A WRITER'S WIT
Nature, that fram'd us of four elements
Warring within our breasts for
Doth teach us all to have aspiring
Born February 6, 1564
History of a Manuscript
In checking through some of these histories, I see that I’ve sent the same story out as many as eighty times before stopping to think. What’s wrong with this manuscript? Is there something about the subject matter that turns editors off? Is it the tone? The point of view? Is it poorly written? It has taken me many years to realize something I always sensed, that the selection process is a very subjective one.
I’ve now reached a point where as many as forty or fifty percent of my rejections are of the “A” variety; that is the type in which editors say they like your work and invite you to submit again. Type “B” consists of what might not be more than a two-by-four-inch shred of paper that contains a generic message, one with absolutely no encouragement to submit again. How is it that fifty percent of these editors think I’m pretty good, but that the others can’t be bothered?
In 2012 I wrote a story that seemed to come to me by divine intervention (it would be good if I believed in such a thing). It seemed to be channeled to me by some force all of a single weekend in the mountains of New Mexico. Then, of course, I polished and polished the story. I submitted it to my local writing group, a network of knowledgeable writers with MFAs and PhDs. Not that I always think they’re correct about their opinions, but I do believe they always help me to see certain things I hadn’t before—and through the eyes of people I would hope to gain as my audience.
So I revised it and began to send it out. Written about a very timely subject, though not really, for I always think the best stories are about human existence, if “about” anything. The topic is merely a way to get at the narrative about life on this earth. I received some rejections very quickly, within the first few weeks. Geez, didn’t you make it past the first paragraph? I wanted to ask. Then a few “A” rejections rolled in. I can’t tell you the number of almost wistful regrets that were handwritten by some of the editors at the bottom of their “submit again” message.
Then the editor of one journal wrote and said he’d overridden the opinion of his collegiate staff and said he like to publish my story. If I would be willing to change the title and reinvent the ending, which he felt was a bit facile, and resubmit it ASAP, he would see that it got a fair rereading for the 2013 edition. I thought about it. But I liked the eponymous title based on the central character’s name. I also didn’t agree with the editor about the ending and wrote him an e-mail declining his offer. What? you might be thinking. In my mind I was thinking that one of the journals listed on this story’s manuscript’s history would surely want to publish it. I just needed to sit tight. But slowly, the remaining thirty journals sent their rejection notices of my timely story, the one that ought to have been on store shelves for almost a year now . . . had the editor accepted the first round of revisions. If, if, if. Always the narrative of a loser.
After a number of months, as my history of a manuscript sheet revealed more and more rejections, I begin to rework the story of my own volition, and, hey, guess what? I decided that my story did deserve a better title. And in working through the manuscript again, I made a subtle change to the ending—the very aspects that particular editor had indicated. By now it was a year after having sent the ms. the first time.
In checking my records for The Beloit Fiction Journal, I realized that in eight years I had submitted six previous titles, none of which has subsequently been published anywhere. And my plump notebook of writers’ guidelines for over 300 journals is full of notations like these. I swallowed and wrote another cover letter to the editor, Chris Fink, at Beloit Fiction Journal, and asked him if he would consider looking at the story again. I’d changed the title, the ending. In addition, I believed I’d fleshed out the story to make it more substantive, of a higher quality. At the end of January, 2014, I received a phone call from Chris, saying, if the story was still available, he’d like to publish it. Eek! (As the Mary Louise Parker character on Weeds once said, “Do people still say ‘Eek’?”)
The Beloit Fiction Journal began publication in 1985, almost thirty years ago, a long period for a print journal to have survived, especially when one considers it is published by the English department of a small liberal arts college in Beloit, Wisconsin. So many journals in similar situations or at even larger institutions have failed since 2008, especially since the advent of the online journal. Work first published by BFJ has been reprinted in award-winning collections like the Norton Anthology of Short Fiction, the Flannery O’Connor, and the Milkweed Fiction Prizes. Fine writers I admire, like Rick Bass, Lan Samantha Chang, Gary Fincke, and Maura Stanton have been published by the BFJ.
So . . . I feel very proud to announce that my story “A Certain Kind of Mischief” will be published in the next edition of the journal, which comes out in March. I’m grateful to Chris Fink, Beloit professor and writer, for having the patience to deal with a bit of authorial ego and publish my story after all. If you read the history of the BFJ at their website, you’ll see that the key may lie with who looks at a story. As Fred Burwell, historian, states, “Best of all, we learned a great deal about writing through winnowing the slush pile. And out of those stacks of paper-clipped manuscripts came our ‘eureka’ moments, the delightfully shivery feeling when we recognized an artist at work, a writer with the gift to move us. That’s when the Beloit Fiction Journal became magic.”
I am happy to become part of that magic, shiver, myself, to think that my story has passed the muster of the journal's editorial process. When the issue comes out, I plan to set up links so that my readers can buy their copies from the journal. For now, I simply wish to share a procedure I go through with each and every short story I attempt to publish. If you’re not into a certain masochism, well, you may not wish to create such a history.
FRIDAY: NEW YORKER FICTION 2014
(I intended to publish some photographs on Tuesday and failed to post. Look for them next week.)