Charm 14/22

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The Ratcatcher

The letters shift and settle, and I let the rumble of the engine, the hot sweaty stink of the air fall away. I follow the words, fast as rats, my finger tracing their tails:

This little boy—let’s call him Caleb Dunning, for that was indeed his name—was born in a storm, two weeks before he was due to come screaming into the world. Perhaps the thunder and lightning, the infernal rocking, they frightened him early from the womb. Or perhaps, Caleb just knew that he had to arrive on that exact date and no other.

It was in September, just as the ship was coming in to the Cape of Storms, that Caleb opened eyes like slate and saw the world around him. Born on water, a space made of potential. His parents hurried him ashore, swaddled in sea-salt cloth and trailing magic like smoke. Unaware, of course, just what it was they cradled to themselves.

Continue reading Charm 14/22

SSDA flows on

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There is one week left to submit your story to one of Africa’s premier short fiction anthologies – Short Story Day Africa.

Along with Rachel Zadok and Nick Mulgrew, Tiah Beautement is one of the three people at SSDA , and we spoke a little about the project.

Thank you to Tiah for taking the time out to have a chat. 😀

Cat: What about Short Story Day Africa and its aims do you think makes it an important feature for African writers?

Tiah: Short Story Day Africa is run on the continent with the love and support of African writers. This is something Africa owns, not something given to the continent from somewhere else. We are promoting our writers and stories while pushing each other to improve and raise up our game without trying to please an off-continent audience. This is about self-respect.

This is hugely important to me, as a mother of two children. I still remember watching my eldest’s first pre-primary concert. All the music they played was from artists overseas. I thought about what situations like this tell our children – if you want to be respected for what you do you need to leave. Which is bullsh-t.

When my children are adults, if they want to travel, that’s fine (so long as they pay for it). The world is an interesting place. But I don’t want them feeling they must go overseas in order for their skills to be respected. I want them to see that there are brilliant things happening right where they were raised. Short Story Day Africa is my way of proving that.

Cat: What’s been the most exciting development you’ve seen since you’ve been on board with the project?

Tiah: Short Story Day Africa is an exciting development in itself.

I’ve was a participant in SSDA from its first year, back in 2011, when it didn’t even have a contest and Rachel Zadok was both its creator and its only official team member. In 2012 I became team member number two, we ran the first contests and the project morphed into a child with rollerskates. We are now a team of three, chasing this kid zooming downhill and showing no signs of slowing down. The project evolves, bends and expands, both in response to what people want and what our resources allow. The fact that we’ve not only managed to keep this runaway child alive, but also flourish, is both an amazing and thrilling achievement.

Cat: SSDA is a grassroots approach to short story writing  – tell us a little about the workshops, the editing, the submissions to awards etc that SSDA does to polish its new and emerging writers.

Tiah: Writers that make our longlist – stories that will be published in our anthology – get put through a mini-boot camp. This is typically an experience reserved for writers who have a novel or a collection being published. But being paired with an editor is how a writer truly learns to take their writing to the next level. Our editors create a conversation between themselves and writers, pointing out plot holes, unnecessary description, sections that drag, where dialogue sounds the same. They go back and forth until everyone is satisfied. It’s like being a runner and finding a coach to train for the big race.

As to workshops on the ground, we do have a history of encouraging writers, in the spirit of SSDA, to host workshops in their local area, especially where youth is concerned. This year we’ve changed it up. For starters, we now hold #WriterPrompt. Twice a month a prompt is given and writers can post a story of up to 200 words. A member of the SSDA team moderates, while giving constructive feedback and encouragement. Participants are further encouraged to comment and provide thoughts on each other’s work. This year we’ve also been highly fortunate to have special funding ProHelvetia and the Swiss Arts Council to participate in SDC Regional Cultural Programme. This enabled us to have writers from Malawi, Zimbabwe and Botswana attend a course run by established writers in their own country.

While courses and workshops carry different themes, the overlying message is to craft your work with rewrites. As somebody who has read stacks and stacks of submissions, the biggest thing holding the majority of writers back is that they send in first drafts. Yes, they fix their punctuation and grammar. But this amounts to putting a first draft in a clean dress. These first drafts – clean dress or otherwise – don’t get published. I also suspect that rather than take the rejected story and try to make it better, the writers are moving on to write completely new stories. A pile of first drafts don’t create a ladder to publishing dreams. Which is why, on places like #WriterPrompt, we encourage writers to keep editing the first story they post for that prompt, rather than posting numerous stories over the two week period.

