Monday, December 31, 2012

10 Free Alternatives to Duotrope for SFF Writers


If you have any short fiction writers in your webosphere, chances are you've heard a lot of chatter this month about a website called Duotrope. For the uninitiated, Duotrope is a searchable database of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry markets. They also have a detailed submissions tracker and user-provided market response statistics, which helps writers gauge how long they might be waiting for an answer when they submit work to a particular market. It's a helpful website for writers trying to sell their work, and until now its been completely free to use. But earlier this month, the Duotrope team announced that they would be moving to a paid subscription model on January 1st—to the vocal chagrin of a large number of its users. The services they've previously offered free of charge (with regular pleas for donations) will now cost fifty dollars a year, or five dollars a month.

The corners of the interweb where we short fiction authors gather to encourage and console each other have been abuzz ever since. The response has been divided, but most of the writers in my circles (many of whom have been regular donaters in the past) have made it clear they won't be supporting Duotrope in this move, either because they think the subscription fee is too high, or because they think it will reduce the usefulness of the site. I'm in the latter camp myself. I wouldn't have a problem paying Duotrope for the awesome service they provide, but if they scare a huge chunk of their userbase away, the accuracy of their market statistics will undoubtedly be affected. Since that's the most valuable part of the site for me, this makes it hard to justify dropping the cash on a subscription.

So for those like me, who probably won't be returning to Duotrope tomorrow, I've compiled a list of websites that offer similar services for free. Many of these (particularly the market listings) are aimed toward speculative fiction, but quite a few of them can be used by authors of any persuasion.

Market Listings


Ralan's SpecFic & Humor Webstravaganza 


Despite its antagonistic relationship with my eyeballs, Ralan.com is one of the oldest and most comprehensive lists of speculative fiction markets on the web. Ralan has been a regular part of my routine since I started submitting, even before The Great Duotrope Controversy of 2012. From pro to semi-pro or below, if they take SFF, you'll probably find them listed here.

SFWA's Pro Market List


Whether you have aspirations for membership or not, the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America website is a great resource for writers. Part of their membership requirements include sales to professional fiction markets that meet their approval, all of which are listed on their site. You can consider these markets vetted by the pros.

Speculative Literature Foundation List 


I'm not quite as familiar with this site as I am the others, but they've gathered a ton of market lists on this one page. I haven't investigated all of the links, so it's possible some of them might be out of date. Worth a look, at any rate.

Submission Trackers


Sonar 3


Spacejock Software (owned by author Simon Haynes) has been releasing free software for years, many of it aimed at writers. Sonar is probably the best submission tracking software I've ever used, and has long been my primary method of wrangling manuscripts. The biggest advantage is that it's all on your own computer, so you don't have to worry about anyone's server going down.

Writer's Planner


Writer's Planner works very much like a web-based version of Sonar, tracking your submissions using the data you've entered. The key difference is this site's tracker comes coupled with a huge list of markets, which saves you the time of having to create one yourself.

The Writer's Database


Like Writer's Planner, the Writer's Database is a web-based submission tracker. They also allow users to share market information so you don't have to enter all of the data yourself, though their list doesn't seem to be quite as large.

LibreOffice


When all else fails, you can always use a good old-fashioned spreadsheet to track your submissions. Most people (myself included) use Excel, but this is a list of free resources, so I'm going to recommend LibreOffice, a free and opensource office suit that comes with a great spreadsheet program.

Market Response Statistics


Black Holes


Hosted by Critters.org, Black Holes works similar to Duotrope's own response tracker. Users report the response times from their submissions, in hopes of giving each other a better idea of the wait times they might be facing for each market. While this site has nowhere near the number of data points that Duotrope has, I'm hoping that will change as former users look for a substitute.

The Write 1/Sub 1 Forum at Absolute Write


Write 1/Sub 1 is a self-imposed challenge to write and submit a new story on a weekly or monthly basis, and has been a great motivator. Many members of the W1S1 community meet up on the Absolute Write forums, where we share condolences in the "Rejectomancy" thread and rejoice in the "Braggage" thread. It's not only great for moral support, but serves as a good way to keep up with some of the goings on at the markets we're submitting to.

