10 TIPS FROM MR. FOX & MR. PARTRIDGE
A few years ago, Subterranean Press published my collection, Mr. Fox and Other Feral Tales. If the title seems a little familiar, it should—the original Roadkill Press edition of Mr. Fox was my first book way back when in 1992, and it brought me my first Bram Stoker award.
But the SubPress edition of Mr. Fox was a different animal. The subtitle told the story: A Collection/A Recollection/A Writer’s Handbook. Or, to put it another way, there were stories in the book—the seven tales from the original edition, plus eleven other early stories and an excerpt from an unfinished novel—and there were memories, too (found in the introductory essays to those stories). But for me that last part of the subtitle became the real focus of the Mr. Fox update. The twenty-three essays in the book represented not only my reminiscences of the days when I was working to make my mark as a young writer, but also the best advice I could give those who were embarking on their own journeys as beginning fictioneers (to steal a term from the old pulp guys).
If you’re a writer trying to build a career in today’s market, you might want to hunt up a copy of the SubPress edition. You’ll find plenty of nuts-and-bolts advice in its pages—essays on marketing your short fiction, writing (and selling) your first novel, the pluses and minuses of working in the small press and the mainstream press—and some advice that goes just a little deeper (i.e. nuts-and-bolts stuff you’ll need to soup up your internal creative engine).
Following are ten straight-up and unvarnished tips culled from the book:
- YOUR WRITING IS YOUR BUSINESS: Whatever your chosen field of endeavor—whether you want to write screenplays, short stories, novels, or comic scripts—it’s wise to remember a point Jack London made a long time ago: the works you produce as a writer are marketable goods. Your stories (or novels, or scripts) are commodities. You’re selling them. To do that, you need a game plan. The tried-and-true one most writers stick with is simple: when you finish a project, submit it to the highest paying appropriate market first and work your way down the list of other appropriate markets until you make a sale. Or, as an old pulp writer told me a long time ago: “When you submit a story, always aim high. Editors will be more than happy to tell you if you’ve fallen short.”
- KNOW YOUR MARKET: Become familiar with an editor’s product before you submit your work. Read his magazines or previous anthologies. Study his editorial guidelines. Understand the kinds of fiction he’s bought in the past and you’ll understand what kinds of stories he is likely to buy in the future. I’m not saying that you necessarily need to “write to market,” but you definitely need to “market what you write.” If you’ve written a splattery horror story, you have to realize that a magazine predisposed to traditional ghost stories in the style of M. R. James is probably not the market for you.
- NEVER WASTE AN EDITOR’S TIME: Most editors don’t have much of that particular commodity. If you want to do business as a writer, show editors that you know what being a pro is all about. Follow guidelines. Submit polished manuscripts. If you have a question to ask, ask it. If you have a project to propose, do it in a businesslike manner. But don’t expect an editor to drop everything each time you call or e-mail, and don’t expect that you’re going to be best buddies with everyone in the business.
- DON’T WORK FOR FREE: Early on, I decided that submitting my fiction to markets that didn’t offer at least a token payment was a waste of my time. I never submitted stories to markets that paid nothing at all (i.e. “4theLuv” markets), or markets that paid in contributors’ copies. If an editor wasn’t willing to invest at least a token sum in me, I wasn’t willing to invest my talent in him or his product.
- MAKE YOUR WORK WORK FOR YOU: You need to learn to pick your shots. You need to learn to make those shots count. If you give away your best story to your buddy’s webzine before trying to sell it to a well-paying market with a high circulation because you’re too impatient to wait a few months for a professional editor’s reply, what good has that story really done you? If you “sell” a story to a POD anthology that pays in shared royalties (and that maybe twenty people will read), how has that advanced your career? If you spend a year writing a novel, and you cut a deal with the first small publisher who buys you a beer at a writer’s convention instead of working to find an agent who can represent your book or a publisher who will treat it as more than a cool hobby he can tinker with on weekends (unless it’s football season, that is)… well, don’t say I didn’t warn you.
- TOP MARKETS ARE A TOP PRIORITY: If you’re a newcomer submitting to top-drawer anthologies or magazines, you need to bear down, work hard, and get about as serious as a heart attack, because the simple truth is that your story doesn’t have to be as good as the submissions from the “name” writers you’re competing against, it has to be BETTER… and I’m talking better by a long shot, not by a hair. Otherwise, why should an editor take a chance on you, an unknown, rather than give the slot to an established pro with a name readers will recognize when they eyeball the table of contents page? (Simple editorial equation: name recognition = Joe Reader reaching for his wallet. It may not seem fair, but that’s the Law of the Jungle when it comes to selling short fiction. Get used to it.)
- REJECTION IS INEVITABLE: Simple fact of life—your stories will be rejected. When that happens, don’t feel sorry for yourself. Don’t give up. Toss that rejection in the waste basket. Pin it to your wall and use it for inspiration. File it in your filing cabinet and forget about it. But whatever you do, get back in there. Sit down at your desk. Turn on your computer. Get to work.
- KEEP CLIMBING: Always keep your eye on the next rung of the career ladder. I started off selling stories in the small press. It was a great place to get rolling, but I didn’t want to make a home there. I was always looking for opportunities to break in to the professional marketplace. Most pro anthologies were “invitation only” markets, but a few were open to anyone. When I was starting out, Charlie Grant’s Shadows was an open market; these days, it’s the same with Tom Monteleone’s Borderlands series. Quality markets ARE out there if you’re willing to look for them (try ralan.com).
- YOUR KEYBOARD IS BUILT FOR ONE: Some writers swear by the group method. They believe in workshopping a story. I don’t. Oh, I’m not saying it can never work. I know it does… sometimes, for some writers. But I don’t believe that writing is a team sport. I believe in creating a solitary vision. That’s what works best for me, and that’s what drives most of the fiction I admire. When it comes to my fiction, I’m not open to debate. I don’t want to defend my stories through discussion as if they were doctoral dissertations. As far as I’m concerned, any defense necessary should exist in the words I’ve already set down on the page. If I haven’t done the job there, any additional explanations I might offer aren’t going to convince anyone. It’s like trying to explain a joke. My time would be better spent getting back on the page and trying again.
- INSTANT GRATIFICATION IS NOT YOUR FRIEND: I’ll say it one more time—always start at the top when marketing your work. It’s a much harder road. I doubt you’ll find one bit of instant gratification on it. You’ll probably get more people grinding their heels into your ego than you would if you focused exclusively on the small press. But remember—the ultimate point of writing is communication. You’ve got to aim for a larger readership if you want to build a real audience for your work. If you fail to do that, you’re shouting into the wrong end of the megaphone.
Copyright © 2008 Norman Partridge.