"Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way." — E.L. Doctorow
Changing with the Times
Back when I began my writing career, freelance authors were still often expected to physically mail submissions (including photos, in the case of a travel piece) to an editorial office, and then wait weeks or months for the inevitable polite rejection. Yes, the Internet existed, technically, but the submission process was still slightly more ancient than the new millennium.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, in those days I stored my submissions, and potential submissions, in a manila folder with a skull-and-crossbones drawn on it, labelled ‘EDITORS.’ All writers know the disappointment of rejection and handle it in their own ways. I chose comic expression to help make the rejections less painful.
Over time, I managed to publish many articles, a few stories, several books and so on, but the rate of rejection was always much higher than that of acceptance; had these submissions been infantry divisions in some military campaign, I would have been relieved of my command long ago. But while writers don’t love talking about it, that rate of attrition is entirely normal, just as it is being a part of the long war that most freelancers face.
One might argue that with the evisceration of traditional media and the instant ability to publish online today, that the concept of rejection itself has become redundant, that writers can now just get on with business, find their audience, and deliver their writing as quickly as possible. Well, we can—but does it mean we should?
While I do believe there is certainly something to this—otherwise, I would not have founded my Substack newsletter—I also want to make one simple argument for the old-fashioned ways, one that only hit me recently because of Substack. It concerns my flash fiction story “Street Scene before the Miracle,” which The Storyletter was kind enough to cross-post in April 2023.
A reader comment pointed to the story’s final sentence. And I realized that, even a month before the publication date, that particular line had never existed in precisely the same way as it does in the final version.
Without discussing the story, I’ll just say that last line involves a dream. The precise articulation of not only the language but the concept had just arisen in the final version for Substack; while all of the previous versions I had written, revised, submitted and resubmitted to various literary magazines over the previous six or seven years had included some sense of the dream, none of them had the new ending. Looking back at it now, it was clearly the only way to end the story and I was baffled at how it had evaded me for so many years, when everything else was in place.
This is, I think, the best example from my writing process to showcase and support the argument for slow revisions.
This is not just to speak of technical details, of word-count reductions, of the ‘all writing is rewriting’ sort. It is the argument that sometimes, for reasons unknown, crucial bits of stories are withheld from even their own authors for periods of time ranging from hours to years. I just feel lucky that my little story reassembled itself in the right way for its resolution; the matter of how long it took to do so is completely irrelevant now. But just perhaps, all of that effort over years got me closer to finding the hidden ending.
This sort of thinking encourages me. Writing is a solitary endeavor most of the time and we are better served as writers by finding how changing our outlook can actually improve our writing, when circumstances arise that seem decidedly disadvantageous (as with rejections or non-ideal writing environments). Such cases can simply mean a new opportunity to improve the final story.
Applying this Approach to Future Work
I take heart from this new attitude. And I will certainly need it. As I mentioned to Winston, I have been working for the past 18 months, or so, on a new series of detective stories, my first foray into that genre. It has taken me forever, since I want to do something completely differently than before, which requires a heavy amount of research on what came before.
Over that time, I have seen the contours of not only the individual chapters but the overarching plot that ties the whole thing together, evolve rather merrily. It is like the work has a mind of its own, even though I am (theoretically) the one writing it. For a while I tried to impose authority, but now I am just along for the ride. The characters, too, have changed and developed in ways I never could have expected.
I mention this example because things could have been much different, and not for the better, had I been impatient. I received a contract offer from a physical-book publisher at one point, which I turned down for various reasons. Had I accepted, I would have had a book out by now, but it would have been vastly different to the one that is being written.
So, I have no publisher yet for the series. It will be finished when it’s ready. And I’m just fine with that. Because, as I have come to realize over the decades, the chief joy of writing lies in writing itself, and if it takes a little longer to finish, then so be it.
That, anyway, is my argument for the art of long revisions. It can appear lazy to some…but I’ve never worked better, nor have I felt more intellectually stimulated.
It’s a wonderful time to be writing, and I hope that some of my experience might be interesting, even helpful, or come as consolation to any fellow writers who have faced the same challenges of the craft. Substack is providing a great platform for new creative expression that, had it existed 20 years ago, would have certainly helped me starting out.
I hope that all writers, young and old alike, find something of value in Substack as well, while attuning their intuition to understand that there can be more to the story if they’re willing to wait.