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Capitalization and Em Dashes and Parentheses and Dialog, Oh My!

Two weeks ago when we posted our “Formatting Tweaks to Help Your Typesetter Have a Great Day” post we mentioned that the “Capitalization Quirks” section became so long that we decided to break it out into a separate post. That didn’t get put up last week cause of debuting May Trope Mayhem, but the time is NOW!

Capitalization Quirks, or: How to Get More Capitals and Lowercase Letters Right So Your Editor Has One Fewer Thing To Do!

At the most technical, literal, simplistic level, all sentences in English should start with a capital letter. If you google “should I always start a sentence with a capital letter,” all the top results say yes. But! That’s overly simplistic. For example:

“I was just saying—”

“—That you’re tired.”

That’s wrong, because it’s not a new sentence. The “—t” needs to be lowercase. Thus, this should read:

“I was just saying—”

“—that you’re tired.”

Then, there’s sentences that “trail in” with an ellipse. For example: 

“…when did you say that?” 

This one, on a technical level, could go either way. Duck Prints Press goes with lowercase on this, using the same reasoning as the em dash case: it’s not a complete sentence, more of a fragment.

Some other examples where there shouldn’t be a capital (I’ll bold the letters that shouldn’t be capitalized).

Case 1: “In any event”—taking a deep breath, she flopped into her chair—“it is what it is.”

Case 2: After I got to the event (which took way longer than it should have, but that’s a different story!), we went to our seats together.

Case 3: Every time he thought he was finished—every time!!—he realized he’d made a mistake and had to start over.

Those cases are relatively simple and clear cut. Not all sentences will be. Often, when writing dialog, people use many permutations of sentences, not-sentences, ellipses, em dashes, and more. Keeping track of what needs to be capitalized and what doesn’t requires knowing a lot of quirky rules. People especially often end up confused about when text following quotes should have a capital letter and when it shouldn’t. The rule of thumb is, if the text in question is a dialog tag, it should be lowercase, even if the dialog before it ends in a question mark or exclamation mark.

(Again, bolding the lowercase/uppercase letter in spots where people most often get mixed up.)

“This example needs a lower case letter after it,” she explained.

“Does this—?” he started to ask.

“Yes!” she interrupted.

“What about this one?” he said.

“Yes, that one too…” she replied, sighing.

If, on the other hand, the narrative text after the dialog is an action (as in, not a direct dialog tag indicating how the thing was said), then it should be uppercase.

“I’m still confused how this works.” Rubbing his brow, he took a deep breath.

“I promise it’s not that hard.” She grabbed a pen and a piece of paper and started writing down examples.

To help keep clear when to do this: if what you write can be replaced with say/said and still make sense, then it’s a dialog tag. If it can’t be, then it’s not a dialog tag and it should be capitalized.

“I don’t know when what follows counts as a sentence and when it doesn’t,” he pointed out with a frown.

“It depends how you’re describing what the person said.” Her voice took on a frustrated tinge.

But! That’s not all!

“What about if I, I dunno…” He looked at the examples she’d written down. “What if there’s more dialog after the first thing said and the first batch of narrative description?”

“Then”—she grabbed the pen and started writing more sample sentences—“it depends. For example, if I’m interrupting my own dialog with an action and no dialog tag, then it should probably be between em dashes, and only the first letter of the first sentence is capitalized. But if instead I interrupt myself with a dialog tag,” she continued, “then that uses commas, and again, only the first sentence is capitalized.” She paused, took a deep breath, then added, “But because that’s not confusing enough, if I stop, then use a narrative line that ends with dialog tag and a comma, then keeps going as dialog, then both the narrative sentence and the start of the dialog sentence needs a capital.”

“What about if everything is a sentence?” He grabbed the pen from her hand and scrawled down a few notes. “Then is everything capitalized?”

She threw him a thumbs up, an unspoken “you’re getting it now!” implied by the gesture.

Aghast, he blinked at what she’d just demonstrated. Finally, after working his mouth in silence for at least a minute, he managed:

Does this ever make sense?”

“No,” she allowed, “but when you do it enough you start to get used to it.”

Yeah, I’m sorry. It’s the worst. I probably forgot at least two permutations, too, but I tried. Fixing capitalization on all of the above is a constant effort. Good luck?

All of these more-or-less follow the established rules of dialog capitalization, but there are some cases that simply don’t have a standard. For these, it will often depend on which style guide is being used, what editor is doing the work, what each individual publisher has decided, etc. Here’s some examples, with explanation of what they show.

“I don’t— Like, what am I supposed to do if there’s no standard?” Frustration was clearly starting to get the better of him. (This is: self-interruption to start a new sentence—we use: em dash + space + capital letter.)

“Hmm…probably your best bet is to just pick a way to handle each case and make sure you’re consistent.” (This is: self ellipse-marked pause/trail off that continues as the same thought—we use: ellipse + hair space + lowercase.)

“So if I…I don’t even know… What if I can’t remember what I did before?” (this is: trailing off, then continuing with a new sentence—we use: ellipse + space + capital.)

