editing, Literary critique, Stories, Writers Co-op Anthology

We read it with interest but…

rejection-letter

I recently had to write a rejection letter to an author and friend whose stories have previously appeared in two anthologies I’ve edited. This time, her submission didn’t make it. Not that it wasn’t charming, interesting and well-written. It just didn’t make the sort of impact we would have liked.

She wasn’t upset. At least, if she was, it didn’t show in the reply she sent. In my letter I had concluded: If it’s any consolation, my own story was rejected too. She answered that she hoped that the rejection I sent myself was as nice as the one I sent her.

That my story was rejected will come as a surprise to my fellow editors, who never knew (until reading this) that I submitted one, as I remove all author names before forwarding the stories to them. But once I’d smashed all the crockery, I wasn’t upset either. And now I’ve taken up the suggestion to write myself a rejection letter.

 

Dear Mr. Bausse,

Thank you for your submission to The Rabbit Hole Volume 2. We read your story with interest; however we feel unable to include it because frankly, the ending sucks.

Now admit it, Bausse, you knew that, didn’t you? So why didn’t you do something about it? Thought you could get away with it, eh? Well, The Rabbit Hole is not that sort of publication – shoddiness just won’t do.

We wish you the best of luck in placing your piece elsewhere.

Yours etc.

 

It’s quite true. I did know the ending was feeble. I’d tinkered with it a bit, made it longer, then longer still, then cut it down to a single sentence. But thanks to my co-editors, I now know that it doesn’t matter how long or short it is, it’s not the right ending. The thing is, though, I can’t think of another one. I regularly make suggestions for other people’s endings, but my own? Zilch.

So here it is. Because there’s one good thing about being an editor here – it may have been rejected but I get to foist it upon you anyway, in the hope that you’ll be able to give me a better ending. Any ideas? (Note the sly presupposition, by the way – that the ending may be crap but the rest of it isn’t. But if you think the beginning and middle are crap too, don’t hesitate to say so. I’ve got a new pile of crockery, dirt cheap.)

 

 

You’re Not Late

 

“Take this day, wear it well, enjoy it, darling, you deserve it.”

Abel’s wife stirred just enough to brush her lips against his cheeks and murmur, “You too, darling, I love you.”

He tiptoed out of the room. It was five o’ clock in the morning.

Once in the car he updated the Carmate Companion, which now came in three different voices: Cindy, Lisa and Cliff. He selected Lisa and told her to find the quickest route to his destination. She asked if he wanted music or news. He chose Mozart.

The streets were empty at that time but he drove with care because every so often a squall of rain would whip the windscreen and wash the town away. Once he almost hit a dustbin that was rolling drunkenly at a crossroads. On the outskirts of town bits of garden had broken out to foray into the unknown. “Be careful,” said Lisa over the music. “Conditions are hazardous due to gale force winds.”

“Oh, yeah?” said Abel sarcastically. He’d have to talk to Giles Roffe about that. No one wants to be told what they know already.

He joined the motorway, heading north. He hadn’t slept well, and the road being straight and smooth, he felt his concentration slipping. “Got something livelier? I need to stay awake. Springsteen?”

“I’ll put you through to Cindy. That’s more her department.” Lisa sounded hurt – You don’t like Mozart? Fuck you! – which Abel thought was something else he’d have to bring up with Roffe. Warmth, solicitude, empathy – fine, bring ’em on! But who wants a Carmate getting uppity?

Not that it surprised him. Roffe had a serious attitude problem. Something to do with his childhood, no doubt – Abel wasn’t about to analyse it – but the man just couldn’t hack authority. A loner, too, which was a shame. With a little more effort, a touch of good grace, he could have been up there with the big boys, working on Carmate Complete. He certainly had the talent – all he lacked was the commitment, the motivation.

“You remember the faces, the places, the names” – thumping the wheel now, belting it out with Bruce – “You know it’s da da da da da the rain, Adam raised a –”

“Accident ahead!” Cindy was under orders to interrupt. “Caution!”

He stopped singing. The sound of the wipers took over. “Serious?” But Cindy didn’t answer.

Whatever causes them – human error, mechanical flaw or something wrong with your luck that day – accident scenes have a logic of their own, and by the time he got to it, the compulsory components of this one were already there: flashing lights, yellow jackets and the dumb, useless tailback in which he was duly trapped.

