Are you familiar with Devilfish Review, which bills itself as Quarterly Literature, Speculative and Otherwise? Or Specklit: A world of wonder in 100 words? How about On the Premises? FLAPPERHOUSE? The Literary Hatchet? Abyss & Apex? Flash Fiction Online?
They all are publications in which Alison McBain’s short stories and poems have appeared in the past year. McBain (right), a regular attendee at our monthly writers’ salons at the Library, is a quintessential 21st century writer. Her writing and publishing world—including her writers group—is predominately a digital one. And unlike a lot of storytellers whose creative writing appears online, she gets paid, albeit modestly, for hers.
Now a 35-year-old stay-at-home mother of two, McBain first published two pieces in a college literary journal in 2001. She didn’t submit them; her professor picked them out of class assignments and put them in the magazine. Three years later McBain published a single piece in an anthology. Then, after a nearly decade-long hiatus of work, marriage and motherhood, she wrote a young adult novel in 2013 and began querying agents, thus far without success. So at the start of 2014, she rebooted her creative writing approach, turning to short stories and poetry that she sent out into the world of digital publishing. Her writing covers a spectrum of categories: literary, flash fiction, speculative fiction, science fiction, fantasy. Her goal that first year: 10 acceptances. By mid-October, she had met her target. She’s well into her second 10 acceptances two months into 2015. And, it bears repeating, she gets paid for her writing.
The Fairfield Writer’s Blog (FWB)—whose late-middle-aged comfort zone tends to gravitate toward authors, publications and the protocol of traditional legacy publishing—spoke at length with McBain recently about how to succeed as a 21st century writer. One point rang loud and clear: The digital domain has substantially increased the opportunities for writers to publish their work. Which is not necessarily the same thing as publishing it successfully, as McBain does. Her website features links to several of her published pieces, as well as a monthly blog (often about writing topics) and, debuting most recently, a section of thoughtful book reviews. Here is the first of a two-part post about what McBain had to say about writing, critiquing, submitting, persisting and more in today’s digital world.
Tech tools. “I grew up near the Silicon Valley, so all my friends my age were working for Google and Yahoo,” McBain says. “I was like the tech dummy, honestly. I would always get them to fix my computer. I guess I sort of grew up with digital technology. I’m used to it, even if I wasn’t very knowledgeable about it. I don’t have a tablet. I don’t have a smart phone. I always carry a notebook with me so if I get ideas, I write them down. I am a little bit old fashioned that way. Most of my work is done on my desktop computer at home. I need my space. I’m not really great at working on the laptop.”
The ease of online. Two simple benefits of being a digital writer/submitter, in McBain’s view: “You don’t have to print out your submissions. You don’t have to wait for the mail.”
A wakeup call. “I’ve always loved writing,” McBain says, but she admits that “I wasn’t really pursuing it very strongly. My grandmother had worked on a book, for 20 years, about her father, who had immigrated from Holland. She had translated all his letters, which were in Dutch. On her 90th birthday, she self-published her book and she had a big publishing party in Canada, where she lived. We all went up. She and I would always talk about writing. I said, ‘I guess I have 60 more years to get my first book out.’ She was like, ‘Don’t wait that long.’ Then a couple of years later she had a fall and she passed away. So that motivated me. At that moment, I said, I’m not going to wait anymore. I’m not going to put it off to ‘someday.’ I’m going to do it now.”
Longform to short. After finishing her YA novel in 2013, McBain spent six months editing it as she researched submitting it to agents. “In my query letter I had the couple of publication credits from years ago but I didn’t have anything recent to show,” she says. Agents “want to see recent experience, that you’re still relevant, I guess. So I started updating my resume, so to speak, with short stories and poems, because they’re so fun to write. They’re short. And you don’t have to spend a year or more.” Originally, her novel topped 100,000 words. The manuscript that is out there now “is shorter. I cut a lot. . . . I’ve had some agents request pages, chapters, the whole book. There still are a couple agents looking at it but at this point I don’t feel. . .I started submitting my novel at the end of 2013 and I’m still at it in 2015. I’m going to start my next one. You’ve got to be a rolling stone.” Translation: Don’t let any moss gather on your keyboard.
