When my muse inspires me to write, why can’t I put onto paper exactly what comes into my brain and just have done with it? Why isn’t it brilliant the first time? I wouldn’t even mind the process taking a while if I could trap the thoughts and phrases mentally until I’m ready to sit down and transcribe them verbatim. That never happens, though. I can’t tell you how many of my stories fizzled out because I had a great idea, but when I finally had the time to write, I’d either lost every bit of passion for the story, or my attempts were feeble in comparison to what I thought was in my head.
This week, I thought about writing a short story, which in itself was weird. I never think of anything less than novella-length, unless I’m commissioned to do so. But I was stimulated, I think, by an invitation for submissions from Glimmer Train. I don’t have anything for them, I thought. Then—BAM!—short story, fully formed, in my head. And on Monday, of course, when I was so stupid-busy that all I had time to do was take notes on my iPhone during the red lights on my daily commute.
That night and the next, it was all I could do to type a few scenes and details that I didn’t want to forget. Then Wednesday I had time (well, I actually stole an hour from my sleep) to poise my fingers over the shallow keys of my MacBook and type away until the whole thing was out of my head. I forced myself to keep at it, even when I didn’t know how to transition from one scene to another. I finally finished, and I even proofread it, something that I often leave for later, exhausted by the initial output of imagination onto the page.
What I’ve discovered from participating in fiction workshops and reading hundreds of submissions for the online literary magazine Fiction Fix, is that many writers stop there. They might not even proofread, or if they do, their skills are so poor that it doesn’t do much good. And while I understand that you might need to take a break to regain enthusiasm, a first draft does not equal a finished piece.
According to Laura Cross’s The Complete Guide to Hiring a Literary Agent, agents only accept one percent of submissions (27). Now, you don’t have to have an agent to be a good writer, but if you’ve received rejections before, from agents, literary mags, or publishers, consider the following statistics about submissions sent to agents: “87 percent of content is considered amateurish and unpublishable” and “3 percent has a potential market but is poorly written or researched” (28). Nine percent have problems marketing or target markets that are already saturated, or they might have potential but need revision. Only “1 percent is considered well written, promising, and ready to be presented to a publisher” (28)
Why do so many writers assume that their stories are worthy enough to send to magazines and agents and publishing houses? I’ve workshopped with people who could take zero criticism. If a room of other writers had issues with their stories, it was because we couldn’t read them properly, not because there were problems with those stories. Well, I guess that could be the case, but if your goal is to sell a book, the public won’t buy it if they can’t understand it.
As an editor as well as a writer, I am not only ready but excited to correct, revise, polish. I seek critiques and opinions from fellow writers and readers, and I’ve developed such a tough skin that you could take a hatchet to my literary arm, and I wouldn’t bleed (well, not much). It is not only necessary but fun, to me, to watch the lump of raw story as I mold and shape it into (I hope) a masterpiece.
The stories and books that you read and enjoy, that make you wonder how the author was able to work such a complex twist into the ending, took a lot of a hard work to create. It is extremely rare (if it happens at all) for someone to write a story that needs little revision. If Madeleine L’Engle, who had already published several novels, received a decade of rejections before she published A Wrinkle in Time, it is only reasonable to assume that your writing will need considerable work before it garners the positive attention you desire. Join writers groups. Read anything you can get your hands on. If grammar and spelling aren’t your strong suit, seek a teacher or professor who can help with your manuscript. If you can afford them, go to conferences, workshops, and look for independent editors who have edited writers you admire. And when you’re ready, pull your literary ax out of you writer’s toolbox, and begin hacking away at the extraneous stuff that gets in your story’s way. When you’re done with that, pull out your chisel for the fine-tuning. Even though it takes considerable time and effort (during which you won’t feel very profitable), you can make yourself into that one percent to out-do your writing competition.
I guess if I’m going to take my own advice, I need to roll up my sleeves and get to work.