I’ve submitted to science fiction and fantasy magazines year ten years now, but I only recently started submitting to literary journals as well. Anyway, the main difference between literary journals and SF magazines is that the former accept simultaneous submissions: you can send one piece to as many journals as you want. This meant that my submissions volume immediately went way up: for awhile, in February, I had more than 100 submissions out.
However, most of those submissions were of just five or so stories: the ones that I went the best about. The rest were mostly science fiction stories that had mostly gone through the best markets. I liked them, and I still felt good about them (or I wouldn’t have been submitting them), but I was no longer particularly excited by them. A good number of them were written during the last year before I started my MFA program (before I really started writing novels, when I was a very productive writer).
Anyway, for the past few months, my submissions fervor has fallen. And I feel as though part of the problem was just those old stories. I’d look at them and they weren’t doing anything for me. They got in the way of me sending out submissions, and they made me depressed about the prospect of revising and sending out new work. I’ve gone a long time without an exciting short story sale, which has, to a certain extent, killed my interest in writing and submitting short stories.
But no more! I finally went through my spreadsheet and culled all the stories I’m less happy with. Now I’m down to ten stories that I’m still actively submitting and another ten that still need revising. And that all feels much more manageable to me.
I submitted my first story on or about December 20th, 2003. That means that today marks the end of a full decade of writing and submitting! Probably the easiest way to sum it up is to just give you the numbers:
These numbers are clipped straight from my Excel spreadsheet, so there are some disclaimers. The numbers for 2013 are only for the year to date, of course. I only started tracking daily reading time and writing time in the middle of 2012, so the numbers for that year don’t cover the full year. The rows that say “120”, “240”, etc refer to the number of days in which I wrote for at least that number of minutes.
I wish I could write a really cheery decades-end post about this, but I just can’t. It wouldn’t be honest. You know, every time I read on someone’s blog that they’ve turned 30, the post is always, like, “Yepperee, I feel great about this!” But sometimes you reach the end of a decade, and you don’t feel great about it. On a day-to-day level, I generally feel pretty happy. And I enjoy writing, it’s my passion and my vocation and what gives my life meaning, etc, etc.
But when I think about my writing career, I do not feel good. Until now, at the end of every year, I’ve always thought, “Wow, I did a lot of work this year. And since these stories (or this novel) are gonna hit the slush piles next year, then it’s totally possible that next year will be the year that I really take off!”
But that’s never happened. At best, I’ve only ever had incremental progress over the year. The only story of mine that even came close to breaking loose was “What Everyone Remembers,” and I sold that two years ago (almost to the day). My career (such as it is) peaked two years ago. Since then I’ve actually gone backwards. Something’s wrong, but I have no idea what it is. I’ve produced some of my best and most interesting work–stuff that’s much better than what I’ve sold–in the last two years. And it’s all been rejected. It’s not the fault of editors. No one owes me a publication. But, at the same time, a person who’s put in as much time as me should be having more success than I am. If I was someone else, and I looked at the stats above, I’d wonder what that person was doing wrong.* Most writers don’t get rejected as much as I do when they’re at this stage of their career.
With regards to myself, I don’t know. The only thing that occurs to me is that I’m too productive and don’t revise enough. But, if anything, I revise much, much more than I did two years ago. It’s not out of the ordinary for me to go through ten drafts of a story.
I don’t know. I just don’t know. In my opinion, the stories I am writing are much better than what gets published in the magazines. But the results speak for themselves. If you send out your stories again and again and again and people don’t respond to them, then the problem isn’t with them, it’s with you.
It’s a very strange feeling, to write a story that makes you so happy and to know that it’s better than anything you’ve ever published…and to look it over and then force yourself to accept that no one is ever going to read this story, because the thing that you see is something that’s not apparent to anyone else…
You’re not supposed to admit that you feel that way. It’s pathetic. Because that’s the delusional thinking of a newbie writer. I felt that the very first story I ever wrote (back in 2003) was a magnificent achievement that was destined to sell to a big magazine and win awards. Now I can’t bear to read it. And whenever I talk about my failures to any of my writer friends, I can always hear them thinking, “Oh, well, I guess you’ll have to try harder. The story probably isn’t that good.”
