Like most writers trying to find their way I spend my fair share of time reading advice on blogs, websites, and books on how get my fiction published – as if there are fundamental rules you must follow to become successful. The most prominent of these are the KEEP WRITING advisers. There is a great amount of guidance that promotes the ethos of writing at least an hour every day, even if we don’t feel like it. We are advised to finish what we start and always submit. I see the logic here and it’s all about statistics. It’s pretty easy to find stats on publishers acceptance rates by looking on Duotrope. The numbers are compelling. If a publisher has a 1 percent acceptance rate, then you should find a home for your story after 100 submissions. That is, of course, assuming the quality of your story is comparable with the other acceptances for said publisher. And that’s where my scepticism in this advice is revealed. I’m sure there are plenty of great writers out there who can spin off story after story of good and consistent quality (good enough to be in the top few percent of submissions at their chosen publisher). However, I know that I’m not one of those people. Even if I did have the time to write every day.
Here’s what I mean. As a SF writer, I want the idea in my story to be jaw dropping. Ideally, I want to be very excited about the premise so that I just can’t wait to get started. But this takes time. First I need to find the spark, then the idea needs to cultivate in my mind. Then, I see if it can be woven around a plot with real characters. The whole process takes time, which is time spent not writing.
So, I guess the concept is to have several ideas stored up ready to go. As soon as you finish your last story, you can hit the ground running on your next. And again, this is where I struggle with it. For me, I like to let the idea settle in my mind where it can grow and transform into something bigger. In order to do this, I need to pick up books on the subjects and read. I need to watch films and documentaries about it. I like to have the themes knocking around my head where I can easily access them. I then need to find a character to drive the story. Finally, and most importantly, I sit down and plan the entire plot (subject to changes throughout). This part of the process is just as important as writing. But critically, I need to properly complete it in order to give the story its highest potential. Therefore, I must focus on it, which means no writing. Just reading, thinking, and note scribbling.
Recently, I have taken some time off writing to catch up on reading. The few weeks I’ve allowed to do this has filled my mind with several ideas for future stories. It’s the fuel that drives my writing process and without it I run out of gas and stall.
So my advice to myself is not to “write write write submit,” because I would end up with a whole lot of bad quality, half thought out ideas with cardboard characters. Instead, I say: “think, read, scribble, think some more, then write. And if it’s any good then submit, but if it’s not then think again.” Maybe not such a great sound-bite, but if you’re anything like me this approach should yield better quality work with a higher chance of acceptance. Not through sheer volume, but through quality.
Writing regularly is great advice, but I would add that subject knowledge, idea development, and planning are equally important – even in a short story. And if that means taking a break to let it all settle in your mind then why not?
As aspiring writers, we need to understand what makes other writers succeed, and then tailor those processes to suit our own personality and needs. What works for me might not work for you. And what works for me now may have to be modified and evolved as time goes by. I guess the key is trying to understand how we can maximise our own potential without blindly following other people’s practises.