Adam's picture
Adam from Denver is reading books... October 10, 2011 - 2:16pm

...when a story is finished? After recieving a rejection, how do you know whether to revise your work or simply to submit to a different venue?

Alex Kane's picture
Alex Kane from west-central Illinois is reading Dark Orbit October 11, 2011 - 10:49am

Ideally, you would get some feedback on the story from trusted alpha readers and/or fellow workshop members while the story is off to its first market. Rejections don't mean squat; they simply tell you that this particular editor cannot make use of this particular story at this particular time, this particular magazine, etc. That's it.

It's readers who you've come to trust, like veteran workshoppers or a first reader, that can tell you if something's not quite working. What do they have to say about the story?

Editors buy stories, not perfection. Nor flaws, nor snippets of dialogue. They buy a unified whole, with a plot and characterization and a voice; something with a dreamlike dominant image that stuck with them after they gave it once-over.

Nine times out of ten, it's best to just send the story on downstream to the next suitable market. But if you notice a flaw or two -- a real, embarrassing flaw -- then fix it before you send the story on to the next place. Just don't waste unnecessary time on revision, especially with short stories. Always onward, always forward to the next piece. The next market. The next sale.

Revision can be useful, and often necessary, but it doesn't teach you how to write, and it definitely doesn't build your portfolio any.

Charles's picture
Charles from Portland is reading Mongrels by Stephen Graham Jones October 11, 2011 - 11:02am

alex is right, but its finished when you think it's finished first. of course, like i said, i think alex is completely right. so, even when you think it's finished it might not be, and the changes suggested by your alpha readers, or people in workshops like this one, might cause you to totally rewrite the story one, two, or even several times. monica drake worked on clown girl, draft after draft, changing things, adding symbolism, removing it and making it much blunter... etc etc... for almost ten years.

someone like willy vlautin will work a story for sometimes more than a year, before he even lets his wife read it.

it depends on who you are as a writer.

simon morris's picture
simon morris from Originally, Philadelphia, PA; presently Miami Beach, FL is reading This Body of Death, by Elizabeth George October 17, 2011 - 7:00am

With enough rejections, you should know that something is missing. A good review group working with you will help you see some of the issues your story has and you will be in a better position to correct them. Even the best selling authors use a select group of readers in their writing process. It is not possible to self-critique with accuracy. We need neutral opinions to see what readers see.

Submitting repeatedly hoping that someone will see what the others didn't is a waste of time. What you hope for in a rejection is an opinion from the editor telling you why the piece was rejected. That is valuable beyond belief.

The problem with new writers is that they hear the wrong voices when they choose to believe a work in complete. They listen to their friends who know less than they do or to their teachers who are trying to encourage them unless that teacher is also skilled at editing or writing.


Use the critiquing greoups here and listen to what people have to say. Individually, they may not get it right all the time, but collectively, a group will offer you an amazing amount of constructive help.

Dan's picture
Dan from Santa Monica, CA is reading Beautiful You by Chuck Palahniuk October 26, 2011 - 11:50am

My critique process is this:

Submit it to the Lit Raeactor workshop: take notes from feedback & revise

Submit V.2 to the Lit Raeactor workshop: take notes from feedback & revise

Submit V.3 to the Lit Raeactor workshop: take notes from feedback & revise

Submit V.4 to a close group of friends that I consider good writers and editors: take notes from feedback & revise

Submit V.5 to a large group of friends who are willing to read it

The last submission I do is the real judge to know if a story is finished or not. You will find that your closest friends are not always the best readers but someone who you might not know very well will take a strong interest in reading your work. I suggest posting on your Facebook or Twitter and advertise: "I just finished writing a short story but I need feedback. Can anyone help me by reading it?" Also, when you are out and about and people ask, "How have you been?" Use this as a perfect time to say, "I've been working really hard on this short story and I think I finished it." People will usually ask what it's about and then you get great practice on selling your story. Hoepfully, they will ask to read it. If they don't ask, feel free to ask them but don't pressue them into it.

Most people will say, "How long is it?" before they commit and then will be relieved when you tell them, "under 20 pages." The more people who read, the better and go ahead and have actual questions for them to answer at the end of the story so they know what to say. Most people will not know how to properly critique your