Writing About Writing

For over two years now I’ve been writing short stories with the aim of getting published. It’s not the easiest of challenges, especially as a hobby, and knowing where to start on your writing journey can be daunting. People can give you advice, but there’s no substitute for experience. You have to be prepared to work on your writing regularly, to submit it, accept failure, and submit it again. There are no get rich quick schemes. No shortcuts. That might sound obtuse, but I just want to stress that no one can sell you a magic formula– all they can do is share their methods.

Reading this won’t make you a success. Hell, it certainly hasn’t made me a success yet. But it has gotten me published. When I first sat down and really decided to do this, I had a lot of questions, some of which I still haven’t found the answers to. But I have learned a few things about writing and submitting short stories since then, so here they are. Read them, heed them, ignore them or deplore them; it’s up to you.

That old ‘persistence’ chestnut…

The very first thing people will tell you is that it takes persistence. In fact I already mentioned it in my opening, but it bears repeating. You’re not going to turn into Stephen King overnight. Yawn, you already knew that. And yet it’s surprising how many people I’ve spoken to who tried their hand at writing fiction and gave up at the first sign of rejection.

The biggest challenge here is to overcome your ego– the part of you that gets excited over a pretty combination of words, that detests all criticism levelled at your work, that keeps you up until 3am worrying that maybe you’re a hack and you’re just not cut out for this whole writing thing. Creativity is great for, you know, creating stuff, but it’s not so hot when it comes to making rational decisions. You have to learn when to switch off that wild part of your brain and cultivate your inner business manager. Accept that you don’t always know what you’re doing, continually evaluate your choices and search for ways to improve. Yes, it’s important to keep submitting your work, but if you’re always getting rejected there’s probably something that you should be doing differently. After all, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again while expecting different results.

Get used to conducting post-mortems on your stories. Rip those ligaments apart and tear into your writing until you’ve got blood up to your elbows. How did you choose to frame your story? What dialogue or character choices did you make? Could the pacing be improved? Did you go overboard with any styles or techniques? Would your story have benefitted from a different character or perspective? Was there too much or too little description? These are honest questions that you’ll have to ask yourself. Every time a rejection form comes your way– and they will come your way– you need to take out your editor’s cap and your red pen and get busy.

Don’t just shrug and submit it to the next market on your list; give your work the love and respect it deserves and improve it before you send it back into the wild. Then make a note of what you’ve learned and apply it to the next thing you write.

Be smart with your submissions…

Another important part of the evaluative process is to look at where you’re submitting your work. It may sound obvious, but if you send your gritty, sword and sorcery epic to a romance magazine they’re unlikely to take more than a cursory glance before rejecting it. Investigate the markets that you’re writing for– buy a recent issue and analyse the pieces that you find in it. Pay attention to their narrative techniques, description and dialogue. Remember that they have an audience that’s used to reading a certain type of story, and they can’t afford to stray from their house style just to accommodate you. This can be difficult to bear in mind when most places say they want something they’ve never seen before, but this is a relative statement; they want you to do something exciting within the parameters that their audience is used to, not subject them to unfamiliar genres or styles.

Try flipping the creative process around and consider your marketing first. Rather than writing something you’re really passionate about and then scouring different journals and magazines to find the one that matches your style most closely, think about where you want to be published before you pick up your pen. Research the markets in your genre, find the biggest ones and read them. Religiously. Once you’ve got a feel for their style, sit down and work out how to fit your ideas into their template. You might find that this takes your writing in directions you wouldn’t otherwise have considered, and even if it doesn’t pan out, there’s no better exercise for creative growth than forcing yourself to work with limitations.

In order to do this effectively I strongly recommend that you invest in a submission resource such as Duotrope (the Submissions Grinder is a suitable alternative if you don’t want to fork out for a subscription). This will help you identify the right markets to submit to, and if you’re initially unsuccessful, it will help you find smaller places that will still be a good fit for your work.

I’ve known people to insist that you should only submit to the very biggest markets, as being published in small journals or magazines is a waste of time. You should certainly always target the largest places first, but these have the highest volume of submissions and therefore the largest number of rejections. Smaller markets have a lower barrier to entry, and if you’ve already been turned down by your first choices there’s no sense in spurning the opportunity for publishing credits elsewhere. Yes, many of the bigger markets are happy to publish first-time writers, but don’t make the mistake of thinking that’s the first thing they’ve ever written. The bones of failed stories litter the path to publishing success, and the most prolific writers are often the most accomplished.

