I received a lovely email from a friend congratulating me on a publication. Great news, he wrote, you deserve it.
I deserved being published? Why? What had I done to deserve it?
‘Deserve’ suggests a moral issue. Was I published because I’d been good and kind and stories written by good, kind people should be published?
Students used to tell me they deserved an ‘A’ for their project because they worked all night on it, or because they gave up a party to work on it. So I deserved to be published because I’d spent hours creating and writing and re-writing my story? Because I’d had more than a few nights tossing and turning, wracking my brain over it?
‘Deserve’ suggests there are rules: do (x) and (y) will happen. Don’t do it and it won’t. Cause and effect. “She’ll get what she deserves.”
Writing a story, it’s easy to feel journal editors are the ones who get to decide what (x) is going to be. All one has to do, is sleuth around in past issues of a journal and unlock the secret of (x).
Trouble is, it’s not that simple. Often I read past issues and am no more privy to the editor’s (x) than I was before. Genre definitions are easy but the core secret to what makes an editor say “yes, yes, this is the one” is more elusive. One story in a recent issue of a journal left me feeling flat and frustrated and wondering why it had been selected, while the next one was so brilliant that I not only spent hours thinking about it but went back to it to analyze the structure.
Rather than rely on someone else’s impenetrable (x), I prefer to work to meet my own. For me to feel an author deserves to have a story published, I need to believe that I have:
- found the story behind the original idea – and filled out the nuances of that story
- discovered its true ending
- brought the story fully alive through the language and structure.
For me there is a particular sureness of knowing/feeling when a story is finished, when storyline, images, structure, style all come together. The trouble is, I nearly always have this feeling too soon and submit before the story is fully cooked!
What to do?
- when the story is finished, put it aside for a while. (yes, yes, that one again!) Do you still obsess about it? Is there something about the story – the conclusion, a particular passage, a word – that continues to niggle? A sign you’re not finished.
- have a reader give you feedback, a critique buddy in whom you have the utmost confidence, who is totally direct in giving feedback (the only really useful kind of feedback to receive). Is there a comment that really gets under your skin? That you completely reject at first? Aha! Look closely at that one.
- no-one but the author can decide when it’s time to say a story is finished. I read the story out loud – after a time of not working on the story or thinking about it at all, if possible – as though I am reading it to others. Best yet, I read it to a real public. As I read, I have to remain alert to my own reactions. Where did I stumble, hesitate? Where did I feel something wasn’t quite right? At what points did my mind remain on a word/phrase/idea while my voice read on?
In the final analysis, as I see it, ‘deserve’ doesn’t operate in publishing any more than it does in everyday life. Just because I believe my story deserves to be published, doesn’t mean it is going to be!
Nothing great is created suddenly, any more than a bunch of grapes or a fig. If you tell me that you desire a fig, I answer you that there must be time. Let it first blossom, then bear fruit, then ripen. Epictetus, Greek stoic philosopher (AD 55-135)