Once upon a time, I wrote a story called FLOW. I wrote it for a particular editor, of a particular publisher, for a particular anthology. My respect for this publication was (and still is) immense, and I had it in mind that having a story in that anthology would grant me membership into an online group that had specific rules of admittance.
I really wanted to be a member of that group.
I’ve been slow to transition from traditional places of publishing to e-publishing. And although my first story experiment in an all digital format was well-received (The Tax Angel), I had yet to write for a publisher that releases their stories online as well as in print. So I set about learning the submission guidelines of this publication.
I did my homework, researched the scientific facts, and read up on the publications history. I knew what subjects to avoid and what plots they were seeking. I even found some early versions of the decades old publication in an antique mall, then bought and read the early stories penned by the very man that was the current editor.
I was sure I knew what he wanted.
With my characters in mind, I wrote with a fervor, lost in the pure excitement and magic of telling a story. In the words of Kristen Lamb, I was “…like a kid banging away on a piano having fun and making up “music”.
I sought the opinion of others before sending it out. Except for a few minor suggested changes (which I then made), the story seemed to be a big hit. My pre-readers gave me glowing reviews. When I read it to my critique group, they loved it.
The editor did not.
Now I know perfectly well that it’s a numbers game. You send your story to 20 different editors and some are going to hate it, some are going to like it, and some are going to love it. I know this from the articles and stories I’ve had published in other magazines.
There will always be rejections, for various reasons (not always having to do with your writing, either). But if you keep sending out queries, there will also always be the editor who says “yes”.
This is a basic fact of the business of writing. So why is it that we tend to forget it?
Actually, I’m pretty sure that the editor I courted didn’t read FLOW. He responded within 24 hours. Practically unheard of in the publishing business. Then, his response was an auto-generated form letter, stating the story requirements of his publication, which were nothing like the requirements they had listed on their submission web page.
I hate when that happens.
But hey… editors are people too. Some are better than others but none are actually out to destroy your career. They just have their own likes and dislikes, as we all do. Plus, there’s usually a whole in-house process they have to go through to get a story into print. Add in the likelihood that they are swamped with submissions, raise the stakes by throwing in the publications current year’s themes, goals, and financial picture, and you can see why it’s so difficult to get a story published.
Personally, I get tired of seeing articles from editors telling us their woes and to cut them some slack. It’s not like we don’t have pressures of our own, our writing futures held captive by them more often than not. (You’re not alone in this frustration. Read this funny response to rejection.) But I really do get it. We are all trying to work together and make a living within this broken system.
Or, to put it more succinctly: “If you want the rainbow, you’ve got to put up with the rain.” Dolly Parton
Anyway, from the auto-generated response letter I received from this editor, I determined that FLOW had probably been rejected based on its ending.
According to my readers, my ending was good, but I could see the editors point. (If that was why it was rejected. Since there was no actual feedback I was only guessing. His instructions, by the way, said he had no time to give personalized feedback, so I was left to my own assumptions.)
Still, I told my writers group that I wasn’t going to lose heart or give too much weight to that response, even though I had crafted that story for just that publication. I would, instead, first send it out to other pubs and other editors and see what happened. It may be perfect somewhere else.
Then I did the exact opposite and set out to change the ending.
In order to make a new ending, I had to change the plot. In order to change the plot, I had to change the catalyst. I spent the next two years struggling with it – between other projects – periodically making notes on two conflicting ideas (or, as one of my writing buddies called it, FLOW1 and FLOW2). To say I was unsure of my direction was an understatement.
When someone in my group reminded me it was the two year anniversary of when she’d first read FLOW, I was appalled. How could so much time have passed, when it seemed to me that FLOW was always in the back of my mind? When I had mounds of used envelopes and corners torn off napkins, all covered with scribbled notes of FLOW?
Chagrined, I set my mind to finish FLOW once and for all. I threw myself into concentrated effort and wrote, wrote, wrote. For the better part of five weeks, FLOW was all I worked on.
