Tag Archives: craft essay

Reflections on Running a Fiction Contest

So Quarantine Quanta: A Drabble Contest is closed and I feel it was a great success. The subs were open March 17-31, and the results were posted on April 6, with just under 300 entries overall and with everyone having received their decisions (and the awardees having received payment) beforehand. Here are some observations from the process.

I have long been thinking about taking on some editorial duties, but have so far managed to stop myself by remembering that I have limited time and haven’t yet reached my goals as a writer that I promised myself I would reach first. This contest was a perfect opportunity to scratch the editing itch and test some ideas.

I used Google Forms for submissions. I have seen several markets do it successfully (off the top of my head: The Arcanist, tDotspec, and Longleaf Review), so it seemed like the (free!) way to go. The form was easy to set up with multiple layers of redundancy: form response, email alert of a new form response, and automatic placement of the entry data into a Google Sheet.

I did most of my work in Google Sheets, which was really convenient. Since the stories were short, I had submitters paste them into a text box, which would then be placed in the sheet, from where I read them. It was also easy to leave comments as I sifted through the submissions and I used color coding abundantly in order to stay organized: different background colors to mark up stories as read, likely no, maybe, likely yes, hell yes, and transferred from another genre (for cross-genre categories); different font colors to denote decision sent/done, acceptance sent/awaiting payment info, and payment sent.

In Gmail, I created email templates for a form decline, a shortlist decline with suggestions of potential markets where to send next, and an acceptance. The templates were absolutely essential to sending out many email responses with such a short turnaround time, and it was easy to add some personalized remarks when appropriate.

The contest had no entry fee and I accepted multiple submissions. The spirit of the contest was to get writers’ creative juices flowing; the no entry fee, I hope, lowered the submission barrier for many talented people who might be financially struggling, especially at this time. Unfortunately, the absence of an entry fee had some unintended consequences. There were many hits on my website from certain Google Classrooms, which I assume means that some teachers sent their class to submit to the contest. I  heard of this happening before, for example to the Weird Christmas contest, which ended up buried in subs last year, and I just don’t understand what the point is. I will not be providing these students with personalized feedback or a grade; presumably the teacher still has to read all the stories. By all means, a teacher should encourage their top few students to submit, but if the whole cohort submits, a majority of those entries are likely not going to be competitive. These class submissions create more work for the editor and I can’t imagine that the rejections encourage the students to write more.  What is the reasoning behind these assignments? Is it to force the students to complete something by a deadline? To see how it feels to submit? To get them to learn to read the guidelines and adhere to them? Anyway, if I do run a contest  this in the future, I am contemplating having a small entry fee, to prevent mass submissions.

A vast majority of submitters obeyed the guidelines: prose, each story of exactly 100 words, and no more than three submissions across all categories. I received one submission with well over twice the maximal length, two poems in verse, and one submitter who sent in more than the maximum of three. Given the number of submissions, I’d say this  wasn’t too bad.

I read each story multiple times. Those that received a form decline were read probably 3-5 times, while those that made it to the higher rounds probably two dozen times, if not more, as I was trying to fit as many of the ones I loved into the issue while maintaining a variety of topics and styles.

In terms of quality, I could have accepted twice, maybe two-and-a-half times as many pieces as I had. However, the contest was paid and it was advertised (and listed on The Grinder) with a lowest payment of 10 cents/word. Even though I greatly increased the number of awards in the end with respect to what was originally planned, I couldn’t pay anyone less than the posted minimum. At some point, increasing the number of acceptances further became financially prohibitive. However, rest assured that there are another 30-50 stories out there that are just plain awesome and I hope they all find homes soon, so that everyone gets to read them!

If I sent a shortlist declination, I meant it. That story was good and the only reason I couldn’t include it is that I was limited in terms of space (and, by space, I mean money) and, given the space, I wanted to showcase a certain mix of topics and styles. There were several excellent stories that just happened to be too topically similar to something else, and I could only pick one. The pandemic stories were so numerous that they warranted their own category, but there were quite a few topics with three or four excellent entries, yet only one accepted. There is a lot of talent out there.

