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Author Topic: Writing small
snapper
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Last friday I had a wonderful lunch. I had the good fortune of joining Jonathon Laden (one of the editors of Daily Science Fiction) for a delightful meal at Panera Bread in Northern Virgina.

We had a long conversation discussing his magazine, other writers, Worldcon, where they're going....so, so much. Let me share this little tidbit with you.

Daily SF is already one of the highest paying venues out there and is becoming an elite force in the industry. They get a lot of stories but a slightly better than half of their submissions are long. DSF publishes five stories a week. They accept submission up to 10000 words but reserve their Friday's stories for longer tales. Monday through Thursday are stories that are under 2000 words. They say that, warn that you're chances are better with a briefer tale, but writers still send 5000+ word submissions.

I have heard from a lot of writers that they can't write flash sized tales. I say to them learn.

Too many publications don't want longer tales. If you punch up your favorite genre on duotrope, you'll see how much the drop off is if your tale is over 5k. Many of the publications that will accept higher word counts warn your chances of acceptance go way down the higher your word count.

Every writers experience is different, but I've learned writing flash tales and learning to keep your word count down teaches you how to keep your prose tight and your plot engaging. It's tough. Sometimes you have to slice off passages you have become attached to but you'll be better for it in the end.

Write small, sell your short tales, build a resume. Become someone and the editor you send your story to might raise an eyebrow at your impressive cover letter. Then they might give your very long (but wonderful) story it's fair due.

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extrinsic
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Monday through Friday, huh? I get it. Work week weekdays two thousand words at average reading speed is a coffee break, about fifteen minutes reading time. Longer Friday's for Thank God It's Friday weekend reading. Speaking of audience accessibility and appeal. I suppose this philosophy might favor topics related to occupational premises and escapes.
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AWSullivan
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Thanks for the tip Snapper.

DSF is on my short list. Pretty much everything I write eventually gets rejected from there. See what I did there? [Smile]

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Robert Nowall
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Alas...after years of hardly able to get anything much over five thousand words, everything I write seems to come in around twenty thousand words these days...I've managed to cut and hack afterwards, but I can't get it to come out short to begin with---and "short" is a better entry submission than "long."
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MartinV
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Learn to write short. It sounds so easy when you put it this way. Unfortunately, all my attempts end in failure. Last time, I aimed for 15k. It turned out 30k. The novella has two nearly equal parts but if I cut them apart, I doubt any of the pieces will be as gratifying as they are together.

Maybe I need someone's honest opinion on this...

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extrinsic
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I leared how to write small: less than two thousand words, less than one thousand words, less than five hundred words, less than twenty-five words, by planning for one, clear problem wanting satisfaction and then evaluating how complicated and accessible and appealing the problem is.

Short-short stories require tight writing. I don't care for short summaries or explanation narratives, though. I want close narrative distance in scene, in character voice, and not rushed or jammed into too small a container.

A treatment sketch might run into five hundred words for a two thousand-word narrative. That's how I write. A summary sketch based on a plan or outline is about a quarter of a finished, fully-realized length.

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History
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My only two published works (for actually $) were flash, so I can appreciate what you and Mr. Laden have shared.

And I guess this means, all my complaints to the contrary, that I can write short when I really want to; but I do so love a bigger canvas.

Respectfully,
Dr. Bob

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Osiris
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quote:
Originally posted by extrinsic:

Short-short stories require tight writing. I don't care for short summaries or explanation narratives, though. I want close narrative distance in scene, in character voice, and not rushed or jammed into too small a container.

I'm the same way. I like to write deep into the POV character, and one of the things I noticed is it seems a lot of the DSF stories are too short to be able to do this. I also like reading these kind of stories, so that is part of the reason I have mixed feelings toward DSF. That, and because sometimes their stories don't really feel like stories (to me) at all. Totally understandable though, as I think trying to publish pro-quality stories on a daily basis that are under 2k words is a near-impossible task.
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extrinsic
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quote:
Originally posted by Osiris:
quote:
Originally posted by extrinsic:

Short-short stories require tight writing. I don't care for short summaries or explanation narratives, though. I want close narrative distance in scene, in character voice, and not rushed or jammed into too small a container.

