Are You Ready … for Brewed Awakenings 3?

The third installment of our annual house anthology, Brewed Awakenings, will be released this coming October. The reading window for this volume closes on May 31 — so you have plenty of time, and no excuses, for crafting a short story or an essay for submission.

Want to learn more? Visit our Anthology FAQ page … or, if you’re bold, jump straight to the submission form at the bottom of our Query page.

A few tidbits —

  • We do pay for submissions (see the Anthology FAQ) and we don’t assess a reading fee.
  • Preference goes, all things being equal, to authors with a West Michigan connection.
  • No theme. No mandatory word count. No required genre.
    • However, flash pieces and novellas are less likely to be entertained unless they’re flawless.
  • Our editors read submissions blindly, so please respect the anonymity of our process.

If you’d love to learn more about the anthology before you submit, you should purchase a copy. We’re happy to sell them to you. Volume 1 remains in print; volume 2 has both print and e-book options for your reading pleasure.

For those fearless souls out there who very patiently waited while volume 2 was significantly delayed, take heart — we’ve expanded the BA3 editing team from one person to four! We’re aiming for an on-time release this year.

Questions? Let us know using our Contact Us page.

Interview: Chris Galford

This interview is the first of a series of conversations with various contributors to Brewed Awakenings, the house anthology of Caffeinated Press.

Chris Galford is an author, photographer and journalist with deep roots in West Michigan. His short story, Furniture City, is available in both the print and ebook version of Brewed Awakenings 2. Learn more about this dynamic young man and his craft by visiting


Caffeinated Press: Tell us a bit about who you are—what have you studied? What have you written? Any fun anecdotes that will help our readers better understand your perspective or motivation as a writer?

Chris Galford

Chris Galford: My name is Chris Galford. I’m actually a journalist by profession (and a graduate from Michigan State University in the same), so writing has seeped into just about every aspect of my life. Business papers, local papers, these are usually where I have ended up, but right now I’m working for a media startup with news publication tendrils in Michigan that I’m rather excited about. Big possibilities there.

As for the more creative end of things, beyond these fair pages I’ve had a robot-infused and survival-fueled short story appear in Raven International Publishing’s A Bleak New World anthology, a short tale of information addiction on Evil Girlfriend Media, and a fantasy tale of one woman’s hunt to recover a stolen child in Mystic Signals Magazine.

The latter actually takes place in the same world as my published three-novel fantasy series: The Haunted Shadows. That one’s an adult epic, a coming-of-age tale with revenge. The pitch? When magic collides with gunpowder and politics, no one comes out on top, and a renaissance can ever so quickly become a nightmare…

Caffeinated Press: How do your skills and experiences as a journalist and as a novelwright overlap? How do they most significantly differ? Do you find that your journalism training has helped or hindered your novel-writing?

Chris Galford: If anything, being a journalist has made me a quicker writer and certainly a better self-editor. The styles entertained under either hat, however, could not be more different. As a journalist, it’s important to be succinct, to the point, chock-full of information. As a novelist, you have to tease it out, because there is always the danger of information overload. You don’t want to bore readers. Journalists are often writing short pieces about a single topic. Novelists cover sweeping tales, hundreds of pages in length—too much raw information will just put people to sleep. Factor in that under my novelist hat I tend toward the fantasy and sci-fi end of the spectrum, and you already have some rather lengthy, flowy prose. The last thing I need tacked onto it is a full hundred-page history dump.

However, another thing that journalism has helped me with? Conversation. It has made the language of my characters more authentic, and helped me get inside the minds of those I have designed, because journalism is all about communication—reading people, responding to people, anticipating people, and your characters should always be people.

Caffeinated Press: Describe the best and the worst experiences you’ve had as an author. How have these situations shaped your growth as an author?

Chris Galford: Writing is rough work. You spend hours beating yourself up over details, trying to craft and patch things just right, only to spend months afterward trying to convince others it’s worthwhile too. So the best experience? That first moment of validation when, outside your editor, your friends, your family, a publication writes you back and you open the letter thinking it’s going to be another form letter, and sure enough, it starts out that way, but you read a little further out of habit, and you begin to realize this letter’s longer than the others, and all the can’ts have turned to can’s and you realize all those hopes weren’t misplaced, you weren’t lying to yourself and others, you are, truly, a writer, and while you don’t need the validation to make you who you are, it feels good to know you’re not just a crazy fellow with a pen. That first sale is rarely anything major. Mine paid a little stipend—many don’t. But that moment of knowing that your ideas have found recognition in another heart is priceless.

By contrast, my worst experience? Working as an independent author, marketing is one of the trickiest parts, so you can imagine my elation when a bookstore local to my area at the time agreed to take on multiple copies of my first book for sale. Unfortunately, as it turned out, the books never actually went on any shelves, were never seen, and several months later, a new person in charge of acquisitions there meant no one knew where the copies I had sent even went. Major letdown. I dare say that hurt me coming out of the gate because it made me a little cagier about public exposure opportunities for my work.

Caffeinated Press: Your experience with the bookstore sale gone awry raises an interesting point: Many authors, on the one hand, crave validation for their work, yet on the other hand, shy away from the spotlight. Is this a contradiction? How did you recover from that situation?

Chris Galford: Not at all. Despite the old image of us—and the image increasingly demanded by publishers looking to market—we aren’t all bards. There are at least as many Harper Lees in the world as George R.R. Martins. All of us have stories to tell, but not all of us are as eager to handle customer service and public relations. In other words, some are more than willing to let the words do the speaking for them; the rest can come across as something of a distraction. That’s not to say we don’t recognize publishers’ stances; they want us to reach out to as many potential customers as possible. It’s understandable. It is a business. But some writers recognize and prefer to play to their own strengths. Some people are simply more social creatures than others.

As to the issue of my first bookstore, I wish I could say I recovered well. It hurt. There’s no way around it. As I said, it made me a bit cagier in terms of public exposure, had me focus more heavily on internet marketing than physical marketing. There’s plenty to that, of course, but it’s a lot easier to get swallowed in the vast expanse of the internet than when you’re planted right in front of locals. It took me until my second book until I was really ready to do public readings, or invest in many physical copies for marketing again.

Caffeinated Press: What are you currently working on?

Chris Galford: I’m currently working on a brace of short stories: one, a horror tale revolving around a timeless house and the displaced forest spirit which has made it their home; the other, a short tale of a dryad caught between sides, both magical and not, and the transformation which helps her overcome.

I also recently put the finishing touches on another fantasy novel—inspired by Native American sources and experiences—which I’m currently shopping around to agents. At the same time, I also have a post-apocalyptic war novel that touches on reconciling with depression, and is likewise hunting representation.

Caffeinated Press: The stuff you’ve done, and the stuff you’re doing, crosses a wide array of subjects. How much background expertise in a subject do you need to develop before you’re comfortable writing from that conceptual frame?

Chris Galford: The answer hinges on something I always tell fellow writers: you have to read. We all have our areas of intrigue or skill, but to find them, you have to immerse yourself in them. How do you know you enjoy fantasy? Chances are, you’ve read the works that are already around and learned whatever you could from them.
You want enough racing around your brain so that you know what works and what doesn’t, but not enough that you start thinking like everyone else. When prepping The Haunted Shadows series, I knew right away that I wanted it to be inspired by the tragedy of the Thirty Years’ War—revolution at the time of renaissance, the crossroads of gunpowder and medieval warfare, religion tearing itself from religion, that whole deal. I studied events. I read up on how things were fought, the major players, desires—background information. I staked out the library and dug into the history sections. I invested far too many hours into Wikipedia.

Yet what I did not do was read exclusively that. Had I done so, I’m sure I would have made a fairly decent historian, but I’m afraid I wouldn’t have made a terribly original or interesting writer. I devoured fantasy and science fiction and historical fiction on the side, making a mess of timeframes and styles in my brain, not because they helped me with that particular story, but because I enjoy them and it kept my brain fresh while I worked. It was the learning—anything, really—that kept the moss off and kept me comfortable as I plodded out the adventures of a mercenary band, and the doom and salvation of nations.

Caffeinated Press: Who are your three greatest influences as a writer?

Chris Galford: Kurt Vonnegut, R. Scott Bakker and Robin Hobb.

Caffeinated Press: What words of wisdom would you offer to writers still struggling to find their voice or platform?

Chris Galford: It’s a strange world out there. The nature of the market has changed a lot in the past decade, but one fact remains: to get anywhere in this crazy business, you have to love writing more than is reasonable, because reason, in just about every form, is going to tell you this is a terrible idea. The hours are horrid. The pay isn’t going to be what you want it to be. Writing is an act of love. You have to love writing and you have to frequently remind yourself that you do. It will take a lot of endurance—against the market, against the world, against your own head—but if you can hold onto that love of writing while you hone your craft, eventually you will come to the stories that are yours and yours alone.

If you enjoy reading contributor interviews, migrate to to peruse the interviews with contributors to The 3288 Review, our journal of arts and letters.

2016: Review, Reflection & Resolutions

The last day of a year that taxed our collective national consciousness draws to a close. Many of us offer a sigh of relief, cut by a sliver of hope that 2017 will prove to be more tranquil and fulfilling. Or at least, marked by less drama and fewer tragedies.

For us at Caffeinated Press, 2016 proved to be a time of learning and growth. Some highlights:

  • We transitioned into volume 2 of The 3288 Review, our quarterly journal of arts and letters. At the time of this writing, final acceptances are being sent for issue 3, marking work on the seventh consecutive issue of this journal since its launch in late 2014.
  • We published Brewed Awakenings 2, the second volume of our house anthology.
  • We published Grayson Rising, a young-adult novel partially set in Grand Rapids.
  • We presented as panelists at the Get Published! 2016 conference sponsored by MiFiWriters.
  • We attended several literary-flavored sales events, including the Kerrytown Book Festival, the Rust City Book Con, Tulip City and the Ann Arbor Book Fair.
  • We welcomed a summer intern, Mary, from Notre Dame.
  • We conducted a series of business-of-writing seminars attended by local writers.
  • We engaged in talks with groups including the Great Lakes Commonwealth of Letters to foster a stronger sense of literary community in the West Michigan market.

Of course, not everything went smooth-as-silk. Several works — most notably, the anthology — were released later than anticipated. Revenues are still wildly variable. The local literary community still appears fragmented and tribal.

Yet we see opportunity on the horizon. And for that, we have a series of informal goals that you’ll see over 2017:

  • As current work-in-progress falls into a regular cadence, now that we’re a bit more established, we expect to have more books published on a more predictable cycle.
  • We’re working with several bookstore owners to develop a robust local book-distribution network. This network will not only increase our product placement across the region, but it’ll also offer venues for author readings and other literary-focused events.
  • Our seminars, which have received rave reviews, will be augmented by an online classroom where people can purchase lessons and consume them at home, at their own convenience, no matter where they live.
  • We’ll continue to look for ways to grow a community of authors and readers across West Michigan and beyond.

We hope that you’ll take 2017 to continue to hone your individual callings as readers, writers and editors. Best wishes for a safe, happy, healthy and profitable new year!

Perfect Your Manuscript!

It’s December — NaNoWriMo is over, end-of-year goal deadlines approach and your manuscripts sit in the drawer, mocking you with their unfinishedness.

End this annus horribilis with a bang instead of a whimper by joining Caffeinated Press for the final run of our “Perfecting Your Manuscript” seminar. This activity — a bargain at just $40 — features guided conversation, peer networking and the chance to ask questions of one of the executive editors of the house.

Register for one of two sessions, held in the comfort of our Grand Rapids office:

  • Sunday, Dec. 18, 2p to 5p
  • Monday, Dec. 19, 6p to 9p

As you walk away with practical advice for preparing your manuscript, you’ll feel full — of accomplishment, of excitement to edit, of coffee and snacks.

The seminar agenda includes:

  • Knowing when you’re “done”
  • Self-edit checklists
  • Deciphering proofreaders’ marks
  • Engaging with beta readers and professional book editors
  • Accepting the edits of others with grace
  • The most common structural and line errors we’ve seen from our submitters, and how to avoid them
  • Manuscript structure — fonts, margins, headers, tables, &c.
  • Using Microsoft Word correctly for long-form compositions
  • Q&A

Register today; seats are limited!

Behind the Curtain: 2016 Editorial Statistics

Publishers receive a lot of unsolicited pitches to read. Authors, for their part, want to know what magical incantations it takes to pierce the veil so as to transform a manuscript into a published book.

In preparation for our annual board-of-directors strategic planning retreat, we assembled some basic editorial statistics about inbound queries for our long-form works (novels, textbooks).

For the sake of transparency and to help you better understand how you can hone your incantation query package, we’re offering a peek behind the curtain so you can see what happens on our end of the submission form.

Caveat: The numbers you see below do not reflect submissions to our Brewed Awakenings anthology or The 3288 Review literary journal. The journal alone sees between 200 and 300 submissions per issue; I’ll leave it to my esteemed colleague John to publish journal stats at if he’s so inclined.


For the 50 long-form queries we received between 1/1 and 12/4:

  • 14 percent of queries were accepted for a full manuscript read. Not all of those actually received a contract offer — only 10.9 percent of currently adjudicated queries have resulted in an invitation to submit the full manuscript followed by an invitation to contract. This rate is actually very high, but it’s also a function of our relative newness in the literary marketplace, insofar as we haven’t experienced the deluge of wildly incompetent work that other publishers have complained about. I suspect that a mix of our size, age and lengthy editorial guidelines have opened us mostly to authors of a bit more serious bent.
  • On average, we took 22.6 days to respond. The median response was 17.5 days. The longest response took 106 days. Two thirds of all queries received a response between 1 and 44 days.
  • For rejections, the rates break down as follows:
    • 38.4 percent — guidelines violation (no substantive review) — author didn’t meet minimum requirements for us to give the manuscript a fair review, usually because the required documents weren’t sent or weren’t de-identified
    • 36.4 percent — “weak concept/execution” — our editors identified substantive problems with the plot, conflict, narrative arc or writing style that would prove too laborious for us to help the author to correct
    • 19.6 percent — “poor fit” — material would prove too challenging for a press of our size to market effectively (e.g., novellas by out-of-state authors, fusion fiction, private story collections, chapbooks by non-local poets)
    • 4.8 percent — “weak grammar/punctuation” — pervasive, basic errors in English syntax or spelling
    • 0.8 percent — “withdrawn before review” — one submitter pulled the query before we had a chance to respond
  • To put the above point into a different perspective: If you ignore the guidelines violations and look at only rejected works that had been fully vetted, 68 percent were rejected because of language or structure problems with the story.
  • A full 40 percent of submissions reflect literary fiction. An additional 18 percent were poetry, 8 percent private anthologies and 7 percent non-fiction, leaving 27 percent for genre fiction.
  • Lengths fell across the board — 52.3 percent as standard novels (50k-90k words) and 7.7 percent as long novels (90k+). Despite that our editorial guidelines are clear that long-form works of less than 50k words are a challenge, 31 percent of submissions were for short novels, novellas, novelettes or individual short stories. The remaining 9 percent? Poetry.
  • Caffeinated Press emphasizes authors with a connection to West Michigan. A full 39 percent of submitters were local and an additional 17 percent professed connection through studying here or frequently visiting the area. Nearly 44 percent of submitting authors expressed no connection to the region whatsoever.
  • Later in the year, we started a qualitative assessment (excellent-good-fair-poor) of the full query package, including the parts that our editorial team doesn’t see. Of the 28 packages received after this assessment started, only one rated as “excellent” for both the cover letter and the synopsis; seven were “poor” for both.

The Moral of the Story

There’s no special trick authors must play to get a fair assessment of their material. The old ground rules are still the same: Write a good cover letter. Read the editorial guidelines for every market you pitch and conform to the recipients’ standards. Have a well-prepared synopsis on hand in case you need it. Don’t pitch your stuff to a publisher or agent unless you’re sure it’s a good fit — checking catalogs helps.

Significantly, we kick out a lot of material that doesn’t even minimally conform to our technical requirements for review. Of the stuff that does get before our editors, most (a whopping 68 percent!) were rejected because of problems with the story — plot, characterization, conflict, genre conformance or other structural challenges — or because of spelling and grammar errors in the text.

A good group of seasoned beta readers will contribute significantly to your queries not landing in that unfortunate 68-percent pile.

Do these statistics seem daunting to you? I suspect you’ll find that being good at the basics of querying will help get your work reviewed, and using beta readers will see your work float closer to the top of the acceptance pile. There’s no magical incantation, just hard work.

Announcing: “Grayson Rising,” “Brewed Awakenings 2” and “The 3288 Review” (Vol. 2, Issue 1)

Caffeinated Press is pleased to announce the release of three exciting new titles — Grayson Rising authored by AJ Powell, Brewed Awakenings 2 edited by Jason Gillikin and vol. 2, issue 1 of The 3288 Review.

cover_300 Grayson Rising

by AJ Powell

YA fiction

ISBN: 978-1-943548-14-9 ($14,95, print)

ISBN: 978-1-943548-15-6 ($3.95, EPUB)



The childhood I thought I had? That was a lie.
The family I thought I knew? That was a lie, too.
There’s nobody left to help me, nobody to
explain it to me, nobody to tell me that it’s
alright, nobody to tell me everything’s
going to be okay. I’ve got to run. I’ve got to
get out of here. I’ve got to figure out what I am,
and why I can do these impossible things.
Am I a superhero? A monster? A freak?
My name is Grayson Guinness.
Who am I?
ba2_cover_image Brewed Awakenings 2

edited by Jason E. Gillikin


ISBN:  978-0-9863806-1-7 ($24.95, print)

ISBN:  978-0-9863806-2-4 ($9.95, EPUB)

How should you respond when your neighbors aren’t quite what they seem? How far must you travel to escape the pull of your heart? How much of a barrier does the “digital divide” really present—or, for that matter, the line between life and death? What chaos results when the aggrieved turn the tables?

This carefully curated collection of thought-provoking short fiction includes works by Kesia Alexandra, Jessica Ann Booth, Jean Davis, Chris Galford, Lilith A. Heart, Melanie Meyer, Phyllis H. Moore, Louis Nevaer, Charmaine Pauls, Erika D. Price, Naomi Brett Rourke, Sommer Schafer, Jay T. Seate and Jacqueline Seewald.

Brewed Awakenings 2 features several works presenting content most appropriate for adult audiences.

2_1 The 3288 Review (Vol. 2, No. 1)

edited by John Winkelman

Literary Journal

ISBN:  978-1-943548-94-1 ($16.95, print)

ISSN:  2379-4720

In the fifth release of our quarterly journal of arts and letters, we feature poetry by seven poets, four pieces of short fiction and four creative non-fiction essays.


Bookbuyers: Visit to buy, today!

Retailers: Our titles are available through Ingram and B&T. Please apply direct if you’d like to carry one or more of our titles on terms generally more favorable than what you’ll get through a third-party distributor.

November Schedule

November comes, and with it, National Novel Writing Month.

Caffeinated Press takes a “month off” from normal business operations so that our board members and editorial team can focus on their writing during these 30 long days of authorial masochism.

Our schedule for November:

  • Sun., Oct. 30, 9a to noon. Get ready for the 2p OCGR kickoff party at Vitales with a last-minute planning session.
  • Mon., Oct. 31, 6p to Tue., Nov. 1, 2:30aThe Mad NaNo Scramble. Doors open at 6p on Halloween. Show up with a costume and a dish to pass (both are optional). Come and go as you please. At the stroke of midnight, we’ll begin with our first word war of the season. Doors close at 2:30a.
  • Tuesdays, Nov. 1/8/15/22/29, 6p-8:30p. Write In, hosted by Jessica Ann Booth.
  • Wednesdays, Nov. 2/9/16/23, 6p-10p. Come Write In. Open door. No schedule/programming — just you, a power outlet, Wi-Fi and free coffee. Oh, and words. All the words.
  • Saturdays, Nov. 5/12/19/26, 2p-6p. Come Write In. Open door.
  • Sun., Nov. 27, 4p-8p. “The End is Near” Afterparty. If you didn’t get your word count sufficiently elevated at the KDL celebration, hoof it over to our office to continue your unbridled productivity.

None of these events require a fee or an RSVP.

Our office is located at 3167 Kalamazoo Ave. SE, Grand Rapids 49508. We’re located at the T-bone intersection of 32nd St. and Kalamazoo Ave., just a stone’s throw south of the 28th/Kalamazoo Meijer store. We’re also a stop on Rapid Route No. 2. Plenty of on-site parking. To find us, use the doors closest to Kalamazoo Avenue — the doors with our name on the sign — and take the half-flight of stairs down. If you get lost, call the office at (888) 809-1686.


A Few Words Concerning Our Recent @Site5 Technical Debacle

Greetings, friends.

Many of you noticed — and we’re grateful that you did — that our website and email were down for a few days last week and over the weekend. Service is now back. I’d like to run you through a timeline of what happened, and how we continue to be affected by the outage.

  • On Wednesday, Oct. 12, around 1pm EDT, all of our services through our Web host, Site5, went down without warning or explanation. Initial tech support triage said we’d be back up in 4 hours and that the entire server — USCENTRAL416 — was down for “maintenance.”
  • During the downtime, all services, including the Web server (HTTPD) and email (IMAP/SMTP) were “hard down” — i.e., the URLs wouldn’t resolve and emails were bouncing back to recipients.
  • Over the next few days, Caffeinated Press leadership attempted to get status updates or uptime estimates from Site5. Emails went unanswered. Tweets were answered mostly by bots that asked us to message them with a ticket number (which we did, to no avail). John even called them, only to get a generic non-answer … after spending an hour on hold. In short: We had no info about what was going on, or why, or when service would be restored.
  • We provided some updates using Facebook and Twitter.
  • Service was finally restored in the mid-afternoon of Monday, Oct. 17.
  • We experienced roughly 120 hours of continuous service disruption. We still don’t know why.

