Remember those New Year writing resolutions you made? If they’re all but a distant memory now, fear not, for short story editor Clare Cooper is here with some light-hearted tips to whip you back into shape…
WALKING AND LIFTING
Power-walk your way to your nearest bookshop, remembering to take your Christmas book tokens with you. Now, buy as many books as you can afford. Balance it out by buying an even number and size of books, so that the weight is evenly distributed.
As you make your way home, you can congratulate yourself on two things. One: The weight of the books is giving your upper arms a much-needed workout. Two: You can treat it as research but, more importantly, you are supporting your fellow writers and keeping everyone in jobs, from the bookseller to the delivery van driver to the publisher to the editor to their assistant to the cover jacket designer to the printer to the coffee machine vending company to the office cat to… you get the picture.
When you do finally sit down at your desk, remember to take regular breaks every hour. Walk around your desk, walk around the room, walk up and down the hallway, walk up and down the stairs but try to resist walking to the fridge or food cupboard more than once every hour. OK, twice.
Your arms and legs are toning up nicely, but there’s another type of tone: your writing voice. Make this the year you develop your own unique tone and style. Remember what Oscar Wilde once said: “Be yourself. Everyone else is taken.” Target your chosen market and do your research on them. Buy a few issues of that publication, go online, look at their website, get hold of their guidelines, study their readership (their Facebook page will be great for this) and don’t give up too easily if you receive a few rejections before you hit the mark.
RESISTANCE TRAINING AND TREADMILL
You have been sending in your stories to various publications for months, if not years and you’re still not hitting the mark with them – see above. Resist the urge to take it all too personally. Step off the treadmill of negativity. It’s not the fault of the editors. They know their publications inside out and they know what their readers want. They also know about stories that have well-worn themes and are therefore predictable and guessable, with no real surprises. Plots that are not strong enough. Endings that are too weak. Disjointed stories that appear to be about more than one thing and stories that are too far-fetched. Keep learning, keep trying and remember to be patient! Editors have to read hundreds of stories, not just yours (though, of course, yours is undoubtedly the best and most important one in the pile), as well as getting on with the many other sides to their job – and all to deadlines!
Don’t sweat the small stuff. House styles vary between publications and no two are the same. Your job is to provide the words, in a clear and readable manner, preferably double-spaced, with a word count. Put your contact details on there somewhere and let them take care of the rest.
It takes time to build the perfect body and it takes time to build a good relationship with your editors. Keep it polite and pleasant; don’t be stroppy or difficult. You won’t necessarily get any more acceptances if you are the former, or fewer acceptances if you are the latter, but who wants a reputation for being awkward to deal with? (Bribes won’t work, either, but they will make editors very happy. I like chocolate, btw.)
Don’t get yourself in a spin with words. There is such a thing as overwriting; a common fault seen everywhere. You may think, why use two words when you can use ten? But editors won’t be impressed with your exhaustive knowledge of the dictionary. It won’t help your story along. It will, instead, halt the flow and befuddle the reader. Less is often more. Many consider Raymond Chandler novels to be among the best. Read them to find out why.
STRETCHING AND FLEXING
If you have been sitting at your desk, beavering away for some hours (you have, haven’t you? I don’t mean catching up with everyone on social media, either), you will find that you will need to flex your fingers and stretch your neck and limbs. My top tip: never put food within stretching distance. Always place it where you have to leave the room to go and find it, thus building in a little more exercise along the way.
Back at your desk, stretch yourself a little with your writing: don’t just stick to the tried and trusted same-old, same-old themes because you’ve had some success with them in the past. Don’t be afraid to test the water with your editors – speak to them and run your ideas past them first (without giving too much away), so that you’re not wasting your time and theirs. If they’re not suitable for them, try elsewhere. Expand your markets. Flexibility can also mean taking constructive criticism on board and working with your editors to make the necessary changes to improve your story’s chances.
Sometimes, the cut and thrust of the writing business will get you down. Everyone has their off days. Take any criticism on the chin – see above. We’re all here to learn. Switch off that critical, nagging inner voice, cut yourself some slack, go into the garden and take it out on the weeds, maybe clear out a few kitchen cupboards as well, then get back in the ring. Raise those gloves. Slug it out. You can do it; you know you can!
ROWING (WITH AN “OH” NOT AN “OW”)
Don’t worry too much about how you are going to get there. Some have it all planned out and will only ever steer in a straight line, with no distractions; others won’t have a clue and are quite happy to meander endlessly around the byways and tributaries until they can see where they are going. Everyone has their own preferred method. It’s not a race. Just follow your own course.
PULLING, PUSHING AND PRESS-UPS
When you feel the pull of the computer, don’t fight it. Push yourself to write something every day. Get into the habit of a daily workout. Press yourself to do a little more each time. Enter competitions, review books online, send snippets to magazine letters pages. Build up your writing muscle.
Oscar Wilde (him again; he was a busy boy) wrote that we should always travel with a diary so we would have something sensational to read on the train and Mae West, who also led a somewhat colourful life, is quoted as saying: “Always keep a diary. One day it will keep you.” Maybe your entry will read more along the lines of: “Went to supermarket, waited ages for bus, forgot cat food, forced to share my tea with Tiddles, had a bath, went to bed” but my point is that it’s all good practice and life, even at its most mundane and routine, will be fodder to an active imagination. Don’t forget that notebook and pen!
Sometimes we reach a plateau, stalemate, and need a fresh approach to reach our goals. It can seem we’re never going to get there. At the gym, we would be assessed regularly and our training program adjusted accordingly. Our trainer would hopefully be supportive and encouraging, too. Try joining a writing group or going on a course. There are many excellent ones out there. You will get valuable feedback and possibly some new ideas. If nothing else, it’s a break from your normal daily routine and you will likely end up with a few more friends on Facebook.
Because, when you have finished your piece and, even better, had it accepted, you will feel like jumping for joy. Probably best to do it outdoors, though. Never mind what the neighbours may think. They’re well used to you and your funny little ways by now.
This feature originally appeared in “Writing Magazine” February 2019 issue.
Clare worked in the Fiction Dept at Woman’s Weekly for 29 years. As Deputy Fiction Editor, she was responsible for reading, critiquing, choosing and editing the short stories for Woman’s Weekly and its monthly spin-off title, the Fiction Special. Clare is an avid book and magazine reader, hoping to write something of her own one day. You can read Clare’s blog at claredotcooper.wordpress.com.
Sometimes we reach a plateau, stalemate, and need a fresh approach to reach our goals.