Category Archives: Freelance

To Genre, or Not to Genre: Which is Worth More?

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Recently (just this morning, in fact, while taking a shower) I came up with an interesting idea for a short story. Lately I’ve been trying to get one of my little sci-fi short stories published somewhere, and the story I’m currently sending around doesn’t look very promising. One of the big things that reduce its chances is that it’s a longer piece (around 3,700 words). The sci-fi mags I’ve been sending to prefer shorter stories. They have two very good reasons for to: firstly, a shorter piece costs them less money (since they pay by the word) and secondly shorter stories are easier to read, especially on the web. So I’ve been on the lookout for some short story ideas that I can work out in only a few hundred words or so.

The idea I found this morning fit under that description pretty well (at least, I think so; I know myself, and I could probably stretch it out to a couple thousand if I’m not careful). I really like the story, I like how it will flow, I like the message it will send, I like the characters I’ve thought up. I have only one problem: the story isn’t sci-fi. There is nothing about the story that requires any sci-fi elements whatsoever. Now naturally I could put it in a sci-fi setting with no problems; but the story works just as well in the 1800s as it would in the year 3000. So why am I limiting myself to a sci-fi setting?

That got me thinking. I know a good amount about submitting to sci-fi publications, but I hadn’t researched any other genre of fiction. I remembered my creative writing class where my teacher told us that, while he personally really enjoyed “genre fiction” (which means sci-fi, fantasy, mystery, thrillers, etc) it was “literary fiction” that would really make your career as a writer. I was interested at first, especially when I heard that he’d had a few short stories published himself. I quickly lost interest after I asked him how much literary magazines typically paid, and he told me that he was never actually paid for his work. Instead by being published he had gained greater exposure. It helped his reputation, so that eventually he could be published by the big and prestigious magazines and could generally make a name for himself in the literary world. That was a big turn off for me. I’m open to being wrong, but I have studied (metaphorically) under the school of artists like Scott Kurtz, Dave Kellett, and my big brother Steve Hamilton (whose wonderful works you can find here, among other places), all of whom taught me three things: your art is worth something, people who claim that their “exposure” is better than getting paid are trying to take advantage of you, and you should never sell away all the rights to your work. Now lesson three doesn’t really apply here, but lessons one and two kept me from investigating literary fiction any further. Still, now I had a cool story idea that didn’t by necessity have to be “genre.” Why not give non-genre publications a chance?

So I did some investigating. I’d like to share my findings with you, as small and cursory as they are, in the case that you might find them useful or interesting.

Lets look first at the biggest and the best literary magazines. These are the ones that I know I have no chance of getting into. Still, why not start at the top? I did the same thing when I was researching what was a reasonable price to be paid for sci-fi short stories. In that case I found that the best and most prestigious publications paid more, but not significantly more, than the more middle of the road publications. Figuring out what the big boys pay gives me a good sense of what the ceiling is for literary short stories, regardless of my (non-existent) chance of getting published in them. I looked at five magazines I got from a “Most Prestigious Literary Magazines” list. Number one was The New Yorker, which was surprising to me. I didn’t know that The New Yorker published short stories. As it turns out they only publish one an issue, so it’s not surprising that I was unaware.  They take unsolicited submissions online, though they didn’t say how much they would pay on their website. I Googled around and found that nobody (except the people at the New Yorker and the writers who are published) knows precisely how much they pay for a story. However we do know that they pay a LOT. Thousands of dollars per story seems typical. Of course this is The New Yorker we’re talking about, so I didn’t expect anything near that from any publication I could get published in.

Ploughshares gave me a more believable (from my point of view) price point. They pay $25 a page with a minimum payment of $50 and a maximum of $250. That’s compares very reasonable to sci-fi pricing which pays about 5 to 10 cents a word typically, which translates to about $15-$30 dollars a page. The other three magazines on my list (The Atlantic, Harpers, and Tin House) didn’t list any price whatsoever. Still, I had my data point. Now I investigated a few middle of the road publications at random to see what I might be able to get for my story.