After we were restored, we discovered that Site5 had apparently reverted to the last saved backup, which meant that all data on all servers supplied after roughly 6 a.m. on Monday, Oct. 10, was irretrievably lost. That includes emails for three days before the service disruption.

Here’s what you need to know:

  1. Caffeinated Press is doing fine and we’re not going anywhere. Except, that is, to a new and more reliable hosting partner.
  2. Any communication sent to us by email between 6a on 10/10 and 3p 10/17 is permanently deleted, beyond our ability to recover. This data includes routine messages as well as submissions through our Query page for both Caffeinated Press and The 3288 Review.
  3. We apologize for anyone’s confusion about our going-dark. In the absence of both Web and email, we had only recourse to social media, which isn’t necessarily everyone’s cup of tea.

Thanks for your patience as we’ve worked through this most frustrating experience with Site5. Although I’ve been with them for a decade, the level of service quality has declined markedly in the last year, and this most recent experience with our shared server is the last straw. We’ll be migrating away over the next week or so.

Typing Your Way to Creativity

A few weeks ago I acquired, courtesy of some lovely eBay seller, a vintage 1960s Royal Safari manual typewriter. The original reddish color has faded to an almost spot-on Caffeinated Press orange. Apart from one scrape along the top, the typewriter and its original hard-sized carrying case are in mint condition. Just to be safe, I also grabbed a few replacement ribbons through Amazon. The Safari joins my Royal KMM (a 1940s-era behemoth) as my manual typewriters of choice.

But here’s the thing.

Once upon a time, writers typed their manuscripts. They may have planned their stuff in sundry notebooks, or wrote longhand and transcribed later, but the final product consisted of one sheet of paper being fed into one iron-and-ribbon device at a time. If you wanted multiple copies, you could always use carbon paper — or hire a professional typist to make additional copies.

Despite having been born in the Ford Administration and growing up with computers (I was programming in PET Basic on my Commodore 64C as a middle-schooler in the ’80s), my high-school teachers taught us how to develop term papers using typewriters. As in: Use notecards, outline first, then type the paper. And if you need to revise, grab your scissors to cut out paragraphs. When you’re done, retype the final product.

Nowadays, writers have recourse to word processors and laser printers. Many rounds of revisions may be safely conducted through electronic bits and bytes stored on local drives and The Cloud. Writing is easier. And writers are more prolific. And being prolific doesn’t necessarily translate to being better. It just means there’s more of it.

As a creative-writing exercise, I wrote a flash story the old-fashioned way. I fetched an old Moleskine notebook, planned out the story paragraph-by-paragraph, then fed paper into the KMM and let-r-rip.

Funny thing: Not having an effective backspace or CTRL+A/DELETE capability means you really, really, really need to think about what you’re writing. There’s no word-processor screen to serve as a whiteboard. You must type — efficiently, accurately. And get it right in one pass, or maybe two. Not 27.

I recommend that all writers try the typewriter method at least once in their careers. These devices are fairly cheap on eBay or Amazon. And for the Millennials out there, writing on something that’s not a smartphone soft keyboard might prove to be a good range-of-motion activity for your fingers.

Most importantly, the typewriter method makes you think. It makes you plan. It makes you realize that writing only sometimes features rapid-fire composing then revising, but it always requires getting the story right in your heart so that it fills your head and then flows from your fingers toward the paper — even if it’s through one type hammer at a time.

Writing with Plain Text and Version Control

You’ve done it: You wrote something you’re immensely proud of. Congrats!

Let’s ask two questions:

  1. How many different versions of that story’s file do you have floating around your computer?
  2. How many edits did you make to the story from start to finish?

Many authors write using Microsoft Word. They draft, they edit, they use Track Changes, etc. There’s nothing wrong with this approach. It’s a standard because everyone understands Word and the file formats are widely interchangeable. However, this approach also reflects a bit of regression to the mean; because everyone understands it, and it’s not inherently complicated, this process flow doesn’t address some important but more sophisticated ways to optimize your writing.

Consider: Computer programmers don’t write their code in Word. Instead, they write in some sort of dedicated text editor. That text editor’s files are often saved to a central location (a “repository”) and every time the file changes, a new version gets added to the repository. As such, the coder can see how the file evolved over time, because each change is preserved. And because the file is plain text, the coder doesn’t have to worry about whether the document will work on different computers or in different coding programs. This data flow is fairly standard for programmers.

Authors may find some value in working more like programmers. Instead of writing in Word, consider writing in plain text using Markdown.  Then, consider saving your working files in a repository — GitHub is a popular choice and easy to set up — so you can implement version control on the story.

What are the benefits of Markdown and version control?

  • Markdown
    • No need to worry about formatting. Just write. Stuff like margins and fonts and paragraph indents don’t matter — only the words matter.
    • Plain-text files easily support version control. (Word files, depending on the version, may or may not play nice with version-control systems.)
    • Every word- or text-processor on the market supports plain-text files.
    • Markdown (or Multimarkdown) allows for very simple additions to text to indicate formatting. For example, surrounding a word with a single asterisk makes it italic; surrounding it with two asterisks makes it bold.
    • Conversion to formats used by publishers — e.g., Adobe’s InCopy (ICML) format — is much cleaner going from Markdown to ICML than Word to ICML. This simplicity of file conversion significantly decreases the development time for books and even short stories.
  • Version Control
    • No more managing several different versions of the same file, each with a slightly different name. Only one master document!
    • The entire history of changes in a given file are preserved — what got changed, who changed it, and when.
    • You can restore to previous versions (or recover segments of previous versions) if you regret a change you made.

Admittedly, this approach takes a bit more technical savvy than just firing up Word and saving your novel to a flash drive. But a little bit of learning about Markdown or Multimarkdown and Version Control Systems will help you become a more efficient author — perhaps you’ll find the technical setup worth it in the long run.

A Year-Long “Get Fit to Print” Program for Aspiring Authors

I’ve recently been spending more time at home looking at ideal strength-training approaches. As I enter my middle years, with a soft middle, it occurs to me that I need to do some course correcting if I’m to avoid a slow, painful death from multiple chronic conditions. So refreshing myself on techniques like “couch-to-5K” and “building strength 101” has proven salutary.

People really like structured programs as a jumping-off point for their own growth. Although you simply cannot distill creative writing into a proscriptive algorithm — people start in different places, and they learn in different ways — a review of the literature suggests that there’s perhaps too little scaffolding offered to new writers. Experienced authors and editors offer trite slogans, which is fine, but those slogans are damned difficult to turn into concrete action.

So, in the interest of providing some scaffolding, I’m pleased to introduce Jason’s “Get Fit to Print”™ program to take you from zero to literary hero in 12 months flat.*

*Your mileage may vary. Tax, title and license separate. The FDA has not approved these statements. Consult your doctor before taking Cialis. Batteries not included. Potential choking hazard. May contain nuts. Blah, blah.

  • Month
Activities Rationale
January No matter how good of a writer you think you are, you aren’t as good as you think. None of us are! The most common reason we at Caffeinated Press reject submissions is because the technical quality of the writing is substandard. So refresh your grammar skills. Buy some reference books and actually read them. It’ll be a dry exercise, but reading stylebooks is like looking at maps: Not fun, but unless you do it, you don’t know what you don’t know about getting from Point A to Point B.
February Write one of each of the following: a poem of at least 20 lines, a flash story between 500 and 1,000 words, a creative non-fiction essay between 1,000 and 2,500 words, and a short story between 2,500 and 5,000 words. Write them in this order. Start on 2/1 and be done by 2/28. These pieces will likely be crap. That’s OK. The point is to do the writing. You’ll use these pieces later, as you hone your skills. Until then, however, you have to have something on paper. You’ll also learn a little bit about how you write: Morning or evening? PC or paper? Notes first or dive “write” in? Don’t overthink it. Let it feel natural. There’s no correct way to do this.
  •  Attend a literary event in your community — a book signing, a poetry reading, whatever. Better yet, attend more than one. And when you’re there, talk to people. Be social!
  • Also, go back to your February works and revise them. Don’t show them to anyone else yet. Not even Aunt Ethel.
 Start to build connections with the literary community. You will need a network of fellow literary travelers if you want to be successful as a published writer — so connect with fellow authors, readers, publishers, editors, booksellers, etc. This networking component is a major contributor to the financial viability of first-time authors.
  •  Find or join a critique group. Aim for a group that’s open, focused and diverse in terms of experience. Maybe think about the folks you met in March.
  • Pick your toolset. Some people like sitting with a laptop and Microsoft Word. Others prefer planning in Scrivener. Still others favor plain-text Markdown. And while some folks love early-morning scribbling, others need the evening and a martini to thrive. Or a jaunt to the coffee shop. Regardless, prepare your planned times for writing with the tools you find most useful. Make this combination of tools, time and setting a habit.
  •  Without beta readers — i.e., a trusted critique group — you are almost surely guaranteed to fail as a writer. Writing may be a solitary exercise, but polishing the written word is a community event. You’ll be expected to submit stuff for review. The results will probably be painful. And you’ll be expected to reciprocate.
  • Regarding tools — don’t overthink it, or you might find you’re spending more time planning to write, than actually writing. Optimization of one’s writing environment can, if taken to extremes, prevent writing altogether.
May  Start building a business and social platform.  Now’s the time to “come out” as an author. Build a blog. Establish a Twitter account and a Facebook fan page for yourself as an author. Create a Goodreads account. Think about your author’s identity: Do you use a pseudonym? Have a different email address or a PO Box for your literary endeavors? Do you establish an LLC or a DBA to legally and financially separate your author-related work from your personal life? Do you need your own logo or Web domain? Author-branded business cards? This might be a good time to look for something like a Business of Writing or Author Media Toolbox seminar.
  •  Edit your February works in light of feedback from your critique group.
  • Build your social platform by blogging at least once per week and growing your Facebook likes and Twitter followers. Aim for slow, organic growth. Keep doing this network-acquisition work, from now until the day you die.
 You’ll probably be embarrassed by what your critique partners catch. Good. Learn from the experience. And if you disagree with their observations, don’t just dismiss the comments—study them. You have to grow a certain amount of skin thickness as a writer, and lose a degree of emotional attachment to your work, to survive in a tough literary market. Some people can’t take feedback well. If you’re one of those folks, re-consider your aspiration to write for publication.
July  Write a novelette.  Longer-form works (aim for 14k to 16k words) require more complex plotting, character development and narrative arcs. You’ll build on the lessons you learned with shorter works, earlier in the year, to voyage into more complicated waters.
  •  Attend one writing-related event each week.
  • Don’t write much. Instead, read the stuff your local peers have published. Your talent as a writer must be honed, in part, by being a voracious reader. Writers who don’t read are like electricians who live in a candle-lit house.
 Continue to build your network. Pass out your business cards, buy local authors’ books, show up at readings. Meet people. Learn from their stories and read their books. Get to know the names of well-known local writers and artists. One day, when you need a blurb for a book cover, these are the folks to whom you’ll turn.
  •  Edit your novelette in light of feedback from your critique group.
  • Keep growing your social network.
 Learn from critique feedback. Assess where you have gaps (descriptions, point of view, narrative voice, setting, conflict, etc.) and go back to your reference materials to study up on ideal solutions.
  •  Plan a novel. Target 85k words for the completed product. Do not start writing it yet, but do think about plot, characters, conflict, setting, etc.
  • Also, write two short stories of less than 8k words each.
  •  Long-form plotting without writing makes you think about what you’re doing before you do it. You might enjoy “pantsing” (writing without prep), but you should at least once try the discipline of planning.
  • Even when you’re in plotting/revising modes, still find the time to write short pieces. Build your own slush pile. It’ll come in handy when you come across a great submission opportunity on deadline day!
November Participate in National Novel Writing Month. Your goal is to start 11/1, and by 11/30, be “done” with a manuscript of at least 50k words. (The novel doesn’t technically need to be done, you just need to have incurred the minimum word count by 11:59 p.m. on the 30th.) This novel is considered a “zero draft” — it’s not even a first draft. That’s OK. Don’t spend time self-editing as you go. And don’t aim to write a 50k-word story; most first-time novels are closer to 80k-90k. Your goal, really, is to just get the words down. You’ll fix them later.
  • Pick at least two of your completed, peer-reviewed short-form pieces. Send each to at least one contest. Check Poets & Writers for an excellent, current list of opportunities.
  • Finish your NaNo novel.
  • Polish your October stories in light of feedback from your critique group.
  • Celebrate your work by shopping some of your well-curated slush pile. You are likely to get a lot of silence, or a lot of form rejections — but we all do. It’s a badge of honor. Keep writing, keep submitting. Learn from your feedback. After all: You’ve just spent the year going from zero to a literary hero. Own that victory.
  • Oh, and about that NaNo novel — it’s probably going to be garbage. Your next two or three are likely to also be garbage. You learn by doing. Most experienced authors have several early, complete manuscripts tucked in a drawer somewhere, where they will never see the light of day. These training manuscripts are painful, but necessary. You’ll probably be better positioned to sell a novel on the market by the time you hit manuscript four, five, six — unless you self-publish. Which may or may not be wise, depending on your career goals.

Will this approach guarantee you financial success as an author? Nope. But I get enough questions from people who say, “I literally do not know where to start,” that I think there’s some value in the construct I’ve outlined above.

The key points for getting started as a writer are:

  • Plug your gaps in syntax and style.
  • Sit your butt in a chair and write stuff.
  • Find a critique group and make heavy use of it.
  • Network with your peers in your local literary scene.
  • Build a platform/identity as an author — a blog, social media, custom domain name, biz cards, etc.

You nail these five points, you’re in good shape. miss any of them, and you’re not. So whether you prefer a lot of structure, or a succinct list of rules, you’ve now been given a framework. Make the best of it!

The Sarcastic Narrator

More and more contemporary fiction presents with a normative voice that mixes third-person subjective narration with frequent first-person mental asides interwoven with the narration.

A completely made-up example:

Helen opened the door. She tried to keep the cats in. Dang those cats.

Sheeba, a black kitty, darted through her legs and down the steps; it crawled into an open vent and hid behind a bend in the duct work.

Now where did that stupid feline go?

“Sheeba, you come back up here right this minute,” Helen yelled.

You get the point.

This mode of writing admits to several structural weaknesses:

  • POV is supposed to be consistent — pick 1st, or 3rd, or whatever — and not vary paragraph by paragraph.
  • The narrator often knows something that the mental voice of the main character doesn’t, which makes the blending of the voices more jarring. For example, the narrator knows Sheeba is in the duct, but Helen doesn’t, yet the line of demarcation between Helen and the narrator is not clear. The reader, therefore, is left to sort out the inconsistencies.
  • It’s conventional to insert mental speech in italics, not as interwoven prose within narration.

Beyond structure, though, comes the single biggest fault with this mode of writing: Sarcasm.

Pick up titles written recently — some YA stuff comes to mind — and you may encounter the distressing theme of some hero or heroine main character living a rich yet overwhelmingly sarcastic mental life as played out to some degree in the voice of the narrator.

To be clear: There’s nothing wrong with introducing characters’ thoughts into a story. This inner dialogue, if done well, enlivens a story and adds more color to a character’s development.

The catch is that “if done well” part. Too many authors, especially those early in their writing career, tend to use sarcasm as the default inner voice of a character. Doesn’t matter what the character is like, viewed neutrally; in that character’s head, everything evokes a sarcastic answer.

Three big problems here:

  1. Sarcasm isn’t the default mental construct for a typical person.
  2. Sarcasm, when presented to excess, makes characters less likeable and less relatable.
  3. Sarcasm is usually a reflection of the author’s own smarm working its way into the story.

Sarcasm, in small doses, is fine. When it overwhelms with frequency or interweaves into objective narration, you’ve got a problem.

8 Ways to Engage with the Local Literary Community

The term literary citizenship has blossomed in the last few years. Depending on whom you ask, the idea either makes a ton of sense — i.e., a good literary citizen networks effectively and cross-promotes well and supports the local scene — or it’s a euphemism for publishers dumping on already stretched authors.

Whether authors lament the decline in marketing support from the major publishers or they roll with the punches, no author can succeed without an established community. The upshot is that aspiring writers with no base often can’t get contracts because publishers recognize that those writers have no built-in market to sell to. Literary journals and small presses do better on this front; “platform” (the size of your social-media following) is generally less salient, the smaller the press. By implication, then, these small presses need broader communities of support that aren’t tied to specific big-name authors.

A typical “good literary citizen” will:

  • Buy books produced by local authors or local indie presses.
  • Shop at locally owned bookstores before heading to a national chain or to Amazon.
  • Attend author readings or other literary events.
  • Support local literary non-profits.
  • Join critique groups.
  • Socialize the work released by local authors and small presses.
  • Contribute to anthologies and literary journals with submissions, subscriptions or advertising.
  • Write frequently, even if it’s just for fun.
  • Provide reviews of locally published authors.

If you don’t do these things, you will not be cast into the fiery pits of hell. Your absence from the LitCit front ranks, though, does carry an opportunity cost borne by others:

  • Authors’ spirits sag when they attend events with an audience of less than 20 — because people can’t be bothered to show up.
  • Aspiring writers lack access to robust peer critique groups — thus blocking their work from publication with a real press.
  • Promising books languish because no one’s blurbing or reviewing them — undermining those projects’ profitability.
  • Small presses chase today’s dollars for keeping the lights on — so they don’t have time to focused on tomorrow’s editorial development.

The convention, once upon a time, was that a submitting author would buy a sample copy of a literary journal to assess whether it’s a good fit. If just half of the submitters to The 3288 Review bought a sample copy from us, the journal would be independently profitable and could even fund either license-fee increases or offset costs for the press as a whole. Instead, it’s a significant financial drain to the tune of roughly $6,000 per year, not inclusive of the hundreds of hours of uncompensated time spent pulling it all together. Don’t misunderstand: We love this journal and will keep it afloat, but if we had a nickel for every time someone examined a copy at our sales tables, admired its design and contents, then set it down before asking us how much he or she would get paid for a submission ….

I digress, with a heavy heart.

In the context of the West Michigan literary scene, you can help build a stronger community by:

  1. Buying some of our books, or a four-issue subscription to The 3288 Review. Or buying other great stuff, like the most recent Division by Zero anthology by MiFiWriters.
  2. Visiting locally owned bookstores like Schuler Books & Music (Grand Rapids), Bombadil Books (Grand Rapids), The Bookman (Grand Haven) or Readers’ World (Holland).
  3. Supporting the work of literary non-profits like the Great Lakes Commonwealth of Letters, which is currently engaged in its annual fund drive. Your contribution helps the region’s literary trains run on time and without derailment.
  4. Signing up for activities that hone your author skills or support local talent, including the Jot Conference (next one’s scheduled for 9/9 in Grand Rapids!), a Caffeinated Press seminar, a KDL conference or a GLCL special event.
  5. Participating in creative-writing exercises like National Novel Writing Month, where you can meet local writers and sharpen your saw, or submit to the various contests and awards that are open to writers of all stripes.
  6. Joining a critique group, where you partner in a small setting with authors at your same level to advance your writing, and the writing of your peers.
  7. Engaging in the social-media platforms of favored authors, publishers, bookstores or non-profits. Retweet, comment and share!
  8. Join the Caffeinated Press Reviewers’ Circle — a group of beta readers who get advance review copies of our works and have the chance to offer feedback before the book is released to market.

No stakeholder in our local literary community is an island. We all depend on each other to thrive. Good literary citizenship ensures that readers get great books, authors obtain the exposure they deserve, indie bookstores remain viable and small presses can fund worthy projects.

Jason’s 36 Rules of Fiction Writing

As part of a larger creative-writing exercise in drafting my own “rules of writing,” I started with a blank sheet of paper and just kept going until I thought I had exhausted the most significant guidance I could offer. Ended up at 36 points. These three-dozen little maxims are the “big ideas” I share with early-career authors eager for advice about the craft of writing.

