My podcast envy is no more. A few months back I recorded a story to be included in a podcast and it's out now!
This is not a brag post. This is to speak to that voice in the back of your head, the one that wants you to work on that passion project, that fun project. But you always say 'no, I'm working on this one project and I'm not switching.' I’m here to say, work on it, definitely do it!
So why did I, a short story writer, write a screenplay? Well, I never finish anything, anything. I have unfinished novels, screenplays, non-fiction pieces. I sometimes wonder if that’s why I stick to short form like short stories. I also was totally submerged in short stories, reading them, seeing them live, writing them, submitting them, I think my creative brain was crying out for a break.
I also kept having ideas drift into my head which I’d write down and think ok, when I eventually find time to work on that screenplay, I’ll be sure to include this. But it soon became clear that I had A LOT of ideas and they were going to keep coming whether I liked it or not, so I thought it best to strike when the iron is hot.
I had 12 pages (that I had began last year), and some good ideas, so I already had a start. I used my focus tips. I committed to 10 pages a day (on weekdays only) no matter what. I aimed for 90 pages (apparently roughly 1 page of script equals 1 page of screen time) as this would be enough to make it a feature length film. I set myself a deadline and off I went.
It all went pretty smoothly. Though one day I did what is normally the cause of my downfall. On my break I researched what filmmaking meet up groups I could go to and how much I might be able to sell a screenplay for. Yes, I did all of this before actually finishing it. This is what normally causes me to falter. I immediately skip to the future, to see what it’s worth.
To some extent, this makes sense, I don’t want to devote my time to something that isn’t really worthy of it. But most of the time, this just intimidates me because I start thinking too big and I wear myself out before I get there. So don’t do that! Just stay focused on the task at hand, block out any fears or joys of where this might lead you and try to enjoy the process of creating something that you usually wouldn't create.
I found that the closer to the deadline I got, the more difficult it was to find new things to write about, which resulted in putting my characters in weird situations. This was interesting as it forced me to consider settings and events I never would before, but at the same time I have a feeling I’ll cut out a lot of that in later edits. But it didn't matter because my eye was on page count and I was getting there.
However, the day before my deadline, I went out, having only written 7 pages. I had a great time with a writer friend at a writer event but that meant I now had 13 whole pages to write on my last day. Luckily my husband was out that night, meaning sweet procrastination all day long and then a desperate scramble at night to reach my deadline.
And then I did it. Well, I reached the 90 pages on my last day and felt very accomplished. Then I switched the font to typical screenplay font and realized I actually had 97 pages, so my last day could have been a lot easier, but ah well.
So, now what? Well, about a month later I couldn’t sleep and I thought of a good edit for the script so I read through the whole thing in one go, making notes where a scene needed to be added and where things could be cut. I was also looking to see whether it was cohesive as a whole, since I wrote it in odd sprints, and it was! I’m going on a writing retreat early next year and am considering focusing on this during that time, but I really, really should be focusing on my short story book outline. There’s still lots more edits I will need to make on my screenplay before I can even think about sending it anywhere, but at least I’ve finished something and when I need a break from short stories again, it will be there.
Because improving your focus is the gift that keeps on giving. These are my last batch of tips, check out my first.
We’ve all been there. You have so much writing you’d like to do, you finally find time to do it and you really want to do it. It’s just, well, the dishes need to be done and you want to google books you should read as research for your current writing project and then you want to book a holiday and oh I like this new song, let me just check our their video on youtube.
Discipline and focus is something you can learn, so no one is at a disadvantage. Although I hate this metaphor, it’s like a muscle, and the more you practice it, the better you will become at it.
Here are some tips I found helpful. See, I’ve procrastinated and done the research for you, so you don’t have to waste time and lose your focus.
You check your email. The subject line contains the word 'submission' and your heart leaps. You read the email and your heart sinks, now what?
Take a Minute. Breathe. Yes, it sucks, because you really thought this would be The One. But is it the end of the world? No. It’s just part of the journey. Maybe come up with a ritual or something to make you feel better about all the rejections you will be getting. (Ask any writer, you will be getting A LOT.) I do a shot. It’s a sort of positive reinforcement. Don’t worry, I’m not a lush, I’ve never gotten more than one rejection in a day.