After some minutes of drumming his fingers on the wheel he got out to assess the damage – not to the vehicles involved, but to his chances of making the appointment on time. He got as close as he could but didn’t linger: a lorry on its side, contents vomited over the tarmac, and half a dozen crumpled cars in the fast lane told him the chances weren’t good.

“Why,” he asked, “didn’t you tell me to get off at the last exit?”

“Why,” said Cindy coolly, “didn’t the police tell you to get off at the last exit?”

“What do you mean?”

“They didn’t have time, Mr. Abbott.”

The answer wasn’t just wrong, it was insolent. The whole point about Carmate was that it reacted quicker than the police. “No one’s asking you to close down a motorway. Just to get me to my destination on time.”

Cindy left a slight pause. “You’d already passed the exit when the accident occurred.”

Abel didn’t answer. He wondered when the Companions had acquired a capacity to lie.

“Have no fear, Mr. Abbott. You can never be late with Carmate.”

Abel jabbed a finger at the screen and switched back to Lisa and Mozart.

 

The thing you have to remember is that every new day is yours – take it for the gift that it is, cherish it, use it well. Every morning, that was the message Abel greeted his staff with, and now he summoned its power to use on himself. Even when you’re stuck in a traffic jam, worried you might not reach your appointment, never forget that every day is a gift. When at last, over an hour later, he was able to squeeze through a gap in the debris on the hard shoulder, he reckoned he should still get there with a good half hour to spare. “I feel great,” he shouted, “you feel great, we all feel great – Carmate!” Then he kept the music low and concentrated on driving as fast as conditions would allow.

“Take the next exit off the motorway… Right at the roundabout, third exit… Straight on at the roundabout, second exit…” Lisa was reassuringly calm, informing him every so often of his expected time of arrival: 8:21, 8:18, 8:14. Once he’d built up a cushion of fifty minutes, he eased off the pace and relaxed.

“Right at the traffic lights four hundred yards ahead.”

“What?”

“Flooding is expected further on. Turn right here to avoid it.”

He slowed to a crawl, deliberately waiting for the lights to turn red. “What do you mean ‘expected’? Is there or isn’t there?”

“The river is rising rapidly, Mr. Abbott.”

What river? This was a major trunk road, for God’s sake. It couldn’t get flooded!

“The lights are green,” said Lisa at the same time as the car behind him sounded its horn.

Abel swore as he furiously swung to the right. “You’d better know what you’re doing, Goddamit! My promotion hangs on this appointment. If I’m late…”

“You can never be late with Carmate,” Lisa informed him, before adding coldly, “If you’d rather be with Cindy…”

“No!” He sat up straight, gripping the wheel tighter. “Just get it right, that’s all.”

“The detour will add another eighteen minutes. Turn left at the next junction, three hundred yards ahead. I advise you to slow down.”

He obeyed. No point risking an accident, after all. It wouldn’t be the end of the world if he got there a little late. He’d say there’d been a problem at home, a burst pipe, a burglary, whatever. He couldn’t say a Carmate Companion had kept him stuck on the motorway for an hour.

Out in the country, the absence of illumination was unnerving: suddenly there’s nothing but the beam from the car, gulping up the dotted white lines, a vague awareness of hedges on either side, trees gyrating wildly, and lashes of rain more vicious now, more determined. Then Lisa made him take a left and it wasn’t a road but a lane, and instead of white lines there were puddles and potholes and branches.

He stopped. “You’ve made a mistake.”

“In two and a half miles, turn right. Estimated time of arrival, 8:42.”

Grudgingly, warily, he put the car in gear. “Eight-forty, my arse,” he muttered. “Be bloody midday at this rate.”

“You don’t believe me.” Lisa’s voice was sad. “I’ve done all I can, Mr. Abbott. I’ll put you through to Cliff.”

“Wait!”

“Goodbye, Mr. Abbott.”

“Hello, Mr. Abbott.”

“What the…? Giles?”

“My name’s Cliff, Mr. Abbott. Please keep driving. You don’t want to be late.”

“What are you playing at, Roffe? Get me back on the road right now!”

“How are you feeling, Mr. Abbott?”

Abel poked his thumb at the screen, trying to switch it off, but Giles Roffe’s voice kept coming. “Don’t get in a state, you feel great, you can never be late with Carmate.”

Abel brought the car to a halt and slammed his fist at the screen. “I’ll get you for this, Roffe! I swear you’re gonna pay for this, you hear?”

