Monday, December 19, 2011

The Life of a Story: Idea to Publication

I've received some questions in the comments to recent blog posts about my story-writing process. I provided replies on several specific details, but thought that the topic as a whole was large enough that it really needed its own post. So, as promised to the person who left those comments, this is that post.

First, a disclaimer. I've written about 30 stories this year, and maybe 75 or so in my lifetime. I've also never had more than a low-end semi-pro publication. So, take this advice for what it is, the comments of someone who's still striving to make a mark in fiction.  That out of the way, let's talk about what I do when writing.

Most of my stories start with a plot idea rather than a character or setting idea. Sometimes that idea is very general, other times it's quite specific -- such as the central clue of a mystery story around which everything else will depend. Where do these ideas come from?

They come from all over the place. Sometimes, as with the story I started tonight, it's a comment I hear in conversation that sparks an idea. Other times, what I come up with first is -- of all things -- the title, and then I want to figure out what that title means. (This doesn't happen that often, but one of my other short story works in progress started in just that way. It took me a week or two to finally come up with an idea to fit the darn title!) Many of the stories, in fine speculative fiction tradition, start with me thinking "what if?" about some specific technology or concept.

I do have a handful of stories I've written that started with character and/or setting. Generally speaking, I think I've been less happy with these than my other stories. And, since I don't tend to have a plot in mind when I've started they have frequently required heavy revisions.

Bottom line -- for me -- is that ideas are everywhere. Right now at least, I literally have too many ideas. I'm struggling to get them all through first draft. That's something I still need to find a better way to manage, even if it's not feeling quite as overwhelming as it did last week when I made my "A Juggling Act" post.

I try to get through a first draft relatively quickly. Most of my stories (and realize, the vast majority of these are under 5,000 words) go through first draft in a week or so, even if they're competing with other stories for writing time. In fact, to a certain extent, if I'm not feeling compelled enough to work on a story to get a first draft done in a week, that's sort of a hint to me that maybe some part of my brain is feeling that there's  something not right with the idea. I rarely finish a story in a single session if it's longer than flash fiction length (1000 words or fewer). It happens occasionally, but it's far from the norm. Two to four sessions is probably more typical.

I almost never do much in the way of revisions during a first draft. The one exception is if I catch a huge glaring plot hole in a story mid-way through. Since how I resolve that will impact the rest of the story, potentially, I typically stop and apply at least a bit of what I call "plot spackle." That is to say, I figure out how I'll fix the whole and type up something in about the right place to cover over the hole. The goal there isn't neatness or fine writing, it's getting something in place to be tidied up later and to guide the rest of the story.

Once I'm done with the first draft I take a second pass through before showing it to anyone. Before I do that, I copy my story out of Google Docs where I do all my first drafts and paste it into my template Word document which has the standard manuscript format as laid out by William Shunn. This is my chance to fix typos, "continuity" errors like a character's name changing, etc. and anything else that jumps out at me. If I'm aiming for a specific word target for a market then this is also where I try to trim to that length.

From here, I'm going to do one of two things. I'm either going to submit it to a market, or I'm going to send it to a critique partner. I'd say I send about 3/4th of my stories to critique partners these days. I can't say there's any rhyme or reason to the 1/4th I don't. Occasionally it's because I'm trying to hit a deadline or because the story is one that I don't think I really have a good crit partner match for.

If I'm going to send the story to a critique partner (CP), I first contact the person I trade stories with where I think there's the best fit between critiquer and story. (Or, if no real "fit" jumps out at me, just the person I've traded stories with least recently or someone who's asked me to trade stories and I happen to have one ready.) I send the story, usually with very little commentary unless there's something extremely specific I want their opinion on. Mostly, I want them to read the story as "fresh" as possible. I wait for their feedback and work on critiquing their story if they sent me one. When I get the response back, I read it over, think about it, and then make whatever revisions I think are best. Occasionally, I'll ask a clarifying question or bounce a couple of ideas off a critique partner. You don't want to argue with your critique partners, and you always want to thank them. Ultimately, it's your story, and if you think the direction your CP suggests truly is wrong -- and you're sure you're not just tied to your own ideas -- then the best thing to do is thank them politely and move on. This is also a time it could make sense to find a second CP for the story. And if that person tells you the same thing the first person did, well... Maybe it's time to at least take a stab at what they're suggesting.

