by Eric M. Witchey
I just came back from the Short Story America Conference. I taught three classes. I had three stories in the finals of an international, blind competition for short fiction. One of those stories won 2nd place. I’ll have four short stories in the next Short Story America anthology (Vol. IV). I have two in the current anthology (Vol. III). I only have one in Vol. II. It was a good trip.
Yes, I’m bragging a little. Hey, I’m excited. I got a cool plaque and some money. However, there is a point beyond that.
In South Carolina at the conference, writer after writer asked me how I was able to get so many stories in the finals, how I could sell as many as I do, how I could write so many stories, and other similar questions. It’s very hard to answer questions like these. Writers tend to have a lot of themselves invested in their process and beliefs about writing. Also, there are many possible answers, including the band of coffee I buy.
However, the truest answer came to me as an insight some years ago when I was having a bad writing day. Hey, we all have bad writing days, right? Over coffee, a friend started up the “lost story whine.” You know the one. If you haven’t spoken it, you’ve at least heard it. I’ve done both.
“I put my story in the mail six months ago,” He says.
“Uh-huh,” says I.
“I mean, it’s just rude. It’s been in the mail for six months. At least they could send a rejection.”
“Did you query for status?”
“I don’t know if it’s been long enough. I mean, if it still has a chance, I don’t want to. . .”
Did I say I’d had a bad day?
I’d heard enough. I thought, Jesus, quit whining. Anybody can whine.
With that thought, a memory leapt to mind. I was standing in the Officer’s Club at Edwards Air Force Base where my brother was attending Test Pilot School. Class 88-B had their motto on a little plaque under a mounted, dead trout—an upside-down, dead trout.
I spoke their motto to my friend. “Even a Dead Fish can Float Downstream.”
“What?” he asked.
I explained the difference between a dead fish and a live one. A dead fish floats belly-up downstream. A live fish, with head in the current and tail thrashing, doesn’t talk about “my story” in the singular. They say things like, “I forgot where I sent that that one. I’ll have to check my records.”
They know they have to make their numbers in order to live. The average time of rejection (according to my records) is about 3 months. The most times I’ve put a story in the mail before it sold is sixty-five. The least is 1. My average is about seventeen submissions before a sale. So, assuming a story might sell on the seventeenth try, it could also be in the mail for fifty-one months, a little over four years, before it sells.
Yes, that’s years.
If I whine over coffee about one story for four years, that’s a lot of coffee and whining. If the story sells, it likely won’t even pay my barrista’s tips.
That’s a long time to float downstream away from my dreams with my belly in the sun. I hate sunburn.
A live, head-in-current, tail-thrashing fish smiles and happily buys the coffee.
Because the reason their head is in the stream is so that the stream can bring them bugs and other food. Of course, they can’t catch every bug that floats by, but they can get damn fat on the ones they do catch.
So, I asked my friend how often he wanted to sell a story. One a year? One a month? One a week?
Back then, I was averaging a lazy one or two per quarter. My friend thought that would be great. Envy and comparison. . . That’s a different article.
Here’s the fishy story problem: If a fish has it’s nose in the current, and it snaps at every bug that goes by, and it takes 17 snaps to catch a bug, and a bug goes by every four months, and the fish needs at least one bug every four months to stay alive, how many more bugs need to go by for the fish to live? Unless the fish figures out how to get more bugs from that stream, the fish dies.
In writer’s terms, 1 snap per quarter for seventeen quarters is 4.25 years worth of submissions to get one sale. Of course, as you get bigger, you catch bugs faster. But let’s keep it simple.
One at a time, you put stories in the mail. Ten in the mail means you eat once every year and a half or so—rounding to our advantage for ease of narrative. By the time you can eat every year, you’ll also be catching more bugs, say three in ten? So, fifty in the mail means you eat pretty much every quarter.
After my friend walked out and left me with the bill, I gladly paid. I then went home and checked my numbers. Sure enough, with fifty stories in the mail, I make one to three sales every four months.
I’m growing. My tail is getting stronger. All those stories in the mail equal practice and improvement. The bugs are getting easier to catch, and the sunburn on my belly is almost healed.
With my running average of about 50 stories in the mail, I managed to sell a few stories this year. One story won a third place slot in the Irish Aeon Awards. One story won a second place slot at Short Story America. The other eight I sold didn’t win anything except the money I give to baristas. The cool bit for me is that I’m above my average of 1 to 3 per quarter this year, and I don’t think I worked as hard as I did last year. Either that’s a good thing, or I should put my head in stronger currents and thrash that tail harder.
That’s the real answer to my writing friends who asked so earnestly about how I do things. I try hard to be a live fish.
And next time you’re tempted to whine about how long it takes to get a rejection or an acceptance, remember that we control the frequency of both by attention to craft and how often we put a story in the mail. Just look yourself in the mirror and repeats the words, “Even a dead fish can float downstream.” Then, put a tale in the mail.
Three Happy Fishies, Left to Right: Film Producer, Mark Hunt; Me; Conference Coordinator and Editor, Tim Johnston.