As Dan is an author with an impressive work ethic and attitude to the process of short story writing and submitting, I thought it would be incredibly useful to take a peek into Dan’s writing process by getting him involved in this Q&A. I was absolutely correct – his answers are both useful and enlightening. Huge thanks to Dan for taking the time to take part.
1. What kind of short stories do you write and how long have you been writing in that genre and form?
I feel that one of the major advantages of writing short stories is that it provides an opportunity to take risks and experiment, and so I don’t like to restrict myself to the same genre or style for every piece. I started out writing mainly spy thrillers in my early teens, influenced by the things I was reading and watching, but just as my interests have broadened considerably, so has the nature and range of my work.
In the past few years, I have been published in both literary and speculative venues, and am equally proud of my achievements in both. However, I have found myself focusing more on fantasy and science-fiction of late, and am enjoying the challenge of world-building that comes with that territory. Again, I see a lot of these stories as a chance to really experiment and develop several aspects of my craft, and with so much brilliant and fascinating writing being produced by contemporary authors, I feel under constant pressure to push myself, in the hopes I can produce work of similar quality.
2. What’s your writing process (from idea to polished and ready-to-submit piece)? How long does this take on average?
I will generally either make frantic notes or a rough first draft in longhand, before doing a typed draft, editing a printout, and then retyping it, and repeating this process as many times as feels necessary. The duration of this process varies wildly from piece to piece. Flash fiction often takes less time in this regard than anything in the 3-5 thousand word range, but not always – I have some flash fiction pieces that I’ve been working on for years at this point, albeit following several rejections, which have each given me another opportunity to edit and rewrite. On the other hand, I had one story last year that I wrote, edited maybe three times, and which then got accepted at the first place I submitted – the whole process taking about a couple of months. But this is very much the exception, in my experience.
Indeed, whilst I have doubtless rushed a good many stories out into submission queues in the past, I have tried to be more patient on that front recently, and I think by and large the strategy is paying off. However, I have come to understand that just because I feel that a story is ready-to-submit, and that I’ve polished it as much as seems possible at that point in time, doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily ready-to-publish. I have received a larger proportion of personalised and otherwise close rejections for stories in the past year than ever before, which I think reflects the improving quality and consistency of my work. Yet, as previously mentioned, the bar for publication in a lot of venues is constantly being raised by some truly outstanding writers, and so I feel I will have to spend longer on average on each story in order to give myself a better chance of success. And whilst the level of frustration involved in the process tends to increase in direct proportion with the amount of time and effort involved (especially when reading and reworking the same few sentences over and over), when a given story is finally published I often feel a deep sense of relief that it was the current draft that was accepted, and not an earlier, rougher version.
3. How do you go about finding the right publishing home for a story?
It sounds obvious, but it took me a while to work out that one of the most important and helpful things when it comes writing short stories is reading A LOT of other short stories. Not just in collections by classic or otherwise established authors, but especially in the publications in which I hope to feature. When I was starting out, I wasn’t always so diligent about this, which I think was simultaneously a kind of arrogance and a kind of fear; arrogance in the sense that I thought so long as I wrote a story that I felt was good, it would have a decent chance in any market, and fear in the sense that I wasn’t willing to risk reading too much and thereby finding out that my own work wasn’t so good after all. Naturally, and rightfully, this resulted in a lot of form rejections.
When I started researching markets properly, however, I not only enjoyed what I was reading, but also came to appreciate how high the general standard was, and how far I was from achieving that standard. It made me want to improve drastically, and I realised that a big part of that improvement was down to being more respectful – respecting the craft; respecting the ideas I was having, and trying to do them as much justice as possible; and most of all respecting the readers. Of whom magazine editorial staff are often the first. There is nothing to be gained by sending inferior/rushed/unsuitable work to any publication, because part of what that communicates is that you don’t value those readers’ time, which will ultimately result in wasting yours as well whilst you wait for the inevitable rejection.
