Status update: I’ve made friends with the plan. Almost.

A couple of months ago I took my plan for the year public to goad myself into sticking to it. It’s time to reflect and see how I’m progressing against my goals.

  • 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.

Subject and audience – your audience and your main characters are sometimes very different

Sometimes, reader’s reactions to your stories are surprising. Particularly, I’ve had a couple of experiences when they assume things about my main character or the audience that doesn’t fit with my intentions or thoughts.

  1. The main character is a child, therefore the story must be for children.
    I wrote a story about a young boy who has a very bad time. It wasn’t meant to be a YA story but my readers to date have interpreted it as one. To me, a story isn’t for children just because it’s about them. I’m clearly missing some nuance of tone or subject that makes my stories about children also seem suitable for them. (I’m sending the flash version of Liz & Bob around to some YA publications to see if they agree with that judgement. It will be interesting to see what they say.)
  2. I’m female so my main character must be too.
    Quite a few of my stories are in the first person. I like writing in first person for a couple of reasons. It allows me to use an observational tone and means I don’t have to describe or explain the narrator too much. The first person also makes it easier for me to visualise the feelings and actions of the narrator. The voice puts not just the reader but also me as a writer inside the narrators’ head. Interestingly, this can cause confusion. Sometimes my narrator is male. If I don’t point that out clearly at the beginning of the story, readers assume that the narrator is female. Because I am.

The subject and the audience for fiction is as varied as the stories themselves. Your audience is not always someone like your main character, though. I’ve still to learn how to pitch my voice so that my readers know who the story is for.

Goodbye Martin, it’s time for me to move on

I stayed at my friend’s flat for a few days last summer. (Actually, I stayed a few days in two flats last summer: I have very generous friends.) When I was there, working at a lovely desk in the dining room and enjoying the peace of their oldest son’s bedroom, I had two ideas for stories. They were both based on experiences that I had there. One turned into Neon Tetra Suicides and the other turned into Martin Stays Over. The first of these worked itself out quickly. I wrote it, did a couple of edits and then sent it out. The second one I have had all kinds of problems with.

It’s really a story about being a child and listening to adults having a dinner party. I can’t write that story without something happening, so there’s also some weird stuff. The feedback I’ve had on the story suggests that I got the little boy’s voice right. Really right. I’ve also got the scary action towards the end right. I read that part at Illicit Ink in October, so it has had a lot of work.

The problem is that the two sections don’t fit together.

In the first few drafts, there was too much background before the action. Too much detail and information. When the action came it was completely unexpected and confused some people. There was also no real resolution after the action. It is as if nothing happened yet we know that something did. There were 2,000 words of setup and 1,000 words of action followed by 50 of conclusion. The sections were like blocks of wood, stacked one on the other, not like fibres working together to form a branch.

In the final draft, I swapped sections about so that the action starts on the first line. The setup happens in flashback, as it were, before the big action piece. I also changed a couple of relationships, got rid of a parent, added a slightly unpleasant adult and attempted closure at the end. I tried to stitch it all together into a coherent unit.

Then I sent it out and had it rejected – very graciously – in four days. Voice good, plot and resolution weak.

So what now? I have options.

  1. Send the short story to a flash fiction market.
  2. Send the long story out again, to another market.
  3. Edit the long story again.
  4. Start again.

Option 3 is the only one I refuse to do. I have spent to much time trying to force this story into shape. Writing it from scratch again appeals to me. There’s a freedom in taking what I’ve learned from the feedback I’ve had on this story and applying it to something completely new. But I have other stories that I want to tell too. Spending even more time with Martin takes me away from them.

I need to move on now, walk away, give this one up for dead. Not everything I write will be brilliant. This particular story doesn’t seem to have a point other than that you’re pretty powerless when you’re eight years old. I think I’ve spent more hours trying to make that point than the value of my insight warrants.

The plan, loosely

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 plotting a real novel. I’ve learned that having a plot really helps so to ensure that I build a good story I have to start with the structure. First: develop plot and characters. Then…
  • 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.
  • Do three spoken word events. (I might up this goal to four since I have one under my belt already and another on planned for early March.)

I’ll let you know how I get on.

My first rejection

Sorry for the melodramatic title but I received my first rejection yesteday. It’s a milestone only to be matched by my first acceptance.

