Keep Swinging the Axe

First things first: it bugs me to no end that often times spellcheck will give the little red squiggle to “axe” if you spell it with an ‘e’ at the end, but “ax” is perfectly fine even though “axe” is already perfectly fine.

Whatever.

That was stupid.

What’s up everybody?

I’m not sure what reminded me the other day of the following story, but I’m glad whatever it was did. Back in 2016 was when I tried submitting my first-ever piece of fiction to an outlet. I didn’t know how to format it, hadn’t really tried writing like that ever before, never tried researching a market before, or had any practice addressing editors – I just went for it. You know who the outlet was?

Tor.

For the uninitiated – they’re big; at the very least much, much, much, MUCH bigger than a kid trying his first EVER tale had right to reach for. But they were cool, polite, and cordial when they dutifully rejected the piece I rushed to compile for their submission window.

But I thought that was how you did it. I thought you went for the big fish. Adjusting my approach (still incorrectly), I then thought it was about thoroughly researching a market, tooling a piece of fiction tailored to them specifically, and spending months finely polishing it for them before perfectly and carefully crafting the impeccable cover letter to whet their appetite for the fruits of your labor; like a sniper lining up for a half-mile bullseye: check the wind, curvature, your breathing, your trigger discipline, time it between beats of your heart.

Turns out, a better approach is a lot more like laying down on the trigger of an uzi. Spray and pray, til you’re empty, reload, rinse, repeat. Tenaciously.

There’s a publisher called DreamForge that’s pretty great, and on their site they have an essay that attempts to outline why a story submitted to them might be rejected. And the answer in a nutshell is thus: any of a million reasons.

It could be that they find it poorly written; could be too many typos; could be they didn’t understand it; could be they didn’t care for the expression of the stated genre; could be they find it doesn’t fit their project’s theme tightly enough; could be word count conflicts with their budget; or it could be that it’s well written, but the editor wasn’t quite in the mood the day they read yours; or they love your story about kickass ninja vampires fighting ogre assassins on the moon, but they just happened to read and accept another story in their stack about kickass ninja vampires fighting ogre assassins on the moon right before finding yours.

The point is that it’s sort of a lottery, if you’re an independent writer starting out. Making sure your work is well-written, cleanly done, strong in concept, and appropriate for the market you’re submitting it to are all the right ways to increase your chances, but in the end you’re still competing with an unknown amount of other writers, of unknown quality, against unknown standards and tastes – a gamble.

Captain Picard said it best:

It is possible to commit no errors and still lose ... " ~ Captain ...

This tortuously long preamble brings us to a few summers ago in 2018. I was working in an optics lab at the time, preparing to leave that job for a writing sabbatical. I was feeling burnt out, tired of my day-to-day, and wanted to embrace the daydreams I kept cooking up. The budget I wrote up figured I had about a year to do that before reality would come calling. (Reality would catch up way quicker than that, and I’d find myself caring for my ailing mother two weeks after leaving my job – but we’ve talked about that life-asteroid to death already.)

About a month before leaving my job, Mandy and I were at a friend’s birthday party. Also present was a young woman we’ll call Delilah. Before I say anything moving forward, I want it clearer than crystal that I’ve nothing but fondness, respect, and best wishes for her, for reasons we’ll lay out here and in great part for the lesson my encounters with her taught me.

Turned out, Delilah was also going into writing freelance at about the same time, or had started about a month or so before. She talked about how (I believe I’m getting this right) she was a housewife at the time, and wanted to pursue it while she had the time. She went to an event or workshop of some sort down in San Francisco, delivered a stand-up set she’d prepared, met an editor, and snagged a gig for a that outlet.

On the one hand, easy-peasy; two weeks into freelance writing and you’ve bagged a job and a contact. On the other, it takes guts and no lack of panache to do what she did.

So she shares this with us and while the group dissolves a little into its various chat circles, I overhear Mandy and Delilah talking. Mandy’s sharing that I had an intent to pursue something similar, and Delilah’s asking questions. I’d wandered away, but was told later than Delilah’s response was more or less: “Oh…that’s his plan? I wouldn’t, if I were him.”

Even though it was just birthday party hearsay, probably said off-hand, it was a little dismissive remark that stuck with me. It bit me with this sort of stinking moral superiority that would gnaw at me for months later. The first five months of my sabbatical were literally nothing but hardship and rejection; and every time, I would think of Delilah’s quick-won success and her “I wouldn’t if I were him,” remark.

And every time, I would close my eyes, tell myself to shut up, and get back to it. I didn’t have a network, hadn’t made contacts, was learning through trial and error, had a lot outside of writing work on my plate, but dammit I would make it work out.

Then, luck struck, and I had my first story picked up. Shortly thereafter, lightning struck twice and I had a second acceptance, which came with being an interview on the podcast where the story aired (as well as a follow-up appearance later to talk movies). And since, I have had three more fiction sales, some traction in fiction contests, and been fortunate enough to work for a few local papers and magazines. It’s been hard-won, organic, independent, and with large amounts of tenacity and dumb luck.

A year after that party, the birthday boy had another (as is usually the case with birthdays), and we bumped into Delilah again. We caught up around a little campfire circle and naturally were each asked about how well writing was going. Delilah recounted how it was going well, but [paraphrasing] “her editor had relocated to a different outlet and gone radio silent, so that was dead now and a bummer; and while she was going to produce a podcast with a partner, said partner was being a c*** and so hadn’t come to fruition yet.”

When the question came to me, the host of the party (birthday boy’s wife) did me one of the greatest compliments/blessings I’ve received in my life.

“And you were going to be a writer too, right?” came Delilah’s question. And the host interjected with, “He’s been published, in fact,” then motioned for me to explain.

Doing me that honor, saving me that modesty, and acknowledging that achievement all in one swoop has been, to date, one of the deftest moves in etiquette I’ve witnessed in person; and I was thrilled to be its subject.

I did my best to continue that modesty through my explanation, but I’m sure some pride leaked through. I give myself a pass, though, because the truth is I was proud of it, and especially in that moment I felt vindicated. The slow, steady, organic grind of failed attempt after failed attempt after failed attempt finally becoming a small success triumphing over – at least as was the way my mind viewed it – over the model of quick but fleeting satisfaction…felt great.

But in that was also a lesson. And the markets and guidelines I’ve seen all point to an average acceptance rate of somewhere in the neighborhood of 2-3%; but usually it can be more like 1%. That means, if you do everything right, you can hope for or expect one success for every one hundred attempts.

So, try one hundred times. And after that, try a hundred more. So on and so forth until you can begin to count your successes. And be okay with them being small, they’ll get bigger.

At least, this is what I tell myself. But I will say that the math checks out.

My plan was to join the California Writers’ Club after my third independent fiction sale, and while I still plan on it because I’m eager to see what opportunities that might afford, the struggle of the independent author has been one I’ve come to enjoy the fruits of.

Ah, I just remembered what kicked this all off, actually. The other day, I was looking on my body of work (which feels hilarious to say, given how tiny it is) and feeling unsatisfied where I used to feel proud. And so mentally running back through the journey of the past couple of years was a good chance to review, take stock, and realize the accomplishment it is; especially as any beginning writer would likely agree, five months is actually a startlingly turnaround for one’s first printing. So I recognize the element of luck in this experience.

In the end, the message doesn’t really change. Help or not, friends or not, network or not: keep swinging the axe, keep trying.

Hasta.