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Received Asks: How Did You Pick the Name You Create Under and What Influenced that Decision?

A collaboratively written post by multiple members of Duck Prints Press. The input of every individual author has been used and lightly edited with permission and credited in the way they’ve requested.

Two days ago, a member of Duck Prints Press posed the following questions to our blogging team:

  • Whether you publish under a pen name or your given name, what factored into your decision to use one or the other?
  • Was personal safety the primary reason behind deciding to use a pen name, or were there other reasons? 
  • If you use your given name, do you feel safe? 
  • What’s your advice for [creators] who are thinking about publishing original [work]? 

A number of us replied, and we all felt that the compiled responses would make a good post to share, as “whether or not to use a pen name” is a recurring question we often get in-server, and is likely one many of y’all out there thinking of publishing your original work have pondered as well. 

Do you publish under a pen name or use your given name, and what factors influenced your decision to use one or the other?

@arialerendeair: I publish under a pseudonym and always will! I decided to go with names that riff off my fanfic name (Aria Lerendeair) – Aria L. Deair (for non-erotica) and Aria D. Leren (for erotica) because I’ve built a community and wanted it to be a bit of an in-joke when they find/buy my content. If someone were to find the story organically – they might get the name reference, they might not. It’s a fun way to create not-separation between the names and have one for the different genres! 

B. T. Fish: I (try to) stay anonymous aside from necessary contracts because of personal safety as regards certain family members. I honestly don’t worry about strangers knowing who I am, but if I am aiming for anonymity I have to commit.

Annabeth Lynch: I use a pen name, but I plan on taking at least the first name as my legal name when possible. I won’t share that or my pen name with my family because 1) they don’t know I write, and I’m not content to share that with them at all, and 2) I don’t want them to know I’m queer. They likely wouldn’t be hellish about it but I would certainly be mocked. Also, now I live in the south and while I live in a liberal section because of the nearby colleges, the place I want to move after my husband’s schooling is ~liberal~ in a vague way but definitely not as good as where I am now. It’s one reason why I’m hesitant to try and get my books in bookstores that might want in-person events.

Dei Walker: I went with a pen name for the erotica I wrote for DPP (and I’ll keep with that), but the first name holds a link with my real name in some ways. My husband’s a teacher at a fairly prestigious private school, and there’s a degree of “yeah my wife writes smut” that’s okay with colleagues but isn’t okay if the parents find out about it if they use search engines to learn more about me.

Willa Blythe: I chose to use a pen name. One, my real name is kind of weirdly spelled and I don’t actually even use my first name because it is a very popular name from the 80s that my parents left a letter out of… I go by my middle name but I spell it differently than what’s on my birth certificate, and I’ve gone by this name since I was 18. Everyone in my life knows me as (NAME) save my family, and they know I go by that. It’s not a nickname, it’s my name, and that’s fine. 

Anonymous: I decided to use a pen name for two reasons: 1) my name is incomprehensible to English speakers – not only is it hard to pronounce, but it also uses special characters; 2) I’m a primary teacher in a small town where gossip goes wild (for example, when I decided to go part-time so I have more time for writing it was going around that I was pregnant ) so I don’t want anyone to find out that I’m queer and write queer romance. There are idiots out there who wouldn’t want me to teach their kids because of that. I eventually came up with a pen name that is a word play on my legal name so it still feels like me, and the people I want to know would recognize it as me but strangers are unlikely to make the connection.

Nina Waters ( @unforth ): I publish under a pen name because people always mispronounce my last name and my understanding is that it’s better to make a pen name people can pronounce. Back when I was still considering trad pub, I was planning to use multiple pen names so I could write across genres. Nina Waters was gonna be spec fic and romance, but I love historical drama type stuff too and like. Those sell better with a male name on them? So I was gonna use either C. P. Houck (so, my actual initials and last name) or Charles (or maybe Chuck) P. Houck, since Charles is a family name (my uncle, my grandfather, and my great grandfather on my dad’s side are all Charles’s). That all said, when I decided to go the small Press creation route instead, there was basically no way to keep my real name out of things since as the owner I have to put it on all official paperwork, which means it’s filed with the government and a matter of public record. Since anyone could access it, there didn’t seem to be much point in keeping it a secret/separate. 

