Wednesday, February 3, 2016

When Do You Give Up On a Story... Or Do You Ever?

Guest Post by Sarah M. Chen

As I contemplated what to write for this guest post, I received another rejection from a fledgling crime fiction magazine. It came with an encouraging note that said, “This story came super close to getting picked for publication. We think you’re very talented and hope you submit again.” I was disheartened but buoyed at the same time. That weird bipolar feeling many of us writers understand.

This is a story that I wrote for Bouchercon’s “Murder Under the Oaks” anthology last year but was rejected. No lovely note, just a “thank you but it wasn’t selected.” Undaunted, I had sent it off to another publication. Several months later, another pleasant rejection arrived in my inbox. That was the point where I thought “okay, maybe my story isn’t as brilliant as I thought.” I tinkered with it until I thought “Now, it’s brilliant.”

A few weeks later, I sent it off to another fledgling crime fiction magazine (not the previous one I mentioned) and received encouraging feedback to the point that they told me they thought it was going to get in but ultimately it was up to their guest editor. That’s where my story’s journey ended unfortunately. However, I did receive notes which I most definitely did not ignore.

So now here I am with a story that has almost made it in to two different markets. I’m kind of at a crossroads: is it just a matter of not finding the right home or is it in need of more editing? At what point do we say: this story sucks and my dog could write something better? Or the opposite: this story is badass, it just hasn’t found the right publisher yet so I’m not changing a single word.

I set it aside for a bit and then re-read it a few weeks later. It hit me that it needed a new ending. Something about it had bothered me all along and that was it. The ending is the most difficult part for me to write. It has to have that knockout punch yet ring true for the characters. Once I torture my writing group for one more read-through, I’ll be ready to send it out into the world with its shiny new ending, confident that it’s reached maximum brilliance.

Okay, that’s a lie. I don’t think I’m ever 100% happy with anything I’ve written. Even after it’s published, I spot things I want to change. Coincidentally, I read a recent post by Art Taylor on Sleuthsayers that covered this same subject. He mentioned how endings, for him, are the hardest part of the story to write and he’s constantly revising even after submission. I totally related to that. Then I read an article in the February Sisters in Crime/LA newsletter from Lida Bushloper about a short story she wrote that had a 30-year journey to eventual publication. Now that right there is inspiration to keep revising and submitting.

The key, I think, is that something in the story keeps tugging at me or I wouldn’t come back to it over and over again, setting aside my masochistic tendencies. It also helps that two markets told me to keep working on it because they saw the potential in it.

Which brings up another point. If an editor or publisher tells you to work on something and resubmit—or even better, gives you notes and tells you to resubmit—then get on it. In fact, a highly respected publisher recently brought up this exact issue and referred me to an article on resubmitting: Submit Like A Man. It talked about how gender affects resubmission. Men tend to resubmit more than women. I found myself nodding along to many of the points. Gender was something I never even thought about when it came to resubmission frequency. It’s an issue worth discussing, but right now, I have to get back to my story and tweak the ending just a little bit more.


Sarah M. Chen juggles several jobs including indie bookseller, transcriber, and insurance adjuster. Her crime fiction short stories have been accepted for publication online and in various anthologies, including All Due Respect, Akashic, Plan B, Shotgun Honey, Crime Factory, Out of the Gutter, Betty Fedora, Issue Two, Spelk, and the Sisters in Crime/LA anthology, Ladies Night. Her noir novella, Cleaning Up Finn, is coming out May 2016 with All Due Respect Books.


Maddy said...

Too true. My brother, a journalist and editor in China told me that he noticed the gender bias on submissions. If a woman's work was rejected, for whatever reason, she rarely submitted again. However, if a man's work was rejected, suddenly it was game on and the writer would deluge the newspaper with submissions.

Anonymous said...

Yes, I thought the article was fascinating. It seems as a generalization that women don't want to be pushy or annoying whereas apparently, men don't mind this or take it as a challenge. Of course, this is a broad generalization. There are other reasons I may not resubmit - like sometimes I want to bask in the glow of an encouraging rejection rather than risk the possibility of all-out rejection - like the article says. Thanks for the comment, Maddy.

