Category Archives: Short Stories

Creating Plot From Scratch

The principle problem with wanting to write stories is that, at some point, you actually have to start writing one. As most people know, getting any project off the ground can often be the hardest part. Whether it’s building a shed or writing a short story it can be hard to know where to start. What will it look like? What should I do first? How will I know that I’m ready to begin? What resources do I need? These are all important questions but they are also paralysing questions.

I mentioned last week that I was in a creative writing class and was working on a short story. I had decided that I would set my story in a fantasy world that I’ve been developing for a little while now (the same one mentioned in this post, incidentally). I’ve been having a lot of fun working on this world and I knew that I wanted to write some stories in it. The only problem was…well, what kind of story to write? I’ve got the setting, the culture, the races, the religion, all that’s ready. But what actual stories can I put in this thing that would do it justice? I was stumped. I had some vague ideas involving orcs and goblins and a human protagonist, but I didn’t have a plot. No rising action, no climax, no character development (no characters at all, actually), no drama, no MacGuffin, and no clue. But I did have one thing, one very essential, almost all important, thing: I had a deadline. Five pages due Monday. So I just started writing. I decided on a rough idea of a protagonist, put them in what seemed to be a good starting spot, and then filled the pages up with words. I wrote things that I thought were stupid, or too rough, or cliché’. The important thing was to have those five pages filled out by the time Monday rolled around.

After writing those five pages I didn’t feel any closer to having a complete story. I still only had an inkling of an idea. But I turned it in and forgot about it for a few days. Then I came back and read it again. Then I read it a second time. Then I got a piece of paper and wrote QADO on the top of it. QADO stands for “Quick and Dirty Outline”. Underneath it I starting writing down bullet points one by one. I knew that I wanted my character to go to this place next. So I wrote that down. Then I thought about what would need to happen to get him there. Then I thought about what he needed to do next, and how he would accomplish that. I laid the outline out slowly and casually. And I found something interesting: now that I had five pages to work from I suddenly was able to come up with all kinds of good ideas. Things I had written down on a whim suddenly became foreshadowing for a vital plot point. I random quip became the beginnings of a character arc. The more I thought about it the more excited I became. Now I’ve got five pages and a strong idea of what the plot will be. I know where I want to go now. I’m actually looking forward to writing the rest of it.

It all came down to getting those five pages out. Once I had a rock to build my story on the brainstorming became so much easier. G.K. Chesterton wrote once about two men who sat at a crossroads: one thought all paths were equally bad, and one thought all paths were equally good. Neither one could move because of it. This was my situation.  I knew I could build my story anywhere and make it about anything; so naturally I was paralysed with indecision. Once I had laid out a few pages my options became limited. I must now make the story in such a way that it comes naturally from the pages I have written. I have a lot fewer choices, and because of that I am free to choose the best choices available to me.

So if you’re working on a piece of writing and you have don’t know where to start or where the story will go, don’t sweat it. Just start writing. It doesn’t have to be five pages, but get at least two down there. Then sleep on it, sit down, and try to work out an outline. If your first few pages don’t lend themselves to a good plot then you can change them, or try again. But whether they work or not they’ll get you moving and your mind thinking. That’s the important thing.

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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.