I'm the same way. I like to write deep into the POV character, and one of the things I noticed is it seems a lot of the DSF stories are too short to be able to do this. I also like reading these kind of stories, so that is part of the reason I have mixed feelings toward DSF. That, and because sometimes their stories don't really feel like stories (to me) at all. Totally understandable though, as I think trying to publish pro-quality stories on a daily basis that are under 2k words is a near-impossible task.
Writing close is challenging enough for long fiction, let alone short fiction. I don't get close on the page until a late draft. A go-to list of signaling methods for closing danger close is on my utility belt.

However, I've found that among focus groups (workshops) a significant portion of readers don't like close or can't read and comprehend the signals. A degree of hand holding is required for those readers. For readers that like close, a two-thousand word story closing close can feel like vertigo if an opening closes or ends abruptly. Bridging both audiences probably requires graduated closing, variant closing and opening, clear psychic distance signals, and vivid, telling, concise character, setting, and event details.

Sampling Daily Science Fiction off and on every now and then, I've noted their slant includes different forms: drama, anecdote, vignette, and sketch and combinations and permutations of the four. That's sensible to me, considering the short form favors the latter three.

They're still fully-realized stories in the sense there's status change in them, transformation, just their dramatic structures (plot) follow different shape parameters than drama's. A story can be emotionally stimulating without structural emphasis, but I prefer reading and writing well-rounded stories with strong plot, character, idea, setting, and event emphases. Hard to do in two thousand words if the topic is too broad for the space limitation.

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Osiris
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quote:

However, I've found that among focus groups (workshops) a significant portion of readers don't like close or can't read and comprehend the signals.

I've noticed the same with one reader in my workshop. Particularly, the inability in some places to distinguish narration from internal dialog. My philosophy is that if the POV is deep/close enough, one doesn't have to attribute internal dialog with thought tags or italics, and for the most part readers have no problem with this. When a reader mistakes internal dialog for narration, authors should always ask themselves, though, if it is the reader or writers problem to solve.
quote:

They're still fully-realized stories in the sense there's status change in them, transformation.

Eh, in most cases, sure. But I've read a few that were either just to showcase an author trying to be clever with an idea, or felt like a scene within a story as opposed to a story in itself.
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extrinsic
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quote:
When a reader mistakes internal dialog for narration, authors should always ask themselves, though, if it is the reader or writers problem to solve.
Maybe not a problem, per se, a matter of audience in the sense of rhetorical appeals. Readers who mistake character interior discourse and character exterior disourse for narrator discourse make up a larger fraction of readers than the obverse. They haven't made the cognitive leap from de dicto discourse, of the word, to de re discourse, of the thing. Frustrates me, though, when an audience requires overt signals, punctuation and formating cues, and hard tags to comprehend a narrative. All of which open narrative distance a degree and show a writer's hand on the tiller.
quote:
Eh, in most cases, sure. But I've read a few that were either just to showcase an author trying to be clever with an idea, or felt like a scene within a story as opposed to a story in itself.
Clever with an idea: that's an anecdote in my vernacular. A brief, interesting, emotionally stimulating narrative. Idea emphasis, for example. A typical transformation outcome is a revelation or anagnorisis: an abrupt, profound realization of true circumstances. The transformation is as much internal inspiration to the anecdote as it is external for readers when well-crafted.

A scene within a story: that's a vignette in my vernacular. A foreshortened in time, place, and situation and perspective narrative, usually brief, but may be long. James Joyce's Ulysses in the sense of it's a day in the life of Leopold Bloom is a vignette of over four hundred thousand words. It strays a little more than I like. Vignettes tend to favor setting emphases, but may emphasize character as well or solely.

Conversely, sketches tend to emphasize character as actions, thus events, though the events may be largely interior.

Labeling a story an anecdote, vignette, or sketch for some reason unsettles writers, but those forms are part of the literary arts. I appreciate a well-crafted anecdote, vignette, or sketch, but may not be as emotionally satisfied as a well-crafted drama delivers.

Expressing all of drama's features, especially plot, is challenging, especially in short forms. Not every writer has a full toolbox. Plot is the most challenging to incorporate craft-wise.

I've been unsettled by the labeling of writers by degree of skill. Every writer struggles. Recently, however, I've come to a reasonably satisfied accommodation with doing so. I keep my judgments to myself, but I now see practical divisions. A beginning writer is a mechanical style student. An intermediate writer is a craft student. An advanced writer is a voice student. And a winning writer is an audience student. Some writers span several categories. Some have a facility with an advanced skill set though still struggle with other phases. Some may have shortcomings with an earlier phase but have moved on to more complex skill sets. Most step through the phases in sequence or stall at a plateau. Readers follow a similar path. C'est la vie d'escritur.

