From 2017-2021, I have been mired in an English Literature and Film & TV Studies joint honours. I’ll be graduating next month. In my fourth year, I was lucky enough to secure a place doing a creative writing dissertation. I could write 10,000-12,000 words of prose, either a portfolio of short stories or a short novella; or a chapbook of 20-25 poems. At this point, I had already written a chapbook (Keep on Spinning) and I already had a short story collection on the go (which I’ll codename Danse Macabre). I could have quite easily done either of these and given myself an easier time.
But I liked to consider myself an artiste and jumped at the chance to make something more ambitious. My project, codenamed Sour Grapes, is a short story collection chronicling two centuries the history of a shady organization that deals with alien threats and collects alien artefacts. I admit this isn’t the most original idea in the world. The ‘secret organization that fights aliens’ trope has been done before in Men In Black (1997) (dir. Barry Sonnenfeld) and The X-Files (1993-2002) (created by Chris Carter). However, I don’t think anyone has explored the concept in a short story collection and the characters and anomalies/aliens are my own. The stories are centred around not only employees of the organisation, but also the people affected by the aliens and the aliens themselves. The inner workings of the organization are largely mysterious, but the changes are implied in how my stories will be arranged.
My dissertation would be some stories from Sour Grapes, polished enough to submit to magazines or anthologies once it was finished. I was chasing my muse and at this planning stage, I hadn’t lost my breath. I would get running cramps and fall on my face when actually drafting and editing the portfolio, but that’s another blog post.
Before I could get my teeth into drafting the thing, I had to write a 4,000 word proposal. The structure of said proposal was up to the student. Because I couldn’t decide on where to start on Sour Grapes, I chose to write a pitch for the full collection. I structured the assignment in a way that could give me some practice writing to publishers, but this wasn’t an absolute requirement.
I added a link to a Pinterest mood board to the document, because the course convenor said that was a valid thing to add to the proposal. This gave a visual idea of what the project’s aesthetic will be and its influences. If you’re interested, you can find it here.
- Sentence/Elevator Pitch (25 words or less)
In one article written by Joan Y Edwards, she states the difference between a ‘short selling’ pitch (25 words or less, preferably) and a ‘long selling pitch’ which usually acts as a blurb. Trying to summarise what each short story was about in just two sentences is hard enough, let alone something with so many different moving parts.
I felt I did a very good job of it, but I was glad to have other ways to go into more detail.
So mine reads:
Sour Grapes is a science fiction short story collection that follows two centuries of a secret organization that covers up alien encounters, from the perspectives of those affected by it.
(My dissertation will act as a 12,000-word taster of some of the stories that will be a part of it and give some insight into the larger narrative I hope to convey in the collection.)
My word count: 65 words (including short explanation of dissertation scope)
- Query letter (500-1,000 words)
This is the main part I felt I needed to practice going in for. If I want to get a novel published and/or get an agent, I would need to write a query letter. In the letter I attempt to first of all, sell my work, and second of all, sell myself. It’s a fine balance, but I decided to opt for one paragraph about the book, one about you as a writer and one for ‘comps’. ‘Comps’ is essentially telling the writer what your work ‘compares’ to. You need to show that you are aware whether something that shares similar traits to yours (e.g subgenres) has sold well in the past five years.
From what I’m read, agents or publishers won’t be all that impressed if you compare your work to more famous texts. For example, saying your book will be the next Harry Potter or that your work is similar to the Hunger Games tells them that you’ve not done your market research or are aware of your competition. You also run the risk of accidentally saying you’re just as good a writer as J.K Rowling or Susanne Collins. You may be well be just as good a writer as them or better (whatever that means), but apparently it’s not a good look.
I’d also advise against overegging the pudding when it comes to the paragraph selling yourself, as the point of the letter is to sell your book.
So my attempt read:
Dear [person of interest],
In my SF short story collection, Sour Grapes, I have chronicled fragments of the two centuries of history surrounding the shadowy Barusealont organization as they encounter, investigate, and cover up aliens, anomalies, and their technology. Each fragment is a tile in a mosaic narrative, one which shows not only how fragile the fabric of our world is, but also shows our ingenuity and our ability to adapt to whatever adversities come our way.
Sour Grapes will be a 50,000-word short story collection exploring various aspects of the genre, including elements of cosmic horror, time-travel, utopias/dystopias, close encounters, artificial intelligence amongst others. The stories are arranged in chronological order, depicting the beginnings of the organization and science’s rapid advancement in the 1800s to the start of an intergalactic age on the cusp of the 2100s. It is a constellation of human (and nonhuman) stories, as there is more emphasis on the lives of the people within and subjects of the organization than the inner workings of the agency.
