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Subject: [rec.arts.sf.composition] Frequently Asked Questions
This article was archived around: 1 Aug 1999 11:14:49 GMT
Copyright: (c) 1997 Geoffrey Wiseman
Maintainer: Geoffrey Wiseman <email@example.com>
[ Frequently Asked Questions for rec.arts.sf.composition, v1.3a ]
Date of last modification: April 29, 1997.
0.0 VERSION CONTROL
96-11-21: v1.0 of the FAQ is released.
96-12-01: v1.1 contains minor corrections and adjustments
97-02-20: v1.2 contains real FAQ questions, with more to come.
97-04-17: v1.2a extra credits
97-04-21: v1.3 a substantial revision including new
97-04-29: v1.3a two new questions and some minor changes.
97-05-05: v1.3b approved by news.answers. posted, archived and
sent to FAQ server.
At the time this document was last modified, assorted credit for
bits of this FAQ were due to:
Stevens R. Miller <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Gary Farber <email@example.com>
Patricia Wrede <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Lisa Leutheuser <email@example.com>
Patrick Nielsen Hayden <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Dan Goodman <email@example.com>
Patricia C. Wrede <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Extra credit is given to the following people for contributing to
this FAQ in an indirect fashion by being a long-time font of
Gary Farber <email@example.com>
Liz Holliday <Liz@gila.demon.co.uk>
Patrick Nielsen Hayden <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Lawrence Watt-Evans <email@example.com>
This document is to serve as a list of frequently asked
questions, as well as a form of help document for the
Usenet newsgroup rec.arts.sf.composition.
At the time this document was last modified, the maintainer of
this FAQ was Loki and he could be found at firstname.lastname@example.org
for general email or email@example.com for general, non-urgent FAQ
commentary that will be looked at less frequently.
If you feel in need of a form of address and "oh great and
wonderful maintainer of the rasfc FAQ" seems like a mouthful,
try 'Geoff' or 'Loki'.
Any questions, suggestions, comments or other feedback can be
directed to him. Comments posted to rec.arts.sf.composition
may well be seen, but no guarantees will be made. As well,
requests for a copy of the FAQ may be sent to this address,
although the FAQ itself should be up on the WWW in the near
The charter for this newsgroup was posted with the RFD
(Request for Discussion) and CFV (Call for Votes) for this
newsgroup. It is reproduced here, with minimal modifications:
Before discussing the newsgroup, one must define 'sf', for
which I refer to the original CFV for the group that created
the rec.arts.sf.* hierarchy: "Both science fiction and
fantasy, as well as that vast blurred mass of material in
between." This charter mirrors the position of the HWA:
Horror is an emotion, not a genre. If the Horror takes place
in a speculative fiction book, it can be discussed in an sf
The rec.arts.sf.composition newsgroup would include, but not be
limited to the following types of discussion:
General writing questions, to be answered from the sf
perspective. This includes market research, submission
format and discussions on the process of writing itself,
as it connects with the writing of sf.
Discussion of the process of writing speculative fiction
between professionals, aspiring writers or the merely
Discussion of the methods and processes of worldbuilding,
the creation of new, alternate or historically-based worlds
in which speculative fiction is often set.
This newsgroup is not meant to replace or significantly
overlap other groups. As such, topics that are on-topic
and useful in other groups should be kept to those groups.
That would include, but not be limited to the following
Discussion connected to writing, but not specifically
to sf, nor with an important sf slant should be posted
Discussion about the science used in speculative fiction
should be posted to rec.arts.sf.science.
Discussion of existing written work should be left to
As well, the charter specifically excludes the posting of work
unless that posting is specifically related to a topic that is
being discussed, and is used in that context, and quoted briefly.
Posting of work to be read and/or critiqued is excluded from the
charter of this newsgroup, for a number of reasons. For
those who wish to avail themselves of the group's resources, a
specially marked header, "CRIT: " will be used to post short
requests for critiquing or reading, with all followups directed
to email, the poster's web page, rec.arts.prose, or any other
valid forum, rather than the newsgroup.