I try to only submit stories I really feel would fit, in some way, at a particular venue. And to avoid submitting to venues I haven’t researched sufficiently, because this will also likely result in wasting everyone’s time. Again, whilst that may sound like an obvious strategy, it can be all too tempting to deviate from it if one is going through a dry spell, publication-wise, or because a venue offers an especially appealing rate-of-pay; this is a temptation best avoided.
I do write some stories in response to a specific call for submissions, and so with an ideal home in mind from the off, but most of the time I have found that it helps to make a list of possible alternative venues, in case of rejection.
There are often disappointments along the way, and many times where I feel like a story has missed its perfect market, but, ultimately, whenever an editor is generous enough to take a risk on my work, I know that that publication is the right place for it to be.
4. If a story meets with rejections many times what do you do?
Weep, rend my garments, and bang my head against the desk. And then seriously consider how much I care about that particular story being published right now. If it is a piece that I’m still passionate about, then I will check its list of potential venues and try it at the next one (I should point out that the order of such lists does not necessarily have anything to do with preference, or the relative quality of the magazines, but is often affected by timing, in that I might have responded to an anthology call before this or that publication purely because the submissions window closed sooner, etc.). But if I can finally accept that it really isn’t working, then I will put it back in the drawer; at least until I think of a way to correct it. Even if it never sees the light of day, then I hope I will have learnt enough from that particular experiment to ensure that the next one is better.
In general, though, I don’t get as disappointed or frustrated with multiple rejections as I used to, even for the stories which I care about the most. A rejection can still put a damper on an otherwise positive day, but I have come to accept them as an intrinsic part of the process, and to try and view them all as opportunities to improve.
This is easiest with personal rejections, in which an editor has kindly provided a line or two’s feedback regarding which aspects of the tale didn’t work for them. Often, this will be something that I was also unsure about, and so the rejection spurs me on to finally rectify the offending section, before submitting elsewhere. But the same principle applies with form rejections, albeit with slightly more guesswork and brutally honest self-assessment required. I never, nowadays, send a story straight back out after a rejection without at least looking through it carefully once, and sometimes I will even go through the whole printout-edit-retype process again after each rejection, until I feel I’ve solved as many of the problems in a piece as possible, including any especially sneaky ones that I might have only noticed after the thirtieth or fortieth read.
With this approach, it is an unfortunate irony that the more often a story is rejected, and so the more unsuccessful it seems, the better written and more effective it should actually become. Of course, the flip side of this is that by the time certain stories reach their peak, I may well have exhausted all the suitable venues. In such cases, I am forced to either shelve them entirely, or set them aside for potential inclusion in a future collection, whilst also hoping for a new anthology to be announced with a relevant theme. Which does happen sometimes, but not very much.
Failing that, there is only so much time and energy I think it sensible to give to any story, and whilst I have often exceeded that, I have lately tried to be stricter with myself about this. After all, I have an ever-growing number of other ideas to work up into fully fledged stories (and novels), and so it makes sense to prioritise some of them instead of ones that keep being rejected, and start the whole process all over again.
5. How do you decide whether to send a short story to a magazine or a competition?
Again, when it comes to competitions, I like to do my research, wherever possible. If the competition has run in previous years, and it is possible to read winning and shortlisted stories, then it is always a good plan to do so (even though the judges may well have changed). In the past, if I’ve had a story in-progress which I felt might be suitable, I have considered submitting, and indeed have been longlisted and shortlisted on a few occasions, and I won the Words With Jam Short Story Competition in 2016. However, by and large, if I have a good story, I will most often prioritise magazines and anthologies. This is not only because I would like my work to feature in the magazines I enjoy reading, but also, on a practical level, because most often they do not charge to submit.
I understand the reason why many competitions do so, and there are a few that I will still consider entering in the future, because I admire the editors/judges and the work they publish, but I draw the line once the entry fee rises above, say, the cost of a new paperback book. This is not to discourage others from taking such a course – indeed, the potential rewards and exposure from a competition win can often outstrip magazine publication, so there is plenty to play for on that front – but simply to be more sensible about my own current circumstances.
