A tough year in review

Last October, I wrote up a blog post tracking what I had done as a writer over the previous year. It was an easy and enjoyable post to write. I keep giant spreadsheets with all the necessary data, so I didn’t have to spend a lot of time pulling together numbers. And, more importantly, I was on a roll at that time. Things were going good! I had written 43 stories that year, and I had sold 18 of them. Who wouldn’t want to share those numbers?

The point of the post last year was to explain how much work lay behind the 18 acceptances. They didn’t just materialize out of thin air. In fact, there were lots of other stories I’d written that hadn’t sold (many of which still haven’t). And when you factored in all the submissions I made, my acceptance rate was scarcely better than 10%. So even if it looked like I was selling a lot, I was still getting turned down nine out of ten times.

This year, I have a different story to tell. It’s a little less fun though.

Stories
At the beginning of this year, I had 31 stories already written that I thought were worth shopping around to publishers. Over the course of the year, I wrote 19 more. But that bare number is deceiving. Here’s my output divided into quarters:

First quarter: 10 stories written
Second quarter: 6 stories written
Third quarter: 3 stories written
Fourth quarter: ZERO stories written

Over the course of the year, I sold 17 stories. But again, this is deceiving. Here are the sales divided into quarters:

First quarter: 8 stories sold
Second quarter: 5 stories sold
Third quarter: 3 stories sold
Fourth quarter: 1 story sold

My goal had been to write 24 stories over the course of the year. Despite a fantastic start, I fell short of that. But what really makes me worried is the apparent trend of how things are going.

Submissions
I didn’t keep up with my submissions this past year either. In 2012, I made 170 total submissions. This year, I only managed 75 — a drop of more than half. Partly, that was a result of having fewer stories to send out, but mostly it was a lack of follow-through on my part. There were months where I didn’t submit any stories at all, despite the fact that I had some sitting around.

This kind of thing can become a vicious cycle if you let it. Past success is never encouraging for long — sooner or later (usually sooner), confidence starts to wane again. Weird thoughts run through your mind: I used to be a decent writer, but I’m obviously not anymore. You write less, you submit less, you see less success. Rinse, wash, repeat.

The trouble is that things don’t get any easier. The door to success doesn’t magically stay open by itself just because you’ve been through it a few times before. It turns out that you still have to work really hard to write the next good story. And sometimes it seems like you’ll never manage to do it again. This is normal.

Acceptances
It’s impossible to be disappointed with 17 acceptances in one year, especially since 10 of those sales were to markets that pay “professional” rates of 5 cents per word or more.

(I should note that not all of the 17 acceptances came from the 75 submissions I made. Many of them came from stories that had been submitted the previous year.)

On the other hand, it’s now been five months since I’ve had any short story acceptances. That part doesn’t feel so good. And even though acceptances are largely out of my hand, it’s obvious that the first step is to write and submit stories, which I’ve been having a tough time with.

[EDIT: I hadn’t sold anything in five months when I originally wrote this post, several weeks ago. I have since sold a couple more stories — hooray! Those sales definitely made me feel very good after so long. But my “writing year” runs September to August, so they don’t add to my stats for this 2013 review.]

Payments
The 17 stories I sold represented a combined income of just under $2,100. About 85% of the income came from the 10 pro-rate sales. This is consistent with what I saw last year — my writing income overwhelmingly comes from a few generous markets that pay good rates.

Conclusion
Despite all the sales I made at the beginning of this year, I’ve spent most of the year feeling pretty down on my progress as a writer. From what I hear from other writers, this kind of lapse is normal. Even after you’ve sold dozens of stories and feel like you’ve figured it out, it’s still possible to hit bad patches where it seems like you’ll never sell a story again.

As far as I’ve been able to determine, my own rough patch probably had three proximate causes:

  • Process changes: When Duotrope went to a pay model, I stopped using it and didn’t replace it with an adequate system. In particular, I kept my master submission spreadsheet on a different computer from the one where I usually send and receive emails, which really disrupted my submissions process.
  • Life changes: Over the past year, I started making writing a lower priority. This is not a bad thing necessarily, since there’s more to life to writing and I had some big life events occur in the past year. But it takes a toll on output, and if writing continues to be a lower priority for me then I may have to revise my expectations downward. See here for a couple books I helped edit, for instance.
  • Writing changes: This is difficult to explain, but the way I think about my own writing has changed. There are stories I would have happily written and sold a year ago that I wouldn’t bother with today. I don’t know if this is a permanent change and I don’t know exactly what it means. It might mean that I’ve refined my sensibility somewhat, and am becoming a more discriminating writer. Or it may mean that I’ve grown gun-shy and less confident for some reason. Either way, it has its effect on my productivity.

 

Although I’ve been working on turning things around, I’m not out of this rough patch yet. I’ve been better about keeping up with my submissions — that’s something I have total control over, and sending stories out really does have a positive impact on how I feel as a writer. Even though it mostly means getting more rejections, it still makes me feel like I’m doing something. Like I’m part of the game.

I’ve written a couple new stories too, which is a good start. But I’ve never measured my success as a short story writer by what I’ve done in the past. I’ve always looked ahead to the future. How many stories do I have lined up for publication? How many stories am I trying to sell, and how many of those do I feel good about? How many stories will I finish this month, and how many of those do I feel good about?

Things may never go back to the way they were two years ago. I may never again write forty stories in a year. I might become a writer who writes twenty stories per year. Or maybe I’ll spring back to form, better and more productive than ever.

But I’m not too worried either. I like to keep statistics like these so I can see how my progress changes over time. But I don’t want the statistics to drive my behaviors. There is more at stake here than productivity and success metrics.

Ultimately, it’s not important if I write or sell more stories next year. It’s only important that the stories I sell have something interesting to say, and say it in a compelling way.

[EDIT: In the couple months since I wrote this, I have replaced Duotrope with Submissions Grinder. It’s definitely helped to keep my submissions on track — which has resulted in selling a couple stories to Asimov’s Science Fiction and Beneath Ceaseless Skies, which feels great. I’ve also finished a couple of stories that I feel really good about, and have made progress on others.

So right now, just a month or two later, I feel like things are really looking up. I didn’t hold on to this post intentionally so that I could add a happy-ish ending to it, but I’m glad that it worked out that way.

To be honest, I don’t know if occasionally taking time off from writing is a good or productive thing… For some it might be, for others it might not. But it’s clearly not a disaster that can’t be recovered from. In short fiction, you have endless second chances, so long as you don’t give up on your goals.]


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