In no particular order:

  1. Critique groups are your friend. No author is as good in real life as he is in his own mind. Get a peer-review team. Use it. Respect beta readers’ guidance. If other people haven’t weighed in on your story, then you’re not yet done with it.
  2. Write your story, instead of the Cliff’s Notes abridgement of it. Particularly in short fiction, some authors are so eager to stuff a novel’s worth of content into a novelette that the end result is a story synopsis instead of a real story. Slow down. Write your stories and let them flow as long or short as necessary. The slogan “show, don’t tell” gets drilled into workshop participants, and the dictum can be extended to the point of purple-prose ridiculousness, but the concept is sound: It’s better to reveal something happening than to simply assert that it did, and it’s more respectful to the reader to hint or imply behaviors instead of definitively ascribing emotions. Speaking of which:
  3. Embrace the reader as a co-creator of your universe. The best stories invite the reader to play along in her own mind. As such, over-prescribing the content — with too much concrete description or mental narration, mostly — deprives the reader the right to participate in your creative endeavor. You need not affix every detail in an attempt to nail “authorial intent.” Be vague, sometimes. Let the reader figure things out on her own. When you hint and suggest things, you allow for a richer diversity of emotional engagement than when you describe things definitively. For example, it’s better to describe an old man as slumped in a chair absently stroking a dog-curled photograph and staring into the sunset, than to assert that the man is sad. We get that he’s sad. But we can also infer wistfulness or melancholy or denial in the stroking and staring; when we’re told he’s sad, that’s it. One emotion and we’re not allowed to draw any other conclusion. How depressing for a reader! Authors plant seeds in the minds of their readers; the readers water those seeds and let their own little gardens bloom. Respect the garden, and the reader will remain loyal. If you dictate the shape and size and smell of each flower — then why should the reader bother with tending the garden in the first place?
  4. Villains aren’t always ugly. A novice writer reveals herself through heroic main characters who are perfect in every way; those beautiful heroes are opposed by villians who are very obviously physically or emotionally deformed. Stop it. Some of the most beautiful people in the world can be villains (see: Justin Bieber) and the most humdrum can be saints (see: Bl. Theresa of Calcutta). Virtue and vice are not correlated with beauty or emotional stability.
  5. Writing is a discipline. It’s not a hobby. It’s not something you do when you have free time. It’s something you do.
  6. Read your archive. Instead of tossing your old material and misguided drafts, save them. Then, every so often, pull those notes and deleted scenes from the file drawer and read them. You may be surprised to see how you’ve grown — or how you’ve backslid. Deletion is for the weak.
  7. Write with cats and martinis. This point should be self-evident.
  8. One perfect word is better than a litany of pedestrian phrases. Although writing with a thesaurus leads, almost inevitably, to purple prose, writing solely with ESL words and their attendant circumlocutions is almost as ineffective. Rare words are fine as long as they’re rare; they need not be entirely absent.
  9. .“Just Say No” to rape as a plot device. Rape is serious; it’s not a cheap ploy you can trot out when you write yourself into a plot hole. Also: People don’t magically “get over” having been raped.
  10. Produce content, not manuscripts. Compelling stories with clean prose, rendered simply on the page, far outshine humdrum stories with weak prose presented on the page with graphical elegance. In other words: No one cares about your font choice or drop caps or embedded tables. Just write the damn story. If it gets published, it will not be published in Microsoft Word.
  11. Drink deeply from your own well before appropriating others’ experiences. Your life is too precious to ignore it as a source of inspiration. Write what you know and avoid trying to build pseudo-literary street cred by writing what you don’t know. If I had a nickel for every upper-middle-class author writing gritty first-person stories about drug culture, when it’s obvious that the author couldn’t tell the difference between marijuana and oregano ….
  12. Strong writers develop strong plots; weak writers develop plot twists. Twists work in certain genres, but as a general rule, if you have to twist then you didn’t plot it right in the first place.
  13. People rarely do things for just one reason. Avoid suggesting that characters have just one all-encompassing, obvious, well-understood and transparent reason for doing things. The ocean of motivation is filled from a thousand different streams. The exploration of a tributary or two often leads to fruitful sharpening of conflict or enrichment of plot arcs.
  14. You probably shouldn’t discover your characters as you write them. I hear writers say things like, “By the time I got to the middle of the story, I learned that my character likes cheddar cheese.” Bollocks! If you don’t know a character until the middle of the story, then what the heck was the character doing at the beginning of the story? Clearly, the beginning of the story requires a 100-percent rewrite — now that you know your characters.
  15. Ellipses are the devil. Ellipses are, of course, a valid form of punctuation. But used too often — i.e., more than once per every 50,000 words — they signify over-prescription (see #3, above). You don’t need to explicitly tell the reader about every pause or trail-off a character experiences in dialogue. Mentally, the reader will fill that gap — and even if the reader doesn’t, it’s not important enough of a detail to belabor. If the trail-off is absolutely relevant to the plot, and it probably isn’t, indicate it with narration instead of through punctuation.
  16. You should probably be ashamed of your first five manuscripts. If you don’t turn cherry-tomato red at the thought of publicly reading your early work, then either you’re a literary genius or you have a strongly underdeveloped sense of introspection. Writing isn’t like a switch you flip on and off — it’s a discipline (see #5) that improves with practice. In a sense, writing is like learning karate. You can’t master black-belt forms until you’ve looked like an idiot tripping over basic white-belt stances. But you should learn from your early work. Let it serve as a living testament to how your discipline has honed your craft over the years. The corollary: Don’t expect your first work to be worth publishing. Or even your second or third. Unless you’re an absolute genius (and you aren’t, statistically speaking) you’ll have to put in your time on the practice mat before you’ve earned your master status. The other corollary: Keep writing. It gets better and easier and faster the more you maintain your discipline. Honest.
  17. Remember thy cloud drive and keep it synced. There is never an excuse to lose your work. Keep your stuff on your hard drive (don’t bother with flash drives) and keep that folder synced to the cloud using Google Drive, Microsoft OneDrive, Dropbox, Box, OwnCloud or whatever service you prefer. Local copy + folder sync = bliss.
  18. If your last paragraph renders all preceding paragraphs moot, you’re doing it wrong. Attention flash writers: The whole “I’m going to shock you with a final sentence that completely changes the story” trope is old, tired and damned irritating. Bait-and-switch is just as disreputable for writers as it is for advertisers. If you go to the effort to create characters and a plot and a clear arc, let that work culminate in closure for the reader.
  19. You can’t sleep with your main character. As with #4, avoid developing a main character who’s basically the best-case respondent to your Tinder ad. No one’s perfect, not even a hero, and sometimes the savvy reader can sense when an author has fallen in love with a character.
  20. “Said” is your best friend. No need to declaim or exclaim or shout or whisper or suggest or whatever. Just say. The word blends into the background as a train conductor, so your reader doesn’t get derailed from the story by means of unfortunate synonym-hopping.
  21. If you torture an animal, you deserve to be punched in the genitals. If I read another submission to The 388 Review that explains in excruciating detail how horrible it was to have shot a deer without immediately killing it–argh. As with rape, the torture or mutilation of animals offends many readers and signifies a writer who cannot understand the difference between shock and plot device. I understand that sometimes people like to write about how they learned the nobility of nature or bonded with their father or whatnot over a weekend spent at the hunting blind. Fine. Then shoot the animal and give it a fitting death. But to dive into excruciating detail about how it bleeds and moans and labors to stand and breathe — that kind of writing borders on the sociopathic.
  22. The more you try to sound transgressive, the more you sound like a fool. Experimental styles are extremely difficult to pull off and typically work well only with experienced MFA-prepared authors. A lot of the stream-of-consciousness approaches, with myriad mental asides interspersed with first-person narration and inconsistent punctuation and italics, doesn’t come off as trendy, it comes off as tedious. It’s difficult to read and it tends to take the reader out of the story, forcing her to be a meta-reader instead. Master Standard English before moving on to advanced case studies.
  23. Good editors check facts. Your editor will verify universal truths about the world, so it pays to get the details correct during the drafting process. Even in an invented world, the world itself must be internally self-consistent, and a good editor will spot inconsistencies. It’s usually better if those flaws don’t make it to the editor in the first place.
  24. Semicolons are your friend only if you know how to use them properly. Colons and semicolons aren’t interchangeable, and a semicolon cannot set off a sentence fragment.
  25. A character’s inner voice probably shouldn’t sound like MST3K commentary. Contemporary fiction, alas, seems to favor first-person points of view with ample internal dialogue. Fine. But the risk for the author arises when that the interior dialogue starts to sound like either the author himself, or the sarcastic overdub à la “Mystery Science Theater 3000.” The sarcastic inner dialogue (and it’s almost always sarcasm that’s the offender) often stands at stark contrast with the character’s overall nature and outward demeanor. Inner and outer dialogue should at least cohere in terms of tone and voice. Outwardly meek souls, for example, rarely run a simultaneous witty monologue in their own heads during a group conversation.
  26. Let descriptions evolve over time. There’s probably no need to lard 274 descriptors into a paragraph. Sometimes doling out little bits of information over time helps the reader co-create the world while minimizing the narrative disruption that attends to explicit scenery info-dumps.
  27. Only masochists enjoy lectures about morals or politics. Especially in fiction, overt didacticism may prove off-putting to readers who would rather be entertained instead of harangued. Certain genres admit to didactic works (sci-fi, in particular) but in general, think twice before using a work of fiction as a vehicle for proselytizing some moral, religious or political conviction.
  28. Almost no one “suddenly realizes” things. Avoid the crutch of introducing some fact that a character “suddenly noticed” or “quickly remembered.” This approach suffers from two flaws. First, it tends to offer a poor man’s transition into unnecessary backstory, and second, it suggests some sort of perceptual schizophrenia wherein voices (i.e., the narrator or the author) insert data relevant mostly to the reader, in the form of memory or perception experienced by the character. Stuff like “Jane slipped on the rug, then she suddenly realized that her ankle had given out” or “Bob quickly remembered that three weeks ago, Sally had given him the combination to the lock” comes off as amateurish writing.
  29. Journal frequently. Even though you should read your archive (see #6), you should also keep a writer’s diary. Record the stuff you do. Your blocks. Your insights. Your ideas. Your submissions and their responses. Just as you cannot become a master scuba diver without a logbook justifying your diving history, you cannot become a master author without a journal justifying your writing history. A writer without a journal is like a clown without a van filled with candy parked down by the river a plumber without a wrench.
  30. Excessive parentheticals suggest a disorganized writer. Parentheticals in blog posts or non-fiction work are one thing; adding them to fiction is a different thing altogether. People can write with em dashes and parentheses, but we don’t speak with those marks, so interspersing them in dialogue or narration suggests a rewrite opportunity.
  31. Adverbs aren’t your friend. Slash every modifier that’s not essential to the story. Draw the broad, simple outlines of the story and allow the reader supply his own baroque ornamentation.
  32. Seinfeld rarely translates effectively to print. A story about nothing offers very little payback for the reader’s time. Slice-of-life vignettes can be pretty, but unless they’re sublime, they tend to lack resonance because they don’t feature well-defined conflict arcs. A typical story features a plot with characters, setting, conflict and conflict resolution. Subtract any of those elements and you arrive at stories that are fundamentally about nothing at all. So why should the reader care? Why should the reader invest her time?
  33. No one cares about the backstory, including your characters. Authors who take great care in the creation of their fictional world often want to share their labor of love with the reader. The reader, by and large, doesn’t give a damn. Many stories, including some short stories, clock in with so much backstory that the plot arc gets fundamentally twisted. Rule of thumb: You don’t need backstory. If it’s relevant, it’s not backstory and should be interspersed like normal. Avoid data dumps, including dumps cleverly disguised as reminiscences — because people really don’t spend a lot of time discussing or thinking about specific truths about the past that ever-so-conveniently happen to dovetail with a yet-to-be-revealed near-term future.
  34. Respect the eye in the sky. The narrator — the “eye in the sky” — has a specific tone and voice and background knowledge based on the major mode of the story’s point of view. Keeping POV straight can be a real challenge, especially within stories with several POV characters.
  35. Punctuation goes inside the quotes. Use double quotes to set off spoken dialogue but italics without punctuation to render mental dialogue. Punctuation goes inside the quotes. There is never a circumstance in standard fiction writing wherein a period or comma will fall on the outside of a closing quotation mark.
  36. People control their bodies. A person looks around a room; a person’s eyes may be the instrument of that vision, but they eyes themselves aren’t doing the looking as if they’re autonomous agents in their own right. Constructs like “his eyes scanned the room” are common but unfortunate. Body parts generally function under the jurisdiction of a person and rarely act of their own volition.

So. Thirty-six rules. What do you have to add? With which points might you quibble? It’s worth sharing, as a disclaimer, that the points reflected above are my own and do not reflect Caffeinated Press policy.

Conflict Resolution 101: An Author’s Guide

No author is immune to conflict. Whether the disagreement is sourced in a contractual dispute, or concerns about edits, or in the misinterpretation of a social-media post, authors will inevitably have to engage in some classic dispute-resolution activities.

The Thomas-Kilmann instrument provides five different conflict modes for assessing conflict resolution:

  • Competing — win/lose
  • Collaborating — win/win
  • Compromising — minimally acceptable without damaging relationships
  • Avoiding — withdrawal and neutrality
  • Accommodating — conceding to the other to maintain harmony

In general, you’ll find that collaborating or compromising makes for the best strategy. Locking into a win/lose paradigm, or hiding from the conflict, will serve no one well; those strategies encourage escalation or bullying behaviors.

Authors experience conflict from one of two points of view — when the author is the victim of bad behavior by a publisher, editor or agent (author as hero); or when the author is the person who’s engaged in the bad behavior (author as villain). Let’s explore both scenarios.

Author as Hero

For whatever reason, you as an author occupy the moral high ground in a dispute. The problem could be anything — maybe a publisher missed a deadline. Maybe an agent lost your manuscript. Maybe an editor introduced errors into your story. Doesn’t matter what caused it, what matters is how you deal with it. Some suggestions:

  1. Read your contract. Verify whether there are provisions that govern dispute resolution and, if there are, then carefully follow them. Sometimes contracts extend a specific make-whole clause, or a notification-of-breach clause, that must be honored before the contract itself is in jeopardy.
  2. Reach out in good faith. It’s always better to bring something to the other party’s attention in a brief and polite way, by assuming error instead of malice. A friendly tone and a charitable approach helps set the framework for subsequent discussions about the problem. Most disputes go off the rails when one party accuses the other — implicity or explicitly — of acting in bad faith. In the publishing industry, bad-faith behavior is much less common than good-faith errors related to capacity.
  3. Don’t make it public. Never take a disagreement to social media, or a blog, or a writers’ forum. Not only are you backing the other side into a corner — opening the door to unhelpful tit-for-tat commentary — but you’re also leaving a public paper trail for subsequent partners (editors, agents, publishers) to find. No one wants to work with prima donnas. If a future partner is interested in you, but then they discover that you have no qualms airing grievances in public, your odds of receiving a contract may be substantially harmed. No publisher, agent or editor worth his salt will contract with an author who’s established his willingness to engage in public reputational assaults. In addition, “going public” exposes you to potential civil action for defamation, especially if your side of the argument isn’t proven to be as solid as you thought it was when you first typed your angry Facebook rant.
  4. Avoid going “pseudo-legal.” Terms like breach of contract and default are legal concepts that sometimes require a finding by a court of competent jurisdiction. Unless you’ve consulted with an attorney, it’s safest to avoid asserting that the other party is legally deficient in his obligations. Instead, simply point out the part of the contract you think the other party has missed and open a dialogue about how to rectify the problem. Starting your conversation with an indictment rarely promotes collaboration.
  5. Omit the 95 Theses. It’s never necessary for you to recite a litany of perceived abuses or your beliefs about the other party’s competence or integrity. Focus on one problem. Avoid blowing a molehill into a mountain by venting spleen about all the things that frustrate you. Avoid personalizing the situation or offering opinions about the other party that aren’t related to solving a specific problem.
  6. Watch the clock. With contracted authors, it’s usually safe to request a 30-day response window. Avoid putting unreasonable response deadlines in your correspondence, especially when you know that the recipient’s typical response time is much longer than what you demand.
  7. Consider whether you want to die on that hill. Not all problems necessarily require a solution. Even if you are technically in the right, think about whether the situation really needs a fix. Sometimes, just letting a process play through to its conclusion proves the wiser strategy.

Author as Villain

Maybe you screwed something up. Or writers’ block precludes timely manuscript delivery. Or you got caught introducing copyrighted material into your work. Or your just not happy about something that’s legit, but not to your preference. In any case, the publisher/agent/editor caught wind of it, and now you’re on the hot seat. Some suggestions:

  1. Read your contract. If you’ve been accused of violating the terms of your contract, read the contract to identify the relevant provisions and whether the contract offers an adequate make-whole clause that you can take advantage of. Although it can be scary to hear that you might be in breach of contract, recognize that sometimes such notification is just a formality and can be easily fixed without undue drama. If you cannot understand parts of your contract, seek guidance from a licensed attorney in your community.
  2. Negotiate a good-faith fix. If you didn’t hold up your end of the deal, offer a solution that might be mutually acceptable to both parties. For example, if you were required to submit edits within 90 days, and you got a notice at day 100 that you’re late, commit to delivering by day 120 — and stick to it. You will usually have no difficulty in minor adjustments as long as you offer a reasonable alternative. You need not be apologetic or fall on your sword, either; admitting to a default isn’t usually a good idea should the matter later be subject to litigation. But politely offering a counter-offer, without belaboring the point, can often prove a useful solution.
  3. Take a deep breath before responding. Authors are creative people, and creative people can sometimes be quick to anger. Rule of thumb: Never answer when your blood pressure is elevated.
  4. Avoid social sandbagging. If you’ve had performance challenges under a contract, or even if you’re just in general not thrilled with progress even though the contract is still being met, it’s best to not get passive-aggressive with snarky social-media posts or emails, or bad reviews on Facebook or author sites. By engaging in this kind of behavior, you risk poisoning the well should there be a need for dispute resolution later in the process.
  5. Ask for a second opinion. Sometimes authors and editors disagree about something in a manuscript. Usually, such disagreements can be negotiated away. However, occasionally a point can’t be finessed into non-existence. If your editor, agent or publisher insists on a specific change and won’t take no for an answer, it’s best to take a step back and bring that disagreement to a circle of trusted peer writers. Solicit their honest feedback. Odds are good that the “other side” has seen several different skilled professionals arrive at the same conclusion, so you’ll do yourself a favor by having your own critique group help you to determine whether you really should buckle down for a fight, or concede that the scene you love so dearly isn’t as good as you thought it was.
  6. Don’t light a forest fire. If you’ve made a mistake, own it. Don’t make matters worse by trying to find some mistake — however obscure — by the other party and thereby turn it into a tit-for-tat situation. Your goal should be to stop the fire that’s consuming a single tree, instead of seeing the fire and then spreading gas on the surrounding forest.
  7. Respect the editorial division of labor. Some things important to authors — e.g., cover designs — may not be under the author’s control. The division of labor between authors and publishers follows from each partner’s role in getting a book to market. Even if you promised Aunt Sally that she could design the cover of your debut novel, the decision about that cover is rarely at the author’s pleasure. By getting hung up on the things that aren’t the author’s responsiblity, the author can inadvertently create tension that makes dispute resolution about other problems much more difficult. Focus on doing your part of the process well, and let your parners do their part of the process well.

Ultimately, your goal as an author should be to minimize or fix problems as they occur, in a way that does not alienate the other parties to an agreement. Publishers, editors and agents should do likewise. By focusing on collaboration and compromise instead of winner-takes-all ego battles or hide-in-the-sand avoidance behavior, you can build a robust partnership with your professional colleagues that can survive the occasional bump in the road.

5 Tips for Writing for the Market

I recently enjoyed a lovely email conversation with a local author whose book we declined to publish. She successfully passed the first hurdle in the query chain — she had a good pitch, with a lovely sample — and on the strength of that query, we solicited the entire manuscript. Yet after reviewing the full manuscript, we concluded that the project wasn’t a good fit for us, despite that the work was well-written and certainly relevant to a West Michigan audience.

The novel included very heavy Christian Reformed themes. Too heavy for us, but not quite pure enough for the local religious publishers.

The book is worth reading. It’s worth publishing. It’s not aligned with our catalog, unfortunately. And, on reflection, I suspect the author will have a really tough time positioning the work in its current form with any publisher.

The problem that this author experiences is by no means uncommon. Writers what they write, but not everything that gets written can be positioned effectively on the open market. It’s therefore imperative for authors who intend to seek publication that their work aligns with the current market needs of publishers. (Of course, if you’re writing to self-publish, or writing for the sake of the art, this rule obviously isn’t as salient.)

Some thoughts:

  • Avoid fusion genres. A “fusion” genre is any story that mixes genres — e.g., a sci-fi/horror/romance/Western blend. The challenge with fusion is that publishers (and, much more importantly, booksellers) must pick a dominant genre category.  Most retailers don’t have a separate fusion shelf, because fusion isn’t a recognized category in ISBN metadata. So if you write that sci-fi/horror/romance/Western novel, where would the book be shelved? For people interested in the genre, a mixed-metaphor novel is unlikely to attract much attention; after all, if you enjoy Westerns, do you really want to try a Western with liberal sprinkles of sci-fi, horror and romance themes? Probably not. There’s not much of a market for fusion because people like what they like. Fusion usually works better within themed anthologies instead of stand-alone long-form publications.
  • Follow genre conventions. If you write within a genre, then respect that genre’s rules. In a romance novel, for example, the typical plot arc involves people meeting, falling in love, struggling to keep the love burning against the odds, then overcoming the barrier. A romance that consists of people meeting, falling in love, separating when the going gets rough and then agreeing to “just be friends” isn’t really that compelling. Reviews will tank, along with sales. As restrictive as genre conventions can be, for readers of genre fiction, the audience (usually) stays loyal to the genre because they expect to get something specific out of their reading experience. As a self-published author, you may deny your readers their reward at your own financial peril; as an author seeking a publisher, the publisher is unlikely to risk a contract on a potentially low-reputation, low-revenue project.
  • Didacticism is a double-edged sword. Some authors write to make a point; that point infuses whatever genre and plot/conflict matrix they elect. Didactic writing can be extremely powerful — but it can also be offputting to publishers or agents who either don’t agree with the philosophical point, or who understand that the point might poke the bear for a fairly large swathe of the potential readership.
  • Lit-fic doesn’t sell, usually. People who write poetry or literary fiction for the mass market are unlikely to see significant revenue absent criteria like being already famous, winning some sort of award or major favorable review, or publishing with a large imprint. Small- and mid-sized publishers generally don’t sell literary fiction well because there’s not a huge buyer’s market for it, like there is for throw-away romance or horror novels.
  • Biographies or memoirs of non-famous people don’t sell well, either. Your family history is interesting, but it’s unlikely to sell well with strangers. The more hyperlocal the content, the smaller the audience, until the audience gets to be so small that the project won’t even recover its production costs.

