From How to Fail and Keep on Writing

How to Fail, Part 10: The End!

I have to get materials to the PPWC committee by the 13th, so I better finish this up pronto.

I had intended to include how to submit to other types of markets than short story markets, but I am OUT OF TIME.  I had no idea that writing about short story submissions was going to take up so much damned time.  It’s pretty boring, too; important, but boring, so I think my handouts will focus on the short story subs process, so I can stand up and talk about the fun stuff.  Well, what I think of as the fun stuff.

The publishing world continues to change quickly.  I started a small press to publish me, myself, as an e-publisher (for now), and I’ve already had people asking me if they can submit to me, despite saying not to do it several times on the site. I’ve told them to head over to Dean’s site and find out how to Think Like a Publisher, because if I can do it, hell.  It’s just a matter of determination.

I have a feeling that I could make a ton of money setting up people’s ebooks for them.  Charge a fee, they get formatting and cover, I’m gone, they get royalties, goodbye.  I could probably edit them, too, because I’m starting to grasp how to edit people without @#$%^&* up their style.  Except it’s never that simple, and I don’t have the experience to do it right – yet.  I don’t know.  I’m going to keep grinding that learning curve (and mixing my metaphors*) and think about it for later.  I like helping people; I like being the know-it-all, obviously.  But I like writing more.

Here’s what I think:

  • Write a lot.  Think about where you want to go with your writing – kinda good, really good, world famous.  Decide when you want to get there, and figure out how many words per day it’s going to take to get there.  Write those words.
  • Rewriting doesn’t count.
  • Ask other people to read your writing.  But don’t sweat what they say.  Dude, when it comes to matters of taste, we’re all amateurs, except when it comes to our own tastes, which is what you write.  Try to find out who likes your stuff and why:  that’s your market, really.  Your reader.
  • Getting critiques from other writers is almost more of a way to test yourself than it is to find out how you should rewrite.  Can you survive criticism?  Get critiques and find out.  Then work on your weaknesses, both emotional and writerly.  But don’t kill yourself rewriting; you’ll never get your words done.
  • Submit at paying markets that you would like to read and that publish your kind of thing.
  • Track.
  • Keep submitting until you get acceptances.
  • When you get accepted, read your contracts.

I have a contract up right now that I’m not sure about.  They want exclusive ebook rights for 2 years, but may negotiate.  Ahhhh, I don’t know.  I want that story where it is, probably enough to never get it back, so I’ll probably take it and fume over the 2 years.  One year, I wouldn’t think twice about, but 2 seems a lot.

  • If you decide to epublish, do your research.  DO NOT throw yourself at small press publishers who are there to put up their own work.  You can do it.  You can do it ALL by yourself.  There’s a tradeoff between money and time.  I advise learning how to do it yourself, before hiring someone else.  THEN decide.  You will have to check everything they do for you; you better know how to do it yourself.
  • Talk to other writers.  We’re nuts.  We’re OFTEN wrong.  But we’re your kind.

That’s about it, I guess.  Any questions?

 

*What do you call it when you compare everything to bacon?  A meataphor.

How to Fail, Part 9: Mailing, Rejections, Acceptances.

Since the last time I posted in this series, I jumped into ebook publishing (which I said in the last post that I wasn’t sure I was ready for).  Things are changing so fast in publishing right now, I don’t know how to keep up.  But anyhoo, ebooks are beyond the scope of this series, so I’ll leave that alone, other than to say this:

I think that chasing publication through other outlets than self-publishing still has worth.

That should give you a clue as to how big my shift in opinion has been.  At any rate, even if you’re self-publishing, getting published through other markets has the benefit of reaching people who don’t get their books through self-publishing channels.  Plus, the markets for short fiction will release your fiction after a while, so you can a) get paid for getting published and b) get paid for reprints and c) get paid for self-publishing.

Two cautions:

First, putting up one story/collection (as I had previously) means that you’re shouting into the void.  If you’re serious about wanting to make money, you’re probably going to have to be serious about getting a LOT of stuff up.  I can’t say this from direct experience, but I’ve now talked to enough people that are hitting long-term money-making numbers from epublishing to know that that has been their experience.  I’ll let you know how it goes.

Second, do NOT price your books below where you intend to sell them long-term.  Apparently, there are a lot of agreements between sellers in place that will price match automatically.  Once you price that novel at .99 or free, that’s it, forever, because even if you raise your prices across the board, there will still be one tiny market out there that’s lower, and it’ll bump the rest of your markets back down.  Automatically.  Again, not from direct experience, but from a bunch of people who it happens to.

Mailing

Okay.  The main focus this time is going to be mailing your submission package.

1) You’ve already formatted the story in standard ms. format.

2) You’ve already created a query letter, waiting to be filled in.

3) You’ve found your genre.

4) You’ve found your market.

5) You have a tracking system set up for your submissions, acceptances, and rejections.

6) The story has a beginning, middle, and end, and has been spell-checked.

Now, it’s time to get that story in the mail.

Go to the market’s submission guidelines page.  Often, you’ll see it right away on the website.  Sometimes, it’s a little buried, and you can find it by searching for “submission” on that page.  But sometimes, it’ll be deliberately buried under an “About” page or not even linked to from the home page.  (In that case, run a search engine search for the name of the market and “submission.”)

Read the guidelines from start to finish.

  • Make sure the market is open.
  • Make sure the market is looking for the story you’re selling (check the genres, “what we see too much of,” themes for the issue, and whether they buy from your country; some places buy only from Australian authors or wherever).  Read an issue of the market, if possible, or look up the authors they list on their cover, if you don’t recognize them.
  • Make sure your formatting matches the formatting they ask for exactly.  This is even more important for electronic submissions than for print subs; you don’t want your story overlooked because it’s going to cause the publisher more trouble than it’s worth to set it up.  There’s a reason they ask for certain formats:  ease of reading/publishing.  Follow them, please.
  • Enter the correct information onto the cover letter.  If they ask for anything specific or ask you not to provide something (some markets really don’t want any hints about the story in the cover letter), do it.
  • Put the editor’s name in the letter.  Spell it correctly.  Someone else, a first reader, assistant editor, or slush reader, may read the ms. instead.  That is acceptable, so don’t be shocked if you get a rejection from someone other than the person you sent it to.
  • Make sure your cover letter is correctly formatted and contains the correct information for a print/electronic submission, as applicable.  (E.g., for an electronic submission, make sure your wording is “Attached” and not “Enclosed,” and the encls: SASE, story line, if using, has been removed.
  • Enclose a SASE on all print submissions, unless noted on the website.  Overseas markets will often say they will send you a response via email, even if you have to send the submission via snail mail.
  • On the outside back of your SASE, write the name of the market and a word from your story:  “F&SF – Mirror.”  Sometimes, you’ll get back a form letter without the name of the story.  Mostly you won’t, but sometimes you will.

