I am now officially a reviewer for Fringe Guru, which reviews as many shows as possible at various fringe theatre festivals throughout the year.
My first review is here.
And I'm going to be reviewing throughout The Vaults festival at Waterloo over the next couple of months, with a stint at Edinburgh planned for the summer.
One of the most important pieces of advice for writers submitting their work for publication is - read the guidelines really carefully and follow them to the letter. It may seem petty and unfair to be penalised for using the wrong font or being a few words outside the word limit. But the quickest way to get rejected is to fail to follow the guidelines, as this gives the editor a very easy way to whittle down what might be an impractically large submission pile.
Up until this past weekend, I thought I had always been ultra careful in paying attention to the guidelines and making sure my submissions fit the bill. It’s very tedious reformatting pieces and preparing the relevant accompaniments, and it takes an inordinate amount of time, but I’ve always figured it’s the price I have to pay for my reasonably high acceptance rate.
Six months ago, I sent in one of my best pieces for an anthology that seemed like a really good fit. The response time quoted on the website went past and I’d heard nothing. I waited a few more weeks in case they were behind in letting authors know about selections, but still nothing. Eventually, I marked it off on my submission spreadsheet as a rejection and sent the piece somewhere else.
Yesterday, I woke up to the following email regarding the original submission:
“This is a beautiful piece. I dearly loved it. I was re-reading it and preparing to send you a rejection. However, I just can’t. So if you are up for it, I think this is a strong story.
That said, due to length, I’ll offer you the option of 2 cents a word and a share in the anthology or an outright $25. Your call. Beautiful work.”
I experienced several emotions upon reading this. Joy and excitement at the prospect of seeing my story in print. Annoyance and guilt that I would have to contact the other publisher to remove the piece from consideration. Confusion and bewilderment at the reference to potential rejection, the length of the story and what was presumably a reduction in the offered pay.
I checked my submission spreadsheet and saw that the requested word count for this submission was “300-5,000 words”. At 650 words, my story is certainly short, but I was confused as to why it wouldn’t get the same pay as any other submission, because it was still within the word count window.
I was telling a friend about this over breakfast and he suggested that perhaps I had made a typo when adding the submission opportunity to my spreadsheet, and that it was likely the required word count was actually “3,000-5,000 words”. And then it all made sense!
The agonising of the editor over a piece he professedly loved. The mention of the length. The offer of a lot less remuneration than had been advertised. It’s no wonder the poor guy was torn, since I had sent in a story that was a good 1500 words too short, based on those all-important guidelines! What an idiot!
But, in this instance, I’ve really lucked out because of my mistake. Because I dearly love this story too, and it suits the anthology it’s going to be printed in so well.
So, the moral of this story is - don’t follow the submission guidelines and it may work out in your favour? I’m not sure I can endorse that message, as editors all over the world would hate me for it, and I’m pretty sure that 999 times out of 1000, it’ll land you straight in the rejection pile regardless of how good your writing is.
But, maybe an honest mistake occasionally deserves to have good consequences. I can certainly live with that.
And besides, as Captain Barbossa says, the code is more what you’d call ‘guidelines’ than actual rules. Right?
This month, I’ve had a very good reminder of the value of submitting work for publication.
There was an anthology I was very interested in subitting for, and I came up with what I thought was a good idea for a short story, which might fit what they were looking for. I brainstormed the story early in July, then wrote the whole thing while on retreat at the start of August.
Then I posted it for critiques and received my requisite three responses. As usual when I request critiques, the reaction to my story was varied.
One reviewer loved it but had a few suggestions for tightening up the language and making the plot a bit clearer. I took these suggestions with gratitude and make the required changes to the story.
One reviewer didn’t understand the story at all. They asked a lot of questions about what was going on, and suggested it needed a lot more clarity in terms of what all the characters looked like, where exactly they were and how the various aspects of the story connected together. In this particular story, I was being deliberately vague in certain respects, wanting the reader to put their own interpretation on events. When I do that, I often get critiques where that approach doesn’t work for a review, and that’s fine. Not everyone is going to appreciate my style.