Your best against goodness-of-fit rejections? Look at what the market already supports. If you can position your work solidly within a constellation of known sellers, you’ll do a better job of convincing a hesitant agent or publisher to give you the green light.

A Year In …

Gosh, how time flies!

It’s been a year since Caffeinated Press moved into our offices on Kalamazoo Avenue and really started working definitively as a public-facing independent press. One year. In that time, we’ve put 10 print titles to market and three e-books, and we’ve got three more titles due for release soon as well as a half-dozen that are in the contracting/editing stages. Whew!

This summer, so far, has been focused on editing and selling:

  • Our summer intern, Mary Humphrey (a student from Notre Dame), has been hard at work completing manuscript reviews on two forthcoming novels. We have her full-time until the end of July. She is amazing, and she’s helped us clean out some of the backlog in our production process.
  • We just released the fourth issue of the first volume of The 3288 Review, our quarterly journal of arts and letters. The submission window for 2.1 just closed a few days ago; production begins soon.
  • Speaking of the journal: It sold well a few weekends ago at the Ann Arbor Book Festival. Caffeinated Press held a booth at the street-side book fair. Sales were solid, and we were able to connect with a few authors and small presses from East Mitten, as well as some distribution leads with Ann Arbor bookstores.
  • We’re also selling locally. Last weekend, and again on various Sundays this summer (7/24, 8/28, 9/25), we’ll have a stall at the 2016 Michigan Pop-Up Marketplace at the Downtown Market in Grand Rapids. Stop by to say hi or to buy our merchandise. The events run from 10a until 4p and many fun vendors remain on hand to sell homemade wares or tasty culinary delights.
  • Of course, you’re always welcome to visit our online store to shop without the hassle of putting on pants.
  • Join us on July 9 for the Tulip City author event in Holland. Author Jean Davis will be on hand, and we’ll be selling her book, A Broken Race, as well as the second issue of The 3288 Review in which one of her stories appears. She’ll also be featured in the forthcoming Brewed Awakenings 2 and we’re happy to be working with her on her trilogy, The Narvan.
  • We also welcome Katherine Sauer as a part of our standing editorial committee. She’s hit the ground running with her votes on inbound manuscripts.
  • Caffeinated Press is pleased to have recently joined Local First.

We’ve come a very long way in a very short period of time. We’re proud of the connections we’re making and of the literary endeavors we’re supporting, although (obviously) it hasn’t always been sunshine and roses. A few key learnings:

  • People are more willing to support you with a pat on the back than with an open wallet. I’m amazed at how many people express genuine delight over, e.g., The 3288 Review — they pick up it up, they assert their joy that a local publisher is highlighting local talent, they ask for information about how they can submit, then they put the artifact down without buying it. I’m not joking when I say that if we had half as many sales as we do submissions for each issue, the journal could be a hugely profitable and self-sustaining enterprise.
  • Administration is a pain in the butt. When you establish a for-profit corporation on a limited budget and with finite labor resources, all the things that sounded so cool up front (editing books! meeting authors! networking with other publishers!) end up at the bottom of the priority list when you have to reconcile the bank account, pay the utility bills, correspond with attorneys and wade through the slush pile. For example, despite the fact that I oversee editorial operations in general, I’m usually only able to spend less than 10 percent of my CafPress time doing editorial work. The rest is a mix of management, finance, operations and legal stuff. As they say: #AdultingIsHard. I don’t regret it, at all, but we’ve had to re-think our editorial processes to take into account the fact that I’m now the No. 1 bottleneck in the production process, a point that AJ and Andrea (two long-suffering authors) know all too well.
  • West Michigan really does enjoy a lot of unrecognized, or under-recognized, literary talent. Take, for example, the 1.4 issue of The 3288 Review. Half of the contributors hail from West Michigan. But the funny thing is, we had nearly 300 submissions for that issue, and our evaluation process is blinded. So put differently: Work from West Michigan writers is so strong that our editors prefer it 2-to-1 in a blinded taste test.
  • The point above notwithstanding, the literary scene in Grand Rapids is fragmented in ways we didn’t expect. This observations isn’t merely our own; as we talk to well-respected veterans of the local literary community, we hear a similar frustration. The various authors, writers’ groups, critique circles and publishers don’t overlap much and there isn’t a community-wide network of support for literary achievement. There’s not really a well-understood and universally respected convener of the literary arts in the community. For example: There’s a huge gulf between the “MFA poets” and the “slam performance poets” such that the only thing they have in common is a sliver of their audience. And different genre writers host their own proprietary Facebook “for writers” groups, without a lot of intermixing of the tribes. Plus, many local authors reach just a tiny segment of the local literary community to sell their stuff, yet they’re also not necessarily buying other local authors’ stuff. We can do better. Other cities — even places like Kalamazoo — do a much better job of community cohesion than G.R. does.
  • It’s probably fair to say that we’ve sufficiently fine-tuned our editorial processes by this point; we will probably experience incremental improvements, but not major overhauls. But marketing? We still have much work to do to connect with book buyers, advertisers and relevant community events. When you master one skill, three other essential skills pop up in the training queue, like some sort of Competency Hydra. 🙂

Anyway. One year in the office, doing the peoples’ work of producing literary excellence. Here’s to another year of the same.

Multiple and Simultaneous Submissions

When you’re ready to shop your portfolio of poems, essays or short fiction to various literary markets, you’ll encounter editorial guidelines about “multiple and simultaneous submissions.” The gist is that:

  • Multiple submissions refers to the privilege of sending more than one piece for consideration for the same issue of a periodical.
  • Simultaneous submissions refers to the privilege of sending the same piece to different periodicals at the same time.

Many publications — especially large, well-established ones, and venues that pay contributors — don’t allow multiple or simultaneous submissions. Over the first volume of The 3288 Review, we’ve allowed both, but it’s likely that we’ll restrict multiple submissions and perhaps we’ll think harder about simultaneous submits, too.

Here’s why:

  • We’ve yet to have a multiple-submission author have any pieces accepted through our blinded review process.
  • Despite our fairly short turnaround times, we hear from at least two or three authors each issue that their piece was picked up elsewhere — despite us having taken the non-trivial time to stage and review the piece.

We encourage authors to approach publishers with all due vigor. However, the first time you connect with a new editor or publisher, you aren’t likely to fully understand your new colleague’s foibles (and vice versa). It’s probably best to submit one piece and wait for a response. Later, after you’ve established your relationship, you can pitch several things at once.

Note, too, that for paying markets, there’s a certain subset of writers — not huge, but large enough — that fires a full salvo of not-quite-ready work, hoping to make some money. These inexperienced authors spoil the system for others, primarily because some of them (a) haven’t yet developed the discipline to engage with beta readers before transmitting their work, or (b) they’re chasing license fees without regard to whether the publication is a good fit for their work. The fact that none of our simultaneous submitters have had a single piece successfully pass blinded peer review, suggests something significant. As does the fact that we’ve published several authors more than once — but those writers only pitched one piece at a time.

Simultaneous submissions present a different problem. Many publications don’t allow them, although many authors don’t seem care — probably rightly so, because most editorial-review processes take a long time to unfold and often result in silence, so waiting in a one-at-at-time queue would make many authors cool their heels a very long time before they brought the piece to market. That said, peppering a lot of publications simultaneously and going on a “first come, first served” approach to acceptance might be great for the author, but not so great for editors who had to review a work only to see it withdrawn.

Simultaneous submits is probably more of a sweet-spot question than anything. It’s unfortunate to receive a piece only to have it withdrawn three days later; how many markets did the author pitch? It’s also unfortunate to have a piece linger one-at-a-time through crowded slush piles. Good judgment suggests that you don’t pitch the same piece to too many places at the same time. How many is “too many?” ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. A half-dozen at a time might be OK. A dozen might be OK. A hundred probably isn’t. Hard to say.

Probably the biggest point to this discussion distills to a basic principle of political science: The Tragedy of the Commons. This theory suggests that independent actors seeking to maximize their own benefit will inevitably deplete an essential shared resource; the idea relates well to the relationship between authors (independent actors) and publishers (the shared resource). In a perfect world, authors should be able to pitch their stories as they see fit. And many do. But when you maximize your authorial self-interest, you compete for a small and finite amount of editorial attention. In such a situation, everyone suffers, because editors and publishers lack the capacity to effectively manage the totality of work presented for publication. The best way to avoid misusing the “commons” of the publishing world is to:

  1. Always, always, always find a beta reader or two to review your work before you submit it. Always. There is never an excuse for submitting material that contains many spelling and grammar mistakes or doesn’t conform to standard narrative style.
  2. Submit once and wait for a response — even if you have the freedom to do otherwise.
  3. Carefully strategize which of your pieces are shopped to which markets, and when, and why. Mass-firing submissions and waiting for the first nibble means you’re doing yourself a favor, but you’re sucking the oxygen out of the editorial backrooms. Every minute spent editing a piece destined for withdrawal is a minute that couldn’t be spent looking at a different piece that might have been worth accepting … had the editor an extra minute to spare. Who knows? Maybe that unfortunate piece was yours.

The decision whether to engage in multiple and simultaneous submissions isn’t necessarily a black-and-white affair. Lots of shades in the middle. Lots of choices to be made.

But as the wise old knight said: “You must choose — but choose wisely.”

Developing Ethically Coherent Characters

A good story usually demands a strong plot, and a strong plot is advanced through the skillful use of conflict.

Conflict, of course, starts with characters who think and act in specific ways; their patterns of behavior set the contours of how conflicts begin, progress and resolve over the narrative arc of the story.

Five introductory points about ethical consistency:

  1. At heart, ethics relates to the process by which people make value-laden choices. When there’s no choice, or no values at stake, then the question isn’t an ethical one. For example, personal preferences (e.g., “I like cashews more than brazil nuts”) aren’t a source of moral dispute.
  2. People aren’t always consistent, but they do tend to naturally fall into one of the broad ethical paradigms. No one does the right thing all the time, and always for the exact same reason; characters like Galadedrid Damodred in The Wheel of Time simply do not exist in the real world, so their presence in literary worlds proves especially jarring.
  3. When pressed, people can do the “right” thing for the “wrong” reason — with wrong merely suggesting a conformance to a different (i.e., non-dominant) moral paradigm.
  4. When pressed further, people can act against their moral principles.
  5. People rarely reset their default ethical worldview. Such a change can happen, but it’s not often enough in the real world to use it as a plot device. Usually these changes follow from significant trauma or long-running psychological stress.

Those “broad moral paradigms” include:

  • Egoism. In a nutshell: Egoists do what redounds to the greatest good for the self.
  • Deontology. Duty-based ethics (i.e., Kantianism) suggests that the morally correct behavior is that which meets a generalizable duty or universal moral rule. For example, people can agree to the maxim that “It’s never okay to lie” and therefore we have a duty to avoid lying. We must do our duty, no matter the consequence.
  • Consequentialism. Consequentialism subdivides into many different groups. Utilitarians, for example, divide into “act utilitarians” and “rule utilitarians.” Regardless of their tribe, however, consequentialists generally agree that the morally correct behavior is that which generates the greatest good or the least suffering, for the greatest number of people.
  • Natural Law Theory. The natural law suggests that patterns in human nature — discoverable through study of universal human behavior — should govern.
  • Divine Command Theory. The morally correct behavior is that which is willed by the supreme supernatural being(s). In other words: Do what God says.
  • Virtue Theory. The virtues rely on the development of character and follow from the ethical teachings of Aristotle. A virtue theorist balances various virtues (e.g., temperance, fortitude, bravery) to arrive at a recommended course of action. The vices (sloth, envy, etc.) should be eradicated to grow in character and thus in virtue. In a sense, the ethically correct behavior is that which the virtuous person undertakes.
  • Care Ethics. A modern innovation, care ethics seeks to preserve the relationships among those affected by an ethically difficult situation. The outcome is sometimes less relevant than maintaining amity. A special consideration is extended to people disadvantaged by the dispute.

Important non-theories include:

  • Contractarianism. The idea with contractarians is that our only moral duties are those we explicitly negotiate with others. However, this line of thinking is just a variant of consequentialism.
  • Rights Theory. Someone who emphasis rights above all other considerations is just aping a form of deontology (i.e., giving pride-of-place to the maxim that “people ought to respect the rights of others”).
  • Honor Theory. Approaches that emphasize honor — you see it often in urban hip-hop culture that emphasizes respect — tend to loosely follow a care-ethics framework.
  • Ethical Nihilism. If you believe that there’s no such thing as morality, or that ethics can’t be universally applicable, then you’re a nihilist. But at heart, you’re really an egoist because you’re suggesting that whatever you do is, ipso facto, morally justified.
  • Hedonism. The whole “live and let live in peace and harmony, dude” mindset follows from a variant of consequentialism with a bit of egoist seasoning.
  • The Lex Talionis. The idea of “an eye for an eye” is sometimes incorrectly assumed to be a function of the natural law. In fact, natural law focuses on traits universal among humans; it’s not a surrogate for survival-of-the-fittest fetishism.

A few other points warrant mention.

First, ethical paradigms don’t relate well to the DSM-V. For example, an ethicist might classify as a “super-enlightened egoist” someone diagnosed by a psychologist as a sociopath. Many assertions of mental illness along the lines of sociopathic personality disorder or borderline personality disorder can distill into a form of ethical egoism that the psychologist simply refuses to accept as being a legitimate moral worldview. There’s long been a tension between the ethicist and the psychologist.

Second, many people mix their metaphors. They’ll follow the duty-bound approach of a Kantian for most things, but resort to consequentialist thinking when they want a free pass that Kant won’t offer. Or they’ll follow their scripture in their personal life but follow a care-ethic approach in their professional life. Again, consistency isn’t common, nor is it necessarily a desirable trait.

In practice, adherents of each of these schools might come (correctly! and consistently!) to different conclusions given the same case study. Consider the following hypothetical:

Bob arrives at work at 8 a.m. He sees his co-worker, Sally, arrive at 9 a.m. — but he discovers that she wrote 8 a.m. on her timesheet. After a bit of peeking, he concludes that she’s been faking her time card, bilking her employer out of hundreds of hours of wages each year. Bob considers what he should do with his knowledge of Sally’s behavior.

In this situation, people can legitimately arrive at different conclusions.

Egoism What’s in it for me? Bob fundamentally doesn’t care about what Sally’s doing. He briefly considers whether to extort a payment to keep quiet, or to fake his own timecards; either way, he’s not terribly invested in Sally’s theft as long as it doesn’t affect him.
Deontology What’s my duty? Bob has a duty of loyalty to his employer, so he doesn’t hesitate to report Sally to their boss.
Consequentialism What’s the best outcome? Theft of wages from an employer increases the work for others and reduces the labor budget available to others. As such, Sally’s theft is (on balance) detrimental, so Bob reports her conduct to their boss.
Natural Law What would we expect a regular person to do? By reporting Sally, Bob will uphold a universal truth that people who have been injured by theft should be made whole, and that people who violate norms of conduct should not have their transgressions ignored.
Divine Command What does God will? As a devout Christian, Bob knows that stealing is wrong, so he encourages Sally to report herself and make restitution to their boss, and to repent to the Lord.
Virtue What would a good person do? Because stealing for any reason is the mark of a weak person, Bob does not hesitate to report Sally to their boss.
Care What resolution preserves our relationships? Bob approaches Sally to ask why she’s been mismarking her timecards. He suspects that if she is struggling financially, he can help her out — but fundamentally he wants to help her stop her theft so he doesn’t have to report her to their boss.

Sometimes people get confused and think that because different people can make different ethical decisions for different reasons, that therefore morality as a concept is unworkable. Untrue. The complex moral reasoning of most ordinary people resembles the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator: One or two paradigms are dominant, another one or two sometimes crop up, and others almost never make an appearance.

If your characters consistently behave as humans would behave in the real world, then not only are your characters more plausible, but the conflicts generated by their clashes are more powerful. Never underestimate the power of base moral conflict to drive tension and keep a plot advancing. When done well, these psychological studies drive powerful reader engagement and lead to more compelling stories.

How I Edit: Assessing Inbound Queries

We’re now several hundred submissions into the reading window for Vol. 2, Issue 1, of The 3288 Review. As publisher and fiction editor of this beautiful quarterly journal of arts and letters, it falls to me to perform the first substantive read on inbound fiction pieces. (Elyse Wild handles non-fiction and Leigh Jajuga covers poetry; these talented colleagues receive, as I do, work that gets past the initial and very cursory “is this legit?” scan performed by editor-in-chief John Winkelman.)

Let’s begin, however, with a very important disclaimer: The content that follows offers insight into how I triage inbound queries. No two editors flay the same hobbyhorses. What matters to me, might not matter to someone else; the protocols we use at Caffeinated Press probably aren’t duplicated in toto at other small- and mid-sized publishers. My goal is to give you insight into the evaluation process, but this process is inherently subjective and you should not read my comments as suggesting a universally optimal route to sail past the first buoy. In other words: When you hear how one editor edits, you’ve heard how one editor edits, so keep your grains of salt handy.

One more thing: Our editorial-review process is blinded, so as fiction editor, I don’t know the identity of the submitter. All I see is a de-identified synopsis and the de-identified story.

OK. Enough foreplay. So here’s my process, in order:

  1. In 10 seconds or less I scroll down through the entire story to eyeball overall length and to look for obvious challenges that might bedevil layout. Stuff like embedded graphics, changes in typeface, sections with unusual spacing, etc. — all of those earn automatic rejections, because our templates cannot incorporate those variations.
  2. Less quickly — perhaps 3 seconds per page, scrolling up — I look for more subtle visual cues that the story isn’t ready for prime time. Key offenders here are paragraph length (too many long blocks?) and the use of frequent internal subheads or other non-standard breaks in narration, like numbers or asterisks or boldface type. Section breaks are neither a good thing nor a bad thing, but very many of them within a short story sometimes suggests a weakly structured plot, so my “plot coherence” antenna rises while I read. I also keep an order-of-magnitude mental tally of how often I see ellipses; the higher the number, the more likely it is I’ll reject the piece without having read it.
  3. When I’m back on the first page, I look at how that first page is structured. Does it default to a double-spaced, 1-inch-margin text area on 8.5-inch-by-11-inch paper? Does it use a conservative serif typeface at 11 or 12 points? Does it ensure that paragraphs are effected by hanging indents instead of manual tab insertions? Are there any superfluous elements (e.g., word counts, drop caps) that are wholly unnecessary in an age of electronic documents? Conversely, does it appear that the writer — as evidenced by the exacting precision of the visual presentation — fails to understand that all we’ll do is copy the text into Adobe InDesign, rendering all that fancy layout work moot? Much info about a writer’s professionalism carries forward into how the first page appears. Too sloppy, or too perfect, are both a mark of an early-career author. What matters is that the content is served up in a way that doesn’t call attention to itself and doesn’t generate a clean-up nightmare when that content is imported into InDesign.
  4. Perhaps 5 percent of the time, I reject the piece after I read the first sentence. If it’s a cliché, or if it contains a spelling or grammar error, or if it packs too many facts — I stop reading. I don’t care what follows. If the very first sentence is screwed up, the story has removed itself from consideration.
  5. I ask a series of very subjective questions as I read the first page: Does the opening grab my attention? Does it belabor backstory or foray into extended set-up narration? How many syntax errors accumulate in the first 250 words? Are speech tags properly deployed? Does diction flow naturally? Does the writer use strong verbs instead of relying on passive constructions, modals or ESL verbs? How many adverbs could be deleted? Is point-of-view consistent? Is narrative voice consistent? Probably half of all stories I reject, I kill by the end of the first page. It’s imperative that authors nail their opening scene. I don’t stop reading after the first page because I’m a meanie-head who likes crushing dreams. I stop reading because I have several dozen more stories to triage and odds are above 99 percent that defects on the first page pervade the story as a whole, and I’m not going to waste my time chasing the 1 percent that were great overall but just had a weak start.
  6. Of the remaining 50 percent of stories I reject, the decision comes usually by the middle of the piece. Sometimes the first few paragraphs really nail it, but then the story veers into an all-tell-no-show narrative backstory. Dialogue appears (hopefully) and either it works or it doesn’t. If we get past the first page, the problems that doom a submission usually relate to story itself — descriptions, pacing, conflict, voice, plausibility — and not to syntax errors. People can be technically flawless writers and yet remain incapable of telling a convincing story; similarly, people can be expert storytellers yet have no real technical acumen. People who get published, however, have enough of both skills to pass by the editorial gatekeepers.
  7. On occasion — again, perhaps 5 percent of the time — I reject based on the last sentence or paragraph of the story. Such rejection usually follows from a bait-and-switch where the author wanted to “surprise” the reader with a twist at the end, or some other major change to the plot in the last 200 or so words that made much of the reader’s up-front investment moot. Few stories are as dissatisfying as the ones that lack conflict resolution, or suddenly fly off into uncharted territory at the 1-yard line.
  8. If I accept the story, then the first of two evaluations has passed successfully. We “vote” on queries with a drop-down field that assigns a numerical score — a 6 means “accept strong” while a 1 means “reject strong,” indicating that the stories were either glorious or gloriously awful. Lots of pieces come in at a 4 (“accept weak”) or a 3 (“reject weak”), meaning they’re borderline. And some are perfectly ordinary 5s (“accept normal”) or 2s (“reject normal”). At the end of the reading window, we sort through stories that earned a first-pass acceptance; we identify a set number of pieces for inclusion in each of the major content categories — fiction, non-fiction, poetry — and begin second-pass evaluation. Usually, we take all 6s and (almost) all 5s. Then we look, as space permits, through the 4s and bring in the ones that show the most promise.

