The Submissions Tracker

I’ve been falling behind on my submissions to publishers.

One of the most important steps a writer can take is to keep track of the submissions made. Below is an excerpt from my own tracker, a Google Documents sheet. You can click the image to make the text larger.

An excerpt from my submissions tracker

Publisher

When you routinely send pieces to publishers, you start to develop a gut feeling about those to avoid. One publisher seemed evasive about giving anything more than an e-mail address and a Skype number, while another promised a cash prize for the winner but stated that the piece wouldn’t be published unless they felt like it. If it feels dodgy, steer clear.

I now send my work almost exclusively to publishers rather than competitions, although I’ll make an exception on occasion. My main motivation is the cost of submission, which often seems disproportionately high, but I also tend to find them less well-organised than commercial publishers.

Submission guidelines

I can’t stress this enough: read the submission guidelines, then read them again, ideally out loud. The publisher will usually be specific about the type of work wanted, the word or line count, the format in which it should appear, the method by which it should be submitted, the deadline, plus any other relevant information such as a brief biography. Great story and poetry templates are available at William Shunn’s website.

Whether or not it’s requested, make an effort to find out the name of the editor or the person who’s taking submissions. Don’t worry if you name the wrong person; it shows you’ve at least done some research.

I’ve had experiences where submission guidelines for competitions have been unclear or even self-contradictory. If you’re in any doubt about them, don’t hesitate to ask the organisers. That signals to them that their explanation isn’t clear.

Deadline and Submission date

I know it sounds as though I’m insulting your intelligence, but don’t miss the deadline if you can possibly help it. The overwhelming majority of submissions are done online, and most publishers will accept entries up to 11:59pm on deadline day unless otherwise specified. For the few places that accept or insist upon postal entries, it’s worth checking whether the publisher wants your letter by the deadline, or whether the postmark date will be taken.

If your submission is late, there’s no harm in a phone call or an e-mail to the publisher regarding whether it’ll still be accepted.

Decision notified

We’d all love to be told instantly about the result. I once posted a piece on a Monday and received a rejection on the Friday morning, but that’s a rare experience. Publishers receive dozens or even hundreds of pieces, and you could be waiting up to six months for a response.

Always be aware that you might not receive any response at all. The New Yorker, for instance, advises contributors that owing to the volume of submissions, they should assume it’s a rejection if they haven’t heard within 90 days.

Title (s) entered

Very often, a publisher won’t allow a short story or poem to be under consideration by anyone else; that’s why it’s wise to have a number of other pieces to send elsewhere in the meantime. If you’re a novelist submitting to an agent, however, simultaneous submissions of the same book are acceptable.

I store each of my stories and poems in individual PC folders. Whenever I submit somewhere new, I always create a new file within the folder containing the latest revision and specifying where it’s been sent.

Entry method

Most submissions are done by e-mail and few are done by post, as explored earlier. Shorter pieces might be accepted by filling in a form on the publisher’s website. The Submittable  site is popular among some publishers. This not only accepts documents online but allows you to track the status of every submission.

Whichever online method is used, you’ll usually receive a receipt by e-mail. By post, place a stamped and self-addressed postcard in the envelope so the publisher can signal when it’s been received.

Overall submission count

Every year, I set myself a target of submitting 53 pieces to publishers; one a week on average, plus one for the extra day or two that comprises a year. It’s a generously low target, but my immediate mission is to catch up and keep pace.


Postscript

I normally try to stick to one theme per entry, but it would be remiss of me not to mention the Rappers Versus Poets event hosted by the BBC on Saturday night. I know a few of the poets, either personally or by sight, but I’ll leave you to watch it and find out whether they won or lost.

Find your niche.

Where and how you write is as individual as the work you ultimately produce. There are many examples of writers who need a particular space, certain items on their desk or a strictly-observed time of day, and there are others who can churn out stories in the back of a taxi. Shortlist gives a few examples. I fall into the back-of-a-taxi category.

When I’m at home, I prefer to stand up while writing, normally using an ironing board to rest my materials. I sit all day in an office and it’s a relief to be on my feet, plus the health benefits have been known for some years. In February, for instance, Tom O’Donnell took a satirical look at the health dangers of sitting down all day.