The Rejections and Acceptances Log


The R&A Log is a shared blog that allows anyone to report their response times, organized by post tags. They have a decent amount of members who are fairly active, however it's worth noting that you'll need to create a livejournal account to participate.

Edited to Add:


Submitomancy


Since writing this entry it's come to my attention that there's currently a project seeking funding on IndieGoGo called Submitomancy, which seeks to provide all of the features that Duotrope does (and a lot more, by the looks of it) for less money. It's a very ambitious project which might not see the light of day without some crowd sourcing, so you might think about contributing. I'm not going to include it in the list above, since it hasn't launched yet and it won't be totally free (they will apparently have a free option, plus a premium option with more features) but I think it's worth keeping tabs on at the very least.

The Submission Grinder


If you've paid attention to the comments section for this entry at all, you might have been waiting for this one. The Submissions Grinder is a project helmed by Diabolical Plots, and has been designed as a complete (and most importantly, free) alternative to Duotrope. It still looks to be a little rough around the edges at this point, but it sounds like they have great plans for this service as it takes shape. Right now, they're focused on gathering data points and building their market list, which you can help out with by registering an account and importing your Duotrope data.

Did I miss any? If you're a short fiction writer or poet and you know of any other Duotrope alternatives, feel free to let me know in the comments. Good luck and happy writing in 2013!

Original photo by boxchain via cc. Modified by J.W. Alden.

Monday, December 24, 2012

A Commentary on the Social Media Conundrum for Writers


For those of you who read this blog regularly, this post will probably seem a little off-topic. I don't usually get into the networking/marketing side of things very much. That's primarily because it's not my favorite side of the writer's coin, but also because I know I haven't figured it out anywhere near enough to be giving sagely advice on the subject. I have accounts on most of the popular social networking sites, but I probably don't give most of them the love they require. I use twitter pretty frequently, but Goodreads and Google+ get only the occasional visit to catch up. I've only just started using Pinterest, and to be honest, I'm not even sure I'm doing it right. Facebook gets the least amount of attention, as I generally don't enjoy using it. But the purpose of this entry isn't to clue you into my social networking report card. Instead, I'd like to talk about some of the glaring mistakes that I see writers making on social networks (including myself), and the effects those mistakes have on potential readers.

In fact, that's the voice I'm using today. Not my writer voice, but my reader voice, because that's what I am at the end of the day. I read an insane amount of books and stories. I'm such an avid reader that if I enjoy one book by an author, I'll go out and find every other book they've released. My "to read" list is a perpetual mile long, and that's just the way I like it. I've made it one of my personal missions to do everything I can to support the written word. And that's why it bothers me so much when I see an author misusing social networks. These online platforms put so much potential at our fingertips, but you don't have to look far to see a litany of writers treating them like the ads section in a newspaper. I've been guilty of it myself, especially on those sites that I don't enjoy using as much, but I've done a lot of thinking about that lately, and I'm ready to change my ways.

Tweet, Tweet


Since Twitter is the social networking platform I use the most, I'm going to talk mostly about my experience there. When I first started using the service, my instincts were to follow as many fellow writers as I could, to support the community and connect with people like myself. I also followed back any writer who followed me. As this went on, my own follower count rose, which I thought (as most do) was a good thing. After all, the more people that followed me, the more would be paying attention to my thoughts and links, right? Wrong.

The problem was that a large portion of those people were only on Twitter to promote themselves. You know the type of tweeter I'm talking about. If you look at their stream, all you see are links to their books, their blog, or their website. No conversation, no contributions to the community, just plug after plug after plug. Some of them might try to be more clever about it, retweeting like a madman in hopes the favor will be returned, or sending a DM to thank you for following (usually through an automated service). Thanks to ignorance, ill advice, or both, these writers treat twitter like a promo machine, gathering as many followers as they can—almost entirely through follow backs. What they don't seem to understand is that only a meager few of the thousands of followers they're accruing are actually going to translate into substantial clicks or sales (if any). Bestselling authors have thousands of followers because they're bestselling authors, not the other way around. Most of the people following them already knew who they were, and were already going to buy their books before they ever hit the follow button.

