Rejection Response V: Revise

Another rejection. Also, like the last one, a mass response to the hundreds that didn’t make the tiny sliver of slots open.

But I’ll admit I wasn’t confident when I submitted it in the first place, since it had already been rejected multiple times from various places, usually for ‘fit’ reasons.

‘Its not scary enough,’ one editor of a horror anthology wrote in her rejection email.

‘Cancer’s scary,’ I muttered to myself sulkily as I typed out a Victorian-level polite thank-you-for-your-time note.

The story had potential, but just seemed to be lacking… something. So, even before this email came in, when I saw Grub Street offering a class on revision, I signed up with all speed, ready to revise.

To revise your own work, you must approach the task with humility. You must pick up your current draft, take a deep breath, and in order to make the next, more polished draft, say to you self: ‘these words might not be good.’ Approach the process as humbly as a penitent medieval sinner shuffling on her knees to the holy shrine, to beg a saint’s blessing, expecting nothing, offering up everything.

And at the same time, you have to have the confidence to say: ‘but it is worth the work to try and make it better.’

A true revision means to question everything: every description, every bit of dialogue, every plot point (and – as Mark Twain will tell you – every adverb).

Pin down all the pieces of your story and then interrogate each and every one as mercilessly as if they are a prime murder suspect sitting across from you in an interrogation room and you are a hard boiled detective who’s been on the job for decades.

You and the story are NOT on the same side at this moment in the process. Do NOTHING in the way of protection or shielding. Turn the thermostat up, flick on the blinding lights, throw out any rule book on civility, and then brutality ask all the parts of your story: do you serve a point to the overall message?

Because, that is the important question to ask your draft as you revise: ‘What are you trying to say here?’ Does that message come across or is it muddled by a meandering plot line? Muffled by too many descriptors? Left naked in the cold for lack of setting development?

Do your words make the story true?

When I took the story to the revision class, a class tailored specifically for taking a complete draft of a short story and seeing, over the course of seven intense hours, what could be done to make it better, the instructor asked me how many times it had been rejected.

Oh, who counts after six? I replied with faux non-nonchalantness. She laughed and said sometimes a good story can be rejected dozens of times. Sometimes its just in the wrong hands – or sometimes, it needs a little tweaking.

And how we tweaked! And twisted, and pulled, and tugged, and squeezed, and pushed, and peered, and prodded.

The instructor and the other students helped me really rummage around the guts of the story and then flat out told me what was and wasn’t working. The diagnosis was the main character was too closed off to the reader. Sure, she could be gruff and terse and cold to other characters – but we the reader had to be given a reason to care about her.

Show us the heart! the instructor told me.

I drew a little heart on the upper right corner of first page of my now well-marked up draft, my own heart beating faster at the implications of that. Because I knew immediately to show the main character’s heart meant I was going to have put my own heart into this as well.

I had to put vulnerability into the story. I had to pour into the story the feeling of risking loss by showing you care. I had to show what my character gave a damn about – and more importantly, what she gave a damn about so much that to lose it would break her heart. I had to show what she really wanted, and why it was so important to her that she is willing to risk her life.

I had already put her life on the line in this story – now I just had to add her heart to the stakes.

So, with little details – cups of tea, a birthday present from a beloved parent, an unperformed ballet performance, restrictions, rejections, never ending nights of research – I did my best to paint in a heart beating with love and hate and passion and determination and a drive to be the best.

So… here’s my heart, beating in the chest of a dying woman on Mars. Will anyone want it now?

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