Phew! I am just recovering from an exhausting but fantastic week visiting libraries in the Moreton Bay area. My head is still spinning after doing talks at twelve libraries in four days. Luckily I had a gorgeous staff member from the Moreton Bay Region Libraries to keep me on track, remind me where I was and what my name was! Thank you Hayley. Thanks to all of the wonderful students, teachers and parents who came to the talks and the library staff who made it possible. Hope to see you again soon! Full pictures here.
My advice to younger writers is that it doesn’t pay to tell the publisher your age (unless the magazine specifically wants work from younger readers). If your work looks professional, then your age won’t matter. Catherine McMullen was ten years old when she sold a story to the UK science fiction magazine Interzone, and has since sold stories to anthologies such as Spinouts. If you have sold stories already, you should mention this in your covering letter.
Remember that a rejection letter does not necessarily reflect on the quality of your work. It might just be that your article/story does not fit in with the publisher’s current requirements. A golden rule is to never let an unsold piece of work sit in your home for more than twenty-four hours. Keep sending it out until you have exhausted all avenues. Never throw a manuscript out. I have had novels accepted that had been rejected by the same publisher a decade before. Editors change, as do times. Indeed, as you become a more experienced writer, you can always go back to those ‘bottom drawer’ stories and re-work them.
Most publishers prefer a covering letter. The following is a good example. Under no circumstances do you tell the magazine editor how good your story is, or discuss its many merits. The editor will have his/her own opinion and will not welcome yours!
The following is how you lay out your manuscript. Most publishers do not require you to put in indents at the beginning of paragraphs, because when they format your file, they will have to take them out. Make sure that you have no fancy fonts or illustrations. Keep it simple! This means no illustrations such as butterflies in the margins. Publishers only have to delete them.
Word count: 2300 words
PO Box 1339
The Thing that went ‘Blerckh!’
‘That was truly gross,’ I said to my best friend, Daniel Barnes – Barnesy to me.
‘It wasn’t me,’ he said, ‘but I wish it was.’ Barnesy looked around. No one was there.
‘Ace!’ I laughed and pointed down at his foot. The fattest, pukiest glob of bubble gum was stuck to his foot. It was so gross it had anchor lines stretching back to the main wad stuck on the footpath.
Barnesy lifted his foot and shook it. The bubble gum wouldn’t let go.
I cacked myself laughing. ‘It’s caught you, Barnesy – now some big fat spider’s gonna come and take you away!’
Barnesy frowned. ‘Seriously, Fletchard. You’re so loserish.’ He tugged so hard his shoe came off.
That threw me right off. ‘Let me tell you, Barnesy,’ I gasped, ‘you look so funny.’ I sat down on the footpath, tears of laughter screaming from my eyes.
Barnesy gave me a filthy look. He bent down to pick up his shoe. He pulled with two hands. He steadied his feet and hauled with all his strength.
Nothing. The shoe was wedged there.
Barnesy jumped back.
‘What’d it do, bite you?’ I howled.
‘Shuddup, Fletchard.’ Barnesy glared at me. ‘It just went “Blerckh!” again.’
I swallowed hard. My stomach was aching too much. I had to stop laughing. Cars were slowing down looking at the idiot on the footpath who was losing it with tears. I pushed myself up, my whole body shaking with laughter.
‘It just burped?’ I repeated slowly, hardly daring to breathe.
Barnesy checked me out. He was about to lose it.
‘Serious? It burped?’
Barnesy let go of his shoe. It snapped back to the footpath. ‘It’s stuck,’ he said. ‘The gooey stuff’s got it and won’t let it go.’
‘Weird,’ I said. I could have laughed my head off. After all, it wasn’t my shoe that was glued to the footpath. Instead, I shook my head in sympathy. What are friends for?
‘I can’t walk home with only one shoe,’ Barnesy said seriously.
‘You could take the other one off and leave it,’ I suggested.
‘That’s really dumb,’ Barnesy said. ‘I’d rather have one shoe than none.’
‘But one shoe’s no good to you,’ I pointed out.
‘The gunk’s not going to have my other shoe,’ Barnesy said firmly. ‘No way.’