I discovered two things: first, there is a huge amount of literary magazines to choose from. There are hundreds. Some are well respected publications with a large readership. Some are sponsored by a university. Some are just glorified WordPress blogs. The second thing is that almost none of them are willing to pay for your work. After slogging through a dozen I only found one that provided compensation, and they paid a flat fee of $25 regardless of length. The rest weren’t willing to put up a dime. One of them in particular really got me riled up. I won’t name names (I don’t want to give them the traffic) but the “magazine” was just a WordPress blog with it’s own domain. In the first paragraph on their submissions page they let people know that “Our only criteria is quality.” Really? So you want quality work, but you’re not willing to pay for it? Cuz hey, for what you’re paying (that is, zilch) I’d gladly let you publish the stories that the paying publications rejected. If you want my quality work then you’ll have to pay for it. What would you think if someone put out an ad saying “WANTED: skilled carpenters to remodel kitchen. Only applicants that do quality work will be accepted. We won’t pay you, but you’ll get some exposure when we show our kitchen off.”

That wouldn’t have been enough to warrant complaining about here on the blog, but what I found next put me over the edge. Apparently they’re in the midst of selling a book collection of the stories they’ve published this year. This was bad enough (the stories were good enough to sell at a profit, but not good enough to pay for?) but what I found next took the cake. They were having a “submission contest” for stories to put into their next book. They charged $11 for the privilege to submit a story to be considered for publication. They are charging  writers so that they can, in turn, sell their work to other people at a profit. One story would be chosen as the grand winner. I thought “Alright, maybe they’re not total scumbags. Maybe the cash prize is worth the risk. Then I found out that the grand prize was 100 copies of the final book, to sell on your own or give to your friends.

Let me just spell this out, one more time. They are charging writers for the privilege of having their work sold at a profit without compensation for the hope of winning a prize that consists of advertising their publication for them.

The mind boggles.

Listen, maybe I’m a crazy coot. I haven’t sold a single story, haven’t made a single penny at writing yet. So take my advice with a generous helping of salt. But please, if you’re an aspiring writer out there, listen to me. If your work is good enough to be published (ie, good enough for them to make money off of it) then it is good enough pay for. Do not devalue your own work. Writing is a skill, a skill that takes time and effort to sharpen. Insist on being compensated.

As for me, I’m going to take my short story idea and place it in a sci-fi setting. Because at least they respect that a writer deserves to be paid.

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An Apology, and Right Write Rights

Well I’ve done it again. For the second time ever I have broken my schedule. Again it was a Monday I missed. Monday’s are hard.

I had a post all planned out. I have a series on giving that I want to go through. I’ve been rereading Randy Alcorn’s book Money, Possessions, and Eternity. It’s a fantastic book that has had a huge impact on my life and I wanted to share some of the concepts with you all, while also developing some ideas of my own.

Unfortunately personal problems have gotten in my way. Right now I don’t feel capable of writing, at least not about what I was planning to write. I’m feeling down, and anxious. Hopefully things will get better (I’m taking steps to try and help that happen) and my spirits will rise again. Until then I’ll keep muddling through and post something every MWF. I could just stop writing and justify it to myself by saying “It’s just no good writing in a mood like this” but that would be self-sabotage. I started this blog to learn how to be a better writer and that means learning to write no matter what my emotional landscape may be. If you work in a factory or an office (or a national park!) you can’t call in sick just because you’re feeling down. Writing is my job (at least I’d like it to be) and I have to show it the same respect.

Still I’m not prepared to write about giving. Because I missed Monday I’m writing as quickly as I can and I don’t have some of the books and other resources I was planning on using. Don’t worry! Today isn’t just going to be personal sad stuff. I do have an actual topic; publishing short stories!

