I’m Falling Further Behind

It’s an implicit expectation from you, the reader, that I’ll post an entry every Monday at 5pm. This means you should have seen it here yesterday, and it wasn’t. Since yesterday was a public holiday, it felt like a Sunday and it slipped my mind until after the due time. But that’s an excuse rather than a reason.

To this end, I owe you an apology and an entry, and I think an appropriate punishment for missing the deadline would be to would be to whip my own back with a knotted rope. I have, however, settled for making a second entry of at least 500 words on Friday at 5pm. Then I’ll update as normal from Monday of next week.

Last time, I promised to make a little progress on each of my outstanding works. Let’s go through them all.

“I can’t remember the last time I sent something away to a publisher”

On checking my submissions tracker, I found it was 23 February, or nearly eight weeks ago when I last send something away. It was difficult to find a publisher who was accepting submissions; I looked right through my usual sources, and most of the reading periods were closed.

However, I did find one publisher who would accept up to five poems. By coincidence, I’d sent five poems to another publisher in December who had turned me down at the beginning of March. With only a few minor changes, I was able to send them to the new place. Even better: my aim is to send away an average of one piece per week, and this submission brought me bang up-to-date.

“I can’t remember the last time I typed up something from my notebook”

It’s virtually a truism that inspiration strikes in the most bizarre of places; in my case, in McDonalds at 9:30am on a Friday. I found myself able to finish two poems – one of which I’d been struggling with for a while – and I typed them up later that day.

“I’m tackling Camp NaNoWriMo. … I have around half as many words as I should”

I’m not up-to-date with this, plus I’d increased my word target from 10,000 words to 11,000 as an extra challenge. I intended to write a series of interlinked stories, but I changed my project name to Any old nonsense to reflect the diverse pieces I’ve actually written. Despite this, there is now a ray of hope as I’ve figured out a structure for one of the stories that I was finding difficult to write, and it’s practically pulling itself along.

During Camp, you can enter an online virtual cabin with up to 11 other participants to help and encourage each other. I have only one other person in our regional cabin, and an honourable mention must go to them. I relayed the thoughts I expressed in last week’s entry and they helped me to regain my focus and perspective.

“I need to finish a stage play I’d like to bring to the Edinburgh Festival or Fringe in 2018”

Last week, I happened to meet the university tutor who was going to help me bring this to the stage. Unfortunately, the theatre he wants to use was undergoing a change of management and he was uncertain when we would have a chance to go there.

The play is a one-woman sequence of monologues that looks back over her university days. The running length is currently around 30 minutes to give a potential test audience a flavour of its content. To reduce it to that length, I had to cut out the poetry supposedly written by the character. I’d like to extend it to between 50 and 55 minutes by reintroducing the poetry and unpacking it in other areas. Having looked at the manuscript again a few days ago, I now have an idea how I’m going to achieve the expansion.

Tonight, after this entry should have been published, I received an e-mail from another tutor who wants to include a brief excerpt in a promotional leaflet for the MLitt course I studied. I’m more than happy to give that permission.

“I need to rewrite that novel I’ve been working on since 2010.”

The bad news is that there’s a scene in the novel which simply isn’t working, and it’s a pivotal scene because the main character needs to be left in an unknown location to fend for himself. I’m probably finding it difficult as I’ve never experienced this myself, so maybe I’ll need to go on a training weekend.

The good news is that I’ve finally fixed an annoyance. When I first wrote Fifty Million Nicker, the novel Fifty Shades of Grey was released a little while later. It was a coincidence, of course, but the number has become so iconic that I wanted to end the association. So I’ve now gone through the manuscript and changed it to Sixty Million Nicker to reflect that the main character is now competing for £60,000,000.

“I’d rather like to put together a poetry collection around a single theme”

I have been working on a few poems along the same theme, and they do fit well together. I’m still working on one of them, and I took it along to a new poetry group that a friend is starting. I received useful feedback, particularly on one point, and I implemented the relevant change.

If I hadn’t gone along, I might not have met the tutor who’s helping me with the play. And one of the pieces I finished in McDonalds was the homework for the next meeting.

 

And thus, I’ve done what I set out to do in the last entry, albeit 24 hours later than scheduled. Whatever happens between now and my next one on Friday, I promise you the title will not be I’m Falling Even Further Behind.

Across The Page

A couple of years ago, I was invited to pen a poem inspired by the former jute mill Verdant Works. I wrote the piece in situ. I later edited it, gave it the title Congregation, and sent it to the mill’s current owners to use as they wished.

Many months afterward, the poem was published online for National Poetry Day. My original line breaks had been removed, however, so the piece was laid out more like prose. The image is below; the partially obscured words in the bottom line are mill fever and service is over.

I decided I liked this format better than the original.

