Two days left!

Whew! It’s been a nutty month guys but there’s still two days left to submit stories for Weird Cityūüôā Though seems like a lot of you certainly know that since this weekend alone there’s been a ton of submissions coming in. We’re excited to review them

30 Days Left to Submit!

Sure, “30 Days Left to Submit!” sounds like a 1950s sci-fi movie title, but that’s just us letting you know that there are just 30 days left in our reading period for¬†Weird City’s¬†inaugural issue.

As of today, we have accepted (or are close to accepting) ~25,000 words worth of short stories. With our limit on words for this issue being 40k, that leaves up to 15,000 words available for new submissions. There’s still plenty of time and space for your story to be part of¬†Weird City.

But, before you rapid fire us your fiction, a few reminders about what we’re looking for, what’s working, and what’s not:

What We’re Looking For:¬†“Strange things in dense places”. In our minds this means an urban (or urban-ish) setting and unusual happenings. We find understated weirdness a bit more powerful than the full on paranormal, but if you can sell the paranormal without it feeling like a rejected¬†Buffy¬†episode, then we’ll certainly consider it.

What’s Working:¬†Lingering strangeness that builds throughout the story. Openings that begin with characters doing something. Hooks. History/richness of setting juxtaposed with weirdness. Empathetic characters who have relatable flaws. Characters with odd professions. Odd takes on common professions. Grounding the world by going into detail on some mundane process (but not overdoing it, either). Endings that fulfill a character arc.

What’s Not Working: Genre-heavy, trope-ish stories such as: paranormal noir, Tolkien-esque fantasy dropped in a modern city, teen horror. Beginning with a long backstory exposition dump on a character we’ve never met or situation we’ve never heard of. Typos in the first paragraph. Typos in the first sentence. Typos in the title (Yes, we’ve seen all of these in the past week alone). Stories that do not fit our theme, even if they are well-written. Indulgent prose. Stories not within our word count range.

We hope this gives you some guidance if you’ve been thinking of submitting to¬†Weird City¬†during this last month of our reading period. We just did a huge push on our submission backlog and will try to keep the response times short–wish us luck!

Brainstorming Your Story Like A Copywriter

Hi Weird City readers–Amelia here!

It’s been a busy August for us at WCP, but when hasn’t it been busy? Reading, proofing, contracts…whew. And now, with just over a month left in our reading period, we’re gearing up for the final push.

In addition to my work and WCP duties, I’ve been trying to make time to write. Currently I’m tinkering with the outline for a novel and in doing so keep coming back to the idea of brainstorming like a copywriter. For those not familiar with the advertising world, let me explain:

Ad agencies are brutal places. Just watch a few episodes of Mad Men and you’ll see what I mean. When coming up with copy you often have to generate reams of ideas, only for all but one or two to be tossed out. It’s a cruel practice. But it is useful when you’re writing I’ve found and in specific I’ve been applying the same techniques when writing conflict.

Here’s how it works for me: I take either a situational conflict or a character conflict (perhaps a flaw) and I set a number of ideas to come up with, usually between 10 and 20. No matter how ridiculous or how hard, I force myself to finish. That’s a must.

And you know what happens? The first few are the obvious, clich√©d conflicts that at first glance look brilliant but which go stale almost instantly. Then, at 7 or 8 in, comes the good stuff. The weird stuff. By the time I’ve done 20 I’m looking back at the first few and shaking my head at how embarrassingly dull they are.

Give it a go on your next story! Take a situation integral to your story and jot it down the way your instincts tell you to write it. Then come up with 14 more ideas. It will hurt to do but it will push you to be creative and, I bet, you’ll find something really juicy that might just overshadow your original idea!

Ideas vs. Execution: 3 Flavors of Failure

Ideas are king. Or at least that’s what you’d believe if you spent a lot of time in the startup-rich tech space of Silicon Valley. Spend a few hours in any sufficiently¬†chichi¬†coffeeshop in San Francisco and you’re bound to hear a couple 20-somethings discussing their latest greatest idea:

“It’s like Tinder for Cats!”
“Basically, it’s a YouTube coloring book.”
“Think Instagram but with words.”

But the devil, as they say, is in the details and the vast majority of seemingly great ideas on paper turn out to be absolute turds. Ideas are sexy but it’s the behind-the-scenes execution that sells.

And so it goes with fiction, too.

I do less of our reading/review than either Tom or Amelia, ¬†but even so¬†I’ve seen some truly gripping ideas lately that get bogged down by execution. Specifically, I’ve seen three flavors pop up again and again:

1) Too Many Toppings

You ever go to one of those sundae or froyo places that lets you put on your own toppings? You start with the essentials, like rainbow sprinkles and hot fudge, and then you see the brownie crumble and you go, “Gotta get me some of that.” Then you notice the Oreo bits and you think, “Why not?”. Before you know it you’ve got this horrific chimera of a dessert topped with dried fruit and coconut shavings and goddamn gummy bears. You taste everything and nothing, and a little voice in the back of your head tells you that you went too far.

