It’s official. I’ve decided to trunk one of the first science fiction short stories I’ve written.
This isn’t a story I never finished or abandoned halfway through. This is a story I completed, workshopped, submitted, revised some more, and collected a handful of rejections on. I haven’t exhausted all markets for it, but it’s time to set it aside.
This was a tough decision for me. I’m not one to give up easily. I do think any idea can be salvaged. But that still doesn’t mean something is publishable, or a least publishable in the way I want it to be. Or that the time spent fixing the story isn’t better spent on writing new ones.
My story had an off-putting epistolary structure, a future world never explained only inferred, a main character who had no real character arc. Feedback from readers and editors ranged from “It started too slow” to “It ended too soon.” “It was too experimental” or “too predictable” and so on. Suggestions for improvement were wide-ranging as well, and at least one revision pass I did made the story even worse.
But even when confronted with this evidence, I still spent time tinkering and trying to place the story. Why? Well, maybe it’s because I’m stubborn. Maybe it’s because I’ve read too many times how subjective this business is and maybe, just maybe, the next market will be it. Or maybe it’s because I’m nostalgic, because it was my first and I’m inordinately proud of my effort despite knowing that it isn’t what it needs to be.
If there’s anything that first story has taught me, a neat concept is nothing without proper execution and characters the reader cares about. You need to have the whole package. If you don’t, it’s time to go back to the drawing board or set the story aside.
Having writing a half-dozen stories since then and started a handful more, I can see the improvements in mechanics, storytelling, character development – nearly all aspects needed for a successful short story – that I’ve made in my craft. It’s time to move on.
As Orson Scott Card says in How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy:
[Y]ou should send out, today, the best work you are capable of doing today. Of course you’ll do better a year from now. But a year from now you should be writing the story that you care about and believe in at that time – not reworking this year’s story. […] Because the more you fiddle with your story, rewriting this paragraph or that one, the more likely you are to make it worse. There are things you instinctively do when the story is in its first rush out of your head that are truer and better than anything you’ll come up with as you second-guess, revise, intellectualize. (2001 edition, page 105).
Learning to let go is HARD. As writers we store up everything we experience — emotions, factoids, ideas – and then slowly mete them out as we write. But to purposefully abandon something? It can go against our very nature. The trick is knowing when to set a story aside, and for how long.
In When Do You Trunk a Story? SF author Juliette Wade explores different reasons for trunking a story: no market for it, it isn’t good enough, it isn’t your first priority, and so on. In When do you walk away? And how do you know when to come back?, Wade talks about what happens when a trunked story calls out for your attention despite the passage of time.
I do think time and experience can do wonders, not only in improving your craft, but honing your ability to see how stories work. Or what Martina from Adventures in Children’s Publishing calls identifying “What Isn’t On the Page”:
I wonder if that’s the difference between rewriting that first manuscript twenty times and writing ten new manuscripts? We can stare at the page and edit it until every word is different, but that doesn’t necessarily show us what we’re missing. […] If we’re hitting a wall with a particular story, it may not be because of what’s on the page. It may be what isn’t there. We may not be able to see that without a long cooling off period. […] Sometimes, it’s time to move on, to let ourselves discover a new world populated with compelling characters and untapped possibilities. Maybe we need to consider that a gift we can give ourselves–the gift of moving forward. But before we give up, we owe it to ourselves to sit back, look at the page, and consider what isn’t there.
And I suspect, if you can’t answer that question, it’s time to move on.