Hesitation

A few weeks ago, as part of the inaugural Dundee Fringe, I hosted the premiere of an experimental game show called The Literal Flow Test. It borrows elements of the Radio 4 show Just a Minute, asking five players to speak for up to two minutes without stopping, and pairing that with the knockout stages of a poetry slam.

I was pleased to find that we had attracted nearly a full house; the official paperwork shows 27 out of 30 seats sold. Most of the topics were picked at random from a pool, but part of the fun was asking the audience for topic suggestions in the last round, and they joined in with enthusiasm, with subjects ranging from ‘Stonehenge’ to ‘Cybernetic enhancement’.

I’m aware that despite this show being all about avoiding hesitation, it’s taken a few weeks to write about it. However, I wanted to bring you pictures as well. You can find them all on the PPG Photography Facebook page, but below is one of the poet Fin Hall.

The poet Fin Hall standing up taking his turn as part of The Literal Flow Test.
The poet Fin Hall taking the Literal Flow Test. Credit: https://www.ppgphotography.com/.

The playwright Jen McGregor emerged as victor after a tense five minutes of tiebreaking. With a few minor tweaks to the rules, it would be grand to run it again at some point, possibly for charity.

All the players, and the judge, were members of the Hotchpotch open-mike night. But unlike Hotchpotch, which is run entirely on a voluntary basis, each act at the Fringe received a share of ticket sales. This meant each participant could receive a little cash towards their travel or drinks on the night.

Of course, I nearly forgot to give Jen her envelope, and had to chase her up the street at the end, but we’ll move on from that.

Lots of Words, Little Payoff

A long time ago on this blog, we explored what to look out for when submitting your work. I’d never had a particularly bad experience until recently.

But first, let me take you back 2½ years. I’d entered a short piece to be included in a charity anthology, along with a number of local writers. The book would then be sold to raise funds for the cause.

The process was long and slow. Months after my submission was accepted, I remember going to one meeting, which I found to be an unstructured and unproductive discussion about the form this book should take. As such, I didn’t attend another meeting, although I’d cut the committee a little slack because it was clear they were learning as they went along.

We then received sporadic updates about its progress, and just over a week ago, we heard confirmation that the book was finally ready. All we had to do was send our postal addresses to receive a contributor’s copy.

At this point, it transpired that the contributors would not receive complimentary or even reduced-price copies. This came as news to us as much as it did to the writer who had been liaising with the charity committee. We were instead invited to buy a copy for £19.99.

It’s considered bad form in the publishing world to charge contributors to see their own work in print. Some presses do operate like this, using a business model called vanity publishing, but that’s looked down upon in the industry, even by self-publishers. In this case, I’m satisfied it wasn’t the committee’s intention to act like a vanity publisher, but a case of not understanding the conventions of publishing.

None of the contributors want it to reflect badly on the charity or its purpose; indeed, that’s why we supported it with our words. Nonetheless, a number of us feel shortchanged. If we had been advised at the start we would be expected to buy a copy, we would have at least made an informed choice. Even for those who might choose to buy this volume, it’s currently only available in person and on a certain day of the week, which further restricts its availability.

The contributors have now opened discussions with the committee in the hope that a deal or a compromise can be reached.

Publish and Be Careful

As I’ve no urgent writing projects on the go right now, I’ve turned my attention back to submitting work to publishers. There are never any guarantees in publishing, but I have a few tips to help ensure the process is as painless as possible.

Keep a close eye on what you submit and when

I maintain a spreadsheet with the following columns: Publisher, Submission guidelines, Closes, Date entered, Decision notified, Title(s) entered, Entry method, Overall submission count (target 52 per year).

Most short story and poetry publishers insist that you don’t submit a given piece to any other place until they’ve accepted or rejected it. If a piece is rejected, I use the strikethrough font effect so I know it can be sent elsewhere; if accepted, it’s noted on a separate spreadsheet. Note that agents looking for novelists usually don’t mind if you send to several places at once.

Be early

Right now, we’re heading into the Christmas and New Year period. Publishing lead times can be so lengthy that it’s far too late to submit festive pieces, as editors will now be planning for Easter or even summer. Yet there’s also an opportunity here: if you’re inspired to write a piece this December, there’s plenty of time to refine it and submit it in summer next year for next December.

