Storyville: 101 Ways to Make 2017 Your Best Year as a Writer Yet

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Ready, set, GO!

  1. Set some goals, and go after them. If it’s write every day, do it. If it’s write one story a month, do it. Just take it seriously and go after your dreams.
  2. Join some Open Call groups on Facebook. There are several, and they’ll help you find some anthologies and calls you may not hear of otherwise.
  3. Join Duotrope. It’s worth the $50 a year, honest. If you are planning on sending out more than one story to more than one market in 2017, it will be worth it.
  4. Set up a “favorites” section at Duotrope. Start adding in the top publications in every genre you write, and then add in other cool places you want to get in.
  5. If you can’t afford Duotrope, try Ralan or The Submission Grinder. I don’t like them as much, they aren’t nearly as accurate or deep in coverage, but they are free.
  6. When you do send out work, don’t stop after a handful of rejections. If you believe in your story, and think it’s something special, NEVER give up. I’ve had stories rejected 20, 40, 60, 100 times before landing someplace elite (<1% acceptance rate). My story “Chasing Ghosts” was rejected 40+ times before being accepted at Cemetery Dance. My story “Moving Heavy Objects” was rejected 100+ times before landing at storySouth. Keep after it.
  7. Make sure you are sending your stories to the right places. Don’t send horror to The New Yorker, don’t send Christian romance to Cemetery Dance. Do your research.
  8. Follow the guidelines. ALWAYS. If it says up to 5,000 words, don’t send 5,100. If it says take off all identifying information, DO THAT. If it says use a certain font or formatting, do it! It’s all of five minutes to get it right.
  9. AND, if you screw up the guidelines and it gets kicked back to you, fix it and resubmit. It’s okay, we all make mistakes, just get it right and then send it back. It’s really not a big deal.
  10. DO NOT argue with the editors.
  11. DO NOT ask for special treatment.
  12. Black lists do exist.
  13. Do not treat your writing like a hobby. Treat it like a part-time or full-time job. Have fun, for sure, but take it seriously. Honor the work, and it will honor you. Respect the process and it will respect you. It is NOT EASY. Understand that.
  14. Understand that with acceptance rates of <1% it is VERY HARD to get into an elite publication. You have to be that one out of a hundred, or even two hundred. So work hard, don’t give up, follow the guidelines, and keep after it.
  15. Also, it’s very subjective. One editor may love a story and another may hate it. It doesn’t mean you suck if you get rejected a lot. There are many reasons why they may say no. Could be you ignored the guidelines, or haven’t read the publication, and it really isn’t a good fit. It could be they just took two camera stories and can’t take any more (happened with me at Exigencies). Could be your horror story is too violent or classic or something else to work for the new horror publication.
  16. BUT, do workshop your stories, share with authors that are NOT yes men, and if your story is bad, fix it, or kill it. It’s okay. Happens all the time.
  17. Want an example? Sure. Letitia Trent sent me “Wilderness” for Exigencies. It had already been rejected by the top publications. It had been sitting dormant for almost ten years. She had about given up on it, but really loved it, so she sent it to me. It was brilliant, I loved it and immediately said yes. Later, that same story would get a Shirley Jackson Award nomination AND make it into Best Horror of the Year, edited by Ellen Datlow, the queen of horror anthologies. See what I mean?
  18. Put your butt in the chair and do the work.
  19. Stop making excuses.
  20. Consider getting rid of your cable television, or dialing it back.
  21. Maybe you should quit drinking so much.
  22. Maybe you should quit entirely.
  23. Look at your social life. How much time do you spend out having fun, and doing relatively meaningless things, instead of writing? By all means, have fun—go out, have a few drinks, see a concert, go see those films, hit the art gallery openings. But then don’t bitch and moan that you don’t have time to write.
  24. Make the time.
  25. Talk to your significant others and let them know how much your writing means to you. Ask for some time. If you let your family in on the journey, they will probably get excited for you. Maybe they’ll want to read your work. Include them, but also, do what you need to do in order to make it all happen.
  26. Likewise, do not push them away. Make time to write, then make time for your wife or girlfriend, husband or boyfriend, son and/or daughter. Honor and respect each of them, and then do the same to yourself and your work.
  27. Get out of the house now and then. Get some fresh air. See the world. It will all help your writing.
  28. In 2017 go see one of the national parks. They are amazing and inspiring—natural wonders.
  29. Take a walk in the woods or along a beach, alone or with someone. Nature is amazing. It’s also dangerous. Both should go into your work.
  30. Hop in the car and drive an hour in one direction. Do not plan it out. See what happens. See what you discover.
  31. Likewise, hop on a train, bus, subway, etc. and head to the end of the line. See what’s there. Have an adventure. Take notes.
  32. Buy the latest Best Horror of the Year anthology. It will teach you about tension, violence, suspense, and atmosphere. You will find at least one story that blows you away, and that will inspire you. You will find at least one story that you think is pretty weak, and say to yourself, “Hell, I can do better than that.” Do that. DO better than that. And then send it out.
  33. Same for the fantasy and science fiction genres.
  34. Same for the mystery genre.
  35. Same for literary fiction.
  36. While you’re reading those best of the year anthologies take note of the authors in there that you love reading, the ones that REALLY resonate with you. Go read all of their work. Trust me. It will crush you, and then inspire you.
