Twenty Seventeen

I’ve been inspired by some excellent reflective posts by other writers recently, and I thought I’d look back at what I achieved last year from a writing perspective.

What I wrote

Produced in 2017

At the start of 2017 I had a couple of short stories ready for submission (as well as a novel manuscript). Over the course of the year I developed 8 more short stories to the point where I was comfortable submitting them. I wrote drafts of another 6 or 7 stories that are languishing in various unpolished states.

As the year went on, I found that the stories I was writing got shorter and shorter. Towards the end of the year, I was writing mostly flash fiction (under 1,000 words) inspired by competitions like the Digital Writers Festival Microfiction Challenge. This might have also coincided with a fairly busy period at my day job, leaving less brainspace for long fiction.

The fellowship/grant applications took ages, but one of them paid off, so that effort was worth it.

Submissions

Submissions by Type

In total I fired off 39 submissions last year, or not quite one per week. About half of those were submissions of short stories to Australian lit journals or short story competitions. The “other” category in the chart above represents international journals and reading events.

There is differing advice out there about whether it’s a good idea to enter writing competitions. Some say that the odds of winning a competition are much more remote than getting published in a journal, but I’m not sure I agree. The average quarterly Australian journal might only publish 16 stories in a whole year (4 stories per issue, 4 issues per year) so that still seems insanely competitive. My experience was that most journals and competitions tended to prohibit simultaneous submissions (ie submitting the same piece concurrently to two outlets), and took about as long to consider my work before notifying of rejection/acceptance (usually 2-3 months). This year, I don’t plan to change significantly the mix between journal submissions and competition entries. I might get more selective about which journals and comps I submit to.

Outcomes

Outcomes 2017

I received about 30 rejections. Not quite the 100 per year one is supposed to aim for, but it’s a start!

Of the rejections, most were form rejections with no specific feedback. Four were personal rejections that either contained really useful feedback, or confirmed that I’d just missed out on an acceptance and encouraged me to submit again. These ‘nice’ rejections really did feel almost as good as an acceptance.

Outcomes by month

You can see that the first half of the year was a hard slog. And then in July, I made 4 submissions, of which 2 were ultimately successful (representing a residency and a lit journal publication).

Last year I earned a grand total of $30 from my writing. My effective hourly rate… is not worth thinking about.

As of today I still have a couple of pending submissions. I’m happy to say that at least one of these should lead to a publication outcome during 2018.

Reading

I tried to read mostly Australian fiction last year. Books I read and loved included Goodwood by Holly Throsby, A Loving, Faithful Animal by Josephine Rowe, The Weight of a Human Heart by Ryan O’Neill and The Dead Aviatrix by Carmel Bird.

Looking back, looking ahead

At the time, the successes seemed few and far between. But I’m happy with what I achieved in 2017. I also had fun engaging with fellow writers, and got some really useful feedback from practitioners who I admire. I hope that I ended the year as a better writer.

While it would be nice if I could get a bit more traction in 2018, maybe a few more publication outcomes, I feel like I laid some groundwork that will stand me in good stead.

I’d love to hear how your year was, for reading or writing. Let me know in the comments!

Writer-in-residence applications: tips from a non-expert

I’ve secured a residential fellowship at a writers’ retreat. Sweet times! Next March, I will enjoy two glorious weeks of tranquil settings, quiet contemplation, and uninterrupted writing time. The experience certainly will not involve procrastination or crippling anxiety about not wasting this great opportunity I’ve been handed.

A writing friend suggested that I share some tips on applying for these sorts of things (thanks, May-Kuan!). But just because I was successful with this one application, that hardly makes me an expert. I applied for two other residencies this year with no joy. So, if you read on, your results may vary, I take no responsibility for the quality of the advice, etc etc.

In my non-writing career, I read a lot of job applications. That’s been instructive, and I have a couple of theories about what might have helped my residency application get over the line.

First of all, I chose a project and a pitch that would help me stand out. That really comes back to closely reading the application guidelines. These usually contain clues about what the assessors are looking for. The things I noticed in the guidelines for this opportunity were:

–An expressed willingness to consider writers with different levels of experience and background. This is not a given; and it’s music to the ears of any early-stage writer not yet “on the brink of actual emergement”;

–Welcoming writers from different parts of Australia, even though the residency is in NSW;

–Looking for different types of work (novels, memoir, short stories etc).

So, I pitched myself as:

–An early career writer (I stated this clearly, and didn’t try and talk up my experience or publication history);

–From South Australia;

–Working on a themed short story collection.

It’s serendipitous that I happen to be working on a themed short story collection right now. But I could also have chosen to pitch a political/lit fic novel – a future project that I have some clarity around. But look at the assessors’ report: of the 250 applications received, over 150 were for lit fic novels, and only a dozen or so were for short story collections. All other things being equal, my base in South Australia and the nature of my project helped me to stand out.

