When someone asks me what I do for a living these days, I tell them I’m a writer. I even believe it sometimes. I mean, it is my sole source of income, and I do it everyday, so, with some trepidation, I put forth the notion that calling myself a “professional” is not completely out of the question. But there are pros and there are PROS. The prodigiously prolific author Michael Bracken is of the latter variety. He’s written everything under the sun, but I’ll focus on short fiction, so, as the prosecutor requested of Rooster Cogburn when asking about how many men the notorious marshal had killed, we may have a manageable figure. Michael has published (not just written, mind you) 1,100 short stories. That’s not a typo; he’s that prolific and that good.
It’s safe to say that in thirty-plus years of writing, Michael knows a lot about the publishing world, and he’s often been gracious enough to share some of his accumulated knowhow in the comments section of this blog. So, naturally, I was thrilled when he agreed to consolidate some of that writerly wisdom in an interview, the entertaining and educational results of which you’ll find below.
1) What does your typical writing work day look like? Do you have daily goals? Word count targets?
I’m in my home office first thing most mornings, writing fiction for 30-45 minutes. The rest of my morning and some part of my afternoon is devoted to my part-time job as marketing director for a local performing arts organization, freelance editing for regional publications, and the occasional advertising, promotional, or non-fiction writing opportunities I pick up. I return to writing fiction late afternoon or early evening. Weekends are similar, but more time is devoted to writing fiction than to other projects.
I recently married, so I’m trying to balance my life a bit better than I did when I was single, and we try to set aside two evenings a week as preplanned date nights. The only way we let writing or editing projects interfere with our date nights is if I have a deadline for a paying project, as opposed to a cool idea I just have to get down on paper.
Unlike many writers, I don’t set daily word-count or page-count goals. Instead, I set finished project goals, and my goal each year is to complete 52 submission-ready short stories. That’s an average of one story per week, but the reality is that some weeks I may not complete anything and other weeks I may complete two or three stories.
While my yearly finished-projects goal doesn’t change from year-to-year, my ability to meet that goal does. Some years I meet or exceed 52 submission-ready short stories. Other years, such as 2015 when I only completed 41 short stories, I fall short.
2) With over 1,400 shorter works published, you’ve obviously sent A LOT of submissions. Give us your top three pieces of advice for the fledgling writer just beginning to send his or her work out.
Understand your role. You have no control over the editorial decision-making process, but you can control your productivity. So, write often, submit often, and keep every manuscript on the market until it sells or you run out of places to submit it.
Produce clean, error-free manuscripts. That means you must learn how to spell, punctuate, and use grammar properly, and then you must demonstrate that knowledge with every submission.
Master your tools. Learn how to use your word processing software, including both formatting and typographical symbols. For example, there are at least three different ways to indent a paragraph using Microsoft Word. Pick one and stick to it; don’t mix two or all three methods in the same manuscript. Understand and properly use such symbols as the en dash and the em dash. Understand various file formats so that you can submit .doc, .docx, .rtf, .pdf, or whatever other electronic format an editor may prefer to receive.
3) Tell us about your first rejection letter or the first one that had a significant impact on you as a writer.
I was still in high school when I received my first rejection from a professional publication. The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction rejected “Days of Future Past,” a story I never did sell, in September 1974. By 1976 I was receiving handwritten notes at the bottom of rejection slips as well as actual handwritten and typewritten rejection letters.
To answer this question, though, I spent more than an hour rereading my old rejection letters, and what I realized is how many editors took the time to write detailed letters, commenting on everything from plotting to character motivation to my failure to use transitions.
I have no idea if these editors took as much time with other writers and other rejected stories, but they were my teachers, and those detailed rejection letters cumulatively had a significant impact on me as a writer. Without them, I might never have figured things out, might never have improved, and might never have become a professional writer.
However, one rejection had an immediate impact. In July 1982 Ted Newsom at Gentleman’s Companion returned an erotic science fiction story I had submitted. He had rewritten and retyped the entire manuscript but noted that it was being returned because the publisher didn’t want science fiction stories. Did I have anything else?
