advice

What (if anything) makes a cover letter effective?

What (if anything) makes a cover letter effective?

While I will go on to say what makes the most effective cover letter, it is important to remember that your short story will speak for itself. The ‘greatness’ of a cover letter may slightly colour the editor’s preconceptions and help to either add or detract from how memorable your writing is, but shouldn’t have any bearing on the acceptance or rejection of the piece (and, if it does, it is a reflection on the editor of the publication you are submitting to rather than any reflection on you).

Why even have a cover letter, then? Well...

8 quick tips: How to scare your reader

8 quick tips: How to scare your reader

Eliciting emotions in your reader is what writing is all about. However, with Halloween almost upon us, fear is one of the most difficult emotions to elicit. You don't have the luxury of ‘jumps’ that horror movies rely on. So, how do you scare your reader with only words? Unfortunately, there’s no sure-fire equation that results in fear and, if there was, it wouldn’t be very scary if every writer was doing it. So, with that said, here are some very quick tips (and lots of rhetorical questions to get you thinking) that will just scratch the surface of what makes a good spine-chilling tale...

Does your writing stand out from the crowd?

Does your writing stand out from the crowd?

We received the following email from one of our mailing list subscribers recently and it outlined a problem that we know will affect many writers out there.

‘From the feedback I've had, I know that my writing is of a good standard but often fails to stand out, or lacks 'an edge.'
I've been told a few times by editors/judges that I write competently, can show (not tell), and have the necessary skills to produce a good piece of work. However, I always seem to be missing that vital spark, or opening hook, or twist, or whatever it is that they are looking for in a winning piece. So, time and again, I'm applauded for my efforts but I never quite make the cut.’

If this applies to you, too, then read on and hopefully we can help...

Finding the time to write and live a balanced life

Finding the time to write and live a balanced life

You may have noticed that we ask everyone who joins our mailing list what is holding them back from being a successful writer. Something that keeps cropping up, unsurprisingly, is finding the time to write and juggling it with a busy lifestyle.

This article will be a little different than usual because I’m going to mostly talk about my own experiences and how I try (and sometimes fail) to fit writing into an already hectic schedule...

Common Writing 'Mistakes' - Part 3: Overwriting

Common Writing 'Mistakes' - Part 3: Overwriting

This is the final part of our series on common mistakes (click to read part one and two) and today we’re looking at overwriting.

What goes wrong?

Overwriting can come in many forms but at its heart it can be summed up as writing too much. When the writing is particularly elaborate, it’s sometimes called purple or flowery prose. The fact is, less is often more.

Some examples of overwriting:

  • Describing something in too much detail: The woman...

Common Writing 'Mistakes' – Part 2: Sentence fragments

Common Writing 'Mistakes' – Part 2: Sentence fragments

This article is the second of a three part series where we look at common flaws in the submissions we receive. If you missed it, part 1 was on the misuse of speech marks. Next up we cast a critical eye on sentence fragments.

What goes wrong?

Let’s keep this simple, for a moment. A fragment is part of a sentence, but not a full sentence. A complete sentence has, at least, a noun (acting as the ‘subject’) and a verb (used as the ‘predicate’, to tell us more about the ‘subject’; for example, what it is or what it does).

Examples of real sentences:

Common Writing 'Mistakes' – Part 1: Speech marks

Common Writing 'Mistakes' – Part 1: Speech marks

This article is the first of a three part series where we shine a light on the most common mistakes we see in submissions. We want to try to help you avoid them, but also find out why these errors are so common. First up is the most frequent mistake we see: incorrect speech marks.

What goes wrong?

Are they speech marks, inverted commas or quotation marks? Whatever you want to call them, these little symbols are hugely important to the reading experience. Errors in their usage can take a number of forms...

Know What an Editor Wants Without Stalking Them

Know What an Editor Wants Without Stalking Them

Sending your writing out for consideration can often feel like a guessing game. However, if you are submitting your work to a magazine with no idea if it has a chance of being successful then you’re probably doing something wrong.

