Tuesday, February 24, 2015

A Successful Short Story Author

I attended a webinar the other day -- if attend is the right word when you’re sitting at home in your jammies  -- by author Jacob M. Appel  who writes, among other things, short stories.

From his website:
Jacob has published short fiction in more than two hundred literary journals including AgniAlaska Quarterly ReviewConjunctionsColorado Review, Gettysburg ReviewIowa ReviewPleiades, Prairie Schooner, ShenandoahSouthwest Review,  StoryQuarterly, Subtropics, Threepenny ReviewVirginia Quarterly Review, and West Branch.  He has won the New Millennium Writings contest four times, the Writer's Digest "grand prize" twice, and the William Faulkner-William Wisdom competition in both fiction and creative nonfiction.  He has also won annual contests sponsored by Boston Review, Missouri Review, Arts & LettersBellingham ReviewBriar Cliff ReviewNorth American Review,  Sycamore Review, Writers' Voice, the Dana Awards, the Salem Center for Women Writers, and Washington Square.  His work has been short listed for the O. Henry Award (2001), Best American Short Stories (2007, 2008), Best American Essays (2011, 2012), and received "special mention" for the Pushcart Prize in 2006, 2007, 2011 and 2013. 

His numbers were pretty interesting.  He’s been writing for 20 years, and has accumulated over 21,000 rejection letters.  That’s 1000 a year or 3 a day. 

He writes 10-15 hours a week.  (He’s a physician at Beth Israel Hospital but also has many other degrees, law being one.)  He also does one hour a day doing what he calls the business of writing.  In other words, answering e-mails, promoting his work, and making contacts.  He’s not a big Twitter or FaceBook person, but he does have a website, and although it’s not fabulous, it does the trick.

He sold 30 stories last year.  He claims for every story he sells, he will get 30 rejections.  Every time he gets a rejection, he sends out two more stories.  If he gets a particularly painful rejection, he sends out 10 stories that day.  On occasion a magazine will say to him that his story wasn’t a good fit, but “What else do you have?” For this purpose, and also to keep his submission numbers up, he has a stash of about 400 stories that he can dip into.  And he keeps adding to that pile. His advice is to keep your stories fresh.  Stories from 10 years ago when he used to wear a beeper, and so did his characters, are going to be dated today.

His technique is process based as opposed to project based.  In other words he doesn’t concentrate on one piece of work or one particular magazine, or even one genre, but works on many different types of stories.

His view on submitting simultaneously is he won’t do it with magazines he has a relationship with, but he feels it is an unreasonable request for magazines to ask him to sit on stories for months waiting for an answer.  He submits no matter what the guidelines say.  It’s a numbers game.  Be relentless. Volume matters. 

He always uses a cover letter.  He suggests you be open to feedback, as flexibility also matters.  

Someone he respected once told him, “If a magazine turns you down three times, don’t submit to them again.”  (He’s talking about magazines where he’s done the research and knows what kinds of stories they are looking for, but his subs still got rejected.)  He believes this is bad advice.  Editors change, consumers changes, the magazine’s needs change constantly.  Your stories might not have been right at the moment, but could be right in the future.  

He suggests you be a good literary citizen.  By that he means: subscribe to magazines you wish to be published in; agree to mentor new writers; give blurbs when you can; attend events of other writers and be supportive; patronize bookstores; visit libraries; and send thank you notes when applicable.  Not an e-mail, a nicely written, personal thank you note.

He let it slip that the New Yorker pays six digits for some of their stories.  Not that it’s very likely an unknown will get one of those spots, but that’s a hell of a contract.

His said if you’re considering pubbing your own collection of short stories the way to do it is to count the words not the stories.  His idea of a decent marketable collection is around 40,000-45,000 words.  His stories range in the 6000-8000 word area, so his collection would contain about 6-8 stories.  If you self pub and can sell 5000 books in 1-2 months, publishers will pay attention.

If you want a list of the top 200 journals (magazines) get hold of The Best American Short Stories anthology (library) and in the back they provide that list.  These magazines are where they pull their collection from.

And finally a hint about submitting to magazines.  Submit early in the submission period.  In other words if a magazines takes submissions from October to March, don’t wait until March.  The readers at the publishing house will be eager and rested in October.  Not so much in March.  This also works for contests.   Try to find a themed magazine, or contest, as there won’t be as many submissions.  He suggests you consider entering contests.  Unlike submitting to a magazine, in a contest someone HAS to win from the group submitted. Your odds are better than a random submission to WW who gets thousands of stories per month to the point where they can just glance at them quickly before sending out a rejection letter.  Not so with a contest.  Every submission is read.  Agents keep their eyes on contests and contracts are not uncommon for winners.

So, that’s it.  He was interesting.  I learned a few things, and I was wowed by his numbers. I'm not sure I could handle three rejections a day but if you want to run with the big dogs, you have to pee in the tall grass.


Mary Jo said...

I am overwhelmed. Does he ever sleep?

Chris said...

Those figures are jaw dropping for someone who professes to write for just 10-15 hours a week, and does stories of 6-8,000 words. The list of publications is impressive. Makes me think I should do the same, give myself a lift in the lean times. Rejections don't bother me any more either, they're all part of the job and just make the acceptances when they come all the sweeter.

Lots of good advice in there, although I disagree about subbing simultaneously - unless the mag actively encourages it, that is. I only do that with mags that are continents apart, and then only if they are asking just for the rights in their country, not worldwide. Not worth the risk otherwise.

The advice from his respected friend not to keep trying with a mag if you get three rejections is crazy. Three subs is nothing. You're still honing your house style at that stage, still trying to get it right. Keep at it, don't give up. Giving up just means someone else will get the slot your story should have filled.

