Twenty Eighteen

Last year was busy, personally and professionally. Somehow, I managed to squeeze in lots of reading and writing, too.

What I wrote

produced in 2018

In 2018, I wrote eight new short stories, and six flash/microfictions (under 1,000 words). By coincidence, this is exactly the same as I managed in twenty seventeen.

My most productive period was in March, which coincided with a 2-week residency at Varuna House in the Blue Mountains, NSW. During my stay I wrote a new, ~10,000 word story, and did some deep editing, to start to form a cohesive short story collection for pitching to publishers.

Some days, particularly towards the end of the year, I felt burnt out. But even during those periods, my brain told me that I had to write. And generally, I try to listen to my brain.

Submissions

submissions by type 2018

Despite resolving at the end of 2017 to be more selective, I fired off 50 submissions in 2018, up from 39 in 2017. I don’t really recommend this. One submission a week doesn’t sound like much, but the amount of ‘writing admin’ I created for myself (drafting submissions, tracking and following them up) really did eat into my productive writing time. These figures also don’t include submissions to literary agents (more about that below).

Outcomes

outcomes 2018 hq

Of my 50 submissions, I received 9 acceptances, which (so far) have led to 5 publication outcomes. I’m happy with this strike rate! I had fiction published in Verandah and Going Down Swinging. My story, Pigface, was published by Margaret River Press in a collection of the same name. Overland online kindly published not one but two of my non-fiction pieces — the first about art and a universal basic income; the second about the time I played a computer game so much that I went a bit strange.

I also had four rejections that I consider to have been ‘nice’. These include two shortlistings (for the Wollongong short story comp and the Literary Nillumbik Alan Marshall short story comp) that did not lead to publication outcomes. (BTW any editors reading this: those stories are still unpublished…)

outcomes by month 2018

Above you can see that July and October were hectic months. In April and May, August and September, I was sobbing into my keyboard.

In calendar year 2018, I generated about $3,000 in revenue from my writing. This was made up of grants, prize money, workshop fees, and fees for publication. This is a 100x increase from the $30 I made in 2017. If this trend continues, next year I will make $300,000 and I will move to western Tasmania and become a recluse!

On a less optimistic note, my expenses associated with writing (mentorships, travel, festival attendance costs, writing courses and workshops, subscriptions, home office costs) continued to exceed my revenue. Don’t quit your day job to become a journeyman writer.

Reading

Of the novels I read in 2018, my absolute favourite favourites were Rubik, by Elizabeth Tan; and From the Wreck, by Jane Rawson. I love how fiction with speculative elements is So Hot Right Now. Let’s hope this is more than a passing phase.

I read a LOT of short stories this year. Too many highlights to list exhaustively, but stories that especially spring to mind are:

I read several short story collections this year, and it’s difficult to nominate a favourite, but I found myself thinking about The Worry Front by H.C. Gildfind long after reading.

I am biased because one of my stories is included, but Pigeonholed by the team at Going Down Swinging is just such an enjoyable and different read. It’s smart genre fiction, and in particular, the stories by Katherine Kruimink (‘Electric Yuzu’), Jack Nicholls (‘Cheek by Jowl’), and Wayne Marshall (‘Gibson’s Bat ‘n’ Ball’) are disgustingly well-written and executed.

As for long-form non-fiction? It’s not my jam; too unrealistic. I much prefer fiction, which hews closer to the real.

My ‘to be read’ pile grew alarmingly this year. Laura Elvery’s collection, A Trick of the Light, and Holly Throsby’s Cedar Creek (the follow-up to Goodwood) are right at the top of that teetering stack.

Lowlights

I spent a lot of time in early 2018 trying to pitch a short story collection to literary agents. In retrospect, I should have realised what an incredibly tough sell that would be. A (relatively) unknown debut writer pitching a book of short stories? It doesn’t scream ‘bestseller’. Responses included form rejections; lovely, kind rejections; and disheartening rejections (“Frankly, I don’t care for the short story form…”). My efforts were not completely wasted; the process allowed me to sharpen my pitch. But if I had my time again, I would probably approach publishers directly and save myself some time.

I also had a weird experience with an editor at an Australian journal (not one of the ones who published me). I pitched an idea, and received an enthusiastic response and a request for a full piece. So I wrote the piece, and was told that it was great, and they’d love to publish it with just a few tweaks, and that I’d get some edits back within a week.

A month went by, so I sent a polite follow-up. Another month went by: I fired off another email. Long story short, after 5 months of absolutely no response from the journal, I withdrew the piece. I still have not had any contact from them — not even to acknowledge the withdrawal. I don’t want to make too much of this: as a rule, editors are incredibly overworked, underpaid, generous, passionate people. And things slip through the cracks. But the deafening silence was bizarre and, frankly, discouraging and stressful.

Highlights

Attending the Margaret River Readers and Writers Festival was such a joy. Hanging out with other writers at the festival made all the grindy bits of writing seem worthwhile. Speaking there, and also presenting a workshop at Writers SA, took me right out of my comfort zone, but I survived and I’d like to do more presenting in 2019.

I was very fortunate to receive an Arts SA project grant to work on my next project — a literary spec fic novel set in Australia in the year 2048.

Looking ahead

In 2019 I want to keep building relationships with other writers. Feeling like I’m part of a community has made drearier aspects of writing (the long waits, and solitary work that may lead nowhere) seem less grim. And it’s exciting when your friends find success.

Project-wise, it’s full steam ahead on the novel. That will mean fewer new short stories, which may also mean fewer submissions and (probably) fewer publications. I’m only half joking when I say that this will be challenging for my fragile ego. I may get to June and feel like I’ve achieved ‘nothing’ — at least, nothing tangible. I will need to remind myself that I’ve written half a first draft of a manuscript that may or may not, one day, go on to be read by tens of people — or maybe even more!

There’s nothing zen about writing

When you’re learning to be a writer, you get a lot of advice. One theme that re-emerges is the importance of not caring too much about publication outcomes. At its most extreme, this devolves into a kind of zen philosophy: to be a truly great writer, you must focus solely on the journey, and not the destination. You must divorce yourself from the earthly concerns of career development, prizes, publication and — especially! — ever hoping to one day be paid for your work.

I get the theory behind this, I think. an early career writer’s job is to write the best she possibly can, and quality can be impeded by thinking too much about fit for a particular journal or pandering too much to an audience. A writer just starting out will also face a lot of rejection. Perhaps all that rejection will sting a little less if you don’t care (or have convinced yourself you don’t care) about the outcome?

Like a zen koan, I find this insoluble. What is the sound of one hand clapping? If a writer slaves over a great short story in a forest and no one ever reads it, has he really achieved anything? Come on: ego and writing are inseparable. How can you write (other than, perhaps, a personal journal or diary) if you don’t genuinely believe that you have something to say that is worth the time and attention of others? Unless I believe in myself, why would I write? How could I? And if I do write, how could I be truly uncaring as to whether someone else reads me?

Writing is a highly competitive field and there is an up-front price to be paid for success. That price is years of hard work and failure. Perhaps bizarrely, that concept doesn’t seem at all discouraging. An early career writer is making an investment: a bet, in fact, that all this work they’re putting in will pay off one day in the form of recognition, readership, whatever it is. I’ve worked in other industries that have similar barriers to entry. That makes sense to me.

But let’s drop the mystical bullshit that the virtuous writer simply doesn’t care about publication. I want to be published. I want to win all the prizes. I want a readership that numbers in the- …well, at least the hundreds. I want these things deeply and urgently. And I think that’s not unusual.

A tree falling in the forest, my arse.