“Just—just—just figure it out! How am I—just a person trying to give a tutorial!—supposed to predict every kind of dialog you’re going to want to write?” she spluttered. (First part is: stutter/self-interruption, incomplete/continuing thoughts—we use: em dash + lowercase (no space). Second part is: em dash interjection in dialog, which uses the same rules as em dash interjections in narrative—we use: em dash + lowercase (no spaces).)

“Wh-wh-wh-what, that’s all you have to offer?” (This is: stuttering incomplete words—we use hyphen + lowercase (no spaces).)

Damn it… Do you really expect me to make all the decisions for you? she thought…but then she realized she should be kinder—this was hard stuff! “I guess I’d just suggest…make yourself a ‘personal formatting’ doc and write down how you did…whatever you did…when it came up?—that way, when it happens again, you’ll at least have a paper trail so you don’t have to scroll back to check what you did.” (This is: the same approaches as described above before, applied to thoughts and narrative text.)

And, that’s basically that! Did I miss any? Questions? Comments? Thoughts?

In conclusion…

“I hate English,” he grumbled, taking up a lighter and burning the paper on which she’d written her examples.

“Me too,” she agreed fervently.

Uh…happy writing? Or at least good luck!!!

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Ten Things We Hate About Trad Pub

Often when I say “I’ve started a small press; we publish the works of those who have trouble breaking into traditional publishing!” what people seem to hear is “me and a bunch of sad saps couldn’t sell our books in the Real World so we’ve made our own place with lower standards.” For those with minimal understanding of traditional publishing (trad pub), this reaction is perhaps understandable? But, truly, there are many things to hate about traditional publishing (and, don’t get me wrong – there are things to love about trad pub, too, but that’s not what this list is about) and it’s entirely reasonable for even highly accomplished authors to have no interest in running the gauntlet of genre restrictions, editorial control, hazing, long waits, and more, that make trad pub at best, um, challenging, and at worst, utterly inaccessible to many authors – even excellent ones.

Written in collaboration with @jhoomwrites, with input from @ramblingandpie, here is a list of ten things that we at Duck Prints Press detest about trad pub, why we hate it, and why/how we think things should be different!

(Needless to say, part of why we created Duck Prints Press was to…not do any of these things… so if you’re a writer looking for a publishing home, and you hate these things, too, and want to write with a Press that doesn’t do them…maybe come say hi?)

1. Work lengths dictated by genre and/or author experience.

Romance novels can’t be longer than 90,000 words or they won’t sell! New authors shouldn’t try to market a novel longer than 100,000 words!

A good story is a good story is a good story. Longer genre works give authors the chance to explore their themes and develop their plots. How often an author has been published shouldn’t put a cap on the length of their work.

2. Editors assert control of story events…except when they don’t.

If you don’t change this plot point, the book won’t market well. Oh, you’re a ten-time bestseller? Write whatever you want, even if it doesn’t make sense we know people will buy it.

Sometimes, a beta or an editor will point out that an aspect of a story doesn’t work – because it’s nonsensical, illogical, Deus ex Machina, etc. – and in those cases it’s of course reasonable for an editor to say, “This doesn’t work and we recommend changing it, for these reasons…” However, when that list of reasons begins and ends with, “…because it won’t sell…” that’s a problem, especially because this is so often applied as a double standard. We’ve all read bestsellers with major plot issues, but those authors get a “bye” because editors don’t want to exert to heavy a hand and risk a proven seller, but with a new, less experienced, or worse-selling author, the gloves come off (even though evidence suggests time and again that publishers’ ability to predict what will sell well is at best low and at worst nonexistent.)

3. A billion rejection letters as a required rite of passage (especially when the letters aren’t helpful in pinpointing why a work has been rejected or how the author can improve).

Well, my first book was rejected by a hundred Presses before it was accepted! How many rejection letters did you get before you got a bite? What, only one or two? Oh…

How often one succeeds or fails to get published shouldn’t be treated as a form of hazing, and we all know that how often someone gets rejected or accepted has essentially no bearing on how good a writer they are. Plenty of schlock goes out into the world after being accepted on the first or second try…and so does plenty of good stuff! Likewise, plenty of schlock will get rejected 100 times but due to persistence, luck, circumstances, whatever, finally find a home, and plenty of good stuff will also get rejected 100 times before being publishing. Rejections (or lack there of) as a point of pride or as a means of judging others needs to die as a rite of passage among authors.

4. Query letters, for so many reasons.

Summarize all your hard work in a single page! Tell us who you’re like as an author and what books your story is like, so we can gauge how well it’ll sell based on two sentences about it! Format it exactly the way we say or we won’t even consider you!

For publishers, agents, and editors who have slush piles as tall as Mount Everest…we get it. There has to be a way to differentiate. We don’t blame you. Every creative writing class, NaNoWriMo pep talk, and college lit department combine to send out hundreds of thousands of people who think all they need to do to become the next Ernest Hemingway is string a sentence together. There has to be some way to sort through that pile…but God, can’t there be a better way than query letters? Especially since even with query letters being used it often takes months or years to hear back, and…

5. “Simultaneous submissions prohibited.”

