The Cardinal Sins of Submission

As I work my way through the fantastic stories and poems that have been submitted to Gallows Hill Magazine, it seemed a good time to share with you all some of my top tips for making it out of the slush pile. We all know publishing is a competitive business; there are hundreds of stories submitted to each opening, and that’s something to be celebrated. Writing is more accessible than ever, and equally, there are always new venues opening up to showcase the very best of genre fiction. But that means that if you want your story to stand out, you need to do everything you can to present yourself and your story in the best light.

Here are a few things you can do to ensure you don’t commit the cardinal sins of short story submissions.

  1. FORMATTING is vital. Seriously. I can’t stress this point enough! When an editor is reading through dozens of submissions each day, ‘quirky’ formatting will do you no favours. Presenting your work in bold font, unusual typefaces or without appropriate paragraphs and punctuation will elicit a pained groan from the weary editor, and giving them a reason to mark your story down from the start is a Bad Plan. Most publications will list the expected formatting for your submission, but when in doubt, always use Shunn standard format for your short stories. Learn it and use it.
  2. GUIDELINES are there for a reason. Don’t subvert them. It doesn’t make you clever or special; you just look like an arsehole. If an editor requests a hard limit of 5k, sending in your 7000 word story is an auto-rejection. If the guidelines request a HEA (happily ever after), then your story that culminates in a beautifully tragic murder of one of the main characters isn’t going to fit, and it’s a waste of your time and theirs to send it in. Read the guidelines, stick to them, and you’re already halfway there.
  3. SUBMITTING CORRECTLY will also stand you in good stead. If the publisher asks for a cover letter, provide one – and think about what you’re writing. They don’t need (or want) to know about the trophy you won when you were 9. But if you’re a member of the HWA or your story was recently nominated for a Stoker, then by all means let them know. Send to the correct email address, or via the submission portal if directed to do so. Don’t find the editor’s personal email to send it to them directly; it only makes you look like someone who isn’t willing to follow the process, and is therefore likely going to be difficult to work with. Address your email formally and politely, and if in doubt, address it as “Dear Editor”, NOT “Dear Sir”!
  4. And DON’T SELF-REJECT. Have confidence in your writing and in yourself. Once your story is the best it can be, get it out there! I know how hard it is for a writer to open up to criticism and send each story out there. Our writing is often intensely personal, and taking a risk on rejection is difficult. But if you’ve read the guidelines, crafted a story that fits and believe in it, then send it off! Take a chance and see what happens.
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An Anatomy Of Fear

For horror authors, the definition of fear and how to invoke it is the most important question to answer. I’ve had the privilege of reading the slush pile for Gallows Hill Magazine, and in the course of doing so I’ve read some truly fantastic and powerful stories that have stayed in my mind long after finishing them. I’ve been reflecting upon what made these particular stories stand out from the rest. There was no particular theme running through them, but the one thing they did have in common was the author’s ability to understand precisely how to play on the reader’s instinctive fears.

In my opinion, the greatest horror is psychological. Gore certainly has its place in the genre, but for me, the most successful horror is that which has the ability to sink its tendrils into the reader’s mind and captivate them entirely. To do that, the author has to comprehend the concept of human fear. We all have phobias, some stranger than others – mine is cotton wool – but tapping into a universal fear across that spectrum is incredibly difficult. You might write a spine tingling piece about spiders, but for someone who isn’t afraid of them in the least, however well your story is crafted, it won’t hit the spot. To hook as many readers as possible, you have to appeal to humanity’s base instincts.

We’re complex individuals, but as a species we have the same instincts for self-preservation. That instinct has developed a variety of hard-coded fears that are hard to shake even when we become rational adults with a harder skin than the child we once were, peering tentatively under the bed for fear of what might lurk there unseen. It’s those seemingly simple fears that can lift a well-written piece of horror into something truly fantastic; the monster in the shadows, the menacing stranger, confined spaces, deprivation of senses, contagion…the list goes on, opening up endless possibilities for the imaginative horror author to weave these fears throughout their stories and speak to the reader’s innermost fears.

Of course, there’s far more that goes into creating the ultimate horror story, and I won’t pretend to be an expert – far from it. But I do have a few more tips to share from an editing perspective, and I’ll be doing so over the coming weeks.

 

A Rose By Any Other Name

Naming my characters is at once the most fun and the most frustrating part of writing. I swear I found it easier to choose a name for my kids than to get all the names right for all the characters in each story.