Fast forward to the present day, and the question of typographical layout has occupied me again. Generally, I steer clear of contests with an entry fee, but I make the occasional exception, this time for the NYC Midnight Short Story Competition.

There are three rounds. At the starting whistle, every entrant is assigned a genre, a character, and a situation. In my case: a comedy about an art teacher and a mid-life crisis. We’re then given eight days to construct a story around these elements, and the winner progresses to the next round.

I struggled to start a story with my elements as they failed to inspire me. So I began to write down some thoughts as poetry, but using paragraph breaks rather than line breaks. I’ve also limited the number of rhymes that appear.

The final piece treads a line between prose and poetry that I would like the judges to pick up on. The other notable feature is that it runs to only 131 words, although there’s no minimum specified in the rules, only the maximum of 2,500.

Moreover, I’m happy with the result, especially since I now have something out of virtually nothing. If it’s enough to make it into the second round, all the better.

Publish and Be Careful

As I’ve no urgent writing projects on the go right now, I’ve turned my attention back to submitting work to publishers. There are never any guarantees in publishing, but I have a few tips to help ensure the process is as painless as possible.

Keep a close eye on what you submit and when

I maintain a spreadsheet with the following columns: Publisher, Submission guidelines, Closes, Date entered, Decision notified, Title(s) entered, Entry method, Overall submission count (target 52 per year).

Most short story and poetry publishers insist that you don’t submit a given piece to any other place until they’ve accepted or rejected it. If a piece is rejected, I use the strikethrough font effect so I know it can be sent elsewhere; if accepted, it’s noted on a separate spreadsheet. Note that agents looking for novelists usually don’t mind if you send to several places at once.

Be early

Right now, we’re heading into the Christmas and New Year period. Publishing lead times can be so lengthy that it’s far too late to submit festive pieces, as editors will now be planning for Easter or even summer. Yet there’s also an opportunity here: if you’re inspired to write a piece this December, there’s plenty of time to refine it and submit it in summer next year for next December.

Unless instructed otherwise, use a standard manuscript format

On his website, writer William Shunn offers a range of templates that contain all the information publisher needs, such as your contact details and pen name. Occasionally, you might be asked to use a certain font or a different layout. In those instances, always read the instructions carefully and follow them precisely.

A printing press in Kabul, Afghanistan
A printing press in Kabul, Afghanistan (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Be selective about entering competitions

This is perhaps a contentious point, but it’s a purely personal point of view.

When you send work to a publisher, there is almost never a charge. For a competition, there’s almost always a fee, and it can be up to £5 or sometimes more. Assuming an average fee of £3, entering even one competition a week can cost more than £150 per year. Aside from the financial aspect, I’ve had experiences where competition rules have been badly phrased or even self-contradictory, leaving me unsure how to enter.

That said, there are a few competitions I make a point of entering because they’re so prestigious or because the potential payoff would be worth it, which brings me to my final point.

Look at the reward offered

It’s a fact of a writer’s life that some publishers want your work without payment or other reward, usually with the well-worn line that they can offer exposure. If you do simply wish to make your name known, then by all means enter your work, but be clear about this from the beginning. I generally take no payment only when it’s for someone I know personally, or if it’s for charity.

Otherwise, the least I’d expect is a contributor’s copy of the finished book and/or a cash fee, however nominal. It takes a lot of effort and a lot of time to create a publishable piece, so never be afraid to charge for your work.

Paper View

Last week, a friend was complaining about a major writing competition that still only allows postal entries. I’d also submitted work because it’s a prestigious publication, but I agree with her point of view. Considering the hundreds of manuscripts that must be received – versus the tiny portion that makes the final cut – this seems a colossal waste of paper, not to mention the needless postage time and cost.

Many competitions offer the postal route as an alternative to an online submission, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Nor is there any issue with posting work that must be physically held to be appreciated. But there are still a bunch who want normal prose and poetry to be sent on paper.

English: A stack of copy paper.
English: A stack of copy paper. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Until the 1990s, this was how submissions were made. Internet access and e-mail accounts were generally the domain of academics and computer enthusiasts. Come the next decade, however, and newer technology began to creep into people’s homes. Nearly 17 years after the millennium, online access is nearly universal in the Western world, and postal submissions now look incredibly outdated.

That’s not to say I don’t like a paper book. In fact, some recent research has concluded that sales of e-books are falling. But a book is the final product; the process of gaining the interest of an editor or a competition judge ought to be as quick and cheap as possible.

Yet I would like to understand the other side of the argument. Do you run a publication that only wants submissions on paper? How does it benefit you? What would make you consider accepting online entries?

 

Keeping on Track

It’s great having a polished story or poem ready to be sent to a publisher or entered into a competition, but then comes the difficult part: waiting for a response. Often it takes months, sometimes it takes weeks, and a select bunch answer in a few days. This is unavoidable.

