Storyville: 10 Ways to Evaluate Your Writing Career
If you’ve been writing for a few years, you may be curious if you’re making any progress. How exactly is your career going? Is it still in the “hobby” phase or have you gotten serious about it? Is your work getting out there, are you making any money, are people starting to notice you—even strangers? Well good, it sounds like you are evolving as an author. Let’s take a closer look at what exactly you’re doing (or not doing) to get an idea of your evolution. And as always, these ideas of “success” are my own, and you may have your own way of judging how you are doing, and that’s totally okay.
This should be a pretty basic concept—are you actually writing and producing work? Not just talking about it, not just hanging out in forums and on Facebook discussing authors, are you actually writing fiction? Take a look at your body of work, all of your short stories, your novels, whatever you’re focused on these days. You should have a folder of short stories someplace, and maybe a novel or two. What kind of output do you have? Part of the reason that I encourage people to write short stories is that you can feel that sense of accomplishment much quicker. It doesn’t take two years to write, edit, and publish a story. Or at least, it shouldn’t. Are you starting projects and then not finishing them? FINISH THEM! I can’t say how much you should be writing, everyone writes at their own pace, but I’d think that you should write at least six short stories a year. That’s one every other month. Novels? Oh boy, so much more work. But if you’ve been writing for five years, you should have at least one novel done, I think. Just be honest, and look at your work. Look at the dates of when they were finished. How many did you write in 2011, 2012, how many this year? If you are buckling down and producing, then that’s good. I’ve written over 75 stories in five years (that’s about a story a month) and two novels. But I think I’ve only written about six this year. You should be able to write one story a month, right?
Well, it probably goes without saying that if you’re writing twenty stories a year but they all suck, then you’re not really getting better, making progress. How can you tell if your writing, the quality of your prose, is improving? We’ll get to publishing in a moment, but part of this is once again looking deep into your own heart, your mind, your soul and really being honest with yourself—you should know. I can look back at stories I wrote in 2009 and see that I definitely was making mistakes, using gimmicks, and I sometimes cringe at the quality of the writing. Oh did I love to tell, instead of show. I can pick out stories that sound way too much like King or Palahniuk, for sure. How else can you judge the quality of your work? Well, if you’re in a workshop, what are people saying, are they digging the work more, are you getting better ratings? Have you taken classes, or read books on the craft, and fixed problems in your writing? Does your dialogue ring true, are your settings lush and layered—when you get to the end is the climax satisfying? Yeah, I said satisfying climax. Come on, you know when it’s good. Be honest. This is your evaluation of your writing, for the most part, you and your close circle of friends. We’ll get to the editors and publications in a moment. If you have put in some work, really studied and read and practiced, I’m sure you are probably getting better. Part of being a writer is being honest with yourself, about all aspects of your career.
Sure, you don’t have to send any of your work out, keep it to yourself, you selfish bastard. If you were sitting right here in my office with me, and I turned to you and asked you, “Renee, are you sending your work out?” what would you say? “Rebecca, how many stories do you have out right now?” What about, “Bill, that story we just worked on, that really good one, it’s out to how many places right now?” Could you look me in the eye and be proud of your efforts? I know, I know, it sucks to send your work out. I understand what a monumental pain in the ass the research is, the cover letters, the formatting, the guidelines—it’s all so annoying. But if you don’t get out there and bust your butt, do you know who is going to do it for you? Nobody, that’s who. You’ve written the story, you’ve sweated over it, edited it, workshopped it and now it’s done, you can’t look at that thing for one more second, but you KNOW it’s good—send it out. Please. You should have each and every story out to at least five publications, if not 10, or 15. In the past year I’ve sent out over 300 submissions, for about 10 stories. Some of my MFA work, my thesis material I’ve been shopping for over a year. The story I just got into Cemetery Dance took 252 days, and was rejected by 40 places. SEND. IT. OUT. There are plenty of markets that are open to simultaneous submissions, or hit the ones up first that aren’t, one at a time, but give yourself a chance.
