How to stop trunking my short fiction before it's even submitted?
March 21, 2013 10:36 AM   Subscribe

I've been writing short fiction. I've got my process down pretty well, to the point that I am not getting stuck in writer's block hell or any other common pitfalls. I have ideas, and I'm capable of getting them down on paper. I revise them, I produce new drafts, etc. My problem comes in the last phase of the process. I don't know when to say something is done.

I'll write four or five drafts of a piece, send it to my workshop group, get some useful feedback, and then try to incorporate their notes into a "final" draft. But at this point, I don't feel like the story is finished, per se. Instead, I get it to a point where I am at best mostly happy with the story but I don't know how to make it "perfect." Then I stall, I lose confidence, and I put the piece in a dark, damp corner of my harddrive where it never sees the light of day, because I just don't know how to proceed.

Perfection, I realize, is impossible to achieve. I would like to fix this problem of trunking stories before I even submit them. Some drafts are of course not meant to be, but I find myself frequently throwing out work I'm otherwise happy with because I don't know how to make it "done." If I were a professional writer, I could send "almost done" drafts to my editor and let them propose some changes, but alas I am very much a plucky amateur. Would hiring a professional editor on a per-story basis be advisable? Should I just submit my "almost done" stories for publication and trust that the editors of publications to which I submit will provide some suggestions if they like the piece but feel it lacks polish? I want to understand the "right" way of handling this part of the process, because my current fumbling, childish abandonment of my own work is bumming me out.

(By the way, at the moment, I'm writing stories that fall into either the category of "soft" science-fiction or science-fiction-flavored literary fiction, if that makes a difference.)
posted by deathpanels to Writing & Language (11 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Get it as good as you can get it then submit it somewhere. Keep submitting it until a) you get feedback from a rejection that makes it clear what needs to be fixed, and fix it, b) your writing improves to the point that when it comes back and you read it again, you know how to fix it, or c) it gets accepted somewhere.

Nothing is ever perfect. No story is ever done.
posted by restless_nomad at 10:41 AM on March 21, 2013 [2 favorites]

When you start your final draft, pick out the first magazine you want to submit it to, and pick an absolute no-negotiation out-the-door deadline in 1 or 2 weeks. You have to submit it by your deadline no matter how done it is or isn't.

Have a contest with yourself to see how many rejection letters you can get. Or have a contest with somebody else -- my own submitting-things guts were developed in a message board contest to get as many rejection letters as possible.
posted by Jeanne at 10:45 AM on March 21, 2013

Should I just submit my "almost done" stories for publication

Yep, this is what you need to do. I don't know if you can rely on editors to give you constructive feedback, but you can rely on them to tell you "yes" or "no" whereas right now, you're telling yourself "no."
posted by lunasol at 10:49 AM on March 21, 2013

Best answer: You should have a strong feeling of "done" when your stories are completed. I'm not sure whether you feel the stories aren't done because

- there's something missing in the structure, or
- you have a tendency to fine tune obsessively (inserting a comma in the morning and taking it out in the afternoon, as Oscar Wilde joked)

If you're feeling there's something not quite right with the arc of your story, maybe brush up on how well-plotted stories work. A great book for this is Fiction First aid by Raymond Obstfeld.

If you're happy with your stories overall, but find you're obsessively fine-tuning them, it might be a way of putting off submitting your work. You know you'll have to experience a lot of rejections from publishers and editors soon, because all first-time authors do. You know it's par for the course but you're unconsciously dreading it, hence the endless re-writing.

My advice would be to just go for it. If you think your work is publishable, it probably is. You can increase your chances of avoiding clueless-intern-slush-pile-hell by getting the name of the right editor at the publisher you're interested in, and addressing your materials to them.

There are different levels of rejection. Some publishers who claim they always respond between three to six months, may never get back to you at all. I don't think it's worth calling and bugging these people - if they'd liked your piece, they would have made contact. Some editors will just return your story with a form notice. That sucks, but you just move on. Others will reply courteously and tell you that your piece isn't right for them. That also sucks, but make a note next to their name in your file that they were friendly about it. It might be worth your time to consider them again.

