For the curators of, The Final Summons we encountered a lot of firsts. While none of us are slouches when it comes to publishing and the written word, taking on a leadership role provided a unique insight into the world of submissions. We received more submissions than we originally anticipated and the caliber of writing ranged from poetically perfect to rough draft at best. However, we poured through them, discussing the merits of each story and how it would combine into a cohesive anthology. We fought passionately for the stories we loved and had to make tough decisions. There were victories, many of them, but there were also a series of eye rolls that had us asking, “What were they thinking?” We wanted to provide some insight into this newly discovered world that we think will help authors in submitting short stories for anthologies.
Follow the Guidelines.
It sounds simple, but we were shocked by how many people didn’t follow the guidelines. We clearly stated you must be a member of the New England Speculative Writers and located in New England, yet we received submissions from across the United States. We asked authors to include some basic information such as word counts and a tag line. While we were able to fill in the gaps as necessary, the extra work made us move these titles to the bottom of the slush pile. Imagine a publisher receiving hundreds of entries? The fastest way to get rid of the muck (even the best written muck in existence) is to see if an author did these basic steps. If they haven’t, it’s a way to be stricken before you’re even read.
It gets trickier when it comes to “theme” or the anthology “vision.” We left our topic extremely broad to give writers the most latitude possible. However, some of the stories were so off topic it was obvious they were written for another anthology. Some of the stories never even came close to reaching the theme. We got aggravated when an author wasted our time with a story that had no business being submitted. Now unfortunately, those authors’ names are associated with that aggravation. It means the next time they submit, they walk in with a strike against them. So when submitting, make sure it hits the theme squarely enough that you leave a good impression. Previously submitted stories are welcome, even encouraged, but they need to be on “brand.” This might require a little bit of rewriting or tidying up a plot. The extra effort shows.
Short vs. Epic.
The most common thing we said while reading the submissions was, “This isn’t a short story, it’s a condensed novel.” There were some great stories to be had, but some of them weren’t short stories, not even by a long shot. Epic tales are amazing, but they need the room to breathe, develop, and flush out an intense plot. We sent several stories back with notes suggesting that the author take the story and use it as a building block for a lengthy epic tale. The stories were good, some even compelling and wonderful, but they need more than 7,000 words.
With such a tiny word allotment (and let’s be honest, some of us write 100,000 novels that only touch the tip of the iceberg) these epic tales won’t work. In a short story, the world building has to be done in a manner that works alongside the story and not a heap of information at the start. Submissions that started with an uncanny amount of “info dumping” put us on alert. We didn’t need to know the background of the world, how it came to be, or why magic/technology was at its current incarnation. Sometimes the mystery of not knowing is even more alluring. We need a single character (or perhaps two) to exist in a world that we experienced through them. If they don’t meet elves along their journey, there’s almost no point in mentioning them (even if you know they exist in this world.)
Listen & Digest.
We decided at the start that no matter what we read, we’d provide positive feedback to the author. We believed this to be an essential part of the process with New England Speculative Writers. Sometimes we focused on mechanics, sometimes it was centered around plot, it all depended on the author and what their work needed. Never once did we feel that a story was unsalvageable.
We understand that veteran authors have resources, such as beta readers, critique groups, even editors working with them when they prepare to submit short stories. We are not them. We are a set of virgin eyes, exploring your world (and often your writing) for the first time. We come in without bias wanting the very best of your characters and your plot. We aren’t on the hunt for perfection (not a single story was accepted without feedback) we are on the hunt for potential. With work, passion, and an open mind, even the flattest characters can be rounded and rocky stories can be smoothed. When an author criticizes our feedback, it says two things instantly: 1) I’m difficult to work with or 2) I’m incapable of being a team player.
Having submitted to dozens of anthologies, we know that most often, you receive a form letter. This goes for agents and publishers as well. So when an agent/editor/publisher gives you advice, you don’t have to take it, but you do have to stop and consider it. Are they speaking accurately? Truthfully? Are they offering words to uplift your story? Many people wrote back when they resubmitted saying, “I liked your first two points, but I tried your third and it just didn’t work.” We’re not perfect either, but when we get responses saying somebody has attempted our suggestion we see “TEAM PLAYER” and it excites us to build a relationship. Don’t burn your bridges.