Mark it in your spreadsheet. You should keep track of where you submit either in a spreadsheet (if you’re a former tech start up nerd like me) or a list or something. Not only is it handy to make sure you don’t submit the same story to the same place twice, it also helps you keep track of where to withdraw simultaneous submissions when you do gets published and it’s sometimes interesting to see how often you apply, if you mainly apply to contests or magazines- in which case you should probably mix it up- and whatever other pertinent information you want to record. It can also serve as a motivator like 'Oh no, I haven't submitted anything in over two months!'
What did they actually say? Does it ask you to resubmit something else? So in the haze of tears and anger maybe you didn’t read the email fully. You saw:
Thank you for submitting your work. Unfortunately, we cannot find a place for it in the next issue. We wish you the best of luck placing it elsewhere.
And freaked out and screamed and shouted and cried. But does it say anything like this?
. . .and while we are returning this piece, we would be interested in reading more of your work and encourage you to submit again when you have new work.
We're going to have to pass on this story, but would welcome more submissions from you in the future.
If so, LISTEN TO THEM and do it. Submit something else. They are being really honest, either they already have all the pieces they needed for that issue when you submitted or it’s a good story but the theme is too similar to another stor they selected, whatever, who cares, the important thing is they like you/your style/your voice, so do what the nice lady/man says and submit something else, pronto.
Try to assess what is going wrong. Okay, so they just flat out rejected your story, now what? Well now, it’s time for the hard questions. Are you sending the right version of the story? Are you reading all the stipulations for submitting? Have you read and re-read the story you’ve sent to check for spelling mistakes and other simple grammatical errors? If yes, then look at the story. Have you stopped believing in it and don’t think it’s the mark of genius you once thought it was? If so, have another look with as clear of a head as you can (if this is a fresh off the presses story you just wrote and sent off in a blaze of glory, maybe let it sit a few weeks first) and see if there’s anything that sticks out to you that needs more work. Be honest with yourself, does something feel not quite right with the ending? Is the dialogue too flat? Or send it to a writer friend. Or if you’ve lost total faith in it, find another story you wrote and start sending that one out instead.
Apply to loads more, cast a wide net. Okay, 1 magazine rejected you, so apply to 5 more. It’s like any sales job, the more places you pitch, the more likely you’ll have success. You know all those magazines/contests you had on the back burner, your second choice date to the literary prom, well these are your priority now. Move on and don’t get bogged down, you will eventually get there.
Seeing as last week I was celebrating having a story published, I figured I’d write some tips about what to do when you get published (and don’t worry, I’ve got another post coming up about what to do when you get rejected, which is far more often the case).
So, you've just gotten the email, your short story is getting published. Now what?
Jump up and down and scream and hug the nearest person. That is FANTASTIC news. Congratulations. Well done. And you know what, I’m sure that thing you were worried about, the fight you had with your family, the bills you have to pay, the self doubt you have as a writer, whatever it was on your mind is now pushed to the side, at least for a little while- and isn’t that a nice feeling? Enjoy it.
Don’t self criticize, embrace the moment. This is not the time to start making weird justification excuses about your talent like 'well, I’m sure I only got published because it was a slow month/they went to the same uni as me/they took pity on me' or wishing for something else like 'oh man, maybe I should have sent this story to that other magazine that's way more prestigious'. What’s done is done and this is your time to celebrate.
Reply to them. Yeah, I know, duh. But in all of the excitement, champagne bottles popping and planning out your Noble prize speech, don’t forget to actually reply to them and thank them. Not only is it common courtesy, but many people who run literary magazines do so in their free time, so it’s nice to show them you appreciate their time and support.
Check to see where else you submitted the story and withdraw it from those places immediately. When you’re submitting to many magazines and you see the warning about simultaneous submissions, you’re like 'pbbftt like that’ll ever happen to me'. It could and it probably will. So make sure you keep track of where you submit and immediately withdraw a story when one place decides to publish it.
Don’t drop the momentum. Feed off of this win and keep submitting, keep writing, you are getting somewhere!
I've been published in Streetcake Magazine, check out Issue 48 for my story 'Fantasy'. Looks like my crazy planning is starting to pay off.
I left my job about a month ago. Without another one lined up. To write. This may not sound like the smartest thing to do in the uncertainty of post-Brexit UK, but it’s something I needed to do. But don’t worry about me, I’m fine watching my savings tick down.
