Germination: Using Submission Calls as Inspiraton

November 5, 2009

Writers are constantly asked from where their ideas come. My response usually is: Everywhere. As a writer, nothing is ever wasted. Nothing you see, hear, taste, touch, observe, smell, or experience is ever wasted. It’s all material. Genuine writers are never bored, because they’re constantly transforming even the most mundane, rote experience into something interesting.

In the past few weeks, I grew aware of another source of inspiration: Calls for submission. I’m going to use a recent experience as an example, with the hope that you can find it useful.

The submission call I found particularly notable was for an anthology. I received it with about a month’s notice to create, revise, polish and submit. The call had been out there for several months, but it only came to my attention with a month of the deadline.

The premise had to do with water; the word count limit was 5000 words.

I’m a Pisces; I’m drawn to water, especially ocean. Writing about water comes fairly naturally. The 5000K word count is easy to hit. Using my first 1K of the day, I should be able to come up with the first draft in five days. Plenty of time to edit and polish.

I puttered and pondered and came up with a character who loved to swim and spend time in the water. She encounters a frightening creature under the ocean on one of her swims, but manages to evade it. When she surfaces, her foster brother tells her they have visitors, and the visitors seem extraordinarily interested in her. So was born “Be The Monster.” I knew where the piece started. I knew a couple of events that it needed to hit on the water, and the place where I wanted to stop the tale for the purposes of the anthology submission. My character was clearly defined in my head. So were the reasons for her being sent to foster care, her retrieval at this moment, her training, and the training she sought out in secret, not realizing it had something to do with her destiny. As I percolated and wrote and wrote, her circumstances came more clearly into focus, as did both her obstacles and her antagonists. Because not all of her obstacles ARE antagonists — some of the obstacles are there to prepare her for The Life-Changing Confrontation I knew an adventure on the way to The Life-Changing Confrontation, where she’d wind up with an unlikely ally in the form of a pirate who winds up having a connection to her Life-Changing Confrontation that neither of them could have suspected. The love and support developed in her foster family create a lot of her strength to face down her antagonist, even though she always felt somewhat like a misfit. It also gave me a chance to explore bonds of created families and bonds of blood families.

That’s a lot to pack into a short story. But that was this particular character’s story.

When I hit 4000 words and she hadn’t even gotten on the boat to encounter the pirate and leave for The Life-Changing Confrontation, AND one of her biggest tests took place on land, I knew I was in trouble.

Here, I was faced with several choices. Choice 1 was to cut out any scene that didn’t fit the parameters of the anthology guidelines and then make sure it was only 5K. It also meant cutting out one of the sections at sea with the pirate. Too much was lost in character and story development, in my opinion. It did not serve the piece’s innate rhythm OR my vision for the overall piece. Choice 2 was to choose an important scene or series of scenes from the bigger piece and rework them as a short story. Had I already written 12-15K, that would have made sense. With only 4K written, and still in the developmental process in tandem with the writing process, it didn’t make sense. Choice 3 was to make notes so I didn’t lose the scenes I envisioned and the ever-growing ensemble of characters that was starting to feel somewhat Shakespearean in scope (hey, if you’re going to have a mentor, it may as well be the best), put it aside and try another story. Now that I’d written my way a bit into “Be the Monster”, I could also see that I needed to do some world-building in tandem with the writing. That takes time, and can’t necessarily be stuffed into the deadline period.

I chose #3.

I put aside “Be the Monster” and wondered what else I could write. As I thought about the future of “Be the Monster”, I also started making a mental list of submission possibilities, one if it wound up as a novella, one if it wound up as a novel. But what to write now? Something involving Capt. Kit Erskine and the crew of my popular Merry’s Dalliance seemed to make sense — pirates in a fantasy world could encounter any kind of threat at sea. I started spinning ideas.

I’d driven past a lake surrounded by beautiful trees turning gorgeous colors in the autumn, with a rather lovely, spooky mist rising from it. A day or two later, I overheard a pre-teen trying to talk his aunt into chaperoning a school camping trip. We’re also in the season of ghost stories, and doesn’t one always tell ghost stories on a camping trip?