As for advertising, overt advertising is excluded from the
group, particularly off-topic overt advertising (the kind that
doesn't care what this charter says anyway). Tactful, brief,
infrequently posted references to information that can be
found elsewhere will be tolerated, but advertisers must tread
that fine line carefully if they wish to avoid flamage from
The charter as shown above was only slightly modified to
clear up the section on the posting of work, as the phrasing
wasn't as specific as it should have been.
1.3 FAQ Procedures
At this time, the FAQ will be posted every two weeks. Changes
to that timing will be made as the FAQ maintainer sees fit.
It can also be posted on request, requested by email or found
on the web at http://www.mgl.ca/~loki/rasfc. Further, it is
archived on rtfm.mit.edu and can be found in news.answers.
Anyone who wishes to keep a copy to post, email or from which
to quote or post is asked to keep their copy up to date.
Additions to the FAQ will be made as seen fit by the FAQ
maintainer, but may be suggested by emailing the FAQ
maintainer, or posting in the newsgroup. It is hoped that the
Frequently Asked Questions section will primarily be composed of
paragraphs quoted directly from newsgroup participants, or
edited for brevity or clarity. Those participants will be
asked in email before their comments are added, and their
comments will only appear in the FAQ if they agree to it.
1.4 Where can I find this FAQ?
It will be posted every two weeks by MIT's faq-server to
news.answers, rec.answers and rec.arts.sf.composition. It
can be found via FTP (or email) through rtfm.mit.edu under
the archive name writing/sf-composition. It is on the web
2.0 NEWSGROUP METHODS
As mentioned in the group's charter, posting of work to be
read or critiqued is against the charter. Not only are there
better, more valid places for that sort of activity, and not
only does this cause publication difficulties that new writers
may not have thought about, but these messages, being long
and potentially frequent, could drive legitimate readers
and traffic from the group. Please keep postings of work
to small excerpts that fit into the discussion, or just don't
If you wish to post a message requesting that people read or
critique your work, please use the "CRIT:" subject prefix to
allow people to killfile your posts if they have no interest
in reading or critiquing your work, or anyone else's. These
messages should be kept brief, and should largely be a short
summary of what you're requesting (be that reading or
critiquing), a description of your story (theme, genre,
size--whatever you feel is relevant, but be brief) and where
that story can be found (email, WWW, FTP, whatever you want,
just not on the group).
That subject is too vast to go into in detail, and isn't really
the business of the FAQ maintainer or the FAQ. However, it is
hoped that flameage, crossposting, spam, and other egregious
breaches of netiquette can be kept to a minimum, as they have
been with rec.arts.sf.written.
Further information can be found on the news.announce.newusers
group, in the form of FAQs.
As stated in the charter, overt advertising is excluded from
the group; if you wish to promote your work, your services or
your products, please leave only a very brief message with
minimal marketese. That is, while "My new book is on the
shelves! Anyone seen it?" or "I've a program I think might
be useful to writers: blah blah blah for more information,
see the following URL:" is generally tolerable, long ads or
extremely non-relevant posts or posts filled with hyperbole
will likely get flamed.
The charter deliberately leaves the matter vague--it is up
to the group participants to determine what level of advertising
is acceptable. While one can probably expect the posters (by
and large, at least) to be reasonable, tread the line
carefully. There -is- such a thing as bad publicity.
I had a great example of an ad, but I seem to have misplaced it.
I'll put it in here, if I locate it again.
The group, as proposed, was unmoderated. Most of those
participating in the discussion of the group were strongly
against group moderation. That policy will only change if the
group as a whole, particularly regulars, decide to firmly support
a switch to a moderated policy.
2.5 North America centrism, specifically USA-centrism.
Some of the things in this FAQ will undoubtedly be given by
American experts concerning submissions to American markets;
although this is the prime audience of the FAQ, any corrections
to make the FAQ more global are certainly welcomed.
3.0 FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
3.1 What is the appropriate manuscript format for
submission to speculative fiction markets? Is it
important to get every detail right?
As long as you get the basics right, there won't be any real harm
done; in fact, it is a common opinion among pros and editors that
many amateurs spend far too much time worrying about format that
should be spent improving their writing. However, getting the
basics right is certainly one of the first steps to from wannabe
Essentially: Spend ten minutes getting to know what the format
is, stick to it, and stop worrying about it.