Then click send or drop it in the mail and add it to your tracking system.  You may be sick with fear the first few times, the first dozen times.  Or cocky.  Or ecstatic.  Whatever.  A strong emotional reaction at this point is normal.  However, if you get too wound up about these things on a regular basis, you’ll make yourself sick.  The first time, go ahead and get wound up a little.  Celebrate:  you done good.  But keep in mind that obsession will damage your relationships and health.  The best way to get over it is to:

Write more and send it out.

The more you submit, the less crazy you will be (whatever your particular crazy is).  Plus, the better you’ll write, and the better chance you have of finding the markets that love you.

Rejections

This is not a comment on your story (although you will receive negative comments from time to time).  This is not a comment on you.  It is, perhaps, healthiest to assume that your story is perfect and just not right for them. It won’t be perfect; that’s okay.  It’s just one story, one tiny little piece out of your ten million words.

You will get rejected.  Track your rejections.

Just as you have to get used to the fact that not everyone will fall in love with you (which would be awkward), you have to get used to the fact that not every editor will love your story.

Don’t contact the editor or whomever rejected you.  Do not.

Do not explain, do not justify, do not tell them they’re missing the point, do not tell them that you’re going to kill yourself.  That submission package was your job interview.  Only crazy people lash out at potential employers or beg them on their knees.  I had a guy with a petition try to chase me down outside a Target once, because I was in a hurry and wouldn’t sign.  I told him no three times, and he yelled at me for being an apathetic citizen.  Don’t be that guy.  No matter how badly you want something, there are some ways of chasing that thing that will put your farther away from your goal.  Arguing with rejections, in any shape or form, no matter what your intentions are, will put you farther away from getting published.  I’ve never signed a petition outside a store since.

However, you may feel sad, worthless, angry, cheated, justified in castigating the editor, or some other strong emotion.  This is okay, as long as you don’t communicate this to your editor or to the community at large.  Bitterness is repulsive.  Being bitter in public, whether it’s about the fact that someone else got published or whether you got rejected and feel that you shouldn’t have been, is rotten.  It’s just rotten.  It will push people away from you.

And don’t rewrite your story to death – if you’re convinced that it’s that bad, just set it aside, keep writing and submitting other things, and completely rewrite the story from scratch once you think you know what went wrong the first time.  Don’t even look at the story; just rewrite it out of your brain.  THAT adds to your ten million words.  Fussing with editing stuff does not.

Set a goal for how many rejections you’re going to get this year.  I did that last year; it made each rejection into a tiny victory, a badge of honor.

Acceptances

Getting accepted is a whole new set of problems, ones that we happily trade up for.

I have much less experience with acceptance than rejection, though, so I’ll keep this part short:

Again, keep in mind that obsession will damage you physically.

Network with other writers.  When you get accepted, brag about it to them–and ask for help with what to do next.

Especially if you’re working with free markets, you may not want to publish your story, based on the contract. Read the contract.

Make sure:

1) It says when you’re getting paid (e.g., 30 days after publication, author copies in 3 months, whatever).

2) It says what happens if you don’t get paid or your story doesn’t get published (e.g., if not published within 12 months, all rights revert to author).

3) It says how much you’re getting paid and how (e.g., $50 by Paypal).

4) It says what rights they’re buying and when you get those rights back (e.g., first electronic rights for six months).

There’s more that I’m missing. Again, I apologize – I only have so much experience here.

If the contract says, in short, that the market gets all rights to your story, forever, walk.  Or negotiate, if you feel comfortable with that.  But don’t bend over and think of your bestselling status 20 years down the road.  You’re getting screwed.  If you’re going to sell your soul (and each story, while only a small part of your soul, is that), then make sure you’re getting paid appropriately for it, because you’ll never get it back.

Contracts are negotiable.

If anything tickles your brain as being suspicious, or if you’re not comfortable going it alone, ask published writers if they’ll look over your contract.  It’s not a confidential agreement, unless you signed a non-disclosure agreement (NDA), which is more of a ghostwriting thing, and not something you should run into submitting your own stories.  It’s not like working for an employer, where they give you all this crap about not telling someone else your pay or whatever.  You can talk about your contracts to other people; you can ask for help.

A last point about acceptances…

Should you get published or self-published, don’t argue with your critics.  Your critics, unlike millions of apathetic unwashed non-readers out there, read your story.  Say “thank you,” or say nothing at all. Do not argue with your critics behind their backs, either.  Don’t talk smack.  Don’t bitch that you’re misunderstood.  Don’t laugh (in public) when they get their comeuppance.

Writers generally don’t start out with business experience, but this is part of being a businessperson, rather than an employee:  You are the face of your business.  Be businesslike when it comes to business.  Let’s say you’re at a restaurant and you don’t like the food.  If the owner happens to find out and threaten to cut you off at the knees, that’s not so much with the businesslike.  Even the mafia doesn’t do that.  No.  A good restaurateur comes out and gives you a free bottle of wine and makes it right.

You can’t rewrite a published story to make all readers happy, but you get my point, right?

Next time:  the wrap up.

How to Fail, Part 8: Submitting, continued. (Getting Paid)

Last time we talked about how to select the genre for your piece.  Now, we’re going to talk about how to select your market.

You may be tempted to send your work to markets you know you can get into.  I don’t recommend this.  I believe you should always send your work to the markets at the top of your genre, if your story fits.  Send your story to either 1) the highest-paying market or 2) your dream market first.

Yes, this means you will probably get rejected a lot more than if you sent your story to markets who pay in contributor copies.  There is nothing wrong with getting published in those markets.

However, there is a lot more that’s right when you get published in a higher-paying market.

For example, if you sell three short science fiction/fantasy/horror stories to “pro” level markets, then you’re eligible for membership in the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America (SWFA).  SFWA can help you promote your book, resolve contract disputes, and generally gives you a larger voice in the SF/F community.

There are different professional writing groups like SFWA you can join:

There are probably more groups, but I wasn’t having luck finding them.  It seems that general fiction writers, poets, and nonfiction writers don’t have a professional-level guild or group.  Please correct me if I’m wrong.

If you publish in paying markets, you’re also much more likely to be read by people building anthologies, including the “Year’s Best” anthologies.

If you publish in paying markets, you’re much more likely to be read, period.

Also, it goes without saying that paying markets pay money.  Not much, but some.

So here’s how to determine the level of your market (I use the guidelines at Duotrope.com):

  • Professional:  5 cents a word and up.
  • Semi-pro:  1-5 cents a word.
  • Token:  Less than 1 cent a word.
  • Non-Paying:  No money; may include contributor’s copies.

Okay, let’s say you write 1000 words an hour.  If you’re selling stories at the professional level, you’re making $50 an hour, minus the time you spent looking for markets, submitting, etc.

If you’re selling at the semi-pro level, you’re making $10-$50 an hour.

At the token level, you’re making less than $10 an hour.

