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Sorry, Darlings: Depression, Rejection, Revision and Publication

When I was seventeen, my mother and sister were killed in a car accident. I’ve said this, almost word for word, to many people over the years, and saying it has always been more than a statement of events. It’s always been a self-aware explanation (at least in part) of who I am.

But even with the impact (crash terms naturally enter my writing when I think about their deaths), I’ve never written explicitly about the accident (or, to me, THE ACCIDENT). That changed, however, with my story “Sorry, Sis” (which has been published over at Liquid Imagination).

[I break down the story below, so if you’d like to read it without spoilers, now would be a good time.]

Three Stories, One Ending

I wrote “Sorry, Sis” nearly a year ago during a period of depression, which I’ve experienced to greater and lesser degrees for most of my life. I cried a lot while writing the story, and it’s as personal a tale as I’ve written. The mixture of sorrow, dark humor, and self-recrimination is very me.

You might even say those are my calling cards.

I wrote two other stories during this period. At some point I stepped back and recognized that all three ended with a type of suicide, and I thought (1) ending every story with a suicide would make me a bit of a one-trick pony and (2) I probably needed to stop “winging” my depression and address it seriously.

I did address it, and I developed what I believe are helpful tools for moving forward. I find myself in a good place, with many wonderful people in my life. Still, I’ve been living in my skin for forty-six years, and I know a lot about myself, and I know depression can descend at any moment, without warning.

Those tools are going to come in handy.

Kill Your Darlings

Most writers have been advised to “kill their darlings,” which, essentially, means that you should edit out writing that is too self-indulgent or is more important to you than to the story itself. As I went through the process of getting “Sorry, Sis” published, I had to take heed of this advice—no easy thing given the emotions invested in the story.

When I wrote “Sorry, Sis” I employed what I thought was an interesting structure, one that I believed made sense for the story and also kept the reader off-balance.

I was thinking of the story being published online. Knowing that an online audience can click away from your story at any moment, I thought that I could maintain that audience’s interest by giving readers a number of different looks.

That was my hope, anyway.

But hopes, like too many of us, oft die early deaths.

In my first drafts, the story employed a three-part structure in which the first part, describing a childhood incident, was told in the third person. The second part, in which the main character reveals that he is being haunted by his dead sister, was told in the first person past tense, while the third part, which brings the story to its conclusion, was told in the first person present.

I also employed lists in the story, and I was, quite frankly, in love with the structure. This is brilliant! I can’t wait for the raves to pour in!

It turns out that reality is less kind than a writer’s initial impression of his own work.  

Rejection Can Be a Good Thing

Six submittals. Six rejections.

Your stories are going to get rejected for all kinds of reasons. That’s part of the process, and it doesn’t necessarily mean you have to revise your story with each rejection.

But it does provide you with an opportunity to revisit your work and to take a hard look at what’s working and what’s not.

I’d already made some substantial revisions even before sending it out. In the earliest version, the character had lost both his mother and sister to a car accident. While that was true in my life, it was too much for the story to bear.

So my mother was expelled from the tale.

Sorry, Mom.

The more substantial structural revisions came after comments from one of the editors who rejected the work. (While having your story accepted for publication is the ultimate goal, receiving helpful comments is a pretty damn good thing too.)

The editor’s critique made me realize something I already knew: the first person voice was, by far, the strongest part of the story.

So I also jettisoned the opening third person passage, and the story was immediately stronger for it.

A common criticism of fledgling (and not-so-fledgling) writers is that they don’t know where to begin their stories. An editor might look at a story and determine that the real beginning is actually three pages in.

That was certainly the case here.

When you’ve put your heart into your work, it isn’t easy to step back, approach it again, tear it apart, and reassemble it. But that’s art, and you have to be merciless.

Kill your darlings.

All’s Well That Ends Well

So the story was published, and in the introduction to the issue editor Edwin Riddell called it “a creepy cracker if ever there was one, with some great writing, searing truth, and insight into little-explored aspects of the duality of our motives and actions.”

Kind words.

Words that made me proud and made me happy I wasn’t too proud to heed a professional’s advice and kill my story for the sake of my story.

I hope my mother and sister would have been proud as well.

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But If It’s a Good Enough Story, No One’s Going to Care About a Few Typos, Right?

You’ve just put the finishing touches on your masterpiece and cannot wait to share it with the world. Readers are going to shower you with positive reviews. You just have to get your story out there. There’s no reason to wait another second, right?

It’s easier than ever to self-publish your work, and we’re farther and farther from the days when the vanity press was viewed with near-universal disdain.

When done right, self-publishing can be profitable—even, dare we say, respectable. Just look at the growing number of authors who have made it going the self-publishing route (E.L. James and Hugh Howey are two well-known examples).

The tools available to self-publishers also make it possible to create beautiful books with relative ease—books with your name on them! How can you resist?

The temptation is almost too much for any writer, one of whose ultimate goals is, of course, to send a written work out into the world. But the ease with which writers can now publish their works can be a trap.

Remember, once you send something into the world, you can’t pull it back, and that first impression can turn off a reader for life. Sure, you can reload a cleaner version, but by then a significant amount of damage may already be done to your reputation.

The Delusion

If you think self-publishing is a good fit for your goals, then there’s every reason to pursue it. But it’s a cruel world out there, and you should make every effort to give your work its best chance for survival.

When we want something badly enough, we are extremely adept at picturing our desired outcome, often turning a blind eye to harder realities. And this can lead to rushing out a work before you’ve helped it achieve its best form.

Think about how fragile your feelings are in regard to something you’ve written, and then think about what lurks online. Have you been on the internet lately? Can’t you hear readers sharpening their knives? Do you really want to let an audience, emboldened by anonymity, take potshots at one of your darlings?

It’s not uncommon for hopeful writers to say to themselves, “But if it’s a good enough story, no one’s going to care about a few typos, right?”

The truth is that the only people who don’t care about typos are the imaginary readers you create for your work.

Again, have you been on the internet lately? Have you seen how people savage each other over minor grammatical gaffes in comment sections? Comment sections!

Eliminate Stumbling Blocks

Some of the best writing advice you’ll ever hear is simply this: Don’t ever give your readers a reason to stop reading.

Dense paragraphs at the beginning of a work might convince your readers that your story is simply too difficult to wade through. For this reason many writers suggest always throwing in dialogue on the first page.

Packing too much information, too much world-building, into the beginning of your story can also give your readers a reason to stop reading, so a better approach might be to let your audience acclimate a little more slowly to your world.

And whether you’d like to believe it or not, misspellings and grammatical errors are a huge reason to stop reading. Your audience will question your professionalism, and if readers have paid for your work, even if it’s only a few dollars, even is it’s only 99 cents, they are going to feel ripped off.

Writers owe their readers, at a minimum, crisp, clear copy that contains none of the stumbling blocks a professional edit could have eliminated.

Before sending your darling out into the world, ensure it’s edited properly, which means another set of eyes. The world’s best editors realize that no one can successfully edit his or her own work. Writers are simply too familiar with their text. So do the right thing and treat your darling to a good edit. You—and your story—deserve it.

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