Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Want to Sell More Stories? Talk to Yourself.

Around NaNoWriMo time, writers will generally find themselves being asked (or asking themselves) if they're more a Plotter or a Pantser. Myself, I end up squarely in the middle -- plotting, then pantsing my way through the middle when one of the characters goes off and does a thing I never agreed to them doing.

For those unfamiliar with the terms -- a Plotter is just what it sounds like: someone who plots. In this sense, someone who works beforehand laying out the framework of their story, making sure everything is Just So before they drop a single word of fiction to the page. If you're doing something with a twist, or something with a Long Game element to it, Plotter tends to be the way to go. That assures you're going to have your Chekhov's gun up over the mantelpiece nice and early, or that someone reading your book a second time will catch clues that the truth of the story was staring them in the face all along.

And then there are Pantsers, who just sit down and let the words flow. This, incidentally, tends to be how I write essays and non-fiction. At the absolute most, I decide what point I'm going to make; then, unless I'm doing something especially scholarly, I just rattle forward. Pantsers in fiction are equally valid: their stories grow organically, and any issues with continuity can be tightened up in post.

In my fiction writing now, I do both commissioned pieces and spec. So sometimes, with things like my work for City of the Saved or Associates of Sherlock Holmes, I've gotten the pitch approved, swung the end-game past the editor to make sure it's good, and I'm working with the knowledge that the story is getting printed in some form. When it comes to spec, where you send a completed piece to fit a call, you don't have that; you're issuing something completely new, with little to no assurance that you're presenting something that's going to be accepted.

I've been asked in the past to write pieces on how to get your stories accepted, and I can't do that. Because there is no magic formula to get accepted. Even if you are a pristine, flawless, clever writer, you are still not guaranteed into every publication you submit to. There are a lot of elements, and even the best writers will make it into less than 25% of the publications they submit to. But I can offer you a tip to make your work stronger and ensure that you will have one more thing going for you:

Pitch your story to yourself.

The Truth About Acceptance Rates

I was extremely shocked when I discovered that my (what I considered) modest 18% acceptance rate a year ago was good. In my mind, the fact that I was getting rejected by more than 80% of the publications I submitted to was a sign that I was doing really quite badly indeed. But the more notes I compared, the more I discovered that that's about what you ought to expect.

This is why writers are so flipping busy, incidentally. For every story they got published, you can assume there are another 5-7 that didn't make it elsewhere. In recent months, I've started polishing up the rejections and trying them out elsewhere... a rejection doesn't always mean the story isn't worth printing. There are a few where that is absolutely the case, at least for me, but we all have to cut some losses.

So start out, before anything else, with the mindset that a rejection is not a failure. It's an intrinsic part of any creative field. Publishers are trying to put together very specific anthologies and periodicals with a very specific mix of ingredients. You're one of several hundred people gunning for a dozen or so spots. It's unlikely that they're getting submissions from twelve good writers and several hundred hacks, right?

Just plug it in the back of your head.

The Art of the Pitch

I used to hate pitching anything. I slowly got over it by starting all my pitches "Okay, so check this out..." and then deleting those five words before I sent it. (One time I forgot. Didn't seem to matter; still got in a Sherlock Holmes anthology.)

For a while, I was having a bitch of a time with unsolicited stories. Nothing, nothing, nothing. Like, less than even a passable acceptance rate. I wondered how come that was happening while my pitched stories were going great. Then I realized -- I always had to tell my stories from beginning to end before I wrote them when I pitched. I was Pantsing them for the most part in unsolicited submissions.

So I started pitching to myself. Aloud. (Fortunately I have a private workshop so only my guinea pigs are weirded out by this.) Doing it aloud made me hear the words, made me construct the ideas, and made me aware of the plot holes that might come up in what I thought was otherwise quite a clever concept.

And by God, it worked. It was a small, ridiculous change. But justifying the story aloud, even to myself, made me more conscientious about what I was about to put down.

Talking to Yourself Is Underrated

Hearing stories and ideas in the air helps us parse them better. This rings true in psychology: one sure-fire way to begin warding off intrusive thoughts or negativity is to just say, out loud, "shut up." To the thoughts, obviously. Now, do this too much in public and you're gonna get funny looks. But the extra input of hearing the words spoken gives them more impact than if they were just bouncing around in your brain.

Pitching to yourself is a helpful writing tool -- but so is reading to yourself. If you're acting as your own editor, there are a lot of tricks to break the "highway hypnosis" of trying to improve the same thing you've been looking at over and over for weeks or months. Changing the font, as small as that may seem, helps. But reading your work aloud is one of the best ways to spot issues of all kinds: pacing, typos, what have you.

And no, it doesn't have to be to anyone. It can be in private. And yeah, privacy can be kind of hard to come by depending on your living arrangements. But if you can find a place to yourself to just read aloud, talk aloud, and hear your words in your own ears, it will have a marked positive impact on what you create.

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