Your main body of text should be double-spaced, with ragged-right
justification (or left justification, as opposed to -full-
justification) text organized into a series of paragraphs.
Except when needed as scene breaks, there should be no additional
blank lines between paragraphs. Scene break lines are preferably
marked, either with an asterisk (*) or a pound sign (#). The
typeface should not be proportionally spaced, and should be as close
to typewriter text as possible. For most of us, that means
The text should start halfway down the first page; as for the
rest of the page, the writer's name and address should be in
the upper left-hand corner, the word count in the upper right,
the title and byline centered in the middle of the page.
Every other page in the document should have the writer's last
name, the story title and the page number in the upper right-hand
corner, usually separated by slashes (eg: Wiseman / rasfc FAQ
/ page 2 ). Do not bind the manuscript in any permanent way;
a removeable clip is acceptable. If the manuscript need not be
returned, mark DISPOSABLE on the first page.
Any part of the text meant to be displayed in italics should
be underlined and -not- in italics.
Although many reference sources not specific to sf/f/h will
specify that you should include a rights-offered statement,
this is not a standard practice in speculative fiction
publication and should be avoided.
"Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy,"
Dozois, G. et al, ed.;
St. Martin's Press, New York;
3.2 What about cover letters?
If an editor has a specific policy with respect to cover letters,
follow it. Otherwise, be brief. Most people with editing
experience will tell you that unprofessional cover letters are
a common mistake of amateurs.
Your cover letter should simply include any -relevant-
previous sales (no, not your article on hand-rolling cigarettes
for the school paper), and potentially that you've graduated
from Clarion, if you have. State that you're submitting a
story, attached, and end the cover letter there, while you're
3.3 So what's all this about rights, anyway?
Unless otherwise specified, sf magazines are buying North
American First Serial rights. In theory, this means that
something published out of North America is saleable. In
practice, mention -any- previous sales in the cover
letter--most editors are not looking to buy reprints of any
sort, unless you happen to be big-name.
Of course, if you're not selling to a North American magazine,
it is unlikely to be buying North American First Serial
rights, but again, in practice, the distinction is rarely
Likewise, electronic publication (web pages, newsgroups, large
email lists, any place with real circulation) is likely to affect
a work's salability; if you are trying to sell a work that has
been electronically 'published' be sure and include that
information in the cover letter.
3.4 Do I need a copyright notice?
Stevens R. Miller summarized the issue quite well, so I'll quote
By international law (known as "the Berne Convention"),
any work is protected by copyright law upon its fixation
in a tangible medium. The author of the work owns the
copyright unless the work was created for hire. No notice
or symbol is required on the work. Some legal advantages
apply when a notice is present, however, and the law defines
a valid notice to look like:
Copyright 1996 by Stevens R. Miller
The "C" in a circle and other variations are also legal, but
the above is always valid. In some countries, the phrase "all
rights reserved" should accompany the notice. In the United
States, the phrase adds nothing, but it also takes nothing
To commence a suit for infringement, the copyright must be
registered. However, registration can occur after
Copyright lasts for the duration of the author's life, plus a
term of years that Congress periodically has increased. In
1994, the term was fifty years. Anonymous works, joint works,
works owned by corporations, and others all have rules
governing them that vary the above, but the main point is:
Once you've written it down somewhere, you have a copyright
Lisa Leutheuser (firstname.lastname@example.org) adds the following caveat:
If you're sending something through e-mail, don't take the
chance that the recipient's e-mail software can handle
anything beyond ASCII text, such as that fancy c-in-a-circle.
Use "Copyright." Same said for fax machines. Why take the
chance that the fax machine will not clearly scan the little
Basically, it's easiest just to include the full word. (C) and
the full copyright symbol are harder to reproduce and often
won't carry through all transmission media.
Stevens R. Miller on the subject:
A trademark is a form of intellectual property. It is any
word, name, symbol, or device used by a manufacturer or
merchant to identify his or her goods. (15 USC 1127). A
valid trademark may not be used by anyone other than the
markholder if that usage would reasonably confuse the
public about whether or not the markholder's goods were
being offered by the nonholder. Usage that cannot
reasonably create this confusion is not a violation of
trademark law. One can, therefore, use a trademark
without permission or attribution, provided no reasonable
confusion will result. The letter's "tm" need not be
attached in such usage.