  37. Also, look where they originally published those stories. Now you have an expanded list of where to send your work—magazines and publishers that should already be on your radar.
  38. Also, read any introductions or lists at the beginning of the anthologies. Lots of great information there.
  39. Same for the honorable mentions lists in the back.
  40. Read at least 12 novels a year, one book a month. In my BEST year, when I was reviewing for The Nervous Breakdown, I read 50+ books that year. Wow, was that a lot of fun. Turn off the TV, get off the computer, and read. It’s a free MFA.
  41. Speaking of which, if you want to get an MFA, do it. The teaching scene is a mess right now, so keep that in mind. Look for a program that has financial aid (grants, scholarships, etc.) if possible.
  42. Research the program and find a teacher you’d like to study under. This is VERY important. There are a handful of programs that embrace genre, seek them out.
  43. Google it, I’m not going to do all the work for you.
  44. Okay, here are a few— UC-Riverside, Seton Hill, Stonecoast, USC, NC State, Temple, etc. There are others.
  45. There is full-time and low-res, understand the difference. I had to do low-res because I have a family and had to work the whole time. I had a blast and learned a lot. I also have a nice chunk of debt now.
  46. If that’s too much for you, take a class at your local community college or university. Some have programs for continuing education. Quality will vary. I teach at the University of Iowa in the summer and have a great time.
  47. Or, look online. LitReactor is a great place, obviously, I teach a few classes here, and am also doing my own thing online as well (Contemporary Dark Fiction—a 16-week class). You can also try Story Studio Chicago (live or online) where I also teach, or look at Gotham in NYC (live or online), etc. There are lots of places. See what works for you. A few hundred dollars and a few books can make all the difference.
  48. There aren’t many craft books I suggest, but here are the ones I really love, the ones I use when teaching: On Writing by Stephen King; WonderBook by Jeff VanderMeer; Writing 21st Century Fiction by Donald Maass; Thrill Me: Essays on Fiction by Benjamin Percy. If you have the money, buy all four at once. If not, see your local library. All are very valuable.
  49. Likewise, consider subscribing to a publication you want to get into. Read every issue from start to finish. Now you can see what they’re publishing and keep that in mind the next time you sit down to write, or submit. I suggest Cemetery Dance, Black Static, Nightmare, The Dark, F&SF, and/or Clarkesworld. Oh, and Gamut. Had to put that one in there, right?
  50. When you sit down to write, believe that you are special, that you have something unique to say, that what you’re doing matters. Because it does, and you are.
  51. When you sit down to edit, understand that what you’ve written is a pile of crap. Now fix it.
  52. Use Freytag’s Triangle or Pyramid as a guide. If you don’t know what those components are, don’t understand—we have a problem. You must get the basic structure and content down, or your story will not work.
  53. Such as—narrative hook, inciting incident, conflict (internal and external), tension, rising conflict and tension, climax, resolution, and denouement. Study. Learn. Apply it to your work.
  54. The best writing in my opinion is at the intersection between genre and literary fiction. Take the best from both worlds, and apply that to your work. Literary fiction tends to be more thoughtful, more philosophical, and internal. Sometimes it is more lyrical and poetic. Genre fiction is built to fulfill an expectation, to entertain. There are formulas and certain aspects you must include. Get us to turn the page, there has to be action and movement. Balance that with the quiet literary exposition.
  55. Each genre is different. Horror must scare, unsettle, disgust. Mystery must slowly reveal, give us clues, lead us down a path. Fantasy must build worlds, and take us to foreign lands, be wondrous. Science fiction must have science and/or technology—how much, is up to you. When you buy a genre novel, you are expecting something—so deliver it.
  56. When you combine these two, go BEYOND all that I’ve just said. Avoid the tropes, make unique choices, create individuals we haven’t seen 100 times. If we want a hamburger, sure, McDonald’s can work.  It fills a base desire, and is essentially the same in NYC as it is in LA or Chicago or Dallas. But we seek out MORE as readers. Start with the burger, the meat, the expectation—and then get weird, make it special, go somewhere unexpected. Add guacamole, or pepper jack, or mushrooms, or bacon, or pork belly, or a fried egg. You get the point here.
  57. Work on three levels when writing, for the most satisfying read. I’m talking about heart, mind and soul. I’m talking about physical, emotional, and spiritual. This will give you depth.
  58. On the surface, that’s your physical world—the action on the page, the external conflicts. Drive the car, kill the ogre, find the child, seek the ring. This is the tactile world, using all five senses, your setting, etc. This is what we see, but be sure to leave room for the audience to fill in the blanks.
  59. The second level is internal—that’s what you feel, the emotion. What is your protagonist struggling with, inside? There is need, regret, loss, hope, fear, love, hatred, etc. Get us to care, to sympathize and empathize. Or get us to despise, to root against your main character, or the villain. But we have to feel something.
  60. The third level is intellectual—what goes on in the mind. This is where we think, and philosophize, this is where the spiritual takes place, the broad, deep ideas that make your story more complex. Look at your theme, your plot, and the ideas that affect all of society.