Cat: How do we tell stories and use language in a different way from Western story-telling?

Tiah: This is difficult to answer because Africa, as you know, is a massive place with many cultures, languages and influences. So while there are different approaches to telling a story, and some of these reflect a tradition the writer has grown up in, I can’t make a blanket statement.

Which I suppose is the point. It is not so much that African story-telling is different than Western story-telling, than it is about an African writer being able to tell stories without having to conform to a Western-reader-check-list. African stories might be about poverty, sex or vampires, but in a manner based on being in Africa rather than exploring Africa through a series of limited microscope lenses. Which means writers submitting to SSDA are not obliged to write their stories for an assumed Western reader. A writer in the United States wouldn’t be expected to explain to readers what caddy-corner means or the phrase ‘look two; go one.’ So yes, an American reader of a South African tale might initially get the wrong idea when they read about a taxi stopping at a robot. But if African readers can figure out Western stories, Western readers should be able to do the same. Having to write for outside readers changes the flow of a story and ‘others’ the characters and place.

Cat: There is no one Africa, and yet the international world sees us as the “dark continent” – an illiterate starving mass of indistinguishable faces. This is very disheartening for writers in Africa who are often expected to write a kind of “poverty-aids-orphan porn” to show the “real” Africa. If you were to highlight the sheer variety of stories that we tell, could you pick four writers and their stories to share with us?

Tiah: I’m not sure where to begin. There is so much out there that we can, easily, post on FB and twitter a daily #amreading – a previously published story from one of the many organisations putting out new content. Nor do we have any trouble filling in our #WriterWednesday slot, where we feature an African writer on our social media along with conducting an interview. There is so much talent and stories out there that it is rather amazing how people can remain oblivious.

From our anthologies, however:

Feast Famine and Potluck produced two Caine Prize shortlisters: ‘Chicken’ by Efemia Chela which has a character contemplating selling her ovaries and ‘My Father’s Head by Okwiri Oduor (who won) where the main character calls up her dead father to remember his face.

feast-famine-potluck_ebook-cover_20131122-758x1024

Terra Incognita was won by Diane Awerbuck. She describes her story ‘Leatherman’ as Tokoloshe porn. Mary Okon Ononokpong wrote ‘Editöngö, which is a creepy tale of a spirit that is continuously reborn.

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Website: www.shortstorydayafrica.org

FB: https://www.facebook.com/ShortStoryDayAfrica

Twitter: @ShortStoryAFR

Tiah Marie Beautement is the author of two novels: award nominated This Day (2014, Modjaji) and Moons Don’t Go To Venus (2006, Bateleur). Her numerous short stories can be found scattered across the internet and various anthologies. Her day jobs include: running writing courses for youth and adults, a book reviewer for The Sunday Times and is a member of the Short Story Day Africa team.
Find Tiah via her blog – http://tiahbeautement.bookslive.co.za/blog/ – or on twitter: @ms_tiahmarie

Rejected? Take It Personally.

I mean, if an editor rejects your story out of the thousands in the queue, and probably also the other 998, then it’s gotta be a personal vendetta, amirite?

Plus you were so nice to them on Twitter, which just goes to show that all those hundreds of faves didn’t even count because editors only buy stories and novels from their buddies and then they get together at cons and all laugh about YOU PERSONALLY while getting drunk on the money you should have made.

Actually, what you should do right now is go pen a nasty response to that form rejection letting them know exactly what you think of them and their shitty mag and the shitty stories they publish:

Or, yanno, not so much.

There are many reasons why a story or novel gets rejected. Making Light have a post outlining the many reasons novels don’t make it through the slush, and I think it’s a good place to get an idea of what’s going on behind those form responses.

Here’s a sample of the thinking, but the whole post (and comments) are well worth the read:

Manuscripts are unwieldy, but the real reason for that time ratio is that most of them are a fast reject. Herewith, the rough breakdown of manuscript characteristics, from most to least obvious rejections:

