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.

Something To Say And A Voice To Say It In

So recently a big box arrived from Oregon with my free copies of Glimmer Train issue 100. I had been so eager to get these because this is the first time I have had a story accepted, and I badly wanted to see it. I have to tell you, it is a weird feeling seeing the words that I wrote on my rickety old laptop, on my old dining table, with my old cat getting in the way, in such a lavish, beautifully presented book.

glimmer 100

I first heard about Glimmer Train a long time ago when I first started writing and was trying to figure out who to send work to, since I didn’t even really know where to send it. I took a close look at them and quickly decided that they were much too good for the likes of me, and so I didn’t submit anything to them for a very long time. I was never very brave about sending work out, but then last year I decided on a different approach.

It was inspired by my wife’s job search strategy. A few years ago we moved town and she ended up out of work as a result and when she applied for jobs she applied only for the most exceptional jobs in her area that she could, figuring that as each application was unsuccessful she could slowly lower her sights until she got something. Then she would never have to wonder if she had missed out on something better. So I borrowed the strategy and submitted the best short story I had to Glimmer Train, never expecting it to get accepted, but that’s what happened. Old me never would have done that and so old me would have really missed out. Incidentally my wife also got the first job that she applied for. The strategy worked better than expected in both cases.

Since then I have been submitting to the kind of places I never would have dreamed of submitting to. I haven’t had another acceptance since, but I have had some favourable rejections from some pretty prestigious publications. It is very hard to explain why you are so happy to have been rejected by Granta, but when they encourage you to submit again it’s a very good feeling.

About a year ago I had almost given up on ever getting anything published. I figured I would never quit submitting, and I certainly wouldn’t quit writing, because it was way too important to me. But I had kinda made my peace with what the idea that I wouldn’t ever have any success. In a way, this was very freeing. One of the things I love about writing is I sort of end up explaining what I think to myself and not expecting that anyone else would ever read it meant I just wrote more naturally.

I’m a very thinky person but I know that I can end up thinking in circles. It’s hard to get anywhere with the same words rotating around in your head. But talking lets me hear the words and suddenly they sound different and I can figure which are the good ideas and which are the bad ones. And writing has this same effect. Stuff emerges and I get to see it differently. So I figured that even if I never managed to publish anything, this on its own was a very useful thing to do. In my years of writing there have been a number of occasions when I could feel what I was doing had stepped up a notch. When I found a rhythm, or a voice, or a structure, and it all felt a little bit better than it was before. I think the point at which I started using writing as a way of figuring out my own thoughts was a big step up for me. To be a writer you need two things; something to say and a voice to say it in. For a long time I was working on the voice, but it took me a lot longer to figure out what I was trying to say.

So maybe this will be the only story I ever manage to publish but if it is I will still spend a huge amount of my time sitting here writing my little stories, if for no other reason that I find it so personally useful to do so. But for as long as I am writing I will be submitting, and I don’t think I will ever feel like there is a publication that I shouldn’t submit to ever again.

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.

My Independent Publishing Manifesto

I sort of fell into independent publishing sideways. I decided I’d give it a try a few years ago and then ended up getting more and more into the idea. There is something about it that really appeals to me, going it alone, doing everything my way (for better or worse), answering to no one about the decisions I make. But the more involved in it I get the more I see it as a truly viable option for writers. Especially writers who don’t necessarily fit in anywhere else. Indie publishing has a stigma attached to it that it is populated by books that weren’t good enough to succeed along the traditional routes. I have no doubt there is a lot of that out there, but I want to think that there are also weird, quirky, offbeat writers using it as a platform for their work. This is how I am trying to use it, not as a last resort, but as a home for my books. A home in which they can be unashamedly what they are.

If you don’t mind such grandiose terms, this is my manifesto for indie publishing. The things that I have discovered are important to me over the last few years of dipping my toe into these strange waters.

