Tips for Revising an Old Story

There’s a story graveyard on my laptop, and I’m sure it’s haunted.  I heard it howl last night when I opened a new Word document.  It beckoned me to click a dusty yellow folder named “Old Drafts,” and when I did, the ghosts of a hundred tales appeared before me, most without an ending, several without more than a couple paragraphs.  I double-clicked one of the stories, and for the first time in a couple years, the story opened onto my desktop, begging for a revision.

We all have stories like that.  They’re the ones we put aside with every intention to finish, but we never do, and before we know it, they’re buried deep on the hard drive, never to see another edit.  There are reasons these works might live in the story graveyard:

  1. The story was rejected for publication too many times
  2. Inspiration dwindled in the midst of the story’s rising action
  3. Another story appeared out of nowhere and stole the show
  4. Life, work, and family needed more attention
  5. The laptop exploded, leaving the story in smoke

These are all (mostly) legitimate reasons for putting a story aside, but from time to time, an old draft finds its way back to the screen.  Fortunately, even if time passes, the writer can take steps to get the story back on the slate.  Here’s what I do when revising an old story:

Read the Entire Manuscript.

Most story ideas never go away, so when I revisit an old draft, I feel like I know exactly what it’s about.  The problem is that I remember how the story should have been written instead of how it was actually written.  For this reason, you should always read an old manuscript from beginning to end before making any revisions (Don’t even fix a comma until you’ve internalized the fullness of the narrative).  Sometimes the story will feel foreign, so you may need to read the manuscript several times before you again feel like it’s something you’ve penned with your own hand.  If the story’s been in the drawer awhile, it’s possible you don’t even remember your protagonist’s name, let alone his/her motivations.

Take Notes on Theme and Voice.

When you feel the story is your own, open a notepad and jot down the story’s themes and a sample of the main character’s voice.  When revisiting an old story, it’s important that all edits are organic, that when the manuscript is read, it’s impossible to discern the revisions from the style of the original piece.  Theme and voice are two elements that immediately stand out when not matched to the content and style of the unedited manuscript.  Always reference your list of thematic elements and voice to ensure the narrative remains consistent during editing.  There’s nothing worse than inadvertently derailing a major theme or giving your southern cowboy a New York accent midway through the story’s climax.

Revise in Chunks and Read Aloud.

Don’t get carried away with edits, not at first.  Instead of dumping whole paragraphs in the middle of the piece, find a place to add a single sentence, and write it in a style and form that enhances the original work.  Once you’ve added the sentence, back up and read the entire paragraph aloud, paying particular attention to how the new sentence connects on both ends to existing sentences.  When you’re sure the sentence is properly integrated, you can move on to other paragraphs and do the same, working your way toward the end of the piece.  When you’re comfortable enough to add whole paragraphs, be sure to go back and read them aloud in the context of the larger work.

Revise the Whole Piece in One Sitting.

If the story hasn’t been open in awhile (weeks, months, or years), there’s an urgency in the editing process to complete revisions.  Each time the story is revised, the writer must return to the main character’s mindset, spending a lot of time re-reading the story to do so.  This constant revisiting takes time and reduces momentum toward actually completing the story.  For this reason, when revising an old story, the writer should commit to completing the work in one sitting.  The story is already collecting cobwebs, but a firm broom might scare the spiders away for good.

Send the Story to New Publication Venues.

When the story is complete, it’s time to send it out for publication.  If the story was previously submitted for publication, be sure to revisit your tracking sheet so that you don’t send it to the same publication venues twice.  Writing credibility is hard to come by, so don’t squander it on a silly mistake.  Even if you’ve done a substantial amount of work on your story, never send it back to a magazine where it’s already been rejected.  If this is your first publication attempt, check out my article on how to submit a short story for publication.

Conclusion.

My story graveyard is full of ghosts, but they’re not all worth salvaging.  Before you spend valuable time re-reading and revising, make sure there’s potential in the old draft; otherwise, your creative energy is best spent on new and shinier works.  Stories are best when they’re inspired, so before you go raising an old one from the dead, be sure it’s a thriller, and be sure it’s fit to live again.

