Year One: What I’ve Learned About Writing (So Far)
So it’s been about a year since I really decided to buckle down and write fiction seriously. I still haven’t been published; to catch you all up, I had a near-miss rejection from Clarkesworld for my story The Exploded Manifestations of Ari Ascher, the first story I finished. It was a happy sort of disappointment; cracking the top 10% of that market is an accomplishment in its own right, especially for my first story. Today, I got a rejection for the same story from Asimov’s. In total, I’ve submitted five times.
In the meantime, I’ve written three other stories of considerable length, all of which need some amount of finishing-up/editing, as well as four or five shorter works. In addition, I’ve generated pieces, beginnings, ideas, and have even been working on a collaboration.
So I obviously don’t have any secret wisdom when it comes to getting published, though I’m not sure there is any, really; I’m fairly sure it’s a balance of talent, skill, timing, and luck, with a dash of procedural correctness for good measure. But I can reflect on some of the practical things I’ve learned about the writing process and the other end of doing it yourself – the hunt for markets and the process of submitting.
1. Learn how to use manuscript format. Look at examples from many sources (they differ), learn what publishers in your area (genre/level) really want, and then write in it. I got tired of having to convert everything afterward; it felt like a whole pile of busywork, and it kept me from submitting. Once I got the format down, I started writing all my stories with it in place from the start. In addition to getting rid of that pesky bit of effort later, it gets you out of thinking in terms of “lay-pages -” a ‘nine page story’ might be twenty-six pages in MS format, and that’s the way you’re going to want to think about it.
2. Don’t over-think cover letters. Most places don’t require them, and if you have nothing to include in the way of publishing history, that means you have nothing to mess up, and therefore nothing to worry about. If a market requires one, look at this little guide and keep it brief. A good story speaks for itself (though “active member SFWA helps).
3. Get used to rewrites. That’s everything from nitpicking a story line-by-line to starting from the original idea, again, on a blank page. I wrote Ari Ascher initially in first-person present tense; knowing how unwieldy that can be, I reworked the entire story in third-person past tense. That made certain parts totally useless, and necessitated new things I’d been fine without before. After living with it for a while, I realized it didn’t work, and I converted it back, having to work with both the old version and some of my new changes. I changed the basic premise – twice. In the end, I’m glad I let go of my initial choices, even if I reclaimed them later. It’s a better story now than it was before.
4. Figure out whether your story needs the amount of attention you’re giving it. Some premises are totally solid, and you might think it’s a fully reasonable device for a twenty-page tale. But does it need twenty pages? Some of the ideas I was most excited about ended up being flash fiction when I realized they were basically just neat premises or characters or moments, snapshots instead of tomes. Which leads me to my next point…
5. Write flash fiction- write it regularly, write it at will. It helps to get you into the habit of writing regularly without the looming tension of a big goal. It also outs the fakers – ideas that are good at lobbying for your time, but which might not be worth the investment. You’ll build a nice little collection pretty quickly, which is a boost to confidence – having something to show makes every new story that much more executable – and there are a lot of markets for flash fiction, which means that in theory you could get a few sales in before shooting for a bigger market, padding out your cover letter a bit. Or you could post it for free – it’s a good way to get people reading your stuff.