At that point I was writing only SF/F, but—after studying what Ted had done to my rejected story—I wrote and submitted a mystery. He bought it and a few months later he bought my second mystery.
This was significant for several reasons: 1. I started writing and selling stories in genres other than the one in which I started my career. 2. The $300 I received for that first mystery was more than I had been paid for any single piece of writing prior to that, and I would not have written it without Ted’s rejection of the SF story. 3. A few years later Gentleman’s Companion was sold to another publisher. I submitted to the new editor the science fiction story Ted had revised and rejected. He bought it for $500.
4) In your opinion, what is the most important lesson writers can learn from rejection?
Stop writing. Stop submitting.
If you don’t learn that lesson, then you might have a shot at becoming a writer. The most successful writers are those who keep going despite repeated rejection.
5) Got a favorite rejection? Memorable, funny, mean, just straight-up weird?
In mid-April 1984 I received a page-long typewritten rejection letter from the fiction editor at an up-scale men’s magazine detailing everything that was wrong with an erotic horror story I had submitted, and the letter ended with:
“I’m sorry that I can’t give you much more advice, but I am leaving [MAGAZINE TITLE] in a few days to go be the editor of those god-awful little digest books* that have no semblance of story or rationale but which pay a lot more money than I’m making.”
That one sentence reminds me that sometimes the best paying markets—for editors as well as for writers—aren’t always the most prestigious.
6) You’ve had a long and successful career and published, frankly, a mind-boggling amount of stories, novels, and other works. With all that success, does rejection still bother you? Pro tips for dealing with it?
One of the best ways to deal with rejection is to have so many manuscripts floating around at one time that you can’t even remember writing the story that was rejected. Then it’s easy to log the rejection, repackage the story, and ship it off to the next editor.
Alas, there are always favorites among the stories under submission, stories that I am particularly proud of for one reason or another, and when those are rejected I thrash around a bit, use a few expletives, and then log the rejection, repackage the story, and ship it off to the next editor.
Many years ago I had a friend who was, like me at the time, an early career writer. He was a much better writer than I was, but if he had a story rejected, he stuck it in his filing cabinet and never sent it out again. I didn’t. I kept my stories circulating through all the publications, working down from the top paying until I was scraping the bottom of publishing barrel. I don’t know where he is now, but I’m getting published on a regular basis, and it’s been a long time since I scraped any barrel bottoms with my submissions.
So my tip is this: Suck it up and resubmit.
7) Okay, plug away. Tells us about your latest project or book.
With something being published every month, it’s tough to keep track of what’s upcoming, so how about a few things published this past year that I particularly like: “Quarryville, Texas,” a private eye story published in The Private Eye Writers of America Presents: Fifty Shades of Grey Fedora (Riverdale Ave. Books); “Beneath Still Waters,” a mystery published in And All Our Yesterdays (Darkhouse Books); “Attack of the Nazi Snow Warriors,” a throwback to the weird menace pulps, published in Weird Menace Volume 2 (Rough Edges Press); and “Saga of the Sailmaker’s Widow,” an erotic Viking story published in A Slice of Sin (A Two Dame Production).
* The “god-awful little digest books” to which the editor refers were digest-sized periodicals containing “letters” from “readers” (most often written by professional writers) discussing their sexual exploits. Penthouse Letters, though more upscale and not a digest, is probably the most well known example of this type of publication. While a few of these digest magazine still exist, the Internet has killed many of them.
Although he is the author of several books, including the private eye novel All White Girls, two-time Derringer Award-winning writer Michael Bracken is better known as the author of more than 1,100 short stories. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, Crime Square, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Espionage Magazine, Fantastic, Fifty Shades of Grey Fedora, Flesh & Blood: Guilty as Sin, The Mammoth Book of Best New Erotica 4, Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine, True Confessions, True Story, and in many other anthologies and periodicals. At the time of this interview, Michael has had one or more short stories published each and every month for 151 consecutive months.