writing weirdness

March of the living dead lit mag submissions

Interesting thread over on the Facebook page of author Martin Ott. To quote:

Getting organized to do a few submissions and noticed I still had a large number of submissions from last fall sitting in lit mag online submission queues: Tin House (not a surprise), Missouri Review, LIT Magazine, Idaho Review, Southern Review, Harvard Review (they tend to be slow), among others. Most of the work is fiction (some isn't). Are other writers experiencing the same trend?

Answer to that last question: Yes. Big yes. A hell yes yes.

And it's worse than that Facebook thread makes out. When I contacted Martin Ott to ask if I could quote his post, he told me that one of his recent submissions to Granta took 579 days for a response. Dang!

As an author, let me say this is BS. Short fiction, poetry and essay submissions shouldn't take this long. In our instant connection world no submission should disappear down a literary magazine's slush pile hole for more than three months unless an editor specifically contacted you to say they need more time to consider your work.

I say this because — sarcastic yet eye-opening truth time — when a lit mag takes a year with a submission it's not like your story or poem or essay spends all that time being read and re-read and critically dissected on its literary merits by a group of editors sipping hot toddies from crystal glasses in a candle-lit room.

No, your submission sits within an in-box pile of unseen electrons on a server or, less frequently, in a box in the corner of a cheaply made cubical, until some student intern or underpaid editorial assistant reads the first few paragraphs of the story and rejects it.

One year's wait in the slush pile comes down to a few seconds of face time with an editor.

I know this because I edited a literary magazine, storySouth, for many years. While I no longer edit the magazine I remember dealing with my own slush pile. And before you ask, yes, I sometimes took longer than three months with submissions. We all make mistakes. But I tried to not make that my pattern. And there's even less need for long waits today, what with all the cheap and easily available submission management systems out there.

I wish I could issue a call to arms over this issue. Urge authors to fight back by both shaming literary magazines which take too long with their submissions and not submitting to these places. But part of the problem is that fewer and fewer of the biggest literary magazines are accepting unsolicited submissions. And many of those that do now charge a submission fee, which is a separate irritation for writers.

All I can do is raise awareness of the issue. And point out to lit mags that magazines in the science fiction and fantasy genres rarely charge submissions fees and usually return submission in under three months. A few, like Clarkesworld and Lightspeed, even have reputations for dealing with most submissions in only a few days.

Maybe lit mags could learn a few things from their genre brethren.

(Note: Yes, I take this very personally. I once received a rejection letter from a lit mag six years after submitting. Need I say more?)



Stop Duotrope's attempt to own authors' personal submission data

Years ago I praised Duotrope's website, finding it a useful way for authors to track submissions and research thousands of writing markets. In many ways Duotrope began as an online alternative to the long-running Writer's Market series of books, with the added benefit that Duotrope compiled users' submission data, enabling them to create statistical reports on markets. Writers found this data invaluable and many of us, including myself, worshipped at the Duotrope altar.

After starting life as a donation-supported resource for writers, Duotrope eventually changed to a subscription-based website. While I disagreed with this change I understood it. Even though I drifted away from using Duotrope for my own submissions I still recommended the site to other writers.

I've now come full-circle. I'm currently writing so many short stories that I again need an online submission-tracking system. However, when I checked out Duotrope to see if I wanted to subscribe to their system I discovered something disturbing.

According to Duotrope's terms of service, "Any data downloaded from this website, including but not limited to submission histories, is strictly for personal use and may not be shared with any third parties or used for commercial purposes."

What does this mean? It means that if you upload your submission information to Duotrope, you no longer have the right to use your own data as you see fit. You can't use the data to write an article about submissions for a magazine or upload your data to another online submission system such as the site run by Writer's Market. Basically, once you use Duotrope you can't leave and take your data elsewhere.

Duotrope also attempts to make a blatant copyright grab, with their terms stating "The website and its database are also protected as a collective work or compilation under U.S. copyright and other laws and treaties. All individual articles, pages and other elements making up the website are also copyrighted works. Use of any of these original works without written permission of Duotrope LLC is expressly forbidden."

Duotrope is skating on thin ice here because you can't copyright data. But combine this copyright statement with their terms of use for the data and Duotrope is essentially saying they own any submission data uploaded to their system by authors.

