Should writers set goals?

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When I started out writing and submiting fiction back in 2006 there were specific things I wanted to achieve. I was familiar with the independent presses. I frequented the TTA Press message board, Shocklines, the Ramsey Campbell Message Board. However Facebook and Twitter were still a few years away. I had learned that the genres I loved – horror, fantasy, crime, science-fiction – were about so much more than what was represented in my local WH Smith’s or Tesco’s. Since I’d first ‘gone online’ around 1999 I’d discovered that there was an enthusiastic core of writers and readers that catered to a particular market, one that lay outside the realms of the masses.

I decided I was going to try to get something published.

Don’t get me wrong – all my life I’d written in some form or other. It started with notebooks and fountain pens when I was a young teenager, progressed to the Olivetti electric typewriter that I bought with one of my first pay-cheques as an 18 year old, eventually morphing into a suitcase-sized Amstrad word processor (complete with its dot-matrix printer) which I later purchased at a discount due to it being shop-soiled.

But by 2005/2006 I was using a clunky Packard Bell desktop PC, running Windows and Microsoft Works. I felt like a professional.

I had heroes I wanted to emulate. I had collected all the Stephen Jones-edited Best New Horror anthologies that contained stories by my favourite writers – Nicholas Royle, Graham Joyce, Conrad Williams, Simon Clark, Mark Morris, Kim Newman, Ramsey Campbell, Joel Lane, etc – and I thought that if I could manage to get a story published somewhere – anywhere – then I too would feel part of the scene.

So I formulated a plan. I would begin writing and submitting stories.

I had several books about how to write. The strongest piece of advice that stuck in my mind was from a book by Mort Castle (although I’m not sure if it was originally said by someone else) – that writers needed only 2 out of the following 3 qualities to succed: tenacity, talent, and luck.

Now I couldn’t do much about the luck part, although I’m a firm believer that you can make you own luck. So I didn’t worry too much about that. The talent I realised I most certainly didn’t have. But I also believed that if I kept writing, kept listening to advice that others gave me, kept trying to improve my style, I might somehow be able to influence that part. Which brings me on to the part that I knew most definitely I could do, and that was the tenacity. I knew that if I ignored the irrefutable evidence that I wasn’t good enough, and instead just concentrated on getting better, I would eventually get better. Obviously there are other factors here – it is essential to read widely (both inside and outside the genres), try to disect things that you like, try to work out what makes a good piece of writing different from an okay one.

So I set myself a very achievable goal. I was determined I was going to have a story published online somewhere. I actually emailed the multi award-winning editor, Ellen Datlow, for advice on where to send a story. She pointed me in the direction of Ralan.com. That opened my eyes to the possibility of markets.

I managed to come up with a story that (at the time) I was quite happy with. I sent it to an online zine called Dark Fire Fiction, who accepted it and published it online. My fee was exposure. Yay me!

This felt great. I was now a published writer. I kept writing though, because that itch wasn’t yet scratched. After a while I felt a little bit unsatisfied with not having a physical copy of my story in my hands. So I changed the ambition to wanting to have a story published in a paper zine or magazine.

So in the summer of 2006 I had my story published in Aoife’s Kiss, a US magazine. The fee was exposure again, although this time I did get a couple of contributor copies. Wow. Look at me now: a story in a magazine!

For a while I repeated the process. Placed a few more stories in tiny micro-sized zines for nothing more than contributor copies. Then the same cycle of dissatisfaction started: how about this time trying to get published in an anthology of short stories? Wouldn’t that be cool?

So that’s what I did. Eventually I landed a slot in Cutting Block’s The Horror Library II, with a story originally rejected by Peter Crowther at PS Publishing for his Postscripts magazine. Mr Crowther did, however, give me some editorial feedback and mild encouragement, which I’m sure boosted my confidence when I submitted it to RJ Cavender for The Horror Library.

By the way, rejection is part and parcel of the job. I remember rejections that I’ve had that have been helpful – other than the Peter Crowther one I mentioned above, ones from Barbara Roden, Gary Fry, and Allen Ashley spring to mind. I took on board all their reasons for rejecting the stories, and placed them elsewhere. Eventually.

The next few years went the same way. I made similar appearances in small-press publications – Des Lewis was extremely important to my writing at this time – and then one day I received my first invite to contribute to a book. This was from Gary Fry for his Where the Heart Is anthology.

In my mind, another milestone was passed. I found myself continually changing the goalposts. That story in Where the Heart Is was also my first story to receive an honourable mention by Ellen Datlow in her summation of Best Horror of the Year. Another aim reached.

And throughout all this, I had in the back of my mind, a longterm goal: to eventually sell a story to each of the three magazines that I most considered my favourites – Cemetery Dance, Black Static, and Postscripts. With every rejection note that came back from these editors, I found my determination strengthening. I could tell that each story was better than the last. I could see I was improving. I knew that eventually I would achieve what I set out to do nearly a decade ago.

Which brings me to the point of this piece. Just last week I received a contract from Peter Crowther of PS Publishing, to publish my new story Happy Sands in the next annual Postscripts anthology. Coming after the February publication of The Cambion in Cemetery Dance, and the news that my story Bandersnatch will be appearing in a forthcoming issue of Black Static, 2015 is shaping up to be the year that I finally achieve my goals.

I still have writing goals. They’re different to the ones that I formulated a few years ago. But that’s the exciting thing about this writing lark: if we work hard and are patient, if we continue to work to as high a standard as possible, if we act like a professional, and with enough care for the genres we love, it can take us where we want to go. Eventually.

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3 Responses to Should writers set goals?

  1. markewest says:

    Great post and your success is very much deserved mate!

  2. Decide to visit here after reading ‘Bandersnatch’ in Black Static. Great story and some strong writing. Very encouraging post here too. I identify with the ‘not sure I’ve got the talent/willing to work hard at it’ mentality. Looking forward to checking up some more of your writing.

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