21 October 2017
by John Floyd
Please join me in welcoming my friend Michael Bracken as a guest blogger today. For those of you who don't know Michael already, he has written several books but is better known as the author of more than 1,200 short stories. He's recently had stories published in, or accepted for publication by, Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, Black Cat Mystery Magazine, Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, Snowbound, Noir at the Salad Bar, Passport to Murder, Tough, Weirdbook, and other anthologies and periodicals. He is currently reading submissions for The Eyes of Texas, an anthology of private eye stories that Down & Out Books will release at Bouchercon 2019. You can find the submission guidelines here.
One more thing: Michael will be officially joining SleuthSayers next month as a regular columnist. All of us at the SS asylum are of course thrilled about that, and hoping he doesn't come to his senses in time to back out. (As for me, I'll return in two weeks.) --John Floyd
by Michael Bracken
I've had a good run. Since my first professional sale in the late 1970s, I've sold more than 1,200 short stories, and through October 2017 I've had one or more short stories published each month for 172 consecutive months. This long streak of good fortune may soon end.
In an October 23, 2013, guest post for John Floyd here at SleuthSayers, I wrote about the ladder a short-story writer climbs from being a "write-first, market-second" writer to becoming a "market-first, write-second" writer, and I gave several examples of how I had reached a point where most of my short fiction was written to order, to invitation, or for repeat markets.
I also noted that "[p]ublishing is changing and everything I know about it may be obsolete before the year ends." I was only off by a few years.
During the past two years, the foundation of my writing career crumbled beneath me. Anthology editors who often invited me to contribute are no longer editing anthologies, and magazines I counted on for multiple sales each month have ceased publication. Some genres in which I had established myself have disappeared or are clinging to life only in low- or non-paying markets.
In many ways, I am starting over, rebooting my career by once again becoming a "write-first, market-second" short-story writer. The only advantage I have over a beginning writer is that past sales prove I can write publishable fiction. What I do not yet know is how well I can write publishable fiction in new or long-neglected genres. So, for the first time in years, I am actually nervous when I submit stories, and each time I receive a response I have a moment of trepidation just before I open the email.
I'm not taking my situation lightly, and I have a plan. Following are the key steps I'm taking to restart my writing career:
FINISH WHAT I SET ASIDE
Outcome: Since the reboot I have sold a handful of newly finished stories.
WRITE WHAT INSPIRES ME
Relying on inspiration as motivation is degraded as the amateur's approach to writing because perspiration creates more work than inspiration. Even so, a working writer should never dismiss inspiration. Occasionally, a story idea comes unbidden, and I am so taken by it that I find myself driven to write. In the past, I set these inspired stories aside in favor of sure-bet sales. Now, I let inspiration take me where it will.
Outcome: Since the reboot, I have sold five inspired stories.
WRITE TO SPECIFICATIONS
This is what I advocated beginning and early career writers do back in 2013 when I laid out the steps for transitioning from a write-first, market-second writer to a market-first, write-second writer.
I spend time surfing the Internet seeking anthology open submission calls and submission guidelines from publications with which I am not already familiar. I study guidelines, read publications when they exist, and then, as best I can, write stories that fit the guidelines.
Outcome: Since the reboot, I have sold three stories written to open-call anthology specifications.
REPURPOSE OR RESUBMIT UNSOLD WORK
In addition to seeking markets to which I might send completed but unsold stories, I also continually compare submission guidelines to finished work to determine if anything I have could be revised and repurposed. Occasionally, I can.
Outcome: Since the reboot, I have sold one repurposed story and one story that had been languishing in my files before I discovered a new market.
EXAMINE THE RESULTS
Without detailing every sale and rejection since the beginning of my career reboot--and, trust me, rejections outnumber the sales--let's examine my experience with a single periodical: Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine.
Five years passed between my previous rejected submission to AHMM and the first submission after my career reboot, and I've submitted eight stories since the reboot. Three are awaiting a decision, two have been rejected, and three have been accepted.
The first acceptance, published last year ("Chase Your Dreams," AHMM, June 2016), is a repurposed story originally written in another genre. The first third and last third are essentially as first written, but I extensively revised the middle third before submitting to AHMM, and then revised the middle third again at Linda Landrigan's suggestion to move it even further from its original genre.
The second story accepted by AHMM is an inspired story, one that came to me as an opening image with a character facing a life-altering loss.
The third story accepted by AHMM is one I began, set aside, and returned to several years later.
Outcome: Were any of these three written to specifications? Other than representing various sub-genres of crime fiction and fitting within the magazines's length requirements, no. I have yet to find strong commonalities among the stories AHMM publishes. On the other hand, the three stories AHMM accepted share something the two stories rejected do not, so I am developing a profile of which stories are more likely and which stories are less likely to be accepted if submitted to AHMM.
CHANGE MY ATTITUDE
There is a fine line between being confident and being cocky, and it was easy to cross that line when almost everything I wrote sold to the first editor who saw it. I'm still confident, but my wife tells me I'm not so cocky.
Previously, I would submit and forget, but now I fret about each submission, and I sweat rejections in a way I haven't for at least a decade. When rejections are more common than acceptances, they carry more weight, and that weight forces me to examine my stories and my marketing efforts to determine if rejected stories are flawed or if my submission targeting is flawed.
On the other hand, I think I've written some of my best work since the foundation of my writing career crumbled beneath me. I've been forced to examine the market for short fiction from a different perspective, and I've been forced to reexamine how and why I write. While I still have my eye on the markets, I'm producing more work aimed at pleasing myself first and then hoping I find editors to publish it.
And I have a plan. If I follow it, maybe--just maybe--it won't take thirty years to climb back to the top of the ladder and once again be a market-first, write-second writer.