Nancy Cole Silverman said...

You're post is so timely. I've had a number of short stories published, but it's like that baseball player who gets up to bat; you take a lot of swings and every once in while, you hit a home run.

That happened to me this morning. A story I'd submitted had been rejected - i won't tell you how many times - and then surprise, I get the following email this morning.


Oh yes.
We'll let you know when it's going to be up.

Tom and Joe

You never know. Just keep slugging away. There's nothing like the feeling of hitting that home run.

Holly West said...

Congratulations on the acceptance, Nancy!

Anonymous said...

Congrats, Nancy! Be sure to let us know when it comes out.

Tom Leins said...

Hi Sarah, I was interested to read your article, as it is something that I thought about quite a lot last year. I basically imposed a three-strikes-and-out rule on myself - any story that gets rejected three times gets abandoned and chopped up for parts! Luckily it doesn't come down to that very often, but that's my own personal resubmission cut-off point!
I used to dwell on rejections too much, and would find myself flogging a dead horse of a story to increasingly random websites - at the expense of getting anything productive done! Now I write a new story each week, so I have plenty of new stuff circulating every month. The more I write, the more acceptances I get, and so on. The rejections don't bother me half as much nowadays.

Anonymous said...

Not only will I keep submitting a story I think is good (though making changes if an editor suggests, or I think of something on a subsequent read-through), after the story has been published and a couple of years have passed I'll start submitting the story again to markets that take reprints.

Anonymous said...

I like your three-strikes rule, Tom. I think it comes down to how much I really believe in my story and how convinced I am it can find a home. I think you've got an excellent strategy by just writing a lot (a new story each week - wow!) which keeps you busy with more acceptances. Less time to fool with stories that may be good just for parts as you say. You're a flash fiction machine and now I get why. :) James, I never think of reprints but you're right, there are plenty of reprint markets. I need to keep that in mind. Thanks for commenting!

Tom Leins said...

Thanks Sarah. My tactic of chopping up failed stories definitely works better for flash fiction. It is far harder to apply the same logic to a 3,000 word story - especially one that has been written with a specific anthology in mind! But, yeah, belief in the story itself is hugely important. Similarly, I find that acceptances are good for confidence and that confidence gives me a platform to take more risks and push my writing in different directions.
PS. Reading between the lines, I think I recently got rejected by the same two publications as you!

Christopher J. Lynch said...

Great piece Sarah! I usually let things sit, especially when I am stuck on the ending, which usually happens about 2/3 of the way through a novel. Then, BAMMM it hits me! So don't get discouraged. I could paper the walls of my office with rejection letters. You just keep on swinging.

Reading the article on Submit Like A Man made me think of studies that have been done that show that women are less likely to negotiate better salaries for themselves, but will willingly do it for someone else.

Thanks again for sharing.

Anonymous said...

Tom, one of these days we'll have to trade notes. :) Chris, yes, I think if I find myself struggling with the ending (or any part of the story) I set it aside and try not to stress over it. Then somehow the solution hits me - usually when I'm doing something mindless. It's interesting how gender factors into submissions and I could write a whole other blog post about it. Thanks for commenting, Chris.

Barbara Martin said...

As for submitting, I don't give up -- but I will reconsider after the manuscript has sat awhile as to what made it be rejected. Most times, nothing is indicated on the rejection slip. Sometimes an editor will be kind enough to provide a hint as to what is wrong, which in turn results in acceptance somewhere.

Anonymous said...

Yes, it's always a rare opportunity when feedback is given with a rejection. I've only really had that happen once. Thanks for commenting, Barbara.

Anonymous said...

Sarah, I like your insightful exploration of all the responses we have when we get rejections, and then figuring out our next steps. We all seem to go through the same processes, just part of being a writer.

Anonymous said...

And I liked your article you wrote! (obviously since I kind of paid homage to it). I'm glad to meet you (virtually) and thanks for commenting, Lida.