Today I had to very grudgingly admit to myself, and to an editor, that a story I was working on wasn’t.
Working, that is.
So I had to e-mail the very nice editor who’d given me an extension to submit and let him know that I wasn’t going to be able to submit after all. And I hate doing that. Not only was the theme of this anthology and really interesting one–planetary exodus–but I had an idea that was perfect for it and which had been percolating in the back of my mind for some time. And this editor had very kindly made an exception and allowed me to submit this week, and I hate to let down that kindness–because I’ve worked as an editor and I know how much I hate when people ask for special treatment and then don’t follow through.
But when I sat down to actually think about it and write about it nothing was clicking. It was one of those occasions where I had an IDEA but not a STORY, and those are different things. There might indeed be a story in that idea somewhere, and maybe I’ll come back to the idea later, but I’m not at a point where I can see it right now, and the stories I did have that came out of this idea all struck me as really obvious and clichéd.
And the stories I’ve sold, and even those which haven’t sold yet but which I’m most proud of writing, are those ones that have a unique central idea, or at a least a unique take on old themes, and where I’ve felt like I’ve pushed myself and done something new for me. I have nothing against clichés, per se, but when it seems tired and hackneyed even to me…
Now, this was just an extension on submitting for consideration and was by no means a done deal–it wasn’t a sale or a commission, and there was still every chance that the editor would have decided the story didn’t work or didn’t fit his collection and sent it back. But if you don’t even submit the story then there’s zero chance of selling it, right?
But I feel that there has to be a balance: while there’s every chance an editor might not like something you send them, I think the fundamental measure of whether you should send a story out is whether you, as the author, are happy with it. Each story you submit needs to be the absolute best you can muster at that point in your career and with the skills and talents you possess at the time.
It can certainly be the case that a story might still be flawed or just not work even when you get it to what you feel is the best you can do: sometimes you’re just too close to a tale and its telling to be able to look objectively and decided whether it really works. But there’s no point in wasting an editor’s precious time and making myself look like an idiot or (worse!) an amateur by sending along something that even I can see is flat, or clichéd, or just plain crap.
I’m also wondering whether I’m still in a short story frame of mind at all now that I’ve been working and researching this book. I mentioned to Sean Williams at the Writers of the Future week that I was having trouble thinking of novel-length stories, while at the same time my short stories were getting longer and longer. But having taken a year to get into a ‘novel’ frame of mind, start doing research, thinking of a novel-length idea, multiple interweaving storylines…Well, I don’t know if I can down shift into short stories, which are as hard as writing and researching novels but which are at the same time much more like writing poetry: all about scale and economy, a limited number of characters, focused on a single compact moment (or series of moments).
I think I’m too comfortable with the relative sprawl of a novel, now.
Anyway, just thinking out loud. Back to reading a biography of Mark Twain for that book I’m writing…