: we can’t award points for stories that were almost mind-blowing.


If you have questions about the above, or anything else relating to the contest, please ask. Address your queries to Michael Matheson at fomsscontest@gmail.com. And, as always, we look forward to reading what you send. And remember, the hard deadline for 2011-2012 submissions is Feb. 15, 2012.

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