Have you ever raised a story from the dead?  If so, how did it go?  Let me know in the “Comments” below.

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How to Submit a Short Story for Publication

When I was in third grade, I remember a poster hanging at the back of the classroom.  The poster was mounted in the middle of a concrete wall, and around it hung laminated paper crayons.  In sharp red letters, the poster read, “The Writing Process,” and beneath the title were five steps: Prewriting, Drafting, Revising, Editing, and Publishing.  The “Publishing” step always gave me pause.

I was curious why students were never invited to publish their work.  When I became older and explored the publication process for myself, I discovered the dirty secret: Publication is nearly impossible, and third grade fiction is about as good as first grade calculus (in my personal experience anyway).  Although publication doesn’t provide much hope for third graders, there is certainly hope for writers who are a bit older and a bit more seasoned.

The following sections provide an outline for submitting a finished short story to a literary journal.  If your story is finished (Click here if you’re not sure), it’s time to get it off the hard drive and on its way to the folds of a flashy magazine cover.

Find a Journal.

The first step on your story’s journey to publication is finding it a home.  In my experience, there are two ways to do this:

  1. Purchase the newest edition of “Novel and Short Story Writer’s Market” at your local bookstore.
  2. Visit “The Review Review,” and search for a journal that best fits the theme and style of your story.

When using one of the listed methods for locating a journal, here are a couple questions to ask yourself:

  1. Do you intend to submit your short story to multiple journals?
    If so, make sure each journal you submit to accepts “simultaneous submissions.”  This means that the journal doesn’t mind if the story is also under consideration elsewhere.  This is common practice for most modern journals, but you will run across the occasional odd ball who wants to consider your fiction exclusively.  If you submit to a journal that does not accept simultaneous submissions, keep in mind that response times typically range from 4-12 months.  If your story ends up getting rejected, you’ve placed all your eggs in one basket and will have to start from scratch.
  2. Do you want to be paid money for your short story?
    Of course you do!  Unfortunately, most journals are too small or poor to offer actual money to contributors, so you will usually receive a free copy or two of the journal in which your work appears if you are accepted.  Paying in contributor’s copies is common practice, and if this is your first publication attempt, these are the journals you should aim for.  If you want to gamble, some higher-end journals pay actual money for short stories, but these journals are highly selective and have a steeper rejection rate for new writers.

Read Submission Guidelines.

Once you’ve selected a potential venue for your short story, it’s time to read the journal’s submission guidelines.  These guidelines are often on a separate page of the journal’s website (Look for links that say “Submit” or “About”).  Read these guidelines, and make sure they are followed precisely.  Here are a few items to look for when considering if your work is an appropriate fit for a given journal:

  1. Word Count
    The total word count of your submission should fall somewhere in the middle of the recommended guidelines.  For example, if the journal publishes short stories between 1,500-3,500 words, you will have the best chance of getting published at around 2,000-3,000 words.
  2. Reading Fee
    Some journals require a small fee (usually $1-3) to read and process your manuscript.  The journal may call this reading fee something else (e.g. processing fee, submission fee, support fee), but the bottom line is the editors will not read your work without it.
  3. Reading Period
    You can’t submit to a journal that isn’t accepting submissions.  Make sure the journal is open to submissions prior to submitting your work.  Most journals will make it impossible to submit work when the reading period is closed, but some will allow it.  In all cases where work is submitted outside of the journal’s reading period, the work is discarded without being read.
  4. Response Time
    Most journals take anywhere from four (4) to twelve (12) months to read your work.  Make sure you are comfortable with the journal’s response time before submitting.

Format Manuscript.

One caveat of submitting the same story to multiple journals is that each journal will likely have its own formatting preferences.  In other words, you will need to format your story to fit the submission guidelines of each journal you submit to.  It is common for journals to request page numbers on your manuscript; however, some journals prefer for page numbers to  appear in the document’s header, and others prefer for page numbers to appear in the footer.  Although a reasonable editor will not judge a work’s quality by formatting issues alone, it’s best not to take the risk.

