It was pretty much what I thought would happen: my first full novel submission was rejected.
In one way it was worse than I had expected. Temporarily convinced of my own genius (if I wasn’t, just for a moment, I wouldn’t send anything, ever) I hoped, crossing fingers and toes, that they’d want to read the whole thing. They didn’t.
I’m looking for markets – publications that my stories might fit, a home for my artistic endeavours. This means that I browse a lot of publication websites, trying to figure out what they want and if what I’ve got is good enough. There are a lot of good markets out there.
But then there are sites that I look at and I’m not sure that I want to submit to them, even if I think my story’s a great fit. Like readers all over the world, I judge the book from the cover. Or the market from the site, anyway. My main turn-offs are:
A clunky and/or unattractive website.
Unnecessary or inconsistent capitalisation.
I want my literary gems to be set in a setting where they can shine. A setting that looks great and is easy to read, where the text stands out and isn’t cluttered with textures or images. One where the editors inspire confidence through their own fluent writing, clear focus and helpful instructions.
When I send my writer’s CV to a publisher or agent, I want them to recognise some of the publication’s I’ve appeared in and I want them to be impressed with – or at least not put off by – the ones they haven’t seen before.
What has this to do with being irrational? I have good, rational reasons for not submitting to a market, don’t I?
Except for the thing about capitalisation. Unmotivated capitalisation irritates me beyond reason.
Last year I achieved five of seven goals. This year, I’ve changed my goals a little and some of last year’s goals, sending a story out at least five times before retiring it for example, is now just part of the process. Likewise, I now assume that if I write a story, I’ll send it somewhere, so writing ten stories implies submitting ten stories. I’ve realised that it’s not realistic to write one per month – some months I don’t write – but ten over the year should be doable, even if I’m working on a novel.
This is what I’d like to achieve this year:
Get four stories published. One down, three to go. I’ve got six stories out at the moment: one’s in the second sift, one’s in a competition I do not expect it to win, one I won’t hear about and the other three could go either way. I’ve got new markets lined up for most of them so I can send them out again as soon as they get rejected.
Make £150 from fiction. To do that, I’m submitting to paying markets only, and starting with ones that pay at least $50 per story.
Write (and submit) ten short stories. Super-flash stories (100 words or shorter) don’t count. I’m planning three long ones (5-6K)*, three of ‘literary’ length (2K)**, and four flash pieces (<1K)***.
Do four spoken performances. I don’t have anything lined up so far so I might struggle to meet this.
Do Story Shop. I didn’t get in last year. This year, I really, really want it. If I get it, it counts as one performance.
Start novel number 2. It (and another, shorter YA novel) is plotting itself quietly in the back of my head.
Collaborate. Working with someone else will be fun: I think it might change how I work. And I know who I’m doing it with so this one should be easy.
Get an agent. The main purpose of this year is to find an agent. This one task is more difficult than all the other goals put together.
I know what I need to do and it can be summed up like this: write, submit and read. Business as usual, then.
* Two of which already have working titles: Jonah’s Story and Fingers in the Dirt. Watch this space as they get written.
** The first one of these, The Foods of Lara’s Loves, is looking for a market.
*** One for each performance.
Last year, I wanted to get four pieces of writing published. I only managed three. When I analysed possible reasons, the most obvious one was this: I didn’t send anything out for six months.
Not everything you send is accepted, far from it, but if you don’t send stuff, it can’t be accepted. I wish there were pixies that flitted about looking in drawers and scanning hard drives to find pieces whose authors were too shy to submit and moved them from obscurity into the sunny gaze of a willing publisher. But it doesn’t work like that. You have to be your own pixie.
As part of the Edinburgh International Book Festival, Edinburgh City of Literature arranged for writers to meet with industry experts – an agent, a publisher, a creative writing coach, a publicist and an Edinburgh literary expert. We got 15 minutes with our chosen expert on a sunny Sunday morning. My expert was Francis Bickmore, Editorial Director at Canongate Books, a well-known Edinburgh publishing house. Francis is an experienced editor and has worked with Nick Cave, Yann Martell and other big names. I’d sent him a 500 word writing sample, a writer’s CV and questions. I also sent him some background: my questions were about making writing into a career. Here’s what I learned:
Write, speak and network. Do what you can to get seen.
Apply for everything you can to get the time and space to write and get your name out there.
Finish a book before even thinking about contacting agents or publishers.
Get an agent.
Make friends with other writers, especially established ones writing in your genre. They’ll give you access to publishers and agents.
Surround yourself with writers. You’ll need the support.
Don’t give up the day-job.
I also asked about the size of their slush-pile and how many new writers they take on. The figures were scary and illustrated how important an agent is. They are the first level of quality control. They are your way in, but also a publisher’s way to filter out a lot of the chaff.