Most of you are familiar with my sci-fi short story “Insomniac”[LINK]. I wrote it on a whim but I decided to try and get it published. Nothing ventured, nothing gained after all. I looked around online and quickly found a website that offered to buy short stories. The place looked reputable but I was honest with myself; I cared about money most. I wasn’t going to submit my piece to some cheap thrown together website in exchange for a pittance; if “Insomniac “ is good enough to be published at all then I should get a fair wage for it. This first website offered 8 cents a word. I did some quick calculations; at almost 2,000 words I would receive $160 for the piece. This is a nice number (more than I make in a day, I’ll tell you that much) I had no idea if it was a good price or not, nothing to compare it to I poked around a bit with Google and found another site that was willing to buy short stories; for the “token” payment of $5! Obviously they expected to get lots of submissions by timid nerds who didn’t think their work was worth much and were just happy to be published. A word of advice to would be writers out there; it’s easy to be published these days. Just get yourself a blog, that’s what I did. Respect yourself and your work and try to get a fair wage for it. If it’s not a good enough piece to get published then you’re best off just putting it up on your blog for free then letting other people profit off your hard work.

Later I sat myself down and found a list of the ten most popular science fiction magazines around. I then found each of their websites and looked at their submission criteria. I discovered that the first site I found was a fair one and that 6-10 cents a word was the usual compensation, regardless of whether you’re published in a young sci-fi mag with little readership or one of the big boys who have been around since the 40s. The big old guys wanted only print submissions (funnily enough; you’d think people who have run a science fiction magazine for decades would be less afraid to use new technology) but there were several younger ones who took email submissions. I settled on one in particular because they promised 10 cents a word. However when I read the fine print I started to wonder if it was really a better deal than the first website I had found. The first site only offered 8 cents a word but if they chose to use my piece in an anthology they would pay me an additional 5 cents a word (13 cents total). I saw that this other magazine also reserved the right to publish my work in an anthology but I wouldn’t receive any additional payment. It’s a gamble; if I sell to the first site and they like my work enough to include it in their anthology then woot, 13 cents a word! On the other hand there was no guarantee of that, which made the 10 cents a word site a lot less risky. I started to look at the site closer. The 10 cent site wanted “First Worldwide Electronic and Print Rights”. I had no idea what that meant. Was that good? Bad? Beats me. If only I had a worldwide repository of knowledge and information at my disposal to help me figure all this out.

I love living in the information age.

One Google search later and I found a very informative page[LINK] about short story rights.  This is how it works, in a nutshell.

You have the right to your work. You own it, and nobody can use it without your permission. Whenever you sell a short story to somebody you’re not actually selling them the story but just the right to use that story. The usual agreement (when working with print magazines) is for First North American Print Rights. Let me break that down into its component parts. “First” means the right to be the first to publish your work in a particular medium. If your work has already been published then you can only sell reprint rights. Sadly, most magazines don’t want reprint rights unless you’re a big name writer. You certainly won’t get top dollar for it either way. The “North American” stands for a particular geographic area. So if you’re selling “First North American Rights” then you’re selling the right for them to be the first to publish it in North America. After selling that you can sell the piece again in Europe, Asia, etc. as a “First” piece instead of a reprint. This is neat because you can sell the same story multiple times. Unfortunately with the rise of the internet geographic areas are becoming less important. You can also sell First Spanish rights or First English rights for different translations. The “Print” stands for the medium it can be published in. If you only sell someone print rights then they can’t use it on their website for example. If you sell someone Electronic rights then they have the right to publish it electronically, whether it’s on the web or CD or whatever.

Now let’s look at what the 10 cents website offered me for my work: First Worldwide Electronic and Print Rights. Now this is a lot of rights; they have the right to be the first to publish my work in the entire world in both electronic and print format. If I sell them those rights then I don’t have any first rights left. Now for a starting out writer like me that may not be a huge deal; after all I doubt I the Asian or European markets would be interested in my work. Still it is giving up the ability to sell it in multiple places as a high earning First.

It was then that I realized that I had made a huge mistake. You might have spotted it already. I put “Insomniac” up on my blog which means that technically it has been electronically published. I can’t sell “First Electronic Rights” for it. Let me tell you, that is a big problem. Most of the sites I visited refuse to even look at reprints. I considered taking it down from my blog and pretending I’d never put it up there, but I rejected that option. If I did sell the piece as a First after doing that I’d be committing fraud and it’s more important to have a clean conscience then to have $160. Still, all is not lost. I can still sell First Print Rights, though that will mean finding someone who doesn’t want the Electronic Rights which is hard to find these days. I’ll have to try some of the old, internet avoiding big guys which means going to the trouble and expense of printing it off and mailing it in with a self-addressed and stamped envelope included for their reply.

