Category Archives: short story process

Rejections: Good, Bad, and Ugly

Big brown envelopes in the mailbox or email rejections are mere reminders that you are in process. A steady stream of submissions makes the wait, and weight of each rejection seem less. Because I don’t know editors personally, I don’t take rejections that way.

Good Rejections
These come back under four months – quick in submission land. You recieve handwritten feedback – constructive comments and encouragement to send more work. Some magazines have enough readers to give feedback every time, very cool. Good rejections say your story “was a near miss”. So take another look, tweak, and submit elsewhere. Send the almost-made-it-publication a fresh story, and give thanks for the feedback. I keep a file of good rejections to boost spirts when low which happens a lot.

Bad Rejections
These comprise the majority of rejections and come back six to eight months after submitting. A bad rejection is the ever popular form letter/card that reads, “there was too much competition this time,” or “your work is not in tune with our style”. They offer you a subscription when you already have one. You pull your story from its SASE and it looks suprisingly fresh for having travelled across the country and back. I’m sure all stories get read, but one can’t help to wonder.

Ugly Rejections
These come in the mail a year or more after you’ve submitted, or you never hear back. Ugly rejections contain disparaging remarks, tell you not to quit your day job. Ha. A writer never quits his day job. My stories have been called “weak, thin, and insignificant” by editors. A friend recieved a rejection from a magazine he has no recollection of submitting to. Huh? Ernest Hemingway was rejected with, “It would be extremely rotten taste, to say nothing of being horribly cruel, should we want to publish it”. (The Torrents of Spring).

Do you have a good, bad, or ugly tale of rejection?           What do you do with your rejections?

More ugly rejections to famous writers

Name that Character

How do you name your characters? I sometimes use names of childhood friends, or names of cats that I grew up with (most had human names). I’ve also chosen names of characters from books I love (Paul and Marion from Sons and Lovers). Nicknames work well too. When I started writing I often had unnamed narrators and wonder if it is easier for a reader to identify with a nameless character. As a fan of Carver and Cheever, I like their oft used first and last names or collective last name for a family or couple.

I’ve used websites to look for names that were culturally specific and the white pages in the phone book are fun. A writer friend pulled out a book of baby names from his bag that he had been using for his upcoming novel. These can always be found at Goodwill or the Sally Ann.

Sometimes an entire story can be built around a strong character name. Other times, it can take many rewrites before realizing the name I’d chosen doesn’t work. I think my favourite character name that I’ve come up with thus far is Pinkerton Lewis.

Story Retirement

I now retire stories that I once thought were good. I’ll blame it on naive delusions of grandeur which still help to push me along in my writing career. I feel embarrassed that I once submitted stinkers to magazines/journals. The more I write the better judgement I have of knowing when a story is about developing craft (practice, practice, practice) or if it’s worth sending out to the world. Writing, good or bad, is never a waste of time because even a retired story usually has lines, dialogue, or scenes worth harvesting and planting into future stories. I transplanted passages from my very first short story (long retired) to my most recent piece, the two seemingly unrelated.

What if a story is a favourite? I have work I am determined to get published, but wonder if my personal attachment outweighs its merit. How many rejections are too many? One has ten rejections thus far, but I haven’t lost faith so I continue to send it out. And, if no one wants it? I’ll put it in a book if I still love it down the road, fuck it if the editor doesn’t like it (positive delusion). Or, maybe I’ll think it’s crap by the time this happens.

Before you retire a beloved story have one last look. Have you responded to feedback from editors, teachers, and peers in rewrites? This worked for one of my published stories. Perhaps, re-workshop or have a trusted writer/friend have another look. Ultimately, intuition is your best guide. When you lose interest in reworking or submitting a story it is time to put it to rest.

First Reader Exception

A first reader is that person you ask to read your story when it is completed, almost finished, or when you are so sick of it you don’t see it clearly anymore. A teacher said to me, “Your mother is not the ideal first reader because the goal here is constructive criticism, not praise.” My siblings read my stories and say it is difficult to comment because they see me in my characters, or sometimes themselves! And with other stories based on fact, “…that’s not how it really happened!” So, other family members can too create conundrums other than the gushing mother syndrome.

My mum is an exeception to the first reader rule. She has a tendency to point out what she doesn’t like first. She is also an avid reader (albeit, we have very different tastes), and her grammar and spelling are impeccable. Recently, I went to visit her in the hospital and gave her a story to read that I was close to submitting. I told her to disregard any real life connections she might infer and feel free to scribble on the page.

She let her ward roomie D. read it as well. Mum apologized to D. for the  F words in my story and the roomie replied, “Oh well, she’s a modern woman.”

Mum gave great comments regarding time line, grammar (I’m still explaining once you know the rules you can break them, regarding sentence fragments) and questioned factual information. Her notes were very professional and it has inspired her to write/journal about her experience in the hospital. Go Mum!

My first readers are the amazing writers I meet bi-monthly to workshop, but I may ask my Mum again.

Short Story Process

1ST DRAFT – EXPERIMENTAL
*idea formulating for a month or longer in brain
*longhand scribbling
*1-4 pages
*very crude, little resemblence to final story
*stream of consciousness
*done in quiet place, no distractions
*little dialogue written in
*little to no formatting
*sometimes this draft will sit a long while

2ND DRAFT – HELL
*typed onto computer
*bit more detail, added scenes
*length often doubles
*bit more structure, paragraphs
*choose appropriate P.O.V. and tense
*all drafts printed, revised on paper, then typed to computer

3RD DRAFT – WORSE HELL
*dialogue added
*cutting unimportant characters, scenes
*taking a closer look at structure, time line
*focus on showing, not telling

4TH DRAFT – WORK
*cementing time line
*fleshing out character descriptions
*begin to recognize themes, symbols emerging
*begin to read aloud, see how story and dialogue sound
*removing redundant info, words

5TH DRAFT+ – FUN
*usually 8-12 drafts total when fiinished
*story begins to shrink in length
*strengthening of verbs
*amping themes
*thinking about five senses throughout story
*letting someone read/workshop when close to done
*nitpicking

*process is a neverending process

Ray Bradbury on Perseverance

“You have to feel the editors are idiots or misconceived. We all do that. It’s wrong, but it’s a way of surviving. I try to teach young writers to say the same thing. You sit down at the typewriter again and do more work and try to get a body of work done so you can look at it and become your own teacher. If you do fifty-two stories it’s better than doing three, because you can’t judge anything from three stories. It’s very hard to write fifty-two stories in a row and have them all be bad. Almost impossible. The psychological benefits from my first sale, which I got no money for, had to last me for a year before I made my next sale. That year I sold two more stories and had a little extra residue of belief.”

-Ray Bradbury, Endangered Species: Writers Talk About Their Craft, Their Visions, Their Lives by Lawrence Grobel