This summer I took a break from the boring admin task of keeping 35+ short stories in circulation by letting them lay fallow after coming back with rejection slips. My tracking spreadsheet turned red over the last three months as I revised my first novel. A few recent short stories that garnered positive feedback from editors were kept in circulation. All the rest I didn’t bother with when they came back.
Although it took me a year to write a 120,000-word, 700-page rough draft manuscript of my first novel, it took another year to figure out how to revise it. The next draft after a three-month break had split the book into two volumes and removed all the material that didn’t work or wasn’t developed enough. And then I got stuck. I spent the remainder of the year on a speculative fiction bender that saw many of my recent short stories being accepted for anthologies. Meanwhile, I kept waiting for my novel manuscript to revise itself (not surprisingly, it didn’t).
What was the problem? The rough draft was crap. Unlike the rough drafts for many of my short stories, it wasn’t even brilliant crap. Just plain old crap that I couldn’t motivate myself to finish revising. The nagging doubt that haunted me was that the manuscript was too long for a first novel, and, even if it was split into two 80,000-word volumes, was still a hard sell for a first time novelist.
The solution to this problem became clearer over the summer: 1) revising a novel is hard work and not for the faint of heart; and, 2) I’ll need to write a shorter novel to increase my chances of finding an agent and/or publisher.
I spent three weeks summarizing each chapter on a notepad and outlining the first volume in Post-It Notes on a poster board to visualize the overview of the story. This is what I should have done a year ago. I started revising each chapter as many times as needed until it was good enough for me to move on to the next chapter, and update the outline—now spread out on four 30″ x 20″ sheets of mouse-colored paper pinned to a wall—with a breakdown of each chapter. I’m averaging two finished pages a day. If I’m lucky, I’ll finish revising the current draft by the end of the year.
Another reason to let short stories lie fallow is that many literary publications affiliated with universities don’t read the slush piles during the summer. If you sent a bunch of submissions at the end of the school year, don’t expect a response until September or October. Waiting for snail mail responses in the dog days of August is a painful exercise in patience when checking the post office box every week.
If you’re dependent on writing to pay the bills, taking the summer off to focus on a big project wouldn’t be wise. If you’re writing only fiction, you’re not making that much money anyway. (I’m lucky to get $20 USD here and there over the last five years.) The long-term payoff for fiction writers is having a successful career as a novelist. As much as I love to write short stories, I had to get serious about revising my novel this summer. If you’re successful enough to make a living from writing, you need a paid vacation anyway.
Now that summer is almost over, it’s time to get those short stories back into circulation. With The Iowa Short Fiction Award accepting submissions until September 30th, I’m reviewing my first collection manuscript as a way to focus my attention on the 32 short stories therein. I should have that done within the next 10 days. I’ll be assembling my second collection from October to December to submit for the 2011 Prairie Schooner Book Prize Series next year, reviewing all 21 speculative short stories that I wrote in the last year. The boring admin task of keeping so many manuscripts in circulation has returned.