Seeing a story. McBain’s productivity can make another writer envious. She says, “For stories, unlike poetry, I can pretty much sit down and write. It’s almost like reading a story. You have the story in your head and you just have to put it down. I feel like the strongest stories I’ve written are the ones where I can just see it happen. I’m a very visual type person. So I can see the characters.” While she begins a story knowing its full arc, she concedes that can preclude the fun of finding out what’s going to happen. But not always. “That’s the nerve-wracking part. It’ll go off in a direction you don’t think it’s going to.” One common element of good story, though, is “it’s about the internal journey, some growth in the character.”
If it isn’t obvious already, suffice it to say that McBain writes fast. “I think the most I did was 8,000 words in one night,” she says. “A couple of stories.” In fact, “Sometimes I’ll write something and submit it the same day. It usually gets rejected, but. . . .”
Meanwhile, her list of ideas is always growing: “I’ll picture some background and I’ll build a story around that. Or I’ll read an article and say, ‘There’s a story there somewhere.’ Eventually I’ll get the time and the mood to write it.”
Moving among genres works to her advantage. “I feel like it keeps my writing fresh,” McBain says. “I do write a lot, and sometimes subconsciously I’ll fall into these motifs where things will reappear. I’m trying not to do that, obviously. So in order to keep it fresh, you try to find something different.”
What makes a story “literary.” McBain believes “it’s where there’s something deeper going on besides the surface story. Mainstream is, you simply read the story and enjoy it. Literary is, something that shows something more about the human condition. You can have literary elements in genre fiction. That’s actually the way it’s going for a lot of science fiction and fantasy. They want deeper stories than just, I got shot with the ray gun.”
Strengths & weaknesses. “As a writer you are always trying to improve everything,” McBain says. “People in my writers group have mentioned that I do dialogue very well. And pacing. I guess the way I define pacing is when you are reading through the story there is no point where you have to stop and go back and re-read it. Your eye just naturally keeps on reading the story. You’re drawn in. There’s no point where something pulls you out. I feel a lot of writers struggle with that. I struggle with it, too. Sometimes I rush toward the ending because it’s like, ‘I know where this is going.’
“My weakness may be description.” As in, there’s not always enough. “There are two types of writers, ones who write too much and have to cut and ones who write too little and have to add. I’m the second type. I usually have to add more to my stories.” Her 100,000-word novel notwithstanding.
Cutting & saving. For McBain, the chore is “easy because I am doing short stories. You often feel like, ‘Oh this is such a great part.’ But it doesn’t really fit into the main narrative so I have to take it out. I never throw anything away. It’s all saved in a file. No, I have never rescued something that got cut from one piece and turned it into a successful story. But I’m optimistic. It’s not wasted time.”
Flash fiction & poetry. While there is no definitive word count for the former, the maximum is no more than 1,000 words. “I’m sort of in love with flash fiction,” McBain says, “because I feel like it’s so much harder to write a complete story in such a short space. It’s like poetry. You edit so much out that you’re just giving a glimpse into a story and allowing the reader to draw the rest of the story for themselves. I think that’s a lot of fun.” Such is not always the case with poetry for even as facile a writer as McBain: “Sometimes it’s hard. I have to be in the mindset to write poetry. Because it’s almost like another language.”
An inspiration. “In short stories, I think the only person who does the same breadth of writing [that I aspire to] is Margaret Atwood,” McBain says. “I’ve always read her. She does literary. She also does poetry. She is active, she judges contests, she’s doing tons of stuff. She’s Canadian, too. I’ve always really admired her.”
Forget fan fiction. While megasellers-turned-blockbuster movies such as Fifty Shades of Grey have been birthed online, the temptation to write material derived from someone else’s original characters and settings holds no appeal for McBain: “I know people are doing it but I feel there are enough stories out there. I don’t need to borrow.”