Was personal safety the primary reason behind deciding to use a pen name? What other reasons influenced your decisions?

(some authors included their answers to this in their replies above)

Nina Waters: Not really, though I did originally concoct the Nina Waters name for a really silly version of personal safety? I was writing a thing based on my unrequited feelings for someone and I obviously couldn’t put that under my real name without risking them figuring it out, so I needed a pen name. I never did finish that project lmao and now I would never bother but the pen name stuck. 

arialerendeair: Part of [why I use a pen name] is because I was doxxed (and received threats) from a non-writing community almost a decade ago. I’m not afraid of attaching my real name to my works – I’m proud of them! But with the very real possibility of that happening again at some point in the future, I didn’t want to risk it!

Willa Blythe: There was an additional reason that using a pen name was important to me, though. When I wrote fan fiction, I was the victim of a targeted hate campaign aimed at people who wrote fanfiction about a certain character. I wrote fic that I loved and I stayed in my corner, but I got aggressive and hateful messages constantly about not only myself but also my young son, for the crime of choosing to write about a young man of color instead of the overwhelmingly popular white m/m ship in that fandom. It was alarming, especially when people I didn’t know sent me messages about my workplace and my movements there. Prior to that, I’d been pretty open online. I’m not now. I take doxxing very seriously. My son’s safety, but also my own and my roommate’s, are of huge importance. I write about things people don’t love: complicated queer relationships, critiques of capitalism and white supremacy, critiques of religion and spiritual practices, etc. I have to do what is necessary to create distance between my real life, my fandom life, and my writing life. That said… I’ve done more to separate my fandom and writing identities than my real and writing identities, for a variety of reasons. It’s complicated, but as much as I love fandom, it does breed a certain kind of entitlement that my personal friends and family just don’t have.

If you use your given name, do you feel safe?

@owlishintergalactic: My wife and I had a huge conversation about the implications of me writing under my wallet name. I am quite politically involved in the Early Childhood Education and Early Childhood Special Education sectors in my county and state. This is a sector where being openly LGBTQ can cause problems with a particular subset of parents and voters. Yet, we don’t believe we should have to hide who we are and that we are LGBTQ – like many other parents in our state. We decided, in the end, that since I don’t write anything more racy than “mature,” it makes sense to build my platform using my real name. My writing is a part of me. It is a part of my advocacy. It’s my profession. But it is a risk, and it’s mitigated some because I live in one of the most open and inclusive communities in the US. For the most part, though, I do almost all of my online work under a variation of Owlish because it creates a layer of protection between me and the internet masses who don’t always have the best intentions.

Nina Waters: I. uh. Mostly? I definitely worry about it. I’ve been thinking about getting a P. O. Box for the business so I at least don’t have to use my real address all the time too. I worry that if someone took offense to the kind of work I do, they could go after my children, and that scares the crap out of me. In retrospect I wish I’d worked a little harder to keep my identities separate, but they were already mostly merged by the time I had kids and I’d have had to completely restart with new screen names and everything, so it felt like it was already too late by the time the business became public.

What’s your advice for [creators] who are thinking about publishing original [work]?

Nina Waters: The advice I give to people in the Press is if they’re even a LITTLE unsure, they should use a pen name. At any time when they decide they’re comfortable they can always switch to using their real name, but once the genie’s out of the bottle there’s no putting it back.

arialerendeair: There are a great many reasons to choose to use a pseud! For your own personal reasons, for reasons involving your spouse, your family, your activism work, because the internet is a scary place sometimes and many grew up in the web safety diligence era. If you are picking up a pseud for any reason at all – great! They can be fun, they can be punny, (is it a coincidence that D is the middle initial for my pseud that I write erotica under? Nope!) and they can be a chance to reinvent yourself for an audience that doesn’t know you yet. There’s a power in being able to shape a persona – and sometimes it’s fun to grab that and see where it leads!

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Do you – yes, you, the person reading this! – use a pen name for publishing your art, fiction, or other types of creations? Have you kept your fandom, creation, and meatspace selves separate? We’d love to hear your answers to the above questions, so feel free to comment and weigh in!