Well, this goes hand in hand with the submissions process, right? One of the best ways to get an indication of your writing is to see where you’re placing your work. When I started out, I was happy to place a story anywhere. I would send my work to anyone. And then one day, I wrote a story that I was really proud of, and it got accepted at a market that was not as exclusive and cool as I thought it was. I’d made a mistake—I settled. And I regretted it. As you evolve, your writing should be getting accepted at better and better places. Look at the acceptance rate, look at the pay (if there is any) and start aiming higher, if you aren’t already. We all have goals, I can’t tell you where to send your work, only you can decide what’s possible. If you want to submit to The Paris Review and Tin House and Shock Totem and Clarkesword, then do it. Take the shot. But don’t give up if you don't get in. Keep doing your research and make a long list of where you would like to place your story, and then go for it. Over time, look at the places you’re publishing. Are you starting to get paid for your writing? Good, you should. Have you finally broken into that elite market you’ve been trying to get into for years? Great, that’s progress. Is that cool little artsy magazine taking your latest story? Fantastic, your work will look great in that layout. Are you alongside your friends and peers in the latest horror anthology? Excellent. There are all kinds of ways to be satisfied with your writing, about where you publish it. I place my writing in a wide range of places—online and in print, in journals, magazines, and anthologies, for no pay, for low pay, for professional pay. One of the ways that I personally feel like I can tell if I’m getting better, to evaluate my work is to look at the white whales that I’m finally harpooning. I put up that list here at LitReactor about where to send your work, and since then, I’ve been able to sell stories to Midwestern Gothic and Cemetery Dance. That’s progress for me. I’ve gotten personal rejections and notes from editors at pretty big places (such as Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine) encouraging me to submit more. These are ways to tell if you’re getting better, if you’re career is going well.
5: BIGGER PROJECTS
One way to tell that you’re evolving is if you’ve taken on bigger projects. Did you finally finish your first novel? Did you put together a short story collection? It takes a lot of hard work, months, if not years, to write, edit and finish a novel. I’d say even if you’ve only written it, and haven’t sold it yet, be proud of that accomplishment. Did you look up one day and realize that you had written 20 short stories, and that you have a 40,000-word collection sitting right in front of you? Good, that means you have stuck with it, you’ve spent a lot of time on your craft, and finished a good amount of work. You haven’t given up, and that’s a good thing. Writing a column, publishing a novella, experimenting in a wide range of genres, if you’re putting it out there, taking on more, you’re probably evolving as a writer.
6: LANDING AN AGENT
If you’ve finally gotten an agent, that’s a good sign that your work is improving. Agents will only take on writing that is polished, compelling, and sellable. Do you have to have an agent to succeed? No. But if you want to get your novel to the “Big Six” and all of their imprints, you have to have an agent. They are still the gatekeepers, and by signing with an agent, you have proven that your writing is of a certain caliber. That doesn’t mean that your work is done, that it’s time to go buy a mansion and a yacht, but it does mean that you’re getting better, that you’re writing at a higher level.
7: PUBLIC RESPONSE
I’m not talking about your friends and family here, although that support is always great, I’m talking about strangers, editors, and publishers. I remember the first time I got an email from somebody on Facebook in GERMANY telling me how much he liked my novel, Transubstantiate. I was shocked. I wasn’t even sure how he got a copy. But it blew me away. If you are seeing more and more people respond to your writing, strangers, that’s a good thing. If you’re getting more and more personal responses from editors, even if they reject your story, that’s progress. If agents and presses are starting to notice you, commenting on your latest sale, retweeting and “liking” you latest Facebook announcement, that’s good news. Are you starting to get nominated for awards, winning contests, making it into the “best of” anthologies (or even the “honorable mentions”)? That’s you improving and getting better at your craft. Take whatever bit of attention you’re getting, and savor it. People are starting to notice you, sexy. Good job.
8: YOUR NETWORK
This is an easy thing to measure, if you’re involved with social media. How many followers do you have on Twitter? We all started with zero. Is the number getting bigger? What about Facebook, do you have a “fan page?” If so, how many followers do you have? On Goodreads, how many people have marked your novel, collection, or even that anthology or magazine you're in as “to-read?” Watch the numbers, and see if they grow. And beyond that, when you DO make that big announcement, what’s the response—crickets? Or is it dozens of people saying “Way to go!” as they retweet you. Did hundreds of people click “like” when you finally sold that novel? I know a lot of this stuff sounds self-serving, even a bit egotistical, but it’s not. Being aware of your network, growing your “fan base” (I know, I can hardly say it myself) is a good thing. I’m always moved by the response I get to an announcement, or when a new book or story comes out. I still get a thrill just knowing that somebody enjoyed my writing, and that’s really what’s at the heart of all of this, right? But sometimes it’s good to crunch the numbers.