Put into context, your odds of publication hover around 6 percent to 8 percent. For Vol. 1, Issue 4, we received 120 fiction submissions; of those, I accepted 20 on the first pass and we contracted seven after the second pass. For Vol. 2, Issue 1, I’ve (so far) accepted three of 43 submissions, with another month to go in the reading window.

Writers tend to make the same mistakes that doom their work to the rejection pile, a manifestation of the Pareto Principle at play in the literary world. These errors aren’t unique to me as an editor or The 3288 Review as a market — editors and agents across America’s amber waves of grain see them. All the time. In no particular order, these points constitute perhaps 80 percent or more of the reasons I’ve declined to accept a submission:

  • Obvious, pervasive grammar errors.
  • Weak writing style (e.g., over-reliance on adverbs or weak main verbs).
  • Punctuation problems including putting commas outside of quote marks, using single quotes to delimit mental speech, and over-reliance on ellipses in dialogue.
  • Too much telling, not enough showing.
  • Inconsistent narrative voice.
  • Inconsistent point-of-view.
  • Extended backstory or world-building — especially long passages in narration about what different characters “always thought” or conveniently remembered about the past.
  • The primary conflict offers no satisfactory resolution to justify the readers’ engagement.
  • Implausible plot — too many coincidences, improbable character behaviors, MacGuffins, logical fallacies, etc.

The best way to protect yourself from rejections for these reasons? Find a few competent beta readers. If you’ve never edited, you might not believe it, but for those of us who’ve edited hundreds or thousands of different writers over the years, it’s obvious from the first page which authors availed themselves of peer review and which didn’t. A good peer reader will catch the typos, the punctuation errors, the humdrum prose. This “one weird trick” of revising in light of solid peer review will substantially boost your odds of landing into the 7 percent.

There. Done. You’ve seen the highlights of my process and understand the most common reasons for rejection. The question — nay, the challenge — to you, therefore, is: Are you ready to write, and to find beta readers, and to submit your work for publication? I’m eager to give people a few well-deserved 6s.

Sell Your Books!

Caffeinated Press is pleased — giddy, even — to attend this year’s Ann Arbor Book Festival. On Saturday, June 18, from noon until 5 p.m., we’ll be participating as a retail vendor during the downtown street fair. Drop by to purchase books, chat with us or hobnob with many of the region’s up-and-coming authors. Washington Street, between 4th and 5th, is blocked off for the afternoon.

Wish you could come, but can’t? That’s OK — we have a 10×10 table, so there’s plenty of space for us to schlep the self-published/small-press-published works of local authors, and to provide propaganda from our local retail and literary partners.

You have until June 12 to bring us your stuff. Here be ye details:

  • For promotional materials, just bring them or drop them in the mail — but we won’t print them for you. No fee.
  • For books, contact us to arrange for a drop-off time in our office. We will sign a simple consignment form. We do not assess an up-front fee, but we withhold 10 percent of the retail price for every unit sold because we will handle the payment of Michigan’s 6 percent sales tax as well as the roughly 2.7 percent credit-card interchange fees.

When the event is done, we’ll return unsold copies as well as a check for the funds due to you.

What better time to get some exposure on the East Side of the Mitten?

The Discipline of Writing

Several weeks ago, after I explained Caffeinated Press to a colleague of mine in a different industry, she looked at me with a sense of awe and said: “I could never find the time to write a book.” This, from an experienced nurse leader who single-handedly re-wrote her entire organization’s clinical procedure manual. While raising teenagers!

Sometimes people who’ve never written, yet aspire to, adjudge the novel-writing process as some sort of grueling journey that involves alcoholism and cats and occasional, uncomfortable engagement with one’s inner Emo Teen. Even people who do write sometimes view long-form composition as the literary equivalent of scaling Mt. Everest in a thong whilst carrying a mesh rucksack stuffed with a dozen angry porcupines.

But fundamentally, writing the Great American Novel isn’t much different from studying a martial art or learning to scuba dive or qualifying for the Boston Marathon: You need a wee bit o’ talent, of course, but success follows from mastery, which follows from putting in the time to advance from novice to expert.

Writing, foremost, is a discipline. It’s a thing to do repeatedly and without public accolade, just like going to karate practice four or five times per week over three or four years is a prerequisite to earning a black belt. Or like doing your 50 logged dives to get your Master Diver rating. Or like following a year-long couch-to-marathon training program to complete a long run in a respectable time after a decade as a Netflix-binging layabout. For all these hard-to-attain goals, innate talent might make the initial effort a bit easier, but success attaches to the person who does the work, even if he started from the back of the pack. Diligence usually trumps raw talent.

If writing is important to you, you’ll make time for it. If it’s not, then you won’t. Period. You’re unlikely to be successful if you don’t consistently write; you’re almost guaranteed to be unsuccessful if you spend the time you could be writing, instead whining about how little time you have to write.

Suggestions for cultivating the discipline:

  1. Gauge your own seriousness. If you want to be a writer, then you have to write. (Sensing a message yet?) If you merely like the idea of being a writer, then you’re in a whole different bucket. Are you willing to make the “you” of your fantasy life converge with the “you” in the real world?
  2. Schedule your writing time. People dedicated to physical fitness plan their lives around their gym times. Martial-arts schools offer classes on fixed schedules. Pianists spend evenings tickling the ivory. So when are you writing? Block time early in the day, or late in the evening — or even reserve half your lunch hour to sit in a quiet place with your notebook. Frequent repetition of short scribbling periods may be more useful than intermitent but longer writing sessions.
  3. Use your downtime effectively. Take the bus to work? Bring a notebook. Stuck on I-90 during a Chicago rush hour? Dictate ideas into your phone’s voice-memo app. Waiting three hours to get through a TSA checkpoint? Cry. But also haul out your Moleskin and work out the details of your next scene. Waiting for your kidlet’s ballet class to end? Tote your laptop to the studio with you. If you keep a tablet or a notebook handy at all times, there’s really no excuse to not have at least a little creative time during your day.
  4. Maintain a journal. Sometimes it helps to get “meta” about your writing. Keep a journal wherein you reflect on your growth as a writer — record stuff like how you broke a writer’s block, how you figured out how to fix a broken scene, why you might be having a dry spell or why you found a particular anecdote or quote to be inspiring. It helps to write about your craft of writing! Just like a karate student keeps an attendance card, or a diver keeps a diving log, or a runner keeps a list of personal records — so also should a writer keep journal. Exact same principle.
  5. Read difficult material. Don’t block yourself into a literary rabbit hole. Read literary journals and anthologies. Read the classics and material outside of your genre. Consume both fiction and non-fiction, prose and poetry. If all you ever read is stuff you like, you are depriving your self of the ability to see the richness of the literary world in all its various styles and themes. Focusing on “your” genre is like wearing goggles that only let you see your favorite color: The result might be pretty, but you lose the environmental context that would otherwise have helped you avoid falling to your death through an open manhole cover.
  6. Learn from St. Augustine. My favorite quote from one of the Fathers of the Church: “Lord, make me holy — but not yet.” Put differently: “I want to write a best-selling, award-willing novel — but not yet.” Take that “not yet” time to experiment and grow your craft. Errors, failures and misdirections are inevitable. Don’t despair. Setting out to write, as a “virgin author,” the next great installment in American Lit, will disappoint you. Don’t aim high. Aim low: Pepper the ground with salvos of crap. That kind of target practice helps you improve your shot from a distance — and eventually, you’ll be ready to take down the Next Great Novel.

You have no excuse to avoid writing.

Wheat from Chaff

A few months ago, I downloaded several ebooks about editing and publishing as market research for a book proposal idea that’s been rollin’ ‘twixt my earholes since late last year. I’ve recently finished two: Jane Friedman’s Publishing 101: A First-Time Author’s Guide and Five Editors Tackle the 12 Fatal Flaws of Fiction Writing by C.S. Lakin, Linda S. Clare, Christy Distler, Robin Patchen and Rachel Starr Thomson. A few more related titles still await review on my Kindle.

Friedman’s treatment is spot-on; it’s one of the few books for which I had no qualms leaving five-star reviews on Amazon and Goodreads. Her approach is comprehensive, yet nuanced, and her advice is solid. Although I’ve been leading the editorial operations for a small press for more than two years, and I’ve been publishing and fiction-editing a quarterly literary journal for one year, I still learned enough stuff (and obtained some new perspectives!) that I thought my $4.99 was money well spent.

But this essay isn’t about Friedman’s advice, good as it is.

That other book — Five Editors — presents a tougher case. On the one hand, I’m a fan of C.S. Lakin in general; her name sold the ebook to me. And the “12 fatal flaws” are, in my view, a solid distillation of the various structural problems that diminish the manuscripts that these accomplished editors have reviewed. Indeed, I read the 12 and remain impressed by their curation effort.


The five editors very helpfully offer a “before” and “after” passage wherein they demonstrate the fatal flaw and how it might be mitigated. In general, their efforts are solid; I agree that they correctly diagnosed the problems and offered specific, helpful advice. Although an experienced author might not find the entire book to be useful, an intermediate author will likely find the flaws and their corrections to be a good way to sharpen his saw. A novice author, however, will probably be led astray — because the “good” examples are astonishingly monochromatic.

By monochromatic I mean that the passages all seemed to have the exact same linguistic feel. Regardless of the fatal flaw under discussion, “good” overwhelmingly pointed to a very specific narrative voice as being ideal. This voice — rendered in third person subjective with narration intermingling dispassionate facts (e.g., “she opened the cabinet so the cat could hop out”) with non-italic mental asides from the point-of-view character (e.g., “This place is going to drive me bonkers”) — is fine, in some contexts. But it’s not normative despite being the only real voice presented with enthusiasm within the book.

It’s worth noting, I think, that the editors are also published, and several tend to write “women’s fiction” and YA. Those genres often admit to a narrative voice different from, for example, a horror story or detective fiction. However, a voice that may work for YA won’t work for all genres, and the specific voice advocated by these editors opens the door to myrid POV-confusion problems and the tendency for authors to insert their own personal snark into the story. This voice, I think, is much more open to a commingling of the POV character’s personality with the author’s personality, leaving a tell-tale thumbprint of the author’s own attitude that — if done to excess — inserts a competing metanarrative into the story. Significantly (because the trope permeated the “good” examples) it also encourages the use of rhetorical questions within narration; those questions serve as a not-at-all subtle attempt to kick the reader down a very specific plot or conflict pathway. This approach to writing runs the risk of over-proscribing the readers’ emotional engagement with the story.

(In fact, the editors were so consistently insistent that writers include “emotion” in their work that you can’t escape, based on their advice, the exact emotional response the reader is supposed to experience. The reader is denied a chance to co-create the world with the author and to walk away with an emotional reaction that wasn’t laid down in concrete by the author. It’s writing for a lazy audience, in my view.)

For what it’s worth, as fiction editor of The 3288 Review, I’m averse to accepting stories written in the voice deployed by the five editors. There’s just too much that can go wrong when inexperienced authors try their hand at it, and even for experienced writers, it doesn’t always work well. Some of the “good passages” — especially later in their book — left me groaning. I would not accept those snippets for publication.

For example:

“So.” Brady finished his sandwich and wiped his fingers on a napkin. “Are you going to tell me about him?”

Rae pictured Johnny sleeping soundly upstairs. How did Brady know? “Him who?”

“The man who put that ring on your finger.”

Right. Him. “What about him?”

“Where is he?”


“Why isn’t he with you?”


Brady closed his lips in a tight line, and she recognized the look of frustration. “What?”

You get the picture. We have rhetorical questions, objective narration and POV-character mental asides (snarky ones, at that) woven seamlessly into the narration. Stuff like this, I typically route to the rejection pile, yet it’s presented as being the best way to write prose.

Like I said: The curated content is good, and the technical advice for fixing the “fatal flaws” is fine. But that voice — yikes. I’d think thrice before aping it.

Beyond a critical review of Five Editors, I think the real lesson here is that most of the current texts on the market that attempt to teach writers how to write, do so from a niche perspective that cannot translate into a universally useful construct. Notably, Friedman doesn’t offer much writing advice; she focuses on the business side of authorship. Lakin et al. bypass publishing altogether to emphasize writing technique, but from a situational bias that doesn’t speak to a very large chunk of the author spectrum.

The moral, I think, is that writing advice is a lot like fashion advice: If you like a person’s style, you’ll probably find their advice salutary; if you think they dress poorly, you’re unlikely to want to follow suit. While it may be true that certain writing rules apply broadly, or even universally, the application of those rules can vary widely as a function of genre and story length. So approach how-to-write manuals with care: Use them for advice, not as a template for your own writing.

Reduce Your Risk of Rejection with One Painful Step

Authors who write for publication understand that rejections constitute the lion’s share of reactions they’ll receive to the work they pitch. Even first-rate authors get them. For the most part, they cannot be avoided.

But “you can’t avoid a rejection” is a very different concept from “you can’t avoid the avoidable reasons for rejection.” Publishers reject works all the time that might be good, or even great, but don’t fit the publisher’s editorial calendar or current target market. Works that do fit the catalog like a glove, however, sometimes fail for the eminently avoidable reason that the work wasn’t yet ready for querying.

We at Caffeinated Press see this phenomenon a lot. We must, with depressing regularity, reject submissions that fall within our bailiwick but were sent to us before they were truly ripe. Unlike other publishers or editors bloviating on the Web, we do not believe that most of what we get is garbage. It isn’t. Maybe we’re lucky, or maybe we’re not so jaded (yet), but most stuff we get is reasonably competent. The problem, though, is that adequacy isn’t sufficient. Given the volume of submissions we vet, you really do need to be in the top decile of authors for us to extend a contact offer. Good isn’t necessarily good enough.

As it happens, there’s one solid way to advance your work to the higher end of the talent pool. The technique is conceptually simple, usually cost-free and mostly helpful.

The technique? Beta readers.

A beta reader is a person — preferably, a published author — who is intimately familiar with the rules of your genre and enjoys experience in writing and editing works of similar length to your own. Having one is great; having several is even better.

A good beta reader is:

  1. A professional writer. A fellow undergrad English major is rarely the right person for the job. You need someone who’s edited, and been edited, and has successfully navigated the query process to have been published several times before. Inexperienced peer editors can sometimes cause more harm than good.
  2. Accomplished in your genre. A romance writer doesn’t necessarily “get” horror. And vice versa. A beta reader will, in part, help you to conform to relevant genre conventions, so finding someone who actually understands those conventions is really rather important.
  3. Accustomed to working with material of similar length to your own. Flash is radically different from short stories, which are radically different from novellas, which are radically different from epics. Each length category has its own tips and tricks. The scrivener of epic fantasy trilogies will be of somewhat limited assistance in perfecting a mystery clocking in at 8,000 words.
  4. Understands grammar and style. You need at least one beta reader who’s Certified Grammar Nazi. These CGNs will not only help you fix the obvious problems (ahem, punctuation outside the quote marks or single quotes for dialogue or wild over-use of ellipses) but also more subtle problems like misplaced modifiers or weak diction that are often the first things a publisher will look to as a first-pass reason for rejecting a manuscript.
  5. Understands plot, conflict, characterization and point-of-view. Your CGN may or may not help with the arc of the story as a whole. Ideally, a beta reader can help you fix structural flaws that transpire over several scenes or even the entire story — for example, in ensuring the coherence of narrative POV or uncovering plot holes or foreshadowing misfires.
  6. Won’t pull punches. If your beta reader returns a manuscript with a few generic suggestions and lots of praise, such response isn’t a sign that you nailed the story. Rather, it’s a sign you found an incompetent beta reader. A good peer editor will rip your story to shreds. Even great stories benefit from a healthy flow of red ink over the page. You must welcome and encourage rough, controversial, tough comments. They’ll sting when you read them, but — like a tequila shot — it’s a good kind of hurt.
  7. Isn’t your Aunt Ethel. Friends and family might make decent alpha readers (i.e., the folks who see your actual first draft), but they aren’t good candidates for beta readers.

When you receive feedback from a beta reader, understand that (a) it won’t be fun to read, and (b) you can ignore what you wish, but (c) you ought to take every piece of feedback seriously and evaluate it with grace. Some readers are more quick than others to insert dismissable personal preferences, but in general, if you picked the right person, then that person’s advice deserves respectful consideration.

Three things about submitting material to a publisher that hasn’t been revised by one or more beta readers:

  • Sometimes you’ll get lucky and a small press or literary journal will pick up your pitch. In effect, the press’s editors serve as the beta readers. Or you might find an agent who will serve as a beta reader because he or she really wanted the material. But there’s often some other consideration that’s in play. For example, we’ve accepted work we knew (because we asked!) wasn’t edited in light of beta review, but the package as a whole checked certain boxes we were interested in. However, “lucky” != “common.” Skipping beta readers is, in almost all cases, a self-inflected injury.
  • Publishers really can figure out — usually, within the first 500 words or so — that a piece hasn’t been reviewed by a competent beta reader. The tells are pretty obvious, actually: Typos, improperly attributed speech, grammar blunders, punctuation outside quote marks, humdrum dialogue, etc. When you’ve read hundreds or thousands of submissions, you soon master the warning signs. It’s skill, not cynicism, and if you think you’re such a natural talent that you can pull the wool over an experienced editor’s eyes … well, good luck with that.
  • No matter how many times you’ve reviewed your own material, if you haven’t substantially revised it in light of feedback by beta readers competent to edit works in your length and genre, you’re still working on your first draft. Period. End of discussion. And sending a publisher a first draft is, to be clear, a very strong telegraph of the author’s immaturity as a writer and lack of professionalism as a content creator.

I hear the lament: “But, but, but, I don’t know where to find one of these magical beta readers.” They’re actually easier to find than you’d think. Join writer’s groups, for starters. Or, better yet, join more than one. Attend writers’ workshops and conferences. Sign up for websites — there are many! — where authors trade chapters for detailed critique. And if you are 100 percent sure you can’t find a beta reader, consider hiring a professional book editor.

One of the worst things an author can do is shop queries on the open market for material that hasn’t been substantially revised in light of feedback from competent beta readers. This error, however, is easily avoided. But to get there, you’ll have to do one of the hardest things that writers ever have to face: You’ll have to socialize with your peers and put your work out there for review.

It’s tough, sometimes. In a way, it’s psychologically easier to send a half-baked manuscript to a publisher and receive a rejection letter, than to send a work-in-progress to a person you know in the real world and then learn what that peer thinks of your skill as an author. But if your goal is publication, you must get beyond the self-doubt and embrace all the peer criticism you can get your hands on, because when you eventaully nail that peer-reviewed final draft, your odds of success with publishers and agents will increase significantly.

How I’ve Written: A Voyage of Exploration

The Word Processing app, in all its DOS-graphics glory.
The Word Processing app, in all its DOS-graphics glory. (Image courtesy WinWorldPC.)

A few weeks ago, whilst burrowing down the rabbit-hole of Teh Interwebs, I came across a website that offers abandonware — i.e., software that used to be available commercially but is now so old, and the publisher now long gone, such that it sits out there in some sort of licensing limbo.

A particular title (the awkwardly named “Better Working Eight in One,” later renamed to the still-awkward “Spinnaker Eight in One”) caught my eye. In the mid 1990s, that program was my go-to software suite. Running from the MS-DOS prompt, this application contained a word processor, a spreadsheet, a FileMaker-like database, an address book and even a simple tool for creating business charts.

Me being me, I installed DOSbox and actually got the darn thing working on my Windows 10 laptop. I reveled in the nostalgia for a while. But the experience led me to reflect on just how much my administrative approach to writing has changed over the last two decades.

When I was in high school, in the early 1990s, I wrote school papers and even some creative short stories on one of four devices:

  • My beloved Commodore 64C and GeoWrite
  • My 1940s-era Royal KMM manual typewriter
  • My not-at-all-beloved Packard Bell 486sx PC
  • My curious Brother WP-3400 typewriter-slash-word-processor thingamabob

Creative writing on those devices went something like this: I’d sketch ideas out on paper, with a pencil. When I was satisfied with my notes, I’d move to the device and then I was off to the races. To the extent that I self-edited, it usually involved printing something and tweaking it with standard proofreaders’ marks.

By the time I got to college, I had used some student loan funds to buy a beefy, bleeding-edge PC (with a Pentium processor, no less!) and worked mostly in Windows 95 and, occasionally, in OS/2 Warp. I didn’t do much creative writing at that point; I used Microsoft Word 6.0 — an under-appreciated powerhouse — for coursework and life continued.

When I drafted editorials and columns for the Western Herald, I just wrote in Word or NewsEdit Pro and didn’t do a ton of prep work. Later, for my blogging, I outlined in WordPress and then filled in the outline with narrative.