The anthology guidelines stated it could take place on a lake. It just had to be scary and have the lake as an important part of the piece.

“Lake Justice” was born. Aunt turned into godmother, the kids were a special class of gifted teenagers, no one was exactly who they seemed, toss in a serial killer. bunch of ghosts, and some humor and we’re good to go. It went along swimmingly, no pun intended.

And then I hit 4K, and, once again, realized I had too much story to fit into the 5K word count. Again, cutting did not serve the story.

That’s frustrating for me, because I LOVE to cut material. The Red Machete is my best friend.

I was still spinning the Kit Erskine story, but it seemed overly complicated. I had hoped to submit the Kit Erskine story AND a second story to the anthology. But now, I knew “Lake Justice” wasn’t going to be it. However, I found another potential market for “Lake Justice” whose deadline was the same as the anthology, AND about a half a dozen other potential markets for it. So work on “Lake Justice” continued.

At this point, I had less than a week to finish, revise, polish and submit “Lake Justice” AND draft, revise, polish and submit the Kit Erskine story, which I had yet to start. Add to that the fact we’re in one of my busiest times of the year, with Samhain coming up and I was going to be out of town for two of the five days before the deadline. AND had two grant proposals due on the same day as the story deadlines.

What’s also interesting is that “The Merry’s Dalliance” – the original story featuring Kit and her pirate crew — was inspired by an anthology call. However, the more I read material by that publisher, the more it struck me they published comic book-style fiction for boys (no matter their chronological ages) who were intimidated by strong and intelligent women. There was no way in hell that this group would accept, much less publish a story with a strong female protagonist unless she wound up raped and/or dead. I crossed them off my list and, instead, submitted the tale to NEW MYTHS, who loved it and published it. Yet another example of the submission call being the catalyst to the story.

I suddenly had an epiphany for the Kit Erskine story, a way to simplify it and maybe bring it in well UNDER the 5K word count (Okay, so after cuts, editing, and refashioning, it came in at 4999 — but it was still under 5K). I thought up a great title for it in the shower, but didn’t write it down immediately and forgot it by the time I was dressed. I should have kept repeating it to myself, and didn’t.

I managed to complete, polish, and send out the Kit Erskine story to the anthology – while still knowing, if they did not accept it, I had at least a half a dozen places that would be interested. I even managed to get it in the day before the deadline.

So I turned my attention back to “Lake Justice.” And then realized I had spent the last 1500 words or so writing myself and my characters into a corner that, had I continued in that direction, just made them look stupid. I had no idea what to do, and was hours from deadline.

I took a shower, and the solution came to mind. I jumped out of the shower, dried off (so I wouldn’t drip onto the computer), made the cut and the change. I finished the story, did a quick edit, and got it out only 40 minutes under deadline.

Not the way I prefer to work. I like to let pieces sit for a few days before I edit them. Or a few months, if it’s novel-length.

But it’s important to meet deadlines. That’s part of the job. Sometimes, you won’t produce your best work in time for a deadline. It will come back, you will revise, and it will either be accepted upon revision at the original house, or you’ll find a better home for it.

But you still have a piece of writing that’s out in the world, finding its place. Which, if you missed the deadline and let it sit partially-cooked, you wouldn’t.

If you have the urge to write, but don’t know WHAT to write, take a look at the calls for various anthologies. See if something sparks your imagination. Even if it winds up in a publication different from the anthology, that submission call will have been your catalyst. Hunt down these calls — they’re listed on legitimate posting sites such as FUNDS FOR WRITERS and WRITERS’ WEEKLY. Anthology calls are also listed on publishers’ sites under “guidelines.” In other words, if you’ve read an anthology by a particular house, you like it and think, “I could do that”, check their site every few weeks. When a call comes out — answer.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, a friend sent me a call for a steampunk anthology and these characters started talking . . .

–Devon Ellington publishes under a half a dozen names in both fiction and nonfiction. Visit her blog, Ink in My Coffee, and her website. She also writes “The Literary Athlete” column for THE SCRUFFY DOG REVIEW.


Reading To Write

October 20, 2009

There’s no way around it. If you want to be a successful author, the best way to apprentice yourself is to write every day, without excuses and to read everything you can get your hands on, in as many genres as possible.