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Have a question? Feel free to drop us an ask any time!

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How to Ask for Feedback on Your Writing

A guest post by B. T. Fish (@fishwritesfic).

It can be daunting to ask for feedback on our work. Past negative experiences, horror stories from friends, fear of people disliking something we’ve worked so hard on, uncertainty about what to input to ask for, and many other factors can make it seem easier to write our stories alone rather than show them to another person. 

Once you understand how to ask for feedback, however, sharing your works-in-progress can become a valuable tool for gathering information and honing your craft. So if you’re struggling with your work in progress, hoping to publish or publicize your story in some way, or are looking to develop your writerly skills, read on to learn how to ask for the right feedback for your needs!

How to ask for feedback

First, and most importantly: You don’t need to ask for feedback. Whether you ask for input depends on your individual writing, editing, and publishing goals. This post starts at the point of assuming you’ve already decided that you’d like feedback, but are hesitant or struggling for whatever reason. Here are some tips on getting the type of feedback you’d like – feedback that helps you move forward armed with useful information.

1. Be specific

Do not let people guess what you want. They will guess wrong. 

Even experienced editors need to be given some directions so they can focus on the aspect(s) of the story that you’re concerned about. For example, if they give suggestions on a story element you’d thought was fine, but offer no comments about dialog which you’re afraid sounds stilted, you may end up feeling more anxious than before. So when soliciting feedback on your work, tell your reader exactly what type of feedback/information you’re looking for, and ask them not to color outside those lines unless you allow it. Your questions will help your readers focus their energy and give you feedback you can actually use. (More on what types of feedback or aspects of the story you may want to consider is later in this post!)

If your work is being edited for publication, this rule changes slightly since your editor will also be applying their own suggestions to help get your story ready for their particular outlet, but you’re still welcome to ask any additional questions and request feedback on the things you’re worried about! 

2. Think about what stage your story is at

Different stages of writing need different types of feedback. Too nitpicky early on, and you might waste effort polishing passages that don’t make it to the final story—and it’s easier to fix big-picture issues earlier in the writing process. A good rule of thumb is to start broad at first, and get progressively more specific as the story takes shape.

Early-stage: When you’re still brainstorming ideas and working on your first draft. Early-stage readers (often called alpha readers) are there to help you understand how your story is coming across but not to give value judgments.

Some example questions to ask early-stage readers:

  • Characterization: What are your impressions of the main character(s)? Who do you think they are, what are their motivations? What do you find interesting or cliche about them?
  • Worldbuilding/Setting: What is most interesting/surprising/confusing to you about this world? What is important to the people in this society? How is this world similar to or different from yours? 
  • Mood/Tone: Does it feel funny, dark, matter-of-fact, poignant, exciting? What parts make it feel that way? Is the narrator’s tone matter-of-fact, dramatic, funny, and does it feel jarring to read?
  • Plot: What do you think this story is about? What do you expect to happen next based on what you’ve read so far?
  • Sensitivity: If you’re familiar with the disability/job/experience described in this story, how well did it reflect your experience? Where did it fall short? What sorts of details would be more appropriate or accurate to include?
  • In General: What confused you? What excited you? What wasn’t as interesting? What made you want to read more?

Early-stage feedback is for collecting impressions, finding out what people are interested in, confused by, what they think the story is about, etc. This is important information for you as a writer as you aim to assess whether your writing is faithfully conveying your ideas. If people generally have the wrong impression about something that you thought was obvious, that could be an indication that you need to rework that part of the story to make the important details more clear. 

If solicited before you’ve completed your manuscript first draft, early-stage feedback can also give you ideas for how to move forward. If people are excited by a certain theme, you might decide to emphasize that theme. If they all expect the same thing to happen next, you might do something to subvert those expectations—or play into them—or, if it’s not at all what you had in mind, tone down the hints leading to that conclusion.

If you want reliable feedback, it’s often better to keep your questions general and avoid spoilers. For example, if you’re trying to figure out “does the reveal about Character A work?” and you directly ask that, your early-stage reader will already be clued in and on the look out specifically for that, so you won’t get a clear idea of what a reader who isn’t “primed” would read. 