1, Write your book

The emphasis here is on the word your. For years now people have said to me things like, ‘Dan Brown/JK Rowling/EL James is popular. Have you considered writing books like those?’ And the truth is I have considered it and, thankfully, so far have always come to my senses and continued to write the stuff that is important to me. The desire to write comes from a love of reading, and writing a good book means writing the book that you have inside you. Not the book that someone else has inside them. Shifting to one genre or subject in order to ride a wave of someone else’s success in order to drive sales seems like a very bad idea to me. If the goal is to make a lot of money then, first of all, don’t write books. The odds of making a lot of money are low and you could probably do better putting your time and energy into something else. But second of all, artistic success comes from passion. It comes from taking the thing you feel so deeply and articulating it in a way that excites other people. I’m not saying don’t write techno thrillers or vampire fiction for young adults, but do it for the right reasons. Do it because that is the only book you truly give a damn about.

2, Be as indistinguishable from traditional publishing as possible

Someone who knows what they are looking for can tell the difference between an indie book and a trad book, but if you take care to present your work well it shouldn’t be a problem. Independent publishing is, and likely always will be, a poor second class citizen to traditional, but the gap is closing. Between ebooks and the now-excellent quality of print-on-demand we have the means to make our product to a very high standard. But this means independents need to hold themselves to that standard. I’m not just talking about typo’s, I’m talking about the full presentation of a book which, if you have not spent some time discovering its nuances, might well contain elements that you never even considered. Typefaces, line spacing, margin setting, point size, blank pages. Get these things wrong and the book will feel amateur, even if no one is able to explain why. Get them right and no one will even notice, which is fine, because they will be too busy reading the book.

3, Have fun making mistakes

They are going to happen, and if my experience is anything to go, by they are going to happen a lot. Making mistakes always feels terrible. It can feel cataclysmic. It can lead to spiraling self-doubt and a kind of artistic woe that almost no one feels any empathy toward. But the obvious and hard-to-accept truth is that those mistakes are the most valuable things that can happen, if you notice them and learn from them. I was so down when the first proof copy of my novel arrived in the post and the cover was about 50% too dark because I hadn’t corrected screen colours for print colours and the margins were set wrong so the text ran into the binding and made it unreadable. I felt pretty low about it (and this was only a proof, see above point about pointless artistic woe,) but these are two things that will never catch me out again.

4, Make reaching readers a priority over profit

When I was a kid we had day where we all brought food to school to make a big buffet for everyone to share. The teacher told us to bring something that we enjoy, and not what we thought everyone else would enjoy, because that way there will definitely be something we like and, chances are, some of the other kids would like it too. If you have written the book that you really wanted to write, and made it as good as you possibly can, there will probably be some one else out there that will enjoy it as well. How you find those people is a problem I have yet to solve, but attempting to make as many sales as possible by pushing your book to all the wrong readers doesn’t seem right to me. I would rather give away books to people that actually want to read them than sell them to people who don’t.

5, Get to the end with your integrity intact

I have never and will never write fake reviews for my books or solicit positive reviews from friends and family. My integrity is important to me. More important than selling a handful of books to people who have been lured in with dishonest reviews. Honesty is important to point 1 in this list too, recognising precisely what it is you need to write by looking inside yourself and truly accepting what you find. Write a book because you love books, and treat them with that same love.

6, Take yourself seriously

To misquote Howard Jacobson (because I can’t find the passage I want to quote) ‘serious is more fun than not serious’. Now, when my wife asks me what I am doing, I say ‘working’. I used to say ‘oh you know, just banging out another crappy book that no one will read’. That self-effacing negativity that comes so naturally to writers doesn’t do much good. I’m not saying to go the other way. ‘I’m working on my magnum opus, iron me a shirt! The award ceremony Looms!’ Just working.

There you go, the points that I jotted down in my notebook when I was trying to think about what it is that is important to me in my attempts to make indie-publishing work for me.

How to make an e-book

My to-do list for making a kindle e-book of my novel.

1. Duplicate book file and replace all images with correct versions.

2. Convert to .mobi to check pictures are displaying correctly.

3. If pictures are displaying open .html file in notepad and add manual page breaks.

4. Remake as .mobi to check page breaks works. Discover pictures no longer display.

5. Try again.

6. Burst into tears.

7. Dry eyes. Try again.

8. Make tea and play xbox.

8. Try again.

9. Travel to Dover. Hurl laptop off of the white cliffs.

10. Head home. Get some rest.

11. Abandon writing. Take up decoupage instead.