Thanks for sharing that, Jody.

Jody E. Lebel said...

@ Mary Jo I suspect he's one of those people who sleep 6-8 hours a night and then go full force for the rest of the day. He's got a number of degrees, so he's smart and quick. I suppose after writing consistently for 20 years, you can sit down and knock out a story pretty quickly that doesn't need a lot of editing. They say you should write every day. Perhaps that's one of the benefits from doing that, it makes you stronger in a lot of ways.

Jody E. Lebel said...

@ Chris. He was very personable and stayed after his hour was done to answer questions for another 45 minutes or so. His suggestion to me about this very blog was not to do it, to only say nice things. I'm letting that bit of advice simmer in my head for awhile. Perhaps if I were younger and wanted to pursue a serious writing career, it would grab my attention more, but at this point -- not so much.

Chris said...

Only say nice things.... hmm, one week of that and I think your head would explode! I'm all for finding positives when critiquing a story because there's always something to be said that's encouraging and total negativity helps no one. But if a story leaves you puzzled, or feeling dissatisfied with some aspect of it, then there's no reason not to say so and invite the author to throw a little light on it. It's not mean, just honest.

Tamara said...

I've been rejected by some of those journals he mentioned -- and I usually start with The New Yorker and work my way down. Just being nice on your blog would defeat its purpose, Jody, and it would also eliminate your sarcasm, which I find entertaining, and not all your comments are negative. I vote for keeping it the way it is (except when you critique my stories - then you can be totally nice ha ha). I don't know how he writes so much either; I'm struggling to put a WW romance together now, and it's taking me days.

Mary Ann said...

I thought this was a great article, Jody. Very interesting. Thanks for sharing. I think you're right, too, the more you practice writing, the faster the process becomes. I need to practice more...

Jody E. Lebel said...

@ Mary Ann. Glad you found it inspiring. I did, too. I even dug up an old WW romance I'd been working on and just about abandoned, tweaked it, and sent it out this morning.

I used to submit fairly often. Not so much last year. Gotta get back on that horse.

Mary Jo said...

Really? What is going on at WW? I have sent both romances and mini-mysteries there (I think maybe seven or eight) since last July. I got one rejection in September, but since then not a word. Do they just ignore those now?

Chris said...

Having read your latest romance, Mary Jo, I bet you get a contract this time round. Keep sending. It's the only way to get a foot in the door.

Jody E. Lebel said...

@ Mary Jo. I haven't had any problems getting MY rejections but I do hear grumbles from both groups (romance and solve-it-yourself)about no responses. The general feeling amongst the groups is that bags of mail may have been lost and there seems to be one month in particular (can't remember what it was... May?) that there were a lot of people waiting for answers. My plan, if it were to happen to me, is to resub at six months. I have one out now from 11/25 that I labeled as 'a spring romance'. I sure wish they would switch to on-line submissions.

Chris said...

You and me both, Jody, so much easier.

Julia said...

Dear Jody (and Jacob), What a lot of useful information this blog post contained. I particularly appreciate the "process-focused" rather than "project-focused" advice as I find that useful in just about everything I do (or try to do.) I spent several hours reading about Jacob and reading (on line) what I could find by him. I thought his play "The Mistress of Wholesome" was hysterical and very easy to visualize and hear in my head as I read it. I think it's great that he shared so much information about his work habits: no cell, no TV, no big investment in Facebook, etc. - and, I surmise, no spouse, no children, no grandchildren, no garden club, no sodality, etc. He has pared his life down to what counts to him - learning and applying what's he learned. I have printed out a copy of the blog to keep on hand when I need to be reminded of his sensible approach. A great big thank-you to Jacob and Jody from Julia

Jody E. Lebel said...

@ Julia. So glad you liked it, and more importantly that you got good tips from it. He's a keeper for sure.

Mary Jo said...

Jody, I heard the chat about missing May submissions to WW, so I did resubmit that one. I thought it was a cute story. There is another one past six months that I will send again. Are the editors just swamped?

Chris, thanks for your attention and words of encouragement.

Without writers, magazines would not exist.

Jody E. Lebel said...

@ Mary Jo.

"Are the editors just swamped?"

Could be. I like to think that blogs like Kate's and mine have contributed to the uptick in submissions, which come to think of it isn't a good thing for us.
Perhaps we've contributed to creating a monster.

Mary Jo said...

I think the blogs are a wonderful source of community for those writers who really do want to contribute better writing to the market. I say, when the quality of writing at WW improves, it encourages us all. No one wants to write a dumbed down story.

Julia said...

Dear Jody,
Like Mary Jo, I believe the blogs are a plus for writers, contributing support and a sense of community for people who otherwise work alone in their own little worlds. In newspapering, I learned that every letter we got from the public, objecting to a given story, probably represented the thoughts of another hundred readers who just could not be bothered to sit down and actually write. I think of the blog responses like that too; many more probably read and learn from your blog and Kate's than you will ever know. Don't stop.

Jody E. Lebel said...

Mary Jo and Julia, thank you, ladies. It also keeps ME thinking about writing and keeps me active in the writing community. Posting twice a week makes me aware of how fast time goes by and that motivates me to get some stories done.

I subscribe to WW. I encourage everyone I know to buy it and read it. It's a light, easy read with pretty pictures, cute stories, and good recipes. I like WW magazine. I just don't always like the stories they choose. There's a difference. Jacob's advice to always be sweet and complimentary doesn't fit in with my voice. I have to be true to myself. I call a spade a spade and I don't soft-soap it, as you guys know. I'm not quitting the blog.

Julia said...

Good. I'm glad you're not quitting the blog. I really look forward to reading it, and it does make me think, read and write more carefully. You provide a service.