Friday, 13 November 2009

Early work

I was updating my submissions spreadsheet yesterday and found myself scrolling back up to the top, and my beginnings as a writer back in 2003. I log all submissions on this spreadsheet, in date order. Hits get highlighted in bold so it's easy to see the fallow periods when lots were submitted but nothing sold.

It was interesting looking at the lists of old, unsold stories. Those I wrote in 2003, 2004, 2005 got sent out 3 or 4 time, and always came back. I had the occasional hit during these times - a fluke vaguely literary story got shortlisted in a few competitions; I had a few unpaying internet publications; and my one and only Woman's Weekly sale back in 2004 (anyone know who you have to sleep with to sell another??)

Then there are the good periods, with lots of bold-highlighted lines on the spreadsheet. Stories subbed March-May 2007 looks particularly good - 9 hits from that period. Mid-July to November that same year was terrible. Everything came back unloved and unwanted.

Those early endless rejections taught me perserverance. I could have given up, but I didn't - because I enjoyed writing and the few acceptances had given me such a buzz I had to do all I could to recapture that feeling (though nothing ever feels as good as the first sale!)

And all those unsold early stories? When I re-read them now I can see why they didn't sell. Stories which start ok then peter out with no real resolution. Stories full of cliches, adverbs and dialogue tags. Stories with too many characters. Experimental stories written in weird and wonderful formats. Stories which should really never have seen the light of day. I feel vaguely sorry for the magazine editors who had to read them. But I thank them too, for not black-listing me and for accepting some of my stories once I'd learned enough craft.

BUT - those stories were my apprenticeship. They earned their keep, because through writing them, editing them, subbing them and getting them back again I learnt what works and what doesn't. I learnt how to structure a story. How to balance description and dialogue. How to tighten a story, reducing it to just the right number of words, where every word counts and every word works. I got better at writing. I'm still learning.

And a few of those stories contain half-decent plots I can reuse. I've rewritten one (a complete rewrite, starting from scratch I mean, not an edit) and sold it. I think there are others which could be resurrected and used. (Here's one, the second story I ever wrote: unknown woman turns up at the door with a sob story about needing to take her son to a hospital appointment but no money for petrol and she won't be paid till Friday. Does your MC take her on trust and lend her money? Or not and live with the guilt the woman might be genuine? Feel free to use this if you like. We'd all write completely different stories from this starting place, and though they wouldn't all sell, the best ones might.)

Although I know of a few writers who sold the first story they ever submitted, most follow the kind of path I have. It's slow and sometimes tortuous. And once you begin to sell there's no guarantee you'll keep selling. I've just logged today's rejection from Take A Break, sob sob.

But the only certain thing in this game is, if you don't write you won't improve; if you don't submit you won't sell. Keep at it, keep smiling, and good luck!

26 comments:

HelenMHunt said...

Thanks for that. Very timely for me as I'm going through a 'I'm never going to have a story accepted again' phase.

Jan Jones said...

All very true. If you don't write, you don't get better. But I do sometimes look at my early stuff (and my early stuff is a lot earlier than yours!) and wonder whether I can ever recapture that lovely, light, joy in writing that I have now swamped in rules.

Queenie said...

You are so right. And thank you.

Jenny said...

I have only re-discovered my love of writing this year and have just sold my 2nd story to Woman's Day. Although I've only about 20 stories to look back on I too can see how I am evolving and "what was I thinking?!" about some of my early stories! Love your blog and I'm glad I stumbled upon it when I did!

Bernadette said...

Great post. I was thinking only yesterday that I need to change my story-monitoring system - it's got far too complicated!

We all seem to have fallow periods and it's definitely worth remembering that we've had them before and they did end eventually.

Glad you're back on a roll - long may it continue!

Patsy said...

Your submission spreadsheet sounds very like my own and I also go through the same process with my earlier stories. It is reassuring to see that I'm getting better.

Joanna said...

Thank you for this encouraging advice.

On my spreadsheet I have highlighted in different colours the stories that were long-listed, short-listed or at least were given positive comments before coming back to me. This way, among the few acceptances (blue) I have had, I don't look at a sea of red for rejection. It looks quite pretty too.

Geraldine Ryan said...

Excellent words, Womag! I am still reworking old stories and only yesterday sold to FF a long story they previously rejected because the ending was rushed and the main characters' relationship not developed enough. Not ony was this originally rejected by FF but previously a synopsis of it for a serial idea was rejected by WW. But I just knew there was a story in there if only I could tease it out, and, thankfully, in the end, Norah agreed! So I'd just add to your fab post that if a story hasn't sold, it's just not ready YET but if you believe in it - and we all know the stories we believe in - then take it out and rework it in about six months time and hopefully next time you'll hit the mark.