No, we don’t know when we’ll get to your query, but we’ll throw it out instantly if you have the audacity to shop around while you wait for us.

The combination of “no simultaneous submissions” with the query letter bottleneck makes success slow and arduous. It disadvantages everyone who aims to write full-time but doesn’t have another income source (their own, or a parents’, or a spouse’s, or, or or). The result is that entire classes of people are edged out of publishing solely because the process, especially for writers early in their career, moves so glacially that people have to earn a living while they wait, and it’s so hard to, for example, work two jobs and raise a family and also somehow find the time to write. Especially considering that the standard advice for dealing with “no simultaneous submissions” is “just write something else while you wait!” …the whole system screams privilege.

6. Genres are boxes that must be fit into and adhered to.

Your protagonist is 18? Then obviously your book is Young Adult. It doesn’t matter how smutty your book is, erotica books must have sex within the first three chapters, ideally in the first chapter. Sorry, we’re a fantasy publisher, if you have a technological element you don’t belong here…

While some genre boxes have been becoming more like mesh cages of late, with some flow of content allowed in and out, many remain stiff prisons that constrict the kinds of stories people can tell. Even basic cross-genre works often struggle to find a place, and there’s no reason for it beyond “if we can’t pigeon-hole a story, it’s harder to sell.” This edges out many innovative, creative works. It also disadvantages people who aren’t as familiar with genre rules. And don’t get me wrong – this isn’t an argument that, for example, the romance genre would be improved by opening up to stories that don’t have “happily ever afters.” Instead, it’s pointing out – there should also be a home for, say, a space opera with a side romance, an erotica scene, and a happily-for-now ending. Occasionally, works breakthrough, but for the most part stories that don’t conform never see the light of day (or, they do, but only after Point 2 – trad pub editors insist that the elements most “outside” the box be removed or revised).

7. The lines between romance and erotica are arbitrary, random, and hetero- and cis-normative.

This modern romance novel won’t sell if it doesn’t have an explicit sex scene, but God forbid you call a penis a penis. Oh, no, this is far too explicit, even though the book only has one mlm sex scene, this is erotica.

The difference between “romance” and “erotica” might not matter so much if not for the stigmas attached to erotica and the huge difference in marketability and audience. The difference between “romance” and “erotica” also might not matter so much if not for the fact that, so often, even incredibly raunchy stories that feature cis straight male/cis straight female sex scenes are shelved as romance, but the moment the sex is between people of the same gender, and/or a trans or genderqueer person is involved, and/or the relationship is polyamorous, and/or the characters involved are literally anything other than a cis straight male pleasuring a cis straight female in a “standard” way (cunnilingus welcome, pegging need not apply)…then the story is erotica. Two identical stories will get assigned different genres based on who the people having sex are, and also based on the “skill” of the author to use ludicrous euphemisms (instead of just…calling body parts what they’re called…), and it’s insane. Non-con can be a “romance” novel, even if it’s graphically described. “50 Shades of Gray” can sell millions of copies, even containing BDSM. But the word “vagina” gets used once…bam, erotica. (Seriously, the only standard that should matter is the Envelope Analogy).

8. Authors are expected to do a lot of their own legwork (eg advertising) but then don’t reap the benefits.

Okay, so, you’re going to get an advance of $2,500 on this, your first novel, and a royalty rate of 5% if and only if your advance sells out…so you’d better get out there and market! Wait, what do you mean you don’t have a following? Guess you’re never selling out your advance…

Trad pub can generally be relied on to do some marketing – so this item is perhaps better seen as an indictment of more mid-sized Presses – but, basically, if an author has to do the majority of the work themselves, then why aren’t they getting paid more? What’s the actual benefit to going the large press/trad pub route if it’s not going to get the book into more hands? It’s especially strange that this continues to be a major issue when self-publishing (which also requires doing one’s own marketing) garners 60%+ royalty rates. Yes, the author doesn’t get an advance, and they don’t get the cache of ~well I was published by…~, but considering some Presses require parts of advances to get paid back if the initial run doesn’t sell out, and cache doesn’t put food on the table…pay models have really, really got to change.

9. Fanfiction writing doesn’t count as writing experience

Hey there Basic White Dude, we see you’ve graduated summa cum laude from A Big Fancy Expensive School. Of course we’ll set you up to publish your first novel you haven’t actually quite finished writing yet. Oh, Fanperson, you’ve written 15 novels for your favorite fandom in the last 4 years? Get to the back of the line!

Do I really need to explain this? The only way to get better at writing is to write. Placing fanfiction on official trad pub “do not interact” lists is idiotic, especially considering many of the other items on this list. (They know how to engage readers! They have existing followings! They understand genre and tropes!) Being a fanfiction writer should absolutely be a marketable “I am a writer” skill. Nuff said. (To be clear, I’m not saying publishers should publish fanfiction, I’m saying that being a fanfiction writer is relevant and important experience that should be given weight when considering an author’s qualifications, similar to, say, publishing in a university’s quarterly.)