Finding somewhere to submit to is easy. There are thousands of markets out there – almost 6000 listed on Duotrope alone. Submitting to these magazines is easy; it takes a couple of clicks to have your writing in front of an editor. So why should you slow down and make the process of submitting harder? Well, with a bit of research and work, you can significantly increase your chances of publication by getting inside the head of an editor.

Why is Worldbuilding in a Short Story so Tricky?

Why is Worldbuilding in a Short Story so Tricky?

Here, I talk about worldbuilding as being the creation of an alternative reality and world rather than a reality built on Earth. The problems with worldbuilding within a short piece of fiction come because there is barely enough words to build the story you want in the current world, let alone a place that is not immediately recognisable. It works so well in novels because you have the space to gradually immerse the reader. 

As you build an alternative world to this one, it becomes difficult for the reader to relate to the characters within it. There can often be a lack of empathy, an emotive void, which would otherwise be picked up by similarities we would find with characters on Earth. If your reader is a devoted sci-fi fan, they are more likely to forgive problems with your fictional world, but for someone like me, who isn’t a big fan of the genre, a world that I can’t relate to, or characters I can’t get my teeth into, are likely to lose me. 

The Art of Foreshadowing: How to Craft the Perfect Twist

The Art of Foreshadowing: How to Craft the Perfect Twist

The short story format is ideal for a twist-in-the-tale story. That said, a surprising ending can leave a reader with a smile on their face or, if handled wrongly, a bitter taste in their mouth. So, how do you pull off the perfect twist?

It's a lot like pulling off a diamond heist. You can't just walk into a bank and steal the diamond from the safe without any kind of plan – that'll never work! Everything needs to be in place before you even set foot in the building.

What is foreshadowing?

A twist that seemingly comes out of nowhere can be hard to believe and harder to swallow. The last thing you want is for your reader to feel they’ve been tricked. The key to avoiding this is foreshadowing, which is the hinting at things to come later in the text. The clues you hide need to be subtle but also obvious enough that, when the twist occurs, the reader will think, ‘Of course! The clues were right there in front of me.’ Getting this balance just right is one of the hardest things to achieve.

Why Writing a Short Story is Harder Than Writing a Novel

Why Writing a Short Story is Harder Than Writing a Novel

Have you ever had to deal with people saying ‘At least short story writing is easier than novel writing’? Dan and I write short stories as well as publish them and this comment is one we hear often. On the surface, this is an understandable assumption to make. Short stories involve far fewer words than novels (so easier, right?) and, in a lot of cases, short fiction tells part of a story rather than trying to deal with the whole thing.

Well, enough is enough. Flip these ‘positives’ on their heads and you get a different picture...

How to Stop Procrastination From Killing Your Writing

How to Stop Procrastination From Killing Your Writing

‘Okay, back to writing I go. I can’t get this dialogue to sound realistic–Suddenly I am scrolling through an endless stream of tweets. How did this happen? How long have I been procrastinating? I really should get back to writing. Okay, so this character is feelin–Oh! A notification. I must see what this new email is. It could be important. I’ll just flip over to my email for a few secon–’

Does any of the above sound familiar? Procrastination is the bane of the modern writer’s life and it’s only getting worse...

The Secret to Turning a Rejection into an Acceptance

The Secret to Turning a Rejection into an Acceptance

From experiencing both sides of the rejection process, I know that they are not easy to give or receive. I’ve written some short stories that I felt were pretty good and they have been knocked back by magazine after magazine. Now, after being heavily involved in Firewords, the reasons for some of our rejections led to our previous blog, ‘Why Your Rejection Letter Means Nothing’. This might help you understand where journals come from when they decide not to publish, but today I’m interested in what you can do with this information and how you can use it when moving forward.

5 Habits That Improve Your Writing (But Don’t Involve Writing)

As with most skills in life, the best way to become a better writer is to practise. Write every single day and your ability is highly likely to improve over time. But what about the times when you aren’t writing? Here are 5 habits to adopt in other areas of your life that will have a positive effect on your writing.

