A Week Where I Spent More Time Submitting Than Writing

I made a lot of new submissions of short stories this week. I had two entered into the same short story contest and neither won, so that freed them up to get sent elsewhere. I know it’s a bad way of doing it but I was so keen on this one prize in particular that I didn’t submit either story anywhere else in the eight months while I was waiting for it to be announced. This isn’t a good way of handling short story submissions and I know it, so now I have sent out a bunch and I’m feeling a lot more professional about the whole endeavor.

I’m trying to be quite strategic about it and targeting my submissions very carefully, while maximising my time and submitting to multiple places at once. I have my list of  about ten journals and magazines that I would particularly like to be published in, and I am going for those first. It’s probably not wildly different from other peoples lists, but it’s good to have so much work out there at once. It still feels a bit like playing the literary lottery. No matter how familiar you are with a particular journal you can never be entirely sure that your story is a good fit. Or even good enough. I have no idea how to evaluate that.

But the submitting has happened and I’m feeling very good about it. It’s also been very helpful that so many places use Submittable, the online submissions management software. I love the ease that it brings to the submissions process, having a journals submissions guidelines so easy to see is fantastic, and there is something pleasing about a list of open submissions. I’ve never felt so organised. The only real downside is the obsessive checking that it has inspired. There is nothing rational about checking on the status of a submission an hour after you made it, but that’s what I found myself doing.

One of the things that I think Submittable has really added is the ease with which you can financially support the publications that you are submitting to. I know there has been a lot of controversy about publications charging reading fees, and how Submittable makes it just as easy for them to charge as it does for us to submit, but on the whole I like the way I have seen publications using it. For example The Lascaux Review has the option of submitting for free, or with a small tip; no pressure, just the option of clicking this button rather than that button. Ambit magazine has a bit at the bottom of its submissions page where you can buy subscriptions or single issues with a note saying that making a purchase absolutely will not affect the outcome of your submission, which is good. I’d be disappointed if it did. But it gave me a very convenient way to grab a copy.

I read a bunch of different posts around the internet about the ethics and legitimacy of publications charging submission fees, and it is a thorny issue. Anything that might inhibit a writer from submitting because they simply can’t afford it would be a shame, but equally the publications need to survive, and I feel good about financially supporting places that I am hoping will support me artistically. But I know that I’m lucky to be able to afford it. I didn’t used to be able to, but while I can I will.

But the obsessive checking it inspires is real. I even checked it once while writing this.

The Importance of Structure

One of the things that is most important for me when writing is that I should understand the structure of what I am trying to write. I might not always know what the structure is when I start, but it is essential that I figure it out along the way. Often when I write I start with something very loose and unfinished, often just a scene or a few sentences that seem like they go together, but along the way if it doesn’t start to take shape I’ll probably just abandon it. My computer is littered with stuff like this. Interesting little ideas, quirky scenes and phrases, but not necessarily stories. A story has to be story shaped.

Recently I started working on a new piece. At first all I had was one sentence, which I scribbled down and then expanded into a scene. Then I wrote another, separate, unrelated scene. What’s it going to become? It might turn into something, but it might just fizzle out. A lot of them do. For it to become something it has to stop being a few strands that feel like they belong to something else and become a complete whole. Something that when you read it leaves you feeling like you have the totality of the thing. And that doesn’t necessarily mean following the usual route of a story. It doesn’t have to mean disruption of the status quo, rising action, resolution. It doesn’t necessarily mean beginning-middle-end. It might do, but it doesn’t have to. It just needs to feel complete.

In a recent essay on the Glimmer Train bulletin, writer David Ebenbach wrote an interesting point on a difference between a novel and a short story.

“What the novel says, I think, is that any single event is the result of many, many things. That’s why you have the hundreds of pages leading up to the climax; those pages suggest the philosophy that you can only fully understand that climax and its significance if you know a whole lot about all the things that led up to it… The short story says something different—not contradictory, but different. The short story suggests that any single moment or detail, in some sense, contains everything”

This is an interesting idea, and a useful way of thinking about form. Novels are about movement, change, impact, cause and effect, consequence. His definition of a short story, the detail the contains the whole, is fantastic I think and really captures something of the magic of a good short story. And thinking about these different narrative forms in this way, as being essentially different in both what they are trying to do as well as how they are trying to do it, means that thinking about how to structure them becomes a little more apparent. I remember when I was young and showing short stories to my mum she used to tell me that they felt like unfinished novels. That was probably because I hadn’t learned the shape of a short story. The condensed, rounded little thing that lets you hold the entirety of it in your hand. It’s very different from a novel, that needs to move and sweep and before it lands.

