The Fossil Record


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You’re Still Writing That Story? You’re Still Writing That Novel?

Yes. We are. Thank you for asking, Mom/Dad/non-writing friend. We’re behind here because we’re on deadlines with our writing. As some of you know, Marco’s novel is out to editors and he’s received some very encouraging responses. This turned a light bulb on over his head about changes to the novel. He called his agent, ran it by her, and she said, Go for it. He has until Labor Day to get his revisions done.

It’s so simple to tell when our radishes are ready to harvest. But our stories and novels — not so much.

For me, I’m working on what must be the 20th rewrite of a short story about a teenage girl and her grandmother who sneak out of an old folks home and run off to Mount Saint Helens. I wrote the first draft of this story eight years ago. That draft was so bad even my mother—my first and kindest reader—described it as “fine” and “not too bad.” Which is basically the equivalent of an F+, if you’re grading on the mom curve. Every couple years I pull that story out and take a stab at rewriting it. The last draft got some great, personal feedback from editors at literary magazines earlier this year, and I made revisions based on that feedback. But now I’m plagued by the same question Marco’s been struggling with: How do you know when it’s done?

Over the years I’ve participated in plenty of writing groups and workshops. I remember many times teachers and students discussing how to tell when a story is done. But I never took them seriously. With youthful bravado I thought, “Um, isn’t it obvious?”

Turns out, it is not always obvious. In the last several weeks as Marco and I have spent many, many hours revising and rewriting, we’ve been astounded by how, when viewed in a certain new slant of light, cracks and needed changes are suddenly revealed in pieces we once thought were “done.”

While sometimes these newly exposed cracks feel like a curse—why can’t the story/novel just be perfect already?—they are actually a gift. At least, that’s what I tell myself. Of course, we all want to be able to churn out brilliant first drafts that are both fun to write and fun to read. But in real life, at least my real life, that doesn’t happen. First drafts—and second drafts and third drafts—are usually painfully bad. But what about 19th drafts?

Several years ago, Marco and I had a conversation over email about just this topic. I suggested he consult an oracle. Which he did. The Oracle (AKA Alexander Chee) had this wisdom to impart:

The answer to the question of knowing when it is done, is that you need to learn at some point the book cannot be perfect but it can be whole. And then it is done.


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Learning to Embrace Rejection As A Writer

One of my writing goals for 2012 has been to conquer my fear of rejection. How exactly am I attempting to do this?

Submitting a lot — and keeping track. Before, the prospect of rejection felt so terrifying that I would submit short stories to only one or two literary journals per year. I figured I could handle at most a couple rejections each year without risking a shattered heart. At that rate, though, it could take decades to get even one acceptance. So I challenged myself to up the ante.

Since December 30, 2011, I have logged 31 short story submissions. That many submissions requires keeping good track of which story is pending at which journal and for how long. I began by using a word document that serves as both a current submissions list and future submissions planner. Then I discovered Duotrope.

Duotrope is an amazing resource that serves as a real-time database to log your submissions, rejections, and acceptances. The site maintains individual listings for thousands of literary markets — including print and online journals. Duotrope also aggregates users’ submission stats (while still maintaining users’ privacy) so you can see how many submissions are pending at each literary magazine, average response times, and average acceptance and rejection rates among submissions reported by Duotrope users. Combined, Duotrope and my word document enable me to feel like a have a firm grasp of my current submissions and my next steps.

Acknowledging that rejection is a part of the writing process. I don’t fall in love with every book I read. So not every reader or editor will fall in love with every piece I write. Even the most amazingly brilliant piece of fiction will be rejected by someone. I try to think of accumulating rejections in the same way as adding to my word count — a sign of progress.

Pretending that it doesn’t hurt (too much). There’s no way around it — rejection hurts. You pour your heart and your mind and your time into a piece of fiction, make it as good as you possibly can, send it out into the world — and it comes back to you with a big NO. That stings. And in the past, I’ve let that sting reach deep into my self-confidence and enthusiasm for writing. Which only makes it hurt more. This year, I decided to pretend that rejection doesn’t hurt, with the thought that if I pretend that rejection doesn’t hurt, perhaps in time it won’t.

Reminding myself that I’m not alone. Whenever a rejection does get me down, I head on over to the blog Literary Rejections on Display or LROD. If you want concrete evidence that you’re not alone in getting rejected, LROD is the place to go. LROD includes hundreds of real rejection letters received by the blog’s author and readers with personal information removed. LROD takes literary rejection — which is so personal and painful — and makes it a shared experience. With snarky commentary about the rejections themselves, the blog encourages us to laugh about rejection — which is something I can definitely get behind.

Using rejection as inspiration. Every author gets rejected at some point in their lives. Some more than others. On a fundamental level, the difference between those we get to read in print and those we don’t is simple — persistence.

When I get a rejection now, I immediately prepare myself to resubmit. If it’s a personal rejection with suggestions for what worked and what didn’t in the piece I go ahead and, where applicable, revise. If it’s a form rejection, or I think the piece is still ready “as is,” then I pick the next potential good fit and submit away.

So far, out of my 31 submissions since December 30, 2011, I have received 17 rejections — including one where my piece was a finalist in a contest. But the most recent response I received — number 18 — was an acceptance. My first ever acceptance from a literary magazine. My short story The Girl Who Flew will be published in an upcoming issue of CALYX Journal. And the most important part is, I never could have gotten the acceptance had I continued to be so terrified of rejection that I barely submitted. In order to get that one acceptance, I had to embrace a whole lot of rejection.