Hobby writers are okay with making less than $10 an hour or even working for free.  If you’re trying to become a professional writer, one of the things you need to commit to is getting paid.

Harlan Ellison has a famous rant on paying the writer; if you haven’t seen it, you should.  This is the attitude that you have to take, as a professional writer.  I’ve only just started working as a freelance writer, and I see it all the time.  Even clients that I normally think of as trustworthy think nothing about asking me to work for free–writing back cover blurbs, making templates, editing bios, adding whole chapters of material that needs to be heavily researched–that aren’t covered under the original contract.

If your dream is to become a professional writer, then do everything in your power to get paid.

And now, a word on self-publishing short stories, whether you do it for free (on your website, etc.) or as ebooks (Smashwords, etc.).

Self-publishing is a whole new world.  I highly recommend not self-publishing short stories until you’re writing stories that can get published in a paying market.

Don’t take my word for it.  Self-publishing, especially in ebooks, where you can have a completely $0 overhead cost (except your time and normal overhead), is cheap and quick compared to traditional publishing, and it’s so much more open to things that normally don’t fit in a category.

However, most writers have a hard time knowing when they’re writing good stories.  Personally, I think the part of the brain that loves unconditionally, the part of your brain that loves your kids, puppies, kittens, and bacon, takes over when you write a story.  In order to write, at least part of you has to love, unconditionally.

It’s really hard for a writer to be an accurate judge of what’s good writing, because of that love.

However, editors really are trained to sort the wheat from the chaff, and while their opinion is biased to whatever their tastes are, as a whole, they’re pretty good judges of what’s working and what isn’t.

So:

1) If your stories aren’t getting published anywhere, you probably aren’t writing well enough to sell self-published stories.  Probably.  You might be writing something so unpopular that no editor will buy it.  This might be an indication that it’s not popular enough to sell as a self-published work, either.  Then again, it might not.

2) If your stories are getting published, find out when the rights to your story revert back to you.  You can always self-publish it at that point.

Again, this is only my personal opinion on the subject.  Self-publishing is a huge experiment with even fewer guarantees than traditional publishing, and you should research the subject by reading up on material put out by writers who are doing it successfully, like J.A. Konrath, Amanda Hocking, and the extremely helpful Dean Wesley Smith, whose blog currently features a series of thinking like a publisher for people wanting to go into self-publishing, including posts about money.

I love the idea of self-publishing ebooks, but I’m not ready to jump in with both feet yet.

 

 

How to Fail, Part 7: Submitting, continued.

We broke off last time at getting your ducks in a row…before you even start writing.

I know, I know, you probably won’t take my advice right away. “Surely,” you’ll say, “It’s not necessary to do all THAT before I write a story. I need to be creative! Right! Now!”

But that’s exactly why you should set all this stuff up before you write–so when the muse hits, you don’t have to think about it. Professional writers are professional, dude. They aren’t slapdash. They don’t lose work. They don’t send out the wrong version. They especially don’t send out the version with six font styles and an inline image of David Hasslehoff in it for inspiration.  They know that creativity is in the words you put on the paper, not in the font.

A brief note on the muse: Some days, the muse will stike. Some days, the muse will be on strike. Professional writers write; they do not wait for the muse. Listen to your muse–it’s you. But it’s better to get a million adverbs, flat characters, and overdone plots on paper than it is to sit around and wait for perfection. You have that million words to get through, and Bad Words Count. As long as you don’t keep writing the same ones.

Okay, so you’re ready to write; you’ve built a new folder for the story, copied your templates over, and renamed them.  Open your story, write it, and save it.  Make a new copy of the story, name it .2 instead of .1, and move .1 to your archive folder.

Ah, so much more easily said than done, but how to actually write the story is a topic for another day.

Polish your story, have someone who doesn’t love you unconditionally read it (for preference), check that the headers and wordcount on the story are correct, and update your cover letter.

Then look for a place to try to sell your story.

I, personally, use Duotrope’s Digest, which is a free website that lists 3275 (ish) markets for all types of fiction and poetry.  It isn’t complete (and doesn’t work for nonfiction pieces), but you can add entries to it if you find unlisted markets.  It has a database that you can use (if you register, again, for free) to track 1) where your stories are now, 2) whether you should query to find out if they’re ever going to review your story, 3) how many rejections you’ve had and from where.*

You need to track all three of those things.  If you don’t use a website like Duotrope, you’re going to have to track them by hand.  If you don’t, you’re going to be sending stories to multiple markets (a no-no for most markets), forgetting where you sent your story last and sending it to the same market again (embarrassing), and not knowing whether you should bug an editor to see if your story’s lost or what.  Professional writers don’t do that.

If you do use Duotrope, you’re going to have to back up that information and save it with your fiction backups in all locations on a regular basis, once weekly or thereabouts.  You can back up Duotrope to Excel/CSV format (at the bottom of the Submissions Tracker page).  Open the file in Excel or another spreadsheet program so it doesn’t look like a bunch of gibberish, and save it to your files.

At any rate, you’re going to have to figure out where to send your work.

In order to do this, you have to decide who your audience is.  In this section, we’re covering short stories, so we’ll start with that audience:  people who want to be entertained.  Different people have different ideas of what’s entertaining, so don’t panic if you secretly suspect that your story isn’t entertaining.  However, you’re going to have to narrow your audience down.

“My story is entertaining for all types of people, everywhere” is not a useful statement.  As we’ve discussed, not every reader likes to read everything.  Therefore, your story will not be liked by all types of people, and saying they should won’t help you at all.

Generally, the first decision you have to make is genre.  A genre, according to Merriam Webster, is ” a category of artistic, musical, or literary composition characterized by a particular style, form, or content.”  In the fiction world, genre is a marketing tool.  Before you sneer at the word “marketing,” please remember that marketing means “an aggregate of functions involved in moving goods from producer to consumer.”  I’m assuming you want to move your story from your brain to an audience, yes?  Then don’t sneer at marketing.  Also, take into consideration that I treat “literary fiction” as a genre.  It’s a category that people use to sort and sell content.  It’s a genre.

Think about how you choose what stories to read.  Generally, the answer’s going to be, “I like X story, and I found out that it was similar to X.”  Selecting a genre is the broadest way to tell people that your story is “similar to X.”

If you have a story that uses techniques from multiple genres, and you’re not sure what genre to put it in, consider who you want to read the story.  Do you want mystery readers or SF/F readers?  Which group will probably buy more copies or recommend it to friends?  Again, “both mystery readers and SF/F readers should like this story” doesn’t cut it.  Your story will be liked more by one group than the other; it’s your job, as a writer, to read a lot of both genres and talk to a lot of fans from both genres and find out which group that is.

You must pick a genre, that is, you must decide how you want to sell your work.

You are not locked into that genre–if the story doesn’t sell in that genre, take it as a sign that you don’t know your genres as well as you’d like, and try to sell it in your second-choice genre.