(You will note the double spacing between sentences (you can use 1.5 spacing). This is so that editors have space to mark in corrections etc. Also, take notice of the border around the manuscript. Do not print both sides of the paper, and make sure you number each page and have a title on each page. This is in case the pages get loose or rearranged. Do not clip or staple your manuscript.)
What makes a good story?
Basically, most stories have a beginning, a middle and an end. If you are writing a fiction story for a magazine that publishes 2000+ word stories, your manuscript will have about nine pages.
During the course of these pages, you should have drama (perhaps mystery), conflict (obstacles to overcome, dilemma), humour (if possible), a focus, as in ‘where is this leading?’ (towards a logical conclusion, the reader hopes!), and obviously the climax.
You start out introducing your character. Here you will set the scene for what is about to follow. In the above story, The Thing that went ‘Blerckh!’, the conflict is between two best friends, Barnesy and Fletchard. Barnesy also has a problem (obstacle), which Fletchard thinks is funny. So there’s humour in the first couple of pages, too.
The middle comes around pages six and seven. Barnesy can’t dislodge the gum from his feet. They discover a man is picking up all the globs of chewing gum. Here’s the mystery – why would someone go around picking up chewing gum? The obvious way to find out is to following the man (we’re heading toward a logical conclusion).
Towards the end, Fletchard and Barnesy discover the ‘man’ is from another planet. They follow him. It turns out that his special gum has been snaring Earth objects, which are valuable on his planet. The boys also discover that he has caught lots of cats and dogs. To release them, they might jeopardise their own safety (a moral dilemma). This is where the characters need a resolution. In this case, they put the animals before their own safety, but of course it’s a wise decision because all the animals get free and so do the boys (climax).
It makes good sense to be creative when considering how your character resolves their problem. In the case of Barnesy and Fletchard, they discover a giant plug. Do they pull it, or will it put them in more danger? Only when the old man screams at them not to touch it, do the boys decides it’s a good idea to ‘pull the plug’. The ending is where all the loose ends are tied. In the case of The Thing that went ‘Blerckh!’, the boys vow to look for the old man again, because they want to get back to his planet.
Know Your Characters
There are basically two types of fiction writers – those who concentrate on characterisation and those who lean toward writing good plots and action. Writers rarely succeed in being excellent in both. Authors who write plot-driven stories filled with twists and turns and brilliant foreshadowing often receive letters of rejection claiming that the characters are two-dimensional or lack depth.
It’s easy enough to draw up a checklist of necessities for your characters: what they look like, colour of hair, shape of nose and nationality etc, but these mundane items should be a given. Your characters need filling out – especially the main protagonists. Giving your character a quirky nature is one way to add a bit of depth: their eye might twitch when agitated or they might stutter. James Bond liked his martinis shaken not stirred, and when introducing himself, he would say, ‘Bond. James Bond.’ Your characters might have a ‘rising inflexion’, which means almost every second sentence seemingly has a question mark, even when they’re not asking a question. The more you fill in along the way, the easier it will be for the reader to identify with them.
Never make statements to the reader. Commonly known as ‘show don’t tell’, the following is an example: ‘Keiren didn’t play sport because he was no good at it’. Far better to give a reason: ‘Dom’s older sister was the captain of both the seniors’ cricket and rugby teams. No way could he compete with that; instead he spent most of his time in the library’. In the first version we know that he doesn’t play sport because he’s no good at it. In the second version, we learn why Keiren is no good at sport (he’s daunted by his sister’s superiority), and we learn that he’s a reader because of it.
The rule of thumb is that if you know your character inside out, and convey your knowledge in your story by showing and not telling, your finished work will be much richer for it.
When editing your work – commonly known as ‘polishing’, watch out for the obvious mistakes of over-writing. These include repetition, using the same words too many times, labouring a point, using more words than necessary to say something simple.
My greatest tip to anyone is to persist! Remember that many publishers have rejected most of the best-selling books of all time before the books saw print. And this applies to short stories, too.
Good luck with your writing. I hope these minor tips prove helpful.
Paul Collins’s latest books are The Glasshouse, illustrated by Jo Thompson and The Maximus Black Files. His website is: www.paulcollins.com.au.