The face on the screen smiled. “Don’t get in a state. You’re not late. The minute, the hour, the date. Right on time, Mr. Abbott. Your appointment.”

Abel managed to open the door but not to get out. The oak tree smashed into the car.

 

 

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writing technique

They had met a long time before

Mr Bennet

Mr. Bennet: complex and layered

“We are living in the most terrible age. I know people are worried about Brexit and I know people worry about Donald Trump. But I worry about the flashback.”

So says Colm Tóibín, for whom, as a novelist, this is of course a legitimate concern. He continues “You can’t read any book now – any book – without suddenly, on chapter 2, the writer taking you back to where everybody was 20 years ago. How their parents met, how their grandparents met.” And with great approval, he cites Jane Austen, who “wrote complex, layered characters without ever contemplating a flashback.”

I don’t know about that sweeping chapter 2 claim, but I fully agree about flashbacks (though I do worry more about Brexit). But I understand the temptation: you’ve created a host of characters, and to make them believable, you need to know where they grew up, what school they went to, what their parents did, the relationships they had. I’ve just spent considerable time working on the background to Sophie, the main character in my current WIP, so naturally, I don’t want to see it go to waste.

But it won’t be wasted, even if I don’t put it in the book. Because I know my character much better now, and the way she behaves makes sense because it’s grounded in a past of which I’m aware.

Are there exceptions? Of course. This article cites several novels which make effective use of flashbacks – Underworld, The God of Small Things, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao… But an author needs to know when and how to use them, and that requires experience.

Prompted by Tóibín’s complaint, I anxiously scoured my WIP. I’m happy to report that the dreaded flashback is absent. Phew! Yes, I found brief instances (two or three sentences) relating to a very recent past, when something reminds Sophie about a conversation she had previously. But Tóibín is talking more about backstory, filling in a character’s past. Of that, I found just one, which takes up 58 words.

But surely to be as categorical as Kristen Lamb (Why flashbacks ruin fiction) is excessive. One day, perhaps, I’ll make a conscious decision to construct a book with flashbacks. But I’m of the school that believes that rules need to be mastered before you can break them, and I’ve still got a lot to learn. For the time being then, I’ll stick to chronological, thank you.

And you? Have you experimented with them? Or avoided them like the plague?

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book promotion, Stories

You are invited

party

Invited exactly to what, I’m not very sure. Well, yes, a Facebook event. But my understanding of Facebook is about on a par with my understanding of the indescribable mess that for some reason still calls itself the United Kingdom. I dare say if I took the time to figure it out, Facebook might appear a little less complicated than Brexit, but I’ve never been that motivated, you know?

OK, here’s the thing. A few months back, a story of mine appeared in an anthology, Utopia Pending, and one of the other authors asked us if we’d like to host a slot in a Facebook event. Ever eager to learn new tricks, I said yes, so now I’ve got till Wednesday to think of something to do for a whole hour. Quizzes, prizes, giveaways – that sort of thing. Fun stuff. But don’t worry – I’m just one of several hosts, and they’ve done this before, so while my own slot might be a fiasco, theirs will be slick and professional.

The event is actually for the launch of a mini-series, The Mutation Chronicles, and it runs from 4 pm to 1 am UTC, which is 12 noon to 9 pm in New York and 3 am to 12 noon in Srednekolymsk. Check out the link here.

And what makes a party a success? That’s right – the guests. Since my own Facebook reach extends about as far as the end of my nose, please don’t hesitate to pass the invitation along. As we all know, the more the merrier – I look forward to seeing you!

 

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Literary Agents, publishing, Satire

The Future Is Here

Lisa

You receive too many unsolicited manuscripts and cannot review them all? You still do not want to miss the next bestseller? Then LiSA is the right solution for you.

LiSA, if you’re wondering, is German and stands for Literatur Screening & Analytik. For publishers, LiSA is a boon – in 30 seconds flat it will tell them if the manuscript they’ve just received has any chance of success. “Based on Artificial Intelligence (AI), our software establishes a connection between the insights gained from existing works and their sales and bestseller ranking. This relationship is applied to new manuscripts and a probability of success is determined.”

And authors can sign up now for a beta version, soon to be released, which will let them know if they’ve written a dud or a blockbuster. Wunderbar!

Details can be found at the Qualifiction website: https://www.qualifiction.info/ (It’s in German, but Google will obligingly translate).