You are allowed to make mistakes when it comes to genre; genres change all the time, and it’s impossible to say, “Follow these rules if you want to sell in a certain genre, guaranteed!”  Even if a publisher or a set of publishers try to define a genre in a certain way, if the readers want to read something, the genre changes to suit them, or stuff doesn’t sell.  So worry about genre–but worry about genre the same way you worry about the weather, something important that may or may not be what the experts predict.  Sure, the experts have expertise, and you should listen to the weather report.  But you may want to bring an umbrella even if they predict a sunny day, and you may want to write different types of things, rather than writing just urban fantasies, even if they’re predicting that’s what’ll sell.

Okay, you’ve picked your genre.  Next time…narrowing down your markets.

*Other recommended websites:

  • Ralan.com (Spec Fic and Humor markets)
  • Writer’s Market (any market listed in a Writer’s Market book, like non-fiction, magazines, novels, agents, etc. Pay site).
  • Publisher’s Marketplace (fiction agents and editors–invaluable for finding out who is actually selling books in your genre and who hasn’t sold a book in over a year. Pay site).
  • If you know more, leave the sites in the comments for me!

How to Fail, Part 6: How to Submit

So I’ve talked you into it.  You’re committed to writing those 10 million new words (or however many you have left, give or take a million).  You’re committed to sending your submissions out.

But, if you’re like I was, you’re not really sure how to go about it.

How do you get a ton of submissions out?  How do you find out who to send them to?  What if there aren’t any instructions on what to submit?  Are there any ways you can stand out, or at least not make yourself look like an idiot?

And, once you start submitting more than one thing at a time, how do you keep track of it all?

This is going to vary, based on what you’re writing:

  • Short fiction
  • Novels
  • Poetry
  • Screenplays
  • Magazine articles
  • Long nonfiction

There are many other types of writing, like copywriting, blogging, other content for websites, ghost writing, sales writing, academic writing, technical writing, resume writing, writing manuals, press releases, reports, newsletters, grants, speeches, translation…you don’t have to be a “creative” writer to succeed at writing.  However, I’m focusing on the main types of “creative” writing here, in which you’re going to submit your work (or a proposal for your work) to someone before it’s purchased.  Most of the other types of work, you get hired to do the job before you put any words down on paper, and the process is different.

No matter what you write, please read through the short fiction section, because I’ll refer back to it.

Short Fiction

You’re not going to send out just one story.  You’re going to send out a lot of stories.  So get a system in place, and stick to it 100% of the time.  When you have twenty or thirty or fifty stories in the mail at one time, you don’t want to spend any more time than you have to wondering whether you’ve sent out the correct version.

If you don’t like my system, that’s fine–but make sure you’re dealing with all the issues I mention, or it’ll come back to bite you on the butt.

Format

First, set up a folder containing two templates.  One is for a short story in standard manuscript format, and one is for a cover letter.  Call this folder “Short_Story_Templates” or something similar.

The best reference for standard manuscript short story formatting is at William Shunn’s website, at http://www.shunn.net/format/story.html.  You will also see links to this website at many of your short story markets.

However, I have a few modifications I want you to use:

  • In the address block, add your website (your blog, if you have one).
  • Under the word count (you can use the exact word count from your word processor, if you like, or round up or down to the nearest hundred, unless the word count has to be exact per the market guidelines), add “Disposable manuscript.”

And some notes:

  • There are only 12 lines of story on that first page.  Either you hook someone in those 12 lines (in the first paragraph, even), or you don’t sell your story, period.
  • Use Times New Roman or Courier on your template.
  • Turn off any extra spaces before or after paragraphs.
  • Turn off widows and orphans.
  • Do not use spaces to format anything.
  • Do NOT use tabs to indent your paragraphs.  Format your paragraphs so they automatically indent.  This is vital; there will be markets that want you to submit stories in web formatting rather than standard ms. formatting, and you don’t want to be deleting tabs every time you come across one.  Also, if you ever publish the story online (before or after you publish through a market), you will have to do this.  Do NOT use spaces, either.
  • If you use a pen name, don’t use it in the address block.  Just use it in the author’s byline under the story title.

If you do not know how to do these things on your word processor, you do not know how to use your main writing tool in a sufficiently professional manner.  Take a class, read a book, look it up.  You’re auditioning for a job; you better know how to do it, and being able to use your word processor is part of that.

Save this template in your story template folder, then make an archive folder inside the template folder and save another copy there, in case you write over your original template (same thing with the cover letter template).  You don’t have to save it as a template file, if you know what I mean.  Just don’t write over it.

Then make your short story cover letter template–you might find it valuable to make two versions, one for submitting online or via email, and one for mailing through snail mail.

Use this format or similar:

Name
Address
Address
Phone
email@email.com
www.blog.website.com

Month xx, 2011

Editor Name, Title
Magazine Title
Address and/or e-mail
Address
Address

Dear Mr./Ms. xxxx,

Attached is my short story, “Title,” about XXXX words.

2-3 sentence bio containing 1) 1-5 recent credits, 2) relevant qualifications, 3) your job and location (optional).

Thanks for your time,

Name
encl: story, SASE

Notes:

  • This is the online version.  For a print version, changed “attached” to “enclosed” and add two more spaces between “Thanks for your time” and your name, so you can sign it.
  • Remember to sign all print versions.
  • You shouldn’t describe your story in the cover letter on short stories like you would for a novel; most editors ignore it or hate it.  If the guidelines specifically ask for a short description, provide it.
  • Type up your short bio and save it in the template.  Whenever you get published, consider updating your bio.
  • FIND OUT THE EDITOR’S NAME.  If it isn’t on the website, look up the market somewhere else and find out the editor’s name.  Your cover letter is the first few seconds of your job interview.  Just as you would never think of calling your interviewer “Interviewer,” you shouldn’t call your editor “Editor” or “To Whom It May Concern.”  Find out.  If your story doesn’t get read for months and the editor changes before then, that’s okay.

Files and backups.

Here are tips for handling your files and backups:

  • Create a folder for short stories on submission (“Stories_Out_For_Subs” or something similar).
  • Create a folder for each short story (“Name_Of_Story”).
  • Inside each folder, take a copy of the short story template and the cover letter template and save them in the folder before you even open them, to keep from overwriting your templates.
  • Inside each folder, create an Archive folder.  The second you create a new version, move the old version to the Archive folder.
  • Rename the short story file like this:  “Short_Story_Name.1” and the cover letter file like this:  “Short_Story_Name_Cover.1.xxx” As you send the story out to different markets, you will change the xxx at the end of the cover letter file name to the name of the market, as in “Undead_Dreams_Cover.1.Weird_Tales”
  • Now you can start writing the story.  Do NOT write the story in another format and paste it into the template.  You’re writing 10 million words – you need a system that you can’t easily screw up, and messing around with format wastes time.  You will get used to writing in standard ms. format.  It may not look fancy, but it’s supposed to be about the words, not the font.
  • When you are done with the story, save it, then save it again as revision 2, “Short_Story_Name.2” and move revision 1 to the Archive folder.  That way, no matter what you screw up in your story, you have a backup.
  • Have at least three locations where you’re saving your story every day:  on your hard drive, to a thumb drive, and online (email it to yourself).  Do this every day.
  • Every week, burn a CD with your entire fiction archives on it and put it somewhere that is not in your house in case of fire, flood, tornado, divorce, etc.  Keep at least a month’s worth of CDs, in case several of them fail.