10. Tagging conventions (read: lack thereof).

Oh, did I trigger you? Hahahaha. Good luck with that.

We rate movies so that people can avoid content they don’t like. Same with TV shows and video games. Increasingly, those ratings aren’t just “R – adult audiences,” either; they contain information about the nature of the story elements that have led to the rating (“blood and gore,” “alcohol reference,” “cartoon violence,” “drug reference,” “sexual violence,” “use of tobacco,” and many, many more). So why is it that I can read a book and, without warning, be surprised by incest, rape, graphic violence, explicit language, glorification of drug and alcohol use, and so so much more? That it’s left to readers to look up spoilers to ensure that they’re not exposed to content that could be upsetting or inappropriate for their children or, or, or, is insane. So often, too, authors cling to “but we don’t want to give away our story,” as if video game makes and other media makers do want to give away their stories. This shouldn’t be about author egos or ~originality~ (as if that’s even a thing)…it should be about helping readers make informed purchasing decisions. It’s way, way past time that major market books include content warnings.

Thank you for joining us, this has been our extended rant about how frustrated we are with traditional publishing. Helpful? No. Cathartic? Most definitely yes. 🤣

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On Tags and Tagging: Behind the Scenes in the new (very queer!) anthology “Add Magic to Taste”

We’ve shared a lot of teasers, and a lot of information, and now we thought – time for a bit of an overview!

All our contributors write both fanfiction and original stories, and as members of fanfic communities and regular users of websites like Archive of Our Own, we all have strong feelings about the importance of accurately tagging stories. As such, from inception, tagging has been an important feature of the collection, and all the stories include content tags and warnings, to help readers find content they want to read – and avoid that which they’re uncomfortable with.

We recently finished standardizing and updating the tags across all the stories, and thought it might be fun to share some of final counts with you! They give an idea of the range of stories in the collection, what they have in common…and what they don’t!

Note that no stories are tagged “modern with magic,” “fluff,” or “coffee shop,” since that’s everyone! 😀

Point of View:

  • 18 of our stories are third person narrow/limited
  • 1 has an alternating third person narrow
  • 1 has third person semi-omniscient
  • And 6 of narrators that are unreliable

Tense:

15 of our stories are written in past tense, 5 in present tense.

Relationship Types:

  • wlw: 6
  • mlm: 6
  • mlen: 3
  • interspecies romance: 8
  • polyamory: 2

(this doesn’t add up to 20, since some of the stories have relationship types that don’t neatly fit into a type, or the relationship is primarily platonic, etc.)

Settings:

Not every story has a specified/identified setting – some are left to the imagination! – but we have stories set in the United States, western Europe, Norway, Russia, and Iceland!

Tropes:

Considering we have a LOT of common and popular tropes in our stories, but some that come up most often include…

  • angst (mild): 6
  • first kiss: 6
  • flirting: 6
  • getting together: 5
  • meet cute: 5
  • miscommunication: 4
  • mutual pining: 9
  • reunion: 5

Character Features, Sexuality, Gender, and Romanticism:

Note that this is far from a complete list – it reflects instead instances where authors specified, and doesn’t include all the tags we’ve used, just the most common. And in lots of cases, the author didn’t specific – it’s left to the reader’s imagination, to interpret them as they wish!

  • aromantic character: 2
  • BIPOC characters: 10
  • bisexual character: 5
  • homosexual character: 2
  • nonbinary character: 4

We’ve also got characters with disabilities, chubby characters, asexual characters, lesbian characters, agender and genderfluid characters, and more!

Magic!

And of course, there’s lots of creatures and magic!

  • Animal shifters: 3
  • Dragon: 3
  • Fae and Fairy Folk: 3
  • Magic users: 12
  • Vampires: 2
  • Witches: 4

As well as gods, spirits, reapers, and many types of magic use from multiple cultures!

Warnings:

Lastly, of course it’s not all fun and games – we do have some warnings. Our stories are mostly fluffy, so these are generally mild, but we want to be sure readers have an idea what they’re in for, so some of our stories have warnings for aphobia, biphobia, transphobia, classism, speciesism, off-screen death of a relative, strained family relationships, dysphoria, and more.

In the print book and e-book, every story includes a list of tags – warnings included! – at the beginning, and there’s also an index to help find (or avoid!) stories based on the tags.

Story headers look like this:

And the index like this:

So, if stories with these tags sound like stories you’d like to read?

Then make sure you check out our Kickstarter! We’ll only be printing enough physical books and merch to fill existing orders (there might be enough extras for a post-KS extras sale but there is zero guarantee!) so if you want these items, it’s now or never!

Only ten days left to buy Add Magic to Taste!

(and, if you want to support us in general…did you know we had a Patreon?)

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Fanart and the “Right of Publicity”

As we make progress on our second anthology, And Seek (Not) to Alter Me, a collection of queer transformative works inspired by William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, we confronted the following question:

If artist contributors do works recognizable as performers in specific adaptations, does that present copyright issues?