So what have I been doing since then? Living in the lap of luxury? Being a lady of leisure? Hardly.
I had leaving drinks (twice hehe) and attended other drinks, I think my former co-workers are starting to realise you don’t get rid of me that easily!
I decided to document my unemployment (much like my dad did when he got laid off, though he recorded the number of laundry loads he’d done) in my new notebook given to me by a former minion (I joke), so that I don’t freak out and can see that I have been productive all these days.
I cleaned out the freezer, hoooly crap there was a lot of ice and we could barely fit anything in there. And of course I ended up doing it during the week London actually had a heatwave because I got the idea in my head and couldn’t let it go. Slow clap for me!
I then had a really awful week where my face and arm were swollen, my husband discovered his job contract won’t be renewed after Christmas, a family friend died and there was a shooting in Munich.
Then my mom and I had a Knish off.
We did far more days out than we’ve done in awhile including going on a day trip to Folkestone, exploring Kings Cross, the Barbican conservatory and the Museum of Docklands. I also walked 6 miles of the Jubliee Walkway (part of my bright idea to do all of the London Walks . . . starting with the shortest one first, let’s see how long this whim will last). And then smarty pants here decided to walk even further- walking for a total of 3.5 hours only stopping on my field trip to eat a sandwich (homemade bread, almond butter and jam from Kent) and fill up my water bottle at Tate Modern. We bought these Ohyo bottles, which are collapsible and reuseable, (Saving money and the environment! Sweet, I love when these things go hand in hand.) You can also download an app that maps out water fountains nearby, and man, there are a dearth of them.
Continuing along that line I’ve tried to go green, reading many books and blogs, subscribing to an organic and local veg scheme, emailing companies to ask how I can recycle their product (and receiving mediocre answers), really thinking before buying new stuff and reading Omnivore’s Dilemma.
Oh yeah and writing, I’ve done loads of that. As in drinking lots of coffee and writing productively and then having an existential questioning of why the hell I'm doing this. I’ve also applied to 4 magazines, 3 contests, gained 16 new twitter followers and had a workshop with the girls.
Now for the things I haven’t done, some of which were kind of a second reason for quitting:
Gone to Munich to celebrate our wedding
Gone on our Honeymoon Roadtrip (over the Alps and to Venice)
Applied to jobs
I’m still waiting to get my passport back from the Home Office along with a resident permit. So I’m in this weird limbo where I can’t leave the country and I also can’t legally apply for any jobs (have I shot myself in the foot here, hmm). They have had my passport since April, so let’s see if I get it back in time to go to NY in Sept.
I’ve been putting it off for years, but I finally went on a writing retreat. I hit one of those points where it’s either I do it now and make it work or I’ll have to wait another year, since retreats were booking up or didn’t work with my schedule. I was looking for a one where I could write undisturbed and didn’t have to worry about work, commuting, cooking and cleaning- all the daily grind stuff which prevents me from writing at home. I could have just rented a cottage to myself and gone away at any time but I wanted to be able to come out of my hermit hole at the end of the day and chat to people.
I’d looked at places all over the UK, unfortunately the Home Office is still in possession of my passport, so all the ones I eyed up in Greece, Italy and France will have to wait for another year. I took a week off of work (reason #1 why I’ve been putting it off for so long, along with reason #2, money. Retreats are usually expensive but if you factor in that it includes room and board and pretty much no responsibilities, it’s worth it) and made my way to Wales. I could tell as soon as the train turned into Wales, even though I've never been to the country before, because it was instantly so beautiful. There were mountains on one side of the train and the ocean on the other.
I was picked up from Criccieth and arrived at Ty Newydd, The National Writing Centre of Wales, which I was to learn had been the home of former prime minister, David Lloyd George. He actually died in the library that I spent two days working in. It was a beautiful house and the weather was sunny and warm the whole time, which made Londoners back home jealous and writing indoors really hard.
The retreat started off with a wholesome and hearty welcome dinner, made by Tony, the Liverpudlian who would cook all our meals and cakes. At dinner, the six of us women on the retreat got to chatting and found out we were from all different parts of the UK and all wrote different things- plays, sci fi/fantasy novels, short stories, life writing, everything. We retired to the library, wine in hand, marveling the beautiful house and grounds we got to call home for the week. It basically felt like a big sleepover, being left alone in the big historic house unsupervised for the night, until Tony and the other staff came back in the morning.