Knowing that a large degree of  the people I was connecting with were these selfish plug machines, I realized there was simply no advantage to networking with them, altruistic or otherwise. Not only were these people going to ignore my own tweets, but the worst part is that they were clogging my twitter stream with endless promotion, to the point that it was difficult to see the real people I was following—the people I actually wanted to support and interact with. For a while, I tried to alleviate this problem using the "lists" feature. It helped, but I soon realized I'd picked up the habit skipping my main Twitter feed altogether and going straight to the comparatively tiny list that I'd corralled the real tweeters in. Eventually, I just had to be up front with myself about the fruitlessness of it all. I mean, what was the point?

The Great Twitter Purge of 2012


So, last week I did something dramatic. Following some introspection and a blog post from John Scalzi that came at just the right time, I cut a hefty swath through my follow list, unfollowing anyone that tweeted nothing but plugs and links, or anyone that I'd never had any kind of genuine interaction with. As I did so, I watched my own follower count drop, and I was fine with that. It's not a high score or a race to a billion. That big number of mine meant absolutely nothing if most of the people behind it were ignoring me as I ignored them. The downside of this, however, is that there's a big chance that I accidentally unfollowed some people that deserved to be kept, including some of you. If I know you from the blogosphere or elsewhere, and you were a collateral casualty of my unfollow spree, please feel free to let me know so I can correct it. I do want to support the people that I actually have some kind of relationship with.

And if you're one of those other people, who tweets nothing but plugs, please consider changing your tactics. Think long and hard about whose books you would buy—a stranger who tweeted an amazon link at you, or someone you've actually come to know, like, and support. For me, it's unquestionably the latter. If you want people to pay attention to your plugs, make them few and far between. Talk to people that you think would be interested in you and your writing; not to give them your sales pitch, but to forge a relationship with them. Make friends, not fans. If you do that, you will find genuine support. People will share and retweet the occasional link because they're actually interested in you, not because they want you to return a blind favor, like robots spinning in circles to change each other's oil.

In the meantime, I'm going to put more of an effort into the social networking accounts that I've been neglecting myself. As I look at my Google+ and Facebook pages, I realize that my own streams on those sites look very much like those tweeters I unfollowed. It's not that I post a particularly obscene amount of plugs, it's just that I scarcely post anything else. So I'm going to try to spend more time there when I can, with the hope that I'll spark some conversation and make some friends. I'm going to be honest with you though. Facebook will be tough. I kind of hate that place.

Merry Christmas, happy holidays, and to all a good tweet.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Speculative Fiction Tropes: Robots

Well, my timing is obviously a little off this month, but it's finally time for another entry in the speculative fiction tropes series. Next month, everything should be back to normal with my schedule. Today, we're cracking open the chassis and examining the wires and gears of robots.

Robots are, without a doubt, one of the oldest tropes in the history of science fiction. From the earliest days of man's technological aspirations, we've been attempting to cast our eyes forward at what may be possible one day, and invariably these visions of the future always seem to contain advanced robotics of some kind.

And as with many far out extrapolations of our scientific exploits, science fiction has paved the way of exploration, particularly during the golden age of sci-fi that spawned so many of the classic books and movies that went on to influence the genre for decades to come.

Of course, like many of the tropes I've explored in this series, the actual root of the robot lies much further back in history, in the ancient myths and legends of varied cultures around the world. In the ancient Chinese text of the Liezi, there is an account of King Mu of Zhou's strange encounter with an automaton built by a mechanical artificer named Yan Shi. According to the text, it was constructed of wood and leather, and "walked with rapid strides, moving its head up and down, so that anyone would have taken it for a live human being."

In Greek mythology we have Hephaestus, the god of fire and smithery. In addition to forging the iconic weapons of the Olympic gods and heroes, he also was said to have built several metal automata as servants, from intelligent golden handmaidens to table-like tripods that moved about of their own volition. These mythological accounts would inspire Aristotle, who speculated in Politics that it would take an automaton revolution to end slavery and bring about true human equality. "There is only one condition in which we can imagine managers not needing subordinates, and masters not needing slaves," he said. "This condition would be that each instrument could do its own work, at the word of command or by intelligent anticipation."