To solve this, we did some research, and we thought we’d share the results with you all!

The use of likenesses of performers in original artwork doesn’t fall under copyright protections. Instead, in the United States, performers are protected by the right to publicity, which gives individuals the exclusive right to license the use of their identity for commercial purposes. This means that, for an image or likeness of a performer (or other public figure) to be used in a commercial context, either the performer needs to be the commercial originator (as in, they need to be the person selling the thing), or they need to have given their express permission.

However, there are two significant exceptions to this.

  1. Freedom of the press allows photographs of performers to be used without their permission if the image(s) in question are considered newsworthy. This is how paparazzi are able to sell images to tabloids, for example, and in general, legal precedent has favored unauthorized photographers over the privacy and publicity rights of performers.
  2. First amendment rights to artistic freedom allow artists to create transformative  works of artistic merit that include a likeness of the individual, even without permission, and to sell the original or reproductions of that work.

Obviously, the second of these is what is applicable in our case, and in the case of the majority of fanartists. The challenge is assessing what counts as “transformative.” As with fanfiction, this is a legal gray area, and there’s precedent both in favor of creators and against them. Different states have also interpreted their laws more loosely or more strictly, as have different countries. Therefore, there’s no hard and fast rule for “this is transformative enough” and “this isn’t.” 

Creators are on their most solid legal ground when they either:

  1. create a work that heavily modifies the appearance of the performer(s) depicted in a distinct artistic style (for example, doing an abstract work versus doing a photorealistic one) or
  2. sell only limited numbers of the work, in a way considered “artistic” instead of one seen as “for commercial gain.”

And again, these metrics are subjective – a major example in the case law, for example, involves an artist who did a work that featured the likeness of Tiger Woods – without permission – and then put it on T-Shirts which the artist sold. The court ruled in favor of the artist, deciding the work was transformative enough, even though the approach was clearly commercial. But in another instance, where an artist did a painting of the Three Stooges and put that on a shirt, the court ruled that the aim of the artwork had been primarily to create fiscal gain and commercial, and that the work wasn’t sufficiently transformative. It can truly go either way, with the vicissitudes of legalities, the views of the ruling judge, state and national and international law, and the individual aspects of each case.

In addition, a creator will be on much safer legal ground if they are careful not to violate any copyrights or trademarks. For example – if a creator uses a reference image taken by someone else, that reference image could be copyrighted. For a second example – if a creator makes a piece of artwork and then labels it as “Daniel Radcliffe as Harry Potter” the issue of trademark is introduced – Harry Potter and many related terms are trademarked – and could face legal challenges from multiple directions. Avoiding these pitfalls can help reduce the risk of a legal challenge.

If a creator makes a piece with a recognizable likeness on it, and sells reproductions featuring that likeness, they are potentially at risk of being sued. However, those of us in fandom know that the extent to which most celebrities pursue their right to sue people is limited. Consider how many shirts are up on sites like Redbubble with art featuring recognizable images of main characters from popular franchises. Theoretically, any of these individuals could be sued, but in practice, few have been sent cease-and-desists, much less actively taken to court. Because these individuals have chosen not to enforce their right to publicity across the board, they’re also in a weak position to start enforcing it – when a right such as right of publicity isn’t consistently enforced, applying it to specific cases can become difficult for celebrities (in a similar way to how trademarks can lapse into the public domain if a trademark holder doesn’t vigorously defend their trademark, which is how some brand names have legally entered the vernacular even though they’re technically trademarked). 

Performers are more likely to pursue legal action if the work in question damages their “brand” – for example, if it’s derogatory – or if the work in question is to be widely distributed for extensive profit (profit the performer receives no amount of, because they haven’t been involved). They’re also most likely to win a legal case if they can prove damage has been done to them – as in, if the work(s) in question have cost them jobs, opportunities, money, etc.

When considering whether to create a work that includes a likeness of a public figure, a creator should therefore consider:

  1. Do they have the permission of the public figure in question?
  2. Does the public figure have a history of pursuing legal action against creators who use their likeness?
  3. How widespread will sales of this work be, and how profitable?
  4. Is the work insulting or derogatory toward the public figure?
  5. Is the work being produced and sold in a state or country that have “right to publicity” laws?
  6. On the off chance they choose to sue, is the creator able to protect themselves?

In conclusion: there are real risks, but they are minimal for creators in the United States. If you have concerns, make sure you research intellectual property law for your area, contact an intellectual property lawyer, and/or research the celebrity you are creating artwork of to see if they have a history of vigorously protecting their rights. When in doubt, it’s safer to opt not to sell the work in question.

From the point of view of the anthology we’re working on, we’ll be advising our artists to keep in mind the “significantly transformative” aspect, both as regards “right to publicity” and copyright of reference images, and try to avoid direct representations of living actors who have portrayed these roles – because Duck Prints Press operates under the laws of the state of New York, and in New York, “right to publicity” rights end upon the death of the person in question. A photo-realistic image of a performer playing a specific role would likely be a no-go, if that performer is still alive, but otherwise – especially considering the positive light our work will portray performers in, the transformative nature of our project, and our projected scale of sales (not more than in the hundreds, we expect) – we don’t predict having any issues, even though technically we could be sued if we use a recognizable likeness of a living performer.

