I'm a little concerned about the lack of comments on my writing; on the lack of comments of anyone's writing - good or bad. Once I had some good advice, a little rough, but I have thick skin so it didn't bother me. Now no one comments. People view - for free I might add - but don't comment.
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What follows is an e-mail I recieved from the editor of Weirdtales. I've used it to motivate myself to reach for "higher hights". I hope it does the same for you.. Some of what follows may be terribly basic to you -- but
will be new to someone else. And some of what you already know
(especially in matters of format) may be wrong, and you may have
been irritating various editors for years by -- for example --
using italics in on-paper manuscripts instead of underlining or
even (*gasp*) leaving your snail-mail address off the first page
of manuscripts. In these guidelines, we have to tell beginners
things that you do know better than to do. So:
There are only three RULES for writing; all else is
RULE ONE: You must seize, then hold, your readers' and your
editor's interest and attention, then repay the readers' time and
the editor's money by having something to say and sharing it with
. . . . and the Awful Truth of the matter is (as Rear Admiral
Pinney once put it) "If you don't get the reader's attention in
the first paragraph, the rest of your message is lost." This
applies even more to fiction than to U.S. Navy correspondence;
you MUST capture the reader's attention on the first page (or
better, in the first few words).
. Rudyard Kipling wrote:
"There are nine and sixty ways
"of constructing tribal lays,
"and every single one of them is right!"
. What follows is commentary, not rules. These suggestions may
help, but what's important is the result -- your selling an
interesting story to our magazine.
The archetypical plot consists of a
. Situation (the protagonist meets a problem),
. Complication (the problem makes the protagonist do
something about it in a series of actions/reactions of rising
. Climax (the protagonist must solve the problem or be
broken by it),
. Resolution (the problem unwinds, the protagonist
succeeds or fails),
. and an Anticlimax (left-overs are carted off or
explained away). Many (but not all) stories follow this pattern.
. One of those nine and sixty ways to construct your
story is based on suggestions from the science-fiction writer and
teacher, James Gunn:
. Begin with an idea: What would happen if . . . ? and
then work out its logical, believable consequences.
. Create a background, colorful enough to hold interest;
but don't overwhelm the story. Remember background is
background; write a story, not a gazetteer nor a history
. Select characters who will best dramatize the conflict
you've plotted. Observe real people, and model your cast
on them. Show them in action from the start; show their
characters by what they say and do. Write a story, not a set of
. Pick the best viewpoint for telling this story
(almost always the most important decision made when writing
fiction). Put the reader so firmly into that viewpoint that as he
reads, he is that character. Do not pull the reader out of
a viewpoint character to describe what he looks like or to
present his biography. Get on with the story. If
your protagonist's appearance is important to him, he'll think
about it or act on it soon enough, showing the reader that
facet of character without telling the reader about it; if
it's not that important, get on with the story.
. Begin your story where and when things become
interesting. Homer began the Iliad right in the
middle of a war ("Sing, Goddess, of the anger of Achilles . . .")
and Homer sings to us still! Backtrack to explanation or
flashback only when it's so relevant to the story that the
viewpoint character and the reader, still being that
character, remember what happened before this story began. You'll
be surprised how few flashbacks you really need!
. Write in scenes, dramatizing everything possible. In
every scene, put your characters -- and readers -- firmly into
the time and place of that scene. Appeal to the senses -- go
beyond how things look, go on to the sound and smell and
feel of the setting. But don't overdo it; omit everything
that doesn't advance the story.
. Don't lecture; exposition is all dead matter. Avoid
cliches like the plague! Learning to avoid triteness in word and
phrase and in ideas, plots, characters, and backgrounds is
easily half of becoming a good writer.
. Mark Twain wrote, in his famous essay, "Fenimore Cooper's
Literary Offenses," that:
1. A tale shall accomplish something and arrive somewhere.
2. The episodes of a tale shall be necessary parts of the tale,
and shall help to develop it.
3. The personages in a tale shall be alive, except in the case
of corpses, and always the reader shall be able to tell the
corpses from the others.
4. The personages in a tale, both dead and alive, shall exhibit
a sufficient excuse for being there.
