The publishing process made me a better storyteller

Maybe I should have kept up my vigorous regimen of procrastination.

Fortunately, I hadn’t given up procrastination cold turkey, I was gradually easing off it as part of a 112 step program.

While I am waiting for my initial beta reader (wife) to list all the things wrong with the first draft of my latest book, I decided to twiddle my thumbs for a good long while before reworking one of the several unpublished novels I keep tucked away for later.

Incidentally, there are a many things wrong with the first draft of the latest book, so it may take her some time to compile them.

Thanks to the fascinating qualities of my twirling thumbs, combined with confluence of youth spring soccer and baseball seasons, and a big project at work, I have rewritten all of 12 pages in the last two months. The manuscript is more than 400 pages, so those dozen pages seem somewhat measly.

Yet, I am a man who can occasionally find sunshine in little things. (My initial beta reader may disagree with this, but she doesn’t always appreciate the subtlety of my understated sunshine.) I am pleased with what I have accomplished.

There’s a lot in those 12 pages. Mostly, there’s a much more engaging beginning to a story than there used to be.

I finished the draft of this novel about 10 years ago. I didn’t publish it because, though I believed it a good story, it wasn’t everything I wanted it to be and I didn’t know why.

Ten years later, I might have figured out why.

My presentation of the story did not measure up to the story itself.

In those 10 years, I could have written 10 novels and still not learned enough about storytelling. As it happens, in those 10 years, I spawned three children, so I may have changed 10,000 diapers but I didn’t write anything near 10 novels.

"How many diapers?"

“How many diapers?”

But it wouldn’t have mattered if I’d written 20. The thing that made me learn most about storytelling was publishing three books.

Publishing wasn’t a financial windfall by any means, but it was a learning experience, and a valuable one. Knowing I would put these stories before the public made me consider them from angles I’d never had to before. It made me focus on readers: how I took hold of them, how I held onto them, and where I led them. It forced me to act like a professional: to analyze my own work and that of competing writers with new attention to detail. It didn’t mean I was going to attempt to copy the successful ones, but it did make me think about the elements that made them a success.

The act of publishing made me more aware of many things about my books, but more than anything else, it made me constantly reevaluate how I present a story. There’s more to learn, but I’m better than I used to be.

If I can keep up this breakneck pace of rewriting, I may actually turn this old novel into a well-presented story to share in about five years or so.

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Why I stopped submitting short fiction to literary journals

When I first got serious about sending short fiction to literary magazines, I didn’t realize the difference between getting a story accepted and actually having the story published. Those were callow days.

Before electronic submissions, you printed a copy of your story for each prospective journal. Each copy needed a cover letter. You had to remember to change the journal name on each letter and put the right letter into the right envelope if you didn’t want to embarrass yourself.

Each mailing contained a stamped, self-addressed envelope (SASE) for the reply letter. You carted off your stack to the post office. If you were productive, the trip could be expensive.

It felt good to get a bundle of stories out. That feeling faded as the waiting game began. Still, walking to the mailbox every day held a little extra drama. There was always a journal that responded quickly, with words that meant: we didn’t bother to read your story; nonetheless, we’re sure we didn’t like it.

Over time, the rejections trickled in. They were terse, rarely requiring a full sheet of paper. Some editors scribbled a note in the margin to make it seem more personal, but rejection was rejection. NO was enough.

I began expecting all SASEs in my mailbox to contain rejections. One day I was opening a rejection when the strangest thing happened: I couldn’t find the word NO. The letter said Yes, as in, Yes, we would like to publish your story. It wasn’t a famous magazine, but few literary journals are. I put the letter on the refrigerator to show the world (or the part of it that passed through my kitchen) my success.

I knew it would take several months for the publication of the story, but it would be worth the wait.

I waited, and waited, and waited.

After several months, I emailed the editor. I got no reply.

I sent emails to everyone associated with the journal. Finally, someone replied. The magazine didn’t exist anymore. The non-profit publisher ran out of money. They wouldn’t be publishing my story, no longer having a vehicle for publishing stories.

This disappointment was superseded by other events . I got another story accepted and published by the first journal to which I sent it. They worked quickly and did an excellent job with the presentation.

Then I got a story accepted by the journal of a well-respected university – a name everybody would recognize. The story was published in a timely manner, but the presentation made me hesitant to hand out copies to everyone I knew.

They’d requested an electronic copy. When they converted it to a different format, some punctuation appeared as random symbols. They didn’t catch this, and it was printed with the odd symbols.

Soon after, a story was accepted by another university journal. It wasn’t a big name, but I was still happy to celebrate any success. That story has never been published. It never will be. I can’t tell what happened to that journal. It just sort of disappeared.

I don’t submit to journals anymore. Not because of the uncertainty or the disappointment. I stopped because of the modern ease of self-publishing. In 2011, I gathered my best short fiction: stories published in literary journals; stories accepted but never published; stories never accepted; and stories never submitted. I put them together and self-published the book: A Smile Through a Tear.

The roller coaster ride of journal submission eventually led to this.

The roller coaster ride of journal submission eventually led to this.

It was a great experience. I controlled the content, the timeline, and the appearance. It’s a modest endeavor, but it’s all mine. I hope to add many more books to my little self-publishing catalog. But if my projects fail, at least I won’t have to wait months for somebody to tell me about it.