1. Be creative in other ways

It may seem counterintuitive to do something artistic other than writing, but it's often the push your creative juices need. Creativity is like a muscle and it should be trained and exercised in different and surprising ways to keep it fresh. It doesn't matter if your only skill is writing; just create for the fun of it. Pick up a camera and snap some random shots. Pick up a pencil and sketch your character. Step out of your comfort zone and, when you do come back to writing, you'll feel refreshed and energised.

2. Never stop reading

When it comes to improving your writing, this tip is mentioned often and for good reason. You should be reading as much, if not more, than you are writing. Read the classics. Read exciting new authors who are doing things differently. Find out what you like to read and what you don’t, and then work out why. When you surround yourself with so many different literary voices, it is much easier to eventually find your own.

3. Look after yourself

There’s no denying it - writing is hard work. It takes time, energy and a lot of determination to sit down day after day and write something of value. All these things can take their toll on your body, so make sure you look after it to avoid reaching burn-out. It’s common sense really, but things like plenty of sleep, regular exercise, a healthy diet and time away from a screen all result in a clearer mind and a healthier, happier writer. The image of a tortured soul who survives on only coffee and a few hours sleep may be a romantic one, but it makes your job a whole lot harder.

4. Open your eyes

In case you haven’t heard, there is a resource available that has a limitless supply of inspiration for you to tap into. And the best part? It’s around you all the time and it’s completely free. Observing the world around is the best way to write with realism. Realistic characters are everywhere, from the gossiping old lady in the queue at the post office to the disheveled man on the bus who seems a little unhinged. They are all waiting to join your literary cast. And it’s not just characters; you can describe locations, eavesdrop on dialogue and observe all kinds of daily goings-on. It’s easy to walk around with your head down and your eyes fixed to a phone, but try looking up. Sights, smells, tastes, textures, emotions, drama; everything is there and ripe for the picking.

5. Keep a notebook

Okay, this one does involve writing, but only with pen and paper. Buy a small notebook and keep it with you at all times. Now keep a log of all the observations you make in point number 4. This is really important because it’s impossible to keep all your ideas, observations and descriptions in your head. Also, you never know when something, which seemed irrelevant at the time, will be the perfect spark you need later.

I keep my notebook colour coded for easy reference later (and because I’m a bit of a notebook geek). Feel free to steal my system or make up your own if it works better for you.

  • Blue: Overheard dialogue
  • Green: New words and the definition to expand your vocabulary
  • Red: New story or plot ideas
  • Orange: Interesting characters
  • Yellow: Random descriptions or observations
  • Purple: Resources or websites that may come in handy (start with firewords.co.uk!)

It will feel weird at first, but soon it will become a treasure trove of inspiration right at your fingertips for whenever you want to dip into it.

Why Your Rejection Letter Means Nothing

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At a recent book fair, we were talking to several writers about their experiences of submitting to literary journals. It was surprising to hear that they had all given up trying after receiving rejections.

We were aghast and quickly reassured them that they shouldn’t take rejections personally. We know (first hand!) that rejections are hard to take, which is why we try to give personal feedback to the submissions we receive, even though it makes our job infinitely harder (we’ll go into our reasons for giving feedback in a later blog).

Rejections are, by far, the worst part of the job for an editor (unless they happen to be some kind of sadist). All these talented writers have chosen your magazine from the hundreds available to submit to, to put themselves and their writing out there in the most vulnerable way. During the last call for submissions, Firewords received almost 500 pieces. There’s no conceivable way we can publish all the good writing, which means we have to reject over 95% of the submissions - a lot of which are of a publishable standard.

There are any number of reasons why a piece may not make the cut. A few of these are:

  • Another accepted submission is too similar in theme/style.
  • The piece unbalances the overall tone of the issue.
  • A particular member of the editorial team doesn’t connect with the piece, when others may have loved it.
  • The topic is very specialised and would not relate to a wider audience.
  • It’s not right for that particular publication.

Notice, none of the above reasons have anything to do with the standard of your writing.

Just because one magazine, or one editor, or ten editors, don’t like a piece doesn’t mean you should give up. Just because one story doesn’t make it doesn’t mean you’ve failed as a writer. Keep writing. Keep improving your craft. And most of all, never stop putting yourself out there. No one will ever enjoy your writing if it stays on your computer.