My drug of choice is writing––writing, art, reading, inspiration, books, creativity, process, craft, blogging, grammar, linguistics, and did I mention writing?

Saturday, April 8, 2017

When to Throw in the Towel (Mailbox)

At what point do you give up? 

[Remember, keep sending in your questions to chris.brecheen@gmail.com with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox" and I will try to answer a couple each week (after this week). I will use your first name ONLY unless you tell me explicitly that you'd like me to use your full name or you would prefer to remain anonymous.  My comment policy also may mean one of your comments ends up in the mailbox. And yes I'll be doing this every Thursday...eventually.]  

G asks:

Hey Chris.  I have a short story that I've been working on for nearly 18 months.  I've done my best to refine it time and again after every rejection, taking on feedback from my readers until they gave their complete approval. I thought it was good enough to actually stand a chance *cue canned laughter* so I submitted it (again).  Got a lovely reply this morning, some crap like "We're not interested this time but please try again later, we want to hear from you again", and now I'm beginning to wonder if it's worthwhile bothering with that story any more if it's not good enough.  At what point is it best to just abandon a story that you thought was good enough to be published?

My reply:

You have touched my fee-fees, G.  Truly. But I come bringing glad tidings.

Rejection sucks. It sucks so so hard, and not even remotely in the good way. Rejection is such a tough part of trying to make Writing: The Hobby™ into Writing: The....Something-More-Than-Hobby™. It's no wonder people never really try, give up, or just go publish themselves no matter how much they maybe need someone to say "You shall not pass!" to their first-draft prose.

G, there are two real answers to this question, and one is practical and one is more existential. I'll start with the existential answer.

Existential answer-

As you can imagine, the existential answer to this question isn't easy. It involves introspection and personal determination, and it's going to sound a bit like it came off the back of a cereal box of Cliché-O's.

But it's kinda true.

You've got to look at that story with eyes completely unhooked from your ego. Forget how clever it is. Forget how much you want to be published. Forget how much time you've put into it. Ask yourself a couple of questions and answer them with brutal honesty.

Like Non-Relatable-Vader-from-Empire brutal.

1- Is it really as good as I can make it?  Revision is a critical part of the writing process and there's almost always something more a writer can do to strengthen a piece. Whether it's to punch up the verbs or drop in a concrete detail. Whether it is to clean up a clunky expression, or trim a few words. If you truly believe you can't make it better–or if you have no interest in the fine detail work of that level of revision–then it's time to go on to the next question.

A lot of writers–and god I love them because this is so fucking HUMAN–but they hold back. They hold back because then the rejection won't hurt as bad. If a little piece of them can tell themselves "I didn't really try," they can do some damage mitigation. Because it hurts that much more to just POUR yourself into something, and still get rejected.

But you've got to make it as good as you can.

For those of you having trouble imagining.
2- Do you believe in this piece? For proper inflection, imagine I'm holding both my clenched fists up above my head when I say "believe."

Now there's no real way to circumvent self-deception here. People are going to Dunning-Kruger themselves and think they're geniuses when they are writing crap. And if my workshop classes are any indication, white guys will do this at a rate of about 90%. (Honestly, it happens a lot in art.) But I don't think you'd have sent me this question if you thought your shit didn't stink, so let's assume you have a reasonable gauge of whether or not you believe in the piece.

If you don't believe in your piece, set it aside. You can never unwrite those words, or undo the skills you learned. Maybe in time you'll figure out how you can go back to question number one and make it better. Or maybe part of it becomes a new piece. Or maybe you continue to shop it but with a lot less "vested" in whether or not it gets picked up.

If you DO believe in it, never give up. Never. Ever. No matter what. Keep sending it out. Keep improving it if you see a way to do so. Keep looking for the right fit of venue. It's a rare thing to believe "I have made something and the world should see this," and you shouldn't ever let a gatekeeper take that away from you. If you believe the world needs this story, then don't stop until you put it out there.