The structure of a story doesn’t have to feel obvious to the reader, but if it is there they will feel it. Like how you can’t appreciate all the architectural complexity of a building just by walking through it, but you can get a sense of the wholeness of the thing. Structure delivers the reader through the story, and lets them know where the edges are. And for the writer it is the boundary that you are going to work within.

One of the best moments, for me anyway, when writing, is when the structure emerges and I can see the whole of the thing. Suddenly it is manageable, even if there is still a lot of work to do. I know where I am starting from, where I am trying to get to, what to fit in, what to leave out. Learning what to leave out was a big step for me. The first novel I ever wrote didn’t leave very much out at all and I think the first hundred pages or so were chronologically continuous and so the structure, such as it was, was like a slow walk down a long corridor. I am trying to develop a better sense of the motion of a story and the planks that let you walk along it. The way the ending connects to the beginning, the way it all flows together, so that it feels complete and satisfying and whole.

My New Editing Trick

My poor neglected blog, sitting here unused for so long. I’d feel bad about it but part of the reason it is neglected is because I have been putting so much time into writing other things that I haven’t been able to do anything here. The reason I am typing anything for it now is because writing a novel is hard and every so often it can feel completely impenetrable and so what I am actually doing right now is procrastinating. I have been trying to work on the novel every day and on the days when I don’t I have been writing short stories instead. I seem to have some good momentum and I want to keep it up. A little while ago I challenged my niece to write 500 words a day about absolutely anything, just so that when it is time to write an essay she would already be in a bit of a groove. So I have been trying to keep my own advice and writing at least 500 words a day – which really isn’t a lot – but some days is easier than others.

The novel that I am working on started as a NanoWriMo project but I think that kind of speed writing doesn’t really suit me. Almost everything I wrote is unusable. The general structure is fine, but the actual words, the actual sentences, there’s hardly anything there at all. So I have pretty much started it from scratch and now, 25,000 words in, I am flagging a little.

So like I said, I wrote some short stories and one of them has turned out pretty well I think. I read it aloud to my wife and she thought it was okay so I spent some time tidying it up and getting it good. I don’t have many writing techniques that I use, mostly I am just winging it, but something happened when I was doing a second sweep of this one that I think I might try and keep in mind for future writing. I was doing a read through and I kept coming across sentences that felt wrong but it was hard to know what was actually wrong with them. I would read them aloud and they would just clang a little. So what I decided to do, because it was late and I was tired and I really wanted to go and play Overwatch before bed, was just highlight them in yellow and then come back them later. So I saved my draft with its dozen yellow sentences and walked away.

The next day I sat down and read through it again and this time I could see instantly and exactly what I needed to do with all of those highlighted sentences. I deleted them. Everything that I had highlighted in yellow just needed to be gone. That was what was bugging me about them the night before, they just didn’t belong there. Instantly the whole story tightened up. It was like it lost weight and now you could see some definition in its shoulders.

So I think I’m going to try this again in the future. Highlight anything that seems off and then delete it in the morning.

Oh and hey, I just went and worked on the novel for half an hour and I figured out a major plot point that had really been causing me problems. I’m on fire. Now I’m going to go and play Overwatch.

A New Found Sense of Possibility

I have had a very good end to the year. A short story that I wrote called The Sudden End of Everything won first place in Glimmer Trains New Writer Award. This, coupled with being short-listed for The Bridport Prize in the short story category, has made this an amazing year for me. Glimmer Train will publish the story sometime in 2017. This is the first time I have had something published since I started, which feels like a very long time ago now. I’m kinda wishing 2017 away a little because I want to see it. I want to hold it in my hands.