It was an encouraging experience. I know that I’m doing the right things, but have realised that it might take a bit longer to get where I wanted to be than I thought. Never mind. Step the first is to finish my first novel. Bring on September.
I had targets and goals. A plan. It’s been four months since my last update so it’s time to have a hard look at where I am against it.
Send out one new story per month: it kind of depends on how you count it, but I think I’m still behind by one story. Editing. I need to finish editing the three stories that are sitting in my pile, waiting to be finished and submitted.
Send each story out at least five times before retiring: in progress. I have five stories doing the rounds at the moment.
Start plotting novel: I won’t claim that it’s entirely complete, but I’m far along enough that I can get started.
Start writing novel: started. I’ve got some 15,000 words which means I’m behind.
Apply to Story Shop: total fail. My story did not get selected. Better luck next year.
Do three spoken performances: three down, one to go.
That was as far as I got the last time I took stock. Since then I’ve added goals…
Make £75 from writing: done. Once the cheques arrive.
Get four stories published: three down, one to go. (The Wolf at the Door was on Flashes in the Dark in May, Foundling will be in New Writing Scotland 30 in august, and Salanntúr will be in The Seven Wonders of Scotland in October.) I’ve got five months to sell one more story. Wish me luck!
Send out one new story per month: behind by two stories. I’m not going to catch up this month but I want to be behind by only one story by next month.
Send each story out at least five times before retiring: in progress (am circulating Neon Tetra Suicides, Space Carrot, L.V.I.S. and the flash version of Liz & Bob). It’s been suggested that sending them out five times isn’t enough so some of them might go out a few more times.
Start plotting novel: I’ve started and am making progress. I’ll publish some of my scrawls later for the fun of it.
Start writing novel: planned for June.
Apply to Story Shop: looking dicey since I haven’t managed to get published yet I’m keeping an eye open for the call for stories. Last year it was released in May.
Do three spoken performances: I’m upgrading this to four and am two down.
I have a plan. It’s a five-year plan, sort of, and somewhat fluid, but it helps me figure out where I’m going. For this year, the plan is to:
Submit one story a month, on average, for publication. This part of the plan has been in force since September last year. I’m a little behind but working hard to catch up. I’m not just sending things out willy-nilly, it has to be to a likely market.
Re-submit each story at least twice after rejection. It’s statistically realistic rather than defeatist to assume that some, if not all, stories will be rejected. I’m trying to write for calls rather than find markets for stories I’ve written to try to optimise my hit-rate but still, there will be knock backs.
start writing a real novel. June seems a good month for this.
Build a platform. That means getting readers for this blog which, in turn, means getting it out there. Sharing it, reading other people’s blogs and commenting on theirs in the hope that they will read mine. Advertise my self wherever I can. Do spoken events. Network. Comment and encourage. Post on blog logs. Join memes. Tweet and Facebook what I’m doing. All that basic marketing stuff. All things I’m too shy to do right now.
Sharing your work is a big step. As children we happily share everything because we know everything we create is brilliant. Over the years, doubt creeps in. Sharing what you’ve written becomes more difficult, it’s too personal: rejection of your work equals rejection of you. Horror!
To deal with the fear that everyone hates you, many of us start disliking a piece the very moment they’ve shared it. I’m quietly proud of my stories until I hand them over to someone else to read. In the millisecond of transfer, from one hand to another, I start disliking the piece. I distance my self from it. It’s OK if everyone hates it because I do too.
Sharing is scary. It’d be nice if we could just sit here, at our keyboards or with our pens, and write. Make art, increasingly beautiful, until it flowers into a work of such stunning glory we have to share it. (At that point we hope the world will gasp in amazement and give us money.) Then we can go home and start working on our next work of art.
Unfortunately, that’s not good enough in today’s publishing market. It’s a drag but publishers aren’t looking for the next great novel. They are looking for the next profitable novelist. So, as well as writing good stories, we need to prove that we are committed to continuing writing good stories. One isn’t enough. We need to prove that we already have an audience and that we’re willing to put in the work to grow that audience. We need a following, a presence, a publishing history, a platform.
Blogging, networking, reading and submitting to magazines may seem like a distraction from writing. But platform building is part of the work of a contemporary writer and putting it off will make it more difficult to succeed.
I want to succeed so I sit here, at my keyboard, writing about the journey.
I really like this little film about what it takes to write and get published. The writer character feels frighteningly real.
My favourite bit comes at around 2:58. “How many editors do you think Random House will assign to my book? Because it will need a lot of editing. I’m not the best speller.” Watching it is 4:38 minutes well spent.