So that’s been my little foray into the publishing world. I’ll keep you updated on whether anyone buys “Insomniac” or not. For better or for worse you lucky few were the first to see its electronic debut. If you see it anywhere else please let me know. I haven’t sold Electronic Reprint rights to anyone yet.

Spacegames and Community Tutorials

Hey everyone. I’m working on a new article to pitch to the same online videogame magazine that kindly rejected my last attempt. I thought I’d put my rough draft here, so you have some content to read and I can get some feedback (maybe: nobody really comments on my writing pieces. Still, I can dream right?). The sad thing is that if they accept it there’s a good chance I’ll have to remove it from my blog. So: enjoy it while you can. It could disappear.

“What’s your altitude?”

“21,000 meters.”

“Then why are you still climbing? You need to burn for the horizon if you’re going to make orbit.”

I frowned. I wasn’t nearly high enough to make orbit yet. I flipped off my stabilizers and set my rocket at a 45 degree angle to the horizon line.

“You’re climbing way too fast, you’ve got to aim for the horizon.”

I ignored my “copilot” and continued at full burn towards the stars. I checked with the tracking station. The blue line that marked my trajectory was slowly forming a circle around the planet. True, it was a little lopsided…well maybe more than a little. Actually it seemed to be growing more and more asymmetrical as I watched. Suddenly the circle became a line, curving off into space.

“Shoot. What does that mean?”

“That means you’ve doomed your Kerbals to die in deep space. I told you you were climbing too fast, now you’ve got escape velocity.”

“Oh. Huh.”

Fortunately for astronauts everywhere I was not actually in charge of a mission to space. I was just playing the latest version of KSP (short for Kerbal Space Program) an indie game project from a company called Squad. The game’s premise is simple: you are in charge of the space program of a race of little green men known as the Kerbals. You design their rockets from scratch and then pilot them on missions into outer space; if everything goes right, that is. You have complete freedom when it comes to creating your rockets, and the game will never stop to tell you if your designs will just blow up on the launching pad. Apparently Kerbals believe in going straight to live astronaut testing, and if you’re first attempts are anything like mine were you’re going to go through dozens of little Kerbalnauts before you get anywhere near a stable orbit.

The game had been pointed out to me back when it was in alpha by my “copilot”: better known as my older brother. He’d shown me where to download the game and told me it was a lot of fun. A couple days later a friend and I decided to take the game for a test ride. We spent the next few hours laughing hysterically as our designs each found a new way to explode into tiny pieces within seconds of launch. Some were straightforward; we’d hit the launch button and they’d detonate instantly, engulfing the launch pad in a smoking fireball. Others would make it a few hundred meters into the air before losing structural integrity, rockets and wings ripping off one by one in a slow, almost graceful, disintegration. A few designs would simply fall over before they could even be launched, toppling like an unstable Jenga tower. Our designs became sillier and sillier as we attempted to find an even more ludicrous way for our rockets to self-destruct. But after the third hour had past we decided we’d had enough fun goofing around. It was time to take what we’d learned and build a sensible rocket. Our goal? Orbit. With high hopes we christened the Sanity I, the first of a new series of practical rockets.

We lost control of it after about 30 seconds of flight, and it plummeted to the earth in a ball of flame.

The Sanity II and III met similar fates, and Sanity IV: A New Hope was the worst one yet, ripping itself to pieces just moments after leaving the launch pad. Instead of getting better each new design was just failing in new, unique, and frustrating way. We spent two hours throwing ideas around trying to find one that would work. Finally we gave up: we checked online to see how to do it properly. There we not only found a design that worked, but discovered all kinds of useful information about rocket construction. We had no idea you could stack fuel tanks, for instance, and that alone made a huge difference. We made it to space on our next try. A couple of launches later and we made it to orbit. My friend and I felt accomplished. It was a moment of triumph when our command capsule safely landed our Kerbalnauts on the far side of the planet; but at the same time we were a little upset that we were reduced to looking online for help. It seemed to cheapen our accomplishment. It’s like using a walkthrough to make your way through an adventure game: sure, you won, but it was the walkthrough that solved all the puzzles for you. You might as well have just given up and stopped playing. I felt the same way about KSP. Sure, we made it to orbit; but it wasn’t by our own skill, but someone else’s. I stopped playing after that, and eventually forgot the game almost entirely.