Other restrictions besides trademark law, however, argue
against unpermitted usage. Trademarks can also be
protected by either copyright or patent law. If the
trademark is used in a disparaging way, issues of
unfair competition and defamation can arise. And, even
where usage is entirely lawful, a markholder may, either
through ignorance or with malicious intent, commence
legal action that can be troublesome to combat.
As a practical matter, trademarks should not be used
without permission, unless one is prepared to defend
against a law suit.
(Foregoing is my general assessment of the matter based
on my understanding of the law. This is not my area
and anyone in need of advice on a particular issue
should not rely on it.)
Observation seems to indicate that tradmark use within fiction
is common and not as fraught with danger as the above might
indicate, but if you want to stay on the safe side, bear the
above in mind.
3.6 How do I specify the word count on my manuscript?
Your word processor very likely can give you the 'exact' word
count of your docment; besides the fact that different word
processors will give you different results, you should know that
editors don't want to know how many 'words' you have, but want
to estimate the amount of space that would be required by your
Given the above, the word count should be given in an estimated
form, rather than the exact form. The editors don't want to
see the exact number, it makes a very small amount of extra work
for them, and it marks the writer as an amateur. A common
practice is to round off short story counts to the nearest
hundred, and novels to the nearest thousand.
3.7 Hey, there's an email/news article from an agent/publisher
here. Should I send something in?
No reputable speculative fiction agents have been seen posting on
Usenet so far, AFAIK. Chances are, it will remain that way. Be
instantly suspicious of any agent who's soliciting you, rather
than vice versa.
There have been -very- infrequent postings by publishers. White
Wolf, for instance, has posted their guidelines to newsgroups on
occasion. Again, however, be suspicious unless you know the
publisher. If you can't find the publisher in Locus, ask around.
If no-one else has heard of them, that tells you all you need to
Someone has nicely assembled 'dubious agents' and 'dubious
publishers' lists for the 'net. While they aren't specific to
speculative fiction, it's just a little bit more ammo for your
The Dubious Agents List
The Dubious Publishers List
Robert J. Sawyer (76702.747@CompuServe.COM) listed the following
agents as currently representing at least one member of the SFFWA:
James Allen, Matthew Bialer (of William Morris), Barbara
Bova, Richard Curtis, Russell Galen (of Scovil Chichak
Galen), Ashley Grayson, Susan L. Graham, Merrilee Heifetz
(of Writers' House), Joshua Bilmes (of JABerwocky),
Sharon Jarvis, Virginia Kidd, Donald A. Maass, Ricia
Mainhardt, Jonathan Matson (of Harold Matson), Kirby
McCauley (of Pimlico), Shawna McCarthy (of Scovil
Chichak Galen), Martha Millard, Howard Morhaim, William
Morris, Inc., Owlswick Literary Agency, Scovil Chichak
Galen, Valerie Smith, Ralph M. Vicinanza, Cherry Weiner,
Eleanor Wood (of Spectrum)
That list is, of course, dating itself as we speak and may never
be valid for another second of its lifetime, but it gives a
starting place for now. Hopefully, those in the know can help
make sure it doesn't get egregiously out of date, but it's not
to rely on. Read Locus for real agent information, or chat up
your favorite on-line author. ;)
3.8 How's the submission process for novels really work? What
From the keyboard of the eminent Patricia C. Wrede
(email@example.com) comes the following:
When you submit a manuscript, you usually send in one
copy. That's the submission copy, or submission draft.
The editor then decides whether or not to buy it. If
not, you go on to the next publisher. If so...
