Friday, 4 September 2009

Chasing Payment


Recently I’ve read a lot about writers wondering if the time has finally come to give up on a project. You’ve sent it out a dozen times but the manuscript keeps on bouncing back. When you complain to fellow writers about your bad luck, the commiserations come thick and fast.

They’ll regale you with the names of those authors who finally made it just as they were about to pull the plug on their writing careers and at first it’s comforting to compare yourself to JK Rowling et al.

But there are only so many exhortations to keep your chin up that a writer can take and if one more person tells you that it only takes one agent to like what you’ve written, you’ll scream. Much more of this boomeranging back and forth, you think, and maybe it’s time for your final trick – the one where you drop led weights in the envelope.

Of course, by the time you’ve reached that stage you know you are completely beyond hope. Not only will you have lost the plot, but somewhere along the way you’ll have mislaid that nugget of certainty you’d carried around all the time you were writing your story – the one that swore blind that the idea you’d come up with had legs. Sturdy legs strong enough to bear any amount of disappointment and rejection. Damn it, what you’d written was good, wasn’t it? Wasn’t it?

We all reach our that’s it, I quit point with a novel or story, sooner or later. I send out quite a few stories in a year and maybe up to half a dozen serial ideas, so I do know whereof I speak.

Serials take a lot of time so it’s generally a good idea to find out sooner rather than later if it’s a turkey. (Speaking of turkeys, I actually did write one about a rather nasty character who was knocked out by a frozen one, flung from a bridge. I won’t go into why.) The editor didn’t really warm to my initial idea and maybe I should have stopped right there.

But I was full of enthusiasm for it, and submitted a first episode - to another lukewarm reception. I definitely should have stopped there, shouldn’t I? But I didn’t. I finished the damn thing. Got it rejected.

Did I learn from the experience? No, I rewrote it as a long short story and submitted it again. Got it rejected again,from two different magazines, each time for different reasons.

But once in a while this strategy for refusing to give up pays off. As far back as 2003 I wrote a short story for a competition about a young girl in her first term at university who imagines herself in love with a fellow student, in the year above. So besotted is she that she moulds her personality to his and quite loses sight of her own identity. It’s a theme that I can get quite obsessed about and I was certain that I was onto a winner. It got nowhere.

Undaunted, I tried my luck with it to a couple of magazines, one abroad. In order to do that I had to shave off a few words to meet the target word length and play around with a few of the references which were a bit clever-clever. But still it came back. Twice.

I shrugged it off, but I was hurt. I loved this story. And I wanted someone else to love it too. Which is why, at the end of last year, when another year or so had elapsed since last I’d laid eyes on it, I decided to read it through and see if I’d been deluding myself all along.

I still loved it. Time had moved on, however and I had to change a few references. I sent it off to Woman’s Weekly in November. They returned it in January. It was Just Not Them.

Okay, definitely time to give up, I decided. It was a new year after all. Time to look forward not back. Yet my new year was a bleak one. Writing wise I just couldn’t get going. So one afternoon I read that story again. And I still liked it.

But I could see there was a problem. It came somewhere towards the end. Too neat, too contrived, I decided. Though it would only need a tweak here, a tweak there. And I needed to cut out a few of the fancy words and references. I was tripping over Darlings on the carpet towards the end of my edit.

I don’t know what made me send it off to Norah McGrath at Fiction Feast/Take-a-Break. I suspect it was desperation as much as my very last-ditch attempt to get this story before an audience bigger than myself.

Reader, she bought it. I suspect it will appear in next month’s Fiction Feast, the October edition, out next Thursday, 10 September.

And the moral of this blogpost is? Writers can be critics and critics can be writers. But possibly not of your own work. Sometimes you just have to keep flogging away at it, even when the horse is dead. Or when you’ve written a turkey.

19 comments:

Roderic Vincent said...

Geri, thank you.

Samantha Tonge said...

Inspiring post, Geri.

CarolineG said...

Well done on that persistence, Geri!The trouble is knowing when to recognise a turkey and I think it's interesting that you retained your love for that story for such a long time....

Susannah Rickards said...

Geri,

Fascinating subject. I think this is one of the hardest courses to steer. Is it good enough to keep plugging away until it sells? Or is there something inherently wrong with a piece that as the author, we are blind to?

There are umpteen stories of people who kept on ploughing away and it paid off. But the untold stories are those whose work never made the grade and their gang is bigger than the JKR Lawrence Norfolk gang.

I think it comes down to scrupulous honesty with yourself and an up to date grasp of the market. If more energy goes into the subbing than the edit - there's the problem. I think it's telling that you read and loved it three or four times over several months and only when you were almost letting go of it did you have the nouse to do the rewrites it needed.