The next-best thing to an acceptance, is getting a note from an editor who says they like what you're doing - although the current piece doesn't quite cut it. This person may ask to see another story.

In any case, rejections mean you're getting closer to publication, and you're out there. It's good karma. Just stay out there and keep at it, and good luck :)
posted by cartoonella at 11:44 AM on March 21, 2013 [2 favorites]

Art, whether music, painting, writing, whatever, is NEVER finished. That's the best and worst part of being an artist. It's why some people keep re-doing the same idea over and over (Monet) and why some people take years to finish one project (George R R Martin, curse his awesome self). You have to decide how long you want to take, and then just stop. Next.

To quote Andy Warhol: “Don't think about making art, just get it done. Let everyone else decide if it's good or bad, whether they love it or hate it. While they are deciding, make even more art.”
posted by greenish at 11:46 AM on March 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

I set myself limits or I will fiddle forever. On fiction, I give myself a rewrite pass where I can rewrite major chunks, a tuning pass where I can handle small things, and then a final pass where I do grammar/spelling and other cleanup. And that is it. I'll do further revisions if editors ask for it, obviously, but that's how I curb my urge to fiddle forever.

On nonfiction, I do the same thing and then send it to an editor for a "What else does this need?". Usually it doesn't need anything no matter how much I want to throw in another 1000 words I just remembered.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 11:53 AM on March 21, 2013

Nothing is ever perfect. No story is ever done.

This. I mean, even if you pick up a collection of short fiction by George Saunders or Lydia Davis or DFW or whomever, the copyright info page almost always has a note that says 'The following stories appeared in a slightly different form in these certain publications.' Pick your literary hero: S/he was still tinkering with stuff after having it printed in The New Yorker or Paris Review.

So while, yeah, it's difficult to move past the gut feeling that a piece isn't ready for center stage, you have to develop a sense of when you've moved from the editing stage to the tinkering stage.
posted by shakespeherian at 12:04 PM on March 21, 2013 [2 favorites]

Stop thinking about the thing you're supplying (the story) and start thinking about where you want to send it.

Get a subscription to Duotrope and start researching markets. Make yourself a spreadsheet of your stories and the markets they might be suited to. Don't think about whether they're 'good enough' - let the market decide that. If they're good enough, they will be bought. If they're not right for that market (which could be quality, but might be theme, length, stories already in the pipeline that are similar) you'll get a rejection, but you may also get some feedback on how you can tighten things up or encouragement to resubmit.

Set yourself targets - say six or twelve submissions a year. Track everything and get nerdy with how you track it. Make it a natural part of your process instead of a hazily defined end goal you never actually get to.

Make yourself accountable - set up a submission circle with your writing group - tell people what you've submitted and where and encourage each other to keep submitting. Share intelligence on fast-responding/decent-paying markets.

Don't hire an editor - it will be a waste of money and time for submitting to short fiction markets and there will be no shortage of 'editors' who will take your money and give you not a whole lot in return.

Finally - there are dozens of online markets out there, many paying and many with electronic subs, so the whole ritual of manila envelopes and long waits is not always the case any more.

Remember - the only thing all of the writers you read in magazines and books have in common, when it comes to how they got their break, is that they all finished their shit and submitted their shit.

Finish it. Submit it. Repeat.
posted by Happy Dave at 1:02 PM on March 21, 2013 [2 favorites]

Don't fetishize the individual stories. Make yourself let them go. Get them as well done as you can in a reasonable amount of time (a rule of thumb is, are you letting new ideas go stale because you can't let go of old works you've gone through many drafts of) and then just get them in front of editors. If the works are good enough, some of those editors might (or might not, but it happens sometimes) make comments or suggestions that will help you get a little farther). Also, don't feel bad; I think this is a pretty common issue that relatively new writers face.
posted by aught at 2:13 PM on March 21, 2013

Response by poster: Wow, Duotrope is exactly what I need. And I've had two or three other people recommend it to me. I'm definitely going to use this tool!
posted by deathpanels at 3:39 PM on March 21, 2013

Paul Gardner said, "A painting is never finished - it simply stops in interesting places." There will never be a moment at which your story is "done". It will merely be different than it would be if you did anything to change it.
posted by LauraJ at 7:42 PM on March 22, 2013

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