  61. Look at what’s been done before, and then change it, make it different. Innovate.
  62. Look at your own life, and see what you can put on the page that has never been done before. There is only one YOU.
  63. Don’t be afraid to put it all on the page. Blood, sweat, and tears, right?
  64. Be vulnerable.
  65. If you scare yourself, if you cry, if you are uneasy—you’re on the right path.
  66. When I finished Disintegration I broke down and cried, thought I might throw up. I’d been that guy for months, years. And it was painful. I went through what HE went though. That’s a good thing. Embrace the pain, or the enlightenment, or the joy.
  67. Before you write that novel, write short stories to explore your voice, plot, genre, structure, etc. It’s much less painful when those fail. Experiment, learn and grow.
  68. Understand there are only so many paths to success. Study them all and then go after it.
  69. There is self-publishing, small presses, and then the big six (or five, or four, whatever it is now).
  70. To get to the big presses you have to have an agent, 95% of the time.
  71. None of the routes are easy.
  72. Self-publishing you have to do almost all of the work yourself.
  73. If you do self-publish, hire professionals to help you: editing, cover design, and layout, at least.
  74. Small presses can do a lot of great things, but you’ll have to help. You will have more input, for sure. They will have less money for promotion. You will be a bigger fish in a smaller pond.
  75. Do you want a pond, a lake, or an ocean?
  76. Getting an agent is very hard. It will take you at least a year, if not YEARS. But go for it, take the shot.
  77. Do your research. See who they represent. What genres.
  78. I suggest QueryTracker.net. Worth every penny for the expanded version.
  79. Take the time to develop a fantastic query letter. It should have a strong opening line, talk about something personal (“I love Bob Jones and his book, Dark Stuff, such a powerful story about love and loss"), have a sense of urgency about your work, you have to hook them here, and then thank them for their time and add your bio. Some agents like the, “It’s Dexter meets Falling Down,” thing. Some don’t. They are looking for a reason to say no, but also, a reason to ask for more.
  80. Follow their guidelines.
  81. Don’t compare your work to Stephen King, or any other huge author. You are not Stephen King. Find a better comp.
  82. You will write many different synopses. Yes, it’s a pain in the ass. Do it.
  83. You will write a plot outline, which is also a pain. Do it.
  84. Be ready to send the first chapter, the first 50 pages, the first 100 pages, and the entire thing. Get that all set.
  85. If you have a friend with an agent, ask for a connection. The worst thing they can say is no.
  86. Same thing with blurbs. Be polite, be professional, but ask. They may say no, that’s okay. Say thank you and move on. They may read it and pass. That’s also okay. Say thank you and move on. Benjamin Percy passed on my first novel, Transubstantiate, but said yes (some very nice things) about Disintegration. I asked about ten people for blurbs expecting that most would say no. Most said yes, and I got excellent blurbs from Irvine Welsh, Chuck Wendig, Percy, Brian Evenson, Laird Barron, Paul Tremblay, and Donald Ray Pollock.
  87. When you are bummed out and depressed, go back and read those blurbs. They are real. Nobody gives a fake blurb. They say yes or they say no. Accept that kindness, and those words, and don’t lose faith.
  88. Likewise, when you think you suck, read your best story, and understand that you CAN do this. You ARE good. You’re also growing, improving, and evolving. I look at work from five years ago and flinch sometimes. It’s okay.
  89. Go to a writing conference. It will be fun. Meet people, get out of the house, network, and embrace your fellow authors.
  90. Go to more readings. Hell, read yourself. Connect locally. Have fun.
  91. If you are not in a workshop, create one. It can be locally, or online. Work with authors you respect, authors whose writing you really enjoy. Work with authors that are “above” you as well as “below” you. You’ll teach others as you are being taught.
  92. Get on Facebook, connect, and interact. Have fun.
  93. Same for Twitter.
  94. Also, create a website, a blog. Wordpress is free. Buy a dedicated URL, it’s worth the little bit of money it costs. Even if you think it’s too soon. Do it. Trust me.
  95. Support other authors in any way you can. Pay it forward. I don't mean just financially, but in any way you can.
  96. Don’t be jealous, petty, or spiteful. Don't be a hater. Work harder. Luck is preparation meeting opportunity. Likewise, don’t be a doormat.
  97. Embrace your local library, it’s a great way to save money. You don’t HAVE to buy every book in the world. Support authors when you can, but don’t feel bad about doing research at your library, trying out new voices this way, etc. Saved me a lot of money in my MFA. Helps when I want to acquire rights for a reprint at Gamut, or get to know a new voice.
  98. Take chances on the page, in your life, and don’t worry about failing. Fail. Then fail better. Learn from your mistakes. A broken bone heals stronger. What does not kill you makes you stronger. There is beauty in the imperfections. It’s okay. Without pain, we wouldn’t understand pleasure.
  99. Stop sabotaging yourself.
  100. That part of your work that’s weird and makes you uncomfortable? Give me more of that. That’s what makes you special. You are tapping into something human, and meaningful, and intense. DO IT. Do not be the next Stephen King, or Joyce Carol Oates, or Neil Gaiman, or Dennis Lehane. Be the best YOU.
  101. Have fun. (Have I said that enough?) This is a labor of love. So embrace it. When you put yourself into your writing, make it personal. When it’s difficult, and painful, and inspiring, and enlightening—it will resonate. Do not hold back. The pen is mightier than the sword. So hop to it. I believe in you. Now believe in yourself as well.

