Twenty$%&#ingTwenty

Yes, yes: it’s August, and I’m only just now getting around to my ‘year in review’ post for last year. I don’t know about you, but by the time 2020 finished, I was in no hurry to remenisce…

It won’t surprise you to learn that my writing and reading last year was affected by some external challenges. These included, obviously, the pandemic, but also a messy and drawn-out house moving process, which required us to stay with relatives for several months. Other writers reported that even when they had time, the state of the world made it hard for them to concentrate, or to produce new work, and I know what they mean.

So much for the bad stuff. Here’s some good news:

  • I won the Peter Carey Award with a story about chicken called ‘Bock Bock‘! This was especially meaningful to me, because the competition is run by some excellent humans including Wayne Marshall and Jem Tyley-Miller, and in 2020 was judged by gun short story writer Elizabeth Tan.
  • I signed with a literary agent: the indefatigable Martin Shaw of Shaw Literary. Martin immediately went to work on my behalf, and as a result of his efforts, publisher Wakefield Press has picked up my short story collection, due for publication in early 2022!

What I wrote

Most of my energies were devoted to finalising my collection, so that Martin and I could submit to publishers. To that end, I wrote 4 new connected short stories. It was my intention that these would provide a kind of superstructure for my collection, so that all the stories would occur in the same universe and be linked. But it turned out that publishers did not share my vision, and they won’t be included in the collection that comes out next year, so most of my new writing in 2020 came to nothing. For some reason, I don’t really care! It may have something to do with the fact that a short story collection, by me, is coming out early next year (have I mentioned this? That the excellent folks at Wakefield Press will be publishing my short story collection next year? I have? Sorry, I’m still pretty excited).

I also wrote an unrelated short story that, I think, is possibly the strongest piece I’ve written to date. Yes, it will appear in the collection, and in the meantime you will be able to read it in Griffith Review 74, scheduled for November 2021.

Stats

Anyway, I know why you’re really here. You’re here for some charts!

In 2020 I made, for me, what is a tiny number of submissions. Happily, my acceptance rate continues to improve, so I managed to have 5 new pieces published for the third year running.

Above is what this looked like over the course of the year. It was a grim Apr-July, let me tell you.

…aaaand this is the last four years. Submissions have continued to dwindle, as has writing time. My attention turns now to completing a polished draft of my next big project (a novel), so submissions will continue to drop in 2021.

Maybe that’s okay? Maybe I no longer need regular external validation that I am a legit writer, and that I haven’t lost the knack? Maybe. I guess I’m going to find out.

Money

I made about $2,000 from my writing in 2020. Most of that was prize money from story competitions, with a couple of other publications providing the balance. I didn’t do any presenting work last year. I applied for a COVID-related arts grant, but was not successful.

Reading

As for reading, in 2020 I was eagerly anticipating new books by Elizabeth Tan (Smart Ovens for Lonely People) and Patrick Allington (Rise & Shine). I loved their previous work. I couldn’t wait. And… both of these books lived up to my ridiculously lofty expectations. Shirl by Wayne Marshall: also fantastic.

A stand-alone short story that I read in 2020 and that I still think about: ‘Ounya Passed‘ by Daniel Hutley at Overland.

And a longer essay on marathon running, which will pull you in even if you are not a runner: Nicholas Turner’s ‘Run to Feel‘.

Looking ahead

Because I’m writing this in August, I can tell you that I’ve had a couple more successes already this year in terms of story competitions. The new writing, though, has been coming slowly. Turns out caring for two children is even more demanding than caring for one (I’d assumed that they would largely administer and entertain each other).

I am enjoying writing — slowly. I am enjoying reading — slowly. I feel like a writer, even when I am not writing. And the hunger to create remains, but the angst has receded somewhat. Metrics and stats aside, I feel like I am in a good place.

Twenty Nineteen

A lot of writers spent 2019 trying to figure out what it makes sense to say  – what needs to be said, and what’s just noise. I thought about that stuff fair bit last year. At the same time, I found myself appointed co-manager of a wonderful, intensive project: the parenting of a 6 month old child. And then there was the matter of earning a living. For parts of the year, writing didn’t get much of a look-in.

What I wrote

Produced in 2019

Output in 2019 was low by my standards. That 1 manuscript is a bit of a fudge – what I really did was to pull together a substantially revised short story collection, and write half of a first draft of a novel. I’m rounding that effort up to 1 full-length work, & I will not be taking questions at this time.

More often than not, I felt anxious about how little I was writing. And, of course, that was counter-productive, because it made me feel stressed when I did find time to sit down at the keyboard.

On the other hand, 3 of the short stories that I wrote came sizzling out of my brain. They were a joy to transcribe, and after subsequent rounds of edits, I’m really satisfied with how they’ve turned out. So I take some comfort in the idea that the capacity is still there, even if quantity has declined.

Outcomes

Outcomes by month 2019

Up until the end of June (leaving aside a semi-bitter rant I penned for the Meanjin blog), I didn’t have a single acceptance to my name. It was beginning to look like 2019 would be an annus horribilus (which I believe is Latin for horrible anus) of a year. It was only from July that I got some momentum.

2019 Outcomes

Of 30 submissions last year, I received 7 acceptances. I am happy with that strike rate! I also got published by some journals I admire and love to read, like Griffith Review, Overland and Southerly (hash tag CareerGoals). Because of the speed with which publishing moves, most of the things I had published last year were based on acceptances received in 2018. Similarly, a few pieces that were accepted last year will likely see the light of day in the first half of 2020. You can bet I’ll be self-promoting the sh-it out of those when the time comes! 🙂

A shout-out to Westerly, who followed up a rejection that with some insightful feedback that I’ve used to improve one of my stories. Providing that kind of guidance is way above and beyond the call of duty for a resource-constrained, volunteer-dependent Australian lit journal. But when it occurs, it’s hugely appreciated.

In 2019, I earned about $1,200 from writing, made up of publication fees and workshop fees. This is down by about 2/3 from 2018, because it did not include any sweet, sweet grant money.

Year by year

This is the third time I’ve done a year-in-review post, which means I have 3 years of data points, and can make this:

3 Years

Speaks for itself, really – submissions and rejections (and hence writing admin workload) reduced in 2019, but acceptances have held up OK!

Reading

Last year I decided to keep a longer work and a short story collection on the go at all times. Highly, highly recommended as a way of reading. Highlights were Claire G Coleman’s Terra Nullius, Nic Low’s Arms Race, and Josephine Rowe’s Here Until August.

Individual stories that have stayed with me: Alex Cothren’s ‘Let’s Talk Trojan Bee‘ in the Spring 2019 issue of Meanjin; and Ben Walter’s ‘Atlantis Minor‘, also from Meanjin (Winter 2019).

Looking ahead

Someone on twitter – it might have been Justine Hyde? – wrote that this year they’d be concentrating on reading books by IRL friends and online/twitter buddies. And I think that’s a great idea! For me, that will include works by Patrick Allington (Rise and Shine), Wayne Marshall (Shirl), Elizabeth Tan (Smart Ovens for Lonely People), Rose Hartley (Maggie’s Going Nowhere) – I’m sure I am forgetting some people here.

In 2019 I felt my share of frustrated, ugly, self-centred, graspy-type thoughts about writing, and success or the lack of it. But for right now, I’m feeling less pressure to get publication results, land a book deal, etc etc. I want to write things that I enjoy, that are right at the edge of what I’m capable of making. The other stuff will either come to pass, or not.

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!

MRP Guest Blog – Class Differences

Margaret River Press has kindly offered to host me as a guest blogger during May. You can read my first post, about class differences in Australia, here.

In other exciting news, my short story ‘Pigface’ is now available as part of the (excellently named) ‘Pigface and Other Stories’ anthology, published by Margaret River Press. You can learn more and buy a copy here. The collection is edited by Ryan O’Neill, and features the finalists of the 2018 MRP Short Story Competition. I’m thrilled that my story has found such good company!