Yet when I got back into the creative-writing groove a few years ago, it took me a while to settle on the “how I do this” question of writing. I evolved through several phases:

  1. Preliminary sketching with pencil-upon-Moleskine, then outline in OneNote (sometimes, at considerable length) and then write in Word. I’d keep both apps open and use the OneNote page to highlight edit notes, reminders or research. This method had the advantage of simplicity, insofar as I already owned both applications. However, my notes remained disconnected from my writing, so I really did need to have two separate programs open simultaneously.
  2. Do everything in Scrivener. When I purchased a license for Scrivener for Windows, I thought I was in hog heaven. And, to a degree, I was — I still write frequently with the program. I like how Scrivener keeps all my notes in one place and allows for extensive outlining and statusing. The downside, though, is that although Scrivener saves projects in Rich Text Format files, a larger project isn’t just “a file.” It’s a collection of files and folders, with internal RTF docs named numerically. So sharing a chapter with someone, for example, requires exports from Scrivener. For me, a Scrivener-only writing flow consists of making character and plot notes (down to detailed scene synopses) using the program’s rich featureset. Then, when I have my notes/planning done, I just start writing, using the customizable drop-downs to manage progress. It works well, but now that I publish as well as write, I realize that WYSIWYG documents are a nightmare to prepare for a commercial-press run.
  3. Do everything in one plain-text file. I use WriteMonkey increasingly often. I can activate full-screen mode (amber-on-black text) and write without distractions. The tool supports a board-style plug-in so I can keep basic notes, but the real meat comes from using Markdown in plain text. With Markdown, I don’t have to worry about formatting problems across platforms (like migration to EPUB or layout in Adobe InDesign). It just works. And in WriteMonkey, I can comment out sections (e.g., a synopsis or work-in-progress notes) and, on export, omit those commented sections entirely. It’s a happy medium between minimalist “pantsing” and maximalist “plan in excruciating detail” approaches to creative writing. This copy flow obviously doesn’t require WM; I also use Emacs, Q10 and Visual Studio Code. But WM has a richer set of additional tools for exporting files according to specific CSS templates, as well as countdown timers. And, not insignificantly, plain-text files work really, really well with repository tools like Git and Subversion.

I don’t think there’s a “One Weird Trick” approach to building a writer’s toolkit that will work for everyone. The ways I’ve written in the past don’t work for me today, and today’s method may not work for me a year from now. What’s important is that your infrastructure blend into the background; you should use it, without being aware that it’s there. And when it doesn’t work, change it up. But, beware: It’s seductively simple to get drawn into a morass of continuous tweaking such that you never really manage to get any writing done.

The Mysterious Art of Preparing a Fiction Synopsis

Although publisher/agent guidelines vary in the specifics, most novel queries require a cover letter, one to three sample chapters and a synopsis. Synopses, however, tend to bedevil early-career writers. They’re presented, usually, as an afterthought, or as some sort of back-of-the-cover tease — and therefore, the synopsis becomes the silent killer of what otherwise could have been a perfect pitch.

The sample serves just one purpose: It shows the editor whether you can coherently write in English. The sample reveals your line-level ability as an author, as demonstrated by your word choice, punctuation precision, use of speech tags and avoidance of grammatical error.

The synopsis, however, must communicate several important things about the totality of the work you’re selling:  The structure/arc of the plot, the genre, an overarching theme or didactic bent, highlights about the setting/world, the main characters and their motivation, and the plot’s central conflict. And it must do all this heavy lifting in a constrained space and with a sense of detached specificity. You are not, for example, writing back-of-the-cover blurbs. You aren’t trying to dazzle the editor (that’s what the cover letter is for). You’re just trying to present a fair distillation of your long-form work in a short-form package, in a manner that helps the editor understand whether the story suffers major structural problems like implausible conflict, weak characterization, plot holes, genre nonconformanc and weak structure. You’re also, in a sense, giving the editor some insight into your creative capability and also helping the editor determine whether your pitch fits the current needs of the publisher’s catalog.

Interestingly, there’s a ton of contradictory advice about synopses on the Internet. The Writer’s Digest people offer interesting advice, particularly about long-length synopses, whereas Jane Friedman’s excellent overview emphasizes the shorter approach. The one rule you must follow, I think, is to shape your synopsis to the requirements of the intended audience. Read the editorial guidelines, or inquire about the long-vs.-short distinction, before you submit your query package!

A Tale of Four Synopses

Consider writing four separate “synopses” of your work and having each of them ready for when the need arises. (You should write these before you begin querying, so you have time to have them reviewed by beta readers before you unleash them upon the world.)

Long Synopsis. In the days of yore, when manuscripts were typewritten at double-spaced, 1-inch margins, the convention was that you drafted one page of synopsis for every 35 pages of manuscript. If your typewritten novel clocked in at 320 pages, then you wrote a nine-page synopsis — formatted exactly like the manuscript. Most authors don’t type nowadays, but the 1:35 benchmark still proves useful. If you wrote a 70,000-word novel, draft a 2,000-word synopsis. A long synopsis is good for novels, but not so good for novellas and shorter works.

Short Synopsis. Limit yourself to around 500 words, or the equivlent of two printed pages. Otherwise, it’s the same deal as a long synopsis. Ideal for novellas and novelettes.

Marketing Blurb. You have 250 words to write a back-of-the-cover blurb to entice readers to buy your book. Usually, the publisher writes the back cover, but your version of the back blurb informs the editor about how you view the story as a product — and it’s never a bad idea to have some marketing copy at the ready. Just in case. The blurb can, and probably should, tease the plot without revealing too much. You may find a good use for this blurb on your author website. Strictly, this material isn’t a synopsis, but it can be used to good effect to help readers get excited about your work.

Elevator Pitch. Three sentences, max — what’s the story about and why should the reader care? You should memorize your elevator pitch so when you’re asked about your story, you have it rehearsed. A confident delivery is better than struggling to explain your work. For example: “Opening with the last gasp of Antebellum South, Gone with the Wind shares Scarlett’s story of love and wealth and how one woman overcame the horrors of war to set her own path in Reconstruction Georgia. This work of historical fiction, over its 425,000 words, offers a detailed insight into the culture of the Confederacy in the context of one young woman coming of age as the war transforms her family from wealthy plantation owners into poverty-stricken refugees. With hints of romance and lessons about the seductive power of cultural nostalgia, Gone with the Wind reminds us of life’s impermanence and our need to remain emotionally strong to power through adversity.”

Best Practices

A synopsis that’s just a weak afterthought deprives the editor of some of the most essential context of your story. When you draft your synopsis, consider the following advice:

  1. Format the synopsis exactly like you formatted the manuscript unless the recipient specifies to the contrary. Typical formatting uses 1-inch margins, double-spaced text and a conservative/traditional typeface set at 12 points. Number all pages except the first. At the top of the synopsis page, indicate the genre, word count and story title. Then dive right in. Your goal is function, not form; don’t waste the time trying to make the synopsis pretty.
  2. Some publishers just ask for a “two-page synopsis.” Don’t try to shove too much content into this constrained space by varying font size, line spacing and margins.
  3. Only include your contact information on the synopsis if it was specifically requested.
  4. Write in narrative form without sections or labels; don’t treat a synopsis as a bullet-point list or as a grid in Excel that breaks the story’s constituent parts into a visual matrix.
  5. When a character is mentioned for the first time, the standard convention is to render the character’s name in ALL CAPS. For the most important subset of characters, offer basic demographic detail — sex, age, etc. Avoid detailed character backstory, though. Provide just enough context to explain the character’s relevance to the plot.
  6. Plot and conflict are intertwined. Although you should touch on the main pivot points in the plot (and major subplots!), ensure that you offer enough context about characters’ motivations at those pivot points to help the editor assess the plot’s coherence and plausibility.
  7. Brevity is the soul of wit — but if you’re too brief, you might not make the cut. There’s absolutely an art to writing synopses, but the point of the synopsis isn’t to highlight your rarified diction or penchant for elegant turns of phrase. The job here is to communicate cleanly, without pretense or artifice, but also without omitting essential information about the story for the sake of rhetorical ornamentation.
  8. The synopsis is a sales pitch, but it’s not marketing copy. You’ll want to establish the major characters and primary plot points early on, and with enough context to make the subsequent action and characters plausible. Tee up what’s important from the first few chapters. The synopsis is one place where brief assertions of something are better than extended descriptions.
  9. The synopsis should follow the same sequence as the events in the novel. You’re condensing, not rewriting, when you draft a synopsis. Think of it as the Cliff’s Notes version of your story.
  10. Use the present tense and third-person language, no matter how the book’s narration is structured.
  11. An occasional line or two of dialogue may be OK, but no more than that.
  12. Explain the ending. Authors with a “shocking plot twist” sometimes think that the editor wants to be teased into reading the full story. We don’t. We want you to tell us exactly how the story ends, without misdirection or ambiguity.
  13. Consider using the narrative approach that Friedman advocates, of joining a specific incident to the character’s reaction to it that results in a decision point that advances to the next incident.
  14. Don’t get meta. The synopsis shouldn’t talk about the story-as-story. For example, avoid, “This charming tale of love and lust begins on a deserted island …”

Book Proposals

Technical non-fiction work, like textbooks or cookbooks, uses a formal book proposal. Many publishers won’t accept pitches for unfinished fiction work; however, many publishers don’t want to be pitched finished non-fiction stuff. Book proposals follow their own logic.

Pro tip: Never use the word “proposal” in a cover letter for a fiction query. Editors and agents will often automatically dismiss authors who do not understand the difference between fiction queries and non-fiction proposals.

A Note to Our Submitters

Caffeinated Press prefers long synopses for works above 35,000 words or a short synopsis for stories between 5,000 and 35,000 words. Your elevator pitch should be incorporated into the cover letter. For short stories, a 250-word synopsis will usually suffice.

The Layers of an Author’s Onion: Getting Started as an Author

Writing — even when it’s undertaken with friends at a writers’ circle or at a coffee shop — is an inherently solitary affair. Authors aren’t coders; we rarely sit down to collaborate on the exact same manuscript as if we were developing a website or a mobile app.

So the heart of writing starts with a single person. You. The author. The creator of worlds and the spinner of yarns as yet unwoven.

But “you, the author” almost surely cannot succeed as a published writer if the totality of your support network may be viewed in a sufficiently clean bathroom mirror. Authors need layers of support to help them hone their craft and arrive at book deals with publishers. They need a whole literary infrastructure beyond themselves to arrive at the right product at the right place at the right time with the right level of skill, that will achieve the sales it deserves.

The first layer of that onion, beyond your self-referential heart, is your writing tribe. Think of these folks as the people with whom you routinely talk about writing. The tribe might be a group of friends who get together weekly or monthly to write and to bounce ideas off of each other, or it might be a virtual group of people (stable over time!) who trade writing prompts and motivation in a quiet corner of the Interwebs. The tribe is your sword and shield as a writer. A good tribe will hold you accountable — usually, by making progress with your word count. And they’ll offer a shoulder to cry on when you get frustrated with a plot dead-end or a character who just doesn’t fit.

The next layer out consists of peer beta readers. Your tribe might make good alpha readers, but a good beta reader knows your genre and is experienced in writing at your length (novel, short story, novella, flash, etc.). Usually, beta readers are either published authors or unpublished but well-read colleagues who understand both syntax and story development and will not spare bad news when it’s warranted. Your Aunt Ethel is unlikely to be a good beta reader, for example, but the author who recently released a book in your genre with a local press might make an excellent candidate. You must grow a network of beta readers; you’ll rarely be successful if you just randomly ask competent people to perform a detailed critique of your work (for free!) without having built a relationship first.

The third layer consists of fellow authors within your sphere of activity. Most towns of any appreciable size have some form of a literary community. So you’ll have access to poetry readings, writers’ conferences, author events, workshops, etc. The key phrase, though, is “within your sphere of activity.” For example, people who enjoy writing short stories in sci-fi or speculative fiction represent a fairly constrained population. Many of these folks, however, are active at a regional level. You could go to a con or a retreat and begin to network. Most authors welcome new contacts within the community. When you’re finally published and need an established author to blurb you, these are the folks to whom you’ll turn first.

The final layer consists of the community of readers who enjoy works like yours. Book fairs, writing events, library functions — these are all places to meet people who like the kind of stuff that you, in theory, will produce. So get to know them. Learn their quirks. Pay attention to what they say they loved or hated about other people’s stories. Network with well-connected readers and reviewers. Get them to sign up for your newsletter or follow you on Twitter or Goodreads or something similar. Let them know you exist, so that when your first story is ready for market, you’ll have a built-in audience you can notify.

Over the last year, as we’ve pushed out issues of The 3288 Review and Brewed Awakenings, I’ve lamented two big trends: First, that almost no submitting writers seem to avail themselves of beta readers, and second, that people don’t put their money where their mouth is.

For a while, I assumed that a lack of beta reading — and, to be frank, we can usually tell within the first 500 words or so whether a piece has been beta-edited — indicated a degree of professional immaturity by the writer. But my opinion is growing more nuanced. I better understand now that most early-career writers simply haven’t let their onion grow; they released their first draft to market because they had no one to guide them differently. They didn’t get beta readers because they have no recourse to any. They haven’t networked. They have no support system. And therefore, they have no idea that beta reading is even a “thing” they ought to endure.

And because they haven’t networked, they haven’t understood the essential truth that if you want people to buy your book, you have to buy theirs, too. As far as we can tell based on our sales records, almost none of the folks we’ve published have purchased anything from us. None of the people who pitch The 3288 Review from out of town have bothered to buy a review copy. People are quick to solicit contracts and to cash our checks and demand invoice payment, but not so quick to support our mission by interacting with our shopping cart. But it’s not just us — our authors, likewise, see much more excitement and promises to buy, expressed in social media posts, than what actually seems to transpire in our accounting system. And it’s not just our authors, either … did you know that an outright majority of titles released in the United States by self-published authors and small presses never move more than 100 books sold? So without that networking, and without the mutual support that comes from being published authors, your risk of being a low-volume title increases significantly.

But the self-help-for-writers industry is slow to accept the point.

Many articles — and even, alas, books — along the theme of “getting started as a writer” emphasize the anodyne as if it were a brilliant insight. You know the drill: Find a nice place to write. Write every day. Reward yourself for meeting goals. Yadda, yadda. All of these little nuggets are true, in their way, but they’re remarkably trite. After all, would you try to excel as a published author by writing for one hour a month whilst balancing on a unicycle in rush-hour traffic, and then you flog yourself with a salt-dipped whip every time you reach 500 words? Of course not. Most advice about writing is self-evident pablum presented as inspiration.

Yet were I to offer advice to an aspiring writer about geting a solid start, I wouldn’t necessarily begin with a writer’s desk arrangement or his personal habits. Rather, I’d recognize that authors need to grow the onion, so I’d offer counsel that might look something like this:

  1. Figure out why you want to write. Is it for publication, or just for a hobby? Do you have one story you want to tell, or many?
  2. Read some of the standard works on the craft. Buy reference books. Equip your toolbox.
  3. Start getting involved in the local literary community by attending readings and workshops and seminars. Buy the stuff that local authors are selling (getting inscribed copies usually delights the author). Make contacts.
  4. Launch your platform by starting a writing blog or fan page. You won’t have product to move, at that point, but short-yet-frequent posts about what you’re doing can help you build an audience early.
  5. Join a writing group — or start one, if none exists. The best groups mix serious with social and often meet weekly or semimonthly.
  6. Write a half-dozen “training” manuscripts. These aren’t the Big Story you want to tell; rather, they’re short stories or novelettes that help you figure out your own best working environment, as well as provide some raw material to share with a professional editor or to peer reviewers to identify trends and improvement opportunities now instead of when you genuinely get down to business.

When you’ve done these six things, only then might be truly ready to begin your Big Story. Because when your Big Story is your training manuscript, the odds decrease that a publisher will contract for it.

Authors are interesting people. They love what they do and they bring real value to their readers. But when an author fancies himself the next Hemingway, writing alone in a shack, the bad habits begin early. Like it or not, although writing as an activity is inherently solitary, writing for publication is an astonishingly social cultural phenomenon that requires much networking and relationship building.

Because if you lack a fully developed onion, it’ll be that much harder to see your work in print — and to see that people are actually willing to buy it.

Notable News …

A few quick items of interest from your friends at Caffeinated Press —

  • Open office hours today, Sun. Mar. 13, from 10a to 4p. Please feel welcome to drop in, have some coffee, plug into the power and the Wi-Fi, and keep makin’ progress on your magnum opus. No RSVP or fee. Just show up at our SE Grand Rapids office! And don’t forget to check the Events page to see when we occasionally schedule these hours. We don’t necessarily do it far in advance, but you never know. And if you’d like to host your own event at our facility, use the Contact Us form to let us know.
  • Issue 1.3 of The 3288 Review is now in and available for purchase. This issue is chock full of delightful material. The World Greening Wildly by Mike Smith of Albuquerque and Maquillage by Addy Evenson both present interesting takes on structure in literary fiction. Lots of poetry, too, as well as a few creative non-fiction pieces. And don’t miss my take on the four hurdles authors must overcome to have their work judged as beautiful!
  • As a special bonus, if you buy all three current issues of The 3288 Review within the next week, we’ll include a Caffeinated Press gift card good for $10 off a future purchase. Buy a subscription to all four issues of Volume 1 (the fourth comes out at the end of May), and we’ll include a $15 gift card.
  • Did you notice? We’ve restructured the menu on the home page to create individual pages for our published authors. Check out Lisa Gundry and Jean Davis. More to come!
  • Our Community site keeps getting more and more info about upcoming contests, awards and opportunities. Check it out — better yet, add your own material to the list. If you register an account, you’ll also get a customizable digest of posts by email so you don’t have to keep checking to see what you missed.
  • Next week, our Business of Writing seminar recurs. Join us on either Sun., Mar. 20, from 2p to 5p, or Mon., Mar. 21, from 6p to 9p. This three-hour event explores the business of writing, including a review of current industry trends, the general process by which a manuscript becomes a book, the best ways to pitch a publisher, how to follow-up with grace and what to assemble in an author media toolkit. Seats are limited and registration is $40.

Keep writing, my friends!

A Brief Discourse on Reading What You Wrote

The lovely folks at MiFiWriters are still open to submissions for their latest Division by Zero anthology. I set a stretch goal of writing something for their consideration. A few nights ago, warmed by a purring cat and a dram of bourbon, it occurred to me that I could use parts of an early, failed NaNoWriMo novel as the foundation of that story.

I will probably still use the concept of that aborted novel for the short story, but I cannot use the material itself. Because — and I say this delicately — it’s abysmal. I opened the story, read the first few chapters, and poured myself another couple of fingers of the whiskey just to salve my wounded pride. The half-finished novel suffered myriad deficiencies:

  • Most of my characters were walking stereotypes — the sarcastic Mexican engineer, the starship captain modeled after Kathryn Janeway, the super-smart (and drop-dead gorgeous) emo security officer, the cyborg doctor who resented his implants, the Japanese astrophysicist who just happened to be an expert swordsman. You get the picture. The cast of main characters felt very “United Colors of Benneton” while offering almost no individual depth.
  • The dialogue was so forced it was as if I had written it at gunpoint. I think I wanted to humanize my stereotypical characters, therefore much of the dialogue consists of good-natured insults and pseudo-witty banter. But the net result was heavy on sarcasm, which doesn’t resonate with most readers.
  • Speech attribution … well, the story needed more of it. ‘Nuff said.
  • Scenes had no real transitions. Chapters did, but scenes within a chapter just kind of blended together — with the structural equivalent of a “time passes” or a “and then he did this” segue.
  • Very little descriptions of stuff. Heavy with dialogue and with dry recitation of activities, but without any significant image-painting to inform the reader.

I was, to be honest, embarrassed by the material. Then I remembered a panelist at a regional writers’ conference I attended several years ago. She said that she wrote one novel that went through something like 17 or 19 separate rewrites before it was finally published. I recall surveying the audience and seeing their disbelief. I might have been one of those disbelieving folks, myself. That’s a lot of work. She also said something that comforted me, to the effect that (I paraphrase) most commercially successful authors have a half-dozen or so finished or mostly finished manuscripts sitting in the back of the file cabinet, never to be seen by anyone for any reason whatsoever.

They’re training manuscripts, basically. Even people who are “good writers” need time and practice to become proficient at long-form work. It’s not easy. There’s a myth — we see it with material that comes from early-career authors — that anyone can write a first novel, self-edit it and then successfully position it on the open market with a traditional publisher or agent.

To be sure, some people really can parley a first-time novel into a commercial best-seller. But “some” is several orders of magnitude smaller than the universe of all first-time authors.

Writing well is a skill. But it’s not like riding a bicycle, where once you master it, you master it. Instead, writing is more like running a marathon or practicing the martial arts: Most people can get to “proficient” status with just a bit of training and practice, but advancing to the level of a Boston qualifier or a third-degree black belt takes thousands of hours of practice under the direction of people with similar or higher levels of skill. And if you stop for a while, you’ll backslide. Diligence and persistence sometimes matter more than initial raw talent.

(Check out the sublime What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami for an excellent fusion on writing and long-distance running.)

Most writers, myself included, are blind to our specific faults while we’re in the middle of a major writing project. I know my foibles — a tendency to use the same word in successive paragraphs; an occasional over-reliance on asides; a proclivity toward complex sentences — because I’ve studied my old work and because I’ve had respected peer writers give me their honest feedback. Getting from “proficient” to “master” requires this kind of self-critical reflection on how you perform your craft, but also the trajectory of your evolution.

That trajectory is best illuminated through occasional cold reads of your very old work. I am not a fan of deleting archival material. Everything you write is a treasure — if not because it’s great, then at least because it’s a learning opportunity.

