(Word of warning: Sorry folks, this is a long one…)
I’ve been doing a lot of soul-searching these last few weeks regarding the writing career, such as it is. I’ve gotten stuck in this weird limbo: I’ve had some things published, sold a story to a pro-level market, and have even appeared in one of Paula Guran’s reprint anthologies. I’ve had several stories illustrated by awesome artists. I often get beyond slush piles and onto editors’ desks. I often receive personalized rejections. All good!
But I’m stuck right there. I can get to the cage-fight of final stories, but I can’t always break through to the sale. I’m a better writer than I was, but I’m still not as good as I know I need to be to compete on the professional level. I still don’t submit enough. I still don’t produce enough short fiction to submit (in part, because lately I’ve been working on long-form works, but getting short work out is still important to me).
The thing that really shook me up was looking back at this blog–which is a fantastic documentation of my progress as a writer from the early days–and seeing that my goals and listed “weaknesses” are the same now as they were back in 2012. ADMITTEDLY: a lot has happened in my personal life since then. We moved twice, I had Bug, Andy started both medical school and his medical residency, which was a lot more complicated and draining for both of us than we’d anticipated. Finding time to write uninterrupted has been an ongoing challenge.
But still. That I still struggle with the two most basic and primary issues–editing and submitting–makes me a little crosseyed. My editing skills are better than they used to be. I’ve learned a lot in the past seven years, so that time isn’t isn’t entirely wasted. I wrote three novel rough drafts in that time. Last year alone, I wrote close to 150,000 new words. That’s not nothing. BUT, getting things submitted is still proving elusive. And why? What’s getting in the way there? What processes have broken down?
Usually, when I look at how I want to submit more, I make dramatic plans: Write a short story a week! Submit a new story a month! Pick six theme anthology calls and submit to them! But these don’t work. I’ve tried this method over and over again, and ultimately, it falls apart and I make little progress. Why? What about these goals doesn’t work?
I looked back over the past year, and previous years, and started to seriously think about why I haven’t finished/submitted all those short stories I’ve written. Or if they’ve been submitted, why I didn’t keep sending them out. Here’s what I’ve determined are things that undermine my mission of submitting more:
- Lack of Workable/Passionate Ideas – One of the problems I run into when I try to force-write a story a month is the generation of stories I don’t care about. I can sit down and bang out a 6k story on just about anything, but that doesn’t mean I’ll like it or that it’ll mean anything to me. Lack of meaning, of connection to the work, means lower interest in returning to it or fighting with it until it becomes something I want to edit. This happened the last time I tried the “submit a story a month” thing–I wrote, edited, and submitted this one story, which immediately went into the trunk when it came back rejected, because I HATED it. It didn’t speak to me. It contained nothing I was passionate about. It was just words on the page, and fine, but I actually hated the idea of it being published. There’s certainly something to be said about overcoming perfectionist tendencies, but it’s difficult to get out work you just don’t believe in or feel is a good presentation of who you are as a writer. My personal shit-detector is all I’ve got for judging if a work is worth anything. And if you don’t even want it to succeed, how on earth will anyone else?
- Broken Stories – I can write story rough drafts. This hasn’t been an issue for me for years. When I sit down to write a story, finishing the draft isn’t hard for me. But fixing the story that comes out: that’s another ballgame entirely. I’ve got a slew of old rough drafts that have been sitting around (for literally YEARS sometimes) that I just couldn’t figure out how to fix. I liked them, I liked the core of them, I liked a character in them, but I was stumped on how to move forward with them. Sometimes the stumping was in response to good, critical feedback that I could TELL was right, but I couldn’t determine how to incorporate it. Or, like one story, I keep trying and trying and trying to rewrite it, but it refuses to work. I keep coming back to the idea, but it stalls out in brick walls every time. It’s a huge time-waste, and I find I get hung up on stories like these because I’m so desperate to get more works out, the mirage of making them functional seems just a few edits away, and I spend months chasing them without progress.
- Positive Rejections – One of the pitfalls I’ve encountered more recently is receiving of positive rejections. These are beautiful things. No mere form rejection these: no! They’re encouraging, and supportive, they may even request further submissions, and more than anything: they’re specific. They’ll tell you right off what it was that ultimately made them (often an editor-in-chief) say no. THESE ARE DIAMONDS. Sure, I’m disappointed that I didn’t get the sale, but I’m THRILLED that they believed in my work enough to tell me what to fix. This will absolutely–if the feedback rings true–give me a better shot at selling the story to the next market, so I want to incorporate the feedback. But, here again, is a stall point. I set a story aside, thinking, OH YEAH, I see what needs to change! And then months go by, I haven’t changed it yet, I’ve lost the general feel and thread of the story, and IT NEVER GETS SUBMITTED AGAIN (because how can I, when I know what’s wrong with it?!). This is a major pitfall, not totally unrelated to the broken stories hangup. Sometimes I agree with the feedback but just don’t know how to fix it. This needs a work around.
