Today I submitted a short story to an anthology for publication. I have submitted to this publisher before and been rejected several times before, some of these rejections resulting in posts on this blog. After each of these rejections I was able to take a few steps back and look at the work I submitted and try and see the piece from their point of view.
Sometimes, the writing was bad. By writing, I mean the craft itself was bad. I had poor sentences or awkward paragraphs and in many places I had beats in the wrong places and the story just flowed wrong.
Other times, as mentioned in a few other blog posts, I submitted a scene or even a loosely collected series of narrative events. In these instances what I submitted was not what most people would consider a short story.
The piece I submitted this morning, a 5,100 word urban fantasy short story, is by far the single best short story I’ve ever written. After finishing the first draft nearly two months ago, I have been re-writing it, editing it, and subjecting myself to brutal criticism from an amazing editor (if she had a blog or a mugshot, I would provide a link here).
Several dozen revisions later, I feel like it is a great short story. It isn’t a scene that is being squished into the short story format, it is an actual short story with a clear beginning, middle, and end. It has a hook. I think the writing is some of the best I’ve ever done, the beats are in the right place, the story flows fast when it should be fast, slow when it should be slow. All of the myriad of tiny little details that readers take for granted, I obsessed over for months trying to get this story right.
Now that I’ve submitted this story and I can see what it looked like when I started versus what it looked like when I finished and it really is night and day. I didn’t add a mountain of words and in many cases removed some, but the painstaking attention to every detail in every paragraph as well as to the story as a whole really paid off.
This led me to re-evaluate my concept of the editing process. I used to think of writing as a process that consisted of two big steps: you write, then you edit. To me, editing was something that was done after you produced whatever it is you wanted to label your initial draft. This placed far too much emphasis on the initial output and not enough on editing.
What I’ve learned is that writing isn’t what you do before editing. Writing is editing. The initial output is just that, it’s the starting point on a (often very long) journey. What you do to your initial output isn’t a grammar check or a check for punctuation, it’s a check for the thousands of subtle things that writers do at the micro and macro level: hunt down adverbs and replace them with stronger verbs, find passive voice and passive phrases and strengthen them where appropriate, make sure that as you build compound sentences you lead the reader’s mind’s eye from the right start to the right finish every time and at the right pace.
There’s still a million other things to do that I’ve been habitually bad at doing like consistency checking (making sure that if a character is on the ground in one paragraph, they’re still there in the next), object tracking (making sure that the reader’s mental image of a scene is stable and not disrupted by inconsistencies), dialogue consistency (making sure that people talk the way they should be talking given their backgrounds and current situation), beats and pacing check, exposition versus dialog (“say it don’t tell it” etc) checking, and when that’s done there’s a million more things.
I’m not saying these things to scare potential writers. I’m saying these things because I used to look at a draft and say, “this is good enough” and stop 20-40 revisions too soon. Good enough isn’t good enough. It’s very hard for writers to put themselves in the minds of a reader who has never read the story before – it’s been bouncing around in the writer’s head for weeks, months, maybe even years. It takes disciplined attention to detail and the aid of unbiased, objective, and hopefully brutal reviewers and editors to pull out the core nugget of greatness from the surrounding pile of mediocre writing and turn a good story into one worth publishing.
I am hoping that with this new-found respect for the editing process, my future pieces will be better for it. Even if I never get any of my future stories published, I now know how to make them far better than they ever would have been before.