Unless instructed otherwise, use a standard manuscript format

On his website, writer William Shunn offers a range of templates that contain all the information publisher needs, such as your contact details and pen name. Occasionally, you might be asked to use a certain font or a different layout. In those instances, always read the instructions carefully and follow them precisely.

A printing press in Kabul, Afghanistan
A printing press in Kabul, Afghanistan (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Be selective about entering competitions

This is perhaps a contentious point, but it’s a purely personal point of view.

When you send work to a publisher, there is almost never a charge. For a competition, there’s almost always a fee, and it can be up to £5 or sometimes more. Assuming an average fee of £3, entering even one competition a week can cost more than £150 per year. Aside from the financial aspect, I’ve had experiences where competition rules have been badly phrased or even self-contradictory, leaving me unsure how to enter.

That said, there are a few competitions I make a point of entering because they’re so prestigious or because the potential payoff would be worth it, which brings me to my final point.

Look at the reward offered

It’s a fact of a writer’s life that some publishers want your work without payment or other reward, usually with the well-worn line that they can offer exposure. If you do simply wish to make your name known, then by all means enter your work, but be clear about this from the beginning. I generally take no payment only when it’s for someone I know personally, or if it’s for charity.

Otherwise, the least I’d expect is a contributor’s copy of the finished book and/or a cash fee, however nominal. It takes a lot of effort and a lot of time to create a publishable piece, so never be afraid to charge for your work.

Bang for your buck.

I realised recently that I hadn’t sent off any work to publishers for rather a while, and now I’m beginning to make up for it.

When you submit short stories or poetry on a regular basis, you quickly realise there are two broad types of market.

  1. Directly to publishers. This is where an publishing house invites submissions of single poems or stories for an anthology, often on a set theme, and an editor decides what’s included. There are usually no charge to send in work and the author is often paid a flat fee or a rate per printed word.
  2. Competitions. This is where an organisation invites submissions, often on a set theme, and a judge or panel of judges decide who wins. There is often a charge to send in work, and the winner usually receives a cash prize along with publication.

English: Wil Wheaton at the 2011 Phoenix Comic...
English: Wil Wheaton at the 2011 Phoenix Comicon in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

At least that’s how it should work. However, I’ve been involved in more discussion of late about places that aren’t giving a fair deal to their contributors. This includes Star Trek actor Wil Wheaton, who was asked to write for the Huffington Post in return for ‘exposure’.

I’ve heard anecdotal evidence from a couple of poet friends that a popular magazine follows a similar ‘exposure’ model with the claim that they’re a small press and are unable to pay. At least one of these friends has been professionally published elsewhere and will no longer submit to this magazine.

I’ve also recently spotted an advert for a competition with a £10 entry fee or £11 if submitting online, and the prize is to read your work at their event. To me, there’s a lot wrong with this.

Firstly, the price difference is not explained; contributors appear to be penalised for not wasting paper. Secondly, it’s still around double what you would expect to pay to enter a competition. Thirdly, there’s not so much as a nominal cash prize offered, nor any mention of a contributor’s copy.

My advice is to be clear about your reason for sending your work to a particular place. Ask yourself whether the reward is proportionate to its quality and to the financial position of the publisher.

That principle still applies to charity or fundraising work. This year, for instance, I’ve been invited to perform at local landmarks to raise funds for the maintenance and restoration. As I know the organisers, I’m clear that I’m donating my time and work to these causes. One of them even offered me travel expenses, which I declined.

But don’t think everywhere is out to get you. Gutter magazine offers a two-year subscription rather than cash payment, which I consider to be fair, while feminist zine Artificial Womb is a tiny operation but makes a point of paying every contributor.

And a final piece of advice: Wil Wheaton wrote that the exchange he had with the editor wasn’t unpleasant, and that he didn’t blame her for company policy.

Echoing this, it’s always a good idea to be civil to editors no matter how the conversation ends. We’re used to reading about authors and other celebrities who act like divas, but if you develop a reputation for being difficult – especially at the start of your career – word will get around quickly and potentially close off avenues you hadn’t yet explored.