Fundamentals of Fiction, Part VI: Learning the Lingo
by Marg Gilks

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"A professional writer is an amateur that doesn't quit." -- Richard Bach

You've written your story, polished it up, and now you're ready to market it--to submit it to a magazine for publication. But when you study the magazine's writers' guidelines, you're presented with an array of terms, abbreviations, and jargon that you've never heard of before. What does it all mean?

Deciphering Writer's Guidelines

"Whoa," you're thinking, "first, what the heck are writers' guidelines?"

This one's self-explanatory. Writers' guidelines--or submission guidelines, or editorial guidelines--describe what the magazine will consider for publication: the type of story they want to see, how they want to see it, what rights they buy and what they'll pay, and so on. These guidelines are provided by the magazines themselves and can be found on their web sites or in market listings. Always check a magazine's writers' guidelines before you submit a story, and follow their format requirements and length restrictions and anything else that will give your story a chance at a favorable reception.

Let's examine a set of (imaginary) writers' guidelines and learn just what they're talking about:

NOT REALLY THERE Magazine - ed. Genevive Doe, 123 E Second St., Somewhere Junction, NY 11211. E-mail: information@notreallythere.com. Web site: www.notreallytheremagazine.html. Needs: Fiction to 10,000 words (6K preferred). Mainstream, literary, genre including romance, mystery, SF/F/H, cross-genre okay. No flash fiction or Western. Wants character-driven stories. Include bio on separate sheet. Cover letter optional. No simultaneous submissions, no multiple submissions, query for reprints. No email subs. Include SASE for response; international submissions require SAE and IRCs. Reading period January 10 - September 1. Buys FNASR and non-exclusive electronic rights. Pays 3-5/word OA. RT: 6-8 weeks.

This listing starts with the name and contact information of the magazine. If an editor's name is included in the contact information, this is the person you should address in the cover letter you write to accompany your submission. If no name is included in the guidelines, you can earn brownie points by tracking down the editor's name, by either examining the magazine's masthead or looking on the "About Us" or "Contact Us" pages on their web site. Make sure you spell not only the editor's name, but the name of the magazine correctly--you may know it as "Not Really Magazine," but an editor will read an improper name as sloppiness.

Fiction to 10,000 words (6K preferred). You might also see "Length: 10,000 words" or "Word count 2,000 - 10,000." The magazine is seeking fiction stories up to 10,000 words long, but they are telling you that your 6,000-word story has a better chance of being accepted than your 10,000 word story. They are also telling you not to send your 15,000 word story, so don't think they'll make an exception just for you.

Mainstream, literary, genre including romance, mystery, SF/F/H, cross-genre okay. No flash fiction or Western. If a magazine prefers to publish certain types of stories, they will list their preferences and their dislikes in their guidelines. This magazine accepts a broad range of stories--general fiction, insightful fiction that makes readers think, and genre fiction.

"Genre" equals "category" and includes, as listed here, romance, mystery, science fiction (sf), fantasy (f), and horror (h), as well as Western, suspense/thriller, historical fiction, and so on. Cross-genre stories are stories that combine the elements of two or more genres--historical romance, for example. Flash fiction stories are between 100 and 1,000 to 2,000 words long.

Wants character-driven stories. If they think it will help the writer decide on the most appropriate piece to send them, many magazines include a few lines describing what they like to see in submissions. This magazine considers characters more important than ideas or ideals; it wants to see stories about people.

Include bio on separate sheet. Magazines that print biographical information about the authors whose stories they print will ask the author to write a short blurb that will be printed with the story, if it's accepted. This magazine doesn't want the author's bio included in a cover letter or at the beginning or end of the manuscript itself.

Cover letter optional. It's customary to accompany a submission with a cover letter that states the title, genre, and word count of the story and includes a paragraph about the author. Some magazines don't care about a writer's credentials and prefer to see the story alone. This magazine is saying that you don't have to include a cover letter with your submission unless you want to.

No simultaneous submissions. A simultaneous submission is one story sent to several magazines at the same time. "No simultaneous submissions" means that the magazine wants you to send your story only to them, and not send it to another magazine until they have turned it down.

No multiple submissions. Multiple submissions are several stories sent to one magazine at the same time. This magazine wants you to send only one story at a time.

Query for reprints. Reprints are stories that have already been published, and that you are offering to this magazine to publish a second time. This magazine is saying that they might consider your reprint story, but they want you to send just a letter first, telling them about your story and asking them if they would like to see it.

