Morning Rejection

A quirk of living in the UK and submitting short stories to publications in the US is I tend to get rejected first thing in the morning. Often before I have even got up or had a coffee. The time difference means the rejection emails arrive in the middle of the night and are ready and waiting for me. I wake up, pick up my phone to check the time – because who has bedside clocks any more? – and then instinctively open my emails. You’d think that I’d learn and just put my phone down until later, but I never do.

It can be a pretty galling way to start the day, especially if it was a submission I was feeling particularly hopeful about. Thanks to applications like Duotrope and Submittable it is pretty easy to get a sense of when the response to any particular submission is likely to arrive and so I often find it is in the back of my mind, figuring out roughly when to expect a response, and the absurd hope that comes with a rejection not arriving on the expected day. I know the best way to do it is to submit and then forget about it. But does anyone actually know how to do that?

Getting rejected before getting out of bed has its upsides, I suppose. It is almost certainly the worst thing that will happen that day, so it’s good to get it out of the way. You can spend the day on an upward trajectory of recovering optimism while everyone else passes you, going in the other direction.

A while ago, before I placed any writing with anyone, I had pretty much written off the idea of ever having any success. The plan was to keep writing so that I could organise my own thoughts and figure myself out, and collect rejection slips while I did it. But now, because I’ve had a couple published, the rejections sting a little more than they used to. The hope is a little higher now. Sometimes I compare the stories that have been published to the ones that get rejected over and over and try to work out what the difference is between them. I can’t tell. I have no idea.

Rejection is just a part of this whole process, and it might be the most valuable part. The thing that keeps us humble and doesn’t let us rise too far above ourselves. A steady stream of emails telling you not good enough, not good enough, might be hard to take but it might be building us up in a different way. Like how character is built out of all the hardest things that happen to you. Nothing comes easy and no one owes me anything.

One of the things I tend to do after a rejection is count how many open submissions I still have, like I might have lost that game, but there’s another dozen still in play. I try not to let the rejections get me down, and I have tried for a long time not to write a blog post about it, because I think this is a subject that has been done to death and going on about it doesn’t really do anything especially valuable. It doesn’t help with anything. But it’s part of the writer lifestyle and getting my rejections before I have got out of bed is a pretty stark way to begin a day. A few weeks ago I got one of those first-thing-in-the-morning rejections and it really bummed me out. It ruined my day. I had only made the submission two days previously and I wasn’t expecting a response anywhere near that fast so I didn’t even get to sit with the hope for very long.

So this was how I started my day today, with a rejection from a publication that I was really hopeful about. It didn’t ruin my day quite as badly as it did the last time, but it still stung. Rejections always do. But here is the most consoling thing I ever heard about being rejected. Rejections save you. They save you from showing the world the stories that weren’t good enough, and even if the story was good enough it saves you from putting it somewhere it doesn’t belong, and where people will resent reading it. Every rejection is like a little blessing. Now I just need to find a way to remember that when I’m reading the email.

A Selfish Writer

This week I finished a draft of a short story that I intended to submit to The Nottingham Review for their Happiness themed issue. I spent some time thinking about what happiness was, what it means to me, where it comes from, where it goes, how you make it, how you lose it, and slowly those thoughts started to coalesce into a story. I wanted to write about the existential idea that the default setting of life is suffering, and how you have to work to make it better than that. I wanted to write about the little bubbles of happiness that emerge from the suffering, and how important it is to be aware enough to notice them while they are there. And I thought I had just the story to express the idea. It was a very personal story, based on some things that really happened to me and my wife.

I told her what I was planning to do and that she should read it before anyone and that if she wasn’t comfortable then I wouldn’t submit it. I wouldn’t show it to anyone. So I started to write it, this autofiction realist short story, and it went pretty well. The first half of the story turned out well. I don’t want to say it’s the best thing I have ever written, I don’t like that kind of hyperbole, but I think I wrote something that articulated what I was trying to say in an elegant but understated way. One line, the coup-de-gras of the scene, took a lot of work to get right. I wrote the same line over and over again in my notebook trying to get it just right, and finally finding the words. I was very happy with the first half of this short story. The second half needed a lot of work, but the first six hundred or so words were as close to what I wanted them to be as you could hope a first draft to manage. It laid itself bare, and that laying-bare of things is important to what I am trying to do with my writing.