Every now and then, dig through your archive. Read with fresh eyes your early work product. Reflect on what you see that’s different today compared to when the original story was written. Can you see major changes? If so, what are they? How did those changes come about?

You cannot get driving directions to New York if you don’t know your starting point. Likewise, you can’t advance as a writer without understanding how you’ve evolved over time. When you ignore your point of origin, it’s infinitely harder to chart an efficient course to your destination.

So even though it might be embarrassing, an occasional trip down memory lane is useful. And it’s worth remembering, too, that your first or second novel will almost surely end up in the back of your file cabinet. That’s OK. It’s healthy. Your goal shouldn’t be to write and then to publish, but rather to write until you’re ready to publish.

An expensive investment of time, surely. But a worthwhile one.

Sign Up for the Author Media Toolbox Seminar!

Join us at the Caffeinated Press office on either Sunday, Feb. 21, or Monday, Feb. 22, for our Author Media Toolbox seminar.

Dive deeply into author one-page bios, professional headshots, writers’ blogs, business cards, elevator pitches, social media marketing and book synopses. Participants will walk away with a practical toolkit they can put to immediate use.

Both sessions include snacks. The Sunday session runs from 2p to 5p and the Monday session from 6p to 9p.

The cost is just $40 for a three-hour session. Sign up at:

Author Media Toolbox from Caffeinated Press, Inc.

Writers’ Conferences: 12 Tips for Success as an Attendee

Writers’ conferences open several valuable opportunities to authors — the chance to learn from peers, to buy books, to network with other writers, to stumble upon new potential markets, etc. But before you sign up for every conference in a 150-mile radius, consider your goals and the conference’s agenda. Even a free conference might not be worth what you paid to attend it.


  1. Have a point for going. Just because a conference pops up doesn’t mean you should attend. If you really require guidance about self-editing, for example, a series of panels about writing motivation may not be core to your current needs. Especially for events with several simultaneous sessions, attacking the agenda with a personal content strategy will help you focus session attendance based on your goals.
  2. Carefully fit your current level of expertise against the base expertise of the speakers. It’s frustrating to go to a conference, only to realize at the end that all the material you encountered was just a rehash of what you already understood. Likewise, it’s demoralizing to attend sessions with content that’s over your head. Read the agenda. If a conference is primarily about pitching an agent, for example, and you’ve never finished a novel, you aren’t probably ready to search for agents — and when you ask very basic questions about manuscript prep, you’ll detract from other attendees who don’t want to belabor what, to them, might already be obvious. It’s not always clear based on short paragraphs in marketing material, just what kind of info you’ll encounter — but it’s worth asking in advance. Your time, after all, is precious, and most conference organizers are happy to answer questions by email before the event.
  3. Research the speakers/panelists. You’ll learn a lot about the skills and expertise of the on-stage talent by checking their bios. For example, a panel about great poetry, staffed by people with no substantial published poetry, should be a warning sign. Likewise, a panel staffed by publishers will feel very different from a panel staffed by writers, or by editors, or by agents. Not every skillset or genre in the publishing industry is equally adept at helping you meet your goals for attending the conference.
  4. Take copious notes. Panels are like a box of chocolates: Some of them are larded with yucky coconut, but others are sweet, tasty dark-chocolate truffles. When you stumble across a truffle, you’ll kick yourself later if you neglected to bring a notepad or a tablet to record great take-aways. (And you’ll wish you had something to doodle on when the coconut people bore you to sleep.)
  5. Network. Even panels filled with Nobel-winning writers aren’t nearly as valuable to you as the benefits you’ll get by meeting your peers. Join writing groups. Join critique or review circles. Discuss the tools of the trade. Indulge in serendipitous small-group conversations. Sitting by yourself in the room, without making introductions, deprives you of a core benefit of attending. If you don’t want to network, then skip the conference and read a blog about writing!
  6. Buy books. When a conference includes authors or small presses, consider opening your wallet to buy their material — and it’s fair to ask for inscriptions, especially when those authors or editors or publishers are the speakers you find so engaging. Preparing to speak at a conference requires a lot of time for research, preparation and practice; keep those presenters in the speaking circuit by supporting their work. After all, when you publish your novel, don’t you want others to buy it? Karma is a wonderful thing.
  7. Come prepared with your own advocacy materials. If you have a manuscript to shop and you stumble across a friendly publisher or agent, it’s better to present a one-pager with a short passage and a synopsis and a brief author bio than to stammer incoherently about your idea or to offer a smooth elevator pitch that omitted one really important detail. And consider investing in author-branded business cards; if you have to write your contact info on a scrap of paper, then odds are good that said scrap will end up in the trash instead of in the recipient’s contact list. Attendees who present as professional writers will command more respect than attendees who present as literary tourists.
  8. Don’t mob the speakers. In general, speakers enjoy talking to attendees. But sometimes a speaker needs to prep for the next panel or take a bio break or wolf down a burger. Consider timing your approach to a period of extended downtime, to maximize your face-to-face engagement. No two speakers are the same, but many signs of body language are universal. So when a person looks away repeatedly, or keeps walking, or is obviously trying to do five things simultaneously, a brief introduction with a request to follow-up later might be a better strategy than following a speaker to the bathroom (which, alas, happens).
  9. Keep hypothetical pitches in reserve. Although many publishers and agents will likely smile and nod, we generally don’t accept theoretical submissions on the spot. It may be fair to ask a publisher or agent or editor if he accepts sci-fi or poetry or Steampunk romance, but it’s not helpful to take 5 minutes to offer an oral plot synopsis first, especially when other people want to talk to the same person. In general, you’ll be asked to read the published editorial guidelines and follow established submission procedures. So simple clarifying questions are usually welcome, but describing your not-yet-written children’s book in detail usually doesn’t work to your advantage.
  10. Ask on-point questions during a session. You’re there to get value, so get value. Although some conferences feature the same three or four people who ask 80 percent of the questions, if those questions are good, then be one of those people and fire away. The only caveat: Avoid asking a question that changes a panel’s subject. If the discussants are explaining ways to tighten an opening paragraph, asking questions like “How do I stay motivated to write when I get distracted by cats” isn’t really germane at that point in the panel. Questions that might be legitimate, but not relevant, are usually better reserved for the concluding Q&A or for one-on-one debriefs with panelists after the fact — or as a ready-made icebreaker to meet new friends among your fellow attendees.
  11. Take feedback forms seriously. Accumulated feedback forms give the speakers a sense on how well they did. An honest rating, coupled with pithy but targeted comments, are a goldmine to a speaker (especially new entrants to the speaking circuit). The best feedback addresses points the presenter did well, or poorly, and are presented constructively and without inserting too much personal opinion. For example, “Consider using a mic next time so the folks in the back can hear” is more actionable than “Couldn’t understand the speaker.” (Why couldn’t you understand?)
  12. Enjoy yourself. Ask any veteran conference presenter about audiences and you’ll likely hear that many attendees seem so intent on wringing every last nanosecond of education from a conference that they somehow forget to have fun. Relax. Ask questions. Laugh. Meet new people. Conferences can be serious business, but they’re also a time to sharpen your saw. Have fun while you do it.

If you show up with a spirit of inquiry, you’ll likely find value all over the place. If you prefer to have universal, step-by-step answers delivered, you might be disappointed; even craft-oriented conferences emphasize general best practices instead of specific, universal procedures. Keeping a sense of curiosity is crucial. Most conferences are not a good place to seek blanket self-affirmation. Prepare to have your biases challenged and your expectations flipped upside-down. If you welcome such paradigm shifts, even ho-hum conferences will provide a great learning experience.

If you’ve never attended a conference, try it. At least once. You’ll be glad you did.

Seeking Nominees for the CafPress Community Advisory Committee

Did you know that Caffeinated Press includes a Community Advisory Committee to provide outside input to the board of directors? This group meets periodically to address specific strategy questions as we execute on our mission to connect readers and authors in West Michigan.

We’re opening up the nomination process for the 2016 committee to the public. If you’re interested, please visit the CAC page to review details and submit your application — before February 15.

Seminars and Conferences and Guidelines Revisions … Oh, My!

A few quick hits for your upcoming week:

  • Next Saturday, Jan. 30, Caffeinated Press representatives will take part in the Get Published! conference coordinated by MiFiWriters. World Weaver Press is also a publisher sponsor. The event runs 9a to 6p at Herrick District Library in Holland. Registration is requested, but there’s no fee to attend. The day includes a series of panel discussions:
    • “Character, POV and Voice”
    • “The Zeroth Law of Publishing” — targeting the right publisher; how to “read” publisher guidelines
    • “The Art of Conflict: Building Better Plots”
    • “The Submitter’s Toolbox” — prepping a submission package for transmission to publishers/agents
    • “The Long and the Short: Publishing Novels vs. Short Stories” — advantages/disadvantages of both; differences in workflow and crafting
    • “First Page Critiques” — audience submissions reviewed live
  • Still time to register for the Monday evening (Jan. 25) session of our Query Letter Bootcamp seminar. Runs 6p-9p at the Caffeinated Press office. Registration is required. $40 fee.
  • Have you checked out our growing list of opportunities and events at our Community discussion group yet?
  • We periodically update our online Query guidelines. If you haven’t checked them out recently, you should.

Best Practices for Formatting Manuscripts

Every publisher maintains a slightly different standard for what constitutes a “good” format for a manuscript, although several standardized frameworks — like William Shunn’s — make for a solid jumping-off point.

At Caffeinated Press, we believe best practices depend less on how a document looks on the screen, and more how it’s internally structured for interoperability among the different programs that contribute to a robust editorial process flow.

One overriding point: Very many authors use Microsoft Word (or LibreOffice Writer) to compose. That’s fine. But Word isn’t an ideal tool for commercial publishing. Word uses proprietary file structures to present information in a WYSIWYG environment; it’s optimized to take the image on the screen and faithfully translate it into output on a local personal printer, even if the structure of the document under the hood is an unadulterated mess. Publishers don’t publish in Word; they use programs like Adobe InDesign or QuarkXPress, which struggle with Word formatting when the author uses Word in less-than-optimal fashion.

For example, we’ve encountered content from writers, presented as a Word document, that imported so poorly into InDesign that we had to reformat the entire document line-by-line. For a short story, we can fix it without too much drama. For a novel? Yikes.

As such, we encourage authors to present their material in plain-text format using text-based markup. LaTeX is common for scientific writing, although it has a high learning curve. Much more accessible for authors are Markdown or MultiMarkdown. If you’re unfamiliar with Markdown or MultiMarkdown, you could either install the Writage plug-in for Word — it’s free and easy — or use Pandoc, which is more robust but also a heavier lift for folks with less-developed computer skills. With Writage, you could write in Word as normal, but export a final document in Markdown syntax.

If you insist on using Word, then at a minimum use styles instead of text formatting to add textual emphasis. For example, to italicize something, create an italic style (under the Style group of the Home tab) instead of either clicking the “I” button under the Font group or pressing Ctrl+I. Text modifiers from the Font group may not translate into InDesign consistently — they may get lost and no one will know — and it’s possible that a specific font on the author’s or the publisher’s computer system lacks an italic variation of a font (Word just makes it slanty even if you don’t have an italic font on your PC), leading to outright errors during file conversion.

Also: Use hanging indents instead of tabs; ideally, you will never press the Tab key anywhere in your story. The confusion between tabs and indents turns a story into a nightmare to lay out.

All of the above notwithstanding, please review following conventions we expect to see in a full, final manuscript:

All File Formats

  • Do not embed your name or contact information in the manuscript or its metadata.
  • Give your chapters short titles. Numbers alone make for unappealing navigation in an ebook.
  • Follow standard manuscript conventions:
    • Each speaker appears in a separate paragraph.
    • Speech is indicated with double quotes; mental speech is indicated with italics; single quotes are never used to indicate speech.
    • Use two hyphens with an offsetting space on each side to reflect an em dash. Do not let Word autocorrect your two hyphens into an en dash.
  • Do not use ellipses. If a trail-off in speech must be indicated (and it usually doesn’t need to be), indicate as such through narration.

Microsoft Word/LibreOffice Writer/Rich Text

  • Margins at 1″ on all sides.
  • Left-justified text in Courier New, 11 point, or equivalent monospace/serif font.
  • In a page header, insert the page number and a short/abbreviated form of the title. Do not use the author’s name.
  • Start a new chapter on a new page. Indicate the chapter title by using ALL CAPS but apply no other formatting to it. Center the title and offset it with one blank line before and after the chapter title. Do not insert unnecessary extra blank lines.
  • Insert a single center-justified hashtag between scenes, without offset line breaks.
  • Never, ever, ever press the Tab key. Instead, set indents in the Layout tab (the paragraph group) and apply them consistently throughout the document.
  • Use document styles (accessed in the Styles group of the Home tab) to effect italic text, instead of using the “I” button in the Font group of the Home tab.
  • Do not use bold text or use an underline to indicate emphasis.
  • Do not vary the font, the point size, the paragraph justification or paragraph indents. Ever.
  • No drop caps or embedded images.


  • All lines flush left (no embedded tabs).
  • Use H1 for a story title, H2 for a chapter title, and H3 for a scene title. Do not progress beyond H3.
  • Do not nest bold and italics.
  • Offset scene breaks with a single escaped hashtag (i.e., use \# on a blank line) — do not use blank lines to offset scenes within a chapter.
  • Do not embed carriage returns within a paragraph.

By structuring your content to match what a publisher needs to advance a story through the editing and production process, you’ll reduce both delays in development and potential errors that could occur because of broken translations from Word into the publishing-layout program.

Introducing Our New Community Forums

One of the things we’ve learned over the last year is that West Michigan writers are spread across the area with very tenuous threads connecting them. Some groups — like the poets — do fairly well, alternating among various spoken-word open-mic nights and occasional readings at GLCL. Others (lookin’ at you, genre writers) … well, the infrastructure perhaps isn’t as robust as it could be.

It’s not that writers operate in a vacuum, per se, disconnected from others like office drones in a cubicle farm. Rather, it’s that different writers’ groups emphasize different approaches and genres and (yes) operate in differing sociocultural contexts. So links between groups could stand some strengthening. And information useful to all writers tends to lie scattered across different websites and email blasts, which makes researching more obscure opportunities a pain in the backside.

As a service, then, we’re pleased to unveil a refurbished community forum with several useful features:

  • You need not log in to read the useful stuff.
  • If you do want to log in, you can create a local account or use Facebook, Twitter or GitHub to log in.
  • You don’t need to be affiliated in any way with Caffeinated Press to use the forum. We don’t care if you’ve queried us, or published with us, or bought the books we produce. We do care about building a stronger community of local authors and readers. (And if you’re also a local small press — welcome aboard. We’re not doing this for the hard sell, or even as a significant marketing venue for our own portfolio of products and services.)
  • We welcome announcements of special events, or your new book releases, or just general chat about the craft of writing. Our moderators will only step in when things get spammy or disrespectful.

Interested? Check out to get started (or click Community in the top menu bar of our site). We hope that his forum, over time, becomes a publicly curated one-stop shop for news about the local literary scene.

(Oh, and by the way — because we wholly own the infrastructure behind this forum, we are happy to work with your writing group or organization or special-event team to host a protected group within the forum. No cost to you, of course.)


Give Yourself the Gift of These 12 Most Useful Writing Tools

We at Caffeinated Press wish you and your families a merry Christmas or happy Hanukkah, and a safe and happy new year. Because it’s the season for giving, we encourage you to give yourself, or a special writer in your life, the gift of the tools authors need to maximize their success. And rejoice, for most of the best tools are free or inexpensive!

Pro tip: Microsoft Word (and, in fairness, LibreOffice Writer) works great for the preparation of documents intended for direct printing from within the application. You type a memo, you push “print” or “export to PDF,” and voila. But these word processors were never intended for the creation of content that will be rendered in a professional layout program. Word and Writer create binary documents: They contain proprietary internal formatting and standards that don’t play well with most other tools. So it’s a well-known source of angst among book and magazine editors everywhere to have to spend hours “fixing” a poorly structured Word document just to get it into InDesign or Quark.

Many authors rely on Word or Writer and they do just fine. But those programs weren’t designed for long-form creative writing in mind. Word and Writer are ubiquitous; people tend to have these programs and they already know how to use them, so they use them. And no one begrudges them that. But wouldn’t it be great to use the right tool for the job? Wouldn’t it be wonderful to make use of programs designed for long-form writing and optimized for use with publishing software, or to add plugins to Word to make it more useful for long-form writing?

Consider these options:

AP Styleguard — a plug-in into Microsoft Word or Microsoft Outlook — scans content to identify deviations from Associated Press style. It suggests corrections to style errors and supports the addition of additional style rules. This tool can replace the printed or online version of the AP Stylebook for many users, especially writers who venture into journalism or non-fiction writing. $50+.

Draft offers a Web-only interface for text editing and document storage. It’s optimized for writing in Markdown. Draft includes a “Hemingway Mode” to make it more difficult for you to get stuck in the malaise of self-editing. $0.

Grammarly scans your content and identifies more than 250 different syntax errors, offering suggestions as well as guidance about the rule in question. The tool works as a plug-in module for different Web browsers and Microsoft Word. Although no software should ever take the place of a professional editor or competent beta reader, tools like Grammarly can, at least, help you catch the obvious mistakes, freeing your reviewers to focus on more subtle improvements. $0, with a premium upgrade.

OneNote is now widely available for free from Microsoft. This tool is the most powerful note-taking app on the market, with deep integration into OneDrive and various Microsoft Office apps. Use it to keep you manuscript notes handy, clip Web page or sketch your characters. Notes sync across devices and you can even email yourself stuff to be added into OneNote. $0.

Pandoc removes the hassle from document conversion. This program, with both a downloadable app and an online converter, helps you translate between file formats so you can clean up your text or port it into formats publishers might wish to see. For example, Pandoc includes a Markdown-to-ICML converter to move a marked-up plain text file into the proprietary Adobe InCopy format. $0.

Q10 offers distraction-free text editing with a small but useful admixture of bells and whistles. A tiny app, it can be run off a flash drive, and it can store documents anywhere — including your cloud-storage provider. It offers word-count targets, text statistics and even (if you want) typewriter sounds. $0.

Scrivener serves as the de facto gold standard for novels and short stories. It contains a powerful outliner, a name generator and options to assign statuses and flags to scenes and chapters within a larger long-form project. This program is the development environment for serious authors. Its learning curve is a bit higher than Word’s, but the improvements you’ll see in structuring novel-length projects is well worth the cost. $40.

Trelby isn’t the most powerful scriptwriting app on the market — Final Draft and Celtx take the cake there — but it’s free and simple for people just getting started with scriptwriting, with additional enhancements like reporting and auto-complete. $0.

Word-to-Markdown scrubs your Word document and presents it as Markdown. Useful! And it’s a Web-based tool, so no installers are necessary. $0.

Writage works with Microsoft Word, versions 2007 through 2016. It exports a formatted Word document into the standard Markdown format. $0.

XMind helps you organize complex thoughts through mind maps. Think of a mind map as a visual, interconnected display of ideas around one or more central concepts. XMind offers free and paid services. $0, with upgraded features for a fee.

Zotero remains one of the leading reference managers. Download a copy to work on your own PC, or subscribe to share/sync notes and citations online. Never again lose track of a formal footnote reference, and let Zotero cite it for you in the format of your choice. $0, with upgraded services for a fee.

May your new year be filled with many profitable writing contracts!

Holiday Office Hours Schedule

Happy ho-ho-holidays from your friends at Caffeinated Press.

Office hours — as hosted by Jason Gillikin — are as follows:

  • Mon., 12/21, 8a-3p
  • Tue., 12/22, 9a-5p
  • Sat., 12/26, 10a-4p
  • Sun., 12/27, 10a-4p
  • Mon., 12/28, 9a-3p
  • Tue., 12/29, 9a-3p
  • Wed., 12/30, 2p-8p
  • Sat., 1/2, 10a-4p
  • Sun., 1/3, 10a-4p

Watch our Events calendar for this schedule, as well as any “extra” hours posted by other board members who may keep the doors open at other times.

Please feel free to drop by — no fee or RSVP required — to write or edit in peace, enjoy a free cup of coffee and get your 2016 writing plan polished.

And have a merry Christmas and a profitable new year!

Eight Tips for First-Time Published Authors

So, you say you’ve landed your first publishing contract? Good for you! We have some advice for you, whether that contract was with us or with some other small- or mid-sized publisher.