The editor asks for revisions. Always. Slow down the
pace here, pick it up there, explain *why* the parrot
didn't eat the goldfish this time when he'd eaten all six
of the previous goldfish, add a darker edge, bring this
sub-plot forward and push that one back, expand the fight
scene and trim the conversation over tea (or vice versa;
depends on the editor), and so on. Some of them are
reasonable revisions; some of them you feel intensely
stupid for not having thought of yourself; some of them
are completely out of the question and you want to murder
the editor for even *thinking* of them, much less
So you talk. And eventually, you come to an agreement
about what needs to be done. Then you, the writer, go
and do it. The revisions are almost never a matter of
fixing a page here and a page there; you end up doing a
run through the whole manuscript, which you then print up
and send off. (Some publishers request more than one copy
at this point, so that the Art Department can have one
while Editing and Production work on the other.) If the
editor decides that it is now acceptable, this becomes
the Final Manuscript, which gets sent to the copyeditor
and then to the typesetter. The editor can (but seldom
does) ask for a second or even a third round of
revisions, in which case it's just an intermediate
In very rare instances (or in the case of publishers who
don't believe in wasting time editing bestselling authors
whose books will sell like hotcakes anyway), the editor
will decide that the copy you originally submitted is
fine, and send it straight on to the copyeditor (this
actually happened to me once; it was a considerable
shock). In this case, the submission manuscript and the
final manuscript are the same thing.
When sending in the final copy, it can be useful to include a
style sheet--this indicates the variations that you were
-attempting- to stick to. That means, if you used 'grey' and
'gray' inconsistently, your stylesheet will let the copyeditor
know you meant to use the infinitely preferable 'grey'. :)
As far as the format of the style sheet, Gary Farber had this to
There are several; this is not an important detail so
long as it is clear. Some houses have preferences for
their copyeditors, some don't.
The crucial detail is that every word is listed in
alphabetical order as this is the quickest way to use
the sheet(s) for reference.
Whether you go with a more graphic format like an
enlarged tic-tac-toe graph, each section for a letter,
or use a strictly linear list by letter does not matter
so long as it is clear and logical.
Lastly, when you get a chance to review the copy-edited draft
(this may or may not be specified in your contract--if it isn't,
you -may- not get this chance, if time is short), a word that'll
come in handy is 'stet'. You may use it so often that a 'stet'
stamp will come in handy. You should be able to find it in a
dictionary, but it means 'let it stand' and indicates that you
want the copyedited change not to be made--you want the original,
unchanged form which you originally submitted.
3.9 Are there Writer's groups/workshops on the 'net?
Most people feel that a solid local writer's group is a better
solution, but if there isn't one accessible to you, then an
on-line workshop may be your ticket. You can search around the
'net for one, or just hop over to:
3.10 To what speculative fiction magazines should I submit?
There are market lists available on the 'net. The most commonly
described one is:
Very common advice from pros is to aim for the top of the heap,
and work your way down, submitting constantly. For most people,
that means the top pay-wise, OMNI, Playboy, Writers of the
Future, Analog, Asimov's and perhaps a couple more. However,
most of the prozines are worth being published in. Once you're
in to semi-pro, it's up to you.
Other people prefer to define the top of the heap through some
other algorithm that works for them. That, as well, is up to
you. But don't sell yourself short.
Someone (iforgoetwho@perhapszhe'llspeakup.org) recently
suggested that perhaps a better terminology than this almost
B&D "submission" and "rejection":
"I displayed my new short-short to Pirate Writings this week."
"Oh really? How'd it go?"
"Oh, they failed to comprehend it. However, they did send a
good note of incomprehension, so that's always a promising
"Oh, good. Keep trying, they're bound to understand your work
sooner or later."
If nothing else, this makes the ol' repeated-submission routine
much more entertaining to describe.
3.11 Why aren't there more questions than this? And more detail?
What's the secret handshake, and why haven't you told me
yet? What's the manuscript format again?
Wannabe's and would-be's often get too caught up in the
'mysteries' of the writing world, and spend all their time
worrying about how best to break through, obsessing about
manuscript format, and calling editors at home.
Here's what Patrick Nielsen Hayden (firstname.lastname@example.org) had to say on
the subject. Other people with similarly respectable experience
have mirrored what he had to say, including Lawrence Watt Evans,
and Gary Farber.
I can barely find the words to say how tired I am of
online obsessiveness about this stuff. Write good books.
Write good books and send them out. They will get found.
Most of the people fussing over Courier or query letters
have not written good books and are not going to write
good books. That's why they fixate on the petty little
3.12 Who is Dan Goodman, and why does he keep telling me to
talk to a reference librarian?
