Nearly is nothing – but not exactly

When I started writing, I read a heap of writing advice. I continue to read it, listen to it on podcasts and request it from more experienced folk than myself when I get the chance. At the beginning, I was struck by just how often the number one maxim was: “be resilient, grow a thick skin,” or words to that effect.

Of course, they were right all along.

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2019 and 2020 have been the kinds of years that you might have seen in dystopian movies, had movie studios been bold enough – (maybe out of their minds enough?) – to believe the perpetual shit that much of the world has thrown at us all over the past 18 months or so could ever possibly have happened.

Way, way down in that list, in terms of global importance at least, has been the first dip of my writing career.

I made my start as a ‘serious’ writer in late 2016 and started submitting stories in 2017. Partly through luck (isn’t everything?), partly through finding ideas and submission calls aligning and partly through half-decent beginner-level writing, I managed to score some really great sales over that first year and into 2018, including a slot in the Lost Films anthology from Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing which was a dream come true, and two stories which featured in Things in the Well’s Below the Stairs: Tales from the Cellar and Beyond the Infinite: Tales From the Outer Reaches that I still love today.

Moving into late 2018 and 2019, I sold my debut novella, The Balance, a novelette that I am still immensely proud of (Cinders of a Blind Man Who Could See) and also placed a story in Corpus Press’ beautifully realised In Darkness Delight: Creatures of the Night. I felt energised, and raring to push on.

I started to push the boundaries of my fiction, trying out different modes, character voices, etc, and feedback from beta readers was that this was my best work yet.

I naturally began to sub this work to new markets and stories were added to shortlists, reaching the last round of eliminations for two magazines that I would have sold at least a fair slice of my soul to be a part of and two anthologies that went on to or likely will go on to be named in best ofs and award ballots for the year of their release.

Ultimately, though, my stories fell at the last hurdle.

For all writers, and creatives more generally, I think self-doubt is only ever one knock away from smacking you hard in the face. And I’ve spent long, hard months over the past half a year considering whether maybe I just don’t have the stuff for this field, or whether my stories are not what people want or need right now.

In some ways, I think reaching being shortlisted and ultimately failing anyway makes the punch even fiercer than it might have been, were the response a simple form rejection. I wrote a while back about how failure can be full of insight and lessons and can help us grow, but sometimes it can just knock the stuffing out of you and leave you asking what the point of it all is.

Nearly is nothing, after all.

I have no stories scheduled for release. I’ve sold only two shorts for podcast adaptation in almost twelve months.

So what do I do from here?

I keep on going.

I try to find the right places to submit those stories that were shortlisted and remember that some editors that I respect enormously have said things like:

“… is one of the most viscerally impactful scenes I have read in a long time”

“thank you the opportunity to read such a fantastic story”

My novella, The Balance, has also received some reviews that I couldn’t have dreamed of, from reviewers who absolutely know their stuff, so there is a home out there for my writing. I just have to keep sending it out there until I find it.

And if (when?) it comes back from the next market with a rejection I have to pick myself up, dust myself off and get it ready to go back out.

I guess, in the end, this post is a very long-winded way of saying two things: writing advice 101 really is grow a thick skin, become resilient, accept or even embrace rejection and keep on going anyway. But also, do take on board that positive feedback. Editors I’ve asked about this assure me that people don’t write this stuff just to soften the blow of the rejection. If they tell you it was a great story and they expect it to find a home elsewhere, they probably mean it. If we’re to let imposter sydrome kick our arses from one corner of our homes to the other most of the time, we owe it to ourselves to accept positive feedback and use it as a counterbalance.

Anyway, back to my WIP…

The Gift of Failure

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This is a blog post I’ve been meaning to write for a couple weeks now, but thanks to a horribly persistent chest infection, it’s been on the back burner. The irony of failing to put together a post on failure does not escape me, by the way.

Ask most writers what are the ten things they do most and I’m confident a lot of them will have ‘failure,’ ‘rejection’ or something of that ilk in the higher spots. Ideally ‘write,’ ‘edit’ and ‘engage’ are higher, but that likely depends on the time of year, scheduling and more. Many writers have written about how to cope with the stream of negativity that is failure and rejection, a recent, excellent example of which came from Tim Waggoner’s blog.

I’m not going to write about how to cope with it. Instead, I’m going to write about two specific instances of failure I’ve recently experienced and the positives to take out of them.

