Why did you do it?
From a very early age, I got bitten by the idea that a story had to be sent somewhere for it to really exist. By the time I was sixteen, I already had a sizeable collection of rejection letters. In the years since then, it has grown considerably: the stories I talk about in this section are those that got accepted, but the success/failure ratio is one that would make a saner person cry. But the older I've got, the more entrenched the idea has become. I write a lot of things that end up rejected and abandoned, but I don't write anything now without some idea of where I'm going to send it.
Every unsolicited submission I've sent out has been sent with the same overall goal. Every idea, every story, is intended to be the first stage in building a long and lasting relationship. I send my Brief Encounters to Doctor Who Magazine because I wanted to write a hundred of them. Heritage went to BBC Books because I had dreams of becoming their most prolific author. Telos and Obverse were both publishers I wanted to work with long term, and even In Uniform was sent out because I wanted to find regular work outside of Doctor Who.
In part, it's an attempt on my part to bypass some of the less glamorous aspects of being a writer. There is no job security in writing. You spend half your time sending things out, building relationships, finding contacts and one by one they all drop away. Deep down inside, what I really want is to find one person who will publish or produce everything I ever want to write. That person doesn't exist, won't ever exist, but part of me always thinks "maybe this time ..."
But then, as luck would have it, sending out things to new people isn't just the hopeless expression of that unrealistic desire. It's also the only way to combat it, and the correct way to try to build a strong writing career. These days more than ever you need as many strings to your bow as possible, and if you are going to build a career you're going to have to have your work accepted by a lot of different places. Some writers do manage to find a publisher or a producer to sign them to an exclusive agreement, but believe me the odds are massively against it. Million dollar contracts are not handed out left, right and centre. The vast majority of writers see most of their work go into the bottom drawer and never come out again.
How did you do it?
I have no doubt that the most important thing I have ever done when sending out an unsolicited submission is to believe what the person I'm sending it to tells me. If they have submission guidelines, I read them and I follow them. If they say there are definitely not interested in stories about blue foxes, I do not send them a story about a blue fox. There is something to be said for taking a punt – Heritage, for example, broke one of the "we don't want" rules in the BBC's guidelines – but it must be a considered risk: read the guidelines very carefully and take account of the language. If they say "absolutely don't" then absolutely don't, but if they say "we're probably not going to be interested in ..." then you might have a chance, if you're good enough. But in those cases, you should always consider that the odds are against you: when they reject you, you have to react taking full account of the fact that they did warn you.
Equally, if you send someone something that adheres to their guidelines and they say they are not interested, they still aren't lying to you. They are not interested. If they give you a reason, that is the reason. Nothing will stop someone wanting to talk with you quicker than the angry tirade when you don't get the answer you wanted. It's frustrating, yes, but you are not going to argue someone into liking your story: you're just going to argue them out of liking you. Equally, if they say they did like something about the idea, they are not just being polite: if you are ever lucky enough to get a rejection that gives feedback or even asks to see the next thing you write, that is a massive success. Make sure that you take the feedback onboard, and that you send them the next thing that you write.
Above all, you have to be polite and positive. Half the battle of convincing someone to buy your work is convincing them that you are someone they are going to be happy about spending a lot of time talking to. Collecting rejection letters is a demoralising hobby, but the only thing you can do with your frustration is to channel it back into your work. Make the next thing you write that much better, learn, and eventually someone will take the chance.
What did you get out of doing it?
Broken dreams and heartache.
But when I get a positive rejection, or on a rare occasion even a success, all of that is forgotten. There is no feeling in the world like a successful unsolicited submission, and that alone is reason enough to keep trying. But as well as that, it's given me the certain knowledge that everything I've written – every time somebody has asked for a story because they think I'm a good writer – only came about because of all those times that somebody said no, and those too few times that they said yes.
But more than that, it's given me a different perspective on my writing. As much as I write for myself, I'm always aware that at some point my story will be seen by somebody else. Somebody who might not have sought it out, might not even like the idea of having to read it. I don't want it to pull me away from writing what interests me – early on, I used to succumb to the temptation to write what I thought that unknown reader wanted to see. But nor do I want to completely ignore them. I know that I have to win over an audience as well as please myself. Good stories lie between those two conflicting poles.
Bad ones get pulled too far to one side or the other.