HER WRITERS GROUP
First reader. “Always my husband,” McBain says. “Often he puts his finger on exactly what’s wrong with a story, which is great. He helps pinpoint any problems, and I’ll rewrite another draft.” Interestingly, he’s not an editor or writer “He’s a chef. One day he said, ‘Why don’t you write about chefs?’ So I did.” The result: “On the Fly,” published at Flash Fiction Online.
Online options. McBain has found an online writers group home at Scribophile. “I tried out three other online writers groups before,” she said. “Some of them were great, but they just weren’t for me. Critters Workshop is great. The writers are really professional, really great writers, good critiquers. But it was too slow for what I was looking to do. You had to put your writing in a queue, so you might not get a critique for a month. I write a lot, so that didn’t work for me. WritersCafe.org I didn’t stay at for very long. It didn’t seem to have a lot of professional writers. They weren’t aiming to get published. They were just writing for fun, which is great, but it wasn’t what I was looking for. Then Critical Writing Group, the Yahoo group, had a great moderator, but they weren’t very active; they were very active like maybe five years ago.”
At Scribophile, she joined a worldwide group of thousands of writers before finding a sub-group focusing on specific themes that has about 290 members. It is under the direction of Alexis A. Hunter, who is a slush reader [aka. Assistant Editor, First Reads] at Plasma Frequency magazine [a Magazine of Speculative Fiction] and has had more than 50 stories published at various sites. McBain says that between 30 and 50 of the sub-group’s writers “are actively writing and submitting their work every week. They submit to a lot of places. Not everyone critiques everything. You have your people who you exchange critiques with.” In a forum area, she also exchanges information about “other things like acceptances, submissions and target markets. If there are special calls [for material for a specific magazine or anthology], we’ll start a thread so people will know. I’d say about a quarter to a third of the submission deadlines or calls I find out about are through my writers group. And people can post their rejections and have a good sigh.”
The help she gets. “The group basically does a critique [on the copy] going line by line. They’ll go, ‘This section is awkward’ or ‘This needs better pacing.’ So when I print it out I can see for myself what I did wrong and then rewrite it.’ ” If that sounds similar to Microsoft Word’s Track Changes feature, McBain concedes that in many ways it is, indeed, “just like that.”
But the comments also address big-picture issues: “The stories I usually run by my critique group are the ones that I’m not happy with in some way. You can’t put your finger on it, but there’s something missing. Usually they’re really great at saying things like, ‘This character doesn’t go on a long enough journey.’ Or, ‘The ending comes too fast.’ ”
Color-coded critiquing. McBain called up a story of hers on Scribophile that a critique colleague had annotated by highlighting different passages in colors. Green signified comments he’d made, yellow flagged repetitions and other loose places, and red indicated writing he would cut. “It’s a great system,” she said. “It’s all online. Some people, every time they get a critique, they edit their piece [right there on Scribophile]. I don’t. I let people go nuts, and then at the end [I revise]. You also do feedback on the critiques, so people can get better at it, too. I think that’s the main point of critique groups, to learn how to self-edit. I used to run every single one of my pieces through critiquing. But now I can self-edit enough after being on here almost two years. I’ve never learned so much as I have being on here, because you’re seeing all types of writing.”
Giving and receiving. To make sure each writer gets equitable time in the online critique group, McBain says, “Scribophile uses a system called karma points, [which you earn] every time you do a critique of another writer’s work.” You spend your karma points to keep your own work active for others’ critiques. After a certain period of time or a certain number of critiques, your piece is moved out of the critique spotlight and you must spend more points to reactivate it. “The system. . .keeps writers constantly critiquing others’ work in order to receive critiques of their own,” McBain says.
“Scribophile really is one of the most efficient and organized writers group sites I’ve run across on-line. I’d definitely recommend it for any writers who, like me, don’t necessarily have the ability to get to an in-person writing group on a regular basis.”—Alex McNab
Next: Researching and executing online submissions.