This is a double edge sword. You need information, but you don’t want to pester. We found both sides of this happened while we were open for submissions. We had forthright questions, “Do you see any gaps in your submissions?” all the way to, “I have a pitch, can I get feedback?” We responded to as many as we could with as much information as we could. But there came a point when some of the questions stopped being about needing information and turned into needing validation.
Ask a question if you must. But remember you are one of dozens of emails each day. When it became obvious some of the emails were essentially asking us for a plot so they could write the story, we ceased communication. Needing facts is very different from needing creative energy. Ask facts. Be specific, be clear, and be concise. If time allows, you’ll receive a similar answer. However, if your answer requires time, energy, and especially creative energy, you might be overstepping boundaries.
Ask questions through the proper channels. Yes, we have twitter and Facebook which allow us instant access. Some of the authors even have our cell phone numbers. Text and you’re dead to us. Shoot a fast message on Facebook, we’ll try to respond. Put it in the official email, then it feels like business and we want to foster professional relationships, so that gets the fastest (and most thorough) answers. Seeking out on social media is okay if you’re tight with the editor, but don’t abuse it. Some of us only use Facebook to swap recipes with our moms. Social media is still not considered a professional line of communication (your mileage may vary with this statement.)
Patience is a Must.
In the fast paced world of self-publishing, an author can finish writing a book and have it published in days. Even micro publishers move within months where the old model of traditional publishing can take years. Times are changing and with deadlines and quick production, there is a sense of urgency. “Did I get in?” “Any word?” “When will the decision be made?” The more these questions are asked, the more stress/pressure goes on the publisher. We’re not saying don’t ask, it’s important to your livelihood to know these things, but give it time. Even with forty submissions, it took us nearly two months to read and provide feedback. As each of us have full-time jobs, as do many small presses and free lance editors. We spent every available moment reading and making comments. The editorial process takes time.
With many self published authors simply putting their book online and wondering why sales aren’t taking off, it needs to be a constant reminder that success takes time as well. Curating and providing feedback is only half the job. We spent countless hours preparing a marketing plan on how to fund, produce, and market our anthology. We set the publish date a year into the future to allow time for editing, cover production and pre-orders. Always feel free to ask what the “plan” is, but be aware, the time-table might not be a mad dash to the finish line.
We debated on what should go onto this list. We had many other thoughts and considerations, but these we felt were a universal truth with our anthology and beyond. As always, we want to watch our authors flourish, so we hope this bit of insight behind the scenes of The Final Summons, helps guide your hand in future anthology submissions!
Like any craft, writing is a world of its own. There are rules that must be followed, and rules that may be broken. While being creative is esoteric, and may be something you are born with, learning the craft of writing is just like learning any other craft. There’s a lot of nuts and bolts information you need to absorb. Good grammar is the first one, but it takes much more than proper spelling and sentence structure to write a good story. Story structure, character development, pacing, building tension: these are all building blocks of our fictional creations. There are tricks and methods to all of these, but for this blog, I’m going to share a few tips on self-editing.
So, okay, this one is not exactly a newsflash. It’s actually one of the most well-known bits of advice floating around the writing universe. This not only helps you find errors and clunky parts, it’s also a great way to find the rhythm of your words. The tip here? You don’t actually physically HAVE to speak out loud. An actual out-loud read should happen at some point, but as you are writing, just read the sentences in your head, and focus on what they will—or should—sound like when spoken out loud.
I don’t mean to literally read every sentence backwards, word wise. Just read backwards on the page and, when possible, the paragraph. Why? Our minds like to play tricks on us. If we read quickly, we tend to skim, which makes it really easy to mistake what is actually on the page for what we think is on the page.
Spellchecking programs should never be considered the be-all, end-all of editing. They won’t catch everything, and they will at times complain about things you did on purpose. That said, you’re not doing yourself any favors by skipping this step. Spellcheck may flag a sentence that’s perfectly fine, but when you look at it more closely, you may find a better way to word it. This is also a great way to find and kill passive voice.
Mark Your Spots
Ever get stuck on a phrase or plot point, or come across something that you may need to research more? Ever wonder if you already used that piece of dialogue? Don’t get bogged down in details on your first pass. Put a special word in that doesn’t appear often in your work. I use insert, but you can use monster or chocolate or pizza or phalanges whatever. Then, go back and search those words out to find the spots you wanted to work on.