Okay, I’m out of time, so I’ll cover the rest of short story submissions next time, with how to find markets, how to submit to markets, and how to track your submissions.

    How to Fail, Part 5: Rejections, Rejections, Rejections

    I’ve talked about why failing so hard, why we aren’t failing enough, talent vs. hard work, and success.

    Not that I get a huge number of comments on a post or anything, but I got a lot fewer comments on the success post than I did on anything else.  People like to talk smack about their least favorite writers.  I did.  I’ve been thinking about it lately, though, and I’m starting to see it as an ugly thing.  Honest assessment and criticism are one thing, but making fun of someone who can’t fight back is another, and I’m trying to do be done with it.  I hope I got some other people thinking about it, anyway.  You don’t create success in your own work by being jealous of someone else’s.

    But on to rejections!

    I hope it’s pretty obvious where I’m leading here:  send out your work and get it rejected already.

    The benefits of being accepted are pretty obvious.  There are pitfalls to being accepted, too, like signing a bad contract, but those pitfalls are outside of the scope of what I want to talk about here.  Just know that success leads to money, and there are always problems with money, and you should take those as seriously as a newlywed couple should but so rarely do take their money problems.

    But let’s say you get rejected.

    I mean, what are the chances?

    I could guesstimate here, but I’m not going to:  I’m going to direct you to the excellent website Duotrope’s Digest.  It’s a website that helps authors–especially short fiction and poetry authors–track different markets, that is, places to get your stuff published.  It tells you what markets apply to your genre of work, what the pay rates are, whether the markets are taking submissions, how long your submission has been at a given market, and a lot of other data, like each market’s acceptance rate.

    For example, I’m looking at an online market for science fiction that pays pro rates, that is, over five cents a word.  It’s called Lightspeed.  As of today, their acceptance rate is .18%.

    That means the average writer would have to send at least 500 stories to Lightspeed before getting accepted.

    Before I send you running for the tequila, keep in mind that’s still a lot better than your chances at winning a major prize at the lottery, and getting published in a pro-level market is a major prize.

    On the other hand, there’s another online market listed for science fiction called Spectra Magazine.  They don’t pay anything.  As of today, their acceptance rate is 10%.  The average writer would have to send ten stories before getting accepted.

    Again, a lot better than the lottery.

    Two things to note here:

    1)  Even non-paying markets don’t take most of the work that is sent to them.  Even if you’re only sending work to non-paying markets, you better have ten pieces out in the mail if you want to  succeed at all.  If you’re a new writer, you should probably bump that up by at least 20%, to twelve or so for markets with the same acceptance rate as Spectra–and if you’re going to hit the pro markets, I recommend having a lot more pieces out than that.

    2)  It’s probably a good idea to become a better-than-average writer.

    How do you do that?

    Rejections.

    How on earth do rejections make you a better-than-average writer?

    Remember that discussion we had about talent vs. hard work?  That’s right.  If pure talent isn’t going to take you where you want to go, it has to be something else.  You’ll be doing the writing–steadily working toward your 10 million words–but you also need to learn a few other things.

    Here’s what you’re going to learn from rejections:

    • How to survive rejections. Your first rejections are going to just kill you. But then you’ll have days when you get two rejections in one day and it’ll just kill you–but those one-rejections days are just part of the business. (I’ve had five-rejection days; they still just kill me.)
    • The importance of professionalism. You’ll get a rejection, and it’ll just kill you, and you’ll go back and read your cover letter and opening of your story and realize that it’s formatted wrong, has a ton of typos, and you put the wrong market’s name on the cover letter…and it’ll kill you, because you realize, “No wonder they think I’m an idiot.”
    • The sky is the limit. You’ll send your work to places you’re sure you’ll get accepted at–and you won’t, and it’ll just kill you. Then you’ll send something else to the same market and get accepted, and you’ll start thinking, “What if I’d sent it somewhere tougher?” and it’ll kill you:  you can always get rejected at your dream market and then move on to other markets.
    • How to take (and treasure) criticism. You’ll get form rejections and it’ll just kill you because you just want to know what they didn’t like, okay?!? Then you’ll get a personal rejection, and it’ll kill you because they’re wrong, they’re just wrong about your and your story. Then you’ll get to the point that when people send you personal rejection, it’ll kill you because they’re right, so right. And you’ll rewrite the story and send it to the next market–and it’ll get accepted.
    • What the right markets for you are. You’ll get a rejection and it’ll kill you, because nobody appreciates your talent. And then you’ll get a rejection and it’ll kill you, because you go back and read some of the work that market publishes, and their pieces are all worse than yours. And then you’ll get another rejection and go back and read some more of the work they’re publishing so you can sneer at it, and it just kills you because you realize that that market, even though it doesn’t say so in their guidelines, would never, never publish the piece you sent them, because they are looking for a specialized subset of what they say they want in their guidelines, and you realize that you wasted their times as well as yours.
    • How to have perspective on that “perfect” story. You’ll get a rejection, and it’ll kill you, because it’s the best story you’ve ever written.  And then you’ll write another story, send it out, and it’ll get rejected, and it’ll kill you, because it’s even better than that other story.  And then you’ll keep on writing, and you’ll realize both those stories were crap, and it’ll kill you, because the stuff you’re writing now is even better, and it’s still getting rejected.  And then one of your earlier stories will get accepted, and you’ll break down in tears, because it’s just too ironic, damn it.

    Editors bitch about unprofessional submissions all the time, but you can’t, as a writer, know everything you need to know before you start submitting.  It’s just not possible–no matter how many writing books you read, no matter how much you write, no matter how closely you study the markets and guidelines, there are things you can’t really know until you’ve been rejected more than a few times.

    So make those mistakes, learn from them, and move on.

    People sometimes talk about “paying dues” with regards to writing.  I hate that.  What dues?  Who’s charging them?  Why do some people get a half-off coupon and not me?

    When you’re getting rejected, you’re not paying dues, you’re learning the business.  Writing for publication isn’t just about writing well; you also have to learn how to sell your work, or you’re going to get screwed.  Collecting rejections is a good way to start.

    I love my critique group, and I couldn’t survive without them.  They help me get better every time I see them.  I think contests are very cool, very inspiring, and a good way to get feedback.  But a critique group or a non-publishing contest (or, in fact, your mom or spouse or kids or whoever) doesn’t have the same constraints that a publisher does.  Their praise and compliments and even awards aren’t the same thing as a publisher’s acceptances, and they never will be.  Not even a published writer can really tell you for sure whether your stuff is good enough to publish and where–we all judge pieces by our own standards, and our standards aren’t the same as a publisher’s.