Yesterday, I found out that I hadn’t won the Scottish Book Trust New Writers Award. But I made it on to a shortlist of 20, which is great. They had eight awards to give but over 230* applications and a high overall quality. I didn’t truly expect to I’d get one of the awards but I did hope, a little bit, at the back of my mind.

So, what now? Well, nothing. It doesn’t change the plan. Not having won the award doesn’t affect anything, except that I need to remember to apply again next year. One of the great things about applying in the first place was that I had to look at what I wanted to achieve this year. Having professional support and some money to use for time to write would have helped tremendously but not having it can’t stop me. It’s business as usual.

Phew. I was worried I’d take it badly.

* Top 8.6%. These are the things to hold on to: I made the shortlist and I have a plan.

Eagerly awaiting a response

I’m still waiting to hear whether some of my stories have made it or not. I know that it can take a very long time before you find out. Duotrope has lists of markets that are slow and swift. Response times range from a from a super-swift average of 0.4 days for a response, to a deathly slow 392.2 days.

392.2 days. That’s a year and a month.

The places I’ve submitted to won’t make me wait that long, I know it. Still, I look for a response every day. Even for the one that has over a month before the deadline ends.

I think it might take a while before I get used to waiting to hear.

Submission number two: the problem with postcards

A second of my stories are walking the world, waiting to be liked or discarded. This one wasn’t sent by email but by regular mail. It was strangely disconcerting. This particular paper submission needed to be printed single-sided, stapeled in the top left-hand corner and accompanied with three important items:

  1. Cover letter detailing my publishing history.
  2. A stamped, addressed envelop with sufficient postage to return the manuscript to me shopuld I be unsuccessful. (I’m hoping that the readers scribble on the manuscript as they read so that there might be something there for me to learn from. Feedback forensics: my new hobby.
  3. A stamped, addressed postcard for acknowledging receipt of the manuscript.

The last one almost had me stumped. You can’t buy postcards in Gorgie, it turns out. I was running around, dressed for winter  on a day of sweltering and unexpected September heat, looking for a postcard. You know the kind of thing: it has a picture on one side and space for your own message and an address on the other. I could find all kinds of gift and event cards, but that wasn’t what I needed.

In the end, I found one at home. It was black and white and featured at cat in sunglasses. Not quite the image I wanted  but it had to do. I’m now waiting eagerly for it to come back to me.

Here, puss, puss, puss, come here.

The path to publication: passing the first post

Recently, I submitted a piece to a magazine. The deadline isn’t until the end of November, so I hadn’t expected to hear anything for a while. I also expected to receive a rejection slip once I did hear. It was therefore a delightful surprise to receive a very kind (if pro-forma) email yesterday that wasn’t an acceptance but wasn’t a rejection either. Someone’s read my story and now someone else will read it and make a decision.

The next stage is likely to be rejection: after all, if you could just write a story, send it somewhere and have it accepted, getting published would be easy. And it isn’t.

Have story, will submit. But where?

To get published you have to commit pieces to publishers. To start with, I want to get a short story published by someone who pays. The money isn’t really important, but the fact that I get paid is. Anthologies and well established magazines rate higher in the publishing stakes than my grandmother’s literary website.

I consider myself a pretty good Googler, but finding places to send submissions to turns out to be rather more complicated than I thought. Good thing that there are tools and websites that makes it easy for you.


    Ralan lists a large number of websites and magazines that take submissions. You can filter by genre but you’re left scanning alphabetic lists of potential submissions. Luckily the summaries are comprehensive.
    Duotrope is a little more structured than Ralan and offers a fancy interface for searching. Learning what you can search for might take a while – I find either nothing or everything. If you find it useful, consider donating some money too them. It’s a great service and it’s free to use. (I’ve done my bit. And a little more.)
    You can use Duotrope to track your submissions and responses. The aggregated response time data provide a guide to other writers.

Learning a new language

There’s a lot of new jargon to learn with submissions. A whole new language to learn. The joy! Luckily, it’s one you learn quickly. Many of the terms are self-explanatory although a re-submission* wasn’t what I thought it was. Until I started looking for places to submit I didn’t even know I wrote speculative fiction. I wasn’t aware of this catch-almost-all super-category that fits both the mild horror and urban fantasy stories I write.

* It means submitting something’s that’s been published somewhere else rather than submitting the same story to the same place more than once. Which would be a crazy thing to do.