Back Burner

Recently, I finished a speculative fiction short I’ve shown to no one yet (except hubby). I haven’t even looked at it myself in almost two weeks. I wrote, finished and set it aside.

On purpose.

I’d heard of this tactic before, but never tried it. Then several short stories were rejected months after I’d submitted and I re-read them only to discover the experts had been right all along.

You have to let a story sit.

It makes sense, really. In cooking, a simmer brings out subtle textures and flavors that take time to develop. Brewing requires time for fermentation to convert sugars in the mix to alcohol. With writing, a bit of distance between first draft and second allows the idea to coalesce and mature. In my case, I came back to my rejected pages with renewed clarity. I found it easier to see themes and identify what needed cutting or keeping, editing or polishing.

Since this is the first time I’ve set an unsubmitted story aside to percolate, it was hard in the beginning. I had to dig my head into something else, so I’m fleshing out other ideas, reviewing my novel manuscript (again), getting ready for vacation with my beloved Bobness and family. When I re-read the simmering short in a couple of weeks, the story should feel fresh. Almost like someone else wrote it. By the time I complete a second draft, I hope it will be ready to submit.

But Drema, you ask, how can you be sure? The truth is, I’m not.

Someone asked me recently when my novel would be finished. I laughed and said, “Never.” It’s a fact. My skill is always (hopefully) growing so that every time I read it, I find parts that can be improved. I could edit it and tweak it and refine it for the rest of my life, but if I ever want to see it in print, I have to take a chance. I must make it shine as best I can, then send it off into the world and cross my fingers.

Of course, that doesn’t mean it’ll be accepted. My skin’s much thicker on the rejection front than it used to be. It’s still tough sometimes, especially since letters with “This isn’t a good fit for us,” or “I don’t think I’d be a good advocate for your work” aren’t very helpful. Of course, it’s a matter of numbers; agencies and publishers receive thousands—tens of thousands—of submissions every year. They can’t possibly offer individualized responses for each one.

Even so, that leaves the writer guessing. Every time, I can’t help but ask myself—is it my manuscript? Did I flesh out my characters enough? Did I lose it on follow-through? Was the story too wordy? Where did I go wrong?

I’m sure it’s normal to think that way, but it’s entirely possible that the story really is a bad fit for the agency (though this is less likely if you did your homework). The problem could even be simple bad timing, something you can’t always anticipate, even if you’re watching the market to see who’s accepting what. Maybe your target agency just signed on with a novel that is similar in scope, or focused on the same readership. Maybe that agent just wasn’t your audience.

On the down side, once you submit a piece to a particular agency or magazine, they ask you not to submit the same piece to them again unless they specifically request it. Since you get only get that one chance, it’s important for your submission to shine as brightly as possible before you hit the “send” button.

So I’m simmering. Rather, my stories are, while I continue to produce. And think. And plot. And scheme.

What about you? Are your back burners full of drafts awaiting fullness?

2 Replies to “Back Burner”

  1. This is very thought-provoking. I haven’t made a practice of writing full drafts then walking away from them, but oh the folders full of research and comments on research and passing thoughts. I have many fine essays filed away in those now-tattered and stained manilla folders, stuffed inside the old brown accordion ones. And in general, in my life, I try always to practice the “walk-away-for-twenty-four-hours” rule before making major decisions. So why haven’t I done that with my writing? You’ve got me thinking, Drema, and the answer–behind Door #1–is that I write in a white heat, can’t stop writing, write until I am finished, edit, edit, edit. And have never even thought about taking that pause you describe. I am currently at the stage of having written a long first chapter of a new novel and am sort of stuck. Perhaps I’m stuck because I’m supposed to be. I think I’ll take your wise example and just take a breath, maybe do a little more research. And let it simmer 🙂

    1. It really helped me, Dean … every time I walked away for a while (never for this intentional purpose) and came back to a story, it was fresher, clearer, easier to refine. Let me know how it works for you!

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