A name is so much more than just a label. If you get it right, it tells the reader about their background, their character, and just as importantly, the genre of your story. Take Count Vlad Dracula as an example. Say the name out loud; roll the syllables around your tongue and listen to the harsh consonants amongst the long, soft vowel sounds.

Count. Vlad. Dracula.

It really is the perfect name for the aristocratic vampire of legend. Stoker lucked out, for his Dracula was based on the historical Wallachian Vlad Dracula, but there are many other examples in literature of names that use this principle to work in the same way. Peake’s Steerpike, Lovecraft’s Cthulhu, Kesey’s infamous Nurse Ratched, even Dahl’s Agatha Trunchbull. Come on – you just can’t imagine a romantic heroine named Miss Trunchbull, but as a sadistic headmistress her name fits like a glove.

Drifting away from horror, I’ve always admired JK Rowling for the sheer amount of thought she put into naming even the most insignificant characters. Take Phineas Nigellus Black, whose portrait hangs in both Dumbledore’s office and in 12 Grimmauld Place. Nigellus is rooted in the Latin word niger, meaning black, and the Hebrew translation of Phineas is “mouth of a snake”. Phineas was a Slytherin, the portrait his only remaining mouthpiece.

The right name can make or break your character. When I sat down to plot out my new steampunk novella this week, there were eight main characters I wanted to name, from a Moulin Rouge dancer to the shadowy ringmaster of a travelling fair passing through Montmartre. And so Clemence Fontaine and Ignatius Demorte were born.

Shakespeare wrote that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. As much as I love his work, I would have to disagree. Getting the right name for your characters is key.

I would love to hear your favourite names you’ve come up with for your characters! Let me know in the comments below.

Tales To Terrify Podcast

With the advance of the internet and social media, fans of literature have found more ways to devour new stories than ever before, and one of my personal favourites sources for finding new authors to follow is the podcast. I’ve long been a fan of the Tales To Terrify podcast, and I’m delighted to announce that my story, Still Waters, is featured in the latest episode.

If you like your horror with a speculative steampunk twist, perhaps Still Waters is the story for you. Set beneath the surface of the enigmatic Lake Conmere, where children have been disappearing without trace, it follows the unfolding mystery of precisely what it is that lurks unseen, shielded by the still waters of the lake until someone ventures in…

Narrated by Matt Dovey, Still Waters was broadcast alongside Martin Adil-Smith’s superb story, The Last Testament of Thomas Griffin on June 30th, and you can find it to download or stream for free here.

Tales To Terrify @ Twitter: http://twitter.com/TalesToTerrify

Martin Adil-Smith @ Twitter: https://twitter.com/SpiralsOfDanu

Cara Fox @ Twitter: https://twitter.com/caradabra

Matt Dovey @ Twitter: https://twitter.com/MattDoveyWriter

And if you like what Tales To Terrify are doing, please consider supporting them on Patreon so they can continue sharing the best of modern horror with us all.

Rejection and how to handle it

If you’re an aspiring author, then perhaps the most important lesson you need to learn is how to deal with rejection, because believe me, you’re going to encounter a hell of a lot of it throughout your career. It can be all too easy to take it as a personal insult when a story you’ve devoted months, maybe even years to, comes back with nothing more than a cursory:

Thank you for submitting to Really Busy Publishers, but we’re going to pass.

Lesson Number One – Just because they turned it down, that doesn’t mean it’s no good.

Publishers have dozens of different reasons for declining a story. Your voice and style might not be a good fit for the house style, they might already have published something similar recently, your story crosses into genres they’re not comfortable handling…none of those mean it was no good. I found that the hardest part of editing anthologies was sending the rejection emails to those who didn’t make the cut. There were many times that I genuinely enjoyed the story, but it just didn’t have that innate sense of being ‘right’ for the anthology and the other chosen stories. So take it from me, if the editor says they liked your story and you would be welcome to submit to a different call, they probably mean it! I never said it to anyone if I didn’t really mean it.

Lesson Number Two – Think about why it might have been rejected.

Be honest with yourself. Did you read and follow the submission call? Did you format your story in line with the publisher’s request? Did you proofread properly, or was it strewn with tiny little mistakes throughout? It’s hard to self-critique, and that’s why it’s great to have a trusted author friend or beta-reader to bounce ideas off and ask for honest feedback on how to improve if you’re struggling to see the wood for the trees.

And finally;

Lesson Number Three – Don’t forget the stories that were rejected.