For those coming at this issue without our specific interests – make sure you do your research, understand your rights and the rights of the performer/celebrity, be aware that you could potentially be vulnerable, though the odds are low, and consider speaking to a lawyer if you have concerns.

Good luck, and happy creating – and selling those creations!!

DISCLAIMER 1: We are not lawyers. Nothing in this post is intended as, nor should it be interpreted as, legal advice. This post is for general information purposes, and may not be the most up-to-date information or the most relevant to your individual circumstances. If you have questions about intellectual property law, your best bet is always to consult an intellectual property lawyer.

DISCLAIMER 2: Duck Prints Press LLC is incorporated in the state of New York in the United States, and operates under the laws of the state and country. Creators in other states and other countries should supplement this information with research specific to their location. This website lists information state-by-state.

References:

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What is a Story?

When Duck Prints Press put out our call for applicants, we asked everyone to submit “a sample of their work (between 1,000 and 2,000 words)… [that] must function as a short story.” When we reviewed the 100+ samples we received, we noticed many areas where writers commonly struggled. Based on what we learned, we’ve planned a number of blog posts to discuss these challenging areas, and we’ve decided to tackle one of the most frequent issues first. Many otherwise strong submissions lost points on our rubric line regarding “plot and events,” and specifically, they scored a 1 or a 2 because “the story has no plot (for example, is a vignette).”

So, this begs the question, what is a story, and, of course, what isn’t a story?

(note that throughout this post, I use the word “narrative” to refer to any amount of text that may or may not be a story, and I use story only in a more narrow, specific sense.)

What is a story?

The answer is deceptively simple: a story is any narrative that has a plot. But…what is a plot? There are many ways to define a plot, but at its most basic, a plot has a beginning, a middle, and an end, and by the ending, something has changed. If, at the end of the story, nothing has changed, then it’s not a story. However, even if something has changed, it’s still not necessarily a story, because characters and time-frame also influence the definition. A narrative without at least one character is not a story. Likewise, a narrative time-frame, if it’s discussing events at a meta-level (“this happened, then this happened, then this happened”) may show that changes occur, but it’s still not a story – it’s an overview or an outline. The lines, of course, can be blurry – and where any given author, reader, or DPP reviewer draws the line between “this is a story” and “this isn’t a story” will vary.

How is a story communicated to the reader?

To function as a story, the narrative must include characters. Now, character doesn’t necessarily have to mean person, or even require sentience, but there must be some point of view being explored, and if the character is an animal or an inanimate object, writing it as a character will require a degree of anthropomorphizing. The key aspect is that the character has some form of agency – some ability to interact with and influence their surroundings. This character will have a point of view and a perspective that affects how they perceive the story’s setting, and by the end of the story this character should have either changed themselves, or changed their surroundings, or changed their relationships. The circumstances around this character must be different by the end of the story than they were at the beginning – or else it’s not a story.

What is change?

As part of the narrative, one or more characters in the story must engage in some form of activity that results in the world around them changing. Writing advice most oftenly calls this “conflict,” but honestly? I hate that word. The classic couching of “person vs. self, person vs. person, person vs. nature, person vs. society, person vs. fate” as the available types of conflict is tired. Defining the only kind of change as conflict and specifically describing it as “x versus y” is to automatically get a potential writer thinking in terms of antagonism. While antagonism is one available type of change, it’s not the only, and while many pieces of writing advice point out that these “versus” constructions don’t mean enmity by nature…why not simply choose a less confusing construction, one that doesn’t require addenda to explain the existence of narratives that clearly are stories but are less “versus” and more “and” – “person and self,” “person and person,” “person and nature,” “person and society,” “person and fate.” I’ve opted to use the word change, because one of the clearest ways to tell if a narrative is a story or not is to look at the nature of the character(s) are at the beginning, and look at the nature of them at the end, and say – what’s different? Maybe they’ve built something. Maybe they’ve reached a new understanding. Maybe they’ve conquered a challenge. Maybe they’ve altered their perspective. Maybe they’ve learned something. Maybe, they’ve changed the world, or maybe, they’ve just changed a light bulb – but something has changed.

Before some writing snob comes at me and says, “okay, fine, we dare you to come up with a plot that doesn’t fit into the classic five conflict types” …of course we can’t. That model functions because all stories can be shoehorned into it, as long as very loose definition of “conflict” and “versus” are used. But because it’s described in oppositional terms, a lot of writers get distracted by that terminology and think there has to be, well, a conflict, in the narrow definition of the word. And that’s clearly absurd – many of our favorite fanfiction tropes, for example, are fluffy and comforting and soft precisely because they’re not about conflict, they’re about harmony. Yes, “enemies to lovers” is wonderful, but so is “friends to lovers.” Two people going on a date that ends with a marriage proposal is a story: they started out as a couple and ended engaged. Something has changed – their relationship status. But to call that “person versus person,” while perhaps technically correct, is ludicrous. Now, to keep it interesting, there might be some “person versus self” – “I’m not worthy of this love, omg do they really care for me, oh will society give us problems if we say yes?” which is how it can be shoehorned into the “conflict” model. But be it ever so soft, and their love ever so accepted, and their faith in each other ever so steady – if there really is no conflict, just those two people meeting up and having a nice night and ending in a proposal…it’s still a story. To say it’s not a story because there was no conflict, only an advancement of their relationship…yes, a story like that is borderline to being a vignette or “slice of life” narrative. Certainly, if there’s zero sources of tension, it may not be a very interesting story, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a story.