Hopefully most science fiction fans would enjoy it, especially those who read magazines like Daily Science Fiction or the SCP Foundation website regularly. Alternatively, those who have read collections like Exhalation by Ted Chiang (2019), Exire by Helen Mort (2018) or the Binti trilogy by Nnedi Okofactor may get a lot out of this collection.
My debut poetry chapbook “Keep On Spinning” was published in October 2020 by Dreich Publishing, which explores mental health and the human condition through the motif of space and the solar system. The beauty and chaos of outer space has always fascinated and inspired me, which I hope will show in Eden Falls. I have had some of my short fiction published in magazines, including McStorytellers, Minus Paper, Gendertrash, Idle Ink, and Paragraph Planet. I am currently in my final year of my MA English Literature and Film & TV Studies and I have been performing and reading my work aloud at events for four years.
If you are interested in my work, you can find my website at jenhugheswriter.com, or contact me through my email firstname.lastname@example.org.
It wasn’t dissimilar from the covering letters I have written as part of my 100 Rejections Challenge, so I had some good practice. Please don’t use my query letter as a template for your own, as I haven’t submitted it to any agent or publisher. I don’t know if this works yet. However, my
dissertation supervisor said it was a solid attempt which I was pleased about. She gave me some pointers on small changes, which I’m very grateful for and will implement.
On looking back over it, my ‘comps’ may not be all that accurate. I’m not on the ball when it comes to contemporary science fiction or fantasy, especially stuff released less than 5 years ago. Honestly, time flies by so quickly. 2015 barely feels like 2 years ago sometimes.
If you have any recommendations, you think I should know about, feel free to get in touch through my social media below.
My word count: 448 words, but I was not penalized for the brevity of this part.
- Synopsis of book (500-1200 words)
This advice came from sources that were more geared towards novels. I at first thought it was much harder to do apply to a short story collection, especially for ones like Danse Macabre where it is composed of several unrelated stories tied together with a theme. However, with those these projects I imagine you would talk briefly about each story (or most interesting stories) for that word limit.
However, I believed that Sour Grapes was an exception, as it’s tied by the same canon and is structured in chronological order. I started out by introducing the collection, then moved from key short story to key short story and their various influences. Stories set at the start of the collection are more Lovecraftian because both share a fear of the unknown and inexplicable horrors. As we move further into the collection, we see some interview-subject type stories set in the organisation’s facilities and by the end of the collection, we hear more stories from the aliens’ perspectives. However, this will most likely change over the course of drafting it as I’ve got other stories, I want to put in that shake up this structure.
By having a good synopsis, it shows an agent or publisher what your book is and how it’s going to play out. They might like it or dislike it, or regardless of those two, they may not accept your book because they don’t feel they can sell it. In any case, try not to take it personally. There’s plenty of other places to shop your book. You can also decide, to paraphrase Lindsay Ellis, put it in the trunk. It’s not ditched but is just waiting for the right time to get back out. You don’t have to ever get it out of the trunk, but you’ve at least acknowledged it as part of your portfolio.
My word count: 657 words
These last few parts were pretty short, so that alone wouldn’t make anywhere near the 4,000 word count. So what I decided on writing out a rough timeline, both with where the stories I’m considering for the portfolio fit and other key events that shaped the organization that were worth considering. Sour Grapes takes place from the late Victorian era (1888) to an Intergalactic Age (2090), so for assembling it, this timeline is vital. It’s given me a great framework for drafting and assembling the collection. Not all of the stories would be from each key event, but the timeline serves to give each collection additional historical context.
I think it was also useful for my dissertation supervisor to be able to see my trajectory. For one thing, Sour Grapes is such a bizarre and ambitious project, it would help her to keep track of what’s going on where.
However, I highly doubt a publisher would be interested in seeing a very detailed and comprehensive timeline for a project on their slush pile.
My word count: 1013 words
- Annotated bibliography (and filmography)
This was a requirement for the dissertation proposal to state my influences and inspirations. I used this as an opportunity not only to reflect on what inspired me to write Sour Grapes, but also to do some market research and educate myself with the classics. I also included the resources I used that informed my pitch, which I’ll place down below.
As far as I’ve learned, in query letters. you’re supposed to compare your book to your peers. Comparing your book to ones by very famous authors isn’t a good look apparently and doesn’t show you’ve researched who your competition is and why you’re setting yourself apart from them. I started by asking my supervisor what she recommends, which I added to my reading list. There were a lot of texts, and include books like Becky Chalmers’ ‘The Long Way to a Small and Angry Planet’ (2014) which is now one of my favourite books; Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti: The Complete Trilogy (2015-2017); and Exire (2015) by Helen Mort.
