Storyville: The Journey
You’ve found your voice, you’ve written a few queries, so now what? What happens next? What kind of expectations should you have? What I’d like to do is walk you through one of my stories, the process of writing, editing, and submitting it. This should give you an idea of what you may have to go through in order to get a story published. Or, you could get lucky, and maybe the first market you send it to will snatch your brilliance right up. But that’s not how it usually happens.
I don’t write a lot of horror, but I definitely dabble in the horrific. I’m not afraid of writing dark stories, so when Jack Ketchum signed up to teach a class at The Cult, I decided to take the class. I had visions of studying under the master, and then maybe, talking to his agent about picking up my second novel, Disintegration. Well, I did talk to her, but that whole angle didn’t work out as planned (still shopping it, unfortunately).
In November of 2010, the class started. I was thrilled to get to talk to Jack (or Dallas, if you’re in the know) and see how he had been able to write such dark, violent, and powerful material. The first assignment was to write something about fear, so I penned a tale about road rage and how violence can follow you back home, and that bit of noir was entitled “Seeing Red.” It was published at Crime Factory. The second week we were asked to write about a larger idea, a concern or social issue that was important to us. I thought about my family, and what it might be like to get divorced. I ended up writing a bit of magical realism entitled “Tinkering With the Moon,” and it eventually ended up at Gargoyle Magazine. Week three we were asked to write about an intimate conversation between a man and a women, which ended up being a strangely formatted story about how a serial killer is born, called “Ten Steps,” which was published at ChiZine (Chiaroscuro). The final week got me “Rudy Jenkins Buries His Fears.” This was probably the darkest of the four stories I wrote. I couldn’t figure out why, in the three previous weeks, that I had written lighter stories—not the dark, rip the fetus from the belly of the woman stories that Ketchum was known for writing. But this story got me there. The assignment was to write about pain. After the three previous weeks, I thought about the most heinous and nasty storyline I could think of, what really pushed my buttons—what kind of story would be difficult for me to write? Child abuse is what I settled on, molestation even, but in the form of something different, maybe, the monster at the end of the bed, the thing that would come into a young boy’s bedroom at night, and betray his trust and destroy his love. How could I empower poor Rudy, set him free, so the ending wasn’t a singular note of violence unleashed upon the vulnerable? Well, he had to reveal his monster, get his revenge, and make sure it never happened again, right?
So I posted up the story and I got my feedback. Overall it was good, my fellow readers enjoyed the story. But it’s inevitable that you’ll get different opinions. How do you know what advice to follow? One person thought the religious references were too much. Another didn’t understand a phrase or how Rudy came to glean certain knowledge. I went back and looked at my story, and felt that my choices were still solid, so I didn’t make many changes. I also waited to see what Dallas had to say. When in doubt, go with the most talented, and experienced voice in the room, yeah? He helped me clean up a few sentences, including a passage where the boy has his eyes closed, and yet, still seems to be able to see the shadows on the wall. I used the word “tiny” several times, and he helped me to see that those words didn’t really mean anything and in this context, were probably not correct anyway. So I replaced “tiny” with “trembling” in one place, in reference to his hands, and with “translucent”, to describe his frayed underpants, in another. I know, not pretty, but sometimes you have to sit in the dark in order to appreciate the light. I wasn’t doing this to give power to the rapist, but to give power to the boy. When I was done with this bit of flash fiction, I started to send it out. 900 words of brutal darkness, set in a little boy’s room, and then buried in the lawn out back. Where to send it?
I started with the obvious dark choices, places like GUD, Shimmer, Shock Totem, and Shroud, places that are open to horror. It only took three days for GUD to kick it to the curb, a bit longer with Shimmer, six days, Shroud at seven, and Shock Totem at twenty-six. Then I moved on to some lesser markets (in my opinion), places like One Buck Horror, Dark Horizons, and Strange Horizons. They all passed. Then some top markets opened back up, places like Weird Tales, Fantasy and Science Fiction, Fantasy Magazine, Apex, and Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show. The rejections were anywhere from four days to eighty-nine days. And I learned a valuable lesson. OSCIGMS only publishes what they call PG or PG-13 stories. No overt sex or violence. OOPS. Screwed up on that one, but at least I knew what they wanted now. At this point, I started to send it out to a wider audience, edgy lit magazines that I thought might somehow be open to this story, places like Hobart, Juked, Keyhole, Caketrain, Redivider, Cream City Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Camera Obscura, Black Clock, Dark Sky, and The Collagist. The rejections kept pouring in, and I started to lose faith in this story. I was grasping at straws. 133 days, 169 days, 182 days, and still no love for Rudy—what to do next?