    1. Author is functionally illiterate.
    2. Author has submitted some variety of literature we don’t publish: poetry, religious revelation, political rant, illustrated fanfic, etc.
    3. Author has a serious neurochemical disorder, puts all important words into capital letters, and would type out to the margins if MSWord would let him.
    4. Author is on bad terms with the Muse of Language. Parts of speech are not what they should be. Confusion-of-motion problems inadvertently generate hideous images. Words are supplanted by their similar-sounding cousins: towed the line, deep-seeded, dire straights, nearly penultimate, incentiary, reeking havoc, hare’s breath escape, plaintiff melody, viscous/vicious, causal/casual, clamoured to her feet, a shutter went through her body, his body went ridged, empirical storm troopers, ex-patriot Englishmen, et cetera.
    5. Author can write basic sentences, but not string them together in any way that adds up to paragraphs.
    6. Author has a moderate neurochemical disorder and can’t tell when he or she has changed the subject. This greatly facilitates composition, but is hard on comprehension.
    7. Author can write passable paragraphs, and has a sufficiently functional plot that readers would notice if you shuffled the chapters into a different order. However, the story and the manner of its telling are alike hackneyed, dull, and pointless.

(At this point, you have eliminated 60-75% of your submissions. Almost all the reading-and-thinking time will be spent on the remaining fraction.)

    1. It’s nice that the author is working on his/her problems, but the process would be better served by seeing a shrink than by writing novels.
    2. Nobody but the author is ever going to care about this dull, flaccid, underperforming book.
    3. The book has an engaging plot. Trouble is, it’s not the author’s, and everybody’s already seen that movie/read that book/collected that comic.

(You have now eliminated 95-99% of the submissions.)

  1. Someone could publish this book, but we don’t see why it should be us.
  2. Author is talented, but has written the wrong book.
  3. It’s a good book, but the house isn’t going to get behind it, so if you buy it, it’ll just get lost in the shuffle.
  4. Buy this book.

Obviously the Tor editors here were talking about novel manuscripts, but much the same holds for short stories, and it’s up to you to be honest with yourself and decide what the real problem is. If it’s a matter of grammar and basic literacy – fix it; if it’s hackneyed plots – READ MORE, and so on.

When you get to the point where you know (and people who are not related to you have confirmed it :P) you’re good, then in an odd twist, yes, your rejections do become personal and yet they hurt less. Sometimes, you get happy about personal rejections. Sure, it wasn’t a sale, but the editor was interested enough to make suggestions, or ask to see more work. No one has time for this, so it’s always a damn good sign.

Once you reach this point you have a better understanding of market, of how the industry works, and how a good story can be the wrong fit for an editor or magazine. This is a beautiful place to reach because the anger is gone. You can simply resubmit your story to another market. And another and another, until it finds its home. Sometimes you come to a realisation that a story you thought was good is perhaps…not so much, and you shelve it. But by this time, you’re writing steadily. You always have several stories in circulation, and new one on the boil.

So take rejection personally. Rejection is a path to growth.  It’s a way to reconsider how your work looks when it reaches editors, if you need to do better research on markets, if you need to work harder on the bones and the scales, if you need beta readers who are more critical.

Don’t take rejection as an excuse to bitch online about editors or markets, or send snotty little responses. It makes you look clueless, petulant, and more trouble than it’s worth to publish you when you do write a decent story.

 

Charm 13/22

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The Book of All Things

Lily is not the only one who looks different. Outside in the sunshine, I squint at Caleb, and see the same blackness around him. It’s very faint, but it pulls at me like a vacuum. I drag my gaze off him and look around. The ointment hasn’t just opened my eyes to the magic in people, but to the power flowing through the world. Everything seems so much more real and there—the colours brighter, deeper, the life moving through the plants, the grey-black tar sluggish as a river. It reminds me of being high, but also not. There’s no way for me to clearly articulate, but there’s none of the slow-headed confusion that comes with tripping. Things are different. I see their real reality, but I’m still in control. A feral pigeon wing-claps across the sky and the iron plumage shimmers with plum and emerald highlights, iridescent auras. Even the sound of its wings is different and new, and I can see the air eddy around each stroke, as though the whole universe has slowed down just for me.

Continue reading Charm 13/22

SPECSUB PRIMER

It’s taken me a very long time to accept the advice of Smart Writers, and realise that if I want to be published, I must submit.

50ShadesofGreyCoverArt

No, not like that.

I mean submit your work to paying markets even though it’s obviously terrifying and the pain of rejection will slice you through to the bone, leave you in a bleeding jellied mess on the floor.

Firstly, become zen about rejection. It’s gonna happen. It happens to even the Big Names, it happens to little names, it happens to new writers with no sales. You can trim down your number of rejections by ensuring your work is original, well-written, and with as few errors as possible, and by submitting to suitable markets. You trim them by READING AND FOLLOWING THE GUIDELINES. Seriously. It makes a difference. Especially since a fair number of markets auto-reject the stories where the writer hasn’t made the slightest effort to research and follow the guidelines.