The third reviewer caused me to think I might have to do a complete rewrite. They liked the idea and praised the writing in general, but said they thought it needed a lot of work, because there were no real obstacles for the protagonist and it all worked out way too easily.
Now, I have to admit I had thought that might be a problem myself when I wrote the first draft. The arc of the story was very clear in my head, but the details were not and when I wrote it, I did feel it was perhaps a bit too light on conflict. But I persuaded myself that the lack of obstacles actually served the message. I decided the story was about a situation where the only barriers to finding out the truth were in the protagonist’s mind. So, once he started asking questions about his situation, all doors were open to him.
I don’t know if my subconscious planned that to be the case, or if my brain just took the easy way out when I was writing. But that was the story I had, and there wasn’t time before the anthology deadline for me to rewrite it completely.
I decided to submit anyway - because, why not?
I didn’t have anything else to submit for the anthology, and I could always add the story to my revision folder and rewrite it for a different submission at a later date, if it was unsuccessful.
Then, last week, I got an email from the anthology editor, saying:
“We are delighted to inform you that your piece has been chosen for inclusion in the book….
We are so excited about the material we've collected for this book, not the least being your piece, and we can't wait for you to read it and share it!”
Regardless of whether or not my intentions for the message of the story were conscious or not, the editor of this anthology clearly thinks it works and is worth publishing. And I can’t wait for that story to see the light of day, because I really like it and I’m pleased it has found a home with people who appreciate it.
So, today’s lesson is: if you have a deadline looming and you would be happy for your submission piece to be published in the state it’s in, even if it might be improved by more work at a later date - submit it! There’s no harm in sending it in, and it might even be accepted.
My story, The Decision, has been printed in this quarter's Scribble Magazine! Each issue has ten stories on any theme, and the readers write in with their comments, including their top three picks for that issue. The comment letters get printed in the next issue, and the three stories with the most votes get a prize, so I shall be awaiting September's issue eagerly!
Interestingly, I don't think The Decision is one of my best pieces of writing. I've sent other stories to Scribble in the past, but the editor rejected them. I think it may have been a genre issues, since the other two stories I sent were both fantasy, and The Decision is very much contemporary, as it's about a teenage girl making an important choice in gym class. So, this publication was a triumph in assessing my target market and sending the most appropriate story (even if it took me three tries!).
I shall do an update in September when I get the feedback and find out if I come in the top three reader-chosen stories!
I've been featured in the Subscriber Spotlight section of this month's Writing Magazine, which is a delightfully circular experience. My short story publications are largely due to opportunities listed in Writing Magazine, which now has a piece advertising this site, where I am advertising that piece within Writing Magazine!
This is an article I wrote this month for the Get Your Words Out online community:
So, you’re fearful of putting your writing out there into the world…
Well, you’re not alone. Every writer experiences anxiety about letting other people read their work. Every writer fears rejection and criticism of their work.
The first thing to do is actually finish something and get it ready to submit. Now, I’m very familiar with the feeling that your writing is never good enough to reach that point. That’s your fear talking, and stopping you from getting to the end of your story. So, focus on the process and not the predicted result. What do you need to do to finish? Break it down into small, manageable steps. Make a list. Work on each stage one at a time, and enjoy the satisfaction of ticking things off.
No story is ever going to be perfect. If you think it can be, you’ll never be able to let it go. So, give up on perfection, but don’t give up on improving. You can always learn new things about the craft of writing, and apply them to your work. But, at some point, you have to declare your story done, and accept that it will never be as amazing as the beautiful, shining vision you had in your mind when you first came up with it.
Now you’re ready to send it out into the world to seek its fortune. But you’re still scared, and that’s okay. Acknowledge your fear, but don’t let it tell you what to do. What are you really scared of, after all? That you’ll send your story to an editor and they’ll reject it? Well, there’s no getting around the fact that this *will* happen. But that doesn’t have to be the end of that story’s life, or your continued life as a writer.