Eight secrets we publishers wish you knew:

  1. Patience is a virtue.  We recognize that authors — especially early-career writers — are eager to get a physical artifact in their hands and to hold celebratory parties to sell books and bathe in the glow of public adulation. We get it. We’ve been there. The thing is, as a publisher, we have more than one project in the fire at any given time and our No. 1 priority is to remain solvent. So some projects will move fast, others slow. That’s a normal part of editorial operations for any small- or mid-sized publisher. So Project A might fly by in six weeks, while Project B — equal in scope and complexity — executes in nine months. Please be patient, and understand that we as the publisher wouldn’t have contracted with you if we didn’t think your work was worth publishing. Scheduling decisions by us are purely business and do not reflect our interest in the author or the author’s project.
  2. A spirit of teamwork is essential.  Approaching the editing and development cycle with a willingness to collaborate as a team makes for a much less painful work environment. Sometimes a player in the process — an author, an editor, a book developer — can fall into prima donna mode and come to the table with a fixed set of expectations that aren’t reasonable. When teamwork evaporates, there’s very little grace left to handle unexpected problems that arise during the editing and production phase of the project. As an author, you should be a team player — and also hold the publisher to the same standard.
  3. Books are community efforts. A book doesn’t belong to the author. It doesn’t belong to the publisher, either. Instead, it’s a group effort between two or more parties, each of whom supplies a unique and necessary part of the final whole. Authors, then, should neither be too possessive of the project — i.e., it’s “my” book — nor too passive about it by deferring all major decisions to the publisher. All parties to a book must be equal and active collaborators.
  4. Respect the difference between content and design. The interior of the book represents an interesting division of labor. In general, the author dictates the content (i.e., the story) with the exception of the copyright page, which is solely at the publisher’s discretion. The publisher reigns sovereign over font selection, page design, internal organization and white space. In other words: The author controls the words, and the publisher controls what the words look like on the page. It’s usually a bad thing when publishers unilaterally make major content changes without the author’s consent, or when the author argues about layout or typography.
  5. Don’t stress over covers or trim sizes. In traditional large-scale publishing, authors don’t even get to see the covers until the book hits the market. Although we, as a small press, obtain the author’s general consent over the cover design, the author is not responsible for the cover or the trim size. We certainly welcome suggestions, but ultimately, the publisher is solely responsible for the front and back covers and the spine. This point is worth mentioning insofar as some authors come to the table with covers already designed or with a desire that a friend supply cover art. As a rule: You don’t need to do this. Cover design only falls under author jurisdiction when the author self-publishes. The reasons for this separation of duties? Some publishers — including Caffeinated Press — must adhere to exactingly specific technical requirements with their printers. Or, we use consistent formatting of cover objects, including barcodes and publisher logos, as part of the press’s brand identity. There’s a lot more that goes into covers than just the visual appearance!
  6. Authors do participate in marketing … As an author, you’ll be expected to participate in events and to actively assist in the marketing and sales of the work. You can’t just pop the cork when you get your courtesy copies and magically wait for checks to come in.
  7. … But shouldn’t be the only ones marketing. Your publisher should actively market, sell and otherwise promote your work over the life of your contract. It’s not enough for a publisher to receive a box of books from the printer and call it a day. Publishers should promote their catalog, and if you find a publisher disinclined to promote your book, consider it as a red flag. Doing some research between “acceptance” and “contract signature” might be useful — if you don’t see serious indication that the publisher wants to actively promoted published authors, then think twice before committing to that publisher.
  8. Marketing is a marathon. Disabuse yourself of the idea that a book needs to be “released” and then immediately followed with a “launch event.” That kind of thinking is dangerous; it rests on the assumption that a book isn’t real until it’s had some sort of birthday party, and that such party opens the door to consistent revenue streams. In fact, we’re actively contemplating banning “launch events” altogether in favor of all-author “boost events” held twice annually. As an author, you should think about marketing in terms of a long, tough slog — attending events here and there, selling a few copies every now and then, promoting on social media, etc., to ensure that you have a long-term consistent revenue stream. (We, obviously, do the same.) The point is, sales and marketing are interwined; do the latter to obtain the former, and do it consistently over the lifecycle of the novel. You do not need to have a special event on a specific date for a book to be successful — instead, you can have many events on many dates over the life of the book!

Eight tips. Comments welcome.

[NOTE: Revised 2/20/16 for tone/content. — JEG]

A Writing Retreat

The unseasonably warm weather in West Michigan these last few months distracts from the sense that the Christmas season is upon us. I still keep my bedroom window open, for example, and the clean, fresh breezes are more reminiscent of mid-April than mid-December. So when I leave my coat at home and drive to the store on these 50-degree days, it’s a bit jarring to be assaulted with reminders that jolly ol’ St. Nick will soon appear. Especially with the memory of the last two winters — bitterly cold, deeply snowy — still fresh.

But the “feel” of this year’s holiday season reminds us that it’s good to get away from the hustle-and-bustle of daily life and to enjoy a mini sabbatical.

This year, I continue into a fifth year my long-standing “two weeks at Christmas” vacation schedule. I’ll be away from the day job from the afternoon of Dec. 18 until the morning of Jan. 4. In those 16 consecutive days of relative freedom, I’ll putter around the Caffeinated Press office (we have tasks, including inventory and 2016 planning, to accomplish) and spend some time at home curled up with the feline overlords and a good book or perhaps a Netflix binge. I’m also overdue for some quality time with my exercise bike, as a recent encounter with a full-body hotel mirror reminded me.

But I’ll also do something that’s very important to me: I’ll keep writing. And revising. And looking at my really old novels and short stories to find the things that I need to improve upon, thanks to the assistance of a fresh eye and a cold read.

We tend to get busy in the last few weeks of December with holiday parties and shopping and family events. And those things, to be sure, are good. But if you’ve got the soul of a writer, I encourage you to give yourself a mini-retreat this December. Curl up with a manuscript or plot your next literary adventure. Get away from it all — we’ll have plenty of open office hours if you need a base away from home — and just write.

A self-directed writer’s retreat, even if lasts just one marathon day, can help you get your bearings for the year to come and to re-acquaint you with your portfolio.

Give yourself the gift of quality time with your word babies. You won’t regret it!

Get Connected with a Mobile App for Local Literary Life

Caffeinated Press sells books. And our quarterly literary magazine. But we also host seminars to help authors get ready for success.

And in 2016?

From the beginning, part of our mission has focused on connecting authors and readers in a seamless and transparent fashion. But our community of writers is fragmented: A group here, a group there, a release o’er yonder. Fragmentation rules.

We think we can do better. We’re evaluating the release of a mobile app — for Android, iOS and Windows (Universal) — to connect authors, readers and activities in a seamless and low-friction fashion.

Think of it as the Tinder of Authors. Except local. And less creepy.

Look for more details in early 2016. In the meantime, we’d love to hear your feature requests!

Get That Novel Whipped into Shape with Our “Perfecting Your Manuscript” Seminar!

You did it: You finished a manuscript. Congratulations!

Now what?

Join Caffeinated Press for a three-hour focused seminar intended to give you practical advice for taking your manuscript from the “Yay, I’m done!” moment to the “Yay, I’ve got a publisher!” party. Learn about:

  • Effective self-edit techniques, including the most common errors in structure and syntax
  • Picking the right beta readers (and professional editors!)
  • Manuscript formatting from a publisher’s perspective

Registration costs $40 and includes snacks and take-away reference materials. Sign up today!

Congrats to our Pushcart Prize Nominees

Every year for the last 40 years, Pushcart Press has administered the Pushcart Prize, a literary honor that celebrates the best writing advanced by small-sized presses. Nominations may only be presented, on paper, by the publishers themselves — authors or readers cannot submit — and each publisher is capped at six total nominations.

Caffeinated Press is proud to nominate six outstanding pieces for this high literary accolade:

Each of these authors has crafted a work that moves us — either through its clean storytelling, or its crisp imagery, or its heartfelt message.
Much worthy literature, written and shared in regional communities, deserves to be celebrated. We are therefore honored to nominate these six pieces, and we wish these authors the best as the Pushcart Prize editors conduct their reviews. We only regret that we were capped at just six, because very many authors who’ve shared their work with us over the last year ought to be praised from the mountaintops.

Before You Shop That #NaNoWriMo Novel …

In the Ottawa County-Grand Rapids region for the National Novel Writing Month competition, several authors hit the 50,000-word mark by the middle of the month — i.e., after two weeks of writing. Others will struggle to hit 50k by the end of the month. Still others will probably make 50k(ish) but keep hammering away through December and beyond.

We’re bullish about NaNoWriMo, as a creative-writing exercise. It forces people to “just do it” and experiment with different genres and modes of writing. All of that effort is surely valuable. But very little of that work product is ready for production on December 1.

If you took to heart our September post about eight points to ponder for your NaNo prep, you’re probably already ahead of the curve. Regardless, if you think that this novel is the one you can shop around, consider:

  • A typical novel by a heretofore unpublished author typically runs around 85k words with the larger presses. A novel around 50k is very short. We’ve published one — A Broken Race — but it was a solid story by an experienced writer. Most 50k manuscripts just aren’t in the sweet spot for print publishing, because they’re on the thin side, leading to lower price points, which leads to lower per-unit margins.
  • Novels that defy easy genre classifications are almost surely not going to be picked up by a mainstream publisher. There’s just too much difficulty in placing fusion work before the right target audience. Some specialized smaller presses (or looser imprints of medium-sized presses) will sometimes pick up fusion work if it fits with their theme, but … that’s a big if.
  • Other people will need to read your work first. We at Caffeinated Press are still somewhat young as a publishing company, but we can already spot un-revised first drafts within the first 100 words. We recommend that you find several beta readers to give the story a complete stem-to-stern evaluation. They’ll help you find the most common structural errors in fiction writing, as well as the most obvious line errors that bedevil you. Almost no writer, including big-name authors popular in today’s market, write well enough on their own that they can write and self-edit and find it’s sufficient to get a contract. If you think you think you’re an exception to the rule, then look to your growing pile of rejection letters and un-answered queries and re-evaluate your assumption.
  • Despite our appreciation for beta readers as your first line of defense against inadvertent drafting errors, as a matter of pure pragmatism, you’ll probably need to hire a professional editor to give the manuscript a final review. A real book editor will find both substantive and syntactical problems and help you get a high polish on your project. Especially if you want to aim high and obtain an agent and a large press, it’s almost a given that you’ll need to pay a pro to give you a detailed edit. Them’s the breaks.

In other words: A NaNo novel that “wins” by Nov. 30 probably isn’t ready for shopping until the spring, after rounds of self-editing, beta reading and professional editing. Submissions that hit our Query form in December, then, are almost surely going to be rejected — the same as with other publishers.

An Author’s Guide to Book Covers and Interior Design

In the very large publishing houses, authors typically have zero control over the formatting of a book’s interior or the design of its covers. Even well-recognized writers often don’t know what the book will look like until it’s delivered into their ink-stained fingers.

The smaller the publisher, however, the more the author can exert influence over a book’s aesthetics. But to enjoy that influence successfully, you must understand the natural division of labor between writer and publisher.

Interior Design

In general, the author has no control over fonts, margins or trim. (Trim is the physical dimensions of the final product.) Most publishers use standard templates to reduce variation and to effect a consistent look-and-feel across the company’s catalog; for example, Caffeinated Press uses Adobe Caslon Pro at 11 point for body text in long-from works. Likewise, header or footer text — including page numbers, author names, chapter names and book titles — are rarely open to negotiation.

Exceptions: Poets may be engaged for some interior design, especially if their poems feature line breaks that exceed the publisher’s selected trim size. And works that are primarily visual in nature, like photo collections or textbooks filled with graphics, usually require author-editor coordination to ensure that the final product appears as intended.

The arrangement of books follows industry standards. A print novel, for example, will start with a title page, then a half-title page, then the copyright page, then (optionally) a table of contents, an author’s note and a dedication. The back of the book will include the about-the-author page. This sequence is fixed. By convention, new chapters or content begin on the recto page — the page on the right as an open book lays before you. (Left side is verso.) Depending on the publisher’s guidelines, in some books the verso page may be numbered but left blank.

If you’re asked for your opinion about some aspect of a book’s interior arrangement, feel free to offer it — but unless your contract gives you an explicit role in the design process, it’s better to avoid commenting on design. If your editor presents a PDF page proof, for example, assume you’re only being asked to validate the text of the story.

Book Covers

Usually the publisher handles covers. Covers, however, are a tricky problem for small- and medium-sized publishers, because authors often come to the table with ideas or even fully planned designs in mind.

A few points:

  • To the extent that you as an author have any say over a cover at all, it’s at the publisher’s whim. As a default position, the cover isn’t the author’s business unless the publisher is a vanity press. (At Caffeinated Press, we require authors to concur with the final cover design before we can proceed to print, but we neither expect nor desire for authors to participate in the design process.)
  • However, a good publisher should probe, at a high level, whether the author has some sort of vision for the cover, to avoid unnecessary conflict during the production process. Broad directionality can often be incorporated early in the development cycle.
  • A front cover isn’t a cover; a true cover includes the front, back and spine and can only be developed after the interior is complete and the true page count is calculated and the final trim size is determined. Working on covers in any depth beyond proof-of-concept storyboarding, before the interior is finalized, is a waste of everyone’s time.
  • Publishers must have space to insert bar codes and press branding. That space is often templated.
  • Art or designs intended for the cover must be licensed by the publisher. So if you have a friend who drew a picture you want to use as art, understand that the publisher must independently contract for the rights to use that art, if the publisher is even inclined to use it. Generally, authors aren’t entitled to have friends or family work on their covers.
  • Art usually must meet stringent commercial-printing standards (including CMYK colors at 300 dpi minimum, among many other criteria).
  • Most art is contracted on a per-project rate, so spending $250 or $500 or whatever on a cover designed by an outside designer almost always means the author will see that cost come out of his or her long-term royalty payments.
  • Think thrice about revisions. If you have the chance to influence a cover in progress, understand that most designers are contracted for a finite amount of revisions before additional (large) charges apply. Tweak at your financial peril.

Authors inexperienced with the publishing industry sometimes think of a work as “their” book, over which they have complete control, but really, a physical book is an product of co-creation between an author who supplies the text and the publisher who supplies the artifact upon which that text appears. Authors own the words, but publishers own the covers and the design and the layout. It’s likely that in some cases, some parties won’t be 100 percent happy with the result — some publishers may wish a scene had progressed differently, for example, while some authors may have preferred a different dominant color on the front cover — but no one party holds a trump card that gives them what they want. Ideally, everyone works together to arrive at a mutually satisfactory result, but “working together” requires a healthy respect for each party’s jurisdiction over various inputs into the final work.

For authors, then, it’s important to remember that partnering with a publisher means you’re trading some part of your control over the artifact in exchange for the expertise and market reach the publisher offers. Accordingly, your aesthetic preferences are not, inherently, an important consideration in the design process. If you want absolute control over layout and cover art, then self publish.

Publishers are people, just like authors are, so if you as an author respect the principle of co-creation, you may find ample opportunity to help guide the finished artifact to everyone’s satisfaction by offering constructive feedback where appropriate while avoiding the unnecessary antagonism that arises from expecting the publisher to act as a service provider that prepares books to your specification.

The Mad NaNo Scramble: Almost 30k Words!

Caffeinated Press opened the doors to participants in National Novel Writing Month at 1 p.m. on Halloween. By 11:59 p.m., nearly two dozen authors passed through — and at the stroke of midnight, 19 scribes began their first recorded writing of the 2015 NaNo season.

When the last writers filtered out, by 1:15 a.m. EST (yes, after the time change), a cumulative total of 29,572 words were committed to various fledgling stories. Add in enough food to survive the Apocalypse plus fun Halloween costumes, and the marathon planning-and-writing stretch proved a great success.

Thanks to all our authors who participated, and to Jean Davis — author of A Broken Race — for loaning us overflow tables. We needed them!

Curious on what you missed, if you couldn’t make it this year? Check out this photographic record of misdeeds accomplishments:

“A Broken Race” and “A Crowd of Sorrows” Now On Sale!

Caffeinated Press is pleased to announce the release of two new titles.

A Broken Race, a speculative-fiction story, marks the debut novel of Holland-area author Jean Davis. A Crowd of Sorrows, a poetry collection, represents G.R.-native Lisa Anne Gundry’s first launch into publication.

Kick-off events for these works will be announced soon. Books ordered now will be fulfilled when our initial shipment arrives from the printer in early November.

A Broken Race


From the back cover: “The fortress is home to the last remnants of civilization. The few remaining women live in a vault far below the gardens, while the men stand watch and maintain the walls that protect them all. A virus from long ago, and generations of inbreeding since, has left average men severely outnumbered by Simples. Humanity, as it once was, is broken.

“Outside those walls live the Wildmen—starving, poor and desperate for the treasures of the fortress. Seeking women to once again fill their own ranks with healthy children, and something other than rats to fill their stomachs, the Wildmen launch one last raid.

“One-fifty-two is a Simple man. The raid disrupts his calm and orderly world with smoke and fear, the need for the comfort of his mother and the promises of a lone Wildman captive. With his eyes open to the secrets behind the order he had always known, One-fifty-two must find the courage to stop being a cog and take hold of the wheel—or the fortress may be the end of them all.”

Order the book online from Caffeinated Press for just $9.95, or purchase the ebook from Amazon for $3.95.

A Crowd of Sorrows

cover_300dpiFrom the back cover: “In this powerful collection of poems, Lisa Anne Gundry shares the depth of her experience as a young victim of  sexual abuse at the hands of a family member. Witness the shame and the anger, the fear and the triggers, the pain and the healing, as she learns to accept and to live with her history, but no longer as a victim.

“This volume includes Bye, Bye Blackbird, which placed third in the adult division of the 47th annual poetry competition sponsored by the Dyer-Ives Foundation.”

We’re pleased to offer this book for sale for $9.95. A portion of our profit will be donated to local organizations dedicated to helping at-risk women and children.

Thank you for supporting local authors through your purchase of these great new books.

Edits: Yes, You Must.

Today, Caffeinated Press will be presenting “Edits: Yes, You Must.” at the KDL Writers’ Conference in Kentwood, MI.

We will help attendees understand the query process from the publisher’s perspective, learn how to parse publisher guidelines, understand the most common structure and line errors in text presented for published evaluation, and articulate the importance of recruiting expert beta readers,

We will be posting the presentation here after the conference. Please use this post to ask questions before, during, and after – we will happily answer all of the questions that come through!


The Four Perils of Poetry

As we see more and more poems submitted to markets like The 3288 Review, it’s worth offering a few tips from a publisher’s perspective about the best ways to get your poetry in front of a larger audience.

First, please think carefully about structured poems. Because most writers compose in word processors, with a default letter-sized canvas, they tend to treat that canvas as if it were a printed page. Indeed, when you press “Print” from your local computer, it is a printed page. But in the publishing world, very few works release at printer-paper sizes and margins. The interior page width for The 3288 Review, for example, is roughly 5 inches. Poetry books can run smaller — even at a 5-inch-by-7-inch trim, leaving perhaps 3 inches of interior space to work with.

In the context of text layout, poetry that relies on spaces generated by a press of the spacebar will almost never align as originally intended, given changes to fonts and point sizes. And tabs will differ, too; a standard 0.5-inch tab in Microsoft Word might be compressed to 0.25 inches in Adobe InDesign, for example.

The structure of a poem matters for two reasons. First, a publisher has to do a lot more heavy lifting to force-fit a poem formatted for a sheet of printer paper onto whatever page trim the poem will appear. Second, changes to interior margins might mean that the structure as originally intended cannot be replicated at a smaller trim size.

By all means: Write, and submit, your structured poems. But keep your “what would a publisher do?” hat on while you create. (Pro tip: Use tabs at a consistent spacing — instead of hanging indents, paragraph padding or embedded spaces — to effect your poem’s structure.)

Second, recognize the inherent confusion that follows from prose poetry. Prose poems often look and feel exactly like a short essay or opinion column. Some authorities consider them not as pure poetry, but some sort of fusion between poetry and journaling. People who are poets and converse frequently with poets will understand what a “prose poem” is. But casual readers — unlikely to be conversant in the theory of poetry — are less likely identify a prose poem as anything other than an essay. Most prose poems distinguish from essays by very heavy reliance on metaphor or imagery. They’re a valid form, to be sure, but one that must be handled with care. A careful publisher, being an agent of both the creator and the reader, should push back on prose poems indistinguishable from short essays. As with many things, the publisher’s need to classify content cleanly and in industry-standard ways trumps any one creator’s right to fuse genres at will.

Third, consider the package of poems that you submit to publishers. If you know that Magazine X or Anthology Y pays $Z for poems, you may find a varying response pattern to your query depending on whether your poem runs five lines, or 50, or whether you submit one poem or a package of three or five or 10 works. It’s useful to query the publisher before submitting to ask about the relative quantity of work that’s appropriate for the market’s identified price point. Some places might not care, but others would find it more rewarding to pay for small collections or single, larger works. From a purely financial perspective, it’s sometimes a tough to evaluate a single, exceptionally short poem in the same price range as some other poet’s much longer work. Poetry should always be a function of quality over quantity, but vast discrepancies in quantity competing for the same price point ….

Fourth, don’t try too hard to be edgy. A free-form lyric stream-of-consciousness poem is really, really hard to pull off well. Most poets can’t pull it off well, as it happens, but this style nevertheless constitutes a significant chunk of what we see. Perhaps the two biggest hurdles with edgy poetry are incoherent imagery and a lack of semantic cohesion. To be clear: Stream-of-consciousness poetry is a valid, and sometimes sublime, form of literary art. But it’s also damned difficult to execute without coming off as pompous or inaccessible. It’s not unusual for us to see stuff like “The translucent opaqueness of the cerulean soul/chains for the adolescent making/my clock strikes blood/Cheerios for dinner.” When art and parody become indistinguishable, there’s a problem afoot.

Re-think the value of litanies of images that are genuinely incomprehensible as stand-alone concepts — e.g., if you can’t pull any dyad or triad from the work and grasp its meaning as an idea distinct from the work, then your risk increases that you’re on the wrong track, especially if this test fails again and again for the same poem. And understand that a poem that has no obvious overall meaning will not be greeted with affection by more conservative editors. And further understand that most editors are more conservative than you’d prefer.

Poetry, done well, is a delight; poetry that delights publishers will be more likely to receive a broad audience.