Category Archives: writing
Every now and then I put on a smelly coat. I don’t even realise I’m doing it at the time. You’d think I would – it reeks – but I don’t. I’m not the only one either. In fact, there’s a bit of a smelly coat epidemic going on. Most of us have one. Most of us have worn it. Some of you might be wearing it right now.
But if there’s something you want to do — that ever elusive thing — you’re going to have to ditch the coat. Yes, it’s a metaphor. A borrowed one at that. But stick with me on this, it gets pretty interesting.
I subscribe to a wonderful newsletter from Maggie Koerth-Baker. She’s a science journalist and author in the US, and is currently a Nieman-Berkman Fellow at Harvard University. During the fellowship she’s sending out regular updates of three amazing things she discovers on her journey. It’s called the Fellowship of Three Things, and it’s brilliant. The content and scope, well, it’s whatever takes her interest. “It might be a photograph and information about a museum object; a video of a laboratory tour; a short interview with a ground-breaking scholar; or a fact that will give you something new to think about.”
Koerth-Baker’s fellow Nieman-Berkman fellows are contributing as well and the result is a great read. So far they’ve talked about the history of colours, the hidden art in old books, and an astronomical computer made in 1540. I also learned about a 1690 publication on the virtues of chocolate, coffee and tea, and I think we can all agree they were onto something back then, yes?
The interestingness goes on. A fish may not need a bicycle, but in 1881 some fish in California needed a railroad. There was an article on the blood cells that help salamanders regrow their limbs, as well as some views on war and peace from the last surviving Nuremberg prosecutor.
Told you it was good.
This month, the newsletter rekindled a fire in my belly. Alicia Stewart contributed to that January 6th edition of the Fellowship of Three Things. She’s an editor at CNN.com and a Nieman-Berkman fellow where she is pursuing her interest in ‘true stories about identity, culture and spirit: who we are, what we do and why we do it.’
Among her selection of three interesting things was a compelling remark from filmmaker Ava DuVernay on how desperation to achieve can get in the way of real achievement.
It was an excerpt from a speech DuVernay gave at the 2013 Film Independent Forum.
Intrigued, I clicked the link to hear the rest. I will be ever grateful that I did.
DuVernay’s speech is one of the most inspiring talks I’ve heard in a long time and a fierce reminder that if you want to get somewhere in particular, if there’s anything you aspire to, something you want to do, then get started. And then keep going. DuVernay speaks from experience, and she is indeed a marvel.
Only a few years ago she aspired to make films but didn’t know quite how to turn this dream into a reality. She couldn’t figure out why she couldn’t move forward. She couldn’t get into the training programs she longed to join. Through it all, she says “I wore my desperation like a coat.”
Skip forward to today.
DuVernay has now built an astounding body of work. In 2012 she became the first African-American woman to win the Best Director award at the Sundance Film Festival for Middle of Nowhere. She was also nominated for Best Director at this year’s Golden Globes for Selma — the first female African American to be nominated. Her film Selma was also nominated for Best Picture at both the Golden Globes and the Academy Awards. Of course, what she has accomplished with these highly significant films goes well and truly beyond award ceremonies.
Now people seek out DuVernay as a mentor and she is an adviser for some of the very same training programs she once couldn’t get into. [for more about her: avaduvernay.com]
What changed? She let go of her desperation when she realised how much it was holding her back.
“All of the time you’re spending trying to get someone to mentor you, trying to have a coffee, all of the things we try to do to move ahead in the industry is time that you’re not working on your screenplay, strengthening your character arcs, thinking about your rehearsal techniques, setting up a table reading to hear the words, thinking about symbolism in your production design, your color pallet. All the time you’re focusing on trying to grab — I need this! I need this! I don’t have this! — you’re being desperate and you’re not doing.
You have to be doing something.” “Desperation,” she explains, ”is not action. It’s not moving you forward, because all of the so-called action is hinging on someone doing something for you.”
It’s one thing to info gather, to ask for guidance. That’s fine. That’s wise. But when it becomes all you do. When your dreams become too dependent on what other people can do for you, then it’s a real problem, she says, because “the desperation, it reeks off of you… like a smelly coat.’
So how do you know if you’re wearing it? She offers a simple test:
“If you spend more time in the day thinking about what you don’t have, than working with what you have. Then you’re acting in a desperate manner and you’re not doing. Until I changed my mind about that, I was really stuck.”
