A Writer’s Progress, By the Numbers

I’m always interested to read what other writers have to say about their processes, their submissions, all the mechanics of that struggle to get the work out into the world. It’s been a while since I’ve posted an update like that. This kind of thing is intended both as a record of my progress, for my own future reference, and for the perspective of anyone else who may be interested, possibly others engaged in similar efforts.

It’s been almost a year since my first story was published. May 31, 2011, Electric Spec published Remodel With Swan Parts. From my vantage point a year later, that story seems very different from what I write now, though it still “sounds” a bit like me. I’d like to think my voice has evolved, strengthened. It’s Science Fiction, which I don’t really write any more, but has the weird edge present in my current work.

At the time that story was accepted, I had made something like 90 submissions, though most of that number was submissions of stories I’ve since stuck in a drawer. I’m certainly writing better stuff now, and I’m somewhere near my 190th submission. Even having pulled back a number of stories I’d considered finished, I have more completed work out there, so the subs are racking up more quickly now. I made 13 submissions last month, April. I have to say I thought the second acceptance would come more easily and quickly than the first. You know, submit 90 times and get a story accepted, and maybe you hope the second acceptance comes after 40-60 more subs, and after that maybe you sell one out of every 20-30 you send out. Hasn’t worked out that way. I’ve tallied more rejections since that acceptance than I had before it.

There’s no doubt I’ve made progress, though. As mentioned in previous blog posts, a greater number of my submissions earn personal rejections, or make “final cut” or “short list” status before rejection. I’m writing better stuff, coming up with first drafts that are closer to a working story, and managing to finish most pieces with 4-5 drafts instead of the 10 or 12 or 15 it used to take. I feel more confident, more sure of what’s required to make a good story.

Also I’ve become better at partitioning off the different parts or aspects of me as a writer, so they don’t trip over each other. I think the “writer,” “editor” and “submitter” functions are separate, use different parts of the brain, and at times even have competing goals. “Writer” wants to crank out fancy-sounding words, and preserve all the wonderfully crafted bits, and send them out into the world so everyone will have a chance to love them. “Editor” needs to be ruthless about removing what’s unneeded, which often means cutting the most florid and precious bits of prose. “Editor” also has to be tough about going over a story repeatedly until it’s as good as it can be. “Submitter” needs to be a robot, without emotional attachment to the stories themselves. He just sends them out, and when rejections happen as they so often do at this stage, send them out again without allowing the writer’s hurt feelings or the editor’s need to continually revise get in the way.

Currently I have 16 stories in submission. I have another 4-5 stories I previously considered “finished” but which have been withdrawn, so I suppose I could claim to have about 20 completed short stories. I have another 10 or so, in various stages of completion, which are “stuck” for one reason or another. Some of these have been through many drafts and just haven’t found the right tone or balance or voice. Some have been written through to the end, maybe revised or tweaked a little, but allowed to languish because they’re lacking in some important way. A few more are nearly finished and just need to be gone over a few more times.

One thing that’s changed recently is that instead of just dreaming up lots of story ideas and working on whatever seems most compelling to me, for the past few months I’ve been focused on crafting one story at a time for themed anthologies. I find the combination of the given theme (which forces me to narrow down, zoom in, and eliminate endless possibilities) and the deadline (which forces me to get to work and proceed toward a goal like a professional would) has been useful. Since this change, I’ve come up with three of my favorite pieces. These are in my opinion not only strong, compelling work, but the types of things I might not have come up with absent the impetus of the anthologies for which I crafted them. As a result I’ve exercised some muscles I might’ve previously left dormant for a while, and gone in some cool new directions suggestive of other future possibilities.

I’ve also experimented with flash pieces, or short stories on the shorter side, say 600 or 800 or up to 1,300 words. That’s another new approach that lets me try new voices, new techniques, and experiment a bit more freely.

The way things are headed now, I’ve been completing and submitting about one new story every 3-4 weeks. I feel much more in control of my craft, more certain of the artistic direction I’m pursuing, and in the process of defining technical and thematic aspects of the work in a way that makes me feel more definite about what I’m doing. True, I expected I’d have racked up another publication credit or two by now, but my submissions are becoming better received, I’m putting out more accomplished work all the time, and there’s no doubt in my mind I’m headed in the right direction. I think it’s just a matter of continuing to do pretty much exactly what I’ve been doing this past few months, continuing to put in the the time writing and editing and submitting, reading and reviewing books, making contacts, learning about markets, and getting myself out there. I feel surprisingly self-assured considering the lack of outward success I have to show thus far. When I look back on this post in a year or two, maybe I’ll laugh at my obliviously naive perspective. Maybe I’ll wish I could tell my past self, “Just keep on moving. Hang in there, and the path forward will be clearer soon.”

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