My husband and I are novice gardeners. Last year, he built raised beds and put in tomato plants, peppers, squash, eggplant, and sugar snap peas, and I planted herbs and a single heirloom tomato in a smaller patch behind the arbor in the back yard. For our efforts we harvested two or three small bell peppers that we figured cost us about $40 each.
This year, we were less ambitious. We planted basil and artisanal lettuce seeds. We’d read some good gardening books, and we scattered the seeds generously, thinking we would cull the weaklings and save the stronger seedlings and transplant them. No cold frame starts for us! We waited until there was no danger of a freeze and put those seeds right into the ground. In about eight weeks, we figured, we would start to have homegrown salads, no more of that store-bought “spring mix” that’s already going bad by the time you bring it home. That was six weeks ago.
At this point we can’t tell the tiny lettuces from the clover that threatens to take over. If we were into clover salads, we would be all set. Something has been enjoying them; there are holes all over the little plot where some little critters—maybe the one at left, or one of her many offspring, or maybe the birds—have dug up the seeds and wrought havoc of my neat little rows.
Futile seeds, I call them. Poor babies . . .
My backlog of story ideas and drafts seems something like those seeds. For whatever reason, some stories don’t flourish. What seemed like a good idea falls on infertile ground. It goes nowhere, or sometimes, it goes on for pages and pages. Maybe it even gets finished. Ultimately, though, it doesn’t work.
So what to do? Consign it to the story compost heap? Move on to new ideas?
Well, new ideas are always good, but never underestimate the power of a failed story! I used to advise my writing students when they were “workshopping” each other’s pieces to look for positives before they raised any questions or negatives. That’s not a bad idea for most of us. I look for what’s working in a piece. Maybe it’s a scene; maybe it’s a paragraph or a sentence or an image. I think about other stories that have succeeded. By succeeded, I don’t necessarily mean they’ve been published, although some of them have been. They feel complete; they’re satisfying; there are no “holes.” They’re tightly woven, without excess. They move along. I still get emotionally involved with the characters when I read the story, even though it’s mine, and I’ve read it a hundred times. They surprise me. They make me cry or laugh, or they make me ashamed or angry. I can read them without getting that feeling in my gut, however vague, that something’s wrong. That gnawing feeling always, always tells me I need to go back and have another close look.
So what nurtures a “good” story into print?
Ah. Luck, you say! There’s some of that, certainly—the trick of finding just the right niche for a story. But mostly, it takes perseverance and the courage to keep trying, to keep getting better. It requires openness to doing things differently and learning the craft. It requires picking yourself up and dusting yourself off. It takes the willingness to swallow hard and turn a rejection, sometimes multiple rejections, into possibility.
When I revise, I ask myself two very simple but crucial questions:
1) What doesn’t belong? I prune unmercifully; after all, nothing, absolutely nothing, belongs in a short story that doesn’t advance it in some way.
2) What’s missing? I try to read like a stranger to the work. Will it make sense, will it resonate for another reader? A story can be much clearer in my head than it is on the page.
I also get somebody else to read it–two or three people, if I’m lucky. It’s always interesting what someone else sees, or doesn’t see, in a story. That’s crucial, too.
And I read. I read short fiction by writers I admire. I analyze what they do and how they do it.
So, poor seeds of stories, poor wilted ones—maybe you have a chance after all. I’m writing this post mainly to me, of course, to remind me to get back in there and get my hands dirty. That’s what it takes.
What are your favorite revision strategies? How do you bounce back from rejection? Please share; I’d love to know!