So, either I've gotten and processed CP feedback or I've skipped that step. Now it's time to submit! This is (one of) the exciting part(s)! Really, it is. I know there are people out there who find submitting their work intimidating. All I can say is try not to feel that way. The absolute worst thing that can happen is you'll get a rejection. And the vast majority of those will either be form letters which are completely impersonal (in which case, there's no reason to be offended) or useful in some way. I've only heard of one market where multiple people have felt the rejection letters were unprofessional. (I'm sure there are more -- I'm speaking only of my own limited experience/contacts, mostly in spec-fic.) I've received 200 or more rejection letters in my life and I can remember exactly one which I reacted negatively to. And I was about 18 at that time and almost certainly less in the right than the editor who sent the rejection letter.

Yes, rejection hurts sometimes. But if you never send your work out you are SELF-rejecting it. Please -- if you've read this far, you obviously care about your writing -- so don't do this to yourself.  There are plenty of places to go when you're feeling blue about rejections: Twitter, blogs of friends, the Absolute Write Water Cooler. People there will commiserate with you and try to help you get better as a writer. Seriously.

Before you send out your story, you have to have some idea where you might be able to submit it. When I was a wee pup that meant shelling out money for the annual Novel & Short Story Writer's Market from Writers' Digest. No longer. There is a wonderful website called Duotrope which has literally thousands of market listings and a good search tool. (It's free, but if you use it regularly, it's well worth sending a little cash their way every now and again, in my opinion.) You can use this to find markets which may be interested in your story and links to their websites for the submission process. You can also use it to track your outstanding submissions and obsess over keep track on their progress.

Additionally, reading some issues of the publications first is always a good way to get an idea if your story may be a good fit. For that matter, if you're not already doing so, reading in the genre(s) you write in is a very important part of your learning process as a writer. You don't have to read every issue or story printed on a publication's website, but even reading a few stories from a magazine or website can give you some idea of the type of thing they publish. Do you have to do this for every publication? No. But doing it for as many as you can reasonably manage should decrease the number of times you send a story out to a market that has no chance of printing your work.

You may well run your search and end up with a huge list of potential markets as places where you could send your story. Which markets to try first? I generally start with pro-paying markets that I think are good fits for a story. Yes, I blogged recently about my huge backlog meaning that I may start sending some stories that I think are lesser works on to semi-pro markets sooner than I otherwise would. But I think that's sort of an exception to the general rule. I would suggest rarely starting with a semi-pro market or a token market unless it's something like a story for a theme anthology that you really want to write for. (One point about those theme anthologies. They can be fun. But, if their theme is very specific you can end up with a story that's hard to market if it's rejected.)

Read the guidelines before submitting. Every word. Again, seriously. And then follow every word. Even if it means having to create a one-off copy of your story with Times New Roman or Comic Sans or whatever. Not following guidelines is an easy way to get a rejection.

Finally, you're ready to submit. If you've read all the guidelines and understood them and you have your manuscript in the right format, don't hesitate. Just. Do. It. Then you wait. (This is one of the less-fun parts of the whole deal.) And, very important here, while you're waiting you write your next story.

Eventually, you'll hear back from the publisher. If it's Lightspeed or Clarkesworld (to list two examples), you may hear back in a few days. If it's certain other publications... well, you might write a lot more stories while you're waiting to hear back.

Speaking again of Duotrope. On their pages for each market you can find average response times. I rarely submit to places that average over 90 days. It has to be a very special market for me to want a story sitting around in a slush pile more than three months.  The average response time seems to be in the 20-45 day range, on the whole, but that's just me guesstimating from memory and gut feel.

Eventually, you'll hear back. If it's a rejection and it's a form rejection, update your submission tracking information in Duotrope and your own personal submission tracking document. (Yes, you need both. What if Duotrope loses their database somehow? It can happen. And then where are you in terms of knowing what stories you have out where and where you've sent them before? A bad place, that's where.) Then send that puppy back out. How many times should you send a rejected story back out into the marketplace? For me, until I run out of paying markets where I'd want to submit the story or until I decide that I no longer have "faith" in the story and wouldn't want my name attached to it.

Maybe you didn't get a form rejection though. If it's a personal rejection with suggestions, treat them just like you would from a crit partner. Now, unless it's an explicit rewrite request, with the editor saying "Make these changes and send me the new version" do NOT send it again to the same market. That's a quick way to make a name for yourself -- a bad name. But you might want to consider those suggestions before you submit to another market. Just don't turn it into an excuse to let the story sit around idle forever. (Some will tell you that this violates one of "[Robert] Heinlein's Rules" specifically "Rule Three: You Must Refrain From Rewriting, Except to Editorial Order." I prefer Robert J. Sawyer's rephrasing "Don't tinker endlessly with your story." I personally would suggest only under special circumstances modifying a story you've already set out into the wild one or more times. An insightful comment from an editor would strike me as being a potential example of such circumstances.)