What else does a story need?

Honestly – not much. Don’t get us wrong – a story is stronger if it has a setting so that it doesn’t just take place in endless blankness. A story with multiple characters but no form of dialog (verbal or non-verbal) may be a little flat. A story where something changes but some of the introduced plot elements aren’t resolved will feel incomplete to a reader. A story without any negativity could be boring. Stories lacking these elements may not be good stories…or they could be amazing, and innovative, showing how a tale can be told without elements we usually consider essential! As long as something or someone has changed, and the story is told in a narrative, descriptive format that includes a character – it’s a story.

What isn’t a story?

Things that aren’t stories fall into two broad categories:

  1. Narratives that have description, characters, dialogue, setting, and other story elements, but nothing changes. Examples of this are “slice of life” narratives and what, in fandom-parlance, would be called an episode coda or canon insert – a chunk of narrative deliberately meant to make a bridge between two established events but in which nothing can change because the surrounding events remain established. (A coda or insert might be a story, it varies.)
  2. Narratives that are either entirely “show” (for example, a vignette) or entirely “tell” (for example, a synopsis),  These can also be seen as relating to time – either there’s little or no passage of time (usually the case in vignettes) or far too much passage of time (usually the case in synopses). Narratives like this may or may not include a character, but even if they do, they’re still not stories. Why not? Because any story that is entirely “show” and involves minimal passage of time is unlikely to result in change, and instead will be an extended description of a moment. And any story that is entirely “tell” and depicts a large swath are overviews – there’s no element to actually grab a reader and no reason the reader should care about this dry relationship of events. That’s not a story – it’s a history textbook.

Drawing the lines between these categories can be difficult, and to some extent will come down to taste. Anyone who says there’s a hard-and-fast rule in writing is a liar. Just because a synopsis or a “slice of life” narrative isn’t usually a story doesn’t mean they will never be one. But, in general, if you’re looking at a piece of work and you’re trying to determine if it’s a story or not, there are some signs that will strongly suggest it’s not a story:

  1. There are no characters.
  2. There is no setting.
  3. Nothing has changed between the beginning and ending of the narrative.
  4. The entire narrative is an extended description of a single person/object/setting.
  5. The entire narrative could easily be reworded into a sequence of, “thing one happened, then thing two happened, then thing three happened, then thing four happened.”
  6. The narrative feels like a “pause,” or a “bridge” that takes place between two events that aren’t depicted in the narrative.
  7. A central conflict or issue is introduced or described in details, but nothing is done to try to solve the issue.

Now, for the most important part of this discussion of what isn’t a story: writing something that isn’t a story isn’t a bad thing! Especially in fanfiction communities, we live for self-indulgent narratives that make us happy. We love to see those “moments between.” We live for a thought-out thousand-year history for some setting that didn’t originally have that much background. These kinds of narratives are fun to write, and especially when they’re part of an existing franchise, can be a delight to read. We are not saying that there is literally anything wrong with writing a narrative that isn’t a story.

That said, Duck Prints Press’s applicant call specifically asked authors to submit a writing sample that was a story, with the eventual goal of selecting authors to write short stories for an anthology. Which is to say: there’s nothing wrong at all with writing “slice of life” stories, codas, canon inserts, vignettes, or synopses – it’s simply not what we asked people to submit in this specific case, and we’ve come to see that a lot of people submitted non-stories without an apparent understanding of the difference, and we wanted to explain that difference.

But, to everyone reading this: write whatever brings you joy, in as much detail or vagueness as makes you happy, and share it with whoever you want. Just also understand, that for many types of narratives, if you’re asked “is that a story?” it’s not. That’s not to create a hierarchy – they’re all equal as art forms, they’re just not the same.

Okay I kinda understand this in theory but what do these differences actually look like in practice?

In long-form works, it’s usually relatively easy to recognize what is a story and what isn’t. Almost every novel ever published has a plot, and has things change, and is therefore a story. (though there are exceptions – Wikipedia lists a few longer vignettes and, when done thoughtfully, it can be astonishingly effective.) However, in shorter works, it can be difficult to tell the difference – and, as previously mentioned, the lines can blur.

In the interest of giving an idea of what the differences are, here are a few examples I quickly cooked up to try to show you all, since I’ve done a lot of “telling” so far (this blog post: also not a story, ha!) and very little demonstration. These are each around 150 words, to show that even in a tiny word count, any of these narrative structures is a viable choice. (Sorry these aren’t high literature – I just threw them together for this post, so I’d have something that suited.)