Read each journal’s submission guidelines carefully, and ensure your story fits the exact mold before sending it into the wild blue yonder.

Write a Cover Letter.

Although most journals require some form of cover letter, guidelines vary, so always refer to the journal’s recommendations before submitting.  Here are a few general tips for writing your short story’s cover letter:

  1. The first sentence should announce your intention to publish with the journal, along with a word count.
    Example: I am submitting my short story, “Awesome Possum” (2,376 words), for consideration in The Possum Review.
  2. If you are published elsewhere, or if you have won awards, state that information in the next sentence.
    Example: I have previously published work in Squirrels and Nuts, The Fox Trap, and Coyote Express.  My writing received the Furry Trotters Award for Creative Fiction in 2015. If you do not have publication credits or awards, don’t sweat it.  Just write something like, “If my work is accepted by The Possum Review, this will be my first publication.”
  3. Provide a brief biographical blurb about yourself that is both memorable and concise.
    Example: I am a teacher in Williamsburg, KY, and I live with my wife on a quarter-acre slice of Appalachian pie.
  4. Thank the reader for their time and effort in reviewing your short story.
    Example: Thank you for your time and consideration.

The quality of the short story itself will determine whether you earn the publication credit or not, so avoid getting “artsy” in your cover letter.  All of your creative energy should be poured into the short story, and the cover letter should just be an informational text that states the facts and nothing more.

Track Your Submissions.

If you’re submitting your story to multiple journals, or if you have multiple stories, you need a tracking method.  You can track your submissions by hand, but I recommend doing it in Microsoft Excel.

Here’s an example of how your tracking sheet might look:

submissionsYes, this is a sample from my own submission spreadsheet.  Notice that the tracking sheet is sortable, so I can quickly determine where my fiction is going and which stories are under consideration.  Also, I always include an “Inquire On” date to remind me to follow-up with the journal if I haven’t heard back from them before the “Expected Reply” time indicated on their website.

Conclusion.

Publication is the final step of the writing process.  Do your third grade self a favor, and make it all the way to the end of the process for once.  Just remember that every great writer took his/her first steps toward publication at some time or other.  When you stumble, you’re still moving forward, and sometimes, momentum is all you need.

So Your Story Was Rejected, Now What?

My story was rejected today.  I sent the poor thing to six different journals, and my top choice turned the story down cold.  I was sitting in the car while my wife went into the gas station to buy snacks for a short trip home.  Scrolling through my phone, I saw an unread e-mail and immediately noticed the journal’s title splashed across the heading.  With one eye closed and my lower lip quivering, I clicked the message and read aloud:

Dear Shannon Deaton,

Thank you for sending your work to [Redacted].  Unfortunately, it’s just not quite the right fit for the magazine at this time, given the other selections for the next issue.

I wish you all the best in finding a home for your work.

Sincerely,
Editor

This is a typical form rejection letter, not even the kind with a personalized message to give the writer some hope.  It’s a firm “no,” and the message is loud and clear.

So what should writers do when the familiar rejection letter comes rapping at the chamber door?

Sigh.

It’s okay to get mad.  Every blog or journal I’ve read gives the same advice on rejection– Don’t worry about it, get back to work, keep on trucking, put the gun away, etc.  I disagree.  There’s a moment following rejection when writers just need to draw in a deep breath and hate everything about the process.  It’s perfectly justified, and it’s healthy too.  Just take a big sup of oxygen, and huff it out with a fat, grumpy frown.  Normal people do normal things, and it’s normal to be upset when your baby’s tossed with the bath water.  Get mad for a minute.

Self-Reflect.

Think about the rejection letter and consider whether there’s anything useful there.  Most of the time, rejections are impersonal and direct.  They say things like–Good luck elsewhere, your story just doesn’t fit, try again next time, etc.  However, once in a blue moon, a rejection letter gives you useful feedback for future submissions.  My rejection example above notes that my story wasn’t a good fit for the magazine at this time.  I could drive myself crazy wondering if next time will be different, so I’ll only spend about two minutes on this step before moving on to the next.