The word "robot" itself was popularized by Czech author and playwright Karel Čapek in R.U.R. (which stood for Rossum's Universal Robots), his 1921 play about a factory that creates artificial people for labor. While Čapek's robot's were closer to what we'd call androids today, the word became widely used in popular culture and fiction following the play's success.

1927 saw the release of Fritz Lang's German expressionist film, Metropolis. This groundbreaking dystopian marked the first portrayal of a robot on film, the Maschinenmensch, which captured the sense of awe and strangeness that would typify golden age robots.

These days, robots are likely one of the first concepts that spring to most minds when the words "science" and "fiction" are coupled. The classic works of influential authors like Isaac Asimov—who formulated the Three Laws of Robotics in his popular Robot series—have made our mechanical friends synonymous with scifi. The traditional vision of robots has become somewhat cliche in the last twenty years or so, massaged and refined into sub-tropes like androids, cyborgs, and artificial intelligences, but for the most part fictional robots are still going strong.

Meanwhile, their real world counterparts are growing more advanced every day. Robots have served fundamental roles in our society for decades, mostly in the industrial sector. But as the technology behind their construction and capabilities grows, so does the list of their applications. Besides their typical roles in manufacturing, robots are also being employed as everything from military combat drones to household vacuum cleaners. I don't know if the robopocalypse is coming anytime soon, but it would probably serve us well to get used to the idea of living with robots, as their presence is only going to become more ubiquitous as time goes on.

Recommended Reading:
I, Robot by Isaac Asimov
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
Robopocalypse by Daniel H. Wilson

Recommended Viewing:
The Day the Earth Stood Still
Star Wars
Iron Man

Recommended Gaming:
Half-Life 2
Fallout 3
Portal 2

Monday, December 10, 2012

Speculative Spotlight: Unidentified Funny Objects

Okay, stop right there. I know what you're thinking. Didn't I say last month that the Speculative Spotlight feature was going to be posted on the last Monday of the month? And don't I still owe you a Tropes entry this month, as well? Well yes, I did. And yes, I do. But I have a fickle heart and this is my party. I can do what I want.

Actually, the reason I'm posting it early is because I've decided to move the feature to the second Monday of the month, which actually works perfectly for the subject of this month's entry. I was lucky enough to get my hands on an advance reader copy of Unidentified Funny Objects, a speculative humor anthology due for release on December 17th (next Monday). 


What's the Story?


"A good humor story is hard to find."

So says editor Alex Shvartsman in the foreword to Unidentified Funny Objects. And where science fiction and fantasy is concerned, I can't help but agree. While some of the most popular genre works of all time have been filled to the brim with humor, from Douglas Adams to Terry Pratchett, opportunity for authors of such work in the short fiction space is lamentably slim compared to the usual speculative fare. There are a handful of quality publications that are open to lighter stories, but most professional markets prefer the serious stuff, and that makes it tough to find a home for these kinds of stories (as I'm learning from my own experience). With this anthology, UFO Publishing is stepping in to help fill a bit of that void, showcasing twenty-nine stories of a funny, speculative bent.

Why It's Awesome


I've been yearning for quite some time to see a wider reception to humor by those who hold the reigns in speculative fiction, as both a reader and a writer. That being said, I completely understand why so many markets and anthologies out there seem reticent to open their arms very wide. Humor is always going to be a gamble of sorts due to its extremely subjective nature, especially when it comes to the written form. That can make it pretty tough to nail down in such a way that everyone who picks up the book will find something they enjoy. But Unidentified Funny Objects manages to pull it off using the collaborative strength of variety.

A quick glance at the table of contents makes that variety apparent, as you'll find work from award-winning veterans like Mike Resnick, rising stars like Ken Liu, and fresh names like James Beamon. The array of stories within ranges from the wacky to the witty in an effort to hit your funny bone from all angles, and the kitchen sink approach works. While I can't say I laughed aloud at every turn of the page, pretty much every story got at least a few grins out of me, and many of them go beyond giggles and well into compelling territory. My favorite story (though it's a tough call) might be The Alchemist's Children by Nathaniel Lee, in which a young girl treks through an enchanted forest to find her alchemist father, her scientific disposition clashing with the fantastic particulars of the journey.