[ September 28, 2012, 04:49 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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LDWriter2
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I can write small. I have written a few under 3,000 words a some even under 1,000. Lately I seem to be stuck in that range.

I have written very long stories and at one time I thought that was all I could write but three or so years ago I tried a couple of flash stories and found I could write them. At the moment I've written six to ten stories under 2,000 words and a couple between two and three thousand. That includes that 50 word HM and a couple of other under 1,000. As I said I seem to be stuck on small stories.

Not counting my Q4 story, that one is in Dr. Bob's range but it's not new just remade. More on that on the Q4 thread. Q1-30 will be longer. Not quite sure which one I will do but I believe it will be over 5,000 words for sure maybe even longer. I tend to write Big for WotF.

Looks like I need to start sending them all to Daily. Not sure how well I do, except on that HM, but I try not to make them too narrative as extrinsic referenced. A couple have been a little longer than I wanted because I put in some of the same stuff as I do longer stories:The five human senses, Show etc, but they still come out small.

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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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"an abrupt, profound realization of true circumstances" can work as a short piece as long as the realization either includes acknowledgement that nothing further can be done about the circumstances, or the circumstances themselves are resolved once they are recognized.

If, on the other hand, more can be done or resolution is not clearly implied, then what has been written is probably more of the beginning of a longer story (about what the characters do, now that they know the true circumstances), and may actually be the beginning of a novel.

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Denevius
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So basically we should indulge a world of ever-decreasing attention spans by writing shorter and shorter works? I suppose if we get our fiction down to the length of a twitter post, we'd be really successful.

And this caustic reply isn't directed at you, snapper. I don't want to come off as if I'm shooting the messenger. I'm sending pieces out now after a long hiatus and I see that 5000 words is generally the maximum, with between 1000 and 3000 words the preference. I just think the current trend is pretty depressing, but I suppose, realistically, it's sound advice to force yourself to write shorter since that's what magazines want, and I suppose that's what readers read.

Quantity may not be quality, but forced brevity I think affects quality. I think it makes lazy (or lazier) readers, and even more importantly, lazy writers. I think it's kind of funny, also, that poetry isn't becoming more popular even as these flash fiction pieces are. But then, the attention to detail that the poet, and reader, must make towards good poetry makes it a significantly more difficult endeavor to undertake. In good poetry, each word is loaded with significance and allusions and references to at times obscure subjects, which is why I think people still aren't reading them despite the fact that a poem may average less than a hundred words. Otherwise, you'd think that's what editors would be pushing all fiction writers towards.

Ah well, like I said in the other thread, I think the taste of editors of short story magazines is pretty wretched, so I'm not surprised by this push to flash fiction.

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LDWriter2
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quote:
Originally posted by Denevius:
So basically we should indulge a world of ever-decreasing attention spans by writing shorter and shorter works? I suppose if we get our fiction down to the length of a twitter post, we'd be really successful.


It's been done. There are twitter story markets. I even have a hand full of twitter stories, none were bought when I sent them in but we're talking about me.

And I add a new comment here:

I believe we as writers should be able to write in sizes for all markets. The more markets the more chances of being published and the more money we make. Of course there will be some who can do just one type. Just Novels, or just flash for two examples but I I believe most writers can learn to stretch themselves. I'm going to try cyberpunk and something new with unicorns and dragons--maybe fantasy version of cyberpunk--maybe not. Probably been done but hopefully not too often. [Wink]

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Denevius
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Hm. Well, I'm definitely no idealist. When you're younger, late teens to early 20s, you hear a lot of writers talking about doing art for art's sake, maaaan. But sure, you get older and you realize that the motivating force of writing is publishing and money.

What I will say is this, though: without a balance between that earlier idealism and present realism, I do think the writing suffers. If a writer is someone who was always inclined to flash fiction, kudos to them. But I actually think that's an art within the art and not something that can be pulled off successfully by many writers. So what we get is a lot of inferior flash fiction being written by people simply because they want to publish. This to me is a lack of balance.