Rejection is a part of traditional publishing. Most old-school authors talk about being rejected a thousand times. Most of them could wallpaper a room with all their rejections. But they all had one thing in common: they didn't care what the first 999 gatekeepers said.

Pragmatic Answer-

You actually got a pretty good rejection, G. I mean as far as rejections go. When writers "rank" their rejections, form letters are the worst, and personal feedback with an invitation to submit again is the best.

It might feel like I'm saying, "Oh this is the best possible condiment for a turd sandwich!" but hear me out.

Imagine if you asked someone out to a dance, and they said to you, "I don't dance, but I REALLY hope you ask me out again sometime." Pretty promising, right? Like the problem isn't you...it's the dancing. That's the literary equivalent of the rejection you just got. The fact that they took the time to tell you that they hope you try again is a really good sign. They wouldn't tell someone they thought was terrible that they wanted to hear from them again. That person would just get a form letter of rejection. They like your writing. They just didn't want your piece. And there are a lot of possible reasons for that.

I'll let you in on a bit of a trade secret. It's not really a "secret" secret (like I'm not going to have to kill you if I tell you and I won't have to go on the lam after I hit "post"), but most writers don't know it because they don't bother to learn the editing/publishing side of the industry they hope to get into. Most writers submit and get rejected (or accepted) and think that it has to do exclusively with the quality of their writing. To some extent it does, but when you're on the other end (as I have been), there are a lot of other concerns that also go into that decision as well.

Imagine you want to go out to eat. Yes, you won't go to a place that has shitty food, but you also probably won't walk into the first place you see that has okay food. You probably have a number of things you're thinking about like what you're in the mood for, price, how far away the restaurant is, and if their salad bar has those little corn cobs.

The editors at a magazine are all calculating the same kind of equation. A longer story might be harder to get published simply because it takes up more pages and that's ever a concern of a magazine or periodical. If they've done a zombie story already this month, they might pass on your zombie story or even your vampire story. (And most gatekeepers are also going to protect a certain whitewashed aesthetic as well.) They may be trying to establish a mood or even have a loose theme that your story doesn't quite jive with. There are a lot of possibilities that have nothing to do with your story and certainly have nothing to do with your writing.

Hell, I've seen pieces get published because they were thematic, only took up a couple of pages, had some clever wordplay, and they kept the overall mood the editors wanted, but everyone sort of thought the writing sucked. They were like the Casa Bonita of short stories.

So the best pragmatic advice is to start writing your next piece, keep shopping this piece, and do your best to just treat these rejections as part of the process instead of a devastating blow to your personal ego. It's not easy (though it's a little easier if you've done the existential work) but it's the best advice there is in a business that involves just SO SO SO much rejection in the early stages.

And good luck, G.


  1. I'm not at the application/rejection stage yet but you got me thinking

    Do I believe in my story?

    Well, I believe in my basic plot - but I'm not sure if I believe in my ability to execute it correctly. My belief in myself can likened to this Batman quote:

    Doctor: I've seen worse cartilage in knees.
    Bruce Wayne: That's good.
    Doctor: No, that's because there is NO cartilage in your knee

    In the same way, I've seen people with worse belief in themselves...

  2. You're doing such a selfless job, Chris. Thanks a lot!

  3. Absolutely the thing that I hate most about our economic system is that we force people to equate the value of their work with the dollar value at which they are able to monetize their product.

    Chris, good work; good answer. Bubba, write your story. Stare it dead in the eyes and demand an answer. Are you finished? Are you good enough? Have I poured my art into you and made you all that you should be? When the answers are yes, submit.

    If you have been true to yourself and to your art, then rejected or not, monetized or not, you can go to your rest confident in the knowledge that better artists, deeper thinkers, finer souls than we have ever aspired to be have wrung out their lives in cotton fields and sweat shops without the solace of a pencil or paper or postage to hope that someone might appreciate the weepings of their soul.

    Write Brother, and be true to yourself. Do what you must, and pray that one day all of our us will have a chance to do as much.

    P.S. You've got more than one story. While this one is out whoring, work on another.