You get a feel for markets, and for what kinds of stories DON’T sell, by reading lots of recent short stories. Some markets rather helpfully tell you what stories they don’t want to see. Mostly because these stories are so cliched that when the slushpuppies see them their eyes start dribbling from their sockets.

When I have a short story ready to go – unless I wrote it with a particular market in mind – I head over to The Grinder to look for open markets. Some I know already that I want to submit to, but since almost all markets do not allow simsubs (when you send the same submission to several markets at the same time) I might not be able to submit to those markets at that time. I usually keep track of my submissions with a simple colour-coded table that allows me at a glance to see what story is out, who has rejected it, or when a story has sold.

I generally start submitting to pro-paying markets first, and work my way down the pay scale. You’re more likely to get rejections from the top markets, but if you don’t try, there’s no chance at all of an acceptance. Also keep an eye on calls for anthologies – some of them are very cool. Again, you’ll soon get an idea of which editors you respect who put together great anthologies, and which to avoid. Never pay to submit to a market. Chances are it’s a scam, or the market is clueless and has no audience.

Here are a couple of my favourite markets (some just to read, not necessarily to submit stories to – you’ll get a feel for the type of stories they want to see by reading.). I focus on speculative and fantasy fiction, so these are the ones I know. There are more than this, you’ll just need to go through The Grinder for pro- or semi-pro markets. If you are more into lit fic, you’ll have to find those markets yourself.

TOR.COM – the biggie. Pays VERY VERY well, has giant reach. Also, is a black hole market. You send a story in and forget about it, write something else and carry on as though that tor story never existed. I’m not even kidding. Trust me.

CLARKESWORLD – Again, a top-paying market, and very very difficult to get into in. They pick the kind of stories that win Hugo awards. They are also extremely fast. You’ll probably get a rejection within 2 days. I like to call them the elastoplast market. Submitting to them is like pulling a plaster off a scab. It stings, but it’s over quickly and you can move on. 😉 After a while, you even start to enjoy the pain….

FANTASY AND SCIENCE FICTION – One of the Grand Old Dames of SFF still published in print. Top market, and now finally open to email submissions.

APEX MAGAZINE, LIGHTSPEED, IDEOMANCER, SHIMMER MAGAZINE, STRANGE HORIZONS – a great tier of markets, all looking for something subtly different. Check them out, read their stories.

Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet – tend to the off-kilter, and they only take snail mail submissions, and have a long response time. A wonderful market though, if you can get in.

That’s enough to get you started: read their stories, read award nomination lists and get to know your markets. Write, polish, submit, move on, repeat.

Aim high. Even if it’s scary.

 

 

 

Charm 12/22

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Tell the Truth and Shame the Devil

We find Rain locked in the little single-room toilet, the only room with a window too small for anything to crawl through. Since the squat doesn’t have water, the smell of the toilet is overpowering, enough to make me gag. Poor Rain’s been in here most of the night. He’s curled up in a ball on the filthy floor. I drop to my knees next to him.

Continue reading Charm 12/22

Charm 11/22

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Hiding or Running

Where are we?” Caleb asks.

I’ve parked the Beetle in an empty lot outside a bottle store. “Nowhere.” My hands are shaking, and I tighten them on the wheel. A quick glance in my mirrors assures me that we are alone here. No shadowy Hunter figures, no evil children Watchers. It’s just me and that arsehole Caleb. Between us is an empty space. I draw in a deep breath. Move, Irene, I think to myself. Sitting here isn’t fixing anything. I will my fingers to uncurl and release the steering wheel, the leather giving under my palms with a sticky kiss. The door shuts, slammed hard, and a second later, Caleb’s door echoes mine. The sound fades almost immediately, muffled in the heavy air. We set off down the deserted street, our footfalls silent. It’s like we’re not here. The night envelops us.

Continue reading Charm 11/22

It’s okay to NOT

Write.

Seriously. It really is perfectly okay if you don’t write every day of the year. It’s also perfectly okay if you do.

Stephen King writes 2000 words daily and I think that is an admirable goal, especially if it keeps you in the habit of writing. But the idea that you’re not a real writer (is this like a fake geek girl thing? I dunno…) unless you sit in a chair every day and hammer out 500 – 1000 words is a very limited way of looking at creativity.

