Thursday, 27 March 2014

Bearing fruit by Jane Ayres

Any business, small or large, will regularly review and evaluate output and productivity.  What is selling?  What isn’t?  Is the reward commensurate with the time expended to produce it?  (Okay, this is a perennial issue for all creators, not just writers.  Creating can be hugely draining and time consuming; also frustrating and difficult, as well as spiritually satisfying.   And we aren’t supposed to be doing it for the money (!) But that is for another article….) Back to the topic.  So how many writers analyse their output in terms of volume and results?  For example, have you ever gone through your records detailing work sent out (you do keep records, don’t you?) to ascertain the ratio of work published to work submitted?

My core work is writing short pony books for children and teenagers, which I have done for more years than I care to remember.  However, I am a big advocate of not putting all your eggs in one basket, so have always tried to establish a parallel writing career that is independent of this; particularly since the publishing industry is so fickle and dynamic.  I have written articles, comic strips, poetry and advertising copy, but my first love was always the short story form.  When I started to analyse my non-pony book output, I discovered that on average only 12% of my speculative submissions resulted in publication, and this was consistent over several years.  Was I producing quantity rather than quality?  Or failing to target my work effectively? Investigating further, I undertook a breakdown of the successful output, to see if any trends were apparent.  The results were illuminating.  I spent a lot of time and energy writing short stories but had disappointingly few accepted. Repeated editorial feedback indicated that my fiction lay uncomfortably between “commercial” and “literary” – a situation I guess many writers will be familiar with.  However, to my surprise, writing features and articles, which I had never seen as my strength, had actually proved more successful and earned more money.  This boosted my confidence writing non-fiction, and as a result of this analysis, I decided to concentrate more on feature writing. 

Being a glutton for punishment, I then scrutinised competitions.  I had given myself three years to make some headway with short story writing competitions.  Where had it got me?  In my best year, I’d been awarded 2 prizes out of a total of 18 competitions entered.  The following year, I’d more than doubled my output, and entered 46 competitions and was awarded one prize.  Ouch!  I hadn’t realised I’d entered so many and when I totted up the total entry fees, I was shocked. Ouch again.  Admittedly, I had recycled some of the unsuccessful competition entries, and several of these were, eventually, published elsewhere.  But I was in a situation where I needed to pay the bills, so in terms of time and money, entering competitions was a poor use of both. 

So what did I learn?   Well, what you enjoy writing and what you are good at writing are not always the same.  And that can be quite hard to accept.  Writers need to be flexible and open to trying anything.  You can’t afford to be precious, especially if you intend to rely on income from writing in the future.   I also learned what I should be doing to use my time efficiently and effectively.  (Note the use of the word ‘should’.  I am still the mistress of procrastination!)

I would urge any writer, particularly if you are seeking to earn an income from your words, to regularly undertake this kind of analysis and evaluation.  Writers need to think about their occupation as a business, and successful businesses understand what they are producing, what sells (or doesn’t) and the reasons for it.  Or at least to try.  And from a creative viewpoint, it can actually be quite a liberating process.  It is easy for writers to pigeonhole themselves, and discovering that you have hidden talents is always exciting.

About the author:
Jane had her first short story published in a UK pony magazine when she was 14. Her latest title, Valentine Horse, is available from Amazon. A passionate cat lover, Jane is donating all author royalties from her e-book Coming Home to the charity Cats Protection. See the trailer here:

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