In order to land a contract, you need to bother to learn the craft of building a story, grammar, spelling, punctuation. You also needs to learn what works in telling a story, and learn how to apply it to the stories you want to tell.

The best way to do that is to read, read, read, read. Read in genres that you usually don’t, because you’ll start spotting universal craft principles that apply across the board.

What moves you as a reader? What distances you from the character and the story? What creates physical sensations as you read, good or bad?

You can learn just as much, or even more, from a book you don’t like as you can from one you love. Also, re-reading old favorites is useful, because a timeless book will teach you something new every time you read it.

Be careful what you read as you write. For instance, I’m currently working on fantasy and paranormal pieces. I’m reading biography and mystery. When, in a few weeks, some mysteries need my attention, I will switch to something else. That way, no one else’s style in the same genre leaks into my work, and I can stay true to my own voice.

You don’t have to set apart your “writing reading” from” pleasure reading” if you approach your pleasure reading with a heightened awareness. Be more sensitive to all the elements of the story. When you surface after losing yourself in a section of the story, think about WHY you were so immersed. What specific elements made you feel a part of the story instead of a voyeur? For me, the best books make me feel like I’m living the story, not standing outside of it, watching. Ask yourself how the author managed to do it, and, without imitating content, how can you apply those techniques to your own story, in your own voice?

Francine Prose wrote a wonderful book called Reading Like a Writer, where she breaks down different aspects of writing such as character, dialogue, narration, and even gesture, and how they are integrated into good writing. Although she offers an impressive reading list, the same ideas can be used on almost anything you read. Not every book will live up to these ideas, and that’s as interesting as the ones that do.

People who say they “don’t have time” to read often also struggle to “have time” to write, and then wonder why they can’t get published. First of all, there will never “be” time to either read or write; you have to “make” time, “steal time”, demand time. Second, you need to apprentice yourself to learn the craft of anything you want to do, whether it’s woodworking or brain surgery or writing. Third, too many people feel that “Art” is the opposite of “craft”, when in reality, successful art seamlessly melds with craft.

Devon Ellington publishes under a half a dozen names in both fiction and non-fiction. She writes “The Literary Athlete” column for The Scruffy Dog Review. Visit her blog, Ink in My Coffee.


When Writers Attack

October 14, 2009

Recently on a writer’s forum I frequent, a member posted a question regarding who was planning to purchase a book recently released by a controversial best selling author.  The post was not met with much enthusiasm by many members.  

This takes me back to the beginning of 2009, when Stephen King had less than flattering things to say about Stephenie Myer’s body of work. Literary history is full of writer feuds and while it does create a buzz in the industry, what does it really accomplish? 

While I completely agree that everyone is entitled to their opinion and those opinions differ, I’m inclined to look at the concept of “writers dissing writers” from another perspective.

To apply this to other professions, the performance of Jake Delhomme of the Carolina Panthers has been less than stellar of late.  But one doesn’t see Steve Smith, DeAngelo Williams or Musa Muhammad at a press conference or sideline interview saying that “Jake just can’t throw the ball.” No instead they focus on the team – what they do well and what they didn’t get accomplished and what they must do better.  Sure it’s riddled with clichés and they probably are thinking that Jake can’t throw the ball, publicly they defend their teammate. 

You don’t read many interviews of actors (I’m referring to actors and not necessarily celebrities here) commenting negatively on another actor’s performance, heads of large corporations attacking each over their lack of business savvy and you certainly wouldn’t go around publicly criticizing your coworkers, no matter how incompetent they actually are. In most companies, that is a one-way ticket to human resources and potentially a formal reprimand in your personnel file. 

Politicians, on the other hand, frequently use negative advertisements to discredit their opponents.  Think about how you respond to such advertisements and what you think about the one making the accusations.  One that comes to mind was Elizabeth Dole’s 2008 senatorial campaign advertisement accusing her opponent of being “Godless”. Many political analysts credit this particular attack as a primary reason Senator Dole lost the election. 

What ever happened to true camaraderie to the likes of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis or Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson? 

