Rejected Stories

When to Rewrite Them, When to Retire Them

Copyright 1996, 1998 by Leigh Kimmel

For permission to quote or reprint, contact Leigh Kimmel

This article originally appeared in Science Fiction & Fantasy Workshop Newsletter # 179, August 1996.

You've written the very best story you can, then sent it around for critiques and polished it some more afterward. So you put it in the mail and start working on another story while you wait. A few days or weeks later it comes back, rejected. Maybe it's just a form reject, or it might have a few notes jotted on the rejection to the effect of "try us with your next." But it doesn't offer any suggestions for improving the story or invite you to rewrite and resubmit. So you persevere and send it to the next market on your list, only to get a similar response there as well. Not to be daunted, you send it out again and go back to working on another story. After a while you have a nice stack of rejection slips and you begin to wonder if it's worth it to keep on sending that particular story out again, or if you're just throwing good money after bad and ought to either do another rewrite on it or retire the story entirely.

Various people, most of them major names in the field, have given different answers to that question. One said to keep sending a story out until it placed and not to rewrite except to an editorial request. Another has said that one should review a story every time it comes back and make changes if it no longer represents one's best work. Yet another has said that one should only send a given story out until the cost of postage has exceeded the money one could hope to get from selling it and then give up on that story. All of these answers cannot possibly be right at the same time.

Actually there is no one single answer that will fit all writers. Some of the above advice no longer represents present market realities. At one time editors would regularly work with beginning writers to develop their stories into marketable products, but in the present highly competitive market no editor has time spend on improving stories that are anything more than just a smidgen shy of publishable. And unless they specifically request to see a rewrite, they generally don't want to see a story back until it has been rewritten so heavily that it is in essence a new and different story. Thus writers are left to their own devices to get up to that level of publishability where an editor is willing to work with them on fixing what problems may remain in their stories and must use their own judgement as to when and how much to rewrite.

And there is no single answer to fit everyone on how long one should keep sending out a given story before rewriting it or even giving up on it (the specific piece, not writing entirely). The answer depends on what one is trying to accomplish by writing and what sort of writer one is. If a writer is primarily interested in getting stories in print anywhere and isn't worried about mounting postage costs versus payments, it may make perfect sense to work all the way down the list to the markets that pay only token payments or copies in order to find someone who will print a given story. But if one is trying to make a serious business out of one's writing, it may well not make sense to keep sending out a given piece after a certain number of mailings, or to even have it considered at the smaller magazines at all. In that case it may be just as well to put a story back in one's files after it has made its rounds at the major markets.

Also writers need to consider how they go about writing. For some people, writing is like cutting a diamond. Marketable ideas come rarely enough that they are to be cherished, carefully developed and polished before they are even sent out to a market. Every word is carefully weighed and considered, since the writer can't afford to waste an idea on a hastily- written story that won't sell. For such a writer it may well make perfect sense to carefully review and revise a story every time it is rejected in order to make sure that only the best possible product goes to each editor's desk. By contrast other writers find that the flow of ideas vastly outstrips the amount of time they have to develop and polish them into marketable stories. Everything suggests a possible story, until they have to pick and choose the best ones to even plot and write so that they don't wind up with a notebook full of story-beginnings and no completed stories on editors' desks. For such a writer it may actually be easier to write a new story with one's current ability than to rewrite an older one. If a particular story is still meaningful after it has been rejected at every possible market, such a writer may actually find it easier to just outline the main ideas and write the story afresh without reference to the original piece of prose.

By considering your own aims and style of writing, you can come to a decision on when to pull rejected stories for revision or retirement that is appropriate to you.

Copyright 1996, 1998 by Leigh Kimmel

For permission to quote or reprint, contact Leigh Kimmel

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