Saturday, March 21, 2015

Quick Thoughts - Retiring Stories

I don't think any writer really likes to come to a point when they look at a story and say "you know, I'm not going to submit you anymore." It feels like giving up. It feels like, shit, I just wasted all that time, writing it, editing it, sending it out (sometimes many times), and now I'm left with this...thing that I don't think I can keep going with. But (at least for me, and I want to imagine for most writers who keep at it) the time comes when either I completely lose faith in a story or nothing more can really be done with it.

Case in point, today I have the sad task of retiring a story that I rather liked. Maybe, if I see a theme call for it, I'll break it out again and see what can be done. But for now, I consider it retired. And what does that mean? Well, it means I'm shading it blue in my giant "Spreadsheet of Writerliness." Yes, I have a spreadsheet. I would think most writers do, because how else to keep track of every submission? And I have different colors in the spreadsheet, for stories that are out (yellow), for stories that sold (an understated grey), and for stories that are retired (light blue). I made it light blue and not, say, deep red, because it's tough enough retiring a story without making myself angry about it. I try to keep all my stories yellow (or grey, because that's the best), but I have a growing collection of blue stories sitting in my spreadsheet.

Some are easy calls. I get them done and send them out a few times and every time I send it out I feel less and less good about it. I think I screwed something up. I try editing more and more and it still gets rejected and for some, I look at them and can't really see a point to them and those I pull because I can do better. I pull them because at that point I'd rather I not publish them. It happens. I feel I didn't handle something right or that the story is just too flat and that is that. As annoying as it is to admit defeat and just pull the damned thing, at least I feel like I'm making the right call. I don't know if other people do this. I'm not sure if this is self-rejecting. But I feel like sometimes the right call for a story is to pull it and try again but better. And I still normally let a story go out, editing and such in between rejections, somewhere from five to a dozen times before the urge to retire wins the day.

Then there are the stories that I still like. Maybe I don't think they're my best work, but I can still see what first drew me to them. I think I did something okay with the story. I like the setting, the characters. And I can't think of anything to edit aside from starting over, writing a different story, which I don't want to do. These are the stories that I don't want to retire. I want to hold on, kicking and screaming, but I believe that the story is still good enough to entertain and provoke. Especially if a story like this makes it to the second or final round of submissions somewhere. Or multiple somewheres. That's what's happened today.

"The Song of the Mountain" is a weird story, part fantasy, part science fiction, part horror, dealing with music and a giant monster that fell from the sky. I did write it a while ago, but I've always rather liked it, and hoped that it would find a home. It has received some of the nicest rejections I've ever received, and some of the meanest (seriously, first readers, no need to get nasty when saying no. It does not make your rejection "constructive"). So it's not like it was universally despised. Just...not good enough. And I thought, maybe next time, maybe next time. Twenty five rejections later, and I rather have to face facts that it's not going anywhere. At this point there just aren't many places that I can submit to. Like, it would take quite a bit of work to find one (that would accept this kind of story) and after searching for a while for where I could submit I've decided to let it go.

But it kind of sucks. I can look at this as a learning experience. I can look at this as a challenge. But for the moment it feels an awful lot like a defeat. I will bounce back. I have many other stories out, some of which are bound to get accepted. And others are bound to be retired. I'm just not a writer that can sell everything. I'm not sure I will ever be a writer that can sell everything. I'm not sure there are writers that can sell everything. Which is okay. I hope. I think.

People reading this and thinking it might have some sort of advice are probably wondering what the hell? But then, I'm not in a position to advise anyone. These are just my (probably very whiny) thoughts on retiring stories. The long and short is, for me, it happens, and it sucks, and if I wasn't off alcohol for the moment I'd probably drink a toast to my retired story. I guess that will wait. But I'll keep writing. And hey, if I want to use an idea or image or line from that story I can and no one will ever know (mwahahahahaha!). Ahem. But yeah, I guess I'll just keep on keeping on. Thanks for reading.

All the best,

Charles Payseur


  1. That's tough, all right! But maybe it is only in temporary retirement until the market's needs change.

    I just discovered your blog and your reviews at nerds of a feather, and am really enjoying them! I'm amazed at how many magazines you are able to follow.Have you developed any insights on the overall market and how it changes over time?

    I've noticed, for instance, that for me stories written in a very mannered voice sell faster right now. And I read a recent article suggesting that there was a vogue right now for fantasy stories in which the fantasy element was used in a symbolic way to portray emotions, rather than the magic being an integral part of the plot - but I don't have enough data to tell whether this is an accurate statement.

    1. Thanks for the comment (and the compliment). I think for me, personally, I haven't been around and paying attention long enough to notice any sort of sea-change when it comes to the landscape of the market. I tend to be skeptical of insights that claim that things are much different. I think that, perhaps, the market is much bigger than it used to be, what with the rise of the internet and fiction that appears there. But then, Analog, Asimov's, F&SF, and a few others are still around and seem to be publishing more of what they always do. There's simply more online fiction right now, which is fine by me (though it is a lot to keep up on).

      But I don't think that using fantasy elements and magic in particular as symbols is really more in vogue now than it ever was. It's been a popular technique as long as the genre has existed, going back to Poe and further to Shelly and the Gothic horrors. Even Tolkien used magic to create a system of good and evil that could give form to the kind of story that he wanted to tell. That said, I'd argue that the fantasy elements of the stories people claim to be more symbolic are still very much integral to the plot.

      I think in some ways it's a push back against...I guess I'd have to call it "literary fantasy." Which is kind of ridiculous, in my mind. If you stopped to really examine The Wheel of Time or A Song of Ice and Fire, I'm pretty sure you could tease out symbols in the magic present in those stories. But because they're second world fantasies, people see the magic as inherent.

      But that's probably way more answer (without really giving an answer) than you were wanting. Sorry. I apparently get wordy in the morning. Thanks for reading!