For my bibliography and filmography, I made a comprehensive list of what has influenced the collection, down to the episodes of various TV shows I watched, the SCP articles I found most inspiring and what influenced the stories I was going to upcycle for the collection.
I was heavily inspired by the SCP Foundation. It is a website which contains stories about the eponymous shady organization, written by hundreds of authors/wiki users. Each story is formatted as a file on the aliens and alien artefacts that the Foundation captures or contains. It’s an incredible example of collective storytelling that can only exist in the internet with a vast, expansive canon.
I found the opportunity in this section to make a watch list and a reading list out of this. Honestly, I’m surprised that I hadn’t seen most of them already. Films like Alien (1979) (dir. Ridley Scott), Akira (1988) (dir. Katsuhiro Otomo) and Bladerunner (1982) (dir. Ridley Scott) that most sci-fi fans have seen already. My reading list included sci-fi classics too, like War of the Worlds (1897) by H.G Wells and Dune (1965) by Frank Herbert.
It’s something you may not want to do, let alone convert the listings into Harvard as I’ve done, but it’s something I found very helpful.
My word count: 1642
Once I’d written it all out and finalized it, I went through the lengthy process of putting all the annotated bibliography into Harvard. Here are some examples from the proposal:
Lynagh, Caitlin. 2019. Another World. Liverpool: Outlet Publishing
Anon, 2008. SCP-173- “The Statue” SCP Foundation. [Wiki Article] Available at: http://www.scpwiki.com/scp-173. (This is the very first SCP story. It was first published on the /paranormal forum (x) on 4chan on 31st May 2008.)
The Land That Time Forgot. 1974. [Film] Kevin Connor. United Kingdom: Amicus Productions. United States: American International Pictures. Adapted from the 1918 novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs of the same name.
So it wasn’t perfect, there were some things that my trusted Angela Ruskin resource couldn’t guide me on, so I had to wing it for a few items. But overall, the document looks so much neater and it’s much more pleasant to look through.
I submitted it and it got an A5. My feedback was mostly positive, but there were a few things I needed to clarify and edit before I could consider trying to pitch it anywhere. However, I know that Sour Grapes will take years to put together and edit. I hope to have some of the stories published in some magazines, but I will need to wait and see. There are a lot of moving parts to the project, and the timeline I created will need to be more fluid, as I will go into more detail about in the next blog post.
This approach to planning my larger projects is going to be pretty instrumental as I work on my first few drafts, as it’s given me a great place to work from, especially in working on the collection. More importantly, it’s a good bit of fun, and that’s what really matters.
Jen Hughes is a writer and poet from Ayrshire who has been passionate about writing since she could hold a pencil. She is in her final year of her English Literature and Film & TV Studies degree at University of Glasgow. She has been performing her work for four years and has been co-hosting open mic night, Words and Music, with Gayle Smith for two years. Her fiction and poetry have been published in various magazines and anthologies including Acumen, Poetry in the Time of Coronavirus (PITTOC) Volumes 1& 2, Adjacent Pineapple and more.
Her debut chapbook, “Keep on Spinning” has been published by Dreich Publishing. It is available to buy on her website through jenhugheswriter.com/shop.
If you enjoy her work, you can find more on her website jenhugheswriter.com. Or you can follow her Facebook (Jen Hughes Writing) or Instagram (@jenhugheswriting)
Here are some resources I used to inform the structure of my pitch:
Writer’s Relief Staff., 2009. How To Publish A Short Story Collection: Tips For Getting Agents’ And Editors’ Attention For Your Short Stories. Writer’s Relief, [Blog] July 22nd 2009. Available at: https://writersrelief.com/2009/07/22/how-to-publish-a-short-story-collection-tips-for-getting-agents-and-editors-attention-for-your-short-stories/
Edwards, Joan, 2014. How To Write A Pitch, Summary and Synopsis That Sells. Joan Y Edwards [Author’s blog] July 13th 2014. Available at: https://www.joanyedwards.com/2014/07/13/how-to-write-a-pitch-summary-and-synopsis-that-sells/
Brewer, Robert Lee. 2019. How to Write Successful Queries for Any Genre of Writing. Writer’s Digest [Online blog] September 16th 2019. Available at: https://www.writersdigest.com/publishing-insights/how-to-write-successful-queries-for-any-genre-of-writing
Reedsy, 2018. 7 Steps for the Perfect Query Letter [YouTube] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NNGh6eAQyAk
Reid, Janet, 2020. Query Shark [Blog] June 28th 2020. Available at https://queryshark.blogspot.com/2018/05/310.html. (This is one of many feedback blog posts that I highly recommend)