Tips for Young Writers
Before submitting your work:
Before submitting stories to publishers or magazines, ask for their current guidelines (always enclose return postage, usually one International Reply Coupon from the post office). These guidelines will tell you exactly what the publisher is seeking at that time, especially themed magazines that might only want material that fits into their current theme, such as science and technology, history, etc. An example is the NSW School magazines which has different themes throughout the year.
On the subject of themes, some of my best sales have been to magazines that do not publish fiction. Sometimes you can just be lucky. However, you shouldn’t send a science fiction story to a gardening magazine, unless of course the theme of the story is futuristic gardening!
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. You should mention in your covering letter if you have already had stories published.
Submitting your work:
Enclose two International Reply Coupons when submitting your actual manuscript overseas. This usually ensures that you will get your material back if the publisher does not want it. Always remember to keep a record of where you’re sending your stories. (Although these days it’s cheaper to discard the manuscript and print another copy for the next publisher.)
Once a publisher agrees to publish your work, they might want it via email. Most publishers only require the file once the work has been accepted, so only send the hard copy first, unless the publisher’s website guidelines says differently.
Remember that a rejection letter does not necessarily reflect on the quality of your work. It might just be that your story or article 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. Never throw a manuscript out. Keep sending it out until you have exhausted all avenues. I have had novels accepted that were 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.
The Publishing Agreement:
Your publishing agreement will state whether the publisher buys all rights, which often includes world, territory and, of course, electronic rights. For example, if an American publisher only buys North American rights, then you can sell the story elsewhere such as British Commonwealth rights, which include the UK and Australia.
When you get to the stage where you are selling prolifically, it might be worthwhile getting a literary agent who will advise you on the contracts. A list of agents can be found in most writers’ handbooks in your local library.
Writing a Covering Letter:
Most publishers prefer a covering letter. Do not tell the 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 a good example. Note that I’ve kept it reasonably friendly, but professional.
Please find enclosed my story “The Thing that went ‘Blerckh!'”
My fiction has appeared in many international anthologies, including Gothic Ghosts edited by Grant and Webb, Dreaming Down-Under edited by Dann and Webb and Tales from the Wasteland edited by Paul Collins.
The International Reply Coupons are for the return of the manuscript if it’s unsuitable.
Formatting the manuscript:
The following is about how to 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!
In the manuscript below, you will notice the double spacing between sentences. This is so that editors have space to mark in corrections and comments. Also, take note of the border around the manuscript. Do not print both sides of the paper, and make sure each page has a page number and the title. This is in case the pages get loose or rearranged. Do not clip or staple your manuscript.
Word count: 2300 words
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.’
What makes a good story?
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, a 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 by 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 and 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 follow the man (we’re heading toward a logical conclusion).
Towards the end, Barnesy and Fletchard 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 decide it’s a good idea to ‘pull the plug’. The ending ties all the loose ends. In 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. 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, their hair clolour, the shape of their nose and their 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.
Another tip is ever 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’. It’s 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. Keep your writing crisp and stick to the point.
Apart from all the above, my greatest tip to anyone is to persist! Remember that most of the bestselling books of all time were rejected by several publishers before seeing print!
Good luck with your writing. I hope these tips prove helpful.