This has been a very good month for me. A number of payments for the stories I've sold earlier this year are coming in, and I'm rolling in the dough. Well, more like skating on the very thin layer of the dough that can be generated from selling very short stories for anywhere between one shiny penny and eight shiny pennies per word. Still, it's sweet.
I promised myself that once I began earning income from my fiction, I would pump some of it back into our notoriously cash-starved little industry. I'm already a consumer – I buy all the books that I want to read (usually on the Kindle). I also plan on purchasing subscriptions to F&SF and possibly a few others in the near future. Meantime, I wanted to support three of the web sites that were instrumental in helping me to get published.
First up, critters.org
Critters is an online workshop where an author can get feedback from fellow writers. It's free, but one must participate by critiquing at least one story per week. There are other web sites that do this, but Critters is perhaps the largest, best organized, and very well maintained by SF writer and programmer Dr. Andrew Burt (a.k.a. Critter Captain).
An aspiring author usually starts out by showing off their writing to friends and family. This is ego-stroking (as most of them will praise the manuscript, however mediocre it might be), but not very useful if you want to improve. On the other end of the spectrum, submitting these early attempts for publication will usually result in a form rejection letter, that doesn't point out the story's flaws. If you are very lucky, an editor will include a paragraph or two commenting on what didn't work for them. A critique by fellow writers is far more useful. They'll pick apart both the writing and the logic of the story, question every detail you may not have even thought of, and will often help you find and eliminate flaws in your writing you weren't aware of.
The system isn't perfect. Quality of critiques ranges from absolutely amazing to utterly useless. I once had someone send me a page-long manifesto the entire purpose of which was to convince me that I should never EVER begin a short story with a line of dialogue. Which is utter nonsense, of course. Still, the signal to noise ratio on Critters is very good and it's a service I highly recommend to anyone who is starting out and to writers who do not have a good local critique group of their own.
I must admit that I haven't been using Critters myself recently. I have precious little time to dedicate to writing (hey, I hardly ever get to update this here blog!) and even less to critiquing others. When I do have time to crit, I usually do it for writers whom I've become friends with at AW (see below). Still, Critters was extremely helpful to me early on, and they easily made my list of venues that I simply had to donate some cash to.
My current stomping grounds and a site I visit daily is Absolute Write. There are thousands of writers on their forums who share information and resources. There is a Critique component (in the Share Your Work sub-forum) as well as sections for every possible facet of writing, from genre categories to Bewares – a watchdog section keeping an eye on shady publishers and agents. I've made a lot of new friends by hanging out at AW. It's also a great place to pop in and ask a question. The level of conversation is very mature as compared with what goes on in the "Interwebs" – I've been a witness to no more than two flame wars in over a year of using the site, and both were quickly and efficiently extinguished by the moderators.
Last but not least on my list of "must-support" sites is Duotrope.com
Duotrope is a database of fiction markets for all formats and genres. It keeps track of new publications, the goings-on at current magazines, and venue closings. Much of the content is user-generated. When I submit a short story to, say, Clarkesworld, Duotrope helps keep track of my submission in a nifty database. At a glace I can see what markets my story has been to, when I subbed it, and when it was rejected. While I'm doing this, Duotrope also uses this information to (anonymously) report the recent responses at each market. Thus I know that, this week, Clarkesworld is taking 5-7 days to respond to their submissions. So when that rejection comes, I can consider response times and resubmit it to, say, Lightspeed Magazine (which responds in 1-3 days) instead of TOR.com (which takes nearly a year!).
Of course, response times aren't the only criteria to go by. Excellent markets like TOR.com mentioned above are well worth waiting for. But when you have a new market, or one you aren't very familiar with, How long will they take to respond? Are they likely to comment on your submission or send a form rejection? How easy/tough is the market to crack? Duotrope will let you know at a glance what to expect.
In the end, none of this data crunching will help sell a story. The editor will either love it, or not. Still, it's a hugely useful resource and they deserve a donation for providing it to everyone at no charge.
So there you have it – Critters, AW and Duotrope all received small, but very sincere contributions from this humble author today. If you are in a similar situation, I encourage you to use their invaluable services, and to pay it back with a donation of your own once those stories begin to sell.