That’s how writing can be – your great idea can be buried under so many other competing ideas that it’s impossible to appreciate. Keep it lean, keep it focused. After you’ve finished your story go back and imagine an English class analyzing your story¬†without¬†you there to guide them. Do they get it? What blocks them from seeing your vision?

2) Coming On Too Strong

To continue our dessert analogy, imagine that you’ve decided to take my advice to the extreme and you’ve done away with all (or most) toppings. Instead, you get the richest, darkest, most chocolate-y chocolate that mankind has ever produced. It’s so decadent that you can feel¬†the cavities worming their way into your molars as you wolf it down, your stomach already churning from the gutbomb of cacao and sugar.

You may have overdone it.

In writing, this often happens with didactic stories – that is, stories with some axe to grind and some lesson to teach. For a general run of the mill idea though, it can amount to you turning your characters into hand puppets whose purpose is to ramble The Big Cool Idea rather than letting the reader put the pieces together on their own. Consider this dialogue snippet that I just made up but which sounds an awful lot like dialogue I’ve read recently:

“The Elders are coming and we will be tested on our¬†Student Learning and Attention Values. Whoever has the highest S.L.A.V. scores will become Chosen, as has always been done in our ancient city of Everyonesaslave.”

Okay, maybe not so on the nose but you get the point. Bad YA does this all the time and considering Hollywood is just gorging itself on any YA it can market, I see why people might be emulating such practices in their own writing. Treat your reader like the intelligent life form they are and let them piece together the themes of your story themselves.

3) The Fizzle

Back to desserts. You avoided ODing on toppings. You waved away the Triple Choc Dare You flavors. You decided on a classic: vanilla ice cream with rainbow sprinkles, hot fudge, and whipped cream. Mmmm. So good. So satisfying. But there’s something wrong… there’s something missing.

You forgot the motherlovin’ cherry on top! You monster!

In writing terms, this is when you have a great idea that starts off strong but is missing that extra something to make it really shine. For a short story, this usually becomes apparent at the end, when I think the story has fizzled out. So much promise and, for awhile, so much making good on that promise. But then… poof.

Think of it as the difference between good (or very good) and great. Or the difference between an A and an A+, which as my professors and teachers always said, is about the same as the push from a B to an A. It’s hard to do and, when a story seems most of the way there, you may think it unnecessary.

“Good enough,” you might say from exhaustion. But “good enough” isn’t good enough because there’s mountains of “good enough” out there; no publishers or magazines want to buy “good enough”. They want to buy “great”.

Make it great.

Walking the Log Line

Let’s talk log lines.

We’ll start with a good ol’ crusty Wikipedia definition: “A log line or logline is a brief summary of a television program, film, or motion picture often providing both a synopsis of the program’s plot, and an emotional “hook” to stimulate interest.”

Your log line is your elevator pitch. It’s your twenty seconds to sell your story and convince us (and our readers) to not only read carefully, but to read¬†hungrily.¬†It’s your first impression, and it’s not uncommon to assume the level of skill and effort present in a log line will match or exceed that of the story itself. In other words: don’t fuck it up.

Weird City¬†requires all submitters to include a log line when they send us our work.¬†Given that log lines typically exist in the screenwriting space, we’ve had a number of people ask us why we require one. Well, I think it’s time we shared our reasoning with you:

1. It’s the canary in the coal mine

If your log line sucks, your story is likely to suck too. I’m sorry, but it’s true. Short story writing is all about–to paraphrase Carver–getting in, getting out, and not lingering. The log line is a microcosm of this. Flabby log lines often go hand-in-hand with flabby stories and with the sheer amount of content out there today few readers have time to dig around for the good bits.

2. We want you to know your story

Writers who have trouble creating a log line may be having trouble understanding their own writing. A log line forces you to look closely at your story and discern the mechanisms at its core. If you don’t know these–or if you’re still undecided–odds are that the story needs more work. We know you’re excited to submit your works in hopes of having them bought/published, but don’t smother any potential your story might have by putting it out there when it’s not yet ready.

3. We want to know if you can respect your reader’s time

This has been a big one for us. A large percentage of stories linger far too long before they rope the reader in and, in our opinion, this is usually because the reader is brainstorming on the page. Brandon Sanderson has been quoted as saying he usually cuts his first few chapters and there’s a very good reason–the first few chapters are usually unnecessary for the audience. A log line is a mini-trial to see if you’ll respect our time in how you design it. If you make us scratch our heads or if you mislead us, we know that you aren’t ready to engage the reader in a respectful way yet.

So, what do you do if you think your log lines suck?

Above all else, practice. We give 45 words to get it right, but some will claim you need no more than 20 or 30. Force yourself to write it again and again, reading it aloud until you’ve granted it an infectious melody.

Along these lines, you can also try it out on people. Have a good friend take a long elevator ride with you and in that space of time literally try to pitch them your story. See where it falls short. Then, try again.

Do not lie. It’s tempting to go the duplicitous advertising route and sell something that isn’t there. Do not do this. Sure we’ll be pissed off, but that kind of behavior will eventually get you blacklisted. And if you think that lit mags (and big pubs) don’t have ways of knowing who you are versus your pen names, you are gravely mistaken.