Let It Simmer
When you’ve finished a first draft, back it up, walk away, and leave it alone. Like a good wine, the story needs to simmer. I don’t know if this happens with all writers, but my back brain tends to work on things even when I’m not paying attention. This is a good time to feed your head. Look at art, listen to different music, watch documentaries. I’ve often found a plot point strike me while I was working on a different WIP. Make a note, and move on.
Don’t Take The Easy Way Out
Jack White recently posted an interview where he said that ‘As an artist, your job is not to take the easy way out.’ You want a best-selling novel? You have to write a novel that is good enough to be a best seller. That means setting high standards for yourself. That means picturing your book as an excellent novel, and then stepping into that space. Always, always look for ways to improve your book and fill plot holes.
Don’t Be Afraid To Make Multiple Passes
Some stories are ‘born’ in more or less one shot. Others grow slowly. I tend to be a bit OCD about editing, and edit things at least 4 or 5 times. At least. I have one WIP that’s been edited probably 20-30 times. You don’t want to go overboard here, as you may find yourself editing the same thing over and over. The old saying about art never being finished, only abandoned, is true. That said, do one more pass than you think you need to.
Kill Your Darlings
I can’t take credit for this one, as it’s an old adage, originally attributed to Faulkner. I blew this one off for a long time. And then, all of a sudden, I got it. Just because you can write a long, beautiful sentence, or a perfect paragraph describing someone’s car or clothes doesn’t mean you need to. If it serves the story, fine. But trim the fat. This also means boil down your sentences and paragraphs. Chop filler words and phrases, and let the story shine through. Go in with the intention of cutting.
Save The Bodies
Ever find yourself cutting a scene or chapter that doesn’t fit? It may work in another piece. Keep files for bigger cuts.
Have A Saving System
One rite of passage that many writers share is the pain of lost work. Computer crashes, missing thumb drives, whatever. I learned this lesson the hard way. I now have my auto-save settings set to two minutes. (I can deal with losing two minutes of work in a worst-case scenario.) I also save the file with the date in the name. This is because I used to save new versions by adding things like ‘Final’ into the name. That sounded like a good idea at first, until I ended up staring at multiple versions of a WIP with things like ‘Final,’ ‘ReallyFinal,’ ‘Final Copy,’ and even ‘UsethisFinal’ incorporated into the names. Don’t do this.
Fall Into The Story
Editing shouldn’t all be about nuts and bolts. At some point, you need to let your muse or your creative side play too. Make a playlist, light some candles, do whatever you need to do.
Listen To Yourself
If a scene or character isn’t capturing your attention, it probably won’t grab a reader, either. At the end of the day, some things just don’t work. Don’t kill a story trying to fix it. Let it sit, or walk away.
Morgan Sylvia is an Aquarius, a metalhead, a coffee addict, a beer snob, and a work in progress. A former obituarist, she is now working as a full-time freelance writer. Her fiction and poetry have appeared in several places, including Wicked Witches, Wicked Haunted, Northern Frights, Twice Upon An Apocalypse, and Endless Apocalypse. In 2013, she released Whispers From The Apocalypse, a horror poetry collection. Her first novel, Abode, was released from Bloodshot Books in July 2017 and is available on Amazon. She also writes for Antichrist Metalzine. She lives in Maine with her boyfriend, two cats, and a chubby goldfish.
Swords are fun!
No, really — they are. I’ve gotten to play with a variety of them, from several different time periods, as a regular stage combat performer with New England-area renaissance faires, and they’re all a blast — even if (or perhaps especially because) it’s all fake.
Along the way I’ve learned a great deal about real-life swordplay from people far more educated about such matters than I, and I’ve put that knowledge to good use in my fantasy work, crafting swordfights that are exciting and dynamic but still well-grounded in reality. On the down side, it’s become a lot harder for me to enjoy swordfights in fiction because I’ve become too aware of how under-informed the general public is about how swords function in practical use.
So I’m going to share a few things I’ve learned over the years, and I’m going to start with this major caveat: do not take anything I say here as gospel. I’ve researched and continue to research period martial arts and weapons work, but there is always going to be new information out there — or different takes on existing data. You see, historians are an argumentative lot, and those who specifically study ancient arms are no different. You want to see sparks fly? Gather together a group of sword experts and ask them whether it’s best to parry an attack with the flat of the blade or the edge, and then stand back and enjoy the show.
The point is, someone somewhere is going to have a differing opinion about the information I’m presenting, and they’re not necessarily going to be wrong — but they’re not necessarily going to be completely right, either. Use this feature as a starting point for your own research and decide for yourself what works best for your storytelling purposes.