I was dreading receiving hurtful responses to rejections, but I’m relieved to report that I didn’t get a single one. I attribute it to luck, no entry fee (so no one felt they were owed anything), and what I thought were encouraging declination letters. But probably mostly luck. The people who did respond to declines were all very kind, and thanked me for the feedback and/or for running the contest.

Judging this contest underscored two key elements that I feel are true when we talk about the evolution of one’s writing. Being that most people submitted multiple entries, I can say the following:
a) If someone could write at a high level, all their entries were at a high level; I might’ve liked one more than others (I made sure no one got more than one award in the competitive categories together), but they were all good, working stories. The converse was also true: If someone hadn’t quite reached a publishable level with their prose, that was evident in all their entries. So there is such a thing as objective writing skill, visible in all one produces.
b) There is also intrinsic subjectivity in these award selections. There are some writers who are quite skilled, but whose work just doesn’t resonate very strongly with me. I recognize the craft, but it doesn’t move me as much as some other people’s work. Consequently, this work doesn’t do well in my contest, but likely would’ve if someone else had judged. I believe it has to do with being on a similar wavelength as the writer, because, often, if one of their pieces resonated, more than one did.
So, as I discussed elsewhere, it is a combination of where one’s craft objectively is (above or below a quality threshold, and this is something a writer can work on) and a subjective component (whether a reader just likes the work or loves it). And, of course, logistical considerations from above (e.g., issue composition, number of slots).

This brings me to reading the entries of the writers I know. While I didn’t pay attention to who wrote which story during the initial selection, because it was easy to hide the name and email columns in the Google Sheet, once the time came to send out declines, it was gut-wrenching to do so to great writers whom I like and respect. This was my least favorite part of the experience.

Overall, what did I learn?

The timescale was short; that worked during the quarantine, but wouldn’t have worked if I’d had my regular schedule. It was a crunch, but I like to keep busy and it really helped me stay sane during the transition toward self-isolation. I could do this intense focused reading of submissions maybe once a year, but not more frequently, or else I fear I would get burned out really fast. I understand better now why magazines fold, why people have narrow and infrequent submission windows, and feel that those who have year-round subs over many years are definitely superheroes!

An entry fee might prevent being carpet bombed by submissions that really aren’t ready for prime time. But I am torn on the issue, even if the amounts are small ($1 or $0.50). Having entry fees would run counter to the spirit of the contest, and the benefit of openness and accessibility probably justifies the (minor) annoyance.

Google-based submissions were free and easy to implement, and a good choice overall. However, I assume there is a critical rate of submissions beyond which using a submission manager becomes a must. More than one person handling submissions might also make many of the benefits I drew from Google obsolete. But yes, for a one-time contest with a sole reader/judge, it worked out perfectly.

There are many talented authors out there, some of whom are so amazing it seems unfair to the rest of us mortals, and it was a great privilege to read everyone’s work. I am really happy I ran the contest, and I hope the readers enjoy the resulting anthology as much as I enjoyed creating it.


Cover for the Quarantine Quanta story collection. Art by Daniele Serra.

Contest eBook PDF

Contest eBook EPUB

Contest eBook MOBI

Deep Dive into Slush

Not that long ago, I spent some time reading submissions for a pro speculative magazine. This was my first time as a slush reader at this level and it was overall an intense, enjoyable, and greatly informative experience. I’m really glad I did it and I am sure it will help me improve my own craft, going forward.

We read blind (no author identifiers) and were required to submit a score and brief comments on each story. We could see the remarks of other slush readers, but only after we’d submitted ours.

Overall, I read only about 10% of all submitted stories. I read some brilliant pieces and some truly terrible ones, with a majority somewhere in between.

My own score breakdown went something like this:

~10%  were the stories I really liked and thought were clearly publishable by the  market. Of those, a handful resonated so strongly that I was willing to champion them.

~25% were the stories that I considered fine, but just didn’t love. They had no particular flaws in the structure or level of writing, but I could take them or leave them.