No email subs. This magazine wants to receive submissions by postal mail only. They will delete your message unread if you email your story to them.

Include SASE for response; international submissions require SAE and IRCs. A SASE is a self-addressed stamped envelope. The magazine wants you to include this with your submission so they can send their acceptance or rejection of your story to you. If you don't include a SASE, most magazines will not respond.

A SAE is a self-addressed envelope and an IRC is an International Reply Coupon, which can be purchased at the post office and then exchanged for stamps in another country. This allows a British magazine to send a response to an American author, for example.

Reading period January 10 - September 1. Most magazines accept submissions all the time, but if a magazine lists a reading period, they won't accept submissions outside those dates. Similarly, if a magazine announces that they're temporarily or indefinitely closed to submissions, don't send anything until the magazine announces that they are "open"--once again accepting submissions.

Buys FNASR and non-exclusive electronic rights. Most magazines tell you what rights to your story they are buying (see "Rights: What They Mean and Why They're Important" at http://www.writing-world.com/rights/rights.shtml for more information on rights). If a magazine doesn't state what rights they're buying, it's okay to state what rights you're offering to sell them in your cover letter. This magazine is buying First North American Serial Rights. They are also buying the right to publish your story on the Internet or in some other electronic form, but because their right to the story in this area is non-exclusive, you are allowed to sell the story elsewhere while it's on their web site.

Pays 3-5/word OA. The magazine is telling you that they will pay you between three cents and five cents per word for your story, and they will pay you for the story when they accept it (OA = on acceptance). Many magazines pay on publication (OP), which means you have to wait until they publish the story before they will pay you for it.

There are many variations in how magazines pay for stories. Many British publications pay so many Pounds per 1,000 words ("£30 per 1,000"). Some publications pay in copies, or offer a flat rate, or offer royalties or a percentage of profits.

RT: 6-8 weeks. Response or return time. This is the amount of time the magazine says it will take to respond to your submission. The response times given by many publications are extremely rough estimates that fluctuate according to the number of submissions they have to deal with; it's a good idea to interpret the stated response times as how long you should wait before sending a query about your story's status.

Other Mysterious Terms

What other words might leave you mystified when you start to market your fiction?

Advance. When a publisher offers you an advance, they are paying you a portion of your share of projected sales up-front. This is more common in book publishing, but you will occasionally see a publication offering an advance in conjunction with later royalties or a share in profits as payment for your short story. Keep in mind that, if the issue or publication containing your story does not sell well, the advance may be the only payment you receive.

Biannual/bimonthly/monthly/quarterly. If a publication is described as "biannual," it comes out twice a year; if bimonthly, it's published twice a month. Monthly and quarterly publications put out twelve and four issues a year, respectively.

"Byline given." The author's name or biographical information will be printed with the story.

Contributor copies. Many publications provide authors with one or two free copies of the issue containing their story, either as the sole payment for a story or as a bonus along with payment.

"Disposable mss preferred." When you see this phrase in writers' guidelines, it means that the publication prefers that the author allow them to throw away the manuscript, rather than returning it to the author with a rejection. If you want your manuscript returned, be sure to include a SASE that is both large enough to hold the manuscript and that has sufficient postage affixed to it. Even if you direct the publication to dispose of your manuscript, you still need to include a SASE for a response.

"Include publication credits in cover letter." This means that the magazine wants to know if you've had stories published before, and what publications your stories have appeared in. Mentioning three or four of your best publication credits in one paragraph of your cover letter is usually sufficient. If you have no publication credits yet, don't despair. Just ignore this detail in your cover letter and send the story for consideration anyway. After all, the only way you will acquire credits is if you submit your stories.

Kill fee. If a publication accepts one of your stories for publication but is then unable to publish the piece, they may offer you a percentage of the payment you were to receive or a flat fee in lieu of publication. This is not a standard practice with fiction markets, so don't expect a kill fee; you're more likely to receive an apologetic letter.

Market list. There are a number of writers' resource web sites that collect and display writers' guidelines as lists or searchable databases, allowing writers to find guidelines and market information about many different publications in one place, rather than accessing each magazine's web site separately. These sites are called market lists. An Internet search on "market list" or "writers' guidelines" will turn up several lists.

Masthead. This is the column of information that you'll find one or two pages inside a magazine's cover, often on the same page as the Table of Contents. Here you'll find the names of publishers and editors, subscription and advertising information, and contact information.

