Windows into the Imagination

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

In the Ether: A Passive Aggressive Writing Tale by Jennifer Steen

So, I've come across lots of different kinds of writers in my stint, and one of the main stumbling blocks that I find many writers have is either a lack of confidence...or too much confidence. How do we find the balance? How do we realistically evaluate when a piece of fiction is ready for publication? Well, that's the golden question. I can attempt to answer that by telling you a little story.

A Passive Aggressive Writing Tale

Once upon a time there was a writer girl. She had just written a short story that she was certain would be the next "The Raven" or something. She worked on it feverishly for months on end. Then she found the most prestigious press that she could and sent it off, without doing any research about it, and without work shopping the piece with her friends. She waited patiently for six months and finally the rejection came back to her in her email. It was cold, cruel - personal. She put the story away and never touched it again. She stopped writing for two years. This is a common case. I like to call it the passive aggressive writing disorder.

If you didn't guess before...that writer was me. The first phase I went through was egotism. I bloated myself up way beyond reasonable proportions. Then when my bubble popped, I lost all confidence. I did start writing again - obviously - but the next time I knew to be careful. I set small modest goals. These were goals that were attainable, so that when I was ready to submit the next time, I would have enough confidence and the rejection would feel less crushing. It worked.

The Tortoise Wins
So I used an online writing group to give me more attainable goals. This was also a place to test my confidence against reality. I grew a thick skin. Some goals I set for myself were:
  • Get some regular readers that I don't have to bribe.
  • Use the criticism to make me better
  • Win some peer sponsored contests
  • Get three rows of trophies like some of the big shot writers on there
  • Have a good view/clappie ratio. If you have lots of views and few comments, or clappies, that means people take one look and click for something else. That's a good sign you need a better hook. People aren't interested.
  • Get one or two of my stories in the Most Popular of the Week list
After going for the peer sponsored contests I noticed that a few of my stories were winning nearly every contest I entered. I realized those were my gold mines. Those were the ones that I ended up getting published. I was ready for some Indie Presses.

Indie Presses
So, if you write short fiction, this is good place to start. There are a lot of indie e-publishers cropping up, and this is a great place for a newbie author to make their start. Go to duotrope and look some up. Make sure they pay either an advance or royalties. If they do print, then see if you can get an advance. This ensures that they actually have the funds to keep your book in distribution and available, but if its just for e-pub then royalties should be fine. Read the fine print though. Don't sign over the full copyrights to your story. Also, the rights should only go to them for a specified amount of time. 2 years seems to be the standard right now. Anyway... now you've got to write a good query letter...

Rockin' the Query
Okay query letters can be easy. It's three paragraphs. The first paragraph greets the editor. The second is a synopsis of the story. The third contains your writing credits. Here's a sample one that worked for me:

Dear Books to Go Editors,

I'm quite excited about the new world of online publishing and am delighted to offer my Youth/Women's Fiction short story for you consideration.

Rain Plays Barefoot, a short story of 4,556 words, is just a little hard to classify, but then - so is it's heroine Rain Styles. It's a story of a middle school romance, that's a trip back through memory lane and will appeal to youth as well as adults. Rain is uncomfortable with becoming a woman, and everything attached to it. Her friends become strange as she has to orient herself to the newly segregated world between boys and girls. The only girl percussionist in her Middle School's history, she finds she's surprisingly good at something she shouldn't be, and overwhelmingly flawed at everything else. At the climax, one private conversation from back behind the soda machines overturns everything she'd been sure of in her self-evaluation. In summation, she learns what she is, what she wants, and that the old saying is true - 'be yourself'.

I am a member of several online writing groups including The Ink Spot, Critics Comment Corner, The Literary Oscars, and Story Proof Readers. I also lead my own group entitled Speculative Fiction Freaks. I have won over 52 trophies in small peer reviewed contests given on the Storywrite website. Also on Storywrite one of my humorous flash fiction shorts, Where the Coyotes Roam, made the number one slot in ‘This Week’s Most Popular’ at the beginning of April. This site boasts roughly 500 users at a given time, and thousands of stories posted every day.

Thank you for your time and consideration.


Jennifer Steen

Second Paragraph
I'm skipping paragraph one for obvious reasons. Just say something nice. Don't say "You'll love my book!" or "It will make you so much money!" they've heard it all before. Be enthusiastic, let your writer voice come through, but not over the top. Saying something like "my friends and family love this" screams AMATEUR!!!

The synopsis is THE MOST IMPORTANT part. This is giving them a slice of your talent. This is the part you should spend the most time on. Choose every word carefully, but don't be too wordy. They have read thousands of queries. Respect their time. So cut to chase, what's the main point of your book? What are the things that keep people interested? Here are some starting points. Try to fill in the blanks of these sentences:

This story is about _____ who wants ______.