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Robert Nowall
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Concise writing is nothing new---remember telegrams, and trying to send your message in ten words or less?---and comic strips still have to keep it short. It's not Twitter or short attention spans...Twitter's just the medium for the message...
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extrinsic
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quote:
Originally posted by Kathleen Dalton Woodbury:
"an abrupt, profound realization of true circumstances" can work as a short piece as long as the realization either includes acknowledgement that nothing further can be done about the circumstances, or the circumstances themselves are resolved once they are recognized.

If, on the other hand, more can be done or resolution is not clearly implied, then what has been written is probably more of the beginning of a longer story (about what the characters do, now that they know the true circumstances), and may actually be the beginning of a novel.

"Plot" by Damon Knight from Creating Short Fiction describes several "plot" types.

"The Story of Resolution

"In order to discuss this, we must talk about an ideal structure that is seldom found in its complete form in short fiction. One name for it is the "plot skeleton." The skeleton has five bones:
  • a believable and sympathetic central character;
  • his urgent and difficult problem;
  • his attempts to resolve the problem, which fail and make his situation more desperate;
  • the crisis, his last chance to win;
  • the successful resolution, brought about by means of the central character's own courage, ingenuity, etc.
"The reverse of this plot is the story in which the central character is the villain; the story ends with his defeat rather than with his victory. . . .

"Some writing manuals insist that this is the only structure of successful popular fiction, but in fact, although many short stories begin this way, nearly all of them lack the third element (the failed attempts) and the fifth (the central character's victory by his own efforts). The third is left out because it is too hard to cram into a short story, and the fifth because repetition would make it dull. When a story has only two possible endings, it is hard to surprise the reader with either; when the story has only one conventional ending (the triumph of the hero), it is even harder.

"Nevertheless, most plotted stories are built around some kind of conflict or competition whose outcome is in doubt. The beginning of the story sets forth the terms of the competition; the middle is the contest itself; the ending is the outcome. (Here's the bridge structure again.) If this were all there was to it, most plotted stories would be unbearably predictable. In practice, what usually happens is that the author uses the conflict structure to misdirect the reader--the real meaning of the story turns out to be something altogether different" (Knight).

Other story forms Knight describes and cites examples of include Revelation, Trick, Decision, Explanation, Solution, and Unplotted.

"The story forms we have been discussing are not rigid little boxes, into which every work of fiction must be crammed; they are ideal categories. In practice, elements of these forms are mixed in all kinds of ways. The same story may be partly one of resolution, partly of solution, partly of illumination (see, for example, The Maltese Falcon, by Dashiell Hammett). When you understand the simple forms, you can mix and combine them to make more sophisticated ones. There is no end to the stories that can be written, because the possible combinations of old forms will never be exhausted, and because good writers keep on inventing new forms" (Knight).

Resolution short stories by far outweigh the other forms in generally satisfying audiences more. But there's room for all forms; as Knight notes, solely plotted stories would be unbearably predictable. The end of the below listed link page includes a plot diagnostic "Common Plotting Faults and What to Do About Them".

Knight, Damon. "Plot." Creating Short Fiction. St. Martin's Griffin: 1981. Web. 30 Sep 2012.
(Also available from Writers Digest publishing.)

http://web.archive.org/web/20020124104145/www.efn.org/~dknight/plot

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extrinsic
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quote:
Originally posted by Denevius:
Hm. Well, I'm definitely no idealist. When you're younger, late teens to early 20s, you hear a lot of writers talking about doing art for art's sake, maaaan. But sure, you get older and you realize that the motivating force of writing is publishing and money.

What I will say is this, though: without a balance between that earlier idealism and present realism, I do think the writing suffers. If a writer is someone who was always inclined to flash fiction, kudos to them. But I actually think that's an art within the art and not something that can be pulled off successfully by many writers. So what we get is a lot of inferior flash fiction being written by people simply because they want to publish. This to me is a lack of balance.

Publishing culture forces cannot exist in a state of balance. New factors enter into play; old ones pass away; sophistication levels increase, decrease, stall; interests change; the scales constantly tip one way or another and never settle into a state of equilibrium.

And the change and chaos is not just for writers, the publishing culture includes publishers, editors, and readers, all at varying degrees of sophistication. The shape of the culture is less a scale and more of a Bell curve: supply and demand plus a third axis of sophistication, at least. A supplier who fails to keep abreast of consumer demand will slide down the Bell slope curve. In the meanwhile, yes, a lot of product isn't first-tier quality. The supply doesn't keep abreast of demand. So placeholders at varying degrees of sophistication fill the void: story-wise, writer-wise, publisher-wise, editor-wise, and reader-wise.