There, I said it. I used that horrible word, that dirty word—money. Are you, sir (or madam) getting paid for your work? For a long time I’d cuddle up with just about any editor that batted his or her eyes at me. I was easy. And then I got a bit more particular. That’s right, I wanted to get paid for my sexy-time. And you should too. Why not, right? You worked hard, this is your gift, your trade, and you SHOULD get paid. But I also understand, brothers and sisters, I do. You have to start someplace, and if that means no pay, just exposure, then so be it. I like that I have a lot of stories online, that people can find, and read for free. I certainly didn’t get paid for most of them. It’s a body of work, and I’m happy it’s out there. But I am certainly trying to get paid now, whenever it’s possible. Would I put my story in a top publication if it didn’t pay? Sure. Sadly, there are a LOT of fantastic literary journals out there that don’t pay a dime. And it’s not all about the money either—I get that. But take a moment and look at how long and hard you’ve been working on your craft. At some point I had to look my wife in the eye and tell her that I hadn’t made a fucking dime on anything I’d ever published. How do you think that made me feel? It certainly didn’t impress her, either. How could I rationalize my time, time spent away from my family? So I started keeping track. And over time, as I got better, as I sold a novel, and then a few short story collections, a few horror stories, making it into the Horror Writers Association—I put that money in an account. I’m not rich, I can’t even quit my day job yet, but I can look at that savings account and be proud of what I’ve done. People are paying me for my words. They value my art, my craft. And that feels pretty damn good.
As you look back across all of these different ways to evaluate and analyze your writing career, have your aspirations changed? I imagine they have. I used to be happy to get accepted anywhere, now I am targeting a wide range of publications, excited to send them my work, thrilled to read a copy of a magazine, and think to myself, “Hey, I might be able to get in here.” I am not as afraid to submit my work to the best places in the country anymore. The worst they can say is NO. Believe it or not, I’ve avoided some places because I didn’t think my writing was good enough. “I’ll never get in there, why bother.” And that’s a bad attitude. Sure, you may never break into certain markets, I may not either, but at least you know you tried. Who knows what an editor may be thinking on that day. “Dammit, I wish somebody would send me a story about a vampire that feeds on negative energy.” BAM. Story sold. “I wish somebody would send me a modern day “choose-your-own-path” story, but with a contemporary, adult twist. BAM. Story sold.
Recently I was talking on a thread here at LR, and the subject of positive thinking came up. I know that I don’t always have the best attitude when it comes to my writing and my career. When I got that email recently from Cemetery Dance, a place I’ve dreamed of publishing for YEARS, my first thought was, “Crap, here we go. 252 days, and the form rejection.” And then I stopped. I thought to myself, “NO. I’m not going to think that. They took a story of mine once—they might do it again. I can do this—I can break into this market. That story I sent them is one of the best I’ve ever written.” And I opened that email, and I had to read it twice. Did that say, “We do not want to publish your story,” or did it say, “We would like to publish your story.” I blinked my eyes, and I read it again, and then I almost started crying. I’m not ashamed to admit it. I thought the day would never come.
This column isn’t about what I’ve done, you don't need to measure yourself against my writing, or the success of the literary giants that I chase, people like Stephen Graham Jones and Matt Bell and Lindsay Hunter and Roxane Gay. I put those carrots out there so I have something to strive for, aiming higher than I should, knowing the fall is greater, but risking it anyway. If I wasn’t bipolar when I started my writing career, I certainly am now. Just take an honest look at your writing—how much you produce, the quality of your stories, and the success you are having. Are you proud of your work, where you’re placing it, and the compensation? If not, change it. There isn’t a person here at LR that doesn't have a chance—it’s one of the most talented pools of authors I’ve ever seen. Pull your head out of the sand and look around you, take a moment to evaluate your career. You may not like what you see, and that’s okay—do something about it. There are always more words, right, more stories to tell? I’m sure that nobody on here remembers Casey Kasem (I’m really revealing how old I am now, and maybe that’s part of the reason I push so hard to get my writing out there, I’m just THAT much closer to the grave, that much older than so many people here). But he used to have a catch phrase, and it’s kind of corny, but I’ll toss it out there anyway: “Keep your feet on the ground and keep reaching for the stars.” So do that. Stay grounded, exist in the reality of where you are as an author, but never stop aiming high, striving for the best. I know you can do it.
I mentioned a few authors above. Here are stories by them: Stephen Graham Jones at Mixer with “Sly Boys,” Matt Bell at Willow Springs with “The Receiving Tower,” Lindsay Hunter at Annalemma with “My Boyfriend Del,” and Roxane Gay at The Fiddleback with “In the Dark of Day and Light of Night You Call Me Your Bright Shining Star.” Enjoy.
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