The Persistence of Recordkeeping

I screwed up earlier this week. I submitted a story to a pro market, and verified its status the next morning. Imagine my dismay when I saw, in the list of previously rejected stories, the same one I’d just sent them.

I did what needed to be done, promptly sending a withdrawal and apology to the editor. My next step was figuring out how I made the mistake in the first place, which led to writing this post.

I’m a pretty avid supporter and user of Duotrope. It’s the first place I go to look for markets and where I primarily track my submissions but, as it turns out, with some omissions. On top of that, I was using a mix of spreadsheets but those were entirely current, either.

Numbers (or Excel) worked well as an offline solution, but was getting cluttered. I decided to switch to Google Docs and create multiple spreadsheets — one per story — to track submissions. It was an interesting experiment, but only added to the confusion (not to mention a duplication of effort).

Disheartened, I started re-examining the problem. The spreadsheet(s) I had only tracked the most basic information: title, market, dates submitted and responded, status and comments. That’s not enough, though. I also keep a list of stories written and their status and was duplicating information between the two lists. There’s also tracking what rights were sold for acceptances, which I wasn’t tracking. Ugh.

With only a half dozen stories sold, reprints aren’t something I’m worrying about yet but I’ll need to be. I also need to know which rights I’ve sold — print vs. Electronic vs. Audio. A story sold once is a story that can be sold twice.

Databases, which I’m all too familiar with, seem like overkill. Any solution needs to be simple or I’m just going to get frustrated building it or using it. I know some people are happy using a simple document ala Word or a notebook (one page per story) but that lacks the ability to quickly search for specific information. Back to a spreadsheet I went.

Using one document to track them all, containing three spreadsheets:

  • Index
  • History
  • Rights

The index is just that, a list of relevant details (title, log line, genre, themes, status, and notes) of each story I’ve written. I’ve color coded the status so I can quickly see if it’s in need of revision, rewriting, ready for submission, etc.

History is where I’m tracking the lifecycle of a story, from draft to submission. In one glance, I can see where a story has been and where it’s at. If I decide to trunk a story, or bring on a collaborator, I know exactly when that took place.

Another benefit I’m finding is that an occasional comment from an editor might have been filed away and forgotten, with months between rejections. Seeing them together on one page with other responses, patterns start to emerge that might have seen me make revisions to one or two stories before sending them back out.

In Rights, I’m recording the title, market, and which rights I’ve sold, along with the effective dates, how much I’ve been paid, when I was paid, and when rights revert back. If, at some point in the future, an editor asks me if I have any reprints to sell them, it’s a simple matter of filtering by date. Also, when it comes time to do taxes and I’m wondering how much money I’ve made from writing, I have that recorded, too.

A sample spreadsheet, with totally fake data (although I kind of want to write  The Bromantics, now) is available here.

There is no perfect solution to this problem, I think, because it’s different for every person. Reading Jennifer Brozek’s guest post about managing her freelance schedule, for example, gave me the idea to use color coding. It’s an adaptation of process, find what works and abandoning what doesn’t.

The more you write, the longer your inventory becomes and managing that isn’t going to become easier. I wish I’d done a better job of record keeping at the start, not just so I wasn’t spending hours trying to fix the mess I have now but so I had more accurate notes, like when I finished drafts or made revisions.

I’m curious what you’re using to track their submissions (non-fiction, short fiction, or novels), and how happy you are with that process. I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

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  • Galen Dara

    wow, Adam, your output and your organizational skills are amazing. I am taking notes!

    I have deadlines by which I need to get illustration work done and I’ve been using google calendars (w/ multiple reminders set up) to keep my jobs straight… but I am still not entirely satisfied with my record-keeping methods. Both this post and Jennifer Brozek’s post are very insightful, thank you!

    • It’s entirely learned through years of making mistakes! In high school, I was one of those kids they made take an extra class because I lacked basic organizational skills.

      I use Google Calendars, too (also color-coded) to track freelance work, deadlines, etc. Along with the spreadsheets, it’s progress in what used to be chaos and that lets me focus on the output.

  • Wendy N Wagner

    Oooh, I really need to add columns for theme & word count–makes it so helpful for antho calls!!
    Adam, you are brilliant.

    • A. Merc Rustad

      I entirely agree! I hadn’t thought about a themes column before. 🙂

  • I keep a notebook detailing where I submitted each story and a file that lists what I’ve sent to each market. 

    I need to start logging what rights I’ve sold (or might do eventually)

  • Wow, Adam, you are amazing!!

    Unfortunately, I don’t need anything except a wee tiny little notebook to keep track of my subs…since I’ve only ever submitted 7 stories. ACK! It’s a cute notebook, I really should be using it more often. 😉

    You’re such an inspiration-keep up the great work! 🙂 

  • M. Bennardo

    My primary tracking document is a color-coded matrix: stories down the side and markets along the top. Cells are filled in indicating where stories were submitted in the past, where they are now, where they’ve sold, and where I may want to send them in the future. This gives me the past and likely futures of both stories and markets in one view.

    For me, the future part is important. Ensuring that almost everything is on submission somewhere at any given time is a big challenge, so if I see that I’m planning to send lots of stories to the same few markets, then that’s my cue to find more markets.

  • I use the same basic spreadsheet I started twenty years ago (which has visited many computers, programs and operating systems). Right now it’s in Google Documents. 

    The headings are: Title, Date Sent, Market, Date Returned, Editor, Date Accepted, Date Published, Payment, Comments.

    I sort as needed. If I want to see everything that is currently out, I sort by Date Returned. If I want to see every market to which I’ve sent a certain story, I sort by Title. I sort by Market to see if I’ve ever had problems with a certain magazine.

    I also color code. Everything story currently out is green, every one sold is red, every self-published story is blue, and every one that is just sitting at home with nothing to do is black.

    I don’t keep track of rights, because some of that stuff can be too hairy to squeeze into a spreadsheet cell. Besides, I don’t want to make a mistake. I keep all my contracts in a file and go to the file and reread the contract if the need comes up.

    Having said all this, I’ve twice sent stories out to editors who had already rejected them. Once because I didn’t see what was right there on the spreadsheet, and once because I didn’t even look at the spreadsheet because I was sure I had never sent that story to that editor.

    By the way, you want to keep track of which editors you’re sending your stories to. Because I do, I was able to avoid sending things that had been rejected by JJA at F&SF to Lightspeed (for instance). That’s an easy one, but I’ve been doing this long enough to see a few editors bounce around. Also, there may come a time when you can send a story back to the same market if there’s been a change in editors.

    • That’s a good point about tracking editors.

      To clarify (mostly for my sake), your point about submitting after a change in editor, I can think of two semi-recent examples of editorial change where I think that was explicitly verboten, Clarkesworld and Apex. 

      Have there been cases that you’ve been able to resubmit a story due to a change in editors, or is it more of a just-in-case situation?

      • It’s a just-in-case. But the reverse – not sending the same story an editor who has changed mags – saves everyone time and grief.