If it's a personal rejection without suggestions but with praise, well, then just treasure it. Especially if it comes from a market where personal rejections are rare. That means you came close, and that's something meaningful. It also means you should try to send them something else -- something just as good or better -- soon. You've gotten the editor's attention and you want to strike while the iron is hot. But sending a poor effort next won't help your case any.

If you do get an explicit rewrite request, decide if you feel the changes are ones you want to make given another crack at that market. I've never had one of these, but I suspect I'd take a go at them unless I felt like they really undermined the story. (And, again, if I felt this I would probably want a reality check from a writer friend to make sure I hadn't just fallen in love with my own words.) If you're going to try the rewrite, I would do it promptly and then send it with a polite cover letter mentioning the rewrite request. If you're not, I don't believe any further communication is necessary.

If it's none of the above and you received a response, that should mean it's an acceptance. Celebrate. But read the contract carefully before you sign it. Know what rights you're selling and for how long. This is also a good time to start working on another story which you think might appeal to this market. (But check and make sure they don't have a request that you not resubmit after an acceptance for a certain length of time. Again, 100% adherence to guidelines is important.)

There are a few other possible endings here. The market could go dead without warning. The submission could simply have gotten lost in the shuffle on the publisher's end. Again, Duotrope to the rescue! They keep track of markets which close, so you can keep an eye out for something going awry in that manner. And if you have a submission which has been out significantly longer than typical you could write a polite query asking if your submission was still under consideration. Before doing this, I would double-check my own email for any response to my original submission and check the guidelines. Both of those are places which might say "Please do not query before X days/weeks/months." If it hasn't been that long yet, be patient. No matter how badly you might want to know.

And keep working on the next story. And the next. That's the road to getting better and getting published.

Wow. This ended up being long. And I didn't even touch on postal submissions (or international postal submissions) or simultaneous submission or... Well. You get the idea.

I hope that you find it helpful and PLEASE, if you see something I missed or something you feel needs elaborated on or even (*gasp*) corrected, holler in the comments. I don't know everything, and everyone can learn something.

Happy writing!


  1. Nice post, Michael.

    I used to regularly springboard into a story from a title, but now i often find myself having written a story, but having no title to attach to it!

    On the ideas front, i've heard/read more than one pro writer say/write that over the course of their writing career they've written less than one-quarter of their ideas (and as soon as i write that, i can't remember any examples. d'oh!). I'm only young in my writing career, and i've already got a folder full of ideas and one or two paragraph story starts.

    And i totally love subbing new stories, too. A tingle of excitement zips along my shoulders and down my back every time. Hell, even when i've had a story rejected 18 times, i still get a tingle when i send it to another market :)

  2. Thanks for stopping by, Samuel. I have the same issue sometimes of having a story but no title, or only a "working" title that I'm not really pleased with.

    That's an interesting point about the abandoned ideas. I have some of those myself, but struggle with it sometimes. Especially once I've gotten 500 or so words down on a story, I want to see it through. It's sort of tricky balancing this with the idea of "finish what you start." Ultimately, though, if you're getting a lot of stories completed and subbed (as I know you are) then what you're doing is working for you.

    I appreciate your comments!

  3. Really enjoyed that blog post. It's always nice to read how other people work and pinch anything you think might be good for you.

  4. Thanks, dedbutdrmng! Glad you found some things which might help you.

  5. My story ideas usually start as visual scenes in my head (I find it easier to write what I "see" that way). They typically flash to me when I'm listening to emotionally evocative music (so there's also an emotional component embedded the visual scene). Then I work the scene (generally just a story fragment) backwards and forwards in my mind, trying to make sense of it. Once I have something to work with, I'll write down the basic components of the story so I don't forget it. Then I keep working the scene in my head, adding to it as I go, until I assemble enough pieces for a whole story. This lets me "work" while daydreaming.

  6. Very interesting, Robert! I can do the whole working the story forward and backward in my head part, but there's very little visual component. It's more like listening to an audiobook or hearing someone tell a story for me. I don't tend to be good at imagining things visually.

    And, yes, I make sure to take notes when I get an idea going. If I don't, it's easy to lose track of what I'd developed mentally.

    Thanks for stopping by!

  7. Great post! I'd love to create something Tor-worthy but can't stand the idea of a year-long slush pile. I'm too impatient for that crap, especially if I managed to pull off a brilliant piece (as it would need to be). Imagine sitting forever on work you considered solid gold. Someday I vow to aim high and hope that the endless wait will dull the pain of the fall. Just maybe. ;)