That was almost a year ago and KSP has grown a lot since then. They’ve added two moons to travel to, a tracking system to plot your trajectories, and a ton of new parts. It’s in beta right now and new content is being added all the time. My brother encouraged me to try it out again. I decided to make it my goal to reach the moon. I still haven’t gotten there, and with each failure my brother’s frustration at my refusal to listen to his advice has grown. Every time I sent my Kerbals on a one way ticket to starvation in deep space my brother has told me exactly what I’ve done wrong. Each time I’ve refused to listen to him. After all, if I just do everything he tells me to I’m not really playing, am I? I might as well just look up the answer on the internet again.

But as I failed for the 27th time, I realized something. I was thinking about this game completely wrong. This isn’t an adventure game. This isn’t even an FPS, RTS, MMO, or RPG. And I obviously don’t mean in terms of gameplay: by its gameplay alone it’s more like a flight sim than anything else. I just mean by terms of what is and is not cheating.

If you look up a walkthrough for an adventure game, then you’ve basically defeated the purpose of playing. The whole point of adventure games is to figure out the correct way to solve a puzzle. It’s like taking a multiple choice test: there is only one right answer. If you look the answer up on a cheat sheet then you didn’t really pass the test; you just copied answers. But with most other genres it’s a little different. Looking up a walkthrough for a quest or a particularly hard boss is less like cheating on a test and more having someone tell you exactly what challenges you’re going to face during football tryouts. Sure, now you know that you know exactly what the couches will be looking for, but if you’re not strong or fast enough the knowledge won’t do you that much good anyway. In the same way knowing the boss’s weak spots is helpful, but if you aren’t skilled enough to hit it then you’re still out of luck. In a RTS you can look up some strategy guides to learn the optimal build order for victory; but in any good RTS no one strategy is undefeatable, and your opponent might do something unexpected that makes the strategy useless. In the same way looking up information about how to win has different levels of acceptableness. In an adventure or puzzle game its unacceptable: anyone can win if they know the answers, so you get no credit. In an FPS or RPG it’s still frowned upon, but understandable if you’re having a really tough time with a certain quest or boss. And in an RTS there is almost no stigma against looking up strategies; in fact it’s considered normal and completely acceptable. I realize now that KSP lands in a forth category, one that I find harder to find a name for. You could call it indie, but not all indie games fit. Probably the best example I can think of is Dwarf Fortress.

If you’re not familiar with Dwarf Fortress, it’s a game that can be downloaded for free and has been around since 2006. Dwarf Fortress is notable and unique for a lot of reasons, but right now I’m concerned with one specifically: the fact that if you try to play Dwarf Fortress without anyone’s help you are in for a world of pain, confusion, frustration, and ragequitting. You cannot play Dwarf Fortress without referencing its wiki or consulting the community forums. There’s no tutorial, there’s not real in game guide, and you could go online and memorize every element of the game and still fail miserably 90% of the time.  And that’s fine. There are some games where it’s not only acceptable to look up the answers: it’s downright necessary for the enjoyable playing of the game itself. Dwarf Fortress is arguably the king of these games but it’s not the only one. Minecraft is the most recent and most notable entry into this category. I was lucky: the first time I played Minecraft it was at a LAN party with someone in the room who had played it before. Without his guidance I would have had no clue what I was doing; thanks to them my first experience with the game wasn’t walking around wondering what I was supposed to do before getting killed by zombies after the sun set. Instead it was filled with frantic activity and steady learning. “Punch one of the tree blocks to get some wood, and make a craft table. See those boxes above your inventory? That’s how you craft. You can make tools to do different jobs faster, but right now we need to make some picks and find some coal so we can make torches before it gets dark. Yeah, we’ll need those because zombies come out when it’s dark and will kill us, so let’s get moving.” Minecraft is a game where if you’re too proud to ask for help or look it up on the wiki you will not be able to have much fun. Sure it’s possible to figure out all the crafting recipes on your own by trial and error…but it’s not much fun, and you don’t feel any less accomplished if you look them up.

