The Art of Not Wasting Your Time, but Also Not Wasting a Story
I’m sure that there are writers out there with oodles of time to waste by not directing their emotional, mental, and physical energy on what will help them progress as a writer and, you know, have actual short stories/novels on that market. But how do you determine the best way to spend your resources?
To begin, this is going to look a little different for everyone (which I say 50x a day as a mom and a Pilates instructor). But to be more specific…
I think just about every writer has heard of Heinlein’s 5 Rules for Writers. If you haven’t, or need a refresher, here they are:
- You must write.
- You must finish what you write.
- You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order.
- You must put the work on the market.
- You must keep the work on the market until it is sold.
Overall, great advice!
I absolutely agree that writers need to write AND finish what they start. I also strongly believe in putting your work on the market, and keeping it on the market until it’s sold. I have more than a few friends that send a story to five markets and stop there, assuming their work isn’t as good as they thought it was, then they trunk it.
“????” is usually my first thought. But. Obviously that’s their choice, and I’ve trunked a few stories after developing as a writer and human being, and becoming uncomfortable with what some might read as racist, ableist, etc. Actually, that recently happened with one of the earliest stories I sold. I was considering sending it out as a reprint, and reread it, and… cringed.
Did I intend for it to read offensively? Of course not. But because readers read the story in front of them, not the intent you MEANT them to get, you still gotta be your own gatekeeper. So that story had its time, and now it’s sitting in my Retired category on The Submission Grinder. So yes, sometimes you wrote a story, learn from it, and hide it. Forever.
You’ll notice I didn’t totally agree with Heinlein’s third rule, right? The one about not rewriting ever? Is this is the most controversial rule?
And here’s why.
Remember what I said at the beginning about not wanting to waste your resources? Heinlein gave that advice because too many writers tinker and tinker with their stories like they’re Geppetto, hoping that just one more edit will bring their story to life like a literary Pinocchio.
The problem is, you can only grow as a writer so fast. And sometimes it doesn’t matter how fast you think you’re developing, sometimes your brain just needs time away from the story.
I have an example of another story. This one I wrote back in 2012, only a month or two after I wrote the trunked story I mentioned earlier.
That’s right, it’s been nine, almost ten years since I wrote that story. Guys, I’ve submitted it 40 times. FORTY. It’s almost, but never quite, sold. This story has earned a semi-finalist at one contest, nine personal rejections, and a rewrite request that I just couldn’t fulfill because though the editor’s advice was sound, my brain could never wrap around how to change what the story REALLY needed to change.
Trying to force it to take perfect shape when my brain wasn’t ready was going to be a waste of my resources. Honestly, it was like sourdough that I wasn’t sure would rise any higher, but would probably still be a tasty loaf. And so I continued to send it out, knowing that I had done my level best with that story.
Until last week.
Last week, I was submitting my stories, when my brain FINALLY figured out what the story needed to be truly complete. And so, more than 9 years later, in about an hour or two, I ended up revising two scenes, adding about 500 words to the story. It’s nothing like the direction the editor who had requested a rewrite thought my story should go, probably, but I’m happy with the story. It finally feels complete.
And you know what? It wasn’t a waste of my time to go back and rewrite those scenes, and it wasn’t a waste to my story that I sent it out so many times. I’m happy that I did what I did. It was good to grow as a writer by fixing those scenes, I have an even better story than I did before, and there’s STILL great pro-markets to send it to, believe it or not.
The funny thing about last week is that I also found and read THREE other short stories that have always been pretty great stories, but seemed to be lacking something, and have a pretty good idea of what those fixes might be. But I’m not working on those yet, and you know why?
Because they’re not fully formed in my head yet, and I’m going to get more out of my time working on my current novel.
So ultimately, do your best with your stories. Take them as far as you can, and send them out when you’ve done so. But don’t be afraid to admit when you’ve grown. Tinkering with a story when you’re ready CAN be a great use of your resources, and a great way to see your growth as a writer.