But here’s what separates a beginner from a seasoned pro: the former often sits and waits for a response, while the latter almost always uses the time to work on another piece. It’s desirable to build up a portfolio because many publishers, and almost all competitions, say you can’t send the same piece to two or more different places simultaneously.

Novel submissions are different in this respect. Most agents recognise that a book is an all-consuming work, and that it could be sent to a number of other places. It’s good practice to inform the other agents if one takes it on.

Whichever situation you’re in, it’s important to keep track of what you’ve submitted to where. It might be a simple as keeping a list if you’ve only a few pieces, but I have dozens in different places, so I use a spreadsheet to record the details:

Submissions tracker

I’ve edited out the names of the publishers and the links to their submission guidelines as I might want to resubmit in the future. The last column keeps track of how many pieces I’ve sent out during the year. My target is at least one piece per week on average; I have a poet friend whose target is an average of at least one piece per day. Otherwise, the tracker is self-explanatory.

 

It’s also important to keep track of what you’ve had published. These appear on another spreadsheet, and I keep the manuscripts in their own directory.

In many cases, the rights revert back to the author after a period of around six months to a year, so the same piece could potentially be sent to another publisher further down the line. If you’re unsure, ask the editor.

The milestones of a masterpiece.

When you’re in the middle of writing a novel or compiling a poetry collection or some other big project, it can be easy to forget the end goal. One way to maintain your momentum is to remind yourself what will or might happen when it’s completed.

Try creating something that represents your aim, like a mock cover for the finished volume. Or find a trophy, even if it’s made of cheap plastic, and label it something like [Your name] – Forward Prize – 2017. Or even write the speech you plan to give at your first launch.

Now leave the artefact in a place you’ll see it every day, and that’ll remind you what you’re working toward. It’s not simply words on a page, but something people will buy and possibly admire.

Think how you’ll feel when it really does happen.

I’ve started so I’ll finish.

Normally, blog entries come to me easily. It might be prompted by a comment during the week, or be inspired by a particular problem I’m having.

This week, however, I’ve been struggling to complete an entry. I started on the topic of swearing, then about gaps in your writing CV, then about third-person biographies, but none of these topics were going anywhere. I might return to them in the future, but today’s entry is about finishing what you start.

I normally good at finishing stories and poems, but I have a few that have been untouched since the first draft. Most recently, I was asked to respond to an exhibition at Dundee Contemporary Arts. I abandoned my original idea after four verses because it was much too wordy and I wanted to take the narrative in a different direction. Here are those four verses:

We saw the archipelago of masts
while sailing over Dogger Bank in gale
force six conditions. They displayed full sails
like pirate vessels of the ancient past.
They numbered in the twenties. We informed
our captain. She immediately warned

them of our presence with a blast,
instructed us to try the radio.
All frequencies, all wattages, yet no
response was heard. When 30 minutes passed,
she ordered that her ship should deviate
of-course toward the masts, though gale force eight

was forecast. Once we had a closer view,
we noticed something out of place. The decks
were underwater. So it seemed. We checked
again. Correct. All decks submerged, no crew,
no skeletons, no personal effects,
just masts with sails and ragged flags. Perplexed,

we asked the captain where to go. Perplexed,
she stopped us by the archipelago.
Again we tried to use the radio
as gale force eight turned into 10. The next
the next we knew, the bow was pointing in the air.
It knocked us to the deck.

This needs a lot of work done. There are a number of options to breathe new life into it: cut out unnecessary words and phrases, continue to add verses, rewrite it as prose, recycle elements of it into other works, and/or cut it into individual phrases and shuffle them about.

To make what became the response, I used some elements of this story, cut out a lot of detail and rendered it as prose. The final result mimicked the shipping forecast on Radio 4.

I’ve done something similar for older pieces. Around 2011, I wasn’t writing much poetry and I thought what I had was quite a good piece. Four years later, I revisited it while answering a writing prompt and it wasn’t as good as I remembered. I took the same idea but structured the verse differently and I’m now happy with it.

Some writers seem scared to finish pieces, as if they’ll think of a better word or structure as soon as it’s been submitted to a publisher. But if its publication you’re looking for, there comes a time when you need to let go of it. Remember there will be every opportunity to amend it if it’s rejected, and some publishers will allow – or insist upon – amendments if it’s accepted.

I’ve been asked before how I know when I’ve finished a piece. That’s not an easy one to answer, but the best measure I have is when I stop thinking about it day-to-day. That’s when I leave it alone for a while, then revisit it with fresh eyes later on.

It’s a good idea to finish what you start, at least to the best of your ability. If you see the perfect outlet for your piece, it’s much easier to tweak it than to have to add or remove significant portions. You might then be able to submit it comfortably before the deadline.