Just because they weren’t right for one publisher doesn’t mean there isn’t a home waiting for them somewhere else. I’ve spent the last six years writing and polishing short stories. I would say approximately half of them have been published now, and some of them went to four or five different publishers before they were picked up. There’s no shame in that. If you believe in your story, keep sending it out there – and if you don’t, you shouldn’t be submitting it yet.

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If you have any further lessons to learn, please share them in the comments below!

 

The Perils of Writing Horror

It struck me this week, as I composed an email to a friend on the other side of the world who had made the mistake of asking what I was writing at the moment, that if the security services had any reason to seize my computer, I would have a lot of very awkward qmedicinebottles1uestions to answer. This week alone, the topics I’ve researched for (different) stories on my write list range from the administration and taste of cyanide through to cremation urns and the amount of ashes usually within them, taking in hot bearded pirates and medieval bondage along the way. To be fair, that’s a reasonably tame week when previous searches have included the penalties for spousal murder, and how long the average human male would take to bleed to death from a severed jugular vein. Don’t get me wrong; I love writing, and more often to not I find myself gravitating towards horror of some description. I write across a lot of genres, yet there is nearly always some element of horror within them.

These days I tend to favour psychological horror over out-and-out gorefests. I love reading gore, and it absolutely has its place in the genre, but it’s rare that I find it bleeding through into my stories. The prevalence of psychological terror in my work and the topics I find myself researching, though, means it’s often very difficult to fully switch off and detach myself from the world of imagination. It’s hard to compartmentalise the stories from the real world when I immerse myself so deeply in them whilst I’m weaving them together.

I suppose that’s one of the real perils of writing, especially in this genre. It’s all too easy to let the fictional world consume you.

Lair – a sneak peek.

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Today I’m delighted to share with you all a sneak peek at my erotic vampire novella that was published by Memento Mori Publications, ‘Lair’. Read, enjoy and let me know what you think!

~

Her eyes wide, Dixie stopped for a moment to steady herself and finally catch her breath. Now she knew why Jamie was so determined to come here. Castle Vancura was, quite possibly, the most spectacular sight it had ever been her fortune to behold.

The moon hovered low over the castle in the clear night sky, the castle’s numerous towers stretched high up towards her like a lover’s fingers reaching out to steal one last touch from the one they craved before they slipped out of reach. The dark stone blended in effortlessly with the night and the lush, verdant green ringed around the castle called out to something deep inside her.

It was easy to see why Jamie couldn’t see away from Castle Vancura. The space of just one heartbeat was enough to have her hooked, and before she even knew what she was doing she found herself putting one foot in front of the other again, the path rapidly slipping away in front of her as she stared wide-eyed at the castle ahead.

For all intents and purposes though the castle seemed to be abandoned. The path towards the door was worn and covered with all sorts of tangled undergrowth, thick ivy clung tenaciously to the castle’s stone walls and not a single light could be seen in any of the hundreds of windows.

Whether or not there was anyone there to help her, she had to press on. This was her last hope.

Dixie stumbled up the uneven path when it narrowed further still as it wound its way towards the door that was swinging open on rusted hinges. The castle wasn’t abandoned. Clearly someone was inside after all, and it seemed they had caught sight of her.

Out of nowhere the compulsion to turn and flee nearly overwhelmed her. She shook her head to clear it. She had come this far against all the odds. The answer to Jamie’s fate lay behind the door now opening, and there was no way in hell that she wouldn’t reach out and take it.

More determined than ever, Dixie squared her shoulders and then came to an abrupt halt when her eyes finally focused in the darkness. A stranger stood framed in the vast, arching doorway, and she couldn’t take her wide-eyed stare away from him.

He was tall; intimidatingly so. Jamie was nearly six foot, but this man was taller still. He would tower over her. His dark hair reached down past his shoulders, and he wore a loose, billowing white shirt tucked into the waistband of his old-fashioned breeches. Despite that formality, though, he was barefoot.

That strange juxtapose made it feel as if they weren’t strangers at all.

The shiver that chased down her spine had nothing to do with the cool night breeze.
He stared past her into the distance, almost as if he hadn’t even noticed her, but she took a hesitant step closer to him.

“Ah – do you speak English?”

She let loose the breath she hadn’t realised she was holding when comprehension flitted across his pale face. The moon passed behind a cloud overhead, briefly throwing the pair of them into total darkness, and some deep instinct made her breath catch again as the stranger tilted his head to the side and ran his thumb across his lips before he spoke, his heavy accent unable to mask the clipped, perfectly polished words that made her heart soar.