Earlier in the year I wrote a post about how I was giving up on independent publishing and took my books and short stories down off of Amazon. It hadn’t been successful and I realised that that wasn’t what I wanted to be doing, that I had an ambition for traditional publishing. When I took those books down it was to refocus my efforts but honestly, I never actually expected any success. I love writing. I have done for a long time. What I get out of writing, the act of sitting down and putting out some words and seeing what comes of it, is something that I find so satisfying, so personally useful, that I wouldn’t stop doing it for anything. But when I took my books down from Amazon I figured that was all I would be left with. Personal satisfaction. The ambition to publish stuff, and ultimately to publish novels, always felt unreasonably lofty. But unreasonably lofty goals are the best kind.

So as soon as I took my stuff down from Amazon I felt like I had to write more and that I had to submit more. So I did. I wrote The Sudden End of Everything quite quickly and started sending out what I had to different places. I aimed high. I think this is a good strategy. Aim high and then slowly lower your sights. But a Bridport Prize short-list and a win at Glimmer Train, I never really expected any of that. I went from no writing credits to a couple of fantastic ones. Winning Glimmer Trains New Writer Award was astonishing. I spent the following weekend walking around in a kind of daze, certain that there had been some kind of mistake. That it surely couldn’t actually be happening. But then the contract arrived and for a few weeks every time I was having a hard time, when I was feeling low of stressed out, I treated myself to reading it again.

So next year I will be taking the draft of the novel I wrote this year and finishing it off and I will do that with a new found sense of possibility. I’ll be writing more shorts and sending those out too. And you know what the best part is? I’m going to continue with what I was doing, because there might just be some value to it after all. I think as a writer it is easy to be discouraged and it is natural to look around at what other people are doing and think that maybe that is what you should be doing too. That you need to shift away from what is important to you and onto what appears to be successful elsewhere. This year has given me some confidence about sticking to what feels right.

I hope you all have a good end to this turbulent year as well.

November Happened

November seemed like it disappeared in a flash. One minute I was sat in the Waterstones café setting down the first tentative words of my Nanowrimo project, the next I was plugging the numbers in to the website to get my little winners medal. 50,000 words in 30 days is the goal. I managed it in 27.

I went in knowing I was going to give it my best shot, but I had some reservations. I wasn’t entirely sure I would be able to give it the time it needed. Coincidentally I had the first week of the month off from work, which gave me a good boost at the beginning, but for the rest of the month my schedule away from writing was far more hectic than usual. Work has been intense and demanding a huge amount of my time and energy, both physical and emotional. I was certain at some point it would all catch up with me and something would give. But it didn’t. I found time to write every day but one, and wrote more on average than was required to finish on time. The intensity of it was actually very useful. It gave me an outlet that I needed. A thing that wasn’t work to focus on.

I wrote in cafés, I wrote at home, I wrote at work during my lunch break, I wrote in the kitchen while I was cooking. I wrote fast and I didn’t look back. Now, looking at my scruffy first draft, I can hardly remember where all these words came from.

This was my first successful attempt at Nanowrimo, and was the first time I have ever gone into it with a decent plan for what I was doing. I had a near complete outline, themes, characters and some specific scenes in mind for key points in the story. Really by the time November started I was straining at the leash to get going and so the first 10,000 words spilled out so easily that I was starting to wonder why the whole endeavour had seemed difficult at all. By 30,000 words, I had remembered. There came a point where I had written everything I had planned to write and was struggling to keep the momentum up. Around the middle of the month I started to falter.

But things kept happening. I would stare at the screen for twenty minutes, and then a character would take the lead – say something I wasn’t expecting, do something I wasn’t expecting – and I’d be off again. By the time I set down my 50,000th word I had a complete arc of the story I had intended to write, but with some huge gaps here and there and a bunch of inconsistencies to resolve. I am taking a little break from it for a while. I’m going to get Christmas out of the way, I’m going to wait for the intensity of my work life to lessen a little, and then I’m getting back in there. I’m excited about this novel. I think it’s got something.

When Nanowrimo was over, once I had written my final word, it was actually hard to think what I used to do with my time before I filled every minute of it with writing. For a few days I just seemed to walk around the house, blinking in the light, trying to figure out what to do next. I’m glad I did it though. It was intense but valuable. I went from having an idea I was excited about and a few pages of notes to a (very rough) first draft in an amazingly short space of time. And the knowledge that I was sharing the experience with other writers all over the world was surprisingly motivating. I didn’t make it to any of my local groups write-ins and meet ups, thanks to my busy schedule, which was a shame. I would have liked to. But maybe next year, since I am sure I will want to do this again.