~65% or just a smidgen under 2/3 were, in my view, unacceptable. They had clearly identifiable objective flaws (pointed out independently by several slush readers) or else had what were damning but perhaps more subjective flaws (issues that pinged my peeve radar, but not necessarily that of other slush readers; more on that below).

When an author receives a rejection from a magazine, it’s always a question if the story is objectively bad (and, by extension, if the issues are with a particular story or more holistic, such as the author simply not yet writing at a high-enough level) or if the rejection came as a result of more subjective reasons, either personal (e.g., readers or editors simply didn’t love the piece) or logistical (e.g., magazine recently published something on a similar topic; doesn’t fit with the rest of the issue).

Based on what I’ve seen comparing my comments to those of other slush readers, I believe that the answer to the above is something like this: Up to a certain threshold level of an author’s craft, flaws in the writing can be and usually are objectively identified. Above threshold, evaluation becomes much more subjective, as different readers respond more or less strongly to what are not necessarily flaws but matters of taste, involving sub-genre, theme, and style.

I would say that ~ 50% of all stories I read fell under below-threshold writing, where two or more slush readers identified one or two big flaws. Some stories were close but not quite there; others were fairly poor overall.

Common reasons for a story rejection which were routinely picked up by multiple slush readers:

  • Stilted prose, especially dialogue; rough transitions between paragraphs/ poor flow
  • No hook; boring; reader doesn’t end up caring what happens with any of the characters and isn’t compelled to keep reading
  • No conflict/weak plot; setting, worldbuilding, background, or character sketch supposed to serve instead of plot
  • Weak ending: unearned/twist (out of nowhere); illogical; ending too soon or too late after the climax; lukewarm and unsatisfying
  • Lack of internal consistency (illogical character actions within the context of the world)
  • Sadly, there were a few stories with blatant hate speech (especially misogyny) that I wish I could forget having seen

Around 40% of the stories were above threshold, but triggered my peeve radar to some degree, enough for me to consider them unacceptable or just not particularly enticing. This is probably the most frustrating range to be in, because these stories are generally competently written; they might get a hold/second round in the hands of the right slush readers or they might get declined by another group.

Here are some issues that didn’t sit well with me, but might have been fine with some other slush readers, who, in turn, had their own preferences that sometime resulted in them suggesting the rejection of stories that I found delightful.

Emotions. A good story has to resonate emotionally with the reader. We need to have a character to care about, usually because they care about something. However, I have a fairly low tolerance for melodrama and I wish that infirm or deceased family members (especially children) weren’t used quite so often to milk the readers’ tear ducts. This is something I hate in literary and speculative fiction alike — sick or dead babies, kids, and grandmas employed to manipulate the reader’s feelings when the story doesn’t have much else going on, especially in terms of plot.

Grief and loss are relatable, but they hardly exhaust the human emotional spectrum,  and certainly aren’t the sole or even the best motivator of characters. I wish sadness weren’t the central emotion as often as it is.

Plot. I love a clever plot, a plot that tickles my intellect, inflicted upon the characters with whom I can connect emotionally. That’s the way to my slush-reading heart. Several stories I read had what I felt was too unoriginal of a plot, as if plucked from a popular book/show/movie, but some other slush readers didn’t seem to mind, perhaps because they hadn’t consumed the same pop-culture products as me. If I find the plot delightful, I am willing to forgive a lot of other writerly sins. The same goes for humor; I’m a sucker for a genuinely funny story.

Style. I appear to have a relatively low threshold for purple prose, but my purple might be another reader’s gorgeous and lyrical. It’s not that I don’t like descriptive language, far from it; however, I have seen a number of stories where great language is supposed to mask a weak or nonexistent narrative arc. While this is a clear no from me, I know others will forgive a weakness in plot if the prose is beautiful.

Genre. I have a soft spot for sci-fi stories involving interstellar travel. Also time travel and parallel universes. OK, I love all sci-fi. In contrast, there are large swaths of fantasy that I am probably not the target audience for (generally anything involving magic, spells, potions, capes, or heroic quests). So even a perfect sword-and-sorcery story is unlikely to make me fall in love with it. I generally tried to stay away from scoring or commenting on such stories, because I knew I’d probably be too harsh simply because the topics were not to my personal taste.