So what do I do about these hangups? I can’t keep trying the same solutions, because they have definitively been proven useless. I can’t keep going on the way I have been, because I’m sick and tired of complaining about how I need to submit more (whose fault is that, Self?). Big, wild-eyed, leap-off-the-cliff goals are exciting and motivating, but not actually effective at developing the kind of growth I want and need. If this is going to become the kind of career I someday hope it will be, I need a workable solution with reasonable stepping stones to up my annual submission rate, and that produces fiction I believe in enough to keep getting out there, and that can ultimately, hopefully, make me a better short story writer in general.
- Lack of Workable/Passionate Ideas – I can’t force myself to write stories I totally love (since I can’t always judge what I’ll love until I’m knee-deep in words), but I can push myself to simply read more of them and write more of them. When I write a rough draft I don’t care about, moving on and writing a new rough draft of a new story could produce a story I do care about. Or not. But getting obsessed with or depressed by a story that doesn’t work isn’t the answer. When I was producing work I was especially proud of, I was reading a lot of short fiction. I need to step that up again. A simple, basic goal, like reading one short story a day (preferably in the word-length range I’m trying to practice–so 5k and under) might be a habit I could develop. Setting aside time, perhaps even just once a week, to brainstorm story ideas, too, might help me plant some idea seed that could turn into stories later. It’s getting easier to brainstorm during the day, but it’s still not always simple, so spending some dedicated time just idea-playing might not only be good for generating ideas, but also just damned fun. Beyond this, I DO need to determine how to fit in more short story writing, as I’ve found switching between long-term projects and short-term ones has been difficult. Not impossible, but difficult. So I do need to think about this more.
- Broken Stories – I am going to write things I don’t know how to fix. It’s simply reality, particularly as I continue to develop as a short story writer. The issue here is getting hung up on stories I keep trying to fix and keep running into walls. This solution is actually the same as the one above: write more stories. If I’ve tried writing a story and it’s boggling me on how to fix it, it does need to be set aside while I tackle something new. I need to allow myself to try the rewrites that might fix them, but the amount of times I rewrite them will probably need to be somewhat limited, as in the past I’ve wasted several months on stories that still don’t work, without having written anything new during that period. This wastes a LOT of my time. And forcing them to be edited to completion even without feeling in my gut that they’re “good enough” (and that’s not even on a perfectionist level) just tends to create stories I hate. So while I absolutely should revisit them from time to time, just to see if my perception of them was overly critical or if they are–in fact–deeply flawed, I can’t go down that rabbit hole all the time, or I end up writing one story a year. This may turn into a reasonable time-line for story completion, and regularly scheduled time to revisit orphaned stories. What that time-frame should be, I still don’t quite know.
- Positive Rejections – This one, I think I actually have a clear-cut solution for: turn-around deadline. Back in the day when I was submitting a lot more, I had a 24 hour turn-around goal. Get a rejection? Shoot it back out into the world. Know where it’s going next. Don’t hesitate, just do it. But with the advent of good feedback, I do want the ability to incorporate the advice that feels right to me, because I am still learning and growing as a writer. But I can’t usually fix a story within 24 hours. I could, however, set a deadline that in a month, I should have the story back out again. That’s not unreasonable for me. If the edits are more complicated and confusing, perhaps I need to do the best I can and get it back out again, no excuses. Once it’s submitted, it needs to keep making the rounds, or it falls into the black hole of the TRUNK, which I can’t keep doing. Sometimes I get hung up on the idea that submitting a story again without making some thoughtful changes could doom the story to rejection (and perhaps it could) and that by sending it out without making those changes feels like wasting a good story. In reality, it’s a fear more akin to “wasting an idea,” that awful scenario when you come up with an idea so cool you know you can’t do it justice yet, so you plan to hold onto it until “you’re good enough to do it” which ultimately means: never. Because by the time you’re good enough to write it, you’ve usually hit the point where you realize the idea itself wasn’t all that interesting to begin with, OR you’ve grown so far away from the idea that you can’t capture the energy you had for it all those years ago. (Speaking from experience, here.) Just DO it. If it bombs out, it bombs out. It’s okay. Get it out, get it done. If I like it, it needs to make the rounds, imperfect or not. If I can quickly fix it, great! If I can’t, let it take the dive. Maybe someday, if I still love it, and I get the opportunity, perhaps it can go in a short story collection of my own.
Long story short, I’ve got a lot to work to do on in my day-to-day writing life. I’m not where I want to be yet. I know, at least in part, the things that I’m doing to myself that hold me back. I can’t ever guarantee a story is going to be published. That’s out of my hands. But I sure as hell am never going to get much published if I don’t get more out. I’ve been chastising myself about this for the past decade. It’s time to make a practical, non-dramatic work-ethic change. I’m still hammering out what that may mean, but I think this is a start. Acknowledging what holds me up is a start. Trying out some new things to overcome those hangups is a start. They may not work. I may need to try something else more custom-tailored to me. That’s okay. But the goal is to improve. Submit more this year, even if it’s just one more. Keep things out, even if I’ve only got a couple stories out. Read and write more short stories, even if I only write three more stories this year, even if all I do is establish a partial habit of reading more. It’s all better; it’s all moving in the right direction. I don’t want to look back in ten years and think: I’m no further than I was in 2019.