Her advice for ditching the coat: action. “The feeling of yearning coupled with action is not desperation. It’s passion.”
You need to create something for other people to latch onto, to collaborate with, and get excited by. Build something for a mentor to connect with and care about. Start small if you need to, but start nonetheless. “No excuses.”
DuVernay’s advice can be applied to anything creative, anything where you have yearning but haven’t taken much action, or perhaps you’ve stalled and need a good reminder to keep going. Watch the whole thing, including her responses to the questions, as there are many words of wisdom there, too. Yes, its 42 minutes or so, but I genuinely found myself wishing it was longer.
I’d like to extend a big thank you to Ava DuVernay, Alicia Stewart and Maggie Koerth-Baker for the interestingness, the guidance, and the inspiration. I’m going to do my best to ditch the coat and get on with the work. I’m continuing a big project – oh yes, it hasn’t defeated me – but I need the fuel, the action, the surge that also comes from smaller projects. Some change, some action, and I’ll see where it takes me.
So here’s to 2015. Create something, build something, drive something forward. Make a film with a smart phone. Find poems. Make beautiful food. Bring people together. Weave short stories. Tell long ones. Write a song. Curate. Investigate. Explore. Whatever it is. Get started.
Anyone who knows me well will tell you I’m a nerd to the core of my soul, and one of the particular manifestations of that is my love of spreadsheets, graphs and numbers generally.
One of the upsides to this bent is that BAS time is actually fun (I see that look you’re giving me). The other is that I tend to record data on my writing for later analysis and tracking. I’m planning a blog soon using the data I have from the five novel manuscripts I’ve written, but today I wanted to present a few insights about short stories, and more particularly, submitting them to markets.
I’ve been fortunate to have some successes in the short story arena. I consider myself an emerging writer, but I’ve been tracking my short stories since I started trying to have them published. I find it essential – I can’t remember otherwise where they’ve gone, how long ago, and when to re-query. So today I’ve made a preliminary troll through the data and I present three insights that showed themselves.
[Note: The data below is based on 70 submissions (13 different stories to 39 different markets) over about a 3 year period and only represents my experience.]
1. How long does it take to get a response?
Average time for my submissions is just over 6 weeks, but I tend to favour fast-responding markets and I try to match my submissions so I’m not wasting time sending things that market would never go for anyway. Anthologies and competitions take longer, because their reading periods are often months and I tend to submit early. If I remove the anthology and comp submissions, the average response time has been 4.5 weeks. The fastest responding markets (with average times) for me have been: (the aptly named) Lightspeed (3 days), Clarkesworld (5 days), Shimmer (6 days). A few markets have never responded. I have ignored these in my analysis as two have folded since.
2. What’s the success rate?
After 70 submissions, I have 7 stories actually published (or in press). That’s 10% success rate. I have no idea if that’s good or not – I think perhaps it’s not too bad … it’s better than the acceptance rate for some academic journals. The fewest submissions before acceptance was 1 (one story was picked up by the first market I submitted it to). The most is currently on its 14th submission – it may yet have many more. The average is 5 subs per story; 4 if only counting those published.
3. How much is it worth?
There’s two ways of looking at this. The first is: depressingly little. Only 3 of my 7 published stories earned me actual money, and the total is just a shade over $200. When you look at the number of hours invested, that’s really a negligible return. I’m early career though … it’s possible there may be more money in it in the future, but I suspect not that much more. I can remember a well-known sci-fi author at the last AussieCon saying that, during the sci-fi zine hey-day in the 60s and 70s, he could write two stories in a day and sell them both, which earned a fairly tidy income. I suspect those days are long over, even if I could write two stories a day.
The other way of looking at it is investment. Time in craft, time in exposure, not to mention returning an awful lot of pride. I’ve had a few lovely comments come from readers, which was worth every revision-riddled minute. And one submission eventually published was solicited, which was immensely satisfying. Plus … there seems to be some kind of snowball effect happening – 5 of the 7 pubs have been in the last year.
No-one would do this for the money, but then I suspect no one does. I’ve heard so many times from more experienced writers that “talent is cheap; persistence is rare”. Good advice. If you have any questions about short story markets, feel free to comment them up – I’m not the most experienced in the game, but willing to wield the spreadsheet’s power to shed some light 🙂