5. When the personages of a tale deal in conversation, the talk
shall sound like human talk, and be talk such as human beings
would be likely to talk in the given circumstances, and have a
discoverable meaning, also a discoverable purpose, and a show of
relevancy, and remain in the neighborhood of the subject in hand,
and be interesting to the reader, and help out the tale, and stop
when the people cannot think of anything more to say.
6. When the author describes the character of a personage in his
tale, the conduct and conversation of that personage shall
justify said description.
7. When a personage talks like an illustrated, gilt-edged, tree-
calf, hand-tooled, seven-dollar Friendship's Offering in the
beginning of a paragraph, he shall not talk like a Negro minstrel
in the end of it.
8. Crass stupidities shall not be played upon the reader by
either the author or the people in the tale.
9. The personages of a tale shall confine themselves to
possibilities and let miracles alone; or, if they venture a
miracle, the author must so plausibly set it forth as to make it
look possible and reasonable.
10. The author shall make the reader feel a deep interest in the
personages of his tale and in their fate; and shall make the
reader love the good people in the tale and hate the bad ones.
11. The characters in a tale shall be so clearly defined that the
reader can tell beforehand what each will do in a given
12. The author shall say what he is proposing to say, not
merely come near it.
13. He shall use the right word, not its second cousin.
14. He shall eschew surplusage.
15. He shall not omit necessary details.
16. He shall avoid slovenliness of form.
17. He shall use good grammar.
18. He shall employ a simple, straightforward style.
. Elsewhere, he wrote: "The difference between the right word
and the almost-right word is the difference between the lightning
and the lightning bug." Also: "Truth is stranger than
fiction, because fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities.
. But these just are commentary, not Rules.
RULE TWO: You must put your story into a format the editor can
read, the copy-editor can edit, & the compositor can set into
. Ursula Le Guin, in her The Language of the Night,
writes: "Your story may begin in longhand on the backs of old
shopping lists; but when it goes to an editor, it should be
typed, double-spaced, on one side of the paper only, with
generous margins -- especially the left-hand one -- and not too
many grotty corrections per page.
. "Your name and its name and the page number should be on the
top [right corner] of every single page; and when you mail it to
the editor it should have enclosed with it a stamped, self-
. Typed (or machine-printed) means just that.
If you use ribbons, have a supply of new ones on hand; change to
a new ribbon when you start the final draft of a story. When you
make a xerographic copy, make sure that all pages are copied
clearly. The printing must be black, not grey. But do not
overdo that; be sure no letter looks like a black blob. The
typesetter must follow copy to the letter. To do this, he must be
able to read, without guessing, every letter on every page.
Although your printer may have no end of fancy fonts, it's best
to use a simple font that looks like the output of a typewriter,
like 12-point Courier type, which is ideal; the closer to that,
the better. Italic, script, or ALL-CAPITAL-LETTER
typefaces are Not Acceptable. Never change typefaces within your
manuscript; if you want the editor to make such a change, say so
in a penciled, marginal note. AVOID typefaces that confuse "l,"
"I," and "1," or the comma "," with the period "."
. Modern computers offer an astonishing variety of type-faces
and type-sizes. Keep in mind, however, that editors are not
asking you to typeset your stories; we merely want to see which
words you picked, which punctuation you picked, and the order
that you put them on paper. We strongly prefer what's called a
"mono-spaced" font, like Courier. Do NOT use type
that is smaller than 12 point. This should give you about 10
words, spaces, and punctuation marks per horizontal inch of
. Double-spaced means double-LINE-spaced: leaving a
full, blank line after every typed line; it does not mean putting
extra space between words! On a typewriter, set the line-feed
control to advance the paper two full lines at a time; on a
printer, set the line spacing at 24 points. Either should give
you about three typed lines per vertical inch. Do NOT use the
one-&-a-half-line setting some typewriters have; do not
reduce the line spacing anywhere in the manuscript.
. Indent every paragraph five spaces, including all
paragraphs of dialog. (And remember that it is customary to
start a new paragraph wherever the speaker changes from one
character to another.) Leave extra space between paragraphs only
where you want to mark a shift in scene or a lapse of time.
. On one side of the paper, which should be white,
8.5 by 11 inches (or European equivalent), inexpensive 16 or 20
pound bond. Do NOT use "erasable" paper.