A story – a narrative with a beginning, middle, and end, where something changes:

The door slammed open. Looking up from her embroidery, Victoria blinked as Margaret strode into the room.There was an air of expectancy that was inexplicable to Victoria; she grew more confused when Margaret approached and dropped to one knee.

“What are you doing?” Heart pounding, Victoria attempted self-restraint, but she couldn’t rein in her hope, because it almost looked like…it seemed like…but–

“Proposing,” announced Margaret, pulling a velvet-covered box from her pocket and opening to reveal an emerald set in a gold band.

“But you can’t!”

Margaret tilted her head to the side and frowned. “Why not?”

Objections occurred to Victoria, but examining them…she couldn’t think of a one that Margaret wouldn’t demolish with her usual brilliance. “You know what? You’re right. Who’s to stop us? And…I accept.”

And as Margaret slipped the ring onto Victoria’s finger, she knew: there could be no objection. Nothing had ever felt so right in her life.

“Slice of life” – a narrative with a beginning, middle, and end, where nothing changes:

“What a day!” said James, dropping onto the couch with an exhausted sigh.

“I know what you mean,” Tom agreed. He fumbled a hand across the cushion separating them, and James delighted in the simple comfort of threading their fingers together.

A beep, beep, beep sounded in the kitchen, announcing that the microwave had finished nuking their leftovers.

“You getting that?” asked Tom.

“It’s your turn!” James countered.

“But I don’t want to let go of your hand.” Tom gave his hand a squeeze, and a pleased glow suffused James’s chest.

It was Tom’s turn to retrieve their dinner.

But Tom was right – holding hands was wonderful.

“Let’s get it together,” James suggested.

Hesitating, Tom remained still as James sit up and gave a tug on their joined arms, then he broke into a smile and rose at James’s side.

“I love the way you think.”

“I love you, too, darling”

And together – always together – they got their dinner.

“Bridge” scene, episode coda, or canon insert-style fic – a narrative with a beginning, middle, and end, where nothing changes:

Arriving home after the battle, Sandy opened the rough-hewn door and shed her damaged armor. Her dented cuirass had left an aching bruise across her chest; she carried it to the smithy out back for repair in the morning. A gash on her thigh throbbed where an arrow had pierced the straps holding her greaves in places; she brought them to her leather-working station. Nicks and fissures marred her once-gleaming sword blade. All Sandy wanted was to collapse in bed, but resisted the pull of relaxation, because blood limned the damaged places red, and repair to the damaged weapon couldn’t wait. Taking a seat, placed her feet on the treadles that set her whet stone to spinning and set about polishing out every imperfection.

Yes, she was exhausted.

But her sword must be cleaned, and smoothed, and honed, and prepared.

Sandy must be prepared.

There would always be another battle to be fought.

Vignette, a narrative without a beginning, a middle, or an end, which may or may not have a character, and nothing changes and in which the emphasis is on showing, rather than telling (but, as in this example, a combination may be used):

The wind blew chill down the narrow mountain pass. All was silent, save for the rush of the breeze. All was still, save where gusts stirred the tall grasses and the branches of trees that reached, claw-like, toward the sky.

Once upon a time, a stream had carved this cut through the cliffs, forcing its way through soft chalk and hard shale, leaving jagged stones that emerged from the steep pass walls like teeth. The stream was long dry, now, only water-smoothed stones strewn across the ground to show where it had ever been.

Once upon a time, travellers had traversed the dried-up rill bed, pounding down the dirt, knocking the rocks aside, leaving scars where their fires burned. They’d lived, and laughed, and explored, and sought…and left, never to return.

Now, there was nothing: nothing but the storm.

And all was silent.

And all was still.

And the wind blew, chill, down the narrow mountain pass.

Synopsis, a narrative with a beginning, a middle and an end, which may or may not have characters, and where something changes, and in which  the emphasis is on telling rather showing:

Emperor Xiang Zhen was born in 9884 to Dowager Empress Luo Zexi and the warlord Xiang Yijun. After his birth, there was a long period of strife. Those who supported Xiang Yijun’s claim to the throne battled those who still supported the Dowager Empress’s deceased husband Peng Zhenya. Eventually, the factions found common ground when Xiang Zhen came of age, and he was enthroned in 9902.

With his reign came peace and prosperity. The arts flourished. Scholarship advanced, and many great Dao masters arose, using cultivation to rid the land of evil’s left by the long war. Xiang Zhen longed to join a Night Hunt himself, but he was trapped by his political position. He didn’t dare risk the fragile stability in the Empire. If something happened to him, the results could be catastrophic. So he studied, and ruled, and adjudicated, and endowed, and endured.

Xiang Zhen did as he must.

But, oh…he wished he weren’t alone.

I know this is long, so we’ll leave this discussion at this point. Hopefully you found it helpful, and please do let me know if you have any questions! Duck Prints Press is always here to offer support to writers, and we love getting writing asks!