    If you’re a writer and you want to get published, the only way to know whether you’re making mistakes that will keep you from getting published is to try, and keep trying, to get published.  That means you’re going to get rejected more often than not–but that’s the business.  If you’re not getting rejected, you’re not really doing your job.

    Next time:  How to manage your rejections.

    How to Fail, Part 4: You Can’t Control Success

    I’ve talked about why failing is so hard and that we need to give ourselves more opportunities to fail, if we’re going to succeed.  I’ve talked about the idea that we need to be talented writers instead of hard workers and how useless it is.

    Now it’s time to talk about success.

    What is success?

    Every person has a different definition of success, and that definition will change over time.  It’s important to have a feel for what your definition of success is; for example, if you don’t really care about becoming a New York Times bestselling author, then it would be foolish to throw all your time and energy into becoming one.  Defining what success is for you, personally, doesn’t have to be a single mission statement; it can be a list, like this:

    • NYT bestselling author
    • Supporting self/family with writing
    • Winning a major award
    • Using writing income to buy a really nice dinner once a month
    • Getting a royalty check
    • Buying a house
    • Getting paid for your writing.  At ALL.
    • Finishing a story you can be proud of.
    • Writing a story that your best friend loves.
    • Having a local book club discuss your book.
    • Having a signing where you sell more than five copies.

    When you’re figuring out how you define success as a writer, the sky is the limit, and nothing is too petty to write down.  You don’t have to be noble about it.  There is nothing you “should” write down or not write down.  If you want to write down that you want to write sex scenes so hot that your boss worries about you running away and joining a very strange circus, well, that’s a valid measure of success.

    It’s important to know what you want, even if it isn’t reasonable or if it isn’t part of your current goals.  You need to know what motivates you, so you aren’t acting against your deepest dreams.

    But, on the other hand, you can’t let a drive for success wreck your career.

    Earlier, I implied that being a top-selling writer was like winning the lottery.  In a way, it isn’t–you can control whether you put in the work (those ten million words), but in a way it is–you can’t control how many copies of those ten million words you sell.  You can influence the numbers, but you can’t control them.

    And like playing the lottery, it can be easy to get caught up in playing the game when it comes to writing.  Let’s say you sell a book.  Is the next book you sell going to be just like the book you sold?  Are you going to try to stick to a magic formula, or are you going to write the book that you really have faith in?  Are you going to sell out, that is, do things you don’t believe in, just to try to hit better numbers?

    And what happens if you don’t succeed at things on your list right away?  Are you going to get angry at other writers who do succeed (even if it’s only pseudonymously, ghostwriting for celebrities)?  Are you going to throw down your “perfect” work in disgust, because so much “crap” is getting published?

    You can’t control success.  You can’t force people to read your work, and you really can’t force them to enjoy it, any more than you can force people to like you. You can bully, you can nag, you can bribe, you can beg…you can manipulate people into buying books, but you can’t make people like your work any more than you can make them like you.

    There are all kinds of strategies you can you to make yourself (and your writing) likable, but what the best ones come down to is:

    • Be yourself, as best you can.
    • Not everyone’s going to like you, and that’s all right.
    • But get the word out; being shy isn’t going to get you liked.

    Look at that list of top ten bestselling writers.  Do you like their writing?  All of it?  Are those your top ten favorite writers ever?

    Probably not.  Not everyone likes them, yet they sell. Conversely, your favorite authors may not be on that list, but you still like them and buy their books.

    As writers, a lot of us were (or still are) the weird kids who weren’t popular in school, and that’s a hard thing to get over.  But think about it:  as you became more skilled at being yourself, you found your niche–you found the places where you’re most comfortable, the people you most enjoy being around, and the work that you most enjoy doing and are good at.  You might not be doing it full time, but at least you know what it is.  You may not have perfected that niche, but you’re getting better at it. Life got better after high school, right?

    If you’re going to be a writer, you’re going to have to figure out your writing niche (or niches; you don’t have to limit yourself to one).  It’s 100% your responsibility, not the responsibility of an agent, editor, publisher–or even an audience–any more than it was the responsibility of your high school classmates to make you popular.  Nobody, not even your mother, is obligated to like anything you write, and the second you say something like, “You’re too stupid to understand,” you’re shooting yourself in the foot.

    People who want to read books want to read books.  So you already have that working in your favor.  So if you’re not convincing people to read your books, it’s not because they don’t want to read books; it’s because you haven’t convinced them to read your books.

    People aren’t stupid.  You just haven’t won them over.

    There are lots of strategies to winning people over, but most of them involve the following:

    • Being yourself, as best you can.
    • Not everyone’s going to like you, and that’s all right.
    • But get the word out; being shy won’t get you liked.

    Face it:  successful books are about people being themselves and are written by people being themselves (those aren’t the only reasons for their success, admittedly).  That celebrity tell-all that you’ve been making fun of for months?  Exactly the kind of person that people like to gossip about.  That book whose cliches make you groan and lack of sophistication makes you fear for the future of mankind?  You know people like that, and people who like to hear about people like that.  Those books, no matter what you think of them, are about real things.  Maybe not uplifting things, maybe not deep things, but real things.

    But you’re being yourself and nobody wants to buy your books!  It isn’t fair!

    The only answer to that is that you’re the one who wanted to be a writer; it’s your job to convince people to buy your books.  Books not selling?  Happy learning experience.

    Part of your job, as a writer, is to learn how to be more convincing, either by writing better books, finding your audience, or getting better at getting the word out.  If nobody wants to be your agent, and nobody wants to publish your books–so what?  There are other ways you can convince people to buy your books.  Other businesspeople have been marketing their products without the benefit of the big New York publishing houses for years, and that’s what writers do–market products, either directly or by licencing the copyright to other companies to do so for you.  But that’s a whole ‘nother discussion, another one that I’m not yet qualified to lead.

    So, to sum up, you can’t control success.  You’re working on finding your niche; you’re trying to be yourself, as best you can.  You can’t control who likes you; you can’t control whether an agent or editor “thinks you can sell.”  What can you control?

    I’ll give you a hint…

    Next time:  Rejections.  Lots of Rejections.

    How to Fail, Part 3: Talent vs. Hard Work

    Smart.  Talented.  Special.  Gifted.  Bright.

    Stupid.  Unskilled.  Ordinary.  Average.  Dull.

    If you’re not one, you must be the other, right?

    No:  there’s a third set of descriptions that’s better than both of the ones above, and it goes like this:

    Hard worker.  Dedicated.  Pays attention.  Asks questions.  Practices.