My effort paid off… I finished FLOW. It was now much longer and had a completely different slant. The ending was the piece de resistance.
New and improved FLOW was better researched. Had more characters, added tension and richer complexity. For some reason, I remember liking the original FLOW better, but maybe that was because I had lived with it too long. I had hope this new version was closer to what that editor had in mind.
I tried it out on my pre-readers and writers group. They all had pretty much the same reaction:
FLOW had gone from a story that one editor didn’t like but my readers loved, to a difficult-to-grasp story that no one, not even myself, found enthralling. Frustrated, I put it to the side and slept on it.
This morning I woke up and realized the problem… I LISTENED TO ONE EDITOR, AND CHANGED THE WHOLE STORY BECAUSE OF A COMPUTER GENERATED FORM LETTER, THAT DIDN’T EVEN TELL ME WHAT THE PROBLEM WAS.
Duh. Talk about mindless! From my own experience, I know better. So, why didn’t I keep sending it out???
Yes, this was a well-respected editor of a well-respected publication and his opinion mattered to me. But, for whatever reason, he definitely was not the editor for FLOW. Despite my research into the publication, I judged wrong. Even knowing the dangers of taking one opinion to heart, that’s exactly what I did.
Instead, I should’ve gotten opinions from other editors. Or found another market for FLOW (since, based on reader feedback, there probably was a market for the original version)… maybe even trying again with this publication with a totally new story (or perhaps forgetting it and finding another path to membership in that online group).
I wasted two years trying to make this story fit what I assumed this ONE editor wanted – who, by the way – has since retired and isn’t even there anymore!
Also, sure my original version was impaired, that first FLOW has been lost amid the myriad of revisions.
Now, here’s a quiz. For those of you that remember Yann Martel’s explanation of how he came up with Life Of Pi: What major thing (for a writer anyway) did he do, before he started on the story of Pi?
Answer: The book he had spent so much time on, no longer worked for him. So he abandoned it, threw it out and started fresh. And that is how he came to write Life Of Pi.
In his own words from his essay entitled How I Wrote Life Of Pi: “Every writer knows the feeling. A story is born in your mind and it thrills you. …. But at one point, you look at it and you feel nothing. You feel no pulse. The characters don’t speak naturally, the plot does not move, the descriptions don’t come to you, everything about your story is thankless work. It has died.”
This morning, when I had my epiphany about what was wrong with FLOW, I also remembered the fictional mailing of his manuscript, that Yann put in the Author’s Note at the beginning of his novel. And I realized what I needed to do to fix my own.
I killed my darlings. I threw out FLOW. I freed myself from the albatross I, myself, had hung around my neck.
Will there be another FLOW in the future? Will the original FLOW ever come forth again? Perhaps. I still have that mound of notes.
But if another FLOW does emerge, I vow to remember this statement from Literary Rejections: “Yet in spite of this phenomenal success, every single one of these best-selling authors was initially rejected. Literary agents and publishers informed them in an endless stream of rejection letters that nobody would be interested in reading their book.”
To quote Stanley Schmidt, writer and past editor of the Analog Science Fiction and Fact magazine, when he was asked what made him keep trying, and how he had handled his own rejections as a writer: “Being too dumb to know when to quit? Seriously, I knew I enjoyed telling stories… . So I sent them out. … I set myself the goal of sending out a short story or novelette a month.”
So I ask you… Do you have an albatross hanging around your neck? A story you have held onto and changed so many times you can’t remember the original? Or maybe you just have a story that you’ve let collect dust in a folder in the back drawer of a desk you have long since moved to the guest room. How much energy does it suck out of your creative force, lying somewhere in your brain as an unfinished project? Static, or ever on your to-do list, but never sent to test its potential.
To end this post, it seems fitting to me to include what the famous Mr. Asimov said. A rule, a reminder, and a warning that I think we writers should all live by…
“You must keep sending work out; you must never let a manuscript do nothing but eat its head off in a drawer. You send that work out again and again, while you’re working on another one. If you have talent, you will receive some measure of success – but only if you persist.” Isaac Asimov