MYTH #1: Swords are heavy
Here’s something you can try at home. Grab a gallon jug of milk or water and swing it around vigorously for five minutes. Exhausting, isn’t it?
That’s why a typical medieval longsword weighs only about three pounds on average. The people using them are going to be swinging them for a long time, and a heavy sword is going to wear the user out more quickly—especially if they have the added burden of armor weighing them down. That isn’t to say there weren’t heavy swords, but A) even big pieces of steel (so-called “great swords”) such as the Scottish claymore or the German zweihander weren’t as heavy as you might expect, and B) these swords had very specific purposes and required different techniques. They were not everyday all-purpose weapons.
Related note: a common sword feature often called a “blood groove” has nothing to do with providing a victim’s blood with a handy channel to run down, thus accelerating his untimely demise (yes, that is a common misconception) or making the sword easier to withdraw from a human body. The proper name for this feature is the “fuller,” and its purpose is to lighten the weapon without compromising its strength.
HOW DOES THIS RELATE TO WRITING?
When you give your character a sword, there are a lot of factors to consider, but there is one key question you need to ask: what sword best suits the character and what he needs the weapon for? A rapier or court sword isn’t necessarily going to make sense in the hands of a large, strong, slow character, just like a claymore wouldn’t make sense in the hands of a small, fast character. You wouldn’t arm a character with a short sword if you’re going to pit him against cavalry, and you wouldn’t want a character hefting a zweihander if he’s expecting to be fighting in a confined space.
Other factors such as the time period, geographic region, etc., will also factor in, but I’m a big believer in starting with the character and building from there.
Regardless of the character and the context, do your research on the weapon you have in mind so you can portray its use correctly.
MYTH #2: Swords are sharp
I’m sure if you think about it, you can name at least one movie or TV show or book in which a warrior neatly slices through an armored limb with his mighty sword.
A sword was once described to me as a sharp hammer. It has an edge, and under the right conditions it can indeed cleave through a person, but it is not a magical Ginsu that could slice neatly through one layer of plate steel armor, the chainmail beneath that, the gambeson (a thick padded jacket) beneath that, the flesh and muscle and bone of a human limb, and then through another layer of gambeson and armor.
(Unless, of course, it is a magical weapon, but that is a different matter.)
Could the edge penetrate armor by cutting? Yes, but that is not a universal result of taking a sword to armor. Sometimes the damage would be blunt force trauma. It depends on the weapon, the user, the armor he’s facing, and the circumstances of the fight.
HOW DOES THIS RELATE TO WRITING?
Swords are surprisingly complex tools. You do yourself as a writer a disservice by not learning as much as you can about them so you can portray their use convincingly and correctly while still wringing maximum dramatic effect from them.
This can lead to some fun changes in how you construct fight scenes. Readers love a dramatic death blow that takes a villain’s head off, but if the villain in question is wearing a helmet that partially covers the throat and/or a gorget (a piece of neck armor), that final sword blow might not be so final after all — or it will break the bad guy’s neck rather than cut through it, which I’d argue makes the death stroke that much more brutal.
Again, you’ll have to do some research, particularly when you introduce armor to the mix. Chainmail (or, for you purists, maile) armor is designed to prevent cutting damage so a sword’s edge isn’t going to penetrate — but that same armor isn’t going to be worth a damn against a stabbing attack or the blunt force trauma that comes from a blow of any kind. Know your weapons, know your armor, and know how they all interact with each other.
MYTH #3: Katanas are awesome
First, let’s all acknowledge that the plural of katana is “katana” — if you’re speaking Japanese or a Japanese speaker is saying the word in English, but for us Muricans, “katanas” is acceptable as the plural form.
Now that that’s out of the way…
Katanas are probably the most iconic sword type in pop culture, and they’ve become almost mythic in nature. Unfortunately, how they’re portrayed in pop culture is almost pure myth, and it’s largely Hollywood’s fault.
Even their creation is less impressive than you’ve been led to believe. You might have heard katanas were folded hundreds of times in the smithing process, but that’s not true. They were only folded a dozen times or so, and that was a purely practical technique to strengthen the blade by hammering out the excess carbon in the cheap pig-iron (called tamahagane) available to smiths. It wasn’t about creating an edge that could slice through anything; it was about making swords that wouldn’t break on their first use.
