It took me a long time to understand just how much time goes into crafting an effective piece of fiction. That’s a bit ironic, I suppose, since I already knew that a good story takes a long time to write.
I’m not necessarily talking about time spent at the keyboard, but time for the work to become fully realized, with brilliant language, deep characters, theme, and the best possible resolution. This is often time spent away from the story, letting it swirl around in your subconscious, where new possibilities can develop.
Many successful writers admit to having “worked” on their stories for months or even years before they considered them finished. For example, in emailing with Jose Araguz, whose flash fiction “Spiderman Hitches a Ride” appeared in issue 5 in 2015, I learned that he wrote the first draft in 2006, and had been revising since then. One of the first stories that knocked me out when I first started writing fiction was Leslie Pietrzyk’s “Just Another Abortion Story,” which appeared in Gettysburg Review. I was so impressed by it that I emailed her cold to tell her, and asked how long she’d been working on it. She was nice enough to reply. Two years, she said. At the time, that knocked me out too. I was used to spending a couple of weeks on a first draft, a revision or two for maybe another two weeks, and then sending the story out.
In time I learned some patience, although it’s still a battle to keep from sending work out before it’s done. But I’ve developed something of a process to keep my urge to send work too quickly in check. You too can avoid premature submission, simply by following a few simple steps. Here’s how it works, based on the process I follow:
- The first drafts. Everything you write in the first draft or two sounds fantastic. The idea is original, the characters are interesting and deep, and the setting is perfectly described. The plot flows nicely up to the climax and resolution, which occur to you like divine inspiration. You’ve outdone yourself this time. What self-respecting literary journal could possibly reject this masterwork? But you know from experience that you need to slow down, and you force yourself to put the story away for a couple of weeks.
- When you come back to it, you are so sure it’s a winner that you open it eagerly. Just a few more tweaks to ensure everything is clear and there are no typos, and you can start sending it out… But as soon as you start to read, you begin to wonder about your sanity. This? This is your best work? The language is flat, the characters shallow, and the imagery is completely off. You start to go through and revise, but you can barely bring yourself to work on such a mess. It’s just too depressing. You call yourself a writer?
- Put the story away for a couple of months this time; maybe six or more if you have a good memory. The object is to forget what you’ve written (as much as possible) and be able to look at it with a fresh and relatively unbiased perspective.
- Now, when you open the file, you can view the story much as a reader or editor would. This time the story engages you right from the start. The language is powerful; the scenes are working. It wasn’t as bad as you remembered. But because you have some perspective now, you can see where it’s not communicating. You see the theme underlying the narrative, but you understand that readers may not. You see the holes in the logic, the gaps between what you intended and what the story actually says. And that is where the real work of writing begins. You understand now that you can’t rush the story to completion, and you’re willing to do the work necessary. As Gordon Lish once said, “Don’t do the best you can do, do the best that can be done.” This point, by the way, is when you should be workshopping the piece, not after step 1.
But how to keep your hands off that story while you wait for it to ferment? The key, to me, is to simply have a lot of stories in work; then you won’t be so tempted to rush any particular one. Keep a list of story ideas and add to it whenever possible. For each one, write a page or so of notes or prose to kickstart it. After you’ve finished a draft of one story, choose another from your list and see where you can take it. This will help keep your mind off the previous one. Have enough of them and you can delay the next draft of each story long enough so that you’re looking at it fresh when you finally get back to it.
Before you know it, your problems with premature submission will be cured—and it won’t take a little blue pill to do it.