. With generous margins, about an inch, all the way
around. Margins much larger than one inch waste paper and
postage. If you use a word processor, check its manual, and then
turn OFF the right-justification and the hyphenation; do
NOT let it suppress "widows & orphans" (that is, do NOT let the
word-processing program keep the first line of a paragraph from
appearing at the end of a page nor keep the last line of a
paragraph from appearing at the top of a page). Do NOT break
words at the end of lines. Editors (all editors!) prefer ragged
right margins with even spacing between words, and we prefer the
same number of lines on every page but the first and the last.
Keep in mind that the people who write word-processing programs
do not have the remotest idea what proper manuscript format is.
. And not too many grotty corrections per page.
Neither editors nor compositors are grading for neatness; we
don't demand letter-perfect-the-first-time typing. We do
object to erasures. If you use a typewriter, XXX-out or
line out your deletions, and type or legibly hand-print any
corrections above the place each is to be inserted. If you are
using a word-processor and printer, proofread, proofread, and
proofread again before you print the submission copy. Watch out
for mistakes that spell-check programs are blind to, like "it's"
for "its," "breath" for "breathe," "hoard" for "horde," and all
the many possible mistakes involving "lie" and "lay."
. Identify your story. Type (or machine-print) your
full real name, your social security number, and your
address (make it easy to send you money!) at the upper left-
hand corner of the first page, an inch inside the top and left
edges of the page. If you use a cover letter, put your address on
that too. Your story's title (your responsibility; editors
don't buy nameless stories) goes about a quarter of the way down
the first page, with your name (or your pen name, if you use one)
directly under that title. (Two suggestions: Avoid cutesy pen
names; your own real name, especially an unusual one, is far
better. But if a well-known writer has the same name as yours,
change yours in some way, such as spelling out your middle name
instead of an initial, or the like.) Use paper clips, NOT
staples, to hold manuscripts together.
. Pages sometimes do go astray in an editor's office.
Therefore, a glance at any page in the manuscript should
reveal the story title, its author, and the page number. So: type
or print your last name (plus initials if your name is a common
one), a word or two from the title, and the page number on the
upper right-hand corner of every page, starting with page
2, like: XmasCarol/Dickens/pg 26, or Cujo/S. King/7.
(If you use a separate title page, page numbering starts with
the first page of text.)
. And when you mail it to the editor, it should have
enclosed with it a stamped, self-addressed envelope. Editors
much prefer a new, 9-by-12-inch, NON-clasp envelope to carry the
story to the editor, with a second envelope of the same size,
folded once, paper-clipped to the back of the manuscript. (The
Post Office and editors do not like clasps, those brass things
that stick through holes in envelope flaps; and non-clasp
envelopes are cheaper.) Please do not use envelopes larger than 9
by 12. Address the return envelope to yourself. Both the outgoing
and return envelopes should be addressed by typewriter or
printer; if the envelope won't fit, type or print addresses on
labels. Please affix U.S. postage stamps (foreign postage
is useless to us, and you do us no favors by sending loose
stamps!); do NOT use padded envelopes, binders, or stiffeners; do
NOT use registered or certified mail, because these make editors
go to the post office and stand in line, which makes them grumpy
and eager to reject you and all your works. Your only
protection against loss is to keep a good copy of anything you
send out. Need U.S. postage? See below.
. The more standard your format, the less editors are
distracted from what is really important: the story
itself. Manuscript format is not a place to innovate.
. To find out how long the story is, do not actually count the
words. Instead, take an average-length, mid-paragraph line. Count
the letters and spaces and punctuation in that line (with pica
typewriter type or with 12-point monospace type, this will be
around 60; if it's much larger, you are using type that is too
small). Divide by six. Multiply by lines per page. Multiply by
pages (correcting for partly blank pages at beginning and end).
Put this "word" count in the upper right corner of the first
. Call for italics by underlining; do NOT use an
italic typeface in the manuscript itself; do NOT use the e-mail
convention of putting one underline before and one after the
"underlined" word. Distinguish between the hyphen, as in "mother-
in-law" and the dash -- which should appear like this --~~ with a
space before and a space after.
