18 December 2018

Do You Want Cheese with That Whine?

We’ve all heard successful novelists mention the grind of hours-long book signings and months-long book tours, and many of us secretly (or not so secretly) wish to experience them for ourselves, but it isn’t just time-consuming public appearances that eat into our writing time.
Michael Bracken (left) at Bouchercon 2018.
Being a writer involves much more than actually writing, especially for moderately productive short-story writers. The more productive we are, the more ancillary tasks chew up our writing time. This is something I wish I had known when I began writing, and one of the things no one ever thinks to mention to beginning writers.

Research. Each completed story requires market research to determine the best market or markets for the story.

Format. Though a few of us older writers and editors pretend there is, there is no longer a standard manuscript format, and some manuscripts have to be reformatted before each submission.

Rejection. Each rejection must be recorded to prevent submitting a story to the same publication multiple times, and then it must be filed (as I do) or discarded (as some writers do).

Acceptance. This likely involves some response to let the editor know that, yes, the story is still available and, yes, I’d love to see my story in her publication, and, yes, I’m looking forward to receiving the contract.

Contract. Have you seen some of these things? I’ve received contracts that were longer than the stories for which they were offered, and I read every word before I sign. Sometimes, terms of the contract require negotiation, which requires even more time.

Payment. These days payment doesn’t often happen before publication, but God bless the publications that pay on acceptance. Regardless of when payment is received, it has to be recorded in some form (ledger, spreadsheet, accounting software) and then deposited in the bank.

Copyedit. Many publications let contributors review copyedited manuscripts prior to publication. This is when I realize the editor is a freaking genius or I decide the editor’s third-grade education did not prepare him to edit my work. Either way, copyedits require time to read and time to generate a respectful, professional response explaining exactly why I disagree with some or all of the changes.

Page proof. I know many people refer to these as galleys, but they aren’t. (Most of the people who refer to these as galleys aren’t old enough to have worked with actual galley proofs. If what you’re reading is formatted and presented to you in page form, you’re reading page proofs.) Like copy edits, these take time to read and to generate a response.

Contributor copy. Most publications provide a contributor copy. (Many amateur publications provide a “free copy!” because the publishers don’t know the proper term for what they’re doing and think providing contributor copies is somehow doing contributors a favor.) It takes time to reread my story in published form. It also takes time to record the date of publication and to share the news with supportive family and friends.

Reprint. A story might later be reprinted in a best-of-year anthology, a themed all-reprint anthology, a collection of my own work, or licensed for publication in another language, licensed for other media such as audio, or optioned for movie or television, and each of these reprint and licensing opportunities comes with paperwork and ancillary tasks similar to that listed above for an original sale.

Every step in the process, and maybe even a few steps I’ve overlooked, requires time and takes it from writing time.

And none of this includes optional tasks such as maintaining social media and engaging in blatant (and not so blatant) self-promotion, nor does it include semi-optional tasks like developing and maintaining good relationships with editors and other writers.

A writer who produces only a few stories each year may never realize how much time they spend on ancillary tasks, but even moderately productive short-story writers soon find themselves spending more time on the ancillary tasks than the primary task that creates all this extra work.

When I get overwhelmed with all the ancillary tasks and complain to my wife about how much time I’m working but not writing, Temple brings me back to earth by noting that I’m only complaining because I’m living my dream, and she asks, “Do you want cheese with that whine?”

My story “Remission” appears in Landfall (Level Best Books), “Deliver Us from Evil” appears in issue 2 of Thriller, and “Christmas Wish” appears online at The Saturday Evening Post.


  1. Now I know why I'm so tired all the time. :) Please pass the whine, Michael. We all can share.

  2. Now this is good information and something we do without thinking. It is a LONG process and yoiu explained it well.

  3. Great post, Michael, and it assumes that both you and the publisher are professional and organized. If the publisher is lax about responding to questions, sending contracts, proofs, or payments, the writer's life gets even more stressful.

    There are two publications--one fairly well-known--that I no longer offer my stories because it took over two years and a complaint filed with MWA to get a contract after they had accepted four stories and made no move to publish any of them. The editor met my wife and me separately at a function a year or so later and gave each of us a radically different explanation for the problem.

    It's great that so many small markets (usually online) are opening up, but you point out that many of them want different formatting. I have some stories in three or four different formats, and my file name (hooray for the "save as" command) tells me which is which.

    One tangential issue with the small new markets is that they may not even know when the next issue will really appear, so it's hard to promote. I supposedly have stories appearing in two magazines before the end of this year, but I couldn't get firm dates so I didn't send the news to MWA or SinC for their newsletters.

  4. Barb, would like your whine in a red or a white?

    O'Neil, I don't usually think about all the ancillary tasks until I'm overwhelmed by them. When several projects, usually at different stages of the process, require my attention at the same time, the lack of writing time becomes quite apparent.

    Steve, I have been burned so many times by cancelled anthologies, late issues, and stories/articles/essays bumped from one issue to the next, that I rarely promote any project until it's actually published. On the flip side: As an editor, I don't respond to submissions quite as fast as I would like (and not nearly as fast as I'd like were I on the submitting side!).

  5. Michael, I think you pretty well covered the situation.

  6. Barb gave my comment before I even thought of it!


  7. Michael, You've convinced me I should give up writing.

    On second thought, I won't stop writing. If I did, I'd have so much time on my hands, I'd probably go back to robbing convenience stores.

  8. Thanks, R.T. and Eve.

    And, Earl, it's always nice to have a career to fall back on.


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