“You seek the Englishman, yes?” he said.

“Yes!” Her tired eyes alight once more, Dixie took another step nearer. “Do you know something about Jamie?”

His face was inscrutable. “If that is his name.”

This was far from promising, but she pressed on nonetheless. “Please!” she said, blinking back the fresh tears that threatened to fall. “I’ve come a hell of a long way and I’ve got nowhere else left to go but here. I’m begging you, if you know something then tell me.”

The stranger leaned against the doorframe. His arms were folded across his chest and his lips were pressed together in a thin line. A low sob built deep inside her and as the thick, oppressive silence stretched out, she turned away from him and buried her head in her hands to hold it back. It was no use. Whatever he knew, he wasn’t going to tell her.

Dixie twisted the diamond solitaire on her finger and closed her eyes tightly, preparing herself to set off back into the night. She had no idea where to go or even what to do, but it was clear she would find no answers here.

Before she could put one foot in front of the other, though, the stranger spoke again.
“He is inside.”

Hope flared anew and she whirled back towards him. “Then can I come in?!”

“If it is your wish,” he said without moving aside.

It was hardly the warmest of invitations, but she was too damn tired to care. As she neared the door she unzipped her jacket, for her temperature was steadily rising despite the thin mountain air, but as she did so she realised the stranger was making no effort to welcome her inside. In fact, he had positioned himself now so that he was directly blocking her way in.

Dixie inhaled sharply. Growing deeply frustrated now, she fixed her stare onto him despite the fact he was still gazing past her down the path behind her. “Much as I appreciate the hospitality, you’re making it impossible for me to get inside,” she said curtly.

The faintest of smiles finally drew back the corners of his thin lips. “Believe me, that is not my intention.”

“Then will you stand back so I can get in?”

The stranger inclined his head, but instead of stepping aside he came out onto the path – the path that was barely wide enough for one person, let alone two. As he drew near, he ran one hand through his loose hair and looked directly at her for the first time.

A fresh shiver chased down Dixie’s spine, dancing down each and every one of her vertebrae this time. When their eyes locked and he took another slow step towards her, her head rolled to the side. The stranger breathed in sharply and her eyes widened. There was nothing more imperative than making her way into the castle and away from this strange, ethereal intimacy that sprang out of nowhere.

As she darted up the path, she brushed against him and her breath hitched violently, a sudden twist of heat coursing through her veins that made her face flame even before his hand reached out to steady her. He spoke not a word, but the fierce, almost covetous expression on his pale face made her heart race. For a moment she forgot the reason why she was here, but then the moonlight glinted off the ring on her finger.

It was as if she had been doused with ice cold water. Backing away from the stranger, Dixie fumbled behind her until she felt the reassuringly solid frame of the castle’s door. With a strangled cry, she whirled around and darted through it, her heart beating so fast that she could barely even breathe.

No sooner did she find herself inside the castle, though, than she realised that far from fleeing danger, she had walked straight into it. She was inside now. He had her exactly where he wanted her, and she was entirely at his mercy – and when Jamie had gone missing since coming here, following the stranger inside with no way to defend herself was surely the worst thing she could possibly have done.

She swore softly and looked around the vast, cavernous hall as she slowly turned to face the door. Maybe if she was swift she could make a break for it and come back in the daytime. No sooner did she think that, though, than she realised that the stranger was already was at her side.

Dixie backed up towards the nearest stone wall, shaking from head to toe, but without speaking he reached out for her hand. The instant his fingers threaded through hers she could no longer remember why she felt so afraid just a few moments before.

Her lips parted uncertainly and he bestowed the smallest of smiles upon her as the heavy door swung closed in their wake, sealing out the moonlight and plunging the vast hall into darkness. It offered an intimacy that almost made her believe no one but the two of them existed.

The stranger’s hand was unnaturally cool against hers. Maybe it was because they were inside of the castle now, locked away from the lingering heat of the late summer’s day. A faint draught danced around the cold stone floor beneath their feet, and a whispered musty scent was carried upon it. Dixie swallowed hard, badly unnerved by the realisation she had made no effort to pull away from the stranger’s touch.

The cold air didn’t seem to trouble him, but she shivered again, aware now that her nipples were painfully taut. Maybe that was because of the cold castle too. She feared it had a different, far more powerful cause, one that could be directly attributed to the man whose fingers were still wound so intimately through hers.