. Proofread: Spell-check programs do NOT catch errors like
"its" for "it's"; you're responsible for poofreadnig
your manuscripts. [Did you catch both errors in the
. We say, "You must punctuate, paragraph, and indent carefully
. "How about in dialog?" you ask.
. "Especially in dialog," we say. "If in doubt, you must look
up how to do it properly. Note that when two or more
consecutive paragraphs are spoken by the same
speaker, all have quote marks at the beginning, but only the last
has quote marks at the end.
. "Also," we suddenly, excitedly expostulate unto thee, "when
you're writing dialog, do not reach for substitutes for
`say' or `said,' as we did in this paragraph, nor hang
unnecessary adverbs on `say.' Doing so will soon get silly;
worse, it distracts from the story. Notice how we
punctuated and capitalized all through this conversation."
. You look puzzled. "Can I identify the speaker without using
`said' or a synonym for `said'?"
. "You just did." We smile reassuringly. "Just don't overdo
it. Identify the speaker often enough that the reader always
knows who is speaking. Don't let pronouns run wild, as in: `He
saw him look at him.' Since `ten foot long sticks' can mean `ten
sticks a foot long' or `sticks ten feet long,' use commas or
hyphens (`ten foot-long sticks' or `ten-foot-long sticks') to
tell the reader which."
. Cover letter? No more than one page long, and only if you
really want to; remember that editors don't buy cover letters;
they buy stories. Don't spoil the suspense with a synopsis; and
don't include your bibliography or resume. You may cite two or
three earlier sales, especially if they are to markets as good or
better than our own (do mention if you've sold something to
The New Yorker. Don't bother to mention selling something
to The Bee-Keeper's Gazette unless your story involves
bees); then get out of the way and let the story sell itself.
. However, if the editor's seen the story before, a cover
letter is necessary, to remind her what she said about the
story before and to tell her exactly what you've done about her
suggestions. Use a cover letter to explain anything unusual about
the rights offered -- for example, if the story is part of a
novel to be published by [insert name] on [insert date]. Put your
typed name and address, and your story's title on every cover
letter. But if you don't need a cover letter, omit it.
If it's cheaper to send a disposable copy (and it usually is),
mark the manuscript "disposable" so the editor can throw it away
if she doesn't buy it. Provide a business-letter-sized return
envelope, what stationers call a number 10 envelope (NOT a
postcard!), with letter-postage affixed, for the editor's reply.
. If you are sending us stories from outside the U.S.,
remember that only U.S. stamps can be used for return postage.
Since international postage is so expensive, we strongly
recommend that you send a disposable manuscript (so marked) and a
return envelope at least 10 by 22 centimeters in size, for the
editor's reply. You can send International Postal Reply Coupons
to pay for the return postage; each is worth about U.S.$0.80 to
us. To send a one-ounce (28 gram) letter to Canada costs us
U.S.$0.60; to an overseas address, U.S.$0.80. Reply Coupons cost
you a lot, but you can buy U.S. postage by sending a postal money
order, payable in U.S. funds, to cover the cost of 10 stamps or
more, to Postmaster, Bridgeport PA 19405, U.S.A. (or to the
Postmaster of any other U.S. city). Include your own address.
Explain what stamps you want, and how many of each.
. When a reply envelope is to be mailed in the U.S. for
delivery to another country, put the name of that country at the
end of the last line of the address.
. Dot-matrix printing is acceptable only if one cannot tell at
a glance that the print is dot-matrix. Do not use draft
mode, nor seven- or nine-pin dot-matrix machines.
. Submissions to us must be on paper in the format described
above, not on disk and not by e-mail. (We have a
system for handling on-paper submissions; having two systems --
one for snail-mail and another for e-mail -- is more than we can
cope with.) Unless an editor announces otherwise, assume this is
so for all publications. An editor who buys your story will
almost certainly want to know if you can supply it by disk -- and
if so, which word processor and which kind of computer: PC,
Apple, or MacIntosh -- or by e-mail. Put these data on the man~u~
script's first page. (We use a PC, XyWrite, and Ventura; we can
also cope with Word, plain-text, and .rtf formats.)
. Again: format is not the place to innovate; do not divert
the editor's attention from the story! Instead, your
format should be as invisible as possible.
