Image of Dale Smith

Introduction

I had my first story professionally published over twenty years ago, and since then I've been plugging away at getting new stories published and produced. I've had some success, but by no means a lot. When my children were born, I quickly discovered that I didn't have any time to write. So instead, I decided I would document the process of me getting my work written and sold. I got in touch with everybody I could who had ever bought my work from me, and I asked them why they'd done it. The intention was to answer some of the questions people might have about how writers got their work.

But it ended up teaching me a lot more than I really expected it to.

It made me examine a lot of the assumptions I'd made about editors and what they were looking for, about their relationship with and to me. It made me see some of the mistakes I'd been making, and how to correct them. It taught me things that – I hope – are going to make me a better writer.

So let me share some of the things I learned.

1. People are helpful

Everybody that I got in touch with responded to me, and most of them were happy to give up some of their time to help me do something I wanted to do, just because I asked. Considering some of them I hadn't spoken to in at least five years, that is pretty good going.

2. So don't give them a reason not to help you.

Nobody wants to go out of their way for somebody who is rude, ungrateful or just a little bit annoying. If you ask somebody a question and don't get the answer you want, the only thing that getting angry at them is going to do is make sure that they never answer one of your questions again. Most of the people I spoke to all said a variation of the same thing: that they kept working with me because they had no horror stories about the experience, and that they didn't tend to work again with writers who took things personally or reacted badly to editorial.

3. It's OK to disagree

Most of the time with my work, I tend to defer to the editors opinions. If they say something needs changing, I tend to change it. But that isn't always the case: if you really think an editor's suggestion is making your story worse, or even take it in a direction that you aren't interested in going, there's nothing wrong in saying so. It's something I've only experienced twice in my career, but when it did happen and I had to walk away … that was it. It didn't end my career, and it didn't particularly poison my relationship with the editors in question.

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4. Because the editor isn't responsible for the story.

The hardest lesson I've managed to learn is that nobody is going to make my writing better for me. If your story is halfway there but needs a lot of work, most editors won't be able to get it the rest of the way: time and money are short, and there are plenty of writers out there who can give them something at least 95% of the way there. If your work isn't good enough, the only person who will make it better is you. You have to learn how to spot the problems. You have to learn how you can resolve them. You have to work out how you think stories work, and make your stories work that way.

If you don't re-read and redraft your work before you send it off, then it will never get any better. And neither will you.

5. Your career just doesn't mean as much to anybody else

Some of the things I got in touch with people about were produced twenty years ago. Whilst they were crystal clear in my memory, the editors and producers had done a lot of other things since then and couldn't remember the specifics any more. Though it might not seem it, this was a very liberating discovery. When I walked away from writing a Kaldor City audio, it felt like the biggest professional failure of my career. The producer barely even noticed, just added my name to the list of people who hadn't come up with a good enough idea and moved on.

The things that might seem terrible and career destroying to you probably aren't. There's always someone else to write for, in any case.

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6. Everybody is a "good" contact

There's really no way of knowing who is going to be in a position to give you work in the future. Readers become writers and writers become editors. Some even become publishers. There is no aura of "going to become an editor" that people give off: you won't be able to identify the right people to focus your attention on and make your friends. It just isn't worth worrying about.

So instead, just be nice to everybody. If you can do someone a favour, then do it. If someone asks you for help that you can give, give it. It probably won't help your career any in the long run, but it will make you feel like a better person.

7. Keeping in touch is good

By getting in touch with people who had published me before, I reminded two editors that I existed and was offered work in the next things that they published. One of the people I got in touch with was working as an editor any more, but getting in touch reminded him that I was still out there writing: when someone who was working as an editor got in touch with him to see if he knew any good writers looking for work, he thought of me.

8. Because it isn't just luck

Don't get me wrong: luck matters a lot in whether you get published or not – being in the right time, with the right story for the right person just isn't something you can manufacture. But to have the right story, you've got to have put in the work to have it ready. For it to reach the right person at the right time, you've got to be sending it out everywhere: most good stories are going to have hit the wrong person at the wrong time more than they manage the opposite.

In order to be lucky, you have to have done the work. If you aren't working on something now, then the chances are that you're not going to be published.

9. But persistence isn't everything

The stories that you hear about famous writers having their books rejected by scores of publishers when they were starting out can sometimes make it sound like the most important thing a writer needs is a thick skin and a stubborn streak. That as long as you keep sending your masterpiece out there, it will eventually find someone willing to take a chance and make you into a star. And there's certainly some truth in it: you will get rejected more than you get published, and you need to find a way to deal with that.

But persistent isn't the most important thing a writer needs to be.

First of all, they need to be good.

If you keep sending the same story out and it keeps getting rejected, there's a chance that you're a misunderstood genius. There's also a chance that it isn't as strong as it could be. You can do something about one of those, and not the other.

If something gets rejected, take account of what the rejection says and take time to decide calmly if you agree. Give the story another look over – there might be something that you notice for the first time and know how to make better. Don't just cross the publisher's name off a list and drop the same copy into a new envelope.

10. Because sometimes rejections can get you hired

There are loads of different kinds of rejection, but it's hard not not see them all as the worst kind: the "Why on Earth did you send this to me because you clearly have no talent" kind. But the far more common kind of rejection is the "This isn't right for me" kind – the story doesn't match the kind of thing they are looking for, and getting it to match would take too long or just turn it into a completely different story. But there are other kinds, and you need to look out for them.

If you get a rejection that gives feedback, that doesn't mean that the person giving it is in the mood for an argument: it means that they think you are good, and if you know some of the reasons why that story wasn't right for them this time, your next story might be more what they want. Don't just accept feedback blindly, but if you don't follow it you need to be able to explain why: if you send them something that does something they've already explained they don't like, you need to be able to tell them why you think it needs to happen.

If you use a rejection properly, it can get you more work. When the Royal Theatre Northampton rejected my play Wolfsong, it started a conversation that led to them commissioning my next play. When Doctor Who Magazine rejected my short story The Gallery because it was missing a middle, I gave it a middle and sent it straight back to them. And they published it.

If you get a rejection letter that tells you why you weren't published, that is much more useful than an acceptance letter that tells you why you were.

11. Always read your contracts

Sometimes a contract doesn't say what you think it says. Pay close attention to anything that tells you how much, when and why you get paid.

12. Nothing lasts forever

Life is not static. Things change. That's just as true for writing as it is for everything else. People you meet who like you get new jobs, publishers who publish you close down, producers who put your plays on look for someone else to give a break to. You're never going to find somebody who will take everything you write for the rest of your life: if you can find someone to buy just one thing from you, then you're doing good.

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13. But people who like you might remember you

Just because an opportunity looks like it might have dried up, sometimes it hasn't. It had been six years since Justin Richards had published something I'd written, and probably two since we'd last spoken. But when he was thinking of people he wanted to write for the New Series Adventures, he still remembered me and decided to get in touch.

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14. Working on your own thing can have unexpected benefits

When I started putting my website together, I didn't think for one minute that it would be anything more than a distraction that I could work on in dribs and drabs until I had more time to do something that would help my career. But even before I'd started writing the first piece of content, it got me a writing job. By the time I'd finished, it had brought me more work, and helped me fulfil an early ambition of writing an audio for Big Finish Productions.

Even when I started out, my early fan fiction wasn't written with anything more in my mind than getting some stories read by other people. It was only when my first novel Heritage was published that I realised I had been training myself to get better a stories, and develop the stamina to write something novel length.

If you have something that you are burning to do and no-one is willing to pay you to do it … well, you could always just do it yourself. You never know what might come of it.