What you did sounds like the best recipe for success - keep plugging away but edit it, check it, be dispassionate about its qualities until it works. And send it out to wild-card places you'd never expect would look twice. Sometimes they are the ones longing for such subs. All this is brilliant advice.

Thanks,

x S

Geraldine Ryan said...

Thanks everyone.
I agree, Susannah, that writers in the short story market seem to send out far more stories than they ever sell.
I read how people have 25 stories "out there" at any one time and I admit, I'm gobsmacked by the volume.

Much better to write a quarter of that number in a year and sell them all, I think, because as you say, it's in the editing process that you are honing your skills.

Caroline, I was blind about the turkey story and still like it, but having nowhere else to go with it is a sure way finally to come to terms with the fact that that particular story is stuffed.

Julie P said...

Thank you, Geri. I found this pot very useful and motivating. I have several stories that were rejected months and months ago and, to my shame, I haven't had the courage to go back to them to look at them and get them back out there.

It's so difficult to know when a story is a turkey or just an ugly ducking waiting to transform into a beautiful swan and sell!

But I will carry on producing better turkeys and eventually (I hope) swans!

Julie

Gillian McDade said...

Insightful post, Geri. It's something that I'm now turning my hand to as I take a brief hiatus from novel writing.

Nik Perring said...

Great post, Geri.

Helen Black said...

Great post.
It is a difficult balance isn't it?
On the one hand I'm no quitter and those who throw in the towel at the first sign of adversity have no future in writing, and yet...one needs to know when to move on.
That's why my advice to new writers is always have a current project. By all means keep subbing the old story, book, play but make sure you're imagination is fuelled by something new.
HB x

Geraldine Ryan said...

I second that advice, Helen, though I'm as guilty as the next writer of clicking onto my email every 5 minutes in case I've made a sale, when I should be concentrating on writing another story.

Julie, why don't you read back through them? There may be one or two that you feel you can now go back to after a break. What I've done in the past is make a new story out of two old ones.

Jeannette said...

I've just had something similar happen with a poem... Sent it out to several places when I initially thought it was done, got nowhere. Four years later, I still liked it. Thought it was still worthy. I tweaked it a bit. Felt I had nothing to lose. Well, like your story, it is going to be published. So it just goes to show.... Maybe it was the timing. Maybe it was the tweaking. Maybe a combination plus who knows what. But if a piece is good and you feel it is good, it is worth persisting. Congratulations!

Kate said...

What an excellent post - I know exactly what you mean. I've had stories I've put aside after only a couple of rejections, but others I've thought no, I still love this, and kept on going. One such short was recently published - it sold on it's 14th outing!! I'm so glad I stuck with it and went with my heart!

Geraldine Ryan said...

14, Kate!!!! That's brilliant! And congrats, Jeanette!

Deb said...

Persistence has certainly paid off, Geri. well done!

Susie Nott-Bower said...

I look forward to reading your turkey, Geri. Never say never 'till the fat bird gobbles. Or, er, something.
Great post!
Susiex

Geraldine Ryan said...

That made me laugh, Susie!

Poppy said...

Brilliant post, Geri, and I love the sound of that story! Glad it found a home, but would have loved to read it anyway. Perhaps you could post it You Know Where ??

Steve Lewis said...

Okay, so I thought that I'd post a comment here since I'm a short story writer myself, albeit in the States. This might help if someone is having a hard time with rejections.

Many of the professional short story writers out there submit their short stories to dozens of markets before 'trunking' it, if they ever do. Cases in point, I know that Dean Wesley Smith (who has published 100 short stories and over 90 novels) once submitted a short story to 67 markets before it sold. And Dean has been writing full time for over twenty years.

Also, his wife Kristine Kathryn Rusch (who has published over 300 short stories and over 90 novels) once submitted a story for something like ten years before it sold.

I guess my point is that just because you have a hard time placing a story doesn't mean it's a turkey. It just might mean you haven't found the right editor yet.

It's one of the basic rules of the writing profession: Keeping submitting the peice until it sells. Ala Robert Heinlein's Business Rules for Writers.

Also, Dean is doing a fantastic series of posts on publishing myths at his website deanwesleysmith.com, if anyone's interested. He's a nice guy with a whole lot of good information.


Thanks for your time,

Steve

Geraldine Ryan said...

Thanks, Steve. Trouble is, the market for women's magazine fiction is so small and shrinking fast that it wouldn't be possible to sumbmit it all those number of times.

As a matter of interest, are there any women's magazines in the U.S. that accept fiction? Or have they all gone over to the True Lives/celebrity story way of doing things, like a few magazines here have done?