Other. Setting/worldbuilding/background/character sketch used in lieu of plot is a big no-no. However, there was  one particular story I remember, where key elements of worldbuilding also happened to introduce a very personal conflict for the protagonist, i.e., worldbuilding was a large and meaningful part of the plot. This goes to show that you can do anything if you know what you’re doing.

Finally, I want to emphasize that I’ve read some phenomenal stories, stories that are way better than what I can write today and probably ever. Most were held past the first round, but still didn’t get picked for publication. I rooted for them and felt as heartbroken at their rejection as I do for my own stories.

The conclusion is both disheartening and hopeful. Even great pieces get declined; not everything will be everyone’s cup of tea, no matter how strong the writing; all we can do is keep reading, keep writing, keep getting better, and keep supporting short-fiction magazines with our submissions, volunteering, and, if possible, subscriptions, so that many more amazing stories from the slush can make it into the world.

Craft Meets Navel: Writing Short Fiction Like a Pro (Not)

Yesterday I read Douglas Smith’s Playing the Short Game: How to Market and Sell Short Fiction. This was an engaging read aimed at those who wish to become professional short-form genre writers, which, in the book,  means to make a substantial fraction of their income from short fiction. The book contains a superb exposition on understanding publishing contracts and on licensing first, reprint, foreign-language, and audio rights for a story, all of which is important information for beginning writers and not something I’d seen elsewhere.

Smith argues that the key to becoming a professional writer is obeying Heinlein’s Rules (well explained in Robert J. Sawyer’s post On Writing: Heinlein’s Rules). One of the rules is to never stop sending your story out until it sells. Smith argues that the only markets worth sending and selling work to are professional markets; right now, that means those paying at least $0.06/word.

He also argues that, when submitting to magazines or anthologies, one should keep the cover letters very short and simple (I have encountered similar advice here, written by Alex Shvartsman) and only list recent pro publication credits. Otherwise, not list any, because, in his words, no one cares.

The keep-it-brief advice on cover letters is on point, and I dare say it cuts across genres. As for the rest of the advice, I will say that Smith is a respected professional writer with many credits to his name.

What I am interested in here is something that Smith asks the reader at the outset: What is it that you, the reader, want from your writing? The book is written under the assumption that the reader’s answer is to become a professional short-form genre writer (again, meaning to make substantial income from short fiction).

This got me thinking about what I want from my writing. I am relatively new (have been writing fiction for only a year) and I write both literary and speculative fiction, plus some humor. The rules do differ in different arenas. Smith notes there are two kinds of beginners: Arrogant Beginner (doesn’t work on craft, thinks all he/she produces is gold) and Fearful Beginner (endlessly tinkers with work, doesn’t submit enough or sells his/her work short). I assume most people fall somewhere between these two extremes. I seem to operate as the fearful kind, even though I don’t think I am, but more on that later.

I understand that there’s an accepted hierarchy among speculative markets, based on the pay rate (pro, semipro, token, nonpaying/exposure only; see Ralan.com) and how long they’ve been around. (However, even magazines that are not high on the totem pole are selective and put out some great work.) In contrast, at the literary end of the spectrum, most markets don’t pay,  even many of the widely read, prestigious ones.

It’s also interesting to note that many, perhaps most speculative fiction magazines (and definitely a vast majority of pro markets) don’t allow simultaneous submissions. Some respond fast, so the no-simsubs requirement isn’t a big deal, but some really take their time. In contrast, a majority of literary markets allow and even encourage simultaneous submission.

Knowing that I dip my toes in both ponds, what is it that I want and can realistically get from my writing?