Just because fate gave someone a gift, an opinion and a platform doesn’t mean all three need to be combined to attack the accomplishments of another in the same line of work. No matter how justified the response seems to be, how tactfully the criticism is spoken or even if the statements are fundamentally true, it’s difficult for them not to be perceived as said with envy, pettiness and immaturity.   

Writers need to publish the best work possible and leave the public criticizing to the sports analyst, book reviewer and other critics because in the end, odds are the person doing the smear campaign will eventually lose.



October 7, 2009

Every time you agree to write something, whether you put your name on it or not, you’re putting your integrity on the line. So think about it: Why did you accept a particular job?

If you love the organization, believe in it deeply, and want to make the world a better place, you’re supporting your integrity.

If you accept a job that you know promotes something harmful and against your beliefs, you aren’t.

That sounds like I’m supporting the fallacy of “do it for love, not money” or “if you’re paid for it, you’re not really committed to it.”


Every single time you put pen to paper, you are putting a piece of your soul out into the world. You deserve to be paid a living wage for your time, your talent, and your creativity. You deserve to earn a good living by your pen that allows you to keep a solid roof over your head, food on the table, clothes on your family, and put away some money for whatever you choose to do with it.

Mill content sites and batch article sites who pay pennies for lots of work won’t lead you to that end, and they’re not even worth it to get clips. Any clips you get from such a site will be useless in the world of professionally paid work. More and more companies who hire freelancers pass over those who have mill content sites on their resume, because previous experience has taught them the quality of the work is not up to the company’s standards. Because, let’s face it, if these writers were good enough to earn a living wage by their pens, that’s what they’d be doing. Instead, they work for a mill content site, not even earning enough in a week to pay the phone bill.

However, just because someone waves a lot of money in your face doesn’t mean you have to accept the job. If it’s something that causes harm, you are as karmically responsible for the consequences as anyone else involved. Getting paid or the theories “I’m only doing my job”, “it’s company policy” or “if I didn’t do it, someone else would” don’t cut it. Causing harm is causing harm, whether you’re told to do so or not. If you’re going to go out to cause harm, at least have the courage to own it. Don’t hide behind “company policy.”

Any of us who have worked professionally and been paid professionally for more than a minute have had to face that dilemma, and the more strong credits you build, the more often it will come up. Sometimes, the money is very, very tempting. Money makes a lot of problems disappear. It is the way to get things done in this society — throw money at a problem,and it goes away. Because most of the people getting money thrown at them are willing to trade their integrity for the immediate cash. So you have to decide if it’s worth it to you to accept a job to promote something that you know causes harm, and then be prepared to accept the responsibility for that and the consequences for that down the line.

I have my own list of arenas in which I refuse to work. Unfortunately for me, they pay very, very well. But it goes against what I believe is my HUMAN responsibility, which has more to do with my immediate bill-paying needs on any given month. But they are based on my beliefs and on my personal experiences dealing with companies who set out to do deliberate harm in order to gain personal profits. Someone else’s list would be quite different, and that’s fine — as long as they are being true to themselves and their beliefs.

Fiction is a little trickier to maneuver, because so much is based on the reader’s frame of reference. A writer can explore a controversial topic from uncomfortable points of view, and the reader, viewing it through his/her own lens, may believe that’s the author’s point of view instead of the author trying to make a point about the issue that’s separate from the author’s beliefs, or the author’s desire to explore an opposing belief in order to understand it better.

Also, in fiction, the unpublished tend to judge the published, calling them “sell outs” if they’re paid fairly for their work. Of course, the unpublished would sell out in a second if they were able to get published. I happen to think that one can expose more truth in a more palatable way in well-crafted fiction than in non-fiction. And fiction writers deserve to earn a decent living by their pens.

Make sure, when you accept a job, that you know as much as possible about those hiring you. Factor that in as much as the time, schedule, creation needs, and fees. In addition to lessening internal conflicts, one of the most wonderful by-products of it is that the quality of your writing will improve when you factor integrity into your job choices.

