How To Write and Sell Novels and Short Stories – Not

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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.

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22 comments to How To Write and Sell Novels and Short Stories – Not

  • Well crud! Now I gotta find something else to read with my morning coffee. 😉

  • *yawns and stretches* Well, darn. Usually I can take advantage of the fact that I’m in an earlier time zone. And here, compared to weekdays, I actually slept in … will have to check back later. :)

  • … wait, *later* time zone. ‘scuse me while I get some coffee.

  • You two and your coffee…

  • I have been a Lucy from time to time.

  • Heh! Yeah, gotta have my morning…and then midday…coffee. Not sure how I survived ConCarolinas all weekend on just one tiny cup a day. O_O

    Kind of glad you posted this. I haven’t been getting feedback (except for Lucienne’s on the manuscript, which was bang on and fixed), so I’ve just been sending them back out without much in the way of changes. Occasionally, I’ll find an issue as I read back through it to see if anything jumps out at me after rejection, but lately, without knowing what, if anything, could be wrong, I just send them back out other places.

    Recently, I had two short stories rejected, one I sent to Fantasy, and one to…err…*mumbleIGMSmumble*. 😉 They both had the form rejection, so, instead of harping on it, I waited a few days, added a sentence to one of them, and then sent them both back out. The one rejected by IGMS got sent to Asimov’s, and the one rejected by Fantasy got sent to…err…*mumbleIGMSmumble*. 😉 I didn’t really think they were perfect for the two mags, but then again I thought the two were perfect for the ones I originally sent them to, so what do I know. :) We’ll see, I guess. :)

  • Oh, I was going to add that the biggest thing I pour over when I get a form rejection on the MS is the query letter, because I know I stink at writing them. I’ve had no real practice with them and quite a few places I’ve sent to ask for a query first.

  • Scott — Knock it off.

    Daniel — Sorry, they didn’t as far as my desk, so I’ve got nothing to offer.

  • No prob. :) I’ll just keep trying. 😉

  • And the second’s only been out a week, so it’s likely still in the slush pile. 😉

  • I re-read my short stories after every rejection – mostly because a little time lets me see the story with fresh eyes. If I see something that needs fixing, fine. I fix it and out it goes again. If I don’t, well, out it goes again.
    Daniel – you survived a con on only one cup a day? [shudders]

  • Ugh, turned out it wasn’t quite *enough* coffee this morning. I wound up getting my first actual flesh wound in sword class (thankfully, just a tiny scratch on my palm). Oops.

    I have been a Lucy too often with some of my older work, primarily on the idea that “Well, I’m too young and the people telling me they didn’t like it are probably smarter than me and know better than I do.” I even occasionally have that reaction to beta feedback. (Which is not a good thing for a work in progress, because I’ll go back and try to fix things rather than move forward. Really, really not good.) Now that I am where I am, with a finished piece that just needs to sit for a few more weeks before I take one last look at it and then send, I’m determined not to fall into that trap again. Thank you for this reminder, Edmund!

  • Since we’re talking about IGMS already, I had a story rejected by Ed that I had previously sent to the Writer’s of the Future contest. It made it to the semi-finals, which meant a I got no prize, but did get a very nice letter (I mean it – the wording was kind and encouraging) from one of the judges explaining what needed work. Ed was also kind enough to say why he rejected the story. The funny thing is that both critiques were completely different, even though both struck me as valid. I’m not exactly sure what the moral is here, except that I’m poised between being a Lucy or sending the thing out again just to see what happens. Perhaps the worst mistake would be to just let it gather dust. Dunno.

    @ Laura – ooh, I’m kind of jealous of your flesh wound and totally jealous of your sword fighting class. Western or Eastern martial arts?

  • Lyn — Agreed about how a little time away from a story can sharpen your ability to ‘see’ it. One of my own big mistakes I made a lot when I first started out was sending things out the minute I typed the words “the end” for the fist time. I was just too excited to send it out. Then a few days later I’d re-read it and see all sorts of things I needed to fix, but it was already submitted…

    Laura — Glad to see you’re also wise enough to let a piece sit a few weeks before sending it out.

    Sarah — What your describing is a variant of what I’m talking about. I’d say to you (and Laura, and anyone else getting feedback of any kind, from any source), if the feedback makes sense, consider implementing it. I’m not saying that you should never make change based on the feedback you get, just that a form rejection doesn’t really constitute much feedback.

  • And the fact that you got feedback on it, Sarah, has to be a good thing too. Means they ultimately thought about it enough to offer suggestions on how to possibly make it better. Means you were probably at least close, so I definitely wouldn’t let it gather dust. :)

  • This is where Beta readers are valuable. If you write in a vacuum and then submit to a publication you respect, a rejection is going to seem like The Word on the quality of your story. If, on the other hand, you have been sharing your work with other writers who can give you some sense of your story’s strengths and weaknesses, you have some context for that rejection letter. It may be that the editor who rejected you will echo comments others have made, in which case you should probably take those comments to heart. On the other hand, it may be that your Beta readers have been raving about how great your characters are, and then this editor comes along and makes some small remark about your characters not working. Running back to rewrites in that case might not be the right thing to do. Just my $.02.

  • Thanks, Edmund.

    @Sarah – We study western-style (rapier, longsword, and side-sword). I’m a lowly green cord (read: yellow belt) so my focus is mostly rapier for now.

  • Good advice, Edmund. *Opens Sonar and checks for subs that have returned and not been sent out again.*

    Well, I believe I have some work to do. *Scurries off to submit two stories.*

    Thanks,
    –NewGuyDave

  • What David said. 100%

    NGD — Back to work with you then. But if it’s been a while since you’ve read them, re-read before you resubmit. You never know what might jump out at you.

  • I wrote the life out of a story once, because the original length was about 1400 words, and I was trying to get it down to flash-fiction length. Luckily, I saved an old draft and was able to resuscitate it.

    Now that I’m in the thick of revisions on my novel, I’m hoping the work I do will make it better.

  • Lauren — Everybody has to make that mistake at least once in their career. The trick is in trying to learn that lesson the first time so as not to repeat it (too many times, anyway). Good luck.

  • I’ve been the obverse of Alethea. I wrote a story that earned an Honorable Mention on WotF (to which I submitted after being rejected by F&SF with a pleasantly-worded form rejection). I’ve since trunked it because, well… it’s 12,000 words long, and the markets for works of that length (which are also Fantasies) can be counted on one hand. I think it’s a good story, and though I’m sure I could find flaws in it on a reread now, about a year later… I still find it to be a good story.

    The moral of my story, at least for me, I guess is this: try to write shorter short-stories. Novelettes, in particular, are practically unsalable from the word go, since there are so few markets that will even consider them.