Good luck!

Richard Thomas

Column by Richard Thomas

Richard Thomas is the author of three books—Transubstantiate, Herniated Roots and Staring Into the Abyss. His over 75 publications include Shivers VI (Cemetery Dance) with Stephen King and Peter Straub, PANK, Gargoyle, Weird Fiction Review, Midwestern Gothic, Arcadia, and Pear Noir. He is also the editor of two anthologies, both out in 2014: The Lineup (Black Lawrence Press) and Burnt Tongues (Medallion Press) with Chuck Palahniuk. In his spare time he writes for The Nervous Breakdown, LitReactor, and is Editor-in-Chief at Dark House Press. For more information visit www.whatdoesnotkillme.com or contact Paula Munier at Talcott Notch.

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Comments

voodoo_em's picture
voodoo_em from England is reading The Fever by Megan Abbott January 17, 2017 - 9:37am

Great column and advice, Richard.

Out of curiosity, those stories of yours that were rejected 40 - 100 times, did you re-edit, rework, refine them during these rejection or believe in what you originally had and just keep trying?

Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading various anthologies January 17, 2017 - 11:04am

Thanks, Em. I did not edit the stories. "Chasing Ghosts" got really close a number of times, short-listed, personal rejections with notes from Ellery Queen and several very cool literary journals (PANK, Collagist, Canteen, Missouri Review, One Story, Boston Review, Cream City Review) but I didn't change it. I re-read it, twice, and thought, "Dammit, I like it just the way it is." Same with "Moving Heavy Objects," which I wrote for MONTHS in my MFA program. (Got very close, personal rejections from Blackbird, Juked, Copper Nickel, Emerson Review, Yalobusha Review, Slice, Booth, etc.) I wasn't changing a single word. LOL Stubborn, I know. By the time I send something out, I believe in it 100%. I've written, edited, cut, added, workshopped, put it away, re-read and then it's DONE. I mean, if I catch a typo or something, sure. But once I'm in, i'm ALL IN.

TheScrivener's picture
TheScrivener from Seattle is reading short stories January 17, 2017 - 2:22pm

What gets someone on a black list? (I mean I am assuming nasty emails in response to rejections or something would, but, like, would you end up on a black list just because an editor thinks your work sucks?)

Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading various anthologies January 17, 2017 - 3:05pm

Yep. One guy kept sending me work directly when I repeatedly told him to use Submittable. Like, a new story every week. I had to block him. Another was a jerk, mad at ME for not allowing him to submit even though his name was on his work (we read blind), over the word count (by 1,000 words) and the Submittable window closed (we already hit the mark for the month and once we hit that 300 limit, we cannot take any more). I told him to take his name off, cut the word count and resubmit next month. He said I was being a jerk. LOL And then it got worse. Nope. Not to mention he was saying mean things to my editors before I even stepped in. "You've got to be kidding me," he said, and "Why can't you just remove my name and read it now?" Nope.