But I can’t help it. Because the story is that good. Oh, it’s not Tolstoy. But it’s good enough to be published in a big magazine. I know it is, because I know the difference between good and bad. I can accept that editors don’t see it that way….and I know that just means I’ll need to be better: my stories need to be so good that they teach people to recognize the good that is in them. But it still sucks. A person’s aesthetic faculty is what they use to write stories. If my aesthetic faculties are this out of line with the general tastes, then it’s going to be a hard road ahead.
Despite it all, I still believe, deep in my heart, that next year will be the year when I take off. But, at the same time, I keep telling myself, “No. That’s a stupid belief. It’s exactly what you believed in all those other years. You just need to accept that that’s not going to happen.”
Anyway, this is not some kind of “I’m on the verge of quitting writing” post. I’m going to keep writing. But this is definitely one of the dark times.
*Note: If you chime in with some smarmy suggestion about what I could be doing wrong, it will make me so incredibly angry that it will seriously damage any friendship we might have.
Once upon a time, I kept all my stories in one folder. Then, I wrote more stories and got tired of some of the earlier stories, so I began to banish those stories to another folder that I called “Trunked Stories”. Like everything in my writing life, the whole filing system became more and more complicated (there are now folders for “Revisions”, “Completed Stories”, “Unfinished Stories”, and “Fragments”). The most recent innovation was giving each story its own file folder. This became a necessity after I started doing multiple drafts of each story (sometimes as many as 15 or 20 of them). Oftentimes, the story’s name changed during the drafting process, and it started to become a chore to go back and rename all the files. Now I just create a folder for the story and rename that whenever the story changes name. Furthermore, I drop the story folder into the different sub-folders as it changes status.
I’ve been doing that for my in-progress stories for a few weeks now, but today I decided to go back and apply the organizational method to my old stories–the ones that I no longer submit. There are a lot of these (99 of them, to be exact). That’s more than half the stories I’ve ever written. Altogether, my ‘trunked’ stories have accrued 694 rejections: an average of 7 each. There are no hard and fast rules for when I take a story out of submission. Basically, I usually retire it at the point when I would be ashamed to send it to an editor with whom I had a good relationship.
As you can see, there are ten years worth of stories in this folder. All of them are pretty bad. And yet I submitted the vast majority of them to editors at some time or another. I can still remember the joy and hope that I felt when I wrote many of these stories. Nor are these stories some impossibly distant part of my life. Many of them were written in 2011, which is also a year in which I wrote a number of stories that ended up selling to fairly decent places–stories that I still think aren’t too bad.
Whatever, I feel no shame. I read slush. I rejected over 900 stories. That’s roughly equal to the number of rejections I’ve gotten in my life. So I’ve been on both ends of this. And I have to say: bad stories are a fact of life. Some people treat bad art like it’s some kind of crime against humanity. To that I say…art is not serious business. There are plenty of things in life that are serious business: marriage and war and fatherhood and poverty and our present system of industrial manufacture are all pretty serious things; if you screw them up, then people suffer. Art is not like them. Bad art hurts no one.
Looking at all these trunked stories, I just have to say, I am a bit astonished that I kept at it. There is roughly a five year period here, from maybe 2003 to 2008, when I got almost no encouragement. Even until about 2010, good news was pretty rare. If I’d really thought about this, I probably should’ve concluded that my talents didn’t lie in this direction. There are very few writers who’ve received as many rejections as me. I don’t think I’ve ever even been a workshop star (you know the kind of thing I’m talking about–the workshop where the instructor loves you to death). I mean, being a workshop star is utterly meaningless, but when you’re not yet publishing, it does mean a lot to you.
Life will never again be the way it was in 2008. Not because I don’t get rejected (I’ve gotten 114 short story rejections this year). But because I don’t really care about rejection as much. Back then, rejection was painful because I thought that selling a story meant something. Now I know that it really doesn’t. It doesn’t make you particularly happy and it doesn’t materially improve your life, so it’s not really something that’s worth getting that worked up about.