Two Years On, Ten Years Gone

In which I reflect on my personal writer’s scorecard and what lessons I have learned.

My writer’s scorecard:

Years since first publication: 2

Number of accepted/published stories: 6

Number of rejections received: 200

Years since signing with an agent: 10

My latest story, ‘Before the Unicorn Hunt’, has just appeared in the June 2023 edition of Luna Station Quarterly. As part of the publication process, I went into the LSQ webpage to update my biography and realised two things: 1) it’s exactly two years since my very first publication, ‘We Who Are Left On This Dying Earth’, appeared in the very same magazine. 2) my biography has changed significantly since then: I’ve published several more stories and had another baby boy.

Then I realised something else: it’s been ten whole years since I signed with my agent. Oh, and I’ve also reached the milestone of two hundred short story rejections. Now I know these numbers aren’t really correlated with each other in any way, but nonetheless, it all makes me reflect on my writerly scorecard.

So I’ve been a published author for two years. I’ve got five stories out in the world, and another one due out soon. So six stories sold versus two hundred rejections: judging by my experience as a slush reader for Apex Magazine, a 3% success rate is actually not bad. This is something you just don’t see as a regular reader: for every success, there are many failures. Nearly every writer whose best-selling, prize-winning work you’ve read has written many other works that have never seen the light of day.  If there’s a trick to getting published, it’s a trick in the same way as that time Derren Brown tossed a coin ten times in a row and it came up heads every time. How did he do it? Simple. He just tossed that coin thousands of times until it eventually came up heads ten times in a row. Getting short stories published is much the same. (Hey, I said simple, not easy).

Although, for a while, I did think publishing was easy – or easy for me, at any rate, since I’d found the golden ticket. That other part of that scorecard I mentioned, about the agent? Yeah, that’s a whole other story. I met my agent in 2012 at an event for budding writers, and she was interested in representing me before I’d even finished writing my first novel, and well before I’d properly thought about going out on submission. I officially signed with her a year later, and naively thought I’d be seeing my books on the shelves of Waterstone’s shortly thereafter. Never mind all that tedious process of submissions and rejections and heartbreak, I’d jumped the queue, gone straight into the VIP room, and a publishing deal (and fame and fortune) would be along very soon.

Well, unfortunately it didn’t quite work out like that. I knew how traditional publishing was supposed to work. Step 1) Write a book. Step 2) Get an agent. Step 3) Get published. Step 4) Win the Booker Prize. Everything I’d ever heard about this process suggested that the difficult bit was Step 2) Get an agent. I hadn’t realised it was possible to stall in between Step 2 and Step 3, stuck in a limbo of got-an-agent-but-not-yet-published. It was a lonely and confusing place, this limbo. I didn’t know anyone in a similar situation, and I didn’t know how to manage my time, my writing, or my expectations. I spent all my time writing novels that I thought would be commercially viable, because that was what my agent wanted me to do, and then I sank into despair when those novels failed to sell.

Now, to do my agent justice, she believed in me, and she tried her best. She did put in a lot of work on my behalf, all of it eventually un-remunerated. I don’t blame her for how things turned out. With the benefit of hindsight, however, I think I would have been better off if I’d served a long apprenticeship at the start of my writing career, learning how to toil in the short fiction mines, cope with rejections, and find joy in small victories and in the process of writing itself.

Instead I had a protracted false start and a bonfire of broken dreams.

After three books in succession were rejected by publishers and a fourth was deemed dead on arrival, my agent decided we had reached the end of our road. She wasn’t wrong – clearly we weren’t working effectively together, and we probably should have parted company sooner. Still, it wasn’t easy to hear.

This was in early November 2020. You may recall it had been a difficult year up to that point, and the Americans were stressing everyone out with their disputed election.

I had a dark night of the soul.

I pulled myself out of that dark night with two resolutions: I would forget about novels for a while and concentrate instead on shorter-form fiction, and I would rediscover the joy of writing if it killed me.

I wrote a novella for NaNoWriMo, based on an idea I’d had knocking around for ages but which my ex-agent hadn’t thought was commercially viable. Fuck it, I thought, I’m going to write it anyway, just because I want to.

I then got seriously stuck into writing short stories. I’ll probably going to write a full blog post about the joys of the short story another time: for now, I’ll just say that I’ve enjoyed being able to explore a multiplicity of worlds. And, as we’ve already seen, all this writing eventually started to yield some results. Two hundred rejections, six acceptances. A 3% success rate, as I remind myself, is actually not bad. And I’m now, finally, a published writer. I have books on my shelf containing stories (and non-fiction) that I wrote. Nobody can take that away from me. It’s not exactly best-seller-dom, but it’s not nothing either.

I’ve now started writing a new novel, not based on any commercial considerations but just because it’s what I want to write. Progress is slow, because of life stuff (I think I mentioned the new baby boy, now a toddler/walking disaster zone) but that doesn’t matter. The important thing is that I’m enjoying what I write, and I’m proud of what I’ve achieved so far. The scorecard doesn’t lie, but it’s not the full story either.