You are not your writing, so don’t take rejection personally. And, also, just because one editor doesn’t take your story, that doesn’t mean nobody ever will. It might not be to their taste (fiction is pretty subjective, you know), or they might have already accepted something similar, or they might just not have space for it right now. The next person you send it to might love it and have just the right place to put it - you won’t know until you try.
At the end of the day, if you submit, your story might get rejected. But, if you don’t, it’ll never get accepted.
One thing you can do is identify places you can submit your work that offer feedback. That way, if they reject your writing, you’ll have some idea why. And, more importantly, you’ll have a way forwards to revise and improve the story so you can send it somewhere else and be more likely to be successful.
These places are few and far between, but they do exist.
Scribble magazine in the UK, for example, prints ten short stories in every issue, and the editor always gives feedback if he rejects something. If he accepts something and prints it in the magazine, the readers then send in feedback that gets printed in the next edition, so it’s a great place to find out what works and what doesn’t work for some people.
For science fiction and fantasy short stories, there’s a website called Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores, and they also always provide feedback on the stories they reject.
One of my first publication successes came out of a rejection. I submitted a story to a prestigious fantasy anthology and the editor emailed me to say it was a perfectly good story, but not quite what she was looking for, but she said I should certainly submit it elsewhere. So I did, and the next editor accepted and published it!
If you’ll allow me the indulgence of relating more of my personal experience of submitting writing…
Since January 2016, I have made 110 submissions to competitions, fiction sites, anthologies, and magazines. Of those, 24 have achieved some measure of success (competition shortlist or acceptance for publication) - and perseverance is the key!
One of my stories was rejected by five different places before the sixth accepted it for publication. And one magazine rejected three of my stories, before finally accepting the fourth one I sent them. So, don’t give up!
One thing I can tell you with certainty. Rejection hurts - but the pain lessens with every rejection you receive. And acceptance feels amazing - plus, that feeling doesn’t diminish over time. My 24th success was just as sweet as my first, and every rejection now just prompts the question - where else can I send that?
So, take a deep breath - and go for it! You’ll never know what you can achieve until you try.
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I am learning the inevitable lesson that life as a writer, and interaction with the publishing industry in particular, is unpredictable and sometimes frustrating.
There were a couple of months over the summer where everything suddenly felt as if it was coming together. Four of my short stories were accepted for publication, I was offered free theatre tickets in return for reviews for a new monthly magazine, someone approached me about putting together a couple of anthologies of my work, and I was asked to write several articles for a different quarterly magazine.
I may have got rather over-excited about it all, and I’m sure there are at least a few people in my life who got a bit sick of me going on and on - I don’t blame them in the least.
Then, nothing. Some projects were delayed, some publishers went ominously silent, the magazine didn’t have space for my first review. Where before there had been weekly acceptance emails, now there was only tumbleweed. It felt like I’d gone from being top of the world to not really existing at all.
That’s when I remembered that the real reason I write is because I don’t know how to live my life without doing so. While publication and recognition for my work are obviously among my main goals, the most important thing is to find satisfaction in the writing itself. My main motivation has to be my own sense of accomplishment at finishing a story or putting together an entertaining article, my own enjoyment of analysing the plays I to go to feed into a review, or my own excitement at sharing the things I create with the friends and family who have always supported me.
Then, this week, I got an email telling me that my first ever payment for a piece of my writing had been deposited into my Paypal account. Let me tell you, I have never been so ridiculously excited by £5.99 in my life! It even made me glad for the first time that the pound is so weak against the dollar, since I was being paid by an American publisher and so actually benefitted from the appalling exchange rate.
Not only that, but the day that publication went up on the internet, another of my stories was posted on a different website, and the second edition of the monthly magazine came out, not only including one of my reviews, but also a piece of short fiction I’d written.
And I was back on top of the world.
It’s still important to remember the joy of the act of writing itself - and if that ever goes away, I’ll be retiring my trusty bluetooth keyboard forever. But it’s also rather fun to get ridiculously over-excited by things I’ve written actually getting published. I hope that never gets old.