While small markets are useful for publishing credits, you should still hold them to certain standards in return for your work. If you’re submitting somewhere, make sure they offer some level of remuneration. You won’t ever make much money from selling short stories, but you should always conduct yourself professionally, which means you should always get paid. I’ve seen some magazines or e-journals justify not compensating their writers as they’re offering recognition instead. The kudos of being published. In short, fuck those guys. If they don’t respect your craft enough to pay you for it, they don’t deserve your interest, and they sure as shit don’t deserve your work either. As Harlan Ellison says– pay the writer!

But professionalism doesn’t stop at being paid. It means that you need to take each opportunity seriously, treat editors and contacts appropriately and at the very least appear like you know what you’re doing. Don’t be a dick. If you haven’t had a response after a considerable amount of time, send a polite query. If someone rejects your work, don’t send them an angry reply demanding to know their reasons for doing so.

This extends to your cover letter. It’s the first impression an editor will get from you and it’s vital that you put your best foot forward. Take care to address the correct person (many magazines will have multiple editors), check for typos and don’t show off— that’s what your manuscript is for. Brian Klems wrote a fantastic guide on cover letters for the Writer’s Digest, which I always refer to. In essence, keep it brief, keep it simple, mention any previous credits if you have them; if you don’t, then talk about any experience relevant to your writing– jobs, qualifications, etc. Then sign off. Don’t waste anyone’s time with a flashy cover letter when it’s your manuscript that you want them to be reading.

And finally, always, always read the submission guidelines before you send your work somewhere. Always adhere to them. Always. It takes no more than ten minutes to reformat your manuscript, and it ensures that you’ve presented yourself in the best possible light. If you haven’t bothered to format your work for them, why should an editor bother to read it?

Write yourself a bio…

You won’t enjoy this, but it’s good for you. An author’s bio is a valuable marketing tool, and having one will help you to tie your public image into your writing. If you’re stuck for ideas, Heather Hummel wrote some useful tips in the Huffington Post. Much like your cover letter, you’ll need to think about your previous writing, relevant experience and anything that distinguishes you from every other writer out there.

The upshot of going through this unpleasant exercise in narcissism is that you’ll emerge with a better understanding of how to improve your marketability. Yes, marketability– an ugly word, but a necessary one. It would be nice to think that great work will always get the recognition it deserves– even artists who died in obscurity like Vivaldi, William Blake or Vincent van Gogh became popular years later. But you don’t get the luxury of dying in the Renaissance and having three hundred years for your art to gain traction. This is the age of the internet, where an entire world of people fight to be relevant every day, so you’d better bring some weapons before you step into the ring.

Start by writing a blog. Having your own platform on which to publish content is a great remedy for the nail-biting anticipation that comes with waiting months to hear back from editors. The ability to showcase your writing without the hindrance of submission times or gatekeepers is liberating. It also gives you a reliable means of sourcing feedback and acts as a portfolio for your work. Managing web traffic will help you to develop fundamental marketing skills, and you’ll learn to consider the audience that you’re writing for. No one is obligated to give a shit about you, so try to provide content that is interesting, amusing or valuable in some form to ensure that people stay engaged with your site and come back for more. That means no click-bait or vacuous top-ten lists. Once you’ve built your platform, make the most of social media sites like Twitter, Facebook or Tumblr to connect with like-minded individuals, and utilise online communities like Reddit or StumbleUpon to share your work and learn from others.

Extend these connections into the real world. Join a writing group, and you’ll quickly find that your output increases in both quantity and quality– there’s no motivation quite like a room full of people expecting to read your latest piece every week. Meeting with local artists can also open up new avenues for creativity, through events, competitions and collaboration. All of which will give you material to add to your bio. But the biggest benefit of taking steps like these is that they can change the mindset you bring to your writing. If you build these rituals around your work it will begin to feel like more than a hobby, and when you start to take your writing seriously you’ll see that other people do too.

After that you’re on your own. Find the methods that work best for you, develop them and stick with it. Although there are no universal requirements, it’s a safe bet that you’ll need determination, support from friends and family, and a well-stocked supply of coffee. But most importantly, you’ll need to keep evaluating both yourself and your work. The soul of good writing starts with asking questions, and the key to creativity lies in boldly stumbling after the answers.

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