    Yeah, yeah, yeah.  I am going to nag you about getting more writing done eventually, but right now I’m going to talk to you about why you’re going to succeed as a writer even if you don’t think you’re that good at it.  It’s a really easy thing to start thinking, “I’m not talented enough to succeed as a writer,” especially when you’re around a bunch of people who are more successful than you.

    I have two studies that will help give some insight into how false it is to think like that.

    Study #1:

    In 1998, psychologists Carol Dweck and Elaine Elliott1 performed an experiment on 400 different fifth-graders in New York City schools.  They took the kids out of class and had them perform a really easy nonverbal IQ test–a puzzle.  They told half the kids that they were really intelligent; they told the other half of the kids that they had really worked hard on the test.

    Then the students were given a choice of the next puzzle to solve.  One test would be harder, but they would learn something from it; the other test would be just as easy.

    The majority of kids who were praised for being smart chose the easy test.

    But over 90% of the kids who were praised for being hard workers chose the harder test.

    There was a trick to the second test:  it was purposely designed to be so hard that all the kids failed it.

    Then there was a third test, a doable test.  The kids who were praised for their hard work earlier did 30% better than they did on the super-easy first test.  The kids who were praised for their intelligence did 20% worse.

    The psychologists came to the conclusion that you should praise children for the things they can control–like hard work.

    What else, as writers, can we take from that?  A few things:

    • If you think (or have been told) you’re talented, you’re more likely to fail after your first setback.
    • If you think you’re talented, you’re less likely to try something challenging or new.
    • If you think you’re a hard worker, you’re more likely to succeed after your first setback than you are when you first start out.
    • If you think you’re a hard worker, you’re more likely to try something challenging or new.

    People who think of themselves as hard workers succeed more, doing harder things.  People who think they have some kind of magical inherent talent fail more, doing easier things.

    Looking at things from the point of view of being a talented or an untalented writer is useless.  Whether you decide you’re talented or untalented, you’re more likely to fail.  Looking at things from the point of view of being a hard worker is useful; you’re more likely to get better after a setback.

    Okay, great.  So how do you change your point of view?  Especially if you believe you’re on the untalented end of the spectrum?

    Like many writers, I’m an introvert with problems with self-confidence.  I’m an arrogant perfectionist who both secretly suspects that I defacate diamonds2 and that I am a idiot hack with bad back problems due to constantly having my head up my ass.  I don’t get to magically escape the ideas that I’m both talented an untalented.  I believe them; it’s not like I can just wipe those things out by saying so.  I hate it when people say, “Oh, you should just stop doing or believing stupid things.”  That’s not what I’m trying to say.  You’re never going to get rid of that talent/no talent point of view.

    You’re just going to damp it down; you’re not going to let it drive you crazy.

    How?  You’re going to teach yourself how to see yourself as a hard worker, whether you think you’re talented, not talented, or both, by doing hard work.

    Part of you is going to doubt that hard work is going to do you any good.  That’s okay.  That part of you is a precious thing–it’s your internal editor, and it’s part of what will make you get better instead of staying at your current level.  More about that later.

    Let me promise you:  you won’t just be brainwashing yourself; doing the work actually will make you better.

    Which brings me to study #2.

    K. Anders Ericsson is a psychologist at Florida State University and an expert on being and becoming an expert.  In the early 1990s, he and his colleagues published studies3 showing that, no matter what the field, people who were national and international experts in their fields spent at least 10,000 hours of deliberate practice (or at least ten years) to get to that point.

    These were people who started out, like you, with some aptitude for their field.  And then they worked.

    Let’s turn hours into wordcount–if you’re writing at a rapid, non-nitpicky pace, 1000 words an hour is reasonable (talk to a multiple survivor of NaNoWriMo if you doubt this).  That’s about ten million words that you need to write before you become a national- or international-level writer.  Fussing with the same thousand words for ten thousand hours probably doesn’t count; it’s ten million new words that you need to accomplish.

    Sound like a lot of words?

    Stephen King, in On Writing, said he writes 2000 words a day, taking off his birthday and Christmas.  That’s 726,000 words a year.  We know he started writing by 1959, when he and his brother self-published a mimeographed paper.  His first novel, Carrie, was published in 1973.  New American Library bought the paperback rights from Doubleday for $400,000, of which King got half.

    Fourteen years.  At 2000 words a day, that’s just over 10 million words.

    Even so, he later said about Carrie:  “I’m not saying that Carrie is shit and I’m not repudiating it. She made me a star, but it was a young book by a young writer. In retrospect it reminds me of a cookie baked by a first grader — tasty enough, but kind of lumpy and burned on the bottom.”

    A lot of people have called him a no-talent hack, but as we saw in Part 2, he’s one of the top ten writers in the world, making $34 million dollars in one year.

    In some ways, this is one of the most discouraging things I could have written:  when I said hard work, I meant it, and it’s a hard thing to have to say.  This is not going to encourage the kind of people who say, “I have an idea for a book” or “I’ve been working on my novel for years.”  I’ve been that kind of person, and it’s depressing.

    However, I can provide a little additional encouragement:  before Stephen King published Carrie, he had smaller successes.  He self-published some things.  He wrote novels that didn’t sell.  He sold some short stories.  It wasn’t years of absolutely no success and then bam! here’s your $200,000 check.  He had success before that 10-million-word mark.

    So, when you can and as much as you can, stop worrying about whether you’re good enough to be a writer.  It’s enough to be able to say, “I love writing, and I’m willing to do the work.”

    Next Time:  You Can’t Control Success

    1Elliott, E.S., and Dweck, C.S. “Goals: An approach to motivation and achievement,” in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 54, 5-12.
    2Thanks, Ian.  I may have to change those metaphors for the conference, but I’m using them now.
    3Ericsson, K. Anders, Ralf Th. Krampe, and Clemens Tesch-Romer. “The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance,” in Psychological Review, 1993, vol. 100. No. 3, 363-406, is one of those articles.

    How to Fail, Part 2: Not Failing Enough

    When do we fail as writers?

    Logically, we fail when we don’t fail, that is, when we don’t try.  It’s like the lottery:  you can’t win if you don’t play.

    The odds of winning the Powerball Grand Prize are 1 in 195,249,054.

    The odds of winning the $3 ticket are 1 in 61.74.  There are a number of other options, with more money = lower odds.

    Okay, I’m going to give you a thought experiment.

    Here are the wealthiest writers in the world, according to an October 2010 Forbes article.  This is what they earned in one year.

    • James Patterson ($70 million)
    • Stephanie Meyer ($40 million)
    • Stephen King ($34 million)
    • Danielle Steele ($32 million)
    • Ken Follett (British) ($20 million)
    • Dean Koontz ($18 million)
    • Janet Evanovich ($16 million)
    • John Grisham ($15 million)
    • Nickolas Sparks ($14 million)
    • J.K. Rowling (British) ($10 million)

    Sounds kind of like winning the lottery, doesn’t it?  At least the amounts do.

    Again, you can’t win if you don’t play.

