Practical Meerkat’s 52 Bits of Useful Info for Young (and Old) Writers, week 40

by Laura Anne Gilman

Today, we talk about retirement.

No, before the old-timers in the audience laugh hysterically, I’m not talking about financial retirement. I’m talking about hanging it up.  Letting go.  Turning our attention to something else.  Retiring a story from the field.

Over the years, I’ve heard people say “I love this story too much to give up on it,” or variations thereof.  And that is, for the most part, a very good thing.  If you believe in a story, if you think it has something to say, then you should keep with it.

However….

(you knew there was a however, right?)

How long can you keep working on something?  How long should you keep working?

There comes a time when an unsold story –short form or long, but especially long (novel) form – becomes a negative force.  A vampire, if you will.  It drains your energy, your brains, and your writing-time – and gives nothing back.  It might be the best idea, it might have a solid execution… it might just be a matter of time before you find the right editor/market for it.

Might.

But right now, you need to step back and look at what you’re not doing, in that time.  Are there projects that didn’t get the attention they deserved?  Are there ideas you put to the side?  Is your stress level rising – are you getting so wound up in making this work, that your life is feeling the stress, too?

And more – are you really doing the story a service?  If you keep going back and reworking something to make it sell… is that the best thing for the story?  You need to step back and look at it objectively – and if you can’t be objective, then this is where a good and trusted agent is worth their weight in rubies.

I don’t buy into the “you need to write a million words of crap, first” theory, because good and crap can come at any point in a career.  But I do believe that there are some stories that you write just so that you can get to the next level.

This is where I tell you something that you already know, or should know.  In fact, it should be tattooed on your soul, assuming you haven’t sold that already:  You are not your work.  It’s okay to say “well, that’s not working.”  You can trunk it, you can shred it, you can cannibalize the bits and reuse the pieces that breathed in other work.  Nothing “has” to sell.  Your worth as a writer does not depend on a beloved idea coming to market.

So before you tell yourself “I love this story too much to give up on it”, answer this question honestly:  Is it really something that has to sell?  Or do you just not want to give up on something you love/spent time on?

Is it time to retire that story?

and, in case you missed it, I direct you to an earlier unrelated but important post on this blog: Nancy Jane Moore’s The Risk of the Writing Business

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Coming up in Week 41:  Author Copies: Plague or Menace?

Laura Anne Gilman is a former editor with Penguin/Putnam, and the author of more than a dozen novels, including the upcoming urban fantasy TRICKS OF THE TRADE (12/11), and THE SHATTERED VINE, Book 3 of the Nebula-nominated Vineart War trilogy (10/11).  Her SF collection, DRAGON VIRUS, which SF Signal called “amazingly evocative….a potent ride through a changing future,” was published by Fairwood Press in June 2011.  For more info check her website, her BookView Cafe bookshelf, or follow her on Twitter (@LAGilman)  And yes, her nickname really is meerkat.

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About Laura Anne Gilman

Laura Anne is a recovering editor-turned-novelist, with an Endeavor Award, a Nebula nomination, another Endeavor award nomination and a Washington State Book Award nomination under her belt. Her most recent series is the award-winning "Devil's West" trilogy, starting with SILVER ON THE ROAD, and her same-universe story collection, WEST WINDS' FOOL, AND OTHER STORIES OF THE DEVIL'S WEST. The novella GABRIEL'S ROAD was published by Book View Cafe on April 30th, 2019. Her Patreon, featuring original fiction, writing advice, and original Rants, is at https://www.patreon.com/LAGilman Learn more at www.lauraannegilman.net, where you can sign up for her quarterly newsletter.

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Practical Meerkat’s 52 Bits of Useful Info for Young (and Old) Writers, week 40 — 8 Comments

  1. It is comforting and instructive to look at other artistic fields on this. Music writers always have a trunk, a capacious place where they’ve squirreled all those songs that didn’t fit into this show, this album, this tour. At the first opportunity the right song can be dragged out of the trunk, freshened up with new lyrics, and become a hit. And there are stories every month, about scientists who are shooting X rays or MRIs at paintings and discovering a lost Vermeer or Van Gogh, painted over because the artist had a new idea and ran out of canvas.

  2. Brenda – of course, sometimes those songs don’t become hits. And the painting was painted over because it wasn’t up to the painter’s usual skill. Or…

    Yes, sometimes you can reclaim the bits. But what you painted over it might have been a better use of the canvas.

  3. Two of my trunk short stories resurfaced periodically when I had noting else to do. A tweak here, a change there. Is it worth the agony to send to a new editor?

    Then ten years later an anthology appears out of nowhere and the story fit and sold.

    Now about the 16 novels and 20 shorts still in the trunk…

    Never throw away any writing, just put it aside until its time comes. I learn as much about the craft of story from putting something aside as I do by writing it. That may be 100 years after my death, but its there waiting while I write other stuff.

  4. Somewhat complicated by the matter that sometimes all the idea needs is some time on the backburner, to simmer.

  5. I think there are two issues here. One is sending out stories over and over, because you believe in them. The other is continuing to write and rewrite. I don’t do the latter, because after the while the stories seem to set. I am no longer able to work them. Instead of moldling wet clay, I am chipping at concrete, and the new changes seem like scars. As far as I can tell, this is pretty rare. Most people can go back.

  6. Eleanor – yes, the dilemma of submitting/resubmitting a story that you’re not reworking is indeed a different time- and ego-management issue. I’m less likely to tell someone to not resubmit (without reworking) because it takes a far smaller toll on your productivity, with a slightly larger chance of success. Although there does come a time when you think “I wrote this story two/three/ten years ago. I can do better, now – do I really want people to see this as “new?”

  7. Interestingly, some of my best-reviewed stories that I’ve sold have been older stories that I wrote ten or more years ago. Sometimes I think it’ s not the fault of the story itself that it doesn’t sell–it’s that the story is not right for the current markets. You need both quality and timing. Sometimes a story just needs to sit in a trunk for a couple of years before it goes back out, let current editorial fads burn out.

    So I keep sending them all out, unless the story is utterly cringeworthy and then it goes into the trunk for digestion. To be honest, I have only one of that ilk (and it was really an over-the-top story that if the right anthology pops up, might work). The rest–well, occasionally I’ll pull them out, look them over, see if something needs tweaking.

    A distressing trend I’ve noticed lately has been a huge emphasis on “get rid of description, put in more action and we might think about buying it” from rejection comments, especially in stories that aren’t particularly descriptive. Essentially, if I get an editorial rejection critique on an unpurchased story that makes me go “huh?!” (often most of them), that’s usually a clue that the story is out of timing sync with the markets (editorial critiques on purchased stories, OTOH, are usually right on the mark. Which means the editor and I are in resonance and it’s working). But the other factor is that things might shift, as well. Some of those older stories are artifacts from when I dropped out of circulating and selling work for a time, so it’s not as if they’ve been seeking markets consistently all along. And while they didn’t work at the time they were written, they do better after a period off the markets.

  8. Oh, and I forgot one thing–I learned my lesson and do not rewrite to editorial critique unless the story’s been bought. Years ago I rewrote a particular story to editorial critique and resubmitted (a requested rewrite, incorporating editorial requests), only to get a rather nasty and impersonal reject. Don’t know what became of that editor and magazine, but he appears to have disappeared (and, for a while, he was putting out some not-so-good writing columns that made me decide, coupled with that last experience, not to submit to him in any form yet again).

    I tore that material out of the story and did rewrite, leaving the requested material out. Story still hasn’t sold but it has come close. However, the particular subgenre that story fits into has taken a different tangent from the direction I took, so it may take time for the market to come around to it again.