Kate Collings said...

Brilliant advice to plough on through the tough times and to keep mortivated.

I havent started a spreadsheet as of yet but am deffinately going to and keep track of everything I do from now on.

Thanks for the advice, and inspiration.
xx

Olivia Ryan said...

Brilliant post - and I agree, it's really interesting to look back over 'old' work and see where your writing career came from, as well as where it's (hopefully!) going! Mine started in the 1980s with children's stories published in 'The Brownie'! I laughed out loud at your comment about who to sleep with at WW. How strange - I sell quite a few stories there, (as Sheila Norton)and always have done - but I have no luck whatsoever at TAB - keep trying, but n'er a sniff. So who to sleep with there?? ;) I wonder if it's an 'age' issue, (but being an OAP who writes books with young heroines, I really hope it isn't!).

Kath said...

What a great blog, Womag, but - is it really possible to be blacklisted???

womagwriter said...

Kath - you probably can be blacklisted if you kept sending the same story out to more than one mag at once or something like that... but probably not just for sending sub-standard stories. It just feels like you've been blacklisted at times!

Antonia said...

Excellent advice, and good to see progression over a period of time.

Colette McCormick said...

Great post womag. I also have a spreadsheet with everything I've ever submitted since I started in 2006 and like you I highlght the sales in bold (and the payment in red.) However that's probably where the similarity ends because I am going to look at the spreadsheet in a few minutes to check but I don't remember there being any particularly good periods for me. Just the odd bold lines amongst all the others. Hey ho, c'est la vie and all that. Congrats on your recent success - you seem to be on a roll.

Debs said...

Great post and so true.

I see my writing as an apprenticeship and although I sometimes get frustrated with myself for not being as good as I'd like, I then try to remember that learning anything takes time, and move on with it.

Suzanne Jones said...

Thanks for posting this. Being old fashioned, I have a Black n' Red book that's followed me around for years - with every submission lovingly recorded in blue ink. One of these days I'll have to post the detils onto a spreadsheet so I can easily extract the stats.

Lydia said...

Great post Womag - good to have your wise words back on screen! It's always reassuring to read about the fallow periods of others. It's easy to feel it's just you, isn't it? I too have sold stories years after they were first written. Must say I echo Olivia's comment about TAB, LOL! Keep editing and subbing all!

LilyS said...

I loved this and the message at the end!

Jo said...

That's where I go wrong as a writer. I lack persistence. It's too easy to see myself as a failure instead. A great blog entry, thanks!

Amanda said...

Well said, Womag! :-)

Sylvie said...

What are your views about the length of time taken by mags to respond? Not that one can do anything about it except stop sending. Six months seems unfair and unreasonable. So does the delay in payments once accepted. How would editorial staff like to wait months for their salaries?
Have just found your blog and am much enjoying it. Have recently taken time off from short fiction to write and self-publish a trilogy of novels. It's sheer luxury writing to novel length, on the other hand quite difficult to break the habit of tight writing.

womagwriter said...

Hi Sylvie - congrats on writing the trilogy, that's quite an achievement!

Hope you don't mind, I will post your questions up as a new post to open the discussion up. Not everyone will see your comment here. And I think it's a discussion well worth having.

Ceka said...

Lots of interesting comments added, I've just spent a happy ten minutes reading them (and sod the meal, it can simmer) One of my stories recently got accepted on its eleventh outing AND on its third trip to that magazine. I note, Geraldine, that you resent a story to Norah - I must try that! She once told me she didn't want re-writes and (stupidly) I've never tried again with a reject.
Love the site, logged as a favourite, keep troggin' on, WMW

Amanda Huskisson said...

I'm rejecting my own novel today (the old "who am I trying to kid?" disease). Reading your blog has given me just the boost I need to keep on working. Thank you :-D

monzegirl said...

Just found this fantastic blog when I was looking for fiction editor's names & addresses so I could get together a spreadsheet & start bombarding them with my scribbled bits & pieces. Thanks so much for doing most of that work for me. Now to start with a submissions spreadsheet too....

jane sanderson said...

Thank you. In the last week I`ve had my first acceptance from Fictio feast followed today with 3 rejections. Talk about highs and lows! Still-onwards and upwards! I live to write another day.