Sometimes you need to regroup, revisit your work, really dig deep and see if you might need to kill the story that you love. I went back and read it again. I still loved it. I didn’t want to change a single word. I posted it up in my private workshop, called Write Club, where I knew I would get great advice from some close friends and talented authors. They’d give me the truth, the real story, and let me know if I was just full of myself, or if this story was actually any good. They told me it was solid work, they were impressed with the way that the sentences breathed, it had a tenderness and deeper meaning, and the ending was empowering. As much as my ego was stroked, I was back to where I was before, loving a story that nobody else wanted, forced to start over, and send it out again, dig deeper, and find the right market. I held on to the kind words of my workshop peers—Eddy, Michael, Bob, Pela, Nik, Mlaz, and Chris. It went out to twenty more places. And then Cemetery Dance had a competition.
So I found out that Cemetery Dance was running a contest, and I decided to throw Rudy into the fray. It was a wild competition, so many fantastic stories, over 100 in total, divided into eleven different groups. Only the WINNER of each section would move on. The voting started. Rudy jumped out to an early lead, and then faded. The politics of an open competition heated up and votes were bandied about, and Rudy faded back and then surged forward. Every time a post went up at Twitter or on Facebook or somebody’s blog, the votes would pour in, and things would change. In the end, Rudy won his group and moved on to the final ten. Only the top three stories would make it into the chapbook that Cemetery Dance would put out, alongside some great names in horror, like Brian Keene, Douglas Clegg, and Ray Garton. Rudy again jumped out to an early lead, this time, only the 111 authors able to vote, and sadly, only half of the authors actually did. Rudy ended up in fifth place, and didn’t make it into the chapbook. I was back to square one again—depressed, angry, and so close to making it that I didn’t know whether to vomit or start crying.
What do you do at this point? I still had rejections coming in, a daily kick in the nuts. Every time I got an email, I thought, “This is it, he’ll get accepted here.” But no, it didn’t get accepted. I started lowering my standards, over six months now shopping this story, and I was slowly going insane. And this is one of the biggest mistakes you can make. Don’t ever lower your standards. Hold on to that story, wait for the right moment, something will come up, somebody will be a perfect fit for it. I heard that Dark Moon Books was putting out an anthology of horrific stories, and they were looking for flash fiction. In fact, they sent me an e-mail, no doubt seeing me someplace, maybe that Cemetery Dance contest, or the story I had in Shivers VI (“Stillness”) with Stephen King and Peter Straub. So I sent them off my story. I’d never heard of them before, so I went to their website to look up the anthology. Slices of Flesh is what it was called. I wasn’t sure--was it too gory? Were these guys hacks? No, they weren’t. There was a list of authors that were already IN the collection. Names I knew: Jeremy C. Shipp, Gary Braunbeck, Ramsey Campbell, Tim Lebbon, and…Jack Ketchum. Ironic. I wrote this story for Jack in an intensive that he taught, spent the next seven months shopping it around, only to come back full circle to a collection that he was in. Now I wanted in. Bad. The collection was going to be released at the World Horror Convention. It could possibly get nominated for a Bram Stoker award. And the proceeds would go to charity. When I finally got the response from the editor, what did it say? They loved it, thought it would make an excellent addition to the anthology. I was in.
So at this point, I’m thrilled, but I still have to send off withdrawal notices to every single market, every magazine, journal and website. I sent them off at once. It’s what you have to do. Eight withdrawals later and I this time I was really done. It turned out that I didn’t have that many submissions left. One submission was at Borderlands 6, an anthology that I really wanted to get into, one of the best anthologies out there. But by sending them the withdrawal as soon as I heard that Rudy was accepted, they told me they’d still like to see something from me—so I sent them another story, one that could still get in. That’s how these things happen.
I show you this journey of my story “Rudy Jenkins Buries His Fears” for a number of reasons. I want you to understand that we all struggle to get our work out there. Sure, I’ve sent off a story and had it snatched up in a few days. But that’s the exception rather than the rule. I want you to understand that you have to believe in a story, and if you do, fight for it, and never give up—persevere. Understand that sometimes you may need to look at a story again, make changes, and show it to more people. And other times, you have to hold fast and believe in your work, no matter how many people pass on it and make you feel like a failure. Read your words, find that sentence that sings, and hold onto it, and believe in your craft. And then make something happen.
“Rudy Jenkins Buries His Fears”
Number of days before acceptance: 212
After all of that drama, how about a few humorous contemporary stories?
A neo-classic story to read: George Saunders “Puppy,” originally published in The New Yorker and later collected in Best American Short Stories 2008 (Mariner Books).
A contemporary story to read: Amelia Gray’s “Go For It and Raise Hell,” originally published online at Knee-Jerk.
TO SEND A QUESTION TO RICHARD, drop him a line at Richard@litreactor.com. Who knows, it could be his next column.
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