RULE THREE: You must put your story before an editor who might
. Parents, siblings, spouses, offspring, teachers, and friends
don't count; neither do closets or desk drawers. You simply
must send your story to editors (one editor at a time).
Remember that editors do not reject people, nor do they predict
careers. At worst, editors reject pieces of paper that you typed
on; at best, editors send you money. The only opinion that really
counts is that of someone who might pay to publish your story.
. We call your attention to the chorus in the opening song of
The Music Man: "But ya gotta know the territory!" Read
your target publications. See what kind of stories they use; note
what kinds of stories they use. Ask for guidelines, always
including a return envelope (with postage affixed) for the reply.
(You've already done that by e-mail if you're reading this. Thank
. In the short-story market, it is almost always better to
send a complete manuscript rather than a "would you like to see?"
letter. If you fear that a particular market might not be open
for submissions at all, write to the editor and ask if it's open
now; and if it's not open, when will it be, with a post card
(addressed to you, with postage affixed) for the editor's reply.
. How does the "who might buy it" part of the Rule apply to
Weird Tales? Please keep in mind our mag~a~zine's title.
almost never buy a story or a poem which has no fantasy content;
we hardly ever buy science fiction which lacks fantasy elements;
we never buy stories in which the weird elements turn out to be
nothing but a dream. But this leaves room for an extraordinary
range of fiction -- and poetry: Robert E. Howard's Conan the
Cimmerian and modern swordplay-&-sorcery were born in Weird
Tales. H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos, Miskatonic University
and all, are welcome to our pages, as are stories set in fantasy-
worlds of your own invention. We're looking for the best in
fantasy-based horror, heroic fantasy, and exotic mood pieces,
plus the occasional "odd" story that won't fit anywhere else. We
want to please our readers with superior writing and to surprise
them with new ideas. To this end, we will occasionally
publish a story in which the ominous, eldritch, and/or squamous
horrors waiting to pounce turn out to be quite harmless. We
almost never use material already published in the U.S.
. A 10,000-word story is usually the longest we use. Most
stories we buy are shorter than 8,000 words. We may serialize
novellas in two parts; we do not serialize novels. We have no
minimum length. Short-short stories (less than 1,000 words or so)
are very hard to write, but they are easy to sell.
. WT does use humor, but the humor should touch on
fantasy or horror themes. We find that humor works best when
structured like other fiction, with high points and low, tension
and relief, building to a climax and (usually) a very quick
anticlimax or none at all. Beware of trying to make every line
. Remember that printed fantasy stories (and science fiction,
for that matter) are usually years -- even decades -- ahead of
movie and TV versions of the same themes. Especially beware of
building a story (any kind of story) on current newspaper
headlines, which may well be forgotten by the time the story
could be printed. As an example: spousal and child abuse, and
school-yard shootings are real-life problems, yes -- but they're
perhaps too familiar to our readers to work as fiction just now.
To know our territory (". . . ya gotta know the
territory!"), look at what we publish in Weird Tales. Then
try to do even better. (Back issues of Weird Tales ((and
Worlds of Fantasy & Horror, our title for four issues))
are available from the address above: single copies, $6.00 each,
including postage; in Canada & Mexico, $7.00; and elsewhere, $10.
Make back-issue and single-copy payments by checks or money
orders payable to Weird Tales, all prices in U.S. dollars.)
. We respond as fast as we can, and we write an individual
letter whenever we have the time to do so. In return, we expect
that your submission is not now being seen by any other editor
(that is, no simultaneous submissions), and we hope you will not
get too upset if we tell you why we don't want to
use it. Ours is only one opinion, but it is possible for
us to be right, and our comments might help you to do better with
your next story. Again: we reject pieces of paper; we cannot and
will not reject you. We pay about 3> per word on
Problems we see too often:
. No return address on the first page of the manuscript, and
no return address on the cover letter. Do you really want to make
it hard for editors to send you money?
. No return envelope with postage affixed. We couldn't
possibly afford to pay postage to return comments on all the
manuscripts we get -- and why put editors in a bad mood before
they even start reading?
. Format so far removed from professional standards that we
did not or could not read your story at all.
. Writing which is simply not of professional quality -- which
includes awkward writing, using not-quite-right words, using too
many adjectives (there isn't an adjective built that is as
effective as the exactly right noun!), or failing to stay in a
chosen viewpoint character for the duration of a scene.