And not everyone can manage it. It’s very easy to say, “oh if you really want to write, you’ll find time,” but I challenge you to be a parent (specifically the full time care-giver, as many relationships are not equal in the amount of child-care each parent provides) and have a job, and have a house to maintain, and a life to live, perhaps elderly parents to look after, and then still have the energy to sit down and carve out an hour of writing time every single day. It’s simply not always feasible for everyone.

And so you feel guilty, and you hate yourself, and you’re not a real writer because the internet told you so.

Fuck the internet. Fuck writers on the internet. Fuck well-meaning people on the internet who tell you how you personally should manage your creativity and time when they know nothing about your life.

What you need to do is find a writing routine that works for you, and for the book/project you are working on right now (each project can call for a different approach, don’t feel if one doesn’t work, you’re useless – pick another.) And not-writing is part of writing. It is idea-composting, it is real-life research, it is filling up your life with the fun stuff that make writing flow better because it’s informed and your brain is in a good place. Never feel guilty for recharging.

If you do feel you need daily writing to keep you on track, then my suggestion is to carve out your time in 15 minutes, rather than trying to find a whole hour to work in. (Unless of course you can, in which case enjoy that hour, :D)

One thing I’ve found that works for me is to set myself 15 minute word sprints. I set a timer, I open my Square Brackets of Absolution, and I write until the buzzer goes off. Sometimes I have a fairly good idea of what I need, and then it’s easy to get into it. Sometimes I need to write crap because that’s all I have. It’s okay to write crap. You gotta edit something, and it’s easier to fix crap than fix nothing.

Bam. 15 minutes = words. If you can squeeze in a few more sessions, that’s golden, but if you can’t, you can’t. It’s okay. You’re still a writer.

If you’re still telling yourself you need to be Stephen King, bear this in mind: I remember many years back watching a program about various Scottish people, in which Iain M. Banks made an appearance. Now I may be misremembering, but when they asked about his writing habits, he said he only wrote for six months*, and used the other half of the year to recharge/plan out works. Considering Excession is still one of my favourites, I’m happy to be a Banks rather than a King.

Find the place and pace and time that makes writing happen for you, and forget about what other people say is the right way to go about writing.

 

*eta: it’s been pointed out to me that Banks might have written for only 3-4 months out of the year, so there you go. If anyone knows what doccie I saw and remembers correctly, please let me know.

eta2: Thank you DJ Cockburn for providing me with some Iain M. Banks linkage. This is great.

Shimmer and Glimmer.

Okay so let me tell you a long tale, one involving naivety, repetition, and sheer bloody-mindedness.

Shimmer Magazine started a decade ago. For those keeping record, I started writing more than a decade ago. (Though we shall use the word writing here in only the loosest possible sense. I was vomiting words onto paper with little understanding of what I was doing. These days I fake it better). I thought what I was writing was good. I also thought Shimmer Magazine would be a great fit because I like the stories they put out.

Shimmer and I had a gentle difference of opinion….

But I never stopped sending them work. Sometimes they would send me forms, sometimes an encouraging “submit something else”. We had a nice little relationship. I knew a few people working there, on and off, and we all stayed friendly because (and I cannot stress this enough – STORY REJECTIONS ARE NOT PERSONAL ATTACKS. They just mean that your story is not the one they’re looking for right now. Now let’s all eat cake. because cake is good.

mmmmcake.)

I was writing a story with another market in mind (for Short Story Day Africa’s Water Anthology, you can read about it here), and so, naturally enough, water was a prevalent theme. The story turned out to be too short for SSDA, so I wrote something else for them (we shall see what happens…) and sent this one to Shimmer because, well, it felt Shimmery.

Shimmer gently agreed, and much squee was squeed, because well. TEN YEARS, GUYS. TEN. YEARS.

But anyway, my short piece about running away from home, becoming water, and how families are connected is in the latest issue of Shimmer, alongside stories by Roshani Chokshi, Lavie Tidhar, and Erica L. Satifka. So that is pretty damn awesome. You should go buy it because besides cool stories it has beautiful artwork and you like beautiful art work and beautiful words.

Shimmer 26 Jly 2015-500

Charm 10/22

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Watchers

It’s a while before I find my voice. “Why me?” I ask eventually. I have so many questions that this seems the best starting place.

“Because after he’s caught me, he’ll be after you.”

“Oh really?” I drawl it out, even though I have to wrap my arms around myself to stop the shivers.

“Really. The Watchers will find you, and Heinrich will want what you have. Your art.”

Heinrich. I have a name for my nightmares, for the thing in the dark who killed my mother

Continue reading Charm 10/22