However, for anyone else in a similar boat, it is worth keeping an eye out for the increasing number of competitions, especially in the UK, which offer a limited number of free or reduced-fee entry spots for low-income writers, and making enquiries about these as early as possible so as not to miss out.
6. For any of your stories placed in renowned magazines or in well-known competitions did you somehow sense they’d be successful?
In short, no. I am always hopeful of success, to some degree, wherever I submit, or else there wouldn’t be much point. And yet, whilst there are certainly times when I’m more hopeful than others, this doesn’t necessarily often translate into the biggest successes. In fact, it more often seems to lead to the biggest disappointments. For almost all of the stories that have featured in renowned, pro-paying markets, I have had painful rejections preceding them, or had so many stories rejected by those markets previously that I’ve become uncertain or at least significantly less confident about submitting to them again.
For my win in the Words With Jam competition, the piece I submitted, ‘Labours’, had been rejected at several magazines and failed to make the longlist at a couple of other competitions shortly beforehand, so I wasn’t really expecting a different result there, despite having re-edited it and improved it slightly. That said, I had always been pleased with the opening paragraph and the general idea, and I remain happy and grateful that the story received such recognition.
7. Any tips for writers just starting to write short stories?
Read widely. Write what you know, and what you’d like to know. Write what you dream, and what you haven’t dared to dream before. Don’t be afraid to take risks and experiment. Don’t let anyone shame you into avoiding any genre you’d prefer to work in – whether it’s literary, romance, horror, science fiction, or a combination of them all, what matters most is that you enjoy it, and that you feel you have something entertaining and/or important to say. Always try to be honest with yourself about your progress, but also try and remain content to improve at your own pace. It may take years to get a story published, or it may happen first time, but either way, if you hope to build any kind of career in the medium, it will require a lot of patience and a willingness to keep learning.
That said, it’s perfectly fine to just write for your own enjoyment, or catharsis, without any plans to get published at all – and if you don’t yet feel comfortable sharing your work with others in that way, don’t think that makes you any less of a writer.
Finally, always try and listen to advice, especially when it is freely given – but don’t feel you’ll be doomed to failure if you choose not to follow it. Everyone has their own way of dealing with the problems involved, and sooner or later, if you’re persistent, and willing to learn from disappointments, you’ll discover the methods that work best for you.
8. Can you recommend us a short story that you read recently and love?
So many! I might have to cheat here and just start recommending collections, like C.G. Menon’s sublime Subjunctive Moods (Dahlia Books), and the weird fantasy collection This Dreaming Isle (Unsung Stories), which is full of striking, shocking and poignant work by writers such as Aliya Whitely, Jenn Ashworth, and Gary Budden. Also, I recently read Ken Liu’s absolutely masterful The Paper Menagerie, which is worth it for the title story alone, but absolutely every piece is brilliant; massively inventive and yet grounded in complex, authentic emotion. Then there are always great stories in any number of magazines, including a few gems I’ve read recently in Interzone – perhaps especially ‘The Backstitched Heart of Katharine Wright’, by Alison Wilgus, in issue 279, which centres on the eponymous sibling of the famed aeronautical pioneers, and a peculiarly personal form of time-travel. Beyond that, I regularly recommend stories or share the recommendations of others on twitter @Dan_M_writer. And if you’re really into speculative fiction, there are regular round-ups by writers like Maria Haskins, who won’t steer you wrong!
Many thanks again to Dan for the in-depth interview. It is much appreciated.
Bio: Dan Micklethwaite writes stories in a shed in the north of England. His most recent short fiction has featured in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Third Flatiron’s Terra! Tara! Terror! Anthology, and Flame Tree Press’ Urban Crime anthology. He won the Words With Jam Short Story Competition in 2016. His debut novel, The Less than Perfect Legend of Donna Creosote, was published by the award-winning UK publisher Bluemoose Books, and shortlisted for The Guardian’s Not the Booker Prize. Follow him on twitter @Dan_M_writer for further updates and info.