It won’t be long, of course, before LiSA is analysing texts not from authors but from another AI programme. In fact the only reason she isn’t already doing that is because the release of the programme in question, OpenAI, has been delayed due its being too good: Fake text generator too dangerous to be released.

But take heart, writers! There are still a few literary agents who are humans just like us, and are even so kind as to reveal some great tips on how to get your manuscript accepted. One such is my good friend Sydney Lushpile, who a few years back gave me some precious insights into how it’s done the old-fashioned way. Before LiSA.

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Amazon, book promotion, self-publishing, writing technique

The Missing Bit

CinC_cover web 1600x2400

A good old while since I posted here, which is very remiss of me. I’ve got a few posts lined up (well, in my head anyway), but right now I can’t not say that the new Magali Rousseau mystery is out. Cash in Carry, number 2 in the series. Now some of you might be thinking, ‘What? Doesn’t he mean number 3?’ Nope. Cash in Carry is the second. Chronologically, that is, in Magali’s life, but yes, you’re right – it’s the third in my own writing life.

From a marketing point of view, that is of course pretty crass. But a few months back, I received an email from a reader who’d enjoyed One Green Bottle and Perfume Island, but said that between the two, there were unexplained developments. And it struck me how right she was. So I wrote Cash in Carry to fill the gap. Every once in a while, a reader takes the trouble to share their thoughts like that. It’s a wonderful moment.

To be precise, I’d written most of it already, even before I started the Magali Rousseau series. But I’d got three-quarters done when it stuttered to a halt. Something was missing, so I put it aside and thought one day I’d figure out what it was. With hindsight, it should have been obvious, because the story had a crime but no detective. It was crying out for Magali. I’ve learnt the lesson now – if you’re doing a series, plan the whole lot together. It’s what I’ve just done for a news series I’m working on. But more on that another time.

Anyway, that’s the story behind the story, but what about the story itself? Well, here’s the blurb.

One woman escaping her past, another trapped in a terrifying present.

One man with everything to live for, another with nothing to lose.

In a seaside town in the south of France, three days of anguish play out behind closed doors. And four destinies hang in the balance as events spiral out of control.

When a young woman is snatched from the centre of Marseille, no one suspects the kidnappers’ motivations. With the woman’s life in danger, and the pressure building up towards a disturbing climax, Magali Rousseau needs to show that she is the person for the job. Whilst knowing all along that she isn’t.

Cash in Carry. A kidnap story with a twist.

And here is where it can be found:

Amazon                       Apple, Barnes & Noble, Kobo

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Stories, Writers Co-op Anthology, writing technique

Anthology April

Curtis Bausse Book a Break Short Story Competition

A big thank you to all who submitted stories for the first Rabbit Hole anthology – 56 submissions in all, a very healthy number for our first outing. Now the hard part begins – the selection process. We aim to get this done over the next 2 to 3 weeks, and all authors will be notified one way or the other before the end of the month. After that, it’s editing, revision, proofreading, formatting… a process on which I’d rather not put a concluding date right now.

But it’s already begun, and for me not once but twice: for The Rabbit Hole and for The Second Taste. That’s the title of this year’s Book a Break anthology (which will also be its last year). The title comes from Anaïs Nin: We write to taste life twice: in the moment and in retrospection. And in the anthology, as befits the theme of nourishment, there will be many flavours. With more still to come – there’s room for another half dozen stories, so if you have anything you’d like to submit, send it along before the end of this month to curtis.bausse(at)outlook.com. Maximum length: (more or less) 2000 words.

So April for me will be anthology month. All this has got me thinking about what makes a good short story. It’s far easier to say what doesn’t work than what does, which I’m not even going to attempt here. Instead I’ll let Atthys Gage give an idea – this is from the announcement of the first Book a Break competition, which he judged:

Let’s admit one thing. You may need to ignore everyone’s favorite writing tip: “show, don’t tell”— or at least, take it with a grain of salt. Telling is okay, just tell it well. Sometimes it’s necessary. You need a quick set up to get the reader involved quickly, because in a very few pages, you’re going to pull a fast one, yank our expectations out from under our feet, drop us abruptly on our backsides. Consider The Open Window by Saki, or The Lottery by Shirley Jackson, or The Nine Billion Names of God by Arthur C. Clarke.

Or maybe your story doesn’t feature a last minute reversal. Maybe it’s all one slow-burn, building to a frantic boil. Think Young Goodman Brown by Hawthorne, or A Good Man is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor. These stories play with our expectations, but you can see the ending coming. By the time it comes, you know it was inevitable all along.

