Wednesday, 26 August 2009

The truth about short stories - rejections and acceptances

One of my fellow-bloggers, Julie of Julie's Quest (, has been brave enough recently to give details of her short story 'tally' for the year so far. Julie's writing output is as admirable as her attitude; she realises that we all have to accept the inevitable rejections and keep on trying, keep on submitting, if we're going to improve our success ratio.

This made me realise that it's quite helpful to hear about other writers' rejections as well as their successes! We all enjoy celebrating with each other when we've had an acceptance, a sale, a publication - but we quite often prefer to keep the bad news quiet, with the result that aspiring writers could fall into the trap of believing that those of us who are already published, don't have rejections or failures at all! And I think it's reassuring to know that - ahem! Yes, we certainly do.

So I had a count-up myself. My situation with short stories is that I was fairly widely published in magazines (under my own name, Sheila Norton) during the 1990s, but after I had my first novel published in 2002 I had to concentrate on the books, because I was still working full-time so the short stories had to take a back seat. Once I left the day job last year, I had more time and a lot less money (!) so I needed to get back into the short story market again. And this time around, after a gap of only 5 or 6 years, it's been even harder as there are less magazines publishing fiction, and different requirements everywhere.

Of course, I had plenty of rejections first time around, too - it was never easy. But it took me most of last year, while I was recovering from my operation, to get myself back into short story writing 'mode'. So now I'm full-on into submitting stories again, (alongside writing a new novel, which by the way also hasn't been accepted yet!) - what's my score?

Strangely enough, like Julie I've sent out exactly THIRTY stories this year. Of those, a mere FIVE were accepted for publication by the first magazine I submitted to. A further FOUR have been accepted following at least one rejection. Two of those were accepted on the third attempt; one was finally accepted this year, following six rejections when I was submitting prior to 2002 - and one further rejection this year! Of course - I'd been changing, updating and improving it each time it bounced back, but I'm telling you this to make the point that it does happen! Just ONE story has been put in the 'given up' section of my card-index system because after four rejections, I decided it just wasn't good enough and I couldn't do any more to improve it.

I now have TWENTY stories still 'out there'. Of these, SEVEN have been rejected by at least one magazine and are awaiting a decision from another one. The remaining THIRTEEN are still waiting for a decision from the first editor I've sent them to.

So you can see from this that, even with a reasonable track record, I'm by no means getting, and certainly not expecting, anywhere near a hit every time! I AM hoping, though, that each success will give me a little more 'credibility' with the editors, and bring my 'score' a little higher. Even if that doesn't happen - I'm working hard, enjoying every minute of it, and am thrilled to bits every time I have a story accepted. That's NINE so far this year, out of thirty submissions. But it's the twenty still out there that hold the promise ... they're the ones I focus on, because they are still possibilities. And I think it's important to have as many stories in that category as we can - to keep us hopeful.

The main points I wanted to get across, from this, are:
Firstly, don't give up too readily - send out those rejected stories again. What one editor hates, another might love. But of course, make sure the story is adapted for each different market. And do be prepared to give up eventually, if you've flogged it to death and realise it's never going to happen.
Secondly, please don't think, if you feel like you're getting more rejections than you were prepared for, that it's just you. It is par for the course - part of a writer's life - and not only beginner writers - we ALL get rejections; we all hate them, they're disappointing, and frustrating, but they are an inevitable part of it.

I hope this helps someone, somewhere, to feel just a little bit reassured! Good luck with those submissions - we need it!

Monday, 17 August 2009

Hospital Stories

How much do you use the experiences of your own working life in your writing? The reason I ask is that I've been saddened by all the criticism of the NHS coming from people in America who don't know much about it - because I spent most of my life working for the NHS and although I'd be the first to admit it's not perfect, I do believe in it passionately and feel aggrieved that people don't appreciate how lucky we are to have it.

What's this got to do with my writing? Well, I've often used hospital life as the background to my short stories: it was obviously easy for me to do so, being surrounded by it all day every day! - and (as is evident from the popularity of TV programmes like Holby, ER, Casualty etc), I think most people enjoy a good 'hospital story'.

Why? Well ... for a start, the range of characters is fantastic. All human life is there - and that's just the staff! Doctors, nurses, technicians, secretaries, porters, cleaners, kitchen workers, radiographers, therapists ... I won't go on, but you get the picture. One of the things I loved about my job was the mix of people we worked with - young and old, all backgrounds, all nationalities, creeds, origins - I learnt such a lot, over the years, just working with so many amazing colleagues.