The next day started a beautiful routine: Get up in the morning whenever your want, make your own breakfast, read in the sun outside (or try to write on your laptop with the glare), write in my room, the library, the lounge, the kitchen table, so many choices. Then break for lunch at 1, prepared by Tony and curated by the new Radiohead album or his other fantastic musical choices. All of us writers would lunch together and then there’d be a pause in conversation and we’d all agree ‘time to get back to work’ and we'd clear our dishes and get back to it. It was basically an unspoken contract like ‘hey, I’m going to go sit over there, in your line of sight but ignore you for the next 4 hours, cool?’
It would become hard to concentrate towards the end of the day when you could smell rosemary foccacia bread baking but then without fail lemon drizzle cake would appear exactly when you needed an afternoon hit of sugar. Then dinner at 6.30 where the dinner conversation easily shifted to feminism and politics (this was before the referendum) as well as book recommendations and everyone shyly admitting where they’d been published or which amazing contests they’d won.
Some of the ladies would take a hike to the beach or to the river during the day but it took me so long to snap out of my stress and focus on writing, that I decided to only allow distractions at the end of the day.
One night, after dinner, we all hiked the 40 minutes, via the beach, to go to the pub and most definitely stuck out in the little Welsh speaking town. But we felt it was a well deserved pint after a day of work and a long walk. Our last night we walked the two minutes to village pub and sat outside, swatting away gnats and reveling in an idea for a novel turned TV show we co-collaborated on and was going to make one of the ladies write.
I don’t know if I just got lucky with this group or what but they were all so friendly, supportive, interesting and just ‘got it’. After the week was over (taking out travel days, we were only there for 3 full days, we all agreed we could have stayed for more), on the trip back we all had separate seats on the train and no one suggested to sit together because you know what, we all whipped out our books or laptops and worked (or fell asleep briefly). It made me feel like, I’m not antisocial or introverted, I’m just a writer.
Two months have passed and I’ve had time to focus on my writing again. I started procrastinating and getting stressed about all the work I’ll need to do and then I realized just how much work I got done on the retreat. When I attended a workshop with the girls from my MA, I had four stories to send to them to critique. I am so doing a retreat every year.
At 10.30 on a Saturday morning I was in Waterstone’s Piccadilly for the London Short Story Festival. At 10.30 the previous night my colleague convinced me to go to Bierschenke, because it was ‘on the way home’. This was after already having work drinks. I was feeling a little rough in the morning but managed to drag myself out of bed and get in before the event started.
There were a panel of people ranging from writers to agents to editors of magazines, who from the view from my seat, were really just the top of a bunch of heads. They were assembled to present ‘Short Story Gatekeepers’ and give us guidance on how to get our short stories published. But as soon as it started I realized I’m so not in this world. I didn’t know any of the prizes or publications they mentioned. I’m like the person digging in the mines, I’m not selling the finished product, I just do the manual work. It was a bit disheartening because it’s been a struggle lately just to focus on the writing side of things, let alone the part that is supposed to come next.
I started to get distracted by fidgety people around me, taking out their phones to take pictures, send a message, taking out a notebook, then putting away that notebook for a smaller notebook. But even I was distracted. I think it was because I chugged a coffee before I left and was suddenly thinking of all the productive things I should be doing instead. I was making mental lists of what I needed to do, write, look up.
One of the things on my list however was short stops. Even though I felt overwhelmed by what the panel presented and I quickly realized I don’t know much about publishing options for short stories, the discussion at least gave me a list people and organizations to look up.
One of the speakers Tania Hershman said, in reference to the name of the event, ‘it’s called gates for a reason, the door can open’ which was really inspiring. It does often feel like it's a bolted or bricked up door. I felt like she understood most of my uncertainties because she's a writer and editor so, as she said, she’s been on both sides. She also hit the nail on the head when she said some writers scare themselves away from submitting to contests or magazines because they think they’re stuff isn’t ready yet or isn’t quite on topic. Which again resonated deeply with me. So I guess it’s time to get my head out of the sand and get my stories back out into the world. . .