Katanas were also not the samurai’s weapon of first choice. Rather, it would come out after better options such as the longbow and spear had failed or were impractical for the circumstances.
How they’re used in pop culture bears little resemblance to real-world techniques. They were designed for fast cutting, and if you watch an actual master swordsman in action, they flick the sword similarly to how you’d flick a fishing rod.
Blocking and parrying with a katana? Not so fast. Take a hit on the edge and you ding it up badly, making it less effective for its intended purpose. Take a hit on the flat and you risk snapping the blade, which is thinner compared to medieval longswords, which could take a solid hit on the flat.
(Cue historian argument in three, two…)
HOW DOES THIS RELATE TO WRITING?
The katana as audiences know it is so ingrained in the collective consciousness, a writer could portray its use as we’re all accustomed to and few people — mostly pedantic sorts like me — would question it.
But if you want a challenge, research how katanas were actually used in battle and throw your reader a curve ball — but don’t be surprised if the masses then chastise you for “not knowing how a katana works.” Sometimes, reality isn’t your best option.
MYTH #4: Swords make a cool “SHRING!” sound whenever drawn.
No. They don’t.
Scabbards are typically made of leather or wood. Neither of these materials make a metallic “SHRING!” sound when a steel sword is dragged along them.
And why can’t someone have a steel scabbard, you ask? Well, they could, but why would they want one? It’s heavier, and the repeated act of drawing and sheathing a sword would dull the edge quickly. More likely, a warrior would have a leather or wooden scabbard with decorative caps of brass or bronze — or, yes, iron or steel — but they wouldn’t make contact with the blade in the interest of preserving the edge.
HOW DOES THIS RELATE TO WRITING?
Here’s the thing: fiction, especially visual media, throws in a lot of dramatic flourishes that enhance the mood of a moment but, if you stop to think about them, make no sense whatsoever, and the metallic ringing sound of a sword being drawn is one of them. It’s the period equivalent of cocking a firearm for dramatic effect (even though doing so actually achieves something in the case of a firearm, i.e., chambering a round).
As with the katana, audiences have been trained to accept, even expect these moments, so chances of getting called out are minimal, but audiences are also getting savvier every day. Tropes that used to slide on by unnoticed are becoming distractions.
Knowing where, when, and how to add some sizzle to your steak, even if that sizzle is complete nonsense, is part of the craft of effective storytelling. If a sizzle moment adds value to the narrative, add it, but if it risks distracting readers and taking them out of the story, reconsider it.
BONUS NON-SWORD MYTH, MAYBE: Flails were common medieval weapons
The flail — a solid, sometimes spiked iron or steel ball at the end of a chain, usually attached to a handle — might not be a real weapon.
This theory, that the flail was either a ceremonial instrument historians mistook for a weapon or was completely made up and had no real-world basis whatsoever, popped up within the last few years, causing no small amount of controversy among historians.
I’m inclined to side with flail deniers mostly because I’ve used flails in shows and they are wildly impractical weapons.
Here’s another home experiment. Remember that gallon jug from the first myth? Once it’s empty (very important), tie it to a two-foot length of rope or twine to create a crude flail. Now, find a target — a tree, your fridge, a willing volunteer — and hit it with your flail. You’ll notice that even with something as light as an empty plastic jug, you get some satisfying impact. It’s easy to imagine how much damage you could do if that jug was a steel ball.
Now step back from the target and swing your flail. Notice what happens when you miss.
That’s right: it comes right back at you — and there’s no way to stop it.
If you’ve got an argument brewing about how the flail could be made a viable weapon, I’ll direct you to this great article by Paul Sturtevant (https://www.publicmedievalist.com/curious-case-weapon-didnt-exist/), but I’ll reiterate as a past flail user: they suck as weapons.
HOW DOES THIS RELATE TO WRITING?
A friend of mine once observed that in genre fiction (sci-fi, horror, fantasy), audiences are happy to accept big ideas like dragons and magic without questioning them but will get hung up on details based in what we consider universal reality. If you tell your readers the main character is a fireball-throwing sorcerer, they’ll buy that, but if you tell the audience your character once survived two weeks in a dungeon without any food or water, they’ll call you on it.
Impractical weapons are a trope of modern fantasy, and as a rule readers will go along with it if you lay the groundwork properly, but it’s in your best interests to understand what your weapons’ practical applications and limitations are, and maybe use those in the story to add realism to the fight scenes.