But that's just one example of what you'll get in this anthology. You're also going to find time traveling belly dancers, lunar Nazis, naked werewolves, and Santa Clause with a shotgun. "Quality over quantity" is a maxim oft repeated by those who toil at something worthwhile, but UFO delivers on both fronts. If you like science fiction and fantasy, and you like to smile, I say give it a shot. If enough of us do, it might become a yearly anthology, and that's something I would love to see.

Unidentified Funny Objects comes out next Monday, but you can preorder an ebook or paperback copy now. You can also read a few stories for free on UFO Publishing's website.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

IWSG: Window Staring

It's the first Wednesday of the month, which hails the regular arrival of the Insecure Writer's Support Group, hosted by Ninja Captain Alex J. Cavanaugh. The group offers a place for writers of all kinds to support each other in those ever-present moments of insecurity.

While many use this as an opportunity to vent their frustrations, I realized early on that if I keep posting about my own insecurities, these posts will start sounding very similar. So I decided to move away from "woe is me" and focus on motivation and encouragement, centering my IWSG posts on inspirational quotes from people I admire.

This month's quote comes from Burton Rascoe. Most well known as a literary editor for the New York Herald Tribune, Rascoe was renowned in the twenties and thirties, publishing several non-fiction books on authors and literary commentary throughout his life. Though I'm not sure where it originated, the following quote is attributed to him:

"What no wife of a writer can ever understand is that a writer is working when he's staring out of the window."


As most of you have come to know by now, I can be a veritable quote machine at times, but this one definitely ranks high on my all time favorites list. If we forgive the gender bias of the language Rascoe employed, I think this is one of those universal chunks of aphorism that make writers of nearly every size, shape, and genre say, Yes! Someone understands!

I've done a bit of preaching here and there on this blog about organization and work ethic. For the most part, I think I've made it clear that I believe writers should approach the craft as professionals if we want to be successful at this—that is, we should treat writing like a genuine profession, not some fleeting weekend hobby. And I absolutely believe that's true. The written word is serious business, and it demands equal parts ardor and diligence. But sometimes it's important to stop and remind ourselves that we're not punching the clock and filing into a cubicle when we write. We are engaging art, and damn it, sometimes that means staring out of a window. Sometimes it means closing your eyes and listening to music, or going for a walk at night and looking up at the moon. These aren't usually the kinds of things you can pencil into a work schedule, but they can do wonders when you let them.

It seems obvious, I know. Hell, it's practically a stereotype: the aspiring writer sitting on the edge of a pier with notepad in hand, staring off into the sun as it sets over the ocean. But usually this image is colored derisively, as though writers, poets, painters, and any other artsy-fartsy types are just slackers in disguise. That's what Rascoe was referring to with his generalizing jab at the spouses and partners of the writerly ilk. If you're not someone that spends the better part of your day chasing the muse, it might be difficult to understand how relaxing in a hammock, watching a good movie, or playing a mindless video game can contribute to anyone's 'work.' Most people do these things to escape demands and responsibilities, not to nurture creativity. But there's no reason you should feel bad for engaging in a little recreation and reflection from time to time. These moments really can grease the wheels of inspiration if you let them (and as long as you don't overdo it).

So the next time your better half catches you staring into the distance while you're supposed to be working, just direct them to Mr. Rascoe's words of wisdom. And better yet, don't be afraid to remind yourself to stop and listen to the churning of the universe every now and again between writing sessions. Hard work will always pay off in the end, but so will the occasional ruminative interlude.

Monday, December 3, 2012

The NaNoWriMo Report Card

Well, it's officially December, and all of the telltale signs have arrived. The holiday decorations are up, the smell of nutmeg is in the air, and retail executives everywhere are steepling their fingers like Mr. Burns as we race to empty our bank accounts.

For many writers, however, the beginning of December means something else entirely. It means looking back at the month of November with either a triumphant fist in the air or a gentle sigh of resignation as we assess our performance during National Novel Writing Month. This year was my second attempt, and I'm glad to say that I managed to slay the beast this time around; I surpassed my fifty thousand word goal and became a NaNoWriMo "winner" for the first time.

