Feeling dogmatic this morning, so avoid if you ain’t in the mood. Time again I hear two classic questions about writing and submitting stories, most recently on another board– how do you know when something is good enough to send to markets? How do you know when it’s time to take a story out of circulation and trunk it?
Considering how self-evident those answers are, I should be amazed that people keep asking them, and yet I can understand the frustration. The true answers may be obvious, but they’re next to impossible for a beginner to apply, by definition. It makes sense that they keep looking for easier, more relevant to their current state of development answers. Unfortunately, I don’t think there are any.
For instance, “How do you know when something is good enough to send to markets?” When you’re just starting out at this? Obviously, you don’t. It’s said that writers are the worst judges of their own work, and there’s a lot of truth in that. We’re constantly pulled between wanting to believe our work is the greatest thing since hot showers but afraid that it’s really the worst notion anyone’s had since the square wheel. Neither is likely to be true, but developing the perspective to make a more accurate assessment only comes with time and experience, and there’s just no substitute for either. So how do you know? If you keep working and honing your craft, the answer is that you’ll just know. You’ll be wrong sometimes; that’s the human thing, but it’ll happen less and less often. And if you don’t keep working and honing your craft, the answer is equally clear–you won’t know. Ever.
Question two is at once simpler and trickier, because now you’ve got what appears to be objective criteria to base your conclusions–rejections. The advice I often hear, “Send it everywhere you think would be interested and put it aside if they all say no” at least gets rid of that pesky “judgment call” thing. I mean, it even takes the decision out of your hands. Less stress, less aggravation. It’s not bad advice, really, it’s just incomplete. The reason it’s incomplete is that it’s an attempt to put an objective measure on something that can not and should not be objective. The real answer is this–You trunk a story when and only when you stop believing in it.
When you’re just starting out, that may happen quickly in the process. First rejection? Gag, this thing is horrid! Bam! Into the trunk. And that’s not a bad thing. Give yourself and the story a time-out. Read it again in a month. A year. Realize you were right and put it back in the trunk. Realize you were right, but maybe now you see why, and can fix it. Or you realize you were wrong and get the story back in circulation straight away. It’s all good, because in every case you’ve just learned something. Keep doing that. That whole “time and experience” thing comes into play here, too. Once you’ve got a little more of both, you can refine the process.
In my own case, I’ve pulled stories after one rejection. After four, or eight. Or sixteen+. And then sometimes you get something like the following–a story that found a home after being in circulation for twenty-three years. That is not a typo. Twenty-three. 23. Which one? I’m not going to tell you, nor does it matter. I defy anyone to figure out which of my published stories it is. It was always a good story; it’s just that the market for it did not exist when I first wrote it. And, yes, it’s been revised many times over the last 23 years as I’ve gotten better, but the basic story is unchanged. The flesh underwent some nips and tucks but the bones were always good. That story was on my “Active” list for all that time because there was never any doubt in my mind that, sooner or later, I was going to find the right home for it. I knew. How?
I just knew.
Reading this post reminded me of all the rejections (dozens and dozens of them over several years,at least) of some very well-known and currently respected and commercially successful books, such as The Help, written by one of my “homies”. Ms. Stocket believed in the worth of her work and kept on submitting it. Your 23 years of keeping a work in circulation before betting it accepted for publicaton just lit a huge beacon of new hope for me!
Not to get Biblical, but that thing about the mustard seed was dead on.
“…writers are the worst judges of their own work…”
They’ll even say “THIS SUCKS!!!” when it actually is excellent.