MS/MSS. The abbreviation for "manuscript" and the plural "manuscripts."

Novel excerpts. A few publications accept excerpts from novels for publication. Such submissions usually have to seem like a stand-alone story, with some kind of beginning, middle, and end, even though they are part of a larger work. Publications are more open to novel excerpts from established writers than those from beginning writers.

"No unsolicited submissions" means that the publication doesn't want to receive a submission from you unless they ask for it. How do you get them to ask for it? You send them a query letter describing the story and asking them if you can send it for their consideration. If they say yes, voila, it's been solicited.

On spec. This is short for "on speculation" and means that you write the story and then send the finished story to a publication and ask them to consider publishing it. This is the normal procedure for fiction, and you may never come across the term "on spec" in fiction guidelines. Nonfiction is just the opposite--you often propose an idea for an article to a publication and ask them if they would be interested in publishing it before you even write it.

Outline. This is a chapter by chapter summary of your story, with about a paragraph devoted to each chapter. An outline is often requested by agents or publishers when considering a novel.

POV. The abbreviation of "point of view." POV refers to the character from whose perspective the story is told.

Premise. A one sentence summary of what your story is about.

Protagonist. The main character in a story.

Reading fee/entry fee. Many writing contests charge a reading fee to entrants to cover the cost of operating the contest. You should treat any agent or publisher that charges a reading fee with caution, however. Agents and publishers should not be making money from authors, but from the sale of their books.

Royalties. The author's percentage of the profits from sales of a book or (less commonly) a short story.

Sample copy. It's a good practice to familiarize yourself with a publication before submitting a story. Many magazines sell sample copies to authors for this purpose; many now also post samples from their print publications on the Internet, so you can get an idea of the type of stories the publication seeks without paying for a sample copy.

Serial. A long story or novel published in sections over several issues of a magazine.

Slushpile/over the transom. When an unsolicited manuscript is sent to a publisher it is known as an over the transom submission. Unsolicited manuscripts sent to publishers and magazines become part of the slushpile--the backlog of submissions waiting to be read and assessed, usually by first readers, who screen out inappropriate submissions and pass only the most promising manuscripts on for the editor to read. If you don't receive a response to a submission within a magazine's or publisher's stated return time, it's probably because the backlog is greater than usual or because your story has been passed along for serious consideration.

Sub. Short for "submission."

Synopsis. A condensation of a novel or story into one or two pages; a synopsis is very similar to what you read on the back cover or dust jacket flap of a published book.

Now that you know the lingo, what are you waiting for? It's time to start perusing those market listings, looking for a home for that story you've written!

Read the Entire "Fundamentals of Fiction" Series!

Part I: "I've Got an Idea!"
You've got an idea -- but how do you turn it into a story?

Part II: Read, Read, Read!
If you want to write, you need to read -- and read, and read, and read! Here's why...

Part III: Critique Groups and Writers' Groups
How do you know if you're "good enough"? Feedback from a critique group can help!

Part IV: Writers Write!
Facing that blank screen can be intimidating. Here's how to get past the fear.

Part V: Learning How: Courses, Workshops and Tutors
For in-depth learning and feedback, nothing beats a good writing course.

Part VI: Learning the Lingo
Deciphering writers' guidelines -- and all the other terms associated with writing and selling fiction.

Part VII: Being Realistic
Before you mail out that story you just finished, be sure you know how the market works -- and whether you're ready for it!

Part VIII: Finding Markets for Your Fiction
It's not just about sending out your best writing; it's also about finding the best market.

Part IX: Writing Etiquette
Understanding some basic courtesies will smooth your writing path!

Part X: Avoid Those Beginners' Blunders
Cliches, lazy language, adverbitis, and characters who check themselves out in a mirror are just a few amateur errors that will send your story to the reject pile.

Find Out More...

A Beginner's Guide to Writing Terminology - Dawn Copeman
http://www.writing-world.com/basics/dawn03.shtml

Copyright © 2003 Marg Gilks
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.


Marg Gilks' short stories, poetry, and articles have been appearing in newspapers, newsletters, magazines, and e-zines since 1977. She considers writing fiction, especially sf/f, the ultimate form of escapism -- in what other field can you create your own universe? Contact her with feedback and queries through Scripta Word Services, her freelance editing business: http://www.scripta-word-services.com/.

 

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