If At First…

I’d like to share some good news.  Yesterday, I heard from an editor at a literary magazine that the revision of a story I’d sent them made the cut.  “We loved it!” she wrote.  Contract in the mail.  Wow! Yay! Yippee!  And Phew!

It’s not always easy to share good news—and on a blog: Will it look self-congratulatory?  Gloating?  Self-promotional?  Slow down, I tell myself; it’s not as if I won the Pulitzer.

Still, acceptance of short literary fiction is no easy feat, and the fact that it’s taken me almost an hour to write the two brief paragraphs you just read—I had to shower, change the bathroom towels, do a load of laundry, and make the bed, right?—speaks to more, perhaps, than my reluctance to, as my mother might have said, “toot my own horn.”

So why write about it here?

Gratitude, for one thing.  To my writers’ group, to the editor who gave me a second chance, to the process itself (as torturous as it can feel).  You see, the editor had seen (and turned down) an earlier, briefer version of the story, a story I’d been submitting against my better instincts (more on that in a minute), and she’d asked for more.  I sent another story.  She said No again, but with a surprising twist.  Upon further thinking, she and her colleagues would like to publish the first story, but was I open to making some changes?

You bet.  Not only that, but I had a longer, fuller version already written, a version I’d put aside a year ago because I couldn’t figure out how to make it right. My writers’ group had asked for more development of and insight into the narrator’s marriage and occupation.  M pointed out a key metaphor that didn’t quite hold together.  A asked why the narrator, with her obvious lust for a certain character, hadn’t acted on it.  Others didn’t quite get why the betrayal at the heart of the story mattered so much to the narrator’s current life.  I pondered their comments.  I knew they were onto something.  I moved sections around, I made cuts—and then I got drastic. I turned the story into a frame tale, summarizing pages of  present-day narrative into two brief paragraphs at either end of back story  I told myself  that we didn’t need all the material about the narrator’s attraction to a man not her husband, her work making stained glass, her hovering over her daughter’s budding independence.

Oh, yes we did.  My writers’ group had recognized this, intuitively, and I’d known they were right. But I’d felt impatient to finish the thing, to send it out.  And in my impatience, I’d nipped the story in the bud.  I’d sent it out, though, and received a series of nice rejections.  Until this most recent.

So I dug out the earlier, longer versions—a dozen or so of them—and read, made notes.  Turns out, I’d cut some good stuff—and now, with a year’s distance (and the interest of an editor), I saw patterns and changes that fell into place.  Here’s the amazing thing:  I didn’t even need to look (much) at those earlier versions.  I had it in my head.  The changes were relatively smooth to make, and (here’s a first) fun.

I’m grateful to my writers’ group for their honesty, and to this editor for giving me a second chance.  And to a study I heard cited a while back, a study that prompted me to send out the second story after hearing No on the shorter version of the first.  The study found that women writers, after rejection, tend to stop sending out work, even if the rejection is full of encouragement and invitation to send more. We women tend—and this is a generalization, remember—to retreat.  Men, on the other hand, don’t hear “no.”  They keep sending work out.

Publication is not what it’s all about, of course.  I wish more writers worried less about getting published (or getting an agent) and more about making their work the best it can be.  I’m one of them, of course.  And oh so relieved I saved those earlier versions.

What valuable insights have you gained from the unpredictable world of submitting?  Have you ever had a piece published that you should have spent more time on?  Is publication always a good thing?


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