“You are shivering, my lady,” he said under his breath, far closer to her than she anticipated him to be. “Is the cold air troubling you?”

In truth, the chill in the air was proving to be a welcome if inadequate balm for the fever she felt that was steadily spiralling out of control. It was the fact she was entirely blinded that frightened her. “I think it’s the darkness, actually,” she heard herself say.

“Forgive me, for my eyes are accustomed to the gloom. If it would suit you, though, I will gladly light a candle for you to see by.”

Dixie drew a shallow breath. “I’d appreciate that, yes.”

The stranger moved away without another word, and to her consternation the loss of his hand on hers was a physical pain. Her heart was in her mouth as she heard him strike a match and within moments a candle to the left flamed into life. Hugging herself tightly, she watched him in the flickering light as he moved around the hall, lighting all of the half dozen or so candelabras nearest to the front door.

It came as no surprise that the ancient stone castle wasn’t powered by electricity. Modern light bulbs would be jarringly out of place here. The candles were a perfect fit for the castle, as was the man whose face she could now see clearly once more.

When he came back to her side he bowed deeply to her, a spark of something indefinable in his eyes as he straightened back up. Perhaps it was just the candlelight’s reflection. Dixie couldn’t help but think she saw something more.

As she stared at him, he broke the tense silence that had settled over them. “May I introduce myself, my lady?” he said.

She forced herself to draw a deep, steadying breath. “Yes, of course,” she said, though her voice wavered.

The stranger smiled and reached out to take her hand again. “My name is Maxim Vancura, and this is my castle. I live here alone, the last of a long and spectacular dynasty, but of all of them I am the only one left. Castle Vancura is my prize – and my penance.”

There was no denying it now. She was intrigued, and Maxim’s enigmatic words were the hook that had her caught. “Your penance? In what way?”

“The lonely life it forces upon me. I rarely receive guests, being as isolated as I am.” He raised her hand to his lips and pressed the gentlest of kisses against it. “I am glad, though, that you have somehow found me. May I take your bag, my lady?”

The contrast to his earlier cool demeanour now she was over his threshold couldn’t be more marked. It left her on the back foot, and before she could think of any excuse she found herself mutely shrugging the battered rucksack away and handing it over to him.
Maxim. Dixie found herself silently repeating his name inside her head as he left her side, rolling it round her tongue again and again until a deep crimson flush rose from nowhere to burn her skin. The old-fashioned European name suited him. She couldn’t imagine herself shortening it, but what she could imagine very clearly was crying out his name as he took her into his arms and buried himself inside her.

Her breath caught in her throat.

~

Copyright 2016 Memento Mori Publications

~

Everyone knows that if you willingly walk into the monster’s lair, you won’t come out alive – or untouched. When Dixie goes in search of her missing boyfriend, her journey leads her straight into the dark and mysterious castle of the enigmatic Maxim Vancura, and he has no intention of letting her leave again…

Cara Fox’s first vampire novella for Memento Mori Publications is an outstanding debut. Dark, ethereal and wickedly sexy, the simmering undercurrent of danger running throughout is everything a vampire romance should be.

Amazon US

Amazon UK

 

 

Midweek inspirations

I don’t know about you, but I can’t write in silence. In the void my head does all kinds of crazy shit, and not the good sort. To dig deep and find the words that flow onto the waiting page, I need music. Here’s a little peek into my world this week and the songs that made the stories come to life.

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Butch Walker – Bed on Fire

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Spike & Tyla’s Hot Knives – King

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JB Newman & the Black Letter Band – Black Lullaby

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Tom Waits – I Hope That I Don’t Fall In Love With You

Begin at the beginning…

Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.

  • Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland.

As an author I live in the land of make-believe. It’s my home, and where I find my friends. Alice in Wonderland was the book that first led me there, as a wide-eyed eight year old first entrusted with the freedom of the local library and all the chapter books at my disposal. Constrained to picture books no longer, I dived in headfirst and came up for air clutching tightly to a battered old copy of Lewis Carroll’s masterpiece.

From that moment I knew what I wanted to do when I grew up. I wanted to write; and not just that, I wanted to create worlds and stories just as rich and full of character as that eponymous tale possessed in such abundance. I was lost to the land of make-believe, and even now some twenty years later I live and breathe the wonder of imagination.

I don’t breathe life into my stories. They breathe life into me.