Ask for help. We get a ton of submissions so I’m afraid we can’t help everyone who asks for it, but being honest and earnest goes a long way. If you get lucky, an editor or a writer-ly friend will even be willing to rewrite your log line as they might design it and, from there, you can discuss the difference (and learn from them, hopefully).

So, there’s our take on log lines. I’m no numbers guy but if I had to guess I’d say that only 1 in 20 of the log lines I’ve seen have made me want to read the story they’re attached to. But I want to see these odds improve–not just for WCP’s benefit, but for your benefit. The better you get at honing in on the driving force of your work, the better future works will become and the better¬†you’ll become at pitching your stories. And then you’ll sell more stories, become happier, and tell the whole wide world how grumpy ol’ Tom from¬†Weird City¬†got you on the right track. Or something like that.

Keep writing kiddos, because I want to keep reading your stories.

X Marks The Spot: Two Normals Can Make A Weird

Lately, I’ve been thinking about how I come up with unique ideas. After all, since it’s all been done (thanks, Blues Traveler) and because there are really only seven types of conflict (depending on who you ask), what is really going to differentiate your story is how well you execute it and how fresh its setting and characters feel.

Take True Detective Season 1, a show Tom turned me onto last year and which I wound up falling in love. Truth be told, there’s not a whole lot of original thought going on here (especially if you believe Nic Pizzolatto ripped dialogue off but that’s a different discussion). But you have what I think of as “X Marks The Spot”, a cross between two potentially cliche items that make a whole new hybrid. In this case it’s detective story meets Lovecraftian occult. It also helps that the setting is the gritty backwoods of the American South and the conflicts/characters are unique to this setting.

Ever since I recognized this in TD, I’ve been trying to look for it elsewhere. How about Brick, a noir story set in a high school? Or hell, even Breaking Bad which is basically Scarface meets Mr. Chips. It’s led me to take well worn ideas that come to mind and put a twist on them, just to imagine how such a story might play out.

In a similar vein, I’ve also spent a lot of time digging into what is unique about whatever story I am trying to tell. This can be an “X Marks The Spot” story or not, as long as I force myself to ask the question: “What situations is this person going to be uniquely (or overwhelmingly) affected by?”

Take the trope-iest of amateur writing tropes, the writer struggling to write. Many writers use their own experience here as a jumping off point for a story that could (honestly) happen to anyone, but what about taking it a step further and having this impotent writer start stealing other people’s works–including obscure works by famous authors–only to find themselves met with mounting success and accolades. All of a sudden we’ve got a story about identity and the unsettling truth that maybe no one is really paying attention to what creative works belong to whom.

What breaking-the-mold story lines will you come up with?

On Getting Published

I was thinking back today to the first story I had published. It was in a now non-existant lit mag and it came after — I kid you not — nearly 80 rejections. Some would say that’s a favorable rate, 1 in 81, but it sure didn’t feel that way at the time. But those people would be right, as it took me another 110 attempts before I got another story published. Christ.

For a long time I tried to think what made that 1 in 81 story special. It seemed exactly like my other stories, with similar themes and similar execution. The magazines I’d submitted to were all similar as well. I tried to decode the magic of that published story and tried recreating it again and again and again.

I don’t think I ever got there and I think the reason for that was simple: there was no discernable rhyme or reason to my first acceptance. These things are, to a large extent, one big ol’ game of chance. You need to catch the right readers at the right moment and, if you don’t, that’s it. Game over.

That said, there are things you can do to improve your odds. We’ve talked about this before but it bears repeating because I see people making the same mistakes over and over. Then again, the same people who read these entries and take them to heart are probably not the same people at fault. Perhaps. Maybe.

So, here are some tips:

1. Read the submission guidelines. Read the goddamn submission guidelines. And follow them. Amelia is a kind soul who puts up with a lot of slack but I’ll tell you that the number of people not including their word count or log line or not staying within our word count range is way too high. I would’ve rejected you guys outright but Amelia has worked with you to fix the errors. This is not tenable though, and I will make an executive call to change our process if it keeps up.

2. If your story isn’t on theme (“strange things in dense places “) don’t submit it. Our readers have been complaining about unrelated stories and, when I checked out their examples, I was floored. These were clearly cash grab / story fire sale type submissions and after hearing how much time was spent reviewing them, I wanted to blacklist those authors permanently.

3. Know your genre. In other words, watch the tropes and clich√©s. We’re seeing a number of stories that have been done to death but which are presented like the newest idea on the block. You can write tropes but not without awareness of what’s come before. And, be warned, we can see instantly when you are trying to fake it. Oh boy can we see.

I realize this all sounds a tad aggressive, but I only speak from this place because our staff is way too kind to do so. Amelia’s kind of the WCP mom, which makes me the dad I guess and Mike is the, I don’t know, weird uncle or something. We all ultimately want you guys to succeed — and to succeed with us — but there are no cutting corners on the path to getting published. Take it from dad:¬†It may be about luck, but you sure as shit aren’t even getting that far without a whole lot of skill.