KSP is the same way. Sure I had fun experimenting with new designs: but it’s incredibly frustrating when your rockets fail and you don’t know why. Online there’s a whole community of people who are all learning together. It’s not cheating to share in that knowledge.  Imagine if you tried playing a game like Shogun: Total War or Starcraft II for the first time and you refused to use the tutorial first. If you got frustrated and confused, then it would be your own fault. But for a lot of indie games like Minecraft or KSP there is no (or only extremely simple) in game tutorials. The community is the tutorial, and if you don’t use it then you won’t be able to enjoy the game to its fullest.

So it’s time for me to put down my foolish pride. If you need me I’ll be cruising the KSP forums looking for tips on how to get to the moon.

First Submission, First Response

I mentioned in my first post that I started this blog because I was trying to get some of my work published and I couldn’t think of any reason why someone would be interested in me as a total unknown. Well I think it’s time to go into more detail about that.

There’s a certain online gaming magazine that I read regularly. I’d tell you the name, but I’m not sure whether it would be appropriate to share it at this time. What’s more important is that they accept pitches from the public for feature article submissions. There are not many magazines, online or not, who openly welcome submissions from random strangers. What’s more, I’d read the feature articles on this website and they were right up my alley. I’m not the most up to date or informed when it comes to gaming news (or games in general: being cheap I tend to wait until games go on sale before buying them), but their articles often dealt with games that were five, ten, twenty years old. The only requirement seemed to be that they be interesting, and have something new to say. It seemed like my best chance to get something published. I just needed an idea.

After a week or two I found one. I was playing my favorite browser game, Echo Bazaar when something happened that really touched me. The game inspired an emotion, and whenever something inspires a strong emotion in you it’s worth writing about. This was what I needed. I banged out a 1,500 word rough draft about it. I spent two days polishing it up, sending it to a couple of my friends whose opinions I valued and who happened to be on Facebook. They liked it, which was encouraging. I was ready to send it in.

It was at that point I found out that they don’t want people to send in complete articles. They want a pitch first, and only if they’re interested will they ask for something written up. I felt sheepish: I’d sweated over this article and there was a decent chance they wouldn’t even want to look at it. I started writing up a pitch explaining my article in detail, but I was (thankfully) distracted by dinner. I needed the break to think: I realized that I had to be just as careful about writing the pitch as I had been about writing the article. This would be the real test: if I sounded boring and insipid in my pitch they wouldn’t even be interested in reading the article. So I ended up spending a whole day working over my pitch to make sure it was perfect. With some trepidation I hit “send” and let it out of my hands. There was nothing I could do now but wait.

I took me two and a half weeks to get a reply. After the first week passed I began to worry. After the second I started to wonder if I’d sent it to the right address. In the last few days I’d practically given up on even receiving a rejection letter. But finally it came. The reply contained good news and bad news: they liked my article idea, but they’ve had too many features about Echo Bazaar recently and they really didn’t need another. Still, since I had already written it up, they were willing to take a look.

You could have knocked me over with a feather. Immediately I reread my article, searching for any minor imperfection. I changed a few sentences, thinned out a paragraph that was too wordy, added some parentheses, and started to wish I had time for a complete rewrite. Despairing at my chances I reluctantly sent it in.

After I sent it I began to relax. It was out of my hands now. Besides, even if they rejected it they’ll have read some of my work. They might be more likely to accept a pitch from me in the future.

I had to wait over the weekend to get a response, which arrived Monday. It was the most optimistic rejection letter I’ve ever received (actually, it’s the only rejection letter I’ve ever received, so I guess it’s also the most pessimistic as well). They’d already written too many articles about Echo Bazaar and too many others with themes similar to my article, so they didn’t want mine. The good news was that they liked my writing and encouraged me to pitch again.

So. I’m not a published writer yet. But I just might be a little closer. As for the article in question, I’m going to look around some more to see if any other websites or print magazines might be interested. If I can’t find anything I’ll post it here for you all to gawk at. I never thought a rejection letter could make me feel so good.