Making Short Stories Pay with Dan Micklethwaite

In part one of ‘Making Short Stories Pay’, we asked Bluemoose Books Dan Micklethwaite, who writes short stories in a shed in West Yorkshire, and who has published over 50 pieces of published short fiction, including in international pro-paying markets, how an author might make a living from their craft. Part of the Northern Short Story’s online festival this year, part 2 of Making Short Stories Pay takes place on Sunday 31st May 2pm-3pm on our Twitter account, where Dan will be answering your questions on the hashtag #AskDanM.

Selling short stories is rarely straightforward. Nor is it often especially quick. There are no foolproof shortcuts, and no guarantees, no matter how hard you try. In fact, it’s probably best to come to terms with the following ASAP: the very word ‘submission’ implies a kind of surrender, and that is exactly what happens when you send your work out. You are accepting that someone else has the ultimate power; you are ceding control of its immediate fate.

Granted, this isn’t especially heartening, but I’m not saying it to put you off. Rather, it’s just useful to know it up front, so that you can prepare, and brace yourself, because your patience and resolve will be tested severely, as you wait to find out what that fate’s going to be. Indeed, after the first few instances of waiting months to hear back about a story you love, only to receive a short, vague rejection, it is not unreasonable to wonder if there’s any point carrying on. I have been tempted to give up on many occasions, particularly before I first received pay for my work.

Yet, I nonetheless persisted. Largely because I found that I couldn’t stop writing stories, and so figured I might as well continue to try and get a few published; but also because I was finally able to acknowledge that the process is not apathetic or cruel, simply subjective. Just as individual expression is central to art, so is individual reaction. You can’t expect every editor to like every story, let alone every story that you think is good. And there’s no point in them betraying their personal standards, because they won’t then be as proud of the work they release.

And that cuts both ways. There can be a temptation to target venues simply because they offer a high rate of pay, and/or because of their BIG reputation. And while I certainly haven’t been innocent of that, all it has brought me are needless rejections, which damaged my confidence and set back my goals. If you don’t actually like a magazine’s output, it’s probably not worth submitting; even if you do get accepted, you’ll have only done it for the money, so it won’t mean as much.

The reason I did that to start with, however, is that I couldn’t really find other places to try. But since I became more active on social networking sites (especially Twitter), I have certainly heard about more opportunities. And when combined with the advent of services like The Submission Grinder (which allows users to search a frequently-updated database of publications according to genre, word-limit, and pay-rate) this means that it should now be a lot easier for you as a writer to find lit mags that publish the fiction you like.

This is crucial. Be aware of the full range of short stories that you enjoy reading, and the aspects that make them effective for you, and then embrace that entirely. Seek out as many mags as possible that publish such work (however broad-ranging your personal spectrum), and then study them closely, to be sure that your tastes really do mesh with theirs. If so, and you think your work’s suitable, then make them a priority when it comes time to submit.

Of course, this approach can further increase the pressure on submissions — you are not only seeking payment, but also a sense of creative belonging. Which is a big deal. But the best way I know to relieve some of that pressure, and hold onto hope, is to make extra sure, before sending it out, that your story is in the best possible shape. Read and reread it, preferably aloud, and edit it thoroughly as many times as you’re able, and ideally find a beta reader to check it through, too. Then go through it once more. And again, if you can.

Also, always make sure that you read the submission guidelines and follow them closely. Never assume that your story’s so great that you’ll be the exception. No matter how good the standard, most magazines and competitions will reject your work on sight if you have overshot their word-limit or submitted the file in an incorrect format. It can be frustrating and finicky, especially at magazines with more complex requirements, but if you want to be published, it is key that you show the whole process respect.

Respecting the editors is a good idea, too. Remember: they are all fellow readers, and just as you might be annoyed to find typos and bad grammar in a book that you’ve paid for, you are more likely to impress them if you have eliminated any such errors yourself; if you take extra time, there is less chance they’ll feel as though you’ve wasted theirs.

Even when a deadline is approaching at what seems like light-speed, it is important you stick to this, and try not to rush. Patience is always more useful than panic. If you work at a story methodically but still aren’t quite satisfied in time to submit, then that’s OK. I’ve learnt that it’s better to miss a deadline than to scrape in last minute with an untidy submission, as this will almost always result in a torturous wait for an inevitable rejection. It isn’t really worth the hassle (for which read: ‘nerve-shredding stress’), when there will usually be another deadline to aim for instead. Indeed, I find it helps to make a list of all the other possible homes for each story, just so I’m ready in case this occurs.

But if after all of this editing there are still a few problems you aren’t able to fix, or you feel you’re below the level you want, then A) that’s actually a good thing — self-awareness is crucial for creative development, and B) the best way to solve this is to write some more stories, and also to read a lot more that are of the standard to which you aspire.

However, it is important not to compare your own progress with that of these stories’ authors; especially if they are around your own age, and extra-especially if they are *sigh* a lot younger. Professional jealousy and the subsequent feelings of inadequacy it breeds are sometimes unavoidable, but often misplaced. Again, it is important to acknowledge the individual nature of creative progression — everyone has different backgrounds, different styles and processes, and also varying levels of free time and access to appropriate working conditions, all of which factors can come into play. Any comparison that ignores this has precisely no use.

Besides, no matter how many stories a given contemporary may have had published, or how many prizes they’ve won, it is a safe bet that they’ve also had masses rejected, and still will in future. Indeed, even after all of your own extra work, it is likely that you’ll be rejected as well. And while rejection is perhaps the hardest part of the process to accept, it is essential that you do so, because it will happen a lot. And it will hurt a lot, especially if you are exclusively targeting magazines you admire.

It’s good if it hurts, though, because it means you’re committed, and therefore hopefully willing to keep pushing on. Which is also essential, because every rejection also provides another opportunity for honing your craft.

Despite having alternate deadlines planned out for each story, I’ve learnt to stick to the no-rushing rule between each, and along with re-checking work over and over, I will often retype or rewrite it entirely. Even after only a couple of months, I’m surprised by how much I can find to improve. It also seems a courtesy to the next journal’s editors that they are not just receiving a half-hearted cast-off, but rather some overhauled, upcycled art.

Should you adopt this approach, you will mostly rely on your own judgement for edits, but if you are lucky enough to receive any personal rejections, then try and take any suggestions into account before you send that particular story elsewhere. That doesn’t mean that you have to obey these without question, but even considering them can inspire a new fix of your own — which might make all the difference, next time around.

There are still no guarantees, of course, and it is still not straightforward. But while ‘submission’ may still imply a kind of surrender, if you carry on sending your work out regardless then it will also come to denote the reverse. And I strongly believe that will increase your chances. Because the key thing I’ve learnt, from my own small successes, is that if you want to sell stories, you can’t ever quit.

Join Dan Micklethwaite on our Twitter account @NoShoSto on Sunday 2pm-3pm, where he’ll be answering your questions on the hashtag #AskDanM.