Failure Number One: It’s Not Ready Yet

The first is a type of failure I’ve read about from many other authors in the past. That is, writing something that I can’t write yet. The ‘yet’ is the keyword here. I have a concept that relates to time manipulation and science and love and loss and the experience of death. The story is so clear in my head, I can watch it like a movie. I got it onto the page. First draft, second draft, left it to sit for a week, then came back for a polish draft.

It’s done.

But it isn’t. Not really. Something about it doesn’t sing. It isn’t the story that plays on that internal projector in my brain.

I think a year or two ago, taking my first serious steps in my writing life, I’d have been deeply frustrated by this. But anger and irritation rarely get us anywhere, so I decided to think about it in a more creative way. Why doesn’t it work? There are a couple of possibilities.

One is that I haven’t levelled up enough to deliver this story yet. And that’s okay. If I thought that I was at the peak of my powers, in writing terms, after two years, then why would I bother? If that’s the case, the story can happily sit on my hard drive for a while until I’m ready to give it the extra finesse it needs.

The second possibility, and this is one that Bob Pastorella talked about recently on This is Horror, is that the format is wrong. Or the perspective. A big part of me thinks this story, with its subject matter, might best be told as a screenplay and delivered visually. I haven’t got the first idea about how to write a screenplay. But that doesn’t mean I can’t learn and do it, bringing the story to life that way. Equally, it might need to be converted to first person pov.

The lesson here is that, no, this story doesn’t work right now. But that failure is not the end of the story. It’s a hiatus. I believe in the concept, the characters, the questions it wants the reader to search for answers to. One day, it will ask them.

Failure Number Two: It’s Not Mine

The second story is borne from something I try to do fairly often: writing outside my comfort zone. The majority of writers have themes that they come back to time and again, even if the formula is tweaked through pov, setting, pace or what have you. I’m no different.

What I feel most at home writing is character interplay, snappy (I hope!) dialogue, and supernatural themes which are woven into the tale, whether real or only perceived by the cast. Something I don’t write much is gore.

It’s not that I avoid it entirely. I appreciate that at some stage, especially in horror, blood needs to be shed on the page. But I prefer to hint at it. Give the reader enough hints that they paint their own bloody pictures.

I read widely within genre and some of the writers I read regularly deliver glorious bloodbaths on the page. It’s not that I don’t like that style of horror. It’s that I don’t like writing it.

Last month, a magazine that I really like had a submission call for this type of visceral horror. I decided I would try my hand at it. I crafted my story idea, tweaked it. Got it down. Draft one, two, re-read, tweak, etc.

Like the first failure, it’s done.

But then I read it back and decided it just isn’t me. It just isn’t what I want to write. I spent ten writing days on this story. And again, I could get frustrated or angry with myself for wasting that time when there are other projects I could have been working on: the novel I need to finish, the story with a 30th June deadline that is almost, almost ready. But this, again, was a huge learning experience.

First of all, I can do it. I can write the type of horror that is a stomach churning festival of gore. It’s good to challenge yourself. Good to overcome those challenges. But most importantly, I’ve learnt about myself and about the writer I want to be (and the one I don’t want to be). And this is important.

Some people are going to like my stuff. Some people are going to hate it. Awesome. Fine. But I have to like it or what’s the point of doing it? So this experiment was fun, but also affirmative in telling me that what I’ve been writing and continue to write is the right spot for me.

The next time you fail as a writer, before you throw the laptop out of the window or screw the manuscript up, like in the image at the top of the page, think about what you learned from this experience. Hopefully, something.

Now I have a story to finish.

Taking the rough with the smooth

After a great end to 2017 and a better start to 2018, there were inevitably going to be bumpy roads to navigate at some point. Listen to any writer you care to mention (besides Stephen King and a few others) and they’ll tell you that rejection is a part of the writer’s life. Even when you’re good. And known. And known to be good. Even more common for a newcomer then.

They’ll also tell you it never stops hurting.

Such has been this last two weeks for me. Two rejections that I was feeling really rather confident about. Stories I believed in – and continue to believe in – which I thought were good fits.

You can take these setbacks in different ways. Since I started writing more seriously, at the beginning of last year, my method has been to see every rejection as an invitation to learn, improve, polish that story (if you still think it’s worthy) and get it back out there.

So that’s what I’ve done. Fingers crossed they’re more palatable to the editors they’re with currently.

Whether they are or not, we writers just have to keep on keeping on.


On a more positive note, a story that did find a home was released somewhat quietly, in an eBook anthology, just over a week ago. Dies Infaustus, edited by Shannon Iwanski and put out by the lovely people at A Murder of Storytellers, features my story ‘The Wraith’ and is available now, here. Take a look at Alan Sessler’s beautiful cover art, below.

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