[ September 30, 2012, 11:11 AM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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babooher
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I don't think short writing is lazy writing. Quite the opposite. I've read authors who say that novels are so much easier because you can take your time whereas short stories have to be so concise. If I crit something over 5,000 words, I try to figure out if there is some way to cut it so that the story is more marketable. Those cuts are hard work. I think too many writers fall in love with their own works and can't cut the ones they love. Short writing is hard writing.
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rcmann
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I agree that writing short is difficult. That may be why the two stories I am about to self-pub kept getting rejected. I had to take myself by the scruff of the neck at several points on both of them, and chop out a fair amount of environmental description, as well as character rumination, in order to fit them into the ezine word count limits.

I don't know if that ruined them, or if I just can't write worth a damn. But I'm going to restore them to their original form, verbose as they were, and add a third one that I don't intend to even bother submitting anywhere. Kind of a short story trilogy in one bundle.

They might not be any better with the deleted text restored. But they won't be any worse either, I don't think. And they will *feel* more like my stories again.

Maybe nobody will ever buy them. But I think that long term I have at least as good a chance of being read this way as I do with them sitting on my hard drive.

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Brendan
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I think this would be an interesting experiment, one that melds the instincts developed by creating 10000 word stories for WOTF, and 2000 word stories for the more widespread magazine expectations. The experiment is, let the buying public decide.

How do you do this? Create a reputation by selling 2000 word stories, and sell your novellas and novellettes via self publishing. They are tough sells anyway, simply because so few magazines are willing to buy them. But they are an artificial black hole in the publishing industry, a result of a combination of printing constraints and marketing beliefs. Now that ebooks are a viable publishing solution, big publishers have been slow to realise the constraints no longer exist (or as of lesser strength, in the case of the marketing factors), so the time is ripe for such experiments by writers.

Note, this is one way to use the current market as a gatekeeper. There are dangers - you stand and fall on how well you write in every story. But I suspect this type of double approach may work well for some writers.

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Foste
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quote:
Hm. Well, I'm definitely no idealist. When you're younger, late teens to early 20s, you hear a lot of writers talking about doing art for art's sake, maaaan.
I am 23 and I like getting paid for my work. And I keep my "mans" short, thank you very much.
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rcmann
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quote:
Originally posted by Brendan:
There are dangers - you stand and fall on how well you write in every story.

Isn't that the case anyway?
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Brendan
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Yes, but when self-publishing, the likelihood is that you self-edit. Having professional publishing houses gate-keep / give both line and high level edits generally help prevent stories with obvious mistakes. Not always, but in general.
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Denevius
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Writing a one paged story in which 90% of everyone who reads the first sentence actually finishes doesn't seem like it's saying much about how compelling your narrative skills are. However, writing a 20 paged story in which 90% of everyone who reads the first sentence actually finishes is an accomplishment. Few people want to read a whole 20 pages anymore. They're much more interested in the destination, not the journey. And 500 words is a heck of a lot easier to get over and done with than 6000.

If your writing isn't ready yet, I'm not sure how selling a couple of flash fiction pieces is going to help any. Best case scenario is you get some editor interested, get your novel published, and it languishes on some store shelf in oblivion.

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rcmann
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quote:
Originally posted by Brendan:
Yes, but when self-publishing, the likelihood is that you self-edit. Having professional publishing houses gate-keep / give both line and high level edits generally help prevent stories with obvious mistakes. Not always, but in general.

I'm still getting new fans from amateur fiction that I posted nearly seven years ago, and all the others since as well. Before that I got external approval of my writing quality by having it make its way up the ranks of state and federal bureaucracies, eventually succeeding in forcing them to cough up operating licenses for out clients because nine or ten levels of reviewers couldn't find anything else to nitpick over.

The thought of taking responsibility for my own proofreading does not intimidate me.

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Robert Nowall
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Given the number of things I've seen in "professional" circumstances, I'd go with "not always" more often...I remember an issue of Asimov's that had three stories with the exact same plot ("I know a great secret, but I'm not telling it.") Hardly the only example.

(I still get the occasional comment on my Internet Fan Fiction, too...I wrote a new one, after a long gap, but most of the sites my stuff is up on have stopped updating. (I have gotten more comment on my fanfic than anything else I've written, too))

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