Minimal modern writing desk
Minimal modern writing desk (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

However, it’s also my least favourite place to write as there are many distractions around the house, such as tidying or loading the washing machine. To that end, I sometimes write in a cafe or a library. Unfortunately, I’m not often able to stand up there, but I find I concentrate better as I only have one desk, and there are no chores needing done.

The background noise is also a consideration, as there’s a fine balance to be sought. When I write in the University of Dundee library, I always choose the Group Study area. I find silence quite conducive to writing, but I’m also on edge because every rustle of paper or drink of water then stands out a mile, whereas a consistent ambience can more readily be tuned out. The opposite is also true. I’ve tried to write in Dundee Contemporary Arts, but the noise is loud then quieter as the audience enters and leaves the cinema, and this is just as distracting.

Of course, such distractions can be overcome with headphones. For the last year or two, I’ve written to the soundtrack from the film The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. It’s an unwieldy title, but the Nick Cave music helps my writing along no end.

The need for writers to use their personal rituals makes me wonder whether there’s a market for a dedicated studio nearby. I have a few artist friends who rent individual rooms in a converted mill and can work undisturbed at their convenience.

Considering the average size of the studios, I reckon it would be possible to squeeze up to four soundproofed booths in one of them, allowing each writer to stay in his or her own customised bubble. An Internet search shows the nearest dedicated writers’ studio is in Nottingham, with a handful scattered around the US, and that’s a long way to travel from Dundee just to find the ideal environment.

However, if you are in the city of Discovery, Hotchpotch is taking place tonight at The Burgh Coffeehouse on Commercial Street. It’s an open mike night for writers, where you can read your own material or come along to listen. More information about Hotchpotch on the Facebook page.

Das Experiment.

From Thursday to Saturday this week, Nassim Soleimanpour’s experimental play White Rabbit Red Rabbit will be performed at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh. Siobhan Redmond, Phill Jupitus and Ewen Bremner will have had no direction, no rehearsals, and no idea of what their lines will be. Instead, the script is placed in an envelope that will be opened in front of the audience just before the performance begins.

The play’s structure was influenced by the sanctions against the writer. He is a conscientious objector against military service in his native Iran, and is not allowed to leave that country. A symbolic empty seat is left in the front row of each performance.

I’m in the habit of listening to The New Yorker fiction podcast, where authors perform other authors’ short stories and are interviewed about why they like what they’ve just read. A couple of months ago, I encountered Donald Bartheleme for the first time through his story Concerning the Bodyguard. This piece is experimental in a different way, narrated through a series of questions, repeating nouns where a pronoun would normally suffice. Salman Rushdie read it, lending an extra edge through his measured baritone voice.

It took until the post-reading interview before I really understood what the story was saying, although the penny might have dropped had I listened to it one more time. It’s very much snagged my interest in Bartheleme, and if I encounter his books in my travels, I will definitely place them on my reading list.

It’s a safe bet that many of us have one or two pieces that don’t conform to the accepted norms, and it can be difficult to find a suitable home for these.

One of mine is a work called The Executive Lounge which takes the form of a list of statistics describing a place, but that place only becomes clear in the last two lines. I don’t know whether to classify it as prose or poetry, as a list usually contains line breaks like a poem, but this has the metre of a prose piece.

Whichever way you consider it, it’s most definitely for the page, not performance. My only public reading of it so far was in front of an audience who are accustomed to my work, and it’s the only one of my pieces they didn’t understand until I explained it. To date it’s been rejected by several publishers. Regardless, I consider it to be a completed work in which I still have faith.

However difficult it is to find a home in a mass-market world, never be afraid to experiment. With an ever-increasing number of small publishers springing up, at least one of them is bound to be on your wavelength. The next time I identify an editor who might appreciate The Executive Lounge, I’ll send it straight to them. If nobody took a risk from time to time, we’d all be reading bland and unchallenging literature.

Incidentally, the place I read out that piece was Hotchpotch, an open-mike night for writers rather than musicians. If you live in or near Dundee, the next event is on Monday 20 October at The Burgh Coffeehouse on Commercial Street from 7pm to 9pm. Bring along your best work, experimental or not.