For those who may have missed the entry in which I outlined my participation, I'll start out by letting you know that I didn't actually work on a novel this past month. While I do have grand plans to become a novelist one day, for all intents and purposes I am currently a short fiction writer. As such, I went in waving the rebel flag and worked entirely on short stories, pumping out as many raw drafts as I could in one month to meet my word count goals. Using NaNo this way yielded some surprising results for me, changing my usual output significantly.

What Were My Goals and How Did I Meet Them?


Going into the month, I had some very specific goals. Obviously, I wanted to write  at least fifty thousand words, but I also wanted to avoid burnout and experiment with my approach. To do so, I strayed from the typical formula, which says to shoot for around 1667 words per day. While this approach will get you to 50k with a reasonable daily work load, it also means that you have to commit to hitting that number every single day of the month, which is where that burnout comes in. Instead, I went in with a plan that would allow me to take weekends off (my weekends being Fridays and Saturdays) and still meet my goal. What this meant was that I would need to write at least 2500 words a day for the majority of November, though I tried to plan the month out with a blitzkrieg at the outset and a tapering off toward the end. For the most part, that's what I was able to do, though my targets for that first week turned out to be a little too ambitious. Here's the November calendar I used to plan and track my progress, which shows exactly how I ended up performing against those goals:


It's worth pointing a couple of things out after looking at those numbers. First, that glaring zero on the twelfth was the product of an impromptu day off for Veteran's Day weekend. Second, I came down with a bad cold the weekend after Thanksgiving (that I'm still trying to beat), which is why the numbers in that final week are so uneven. Luckily, I'd planned on slowing my output that week anyway, so it didn't hurt me too much. And yes, I did intentionally plan to write one word on the last day. If you're curious, the word was "before," though I suppose in a perfect world it would have been "END."

What Did I Learn?


I learned a few things during my NaNo experience that may inform the way I approach the writing process going forward. Chiefly, I learned that I do not like to turn off my inner editor for such long periods of time. I know that there are many writers out there who need to do this as a part of their every day process, but it produced very odd results for me. For one, the drafts that I produced were all enormous. I've written stories of all shapes and sizes, but the sweet spot that I usually aim for with a short is around five thousand words. As such, I was anticipating somewhere in the neighborhood of seven to ten stories in November. What I got was four, each weighing in at well over ten thousand words a piece. While I'm not opposed to writing longer pieces if that's how the story wants to be told, it's clear to me that this was a side effect of the way I wrote in November. These stories are going to need a much more intensive revision pass than I'm used to before I'm able to submit them anywhere.

I also learned that I'm capable of realizing goals like these if I shut up and stick to my guns, which is something that every writer needs to find out at some point if you're planning on making this a viable career. Not only was I able to hit that fifty thousand words, but I could have done a whole lot more if I'd really wanted to. If I had sacrificed all of those weekends that I took off, stayed home for Thanksgiving, and managed to stay healthy for the entire month instead of battling sickness toward the end, chances are I would have been able to add at least another twenty thousand words or so on top of my total. While I'm glad I took the approach that I did, it will be nice to have that knowledge tucked in my belt if I ever find myself facing any intimidating publishing deadlines one day.

Will I Do This Again?


That's the question, isn't it? Honestly, I don't know. For the most part, I enjoyed the experience, and I'm glad to have met my goals. However, I do think that I answered the questions I had going in, and since I'm not entirely crazy about the extra work I'll have to do to whip these stories into shape, I'm not sure that it's something I'll want to do again. That being said, depending on how things go for me between now and then, there's a decent chance that I'll have an actual novel to work on by next November. If that's the case, I might just have to dip my toes again. Either way, I don't regret having done it this year. It was loads of fun.

Did you participate in NaNoWriMo this year? How did it go for you? Did you meet your goals? Leave a comment and let me know.

NOTE: The next entry in the speculative fiction tropes series will be posted later this month. I decided to push it back for the NaNo debriefing and another upcoming entry. My blog schedule is going to be a little wacky this month.
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