Here’s the story, of a man named Brady, who was…
Wait, wait…, not a man named Brady. Actually, I’m not going to name names at all, because this is a cautionary tale of what NOT to do. The point is not to point at people; it’s to learn from their mistakes. I’ve learned far more from mistakes—my own and other peoples—that from what I or others do right. Trying to learn how to write well by studying Shakespeare is like trying to learn how to play basketball by watching Michael Jordan. According to what I’ve learned from Jordan about basketball, you just jump in the air, flick your wrist, and it goes in every time. Not much help for the struggling hoopster there.
So let’s start with my friend Lucinda (no, that’s not her real name), for example, as one example of what not to do. Lucy is a close friend and a serious student of the craft and I love her dearly, but she went through a period where every time she got a form rejection letter from an editor, she immediately assumed that there was something horribly wrong with the story, and she dove into it with a vengeance, rewriting it from the top down. She wrote the life right out of a lot of otherwise wonderful short stories, and never ended up getting any of them published.
Rewriting without specific editorial direction is a fool’s errand. Frankly, even if you get feedback from an editor about what he or she didn’t like, unless they are offering you payment and publication in return for those changes, think hard about whether or not you want to follow their advice. Since I have four assistant editors at IGMS screening stories before they get to me, I’m in a position to give some feedback on most of the stories I receive. I do it simply because I like to try to help newer writers, which is the bulk of who submits to us. BUT… I always make a point of adding a little note to the end of my email saying “this is just one editor’s opinion; you may find another editor with a completely different opinion.”
So if an editor sends me an email with some notes attached to my story and an email that says “take care of items a, b, c, x, y, z and I’ll buy your story,” I usually jump up, say “Yes, sir, thank you sir” and get to work. (I’ve never had an editor ask me for anything unreasonable; editor’s jobs are not to take over your story, it’s their job to make your story the best it can possibly be.) If they send me an email (like the ones I send out) saying “No thanks, and here’s why it didn’t work for me,” I consider it. Sometimes I agree; sometimes I don’t.
Another friend of mine, who I will name (hello Alethea Kontis (yes, that’s her real name)), sent a story to the Writers of the Future contest. Big contest with big name judges, I highly recommend it if you’re writing short fiction and haven’t been widely published yet. Alethea didn’t win. She didn’t get so much as an Honorable Mention. But she did immediately resubmit it to Realms of Fantasy, where it sold and was published. Were the judges at Writers of the Future wrong? No; Alethea’s story just wasn’t what they were looking for. But editing is a subjective game; it’s the editor’s job to have a feel for the tastes of the readers of that particular magazine.
So writing is fine. Editing is fine. Taking direction/advice/etc from people whose opinon you trust is fine. But if your work—novel, short story, whatever—gets rejected, please do not make the same mistake as my friend Lucy and think that every rejection is an indication of failure. It most certainly is not. It just means your work was not right for that editor/magazine on that particular day. Real writers nod, smile, and send their work back out to the next editor as quickly as possible.
Then they get back to work on the next story.