Good manners are free

I have a few ambitions as a writer, some predictable, some maybe not so much. There is one I wouldn’t have predicted when I was considering stepping into the big, scary world of submitting to market, but which is now very important to me.

I want to be a writer other people find it pleasant to work with. I want to be the kind of writer who pays attention to submission guidelines, reading periods and deadlines. I want to submit my work when it’s as good as I can make it, and respond promptly, politely and with good grace to editors; or, in the case of rejection, not at all.

It would never have occurred to me, back when I only wrote for myself, that this would be a thing. I’ve heard some tales that really surprised me, about writers answering rejection letters with abusive emails describing the editor as a jackass who doesn’t recognise genius when he/she sees it. In my time as a slush reader I’ve seen submissions that have completely boggled my mind; I had no idea there were so many ways to fail at submission guidelines.

Good manners cost nothing, but leave an impression. Any sane person is more likely to consider working with someone who is polite and professional than someone who throws her toys out of the pram in the face of criticism or takes forever to respond to requests.

I haven’t managed a pro-sale yet. There is a list of markets I would love to crack, and a number of other achievements I hope to unlock one day. They will require hard work, dedication and not a little luck, because there are things I will need that are outside my control. Being courteous and professional? That’s entirely down to me, and there’s no excuse not to have it already.

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A triathlete’s guide to dealing with rejection

I’ve been submitting a lot more this year, which inevitably means handling an increased number of rejections. Rejection is never fun, but it’s part and parcel of writing life. There was a time, back in the dim and distant neon glow of the past, when I believed my first story sale would be some kind of watershed. It would mean I’d learned how to write and everything flowing from my pen from that moment on would be finest prose, to be snapped up by eager publishers. I would dance around in an ecstatic haze surrounded by fluffy unicorns, and I’d fart fine fiction materialising in rainbow ink to be formatted by a team of highly trained aye-ayes.

Needless to say, it doesn’t quite work like that.

I started submitting in 2010, relatively late in life for someone who turns as many trees into words as I do. That year I submitted one piece as a favour to a friend. In 2011 I submitted a second on a whim. Both were accepted. I submitted three in 2012 (three personal rejections), and so far this year I have submitted eight pieces with one acceptance and two personal rejections. This is nothing like a high submissions rate. I am aiming for eight or more submissions in a month, but it’s going to take me a while to get there.

This year has been a learning curve in all sorts of ways. I’ve learned the value of good crit — and by that I mean intelligent, insightful and constructive crit. I’ve learned crit partners who will take time to analyse my work and subject it to scrutiny, and who are prepared to be hard but fair, are a precious commodity to be treasured. I’ve also learned the real prize in the process of preparing a story for submission to market is the creation of a good story. The story is the commodity, in the same way a cut diamond is the prize, rather than the eventual sum paid for that diamond (with the difference that you sell rights to your story, not the story itself).

A while ago I did an interview for the Literature Show. One of the questions we didn’t have time to cover was whether I felt doing triathlon had any influence on my writing. I’d have said it most definitely does. I race for one main reason: if I didn’t have the races as targets, I wouldn’t train. Competing is my way of injecting motivation to keep fit. If you race, you make time to train. You go out in the rain. You invest time and effort for a prize that is nothing to do with standing on the podium — the podium, particularly when elite athletes are involved, is the preserve of the genetically gifted and those whose job it is to compete in triathlons. Those of us who make up the ranks of the age groupers do it for the achievement, for the fun, and for the goal of being fit enough to compete.

Submitting to paying markets is similar. Without the goal of making it past the guardians of the slush pile and giving sufficient enjoyment to an editor that he or she is prepared to pay for the rights, I would not put the same effort into my work. I spent years writing without that goal in mind, and the difference between what I write now and what I wrote during that time is one of craft. It’s the precision of comma use, the lack of extraneous thats, the avoidance of unnecessary qualifiers and the focus on making each sentence carry the story forward. I’m not saying my work is perfect, by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s miles better than it was.

Putting in the runs, the swim sessions and the bike training, turning up for a race, racking my bike, prepping my transition area, putting vaseline in my shoes, and remembering to put my helmet on before touching my bike will not guarantee me a win. It does mean I’m fit enough to compete. The drafting, re-drafting, editing, crits, re-editing and submission will not guarantee a story sale. They do mean a story I am happy to submit, and there are always other markets.

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