. Stories that don't catch the reader's attention by the
middle of the first page.
. Stories which have no supernatural or fantasy content.
(Remember, though, that some of our best stories have been about
apparently supernatural elements that turn out to have a non-
supernatural explanation; we don't use many like that, but will
run a few such stories that have exceptional merit.)
. Stories with characters we cannot bring ourselves to
. Stories which try to make up for uninteresting content by
"going for the gross-out," as by using shock-value instead of
real story-telling and innovation.
. Stories with disappointing endings, or whose resolution is
too obvious too soon (some as early as half-way through the first
sentence!), or that do not resolve at all. We don't object to
corpses nor to tragic endings, but protagonists who exist only to
wallow in mundane woes and then succumb quietly to an undeserved
doom really don't belong in Weird Tales. Your protagonists
must at least try to cope, and must try to change
something, even if the outcome is tragic. Stories whose
only point is that the world is a dreadful, dreadful place tell
our readers what they already know; people read Weird
Tales to escape everyday futility, not to be be splattered
. Mere description of a horror is not as effective as telling
a story about people trying to cope with one, successfully
or not. Believable, often sympathetic people make horror
stories scary; but standard-issue, cardboard villains rented by
the yard from Central Casting and who come to a (usually
predictable) bad end do not.
. The pseudo-Medieval never-never land, overrun with generic
swords-persons, wizards, and dragons has been sword-played (and
ensorcelled) into the ground by now. But your imaginary-
world setting, characters, and plot elements can be fresh, and
new, and interesting. Look at real histories; get a feel
for just how complex the pre-industrial world was. Don't base
your characters or your magic on a role-playing game; invent your
. Although there's nothing inherently wrong with stories about
classical vampires, deals with the Devil, formalities of the
Hereafter, and people eating people (or vice versa), our readers
have already read stories based on these ideas. If you wrap a
story around an old, familiar idea, then add something new and
different! A story seldom surprises readers if all it does is
reveal, as a "surprise" ending, that the protagonist is a
vampire, or that he just noticed he's been dead since page 2.
. Please remember that Weird Tales is a fiction
magazine; the Real Inside Truth About The Occult belongs
elsewhere, as do real-life ghost sightings and anything
about airborne crockery and/or alien abductions.
To sum up:
. Most manuscripts rejected by any fiction editor are
rejected for one or more of these flaws:
. Text that is too hard to read comfortably.
. Lack of a clear, consistent point of view.
. Failure to establish the characters' identity and setting,
in both time and place, early in the story.
. Too much exposition and too little narration, especially at
. Characters so uninteresting, unpleasant, or unconvincing
that the readers don't care whether or not those
characters get eaten alive (or worse) on stage.
. Characters who don't even try to cope with their
problems (your protagonists should protag!).
. Plots that fail to resolve (tragically, happily, or
otherwise) their problems or conflicts, but just present them.
Plots with neither problems nor conflicts. Plots based on ideas
so old and tired that the ending is obvious half-way down page 1.
Plots that cheat readers by holding back information for a
. Writing so flowery and so filled with sesquipedelian prose
that the basic story is lost under too many adjectives, adverbs,
and not-quite-right words. Writing which feels as if the
author were being paid by the word (well, you are, but
don't let the readers notice that). Writing too murky or
opaque to decypher and decode. Writing so filled with errors in
spelling, punctuation, and grammar that no editor wants to wade
through the mess.
Something you must read:
. The Elements of Style by Strunk and White, third
edition, published by Macmillan, is widely available from good
bookstores in hard covers and soft. Absolutely essential. Get
hold of a copy, and you better believe it!
Something we'd like for you to read:
. On Writing Science Fiction: The Editors Strike Back!
by Scithers, Schweitzer, and Ford -- we wrote it, so of course we
recommend it. In it, we discuss fantasy as well as science
fiction; you can order it from Owlswick Press, 123 Crooked Lane,
King of Prussia PA 19406-2570, for $19.50, postpaid. (In
Pennsylvania, please add 6% sales tax.)
ENDIT, --30--, & that's all, folks!
Please, feel free to comment on my writing wether's it's good, bad or indeferent. After all it's free, too.