Smile.

Come on, it’s just the first submission, and you’ve probably sent the story to a half-dozen other places.  Put on your best Joker face, and flash those pearly whites.  It’s one person’s opinion, and due to the sheer volume of submissions, rejection is bound to happen more often than not.  Now’s the time to let the anger subside and have a hearty laugh at the system.  We’re talking thousands of submissions per journal, with only 2-4 getting accepted during any given publication period.  Math is a funny monster, so chuckle in his face, and remember that the more you play the odds, the better your chances will be for actual publication.

Submit.

Get back to work.  Yes, every blog says this, and every blog is right (The other blogs are just wrong when they suggest starting at this step).  When you’ve had your little tantrum, it’s time to get back to the business of writing.  You’re a writer after all, and if you’re a real one, quitting isn’t an option.  There will be more rejections before you’re successful, so increase the volume of quality submissions to increase your chances of getting one through the pipeline.  Above all, remember that you’re not defined by a rejection letter; you’re defined by your grit and passion to continue.  Write, write, write — submit, submit, submit.

Conclusion.

Write for publication, but also write because it’s what you love to do.  When the inevitable rejection comes, just sigh, self-reflect, smile, and submit again.  Somewhere along the way, you’ll see your name in print, and it’ll all be worth the trouble.  It’s always worth the trouble in the end.

So You’re Published, Now What?

It’s the moment every writer dreams about.  You’ve honed your story to a sharpened dagger and finally summoned the courage to share it with another human being.  You write the cover letter, send the manuscript, and wait seven painstaking months for a reply, one you’re sure will end in certain rejection.  At dinner one evening, you get an e-mail from an editor you’d almost forgotten about, and the message reads, “We’d love to publish your story in the next issue of the Joe-Bob Review.”  You’ve done it–you’re a published writer!  Now where do you go from here?

  1. Celebrate:
    Publications don’t come along every day, and the first one is especially important.  All the years of reading, revising, and praying have brought you to the rarest of moments.  Text every person you know or love, and let them hear about your milestone accomplishment.  Schedule an evening out with your spouse and talk about the process, savoring every minute of celebration between spoonfuls of your favorite dessert.  You’ve accomplished a challenging feat, something that only occurs when the moon howls at dogs and the ocean boils with cappuccino cupcakes.  It’s a rare feeling, one you’ll want to remember–live it up!
  2. Consider:
    When the honeymoon ends, you’ll no doubt consider the implications of your great achievement.  If you’re like thousands of other writers, the moment will be hard-won, riddled with multiple rejections along the way.  Use your published work as a benchmark, and consider whether the other pieces you’re shopping around have the same potential.  Although the individual tastes of each editor will vary greatly, it’s often said that “good writing is good writing.”  If you can identify the strengths of your accepted work, you may be able to find flaws in other works (especially those that have been rejected multiple times).  You shouldn’t worry about trying to replicate every nuance of the accepted work, but there’s something that brought it to the top of the editor’s pile.  Find the magic, and rub it on your other stories.
  3. Create:
    Never ignore the natural instinct to create.  Once your work is accepted, you gain a temporary but powerful ego boost with the potential to inspire another successful story.  As a writer, you know that the muse only sings when she’s well-fed, so use your literary high as a rocket to the next level.  Writers spend too much time creating works under self-doubt.  Don’t miss an opportunity to write from the other end of the motivational spectrum.  It’s amazing the quality of work you’ll produce without the specter of uncertainty snickering on your shoulder.
  4. Continue:
    Publication success doesn’t occur with every story.  There are some stories we bury deep on the flash drive, hoping they’ll never see the light of another monitor.  The key to ongoing literary success is to write, write, write.  Success is a great motivator for future submissions, and it should drive us to persevere through the rejections that will inevitably come.  Remember, it only takes two or three good publications to break into the market, and if you can keep in the rhythm of writing and submitting, your skill will continue to increase, even if your numbers do not.  Publication is a game of grit as much as talent.

So where do you go from here?  Celebrate, Consider, Create, and Continue!