This will narrow the book down to its core character, and the core external motivation for that character. Then take that sentence, make it interesting with vibrant words - use a thesaurus - and dress it with some supporting sentences which wrap this core sentence like a present. They should sort of showcase the mood of the story, or your specific author voice. For Rain, she's kind of quirky, and funny, so I wanted the query to be quirky and funny. For action, you want it gripping. For science fiction, take them into your story world (but do it briefly). 
Some science fiction writers will add a paragraph just above the synopsis to introduce their story world...but seriously be careful with this. Only one or two sentences! They don't care about the details! This is just a shadow of the book, a teaser, a 5 second commercial. If you are winded and boring they probably won't even read your book.

Some other good sentences to fill in are:

The story is about _______ who brings __________ into balance.
This story is about __________ who rights ____________ wrong.
This story is about __________ who finds ______________ with (within) themselves.

Those sentences are for a more artsy-fartsy deep sort of story. One where the outer motivation isn't the main point of the story. Be advised that 90% of the stories that sell are those with a strong external motivation. Literary fiction has its place, especially in elitist circles, but most of the money to be made is in adventure/romance/mystery/crime/science fiction (i.e. external conflict). Publishers know this. So if you can, focus on sentence one first. Even if you have to rearrange your story a tad.

Now, Rain Plays Barefoot was an artsy-fartsy story without a strong external motivation, but it was also YA romance - a great seller. So, the publishers knew they could take more of a risk. Chances are the story will be better anyway with a stronger external motivation.

Paragraph Three

Here are your writing credits. Don't have any? Think again. Because you've followed my advice and set small goals for yourself, you have many writing accomplishments that can go here. Sure, they aren't big fries, but it's certainly better than what our passive-aggressive writer had to show for herself. Because of her conceit she didn't feel like she needed to take her friends criticism, she didn't want to waste her time on smaller goals. So, because of this her query letter would look pretty skim in this area.

But now that we've gradually built up our writing resume, we can look strong here even without "professional" credits.

Submit - Revise - Submit

Okay, so now you get your writer groove going. You write, you submit, you write. Keep a spread sheet tracking all of your stories and where they are and when they went there. When one comes back, spend a week revising, and then send it out again. Keep the circulation going. My first story that got accepted had been rejected only a month previously. I revised once and boom, it got accepted.

Crap? or not crap?

Here's a gauge for telling you how close the story is. Was the rejection written by a human? If no, consider a major rewrite or scrap the story. If yes then, did they encourage you to submit other work? If no, then consider a rewrite or a major revision before submitting somewhere else. If yes then chances are it's very close to the right stuff. There may have been small problems, or it might not have been right for the publication, or not the editor's style. Maybe they have limited space. Either way, they respect you as a writer. Do a quick revision and send it somewhere else. Make extra sure you send it somewhere that publishes that sort of fiction.

Aim High but Keep Expectations Low

So when you're story is ready, try sending it to your dream publication. Why not? You never know, you might strike it rich. If it gets rejected - which it probably will - then shoot a little lower, and then a little lower. See, each time you send it out you are revising AND you are being more realistic, so each try you are closer to success. But just in case you did just write the next "Great Expectations" you have offered it to the big boys before you gave it to the Indies.

Work on the assumption that it will get rejected. Always have two more backup mags, and another project going, that way the rejection is easier to take. Like, I just got something back from Ellory Queen and I was jumping up and down excited because they encouraged me to submit other work. Yay!

A cold cruel uncaring rejection goes like this:

"Dear So and so, we will not be taking "Wind's Bargain" at this time. Feel free to submit elsewhere."

A super awesome rejection looks like this:

"Dear Jennifer Steen,

Thanks for letting us read your story “Black Friday.” We gave it careful consideration, 
but did not think it best suited to any of the spaces we currently have open. 
We hope you’ll soon find the right publication for the story, and that you will continue 
to think of EQMM when you have new work.

With best wishes,

_________ Editor
Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine Magazine" might be right for ___ .  Now let's write something that does fit their magazine!

Of course, these rules apply more to short fiction writers. For Novels you want to try to attract some agents. Then if that doesn't pan out, go for the Indies, or Self-Publish. If you self-publish, be prepared to spend more, and do a lot of promotion. You'll have to promote with an Indie Press too, but at least you get editing, copy setting, ISBN's, and printing for free.  Anyway...there's like a thousand ways to look at it. Keep researching.

There you go guys! Good Luck!


  1. I was a little like you in the beginning. I submitted the first story I ever got the slightes praise on to The New Yorker. I of course was rejected. I deleted and trashed that story. I overreacted back then. :)

  2. It's a long and winding road. Sometimes I feel schizophrenic as a writer, on one hand, full of confidence in myself as a writer, but at the same time with low expectations.

    You hit the nail on the head.

  3. Yeah, I guess my main thing is that we have to try to evaluate ourselves realistically. I mean getting published by one of the big boys is like winning the Olympics or playing Professional football or something. Only one in a hundred or less actually get there. It's actually silly for someone whose never practiced to assume that they are going to get there in one shot. That's why I'm all for small goals.