A Short History of By the Boiler’s Hand

Rejected by (checks notes), over 30 different publications, I finally found a temporary home for By the Boiler’s Hand in 2020. Genre wise, the closest label I can attach would be, ‘short sci-fi alternative history mixed with horror and dark fantasy’. Try saying that after a few beers or several glasses of wine. By the Boiler’s Hand won the Dark Tales UK prize in October 2020. ‘Dark Tales’, a speculative science fiction and horror magazine at darktales.co.uk. If you’re quick, you can read the story here. If you missed it, don’t worry, as the story will be available to purchase along with some other great short horror and sci-fi in a future volume of Dark Tales magazine sometime in 2021.

UPDATE July 2022: Due to the effects of Covid-19, Dark Tales UK is on hiatus. Sean is a great guy, and I really hope he is able to continue running Dark Tales in the future. All rights to By the Boiler’s Hand have reverted to me, and I am now free to submit it to other publications.

The Story

Set in an alternative present, where aliens helped the Allies win World War 2, By the Boiler’s Hand follows Liz, a young woman who dreams of being a train driver on the vital Trans-Atlantic service route. Liz is merely a boilerhand, someone who keeps the steam locomotives running whilst someone else drives. With the current driver showing no sign of moving on, Liz appears resigned to being a boilerhand for the rest of her life. Then an unexpected development on the latest crossing presents Liz with an opportunity to change her life, but it involves a risky gamble.

The journey and feedback

By the Boiler’s Hand was longlisted for the James White Award in 2018. The same year it received an Honourable Mention at Writers of the Future. Everywhere it has travelled, this story has split readers and editors down the middle (so I must be doing something right). It gained mixed reactions from the editorial team at Escape Pod, where it made it to the final stage before being rejected. The staff at Shoreline of Infinity also came close to selecting By the Boiler’s Hand before the story was beautifully rejected along with an encouraging note to send more. I mention these rejections and editorial notes to remind and reassure other writers that rejections are part of the process. Writing is like constantly looking for a job. You have to practise, hone, prepare and repeat before the reader offers you the job to entertain them. You also have to try to stay sane.

How I deal with it

1. Rejections encourage me to continue writing, editing and submit my work. Editorial notes can be a valuable gift, even when just a few lines long. I file every rejection I receive. They remind me of every door I’ve knocked at.

2. Rejections remind me that every reader is individual and has their own likes and dislikes. Reading and writing fiction is always a very subjective process. A blend of commercial estimates and personal taste will always come into play in an editor’s brain. One editor’s golden egg is another editor’s latest addition to the trash can. Publishing, whether traditional or independent, is a business and every writer must remember that.

3. Constructive feedback from test readers can be painful, but it is essential. Test readers often find errors and story elements that make sense to me, but not to a reader. One of the best notes I got, enabled me to rethink the end of By the Boiler’s Hand when I realised it was too vague.

The result

By the Boiler’s Hand is a short story, but like any work I successfully place, it was drafted, tested, edited, redrafted, and rejected many times before being accepted. I wanted to share its journey because it might help other writers feel encouraged to keep trying. That makes me happy. Writing is one of the most difficult, often lonely yet ultimately rewarding jobs in the world. Rejection hurts, but builds my resilience and I always learn something from each rejection that comes in. Combined with feedback, my work gets stronger making eventual publication feel even more sweet.

I hope you enjoy the story.

Pamban Bridge. Image: Wikipedia.org

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