If every writer with a question asked around online instead of
doing a little legwork for themselves, we'd be inundated with
questions. If your question seems like the kind of thing you
should be looking up, beware that we will suggest that you should
do just that. If you have a particularly good reason why you're
not looking it up, you might want to state that in your question-
If you -are- going to look things up, you might want to know
about reference librarians, since many people don't. Dan Goodman
(email@example.com) wrote this up for the FAQ:
You want to find out what sailors in the Spanish Armada
ate. You go to the library; you look where cookbooks
are, and books on sailing. If the answer isn't there,
what do you do?
You ask a reference librarian. There may be a reference-
only book, or a book in storage, with the answer. Or a
newspaper or magazine article which someone at the
library clipped out and saved. Or maybe the information
is in a book on Comparative Bureaucracy in the sociology
section. A reference librarian who doesn't have the
answer at hand can ask other reference librarians.
It helps if you tell the reference librarian what you're
looking for. Not "where can I find information about a
historical figure in an Eastern European country?" but
"I'm looking for information on the historical Dracula
-- not the fictional one." Not "What does the word
'gamahuche' mean?" but show the passage in which you
found the word. It also helps if you explain what you
intend to do with the information.
Don't worry about looking ignorant or foolish. The last
questioner may have been looking for T.S. Eliot's (or
maybe it was Winston S. Churchill's) novel about
gamekeeping -- with a title something like
"Chatterton's Lady." Yes, I made that up -- the real
examples I've been given aren't believable.
3.13 What kind of advance am I likely to get for my first book?
Although some clearly run to either extreme, $4,000-$10,000 is a
reasonable approximation. For a more clear approximation,
submit your novel to a publisher, and convince them to buy it.
It will depend on your story, and on the publisher, and any
number of other things you can't control. Ultimately, it does
your career good to earn out your advance, so don't fret too
much about the payment. If your book earns out, you'll start
As a side note, though, once a publisher has informed you that
they're interested in purchasing your novel, this is an ideal
time to find an agent. You have a sale on the table, but you
want someone to negotiate it properly for you. With a sale in
hand, it's much easier to get a listen at an agent that you're
3.14 Simultaneous Submissions: Are they ok?
Some people find the wait to hear the results of a particular
submission/display of their work to a publisher to be unbearable.
They would like to submit the same story or manuscript to more
than one publisher at a same time.
However, as convenient as this might be, it tends not to work out
very well for the editors, who spend a bunch of time reading a
story, decide to accept it, prepare themselves with that in mind.
In the case of short stories, this tends to involve preparing
an issue with a story in mind; for novels, this tends to involve
a lot of discussion with various people to determine if it fits
into the lineup, and so forth.
In order to avoid these problems, almost all editors in the SF
genre will not accept simultaneous submissions. This makes the
practice rather pointless. You can technically get away with it,
but this will only happen if only one person wishes to accept
your manuscript, so betting on not getting caught is akin to
betting that your writing isn't very good.
Ultimately, you'll have to decide for yourself. Some people
still feel that simsubbs are the way to go. However, the
large majority of SF pros (writers and editors) view it as
an extremely bad idea.
3.15 When submitting three-chapters-and-a-synopsis, should the
rest of the novel be complete, or can I send my work in
as soon as I ahve the three chapters?
Let me start off with a quote from Gary Farber:
If you'd had a book published, odds are 95% that you'd
know the answer to this: so I presume you are
unpublished, in which case, yes, you need to have the
manuscript finished. It would be a very rare and
exceptional case for an editor to risk signing a contract
with someone who has no track record and no completed
manuscript -- there are too many risks. There are
exceptions, but it would be unwise for you to count on
Like simsubs, you can get away with it if you're lucky, but it's
not a good idea to count on this. The publisher might ask to
see the rest of your manuscript right away, and you won't have it
to give to them. Alternately, you might want to make major editing
changes to the part the editor already has.
If your agent or publisher is willing to deal with this, and
they've been informed up-front, it's fine. Just be aware that
editors and agents are rarely willing to do this for a new
writer that they have no experience with.
Loki : firstname.lastname@example.org : rec.arts.sf.composition FAQ