    Eight of those writers (if I’m figuring this right) are from the U.S., which has a population of about 308 million.

    Your odds of being a top-ten world earner, as a fiction writer, are about 1 in 38,500,000.  That’s right, you’re about 5 times as likely to get on the top-ten wealthiest fiction writers in the world list as you are to win the grand prize in Powerball.  And that’s not counting the lesser prizes, like being able to write for a living (whether you’re writing fiction or not), publishing a story in a professional market, getting paid for something you wrote, or just getting published.*

    That is not to say that these writers achieved what they did solely based on luck.  Unlike playing the lottery, you can increase your odds of winning–from the $3 prizes to the multi-million jackpots, by becoming a better writer.

    I know that some people are already talking smack about some of the writers on that list.  I have; some of them just don’t write what I want to read.  At all.  By a long shot.  But people must be reading their stuff for a reason, so I’m just going to suck it up, be a pro, and stop talking smack about them, at least in public.  Please do the same.  You’re writers.  When you hit it big, you aren’t going to want people to say, “Well, X makes a lot of money, but the writing is pure crap,” even if it is crap.  Granted, you’ll be laughing on your way to the bank, but it’ll still hurt your feelings.

    Even if you don’t agree with the taste of the day that makes them top earners, you have to admit they have at least these traits:

    • They write.  They don’t make excuses.  They put their butts in the chair and write.
    • They submit.  They got their work out there, often after stacks and stacks of rejections.
    • They do it all over again.  They deal with criticism, bad reviews, mockery, days when they don’t get to write because they have to do paperwork, days when their private lives take over, days when they just want to have a meltdown.  And they don’t give up.

    Here is how you’re going to have more success as a writer:

    You’re going to play the lottery, and you’re going to do what you can to increase your chances.

    You’re not going to send out one short story, get one rejection, and quit.  That is not how serious lottery players play.

    You are going to play the lottery a lot.

    What happens if you don’t win the multi-million lottery jackpot?  Do you fail?  Hell, no.  Nobody picks up a lottery ticket and expects to win the Grand Prize.  Especially if you’re only picking up one ticket.

    No, what happens is that you buy a strip of tickets, expecting to toss most of them in the trash but hoping for something better.  You certainly don’t have a mental breakdown if you don’t win on every freakin’ ticket.

    Writing is like that.  You write a bunch of stories and send them out to a bunch of markets and expect a bunch of rejections.  You hope for something better; you don’t have a mental breakdown if you don’t get acceptances every time.  You shouldn’t, anyway.  When you get a rejection, it’s not failing, it’s playing the game.

    And the great thing about writing is that it isn’t based on pure chance.  You can do things that will improve your odds, and, unlike with Powerball, it isn’t considered cheating.

    Next time:  Talent vs. Hard Work

    *A thought: if the $3 prize on Powerball is about 1 in sixty, then maybe you shouldn’t be surprised if you have to get sixty rejections to get the equivalent publication credit, at least when you’re first starting out. (You could let that discourage you, or you could start submitting and get through those sixty rejections as fast as you can. And it does get better, the more experienced you get.)

    How to Fail, Part 1: Why is failing so hard?

    I don’t know…I have visions of people breaking down in tears…”How could you say something so harsh?!?”

    What’s a normal response to failure?

    Upset, despair, grief, horror, shame…?

    What’s an abnormal response to failure?

    Celebration!  Amazement!  Breaking out the champagne!

    And so we try to avoid failure and gravitate toward success, because failure feels bad, and success feels good.

    But you can’t succeed without failing.

    Rationally, we all know that 1) nobody’s perfect and 2) if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.  You are practically guaranteed not to succeed at your first try or, if you do, have no idea how to succeed on your second.

    Writers tend to have a huge problem with this.  I had a huge problem with this, so I decided to fix that.  I looked at my reactions to failure and said, “My hatred of getting rejection letters goes waaaay beyond the rational.”  I’ve gotten over it, mostly.  I still have days where I’ve had one too rejection too many, or I’m stuck on a story, and I just want to give up.  But I’m not frozen for weeks.  My fear of failure doesn’t stop me from sending out another submission or getting up the next morning and trying to write again.

    I do see writers frozen by that fear.  They might not sound like they’re afraid.  They have all kinds of explanations for why they’re not really afraid, they’re something else.  They’re too busy.  They’re not good enough.  They just have a liiiiiiiiiittle bit more editing to do…it’s only been seven years since their first draft after all, and everyone knows that you shouldn’t rush your writing.

    I’ve used all those excuses and more.  (Although that book was only four years old before I started sending it out.)

    Failing is hard.  It feels bad, and we don’t like it.

    We like to win, we like to succeed, we like to be admired, we like to be…right.

    We like to be right so much that some of us would rather DIE than be wrong.  We can’t usually tell that we’re wrong until after the fact. And when we do find out that we’re wrong, the horrible reality of failure comes crashing down on us, and we’re paralyzed.

    However, we can easily tell when someone else is wrong.  We see the huge resistance they have to failing, and we can see that if they’d just take a minute and really think about what they were doing, they’d probably succeed.

    But when you’re inside that situation, you can’t see that.  And so you blame everyone else.  As a writer, you don’t succeed because nobody appreciates you.  Because the market is bad.  Because the economy is bad.  Because people like to read stupid books, not your magnum opus.  Because stupid TV stars are getting all the book contracts.  Because there are forces against you.

    We’re writers.  We don’t just fail, we create a story that explains our failures in terms that we, as writers, can understand.  Like this:

    The Tale of Cinderwriter

    Once upon a time, there was a wonderful writer whose stepsisters made them work at a soul-killing office job all day, leaving the writer no time to write, and whenever the writer tried to get published, the evil stepsisters would steal all the writer’s letters and send back cruel rejection notes!  It was a terrible situation; however, the writer knew that someday, their True Audience would come and rescue them from poverty and despair…*

    As writers, I think we want to believe that our arc as writers starts out low and gets gradually higher and higher, until we meet our final foe and vanquish it utterly, after which we live happily ever after.  You know, a regular plot arc.  Isn’t that how real life works?

    No.

    It’s so very, very hard to fail because, on top of everything else, real life doesn’t fit the damned story.  When you get rejected, your plot arc doesn’t go up, and it’s not like you can go out and stab the editor to defeat them.

    You don’t start out as a beautiful, perfect writer that nobody appreciates but should.  You don’t start out as being oppressed by your evil stepsisters, evil agents, or evil publishers.  You start out as…sorry…as not a success.  That is, as a failure.

    That’s okay.  Pretty much everyone who has the determination to write can get published, somehow, somewhere.  You may not succeed to the extent you want to succeed, but as long as you don’t give up–and that includes making excuses for why you’re not succeeding or refusing to change what you’re doing now–you will find some measure of success.

    Next time:  We’re not failing too much; we’re not failing enough.

    *That was kind of fun. I might do some more of those. Suggestions? How about Die Hard Writer?