A few months ago when the annual Writer’s Digest short story contest came around, I decided to take a break from novel writing, revive an old short story of mine, and submit it for the competition.
The story didn’t place, and looking back, I can see why. It was awkward and plagued with plot holes. The prose stumbled along. The characters said and did weird, inexplicable things. The conflict felt forced and cliche, and the ending was predictable. Odd how I didn’t see those things beforehand.
Well, I thought, that’s okay. I was up against 3,000 other contestants, after all. And maybe I just tried to cram too much into a 1,500 word limit. If I improved the descriptions and the character development, along with a bit more backstory to set the context, I could fix the deficiencies and submit it to another literary magazine whose word limits are more forgiving. Like Clarkesworld Magazine, for example.
This was rather over-ambitious of me. Indeed, I quickly discovered that my story contained one of the elements that the Clarkesworld submission guidelines explicitly say not to include. Alright, then: I hate cliches anyways! I would just take out that element and replace it with a different one. But this in turn led me into a surgical procedure with its own complications. When you change something core to your story, a number of internal inconsistencies crop up that require adjustment. So I basically ended up rewriting major portions of the story and tripling its length. What was supposed to be short break from my novel took about three weeks. (I was fitting this activity into random pockets of scant spare time — on the metro, in between appointments, at the park, etc.)
I felt good about it, though. The updated conflict and character motives seemed plausible and compelling, and the story flowed well in my mind. A little voice in me did think that the resolution was a bit too clean, but I ignored this because on the whole, I thought I had done a satisfactory job.
Before submitting it, I shared the draft with my faithful wife, who (bless her heart) is highly supportive of my writerly moods. She read it, handed it back to me, and said, “That’s a cute story.”
A cute story? Hmm. Cute wasn’t what I was going for. And it’s definitely not what the editors of Clarkesworld Magazine, a premier sci-fi and fantasy fiction publication, are going for.
I thought about it for a day or two and decided my wife was right. It was too cute. More specifically: it was too neat, too predictable, too … dull. It was nowhere near the level of quality you can find in the back issues of Clarkesworld. That little voice I had ignored is one I should have heeded a lot sooner.
I brooded, as writers are wont to do when they know they’ve produced sub-par material. I was so confident it would be good enough to submit, and now the whole thing felt like a colossal waste of time! Couldn’t I salvage it somehow? Change things a bit here and there again, and make it better? Do just a little more surgery?
No, my wife said. Cut your losses and focus on other stories. You do have other stories, right?
Yes, a whole bunch of them, but…
No. Cut your losses.
I decided she was right about that, too. Sometimes — many times, in my case — you have to fail hard before you get better. Sometimes you need to admit you made something crappy, learn from it, and move on. If your moods and happiness in life depend on things as fickle and temporal as the success of a short story (or any written product for that matter), at best you’ll be up and down, and at worst you’ll be crushed beneath the weight of your own expectations.
This is an ancient truth, of course. Every writer learns it. Certainly during college I learned it in the literary club I started. Ask any of the members of that group, and they’ll tell you my stories had whopping issues. It’s not worth asking for feedback if all you’re looking for is affirmation.
Then as now, I learned a lot from my experience, namely:
- How you can’t rush good writing (well, maybe you can, but then don’t expect creating something that’s worth publishing right away)
- How to see cliches a little better
- How to listen sooner to that voice that’s protesting about a weakness in my story — and to vet that voice with someone who’s not me
- My wife is usually right
As C.S. Lewis once said, “Failures are finger posts on the road to achievement.” Or in the more evocative terms of Maggie Nelson:
Good writing will knock the living daylights out of you. Very few people talk about it, but writers have to have the stamina of world-class athletes. The exhaustion of sitting in the one place. The errors. The retrieval. The mental taxation. The dropping of the bucket down into the near-empty well over and over again. Moving a word around a page. Moving it back again. Questioning it. Doubting it. Increasing the font size. Shifting it around again and again. Sounding it out. Figuring the best way to leave it alone. Hanging in there as the clock ticks on. Not conceding victory to the negative. Getting up off the ground when you’ve punched yourself to the floor. Dusting yourself off. Readjusting your mouth guard. Sustaining what you have inherited from previous days of work.
Who knows? Maybe I’ll come back to the story one day and transform it into something passable. Or maybe I never will, and that’s okay. My next effort may flop, too. In fact, if history is any indicator, it probably will. I don’t say that in a self-pitying way, but in the way of a craftsman who has things to learn. I don’t love writing any less. If anything, being comfortable with the inevitability of failure, and placing one’s hope in something far more resistant if not immune to caprice, is essential to true love of the craft, because that is what enables you to keep going regardless of the peaks and valleys.
Anyhow, onto the next one!