I hope Duotrope will clarify the language in their terms of service and state clearly that authors who use their system retain all rights to their own personal submission data, including the right to take their data to other submission systems is they choose.

Duotrope's is valuable because of the authors entering data into their systems. Without a large sampling of authors using their system, their statistics become worthless.

Until Duotrope clarifies this situation, and affirms that their users own their personal submission data and can do with it as they desire, I suggest authors avoid this website.

Update: Someone pointed out to me that website terms of service are the legal equivalent of a signed contract. One more reason Duotrope needs to change these terms.

Why writers should rarely name songs in their fiction

Cue the music.

I'm a young boy again, reading a fun novel named Spellsinger by Alan Dean Foster. I'm loving the novel because Foster is a compelling author and knows how to create wacky worlds and spin tons of adventure. But one thing keeps puzzling me.

The music, man. All the references to music from the 1960s and 70s.

The main character, Jon-Tom, is a wizard who creates magic by playing music. Specifically songs like AC/DC's "Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap" and the Beach Boy's "Sloop John B." Which made fun reading for anyone who knew these songs, but when I first read the novel I was continually puzzled by musical references I knew nothing about.

Fortunately, Foster is a strong enough writer that you can enjoy Spellsinger without knowing all the referenced songs. But ever since I've been wary of song titles in fiction, a trait I carry over into my own stories.

Most writers already know the legal pitfalls of using copyrighted lyrics in their fiction. In short, it's expensive to secure reprint rights to current popular songs. In addition, most book publishers are reluctant to allow authors to use "fair use" as a way to include copyrighted lyrics in their stories. All this means that if an author includes copyrighted lyrics in their fiction, that story may have a hard time finding a publisher.

To get around this issue, many authors simply reference the titles of songs in their stories, thus avoiding any legal hassles while still bringing the desired music into the story. The problem with this, though, is each person reacts to music in a different way. A song title which evokes love and happiness in the author may evoke disgust in some readers and anger in others. Or the song title may cause puzzlement in readers who aren't familiar with the song, as happened to me when I read Spellsinger at a young age.

And then there are the authors who dump a laundry list of song titles into their stories. Instead of evoking different emotions, these endless song titles evoke nothing but irritation from readers, who often feel as if the author is merely name-checking large numbers of pop culture artifacts instead of telling a story.

In my opinion, a better way for authors to bring songs into their story is to let the readers fill in the music with their own minds. Be vague about the songs you mention. Instead of mentioning "The Sound of Silence," describe how your character hears a faint folk song which echoes like silence through her ears. Instead of saying a character heard "Rapper's Delight," mention him feeling nostalgic upon hearing an old hip hop song his father played over and over after a hard day at work.

Doing this both avoids bringing in a song which your readers may not have the same reaction to as you and also allows the character's reaction to the music to emerge in the readers' minds.

There are, of course, exceptions to this advice. Foster's Spellsinger is actually a great example of how to incorporate song titles into a story. After all, when I read the story as a kid I didn't know the referenced song titles, but the story still worked. That's because Foster provided enough background and details for me fill in the gaps to my song knowledge.

Another book I recently read which does a great job melding song references with the story is Silvia Moreno-Garcia's Signal to Noise.  Moreno-Garcia does a similar creative job as Foster by using her characters and world-building and prose to show the reader the songs even when the reader doesn't know them.

But authors should know both of these novels are the exceptions which prove the rule. In addition, these novels are specifically about music, suggesting readers may have a different tolerance to musical references in these tales than they would in a non-musical story.

So my advice is for authors to generally be vague with your musical references. Let readers fill in the musical spaces you create.

Otherwise readers might believe you created something "bad" when you're really wanting them to see your story as "Bad."

On hating elevator speeches

Because naturally your life or work or art or writing should be boiled down to 25 words of less, delivered in an elevator to a harried agent who wants you to send a shiver down their damn spine but doesn't want to actually interact with you or your life or your work or your art or your writing.

Because we should all be Tim Robbins in The Player. Because if you're not a player you're obviously being played.

Because life is a damn Shark Tank, and if you can't pitch your idea you might as well be churned through a spinning propeller and left as chum for the fishes of the world.

Because we need more cliches than truth in our lives. Because we crave summary instead of story. Because we embrace continual mindnumbing instead of mindfulness. Because comforting 25 word spiels are better than actual vision.

Because John Grisham said it so.