I read it to my wife and she wasn’t okay with it. Too personal, too revealing, too close to the truth, too close to what really happened. She took the veto I had offered her and used it. I had half expected this, but I was extremely disappointed. I was so pleased with what I had written (the first half anyway) that I didn’t want to throw it away. I didn’t want those nicely sculpted six hundred words to go to waste. I wanted to use them. I wanted that little lump of my own personal truth to be out in the world.

I had tried to disguise the story a little, depersonalise it and muddle the details, but that doesn’t really work all that well. People who know the writer will often see either them or themselves in the writing, whether that was the intention or not. It would be hard to disentangle the fiction from the reality. It wouldn’t be hidden in plain sight. It would just be in plain sight.

I’m not proud to admit that I resisted the idea of not using this piece of writing. It felt important to me, to lay this thing out for the world to see, but I couldn’t get away from the guilt and the shame of what my need to use this piece of writing had done to my wife. It took me a day to get over it, apoligise and put that short story away for good. It shouldn’t have taken a day. It shouldn’t have taken any time at all.

I am selfish about writing because it is so important to me. I will close the door on everything to make sure I get the time I need. The cat gets about twenty minutes of sitting between me and the keyboard when I get home from work before she gets put out. You need to be selfish because otherwise it won’t ever get done. There will always be something important to do, someone will always be able to find a way to fill your time for you. But it doesn’t have to be neglectful. It doesn’t have to be monstrous. There is a balance to be had between what you need for yourself, and the other responsibilities you have to meet. Ultimately, I think I would rather be a good person than a good writer. I would rather be a successful husband than a successful writer. Maybe that’s a disadvantage, but it feels important to me. I don’t always get it right, of course. Sometimes it takes me a day to realise how much pain my artistic selfishness is causing. And all of this from a short story themed around happiness.

My Nerdy Boring Schedule

I’ve never been good at organising or scheduling myself and when it comes to writing my time has never been especially well planned. I have too many projects on the go at any one time and often no plan on how to tackle any of it. So I end up doing too much at the same time and achieving relatively little.

If something doesn’t come naturally to you, but you need to do it, you need to find ways of implementing it. You need mechanisms that make up for your deficiencies. I work hard, that comes naturally, but, if left to my own meandering devices, I don’t work efficiently. And if time is short – and it always is – then you need efficiency. I trained a kind of orderliness into myself for my day job because it was absolutely essential, but it did not come naturally, or easily. So I’m trying out a boring little schedule for my writing to see if I can improve how much I can get done. It tells me what to do so that on any given evening I can just sit down and get on with it.

Be regular and ordinary in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work. Gustave Flaubert

And so my new writing schedule looks like this. Monday, submissions. Tuesday, fiction. Wednesday, blog. Thursday, fiction. Friday, nothing. Weekend, fiction.

Doing nothing on Fridays isn’t new. My average Friday is get home, eat dinner and then watch YouTube until I fall asleep. It’s just that in the past I would have felt guilty about it. Now it’s scheduled, so I’m fine. My wife helped to come up with the schedule and having a day where I deliberately don’t do anything is all down to her It’s a good idea – even a necessary one – and I never would have come up with it myself.

And having a whole evening set aside for submissions is essential at the moment because I am submitting a lot. Submitting work to places can be a lot more time consuming than it seems, if you take care with what you are doing, and I think you should. But researching publications, reading what they have already published, formatting your manuscript to meet their requirements, writing the cover letter, checking everything so you can be confidant in what you have done, all of that takes time. I spent this Monday doing submissions as this is the first week I am trying this schedule out and in the time I had available I was able to do three. Even though it would have been good to do more, in the past that would have spiralled out and eaten multiple evenings that really ought to be spent writing. Browsing the statistics on duotrope is one of those compulsive things can really get out of hand. But Monday is done, three is how many I did, I’ll do more next week.