 However, if you want to ask your reader for more specific or technical advice at this stage, be ready to share more so they can better help you (e.g. the story concept, where you’re at in the writing process, what unanswered questions you still have about the world, the characters, and the plot). You can always wait and share this information after they’ve read the passage if you don’t want to spoil their reading.

Middle-stage: Once you’re sure that your story’s most basic aspects are sound, try asking more technical questions about story structure, pacing, tone, and characterization. You don’t need to give much context; instead, see what the readers understood from the story itself. This helps ensure that your writing is clear and accurate to your intentions.

Some example questions to ask middle-stage readers:

  • Characterization: How does the main character come across to you at the beginning of the story? Have your impressions changed by the end, and why? What moments made you empathize with them? Do their actions feel justified? If not, what parts felt contradictory or confusing? What are your favorite and least favorite parts of them?
  • Worldbuilding/Setting: How does the setting affect the way you understand or think about this story? What details made you feel like you were really immersed in the world? What details or descriptions pulled you out of the world? What felt confusing or contradictory? What felt especially meaningful or cool? Did anything feel random, inconsistent, pointless, irrelevant or unnecessary? 
  • Mood/Tone: Is the narrator’s tone flowery or lyrical? Matter-of-fact? Is the mood (the feeling you get from the story) dark, funny, tense? Where does it shift, and do any of the shifts feel jarring?
  • Plot: Does the story feel ‘finished’ at the end? If not, what do you feel is missing? What unanswered questions are you left with? Are there any storylines that you wished you could have read more of? What parts did you want to skip or skim? 
  • Sensitivity: Same as for early-stage readers If you’re familiar with the disability/job/experience described in this story, how well did it reflect your experience? Where did it fall short? What sorts of details would be more appropriate or accurate to include?
  • In General: Same questions as early-stage, but also: what themes or motifs did you notice in the story?

The goal of these questions is to get more technical feedback; looking at the whole story, what works well, what is missing, and what takes away from the story’s success? These more specific questions can help you in your revisions as you decide what to elaborate on, rewrite, or cut.

Late-stage: After a few rounds of edits, you might be ready for a beta reader. In fanfiction circles, a beta reader is an all-rounder who helps with everything from brainstorming to proofreading, but here I’m referring to the person who reads your story before publication to give you one last chance for edits before sharing with the general public.

If you’re at this stage, you can ask many of the same questions as for early and mid-stage feedback, but also let your reader get more into the weeds about thematic elements, contradictions in characterization, plot holes, and details about the world that still seem inconsistent or confusing. Ask them to be picky; the story is all there, this is your chance to make sure it hangs together.

Spelling and Grammar Feedback: Once you’re sure your project tells the story you want to tell, you may solicit an editor to give you feedback on Spelling and Grammar (SPAG). It’s equally important to make sure this person is clear on what aspects of the story they’re supposed to focus on, and you should specify if you want their input at all on conceptual aspects of the story or if you’d prefer them to focus on clarity, proper grammar, spelling, and the other technical components of the story.

3. Choose your readers carefully

As important as the questions you ask is who you’re asking them of. Will this person respect your boundaries and only give the feedback you request? Will they be honest with you and non-judgmental toward your writing? Close friends and family can often seem like convenient, ready-made readers. However, unless you’ve worked with them before and know how they’ll behave, proceed with caution. People who are too close to you might be too gentle because they want to make you happy, or they might ignore your boundaries because they think they know what you need better than you do or that those boundaries apply only to strangers. If someone, because of their relationship to you, is going to give responses you can’t trust, don’t ask them. 

Great readers are often other writers. Join writing groups (Eventbrite, Meetup, NaNoWriMo regional groups, and local writing cooperatives are good places to start), writing courses (my personal favorite is the International Writers’ Collective, and Clarion is also widely popular and well respected, but also look for courses near you!), and reach out to people whose fanfiction or original writing you admire. It can seem scary to contact people out of the blue, but these are all people with the same hobby as you, and even if they’re too busy to work with you they’ll be happy to know you appreciate their writing!

You can offer to trade feedback, too. Trading feedback is a great way to build your skills twice as fast – as you learn to give critique, you can also better learn how to apply critical reading skills to your own writing. 