Because we think there's originality in cliched reworkings of what's been done before. Because we want a pitch to equal value. Because we want to pretend "Star Wars meets the Real Housewives of Hollywood" is a creative thought instead of a diagnosis of what ails society.

Because this is what people do to sell their product. Because we believe our lives are merely products to be sold. Because we can't see how we're limiting ourselves. Because deep down we hate elevator speeches but everyone told us to have one so we spent two weeks perfecting those 25 words.

Because your life is naturally reduced to little more than the parts which create you.

Because you must meditate and become one with the elevator speech.

Because an elevator speech beats doing anything useful with your life.


On forcing The Hobbit, or any story, to be what it's not

This weekend my family saw The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, the third and final of Peter Jackson's Hobbit films. As I watched nearly three hours worth of action and fighting and more action and more fighting — and marveled at how CGI and poor directing can turn epic battles into nothing more than boredom — I realized what was wrong with the entire Hobbit trilogy.

The problem is Peter Jackson tried to force The Hobbit to become a story it is not.

If you've read J. R. R. Tolkien's The Hobbit, or There and Back Again, you likely know what I mean. The novel is fun, lighthearted, fast-paced, and above all centered on Bilbo Baggins, a main character you can't help but love. You can still see flashes of this original story in the film trilogy — you'll be watching Martin Freeman as Bilbo and he'll say or do something which echos back to the original novel, where Bilbo is very much a fish out of water as he takes part in adventures no reasonable person would take part in. And Bilbo knows this. Which makes us love him all the more for going on the adventures and supporting his friends and struggling to do right in Middle Earth.

No, the problem with The Hobbit films isn't Martin Freeman's portrayal of Bilbo Baggins — the problem is that Peter Jackson wanted to force the entire story to be an extension of his Lord of the Rings film trilogy. So Jackson buried all the loveable parts of The Hobbit beneath non-stop action and irrelevant scenes.  The end result: instead of making a new Lord of the Rings series, he turned the Hobbit trilogy into a parody of the very films which made Jackson famous in the first place.

The funny thing is Jackson should have known this would destroy the story. After all, no one else than J. R. R. Tolkien himself learned this very lesson the hard way.

You see, The Hobbit was originally written as children's literature and became a classic in that genre. When Tolkien was asked to write a sequel, he eventually began work on what became The Lord of the Rings. But this trilogy was very different in tone and structure than his original novel.

To fit The Hobbit in with the new series, Tolkien made minor retroactive changes to the novel, such as turning Gollum into a much more disturbing character. For example, in The Hobbit's 1937 edition Gollum willingly gives Bilbo the ring after losing the riddle game. Gollum's anger at Bilbo, and his famed cry of "Thief, Thief, Thief! Baggins! We hates it, we hates it, we hates it forever!" was only added to later editions by Tolkien.

But Tolkien wasn't satisfied with these minor changes. By 1960, The Lord of the Rings had become as big a hit, if not bigger, than The Hobbit. So Tolkien sat down to rework his children's novel into something more like his new series.

As Jason Fisher, author of Tolkien and the Study of his Sources, explains:

"What Tolkien was doing in those abandoned 1960 revisions was attempting to bring The Hobbit in line with The Lord of the Rings in terms of its style and its tone and its character. I think that’s very much what Peter Jackson is probably doing. Judging by the material I’ve seen so far, it seems that Peter Jackson is attempting to create a prequel to The Lord of the Rings that will match The Lord of the Rings in terms of style and tone and character."

Fortunately for us, when Tolkien was only 30 pages into this major rewrite he showed the revision to people and everyone basically said it was an abomination and totally destroyed what they loved about the original novel. So he abandoned the urge to rework The Hobbit into something it was not.

It's a shame Peter Jackson didn't learn from Tolkien's experience. There are flashes of the original Hobbit in these films and in Martin Freeman's performance. I'd love to see an entire film based on such a true retelling of The Hobbit. (Note: If anyone wants to creatively "edit" the Hobbit trilogy into a single film which is honest to the original novel, I'd watch it in a heartbeat.)

Sadly, the Hobbit trilogy has been so financially successful that it won't matter to either Jackson or Hollywood that the films are now merely a parody of both Tolkien's original novel and The Lord of the Rings films. But if you care about stories, remember this: When a story works, the worst thing you can do is try to change the story into something it is not.