Then there’s this from Heidi Pitlor: A successful short story does not expose its mechanics. Hell, it most likely does not have mechanics, rather a set of characters, a voice, an arc, momentum and a raison d’être so indivisible that to examine one of these aspects might seem pointless without the context of the others.

There’s only one thing I can say for sure – a good short story makes you want to come back for a second taste.

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book promotion, book sales, self-publishing

The power of a newsletter. I hope.

person-writing-letter-with-metal-quill

How can we gain readers? Blogging is approximate, Facebook is fickle and tweets are lost like bubbles that burst as soon as they’re formed. Only one answer, then: a newsletter. Well, that’s what I’ve heard, time and again, from self-publishing marketing gurus, foremost among them Mark Dawson and Nick Stephenson. Build your mailing list!  As Dawson puts it, my mailing list is a crucial – THE crucial – part of my business. It’s my most valuable asset. Because then you have email addresses so you’re sending out regular content to a (more or less) captive audience. So that’s what I’m doing. Last week, GD did me the honour of posting one of my letters, so the least I can do now is explain the mechanics behind it.

First you’ll need an email marketing service. I’m currently using Mailchimp, which has good functionality and is free up to 2000 subscribers. After that, it’s $30 a month, rising to $50 when you hit 3000. Not exactly cheap. As I’m getting close to 2000, I’ve started looking at alternatives. Among the best known is Mailerlite, which is free up to 1000, only rising to $35 a month when you reach 10,000 (by which time, if all goes to plan, you should be generating more than enough revenue to cover the cost). Here’s a more detailed comparison of the two. But they’re not the only ones: here’s a list of several more.

But readers don’t sign up to lists for no reason. In return for giving you their email address, they want something of value to them, such as a free book or a video course. Make your first book free, and if subscribers like it enough, they’ll buy the second, especially if it’s part of a series. Or so the reasoning goes. But with so many free books out there, for that to happen, you’re going to need a lot of subscribers.

Next you want somewhere readers will find you. A landing page on a blog is all very well, but unless you have a huge amount of traffic, the sign-up rate is so low it could take years to build your list to any decent size. Then there’s the call to action placed at the front and back of your permafree book on Amazon, including a reader magnet (e.g. Sign up to my newsletter to join my readers’ group to get another free book / short story / novella and be informed of new releases). Here again, the sign-up rate is tiny. The solution? Shared promotions and giveaways. Since I signed up to Mailchimp almost a year ago, I’ve participated in half a dozen. Results have varied, ranging from barely 20 subscribers to the current one (40 mystery novels), with over 700. Readers sign up to giveaways on one of the two main sites, Instafreebie or Bookfunnel. This video (20 min) explains how both of them work.

Finally, but of course not least, you need content. This is the hardest part – an insipid or uninformative newsletter will lose subscribers fast. But if it’s helpful, fun to read, or offers something of value (more giveaways, a free story), they’ll stay. All of them? That would be nice, wouldn’t it? But with each letter you send out, you can expect a hefty batch of unsubscribes. How many depends on the number of subscribers you have, so it’s best to talk percentages: in my experience, anything from 2% to 8%. Which is fine – lots of people sign up just for the freebies, so they’re unlikely to become your fans in any case.

Those are the ingredients then. What about the stats? How good a strategy is it? And what’s the best measure in any case? The most rewarding (financially) is the number of sales of a second book after readers have downloaded the first. If I include the sales of book two (Perfume Island) at the time of its launch, my conversion rate is 2.3%. Excluding the launch, it’s less than 1%. There are other measures, like the open rate of the newsletter (35% – 40% for mine) or the number of reviews on Amazon (Mark Dawson puts forward a figure of 1 per every 1000 downloads), but the bottom line, of course, is sales.

Am I downhearted? No. Nor even surprised, now that I know what the nature of the game is. For me, it’s way too early to draw conclusions. I’ve only got two books out, and there’s a lot I’ve still got to learn. My expectation is that until I reach at least 5000 subscribers, release a couple more books (and probably start spending on advertising), there won’t be any significant result. But so far this is the only strategy I’ve come across. It’s no doubt getting harder as time goes by, and it requires endless patience and perseverance, but there are plenty of authors who’ve used it satisfactorily. So sometime you can expect another post from me, triumphantly announcing I’m one of them. Maybe. In the meantime, you can always sign up to my newsletter.

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