And then there are the patients: a never-ending source of interest! There were dear old souls who were so poorly, so lonely, so bereaved or bereft it would break your heart, but they were sweet, patient and uncomplaining. Sometimes they just wanted someone to talk to. Then there were the bad-tempered ones, often suffering from no more than an injury sustained in a drunken brawl - demanding special treatment, or being rude and aggressive - but was it because they were actually nervous of hospitals and doctors? There were frightened children, worried parents, people given bad news, others making wonderful recoveries from operations that couldn't even have been contemplated a few years previously. The stories I soaked up, doing my job, were sometimes sad, sometimes heartening, often moving but sometimes funny: a perfect mental megastore of memories to revisit and work into fiction.

Once, I wrote a story about two male doctors having an argument about their girlfriends - which was rejected by the editor I first sent it to, with the words: 'I can't believe doctors would be so childish or spend their time discussing such trivial things'. The story was (very loosely!) based on a true incident, and I showed that editor's response to the young doctors involved - who fell about laughing!

Best of all, I decided to use the hospital background for my third Sheila Norton novel - 'Body & Soul'. When I proposed the idea of the book to my then-editor, she was a bit dubious. She felt that although TV hospital drama was popular, it might not translate well to a novel. But she agreed to look at the first few chapters - and I'm pleased to say, immediately changed her mind. Because I only used the hospital setting as a background - making the characters the focus of the story rather than going into too much technical detail about medicine or surgery - she agreed that it worked well. It went on to sell to an American publisher and has been translated into Portuguese and Russian.

I've written features about the hospital where I used to work for my local paper, and during my years of working there I also co-wrote and co-edited a staff newsletter, and helped to write sketches and songs for hospital shows. When I won my short story awards, and then years later when my first novel was accepted for publication, the support and encouragement I got from staff at the hospital was just fantastic. Working in a large hospital was great for promotional purposes too, as word spread around the hospital community and I was constantly asked for signed copies!

My working life was often difficult, stressful and certainly not helped by targets, rulings and regulations handed down from government, by constant changes to the organisation and heirarchy of hospital management, or by chronic shortage of staff. But on the other hand, it was rewarding and rich in experience, companionship and teamwork.

Sadly, it's the politics in hospitals that often cause their problems - and in my case, they caused my own downfall. The Trust that employed me failed to support me when a technicality in my contract put my job at risk, and sadly my career with the NHS was cut short a few years before my official retirement - so I went on to experience a whole new world of work, in a surveyors' practice, before leaving to undergo a big operation myself. I still feel cheated and sad that things ended the way they did - but I was a casualty of mismanagement at the top of the Trust, and the tactics of central government.

I don't remember the years before the NHS, which was founded the year before I was born - and I think it's a pity that so few of us do, or we might appreciate it more. My 97-year old auntie told me the story, recently, of being admitted to a hospital in London at the age of 8, to have her tonsils out. She had to share a bed (sleeping at the other end) with a male soldier who was being treated for injuries from World War 1. And when she cried for her mother, a nurse slapped her round the face. 'I didn't think that was very nice,' she told me, quite mildly. Her mother - my grandmother - would have been paying for that treatment - but in those days, nobody complained, much less sued, the hospital. My own mother had her tonsils removed by the family doctor, in the kitchen at home.

There are plenty more stories where those came from! I'll never run out of ideas - thanks to the good old NHS!

Friday, 7 August 2009

Facebook - should I face it??

OK - come on, tell me, everyone - why do I need a Facebook account? I want to know, seriously.

I've been invited by lots of people to join Facebook, and yes, I'm tempted, of course I'm tempted - I don't want to be the only person in the universe left out of something that seems to be so much fun! Or does it? My husband joined recently, under pressure from some new friends (as in, real live friends!) - but having joined, says he can't see the point of it and hardly ever bothers with it.

Being a writer, and spending so many hours on the computer anyway - and having now ditched the day job so that I do have (ahem!) a little more time to explore all these brave new worlds - I'm actually a lot more interested in social networking than he is. But so far, I've held back - and the only reason is that I'm worried about ending up spending all my time on these other pursuits, and actually squeezing my writing time out of existence!

I already have two websites to maintain (one as Olivia Ryan and one in my real name, Sheila Norton), two blogs (I started before this one), two e-mail accounts, a Snapfish account where I post my photos, and I belong to the RNA forum as well as following lots of other writers' blogs. I know I'm not alone - from what I hear, most writers seem to have at least this amount of 'networking' outlets, if not more - lots now use Twitter, too, as well as Facebook.

I'm not of the generation that has grown up with conducting their entire social life on the internet, and to be honest I wouldn't want that, at all. Like a lot of writers, I enjoy working in solitary confinement (!) and it would be all too easy to do this, neglecting 'real' social interaction and eventually turning into a hermit! But I hope I'm not yet old enough, either, to dismiss everything that's new, different, and technologically (for me!) complicated, as not worth bothering with.

So where does that leave me? I'd like some honest advice from others who, like me, enjoy a bit of social networking on the internet, but don't want to spend half their lives on it. Am I missing out? Should I learn to Facebook, prod, nudge, twit, etc? What are the benefits? Tell me, please!
I'll be very grateful !