Trunk or Submit

Writers are a neurotic bunch, and like many I have a trunk where I lock my most embarrassing failures lest they break free and expose me for a fraud. On top of that chest of despair rest the manuscripts that aren’t quite so bad. Some of them, in fact, are kind of decent but they’re still inferior to what I write now, and so they languished in uncertainty.

I had something of a breakthrough recently. I’ve drafted forty flash and short stories over the past four years and had nothing in submission. Seven stories were simply trunked and five stories had sold, leaving twenty-eight stories in need of revision or submission.

The more we write, the better we get. Distance, experience, and reading a lot of slush has improved my ability to judge whether a story belongs in the trunk or if it has some potential. Weeding through my inventory, I had a few stories that were perfectly fine stories as they were but I hadn’t been submitting. Therein lies the bone of contention.

I’ve seen the argument made that submitting older stories may color an editor’s opinion of your current work. If it’s not representative of your current writing then don’t submit. I understand the sentiment. I’ve felt it myself before. I’ve had stories written years ago receive personal rejections, only to receive form rejections from the same market on newer pieces and that stung. I wondered if I was doing something wrong or if my writing had gotten worse.

I wish I could remember the exact moment of revelation. What I realized — internalized — was that editors are rejecting the work, not the author. I was prejecting myself and by doing so I was suffocating stories that I loved. My prose is more evolved, my storytelling far improved, but some of these were perfectly fine stories that deserved an opportunity to be read.

Take it or leave it, that’s my argument. Even though a story may not be as good as it could be if you were to rewrite it right now, it still deserves a chance to live and breath on it’s own. The trick, of course, is in identifying if a story is broken but fixable or hopelessly beyond repair. Trunk as necessary, but revise and submit the rest. Give your efforts a chance to be rewarded. Then move on to the next story.

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  • There is also the problem of being one’s own judge. One of my most loathed stories was thoroughly appreciated by Sheila Williams at Asimov’s (though still rejected). Ever since then, I have in every instance attempted to submit without prejudice toward my own work. If it’s rejected, so what?

  • Wendy Wagner, Inkpunk

    How did I miss this post? Great advice, Adam! I have stories in my trunk that I will occasionally pull out and polish. One I thought I’d trunk but changed my mind about (due to Morgan Dempsey’s good intervention) just turned into my 2nd pro sale!

    As Mr. John Joseph Adams says: Please don’t pre-reject your stories. That’s my job as an editor.

    Thanks!

  • Jake

    My guide has always been Henry James. Early in his career he wrote The American, which is wonderful and innocent novel, full of a kind of simplicity missing from his more complex later work. Toward the end of his life, James couldn’t stand seeing The American in its existing form as being part of his collected works. It was just TOO different in style (and we can presume quality in his point-of-view) from his later work. So he re-wrote it. And the new The American works great. It’s a fantastic novel, too. But it’s a different novel. It’s not THE The American that so many have read and loved. So I’ve always told myself that there is such a thing as writing that works as fiction and is representative of your life at the time, even if you hate it later.

    I also agree with Ben that it is difficult to be a judge of one’s own work. When I was columnist in LA for the music industry, it almost became a joke with myself that the columns I spat out at the last minute and hated would be the ones that generated the appreciative “you get it!” emails.