–Devon Ellington publishes under a half a dozen names in both fiction and non-fiction. She writes the paranormal Jain Lazarus Adventures, and her work appears in publications as diverse as BOOKS FOR MONSTERS, ESPRESSO FICTION, NEW MYTHS, and THE RANFURLY REVIEW. Her blog on the writing life is Ink in My Coffee, and her main website is http://www.devonellingtonwork.com


It’s a Start Anyway

October 3, 2009

While sipping an early morning coffee, I ran across this little article in the BBC called Book Sellers braced for Christmas. Who knew the publishing industry has a Super Thursday and that October 1 is the magical day?

It’s a great thing – to walk into a bookstore chock full of recent released hardcovers, and 800 of them to boot.  That is a form of heaven to a person who loves to read.

There is one part of this article that is bothersome.

Carole Tomkinson, from publisher HarperCollins told the BBC: “If you get in the top five slot the retailers give you twice as much space, they push the book, they put it in their ads.” — BBC.com

So Ms. Tomkinson, what is HarperCollins doing to promote their product and their authors? Is HarperCollins doing anything to create “word of mouth” buzz, or are they just sitting back and hoping it will happen?


Carpe Diem . . . or not.

September 27, 2009

An outsider’s perspective . . .

Publisher’s sales rose in July based on Literary Agent Laurie McLean’s blog post entitled JULY ’09 RESULTS: PUBLISHER SALES RISE 2% dated 9/24/2009. It only makes sense that in these times of increased financial burden, people turn to less expensive entertainment. It is actually a good time to be publishing, as opposed to the auto industry, manufacturing or banking for instance.

 So what’s the industry doing to take advantage of this slight upswing in sales? An aggressive brand marketing strategy? An advertising blitz? A company reorganization to streamline operations? A defined vision with supporting corporate infrastructure? 

Nope . . . nothing, and while even Wal-Mart is busy redesigning their brand so that when the economy improves, they can keep people coming back and permanently expand their customer base, the publishing industry does nothing to keep shoppers heading to bookstores as disposable incomes increase. With countless media sources competing for consumer dollars, sustainability in book sales isn’t possible without the proper nudge of top rate publicity. 

There is no evidence that I could find where any publishing company announced changes to their business models to keep the sales momentum going and for the life of me I cannot understand why the industry keeps doing business the same old way, but expecting better results. 

I’m no marketing expert, but if e-book sales rose one month by 213%, I, as a potential seller, would work hard to get my share of those sales. I’d also take a look at University Press e-books gaining momentum as more coursework goes online. That’s only the beginning. Does Scholastic really have a monopoly on school book fairs? I don’t think so and most of the books I see in the promotion flyers are gimmick books based on television shows and not books of real substance. This is such a missed opportunity. 

Instead, they wait for the next J.K. Rowling, Dan Brown, Stephenie Meyer or Stephen King to come along, but fail to create excitement in the media or promote the talented authors already in their bullpen. What if those next explosive best-sellers are already under contract with them? 

Bookstores are full of great books, but what media exposure do they get other than a few blog reviews, a small article in the back of a local newspaper and a few book signings? The sad part is that most of that exposure is either achieved by the author alone or an author/agent collaborative. 

And finally, there is the outdated and ridiculous practice of paying large advances. I’m completely for negotiating what I would call a “hiring bonus” in initial contracts, but the statistics show few of these sometimes exorbitant advances are ever earned out. Agent Kristin Nelson writes about this bleak fact on her blog post on EARN OUT

Even though the industry reports a downturn, they’re still willing to pay out obscene advances for work not even started. Here is an article about one author who was paid an eight million dollar advance. Something to ponder – why not put pay the guy a one million dollar advance and invest the other seven million into marketing initiatives and see which one earns out first? 

There are many articles on the internet regarding large advances vs. royalty percentages.  Here’s one worth checking out. 

Instead, this dinosaur continues to lumber about, awkward and without direction, seeming to rely more on word of mouth than a solid marketing plan and strategic product placement. It’s backwards, unsustainable and quite surprising that an old and important industry such as publishing is so slow to change. 

These are just small ideas from an unknown writer. Just imagine what a staff of marketing experts could do if motivated, millions of dollar in their budget and with a good legal team behind them.   







More Changes

September 26, 2009

Once again, positive changes are coming to THE SCRUFFY DOG REVIEW. A new webmaster, more content, in-depth author interviews and the best the web has to offer.  Stay tuned.