I already have a well-paying, secure job. Not just a job, but a career — my job title is the equivalent of Marge and Homer Simpson Professor of Mathilicious Tomfoolery. This job is one where I have to remain intellectually and emotionally engaged in order to continue to prosper, and prosper I must, in no small part because I have a family and I am the primary earner. As much as I like to write, I can only carve out so much time around work and family to do it. Therefore, the time, energy, and, let’s face it, inspiration, are in limited supply. If all this means I am doomed from the start because I am not devoted enough, so be it.

Also, I cannot write a story per week over a long period, even though I might technically have enough hours. I am and have always been a feast-or-famine individual; it’s a personality trait. I have periods of high energy in which I can write 2x, 3x, or 5x more than a story per week, but then I have periods when I feel uninspired and deflated. As a result, sometimes I submit a lot, other times little. One benefit of this modus operandi is that I am not afraid of dry spells, because I consider them natural breaks, recuperation periods that are necessary for continued productivity.

Now, where to submit my work and how to strategize, given that I tend to cut across genres? I read broadly and think I have a reasonably good understanding of  the publishing landscape, who likes/takes what, etc. Every writer wants to place stories in good magazines. With literary magazines allowing simultaneous submissions, it is not hard to strategize, especially when Duotrope and The Grinder provide information on magazines’ recent response times. So, when I send out literary pieces, I simply focus on what a magazine publishes, whether I like it and I feel my work fits. At one time, I submit to several magazines where I’d love to be published approximately equally, so whichever one takes the piece makes me happy. I feel that there is great respect for a large variety of magazines in the literary sphere — the hierarchy is fairly flat, if you will.

It’s harder for me with speculative work. There are typically no simultaneous submissions. The magazine hierarchy is much steeper, with professional markets apparently being viewed by some (many? most?) as the only venues worth publishing in, even though many semipro, token, and even nonpaying markets put out superb prose. (Smith says to never ever sell anyplace that’s not a pro-paying market; I found that really jarring.)

I don’t necessarily crave high payment for my stories, but I want them to get better and better, as good as they can be. I would like to some day become a member of certain professional organizations, which requires a certain number of words published in pro magazines; nothing other than pro counts toward membership. But the thing is, I like a lot of semipro and token and nonpaying markets. I like what they publish and none of them are easy to crack. And it bothers me to realize that some people feel that publishing anywhere other than pro markets is somehow ‘slumming it.’ This bothers me because, while I am not an authority, a) I know a great story when I see one, and b) many hard-working people run semipro, token, and nonpaying magazines. It strikes me as wrong and disrespectful to blanket dismiss their efforts, their passion, and what they do for their genre communities.

Of course I want to get published in prestigious venues. But I also don’t think that every nugget I produce is worth sending to the big leagues. Some are, but not  everything is, at least not with my current level of skill. Smith says that my attitude characterizes a Fearful Beginner: self-rejection. Maybe he’s right, but I can’t help but think there’s such a thing a objective quality, and unless the quality is above a certain threshold, I don’t understand how it’s a good idea to send stuff out for a very long time, hoping it will stick, when it simply isn’t very good. It seems like a waste of everyone’s time. I also don’t see myself waiting for years and years to sell something to a pro market (he mentioned one story took 17 years to place in a pro-paying anthology!). I definitely don’t have the mental stamina for that. I can wait a bit for my best stories, those I really believe in with all my heart, but not every story is like that, and just because something is not the best thing I’ve ever written doesn’t mean it’s not worth reading.

This is what I want from my writing:

  • To get better. To write better, longer, crazier, more varied stories.
  • For my stories to show up in nice magazines, alongside other pieces I enjoy. Ideally, these will be venues that other people like and respect, too. And no, I am not allergic to money.
  • For my stories to show up after a reasonable time following their completion. I might be wrong about this, but I am really impatient, and I feel life’s too short to keep sending the same piece out forever. There’s a benefit to being done with it and moving on.
  • I also want people to read my pieces. It must be great to have your work show up in a large-circulation subscription-only magazine! But I admit I am also quite fond of the free-to-read online concept, which I understand is usually (but not always) at odds with paying authors.
  • Somewhere down the road, it would be great to achieve membership in professional writers’ associations. But I know that may be years away, and there’s work to do in the meantime.