This blog was something else that tended to get a bit lost. I’m not entirely what sure this blog is about exactly, other than me just blathering on about the booky stuff in my life, but I knew I wanted it to at least be regular, and reasonably frequent. It didn’t used to be. I used to manage about one post every two months. So I tricked myself into writing a blog post every week by declaring on the front page that that’s what I would do. It worked too. Aside from a couple of weeks ago when I was away on holiday I managed to do one post a week, for what that was worth.

But of course the real purpose of all this is to create the space to finish the fiction I start, and we’ll see how that goes. The truth is I never know how much time I am going to get in an evening. Sometimes it’s hardly any, and sometimes even if I have a lot I still don’t get much done. Sometimes writing works and sometimes it doesn’t and scheduling it doesn’t make the words come any better. But the space is there waiting for it.

Being a writer is like having homework every night for the rest of your life. Lawrence Kasdan

You never really switch off from being a writer. I carry a notebook everywhere I go and I’m constantly grabbing it to get something down quickly. Mostly it is full of sentences that come to me while I’m doing something else. I don’t tend to write ideas down, but I have to snatch at the sentences before I lose them. If I forget an idea that I thought sounded good I assume it can’t have been that good at all. But if I lose sentence, that stings. This week I wrote the same sentence down four times throughout the day, all phrased every so slightly differently. Getting it just right is delicate work, but when it flits through your head you have to grab it. So it’s not like I won’t do anything until my scheduled writing evenings, but that’s when I can get some serious work done. That’s the bit of my week that is for nothing else but writing.

Why I Will Be Losing At Nanowrimo Again This Year

I really like nanowrimo a lot. I have tried it a few times but only reached the goal of writing 50,000 words in a month once. Last year I managed it, getting to the target word count a couple of days early but in previous years the attempts have fizzled out. It is hard to fit that kind of writing in without making some big concessions elsewhere. Last year was the most concerted effort I have ever given it, and it was nice to know that it was possible. I will give it another good shot this year, but I think I learned a few things about myself as a writer during last years nanowrimo and I want to keep them in mind.

There are a lot of reasons for trying to write 50,000 words in 30 days, but the reason I had last year was to get a chunk of a first draft written of a novel that I was very serious about. In fact, it is a novel that I was so serious about that I am still working on it now. And while I did manage to get a lot of writing done, afterwards, when I was looking at what I had, it was actually a lot less than the word count might suggest. Too much of what I had written simply wasn’t good enough, and not that it was just in need of a second draft and a tidy up. A lot of it was just wrong. So my second draft is essentially a second first draft.

Writing that many words in that short a time doesn’t come naturally to me. My average work count is usually about 600 words in a sitting, which really isn’t that many. But often the time I have available in a day yields about that many words. 50,000 words in a month is about 1700 words a day, which I can do, but I found that I started to hit diminishing returns.

There were some benefits to writing that wildly. I discovered a lot about the story and the characters. Some elements of the story emerged without me knowing they were there, and they have ended up being integral to how I am writing it now. I feel like I have a much greater connection to the characters. I feel like I know them better. And I think I know where I went wrong with the nano draft. I think I know what it is about the tone that doesn’t work, and that is a very useful thing to know. So while almost none of what I wrote last year is being retained, it was an essential part of what the book is becoming.

So what to do with this years nano? Well I don’t want to work on this book again, and I don’t want to try and write a new novel as I am currently very involved in this one. So I am going to be doing a little cheat and this year I will be writing a series of short stories. I have a few ideas queued up to get me started, and then I am just going to do some more of that wild writing and see what comes of it. If I can come out of November with a couple of drafts that I can work into something more finished it will have been okay. And I just really like joining in with nanowrimo. I don’t have much of a writing community, I have been meaning to try and join a writers group for ages but never seem to get around to it. Nano makes me feel like I’m in the thick of it with everyone else. So that’s what I’ll be doing, but I also won’t be too worried about the daily or monthly word count. If I fall a bit short, that’s okay, because some days just sitting at my computer and writing my 600 words feels like a real achievement.

In other news, I have a new short story up at The Dime Show Review called A Stranger in Your World. Go check it out, and while you’re there, have a look around. I really like this journal. They have some great shorts, as well as audio, and ten word stories typed on vintage typewriters, which I absolutely adore. They are gorgeous little things.

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.