4. Ask for help from multiple people

Spreading out the job of giving feedback can make the job easier on your readers. It can also mitigate the sometimes intense emotions that come with getting feedback. If no single person is commenting on everything, then you won’t feel as burdened by any one person’s opinions.

Some areas you could ask different people for help with include:

Brainstorming: If you have a friend whose ideas complement yours, ask them if they have time to talk stories with you! All ideas are good ideas when you’re brainstorming.

Developmental edits: Developmental editors can listen to where you want your story to go, see where it’s at now, and help you cross that sometimes-frightening gap between the two. Some editors are trained in this, but a trusted writing friend who has editing experience can also be a huge help with developmental edits.

General Story Comprehension: Check that your story makes sense (and if not, where/why/how it went wrong). The example questions under the early-stage and middle-stage feedback stages are great for your general-comprehension readers.

Characterization: Although you have an idea of who your characters are, does that come across to your readers? Ask someone who loves characterization to help!

Sensitivity readers and/or subject matter experts: When writing about an experience, location, or type of character that you’re not familiar with, try finding people who’ve lived that experience to check whether your descriptions resonate with them.

Beta reading: Ask someone who reads voraciously to go through the whole story and make note of all their unanswered questions, plot holes they spot, things they loved, things that were confusing, etc.

Proofreaders: Your beautiful grammar nerds. If you’re working with a publisher, your editor will likely do a proofread. If you’re self-publishing, don’t skip this step! Editing software can help but won’t capture all of those stray en-dashes where an em-dash should be. 

5. Remember feedback is a tool, not a prescription

When you get your feedback, don’t panic! It’s for you to use as you wish, and most writers only act on a small part of the feedback they receive.

You can use your reader feedback in unexpected ways. For example, if someone says that they really wanted to see more of a side plot, that may convince you to develop it more. However, if you didn’t want them to care so much and think it’s detracting from the main story, you could cut it and save it for its own story.

Additionally, there is no rule that says you have to ask for feedback for every story or stage of your writing process. If you’re writing a short story that you feel confident about, you might only want a quick round of feedback at the end. If you’re doing a long, multi-chapter piece, you might do a mix of early and middle-stage feedback for different sections of the story. One story might come so easily that it feels like it’s writing itself while the next needs lots of extra help. 

This is all normal. You’re not losing your touch if you need more input on certain stories; every story is unique.

6. It’s Okay to Ask for Only Praise

Normalize the writing cheerleader! As someone who has both given and received writer cheerleading, I truly don’t know how I wrote before discovering this. It’s less structured and has more emotional investment than other types of feedback, so is a bigger commitment for your reader. If you want a writing cheerleader, explain to your reader what you’re hoping for and ask them if this is help they’d be comfortable with providing. 

A writing cheerleader will shower you with praise, poke you for updates, and generally be your emotional-support reader. If you’re struggling to get words on the page or have been feeling down about your writing, they can make the difference between finishing your story and never touching it again. But even if your writing life is mostly smooth sailing, it’s still valid to want to find a reader who’s excited to read what you send them and who gives you unmitigated love in return. Let them boost your ego; you can be critical once the draft is written. No matter how cringey it may seem at first, the joy is infectious, and it works.

The Feedback You Never Knew You Needed

Before you start asking for feedback, you may wonder why anyone bothers exposing themselves to potential criticism. And even after this becomes a normal part of your practice, you will sometimes get feedback that doesn’t help or reflects the reader more than the writer.

So why ask for feedback?

Beyond developing your critical reading skills and learning more about your own writing, feedback can teach you about people: how they think, what they notice, what makes them care. It helps you understand how other people experience the things you write so you can start writing in those ways more deliberately. It can also help you learn to manage your “preciousness” about your own writing—when you let other people dissect your work, even if they’re not making value judgments, there’s going to be some discomfort. Learning to push through that for the sake of growth is like developing a superpower. You’ll start seeing your writing as the medium through which you communicate with your readers and developing ways to do that even more effectively.

Do you need to ask for feedback? Absolutely not. But if you’ve decided you want feedback and you learn to ask, accurately and clearly, for the kind of feedback you want, it can be incredibly useful, and—dare I say it?—fun.

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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!