Of course, other programs will have other criteria. So, look for the clues in the project you’re applying for. Even better, look for the right opportunity: the one that seems tailor-made to support the project you’re working on right now.

When it came to describing my project, I really had to wrestle hard to define what my collection was about. I realised that it’s not enough to say: I’m writing a bunch of stories and they’re all really great and they’re about different things. That’s not a hook. So I took time to re-read the work I’ve completed, to see what themes ran through all of the pieces. I realised that they all deal, in some way, with issues of control (of oneself and others) and what happens when control is lost. That realisation is going to help me write a better collection, aside from helping me with this residency application.

I also thought hard about how I could explain why the residency would matter to me, and to my project specifically. Two weeks of writing and editing time is useful for any writer. Saying so in a residency application won’t get you too far. So I thought about what specifically I would do in that two week period. In my application, I noted that:

–I’ve been working on this project since late 2016 (true!)

–I have outlines for most stories and I’m about 60% of the way through first drafts.

–By early 2018—the time of the residency—I should have completed drafts of almost all stories and so I would use the residency to edit, re-work, and form the pieces into a cohesive collection.

It’s still only aspirational, but it’s a bit more directed than, “Gee, I’d really like 2 weeks of writing time…”

Hey: it’s a numbers game, and there’s a good deal of luck involved, and of course the quality of one’s writing is important in securing one of these things. We’ll all have more rejections than acceptances. But why not try and give yourself the best chance?

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.

7 Lessons

These are some things I learned from writing a novel-length manuscript. If I’d known all this when I started, I think I could have achieved a similar result in less than half the time.

Perhaps you can only learn this stuff through inefficiency, wasted effort, and long nights spent weeping into your keyboard. If so, my list might not be very helpful to you. But I’m going to leave this here so that I can remind myself of a few hard-won truths before I start on my next project.

  1. Find your rhythm. I find it easiest to write creatively in the mornings after a coffee, but before I’ve had anything to eat. By lunch time I’m done. I can edit later in the day, but I rarely generate anything new and worthwhile. It took me a surprisingly long time to work this out. Until I did, I spent a lot of time feeling angry at myself.
  2. Look after your brain. Make sure you’re in a good mood and clear-headed when you sit down to write. For me, that means regular exercise, no hangover, and positive permission (internal and external) to ignore, for several hours, the chores, commitments and distractions that we’re all slaves to. If I feel like I’m neglecting some other thing I need to do, it’s all over.
  3. Some days it just doesn’t work. Rather than castigating yourself when the words and ideas just won’t come, do something else that makes you feel like you’re making progress – however small or incidental. Editing things you’ve already written fits the bill nicely. This is not the same thing as procrastination. You’ll know when you’re procrastinating because you’ll have that smouldering sick panicked feeling in your stomach that comes from the realisation that you have a finite number of heart beats left before you die, and you’re watching cat videos.
  4. Think hard before you start to write. I plotted out my book in detail before I started writing. But what I really wish I’d done more of during the early stages of my project (even more than plotting) is to think hard about characters and tension. Who are my key characters? Why should anyone care about them? What do they want more than anything? How can I keep them hungry and scared and desperate, so that every single scene matters? I thought I had the answers to those questions when I started writing, but I didn’t. That meant I spent a lot of time writing dull scenes that needed to be cut or re-written from scratch.
  5. Very much related to the previous item, you need to work out pretty bloody quickly what your work is about; what it is trying to say. When I started, I didn’t think this was so important for a genre novel. But it is, because if the scene you’re writing doesn’t help to advance the core idea of your work, then you’re wasting time: your time and any (future, as-yet-hypothetical) reader’s time. No one wants to read pretty writing that doesn’t make a point – just ask a high school English teacher.
  6. Talk to other writers to troubleshoot your work. I found that it’s not so important what they say (although they’re usually nice, smart people full of helpful suggestions – also some are batshit crazy); but improving a piece of bad writing is like overcoming addiction: the first step is to admit you have a problem and to describe it. Vocalising the difficulties and weaknesses in your work (which are legion, in any early draft) gets them straight in your own head, and as soon as you do that, solutions usually start to occur. Hearing about other people’s projects also provides you with comparison points against which you can identify strengths and weaknesses in your own writing.
  7. When the words do come, be mindful and cautious. Maybe even a bit skeptical. Sometimes when you get some momentum, you just want to write as much as you can before whatever creative wellspring you’ve tapped into dries up. You think something like, “I’ve just got to get all of this down. Expression doesn’t matter so much. I can always edit it later.” This can be dangerous. What seems at first like good progress (in the form of a large addition to word count) often reveals itself on a second reading to be a swamp of toxic prose that would be easier to re-write from scratch than to remediate with a deep edit. Now, when I sit down to write, I try to make every sentence as not-awful as I can make it, as I write it for the first time. There’s a reason writers are tortured souls. If you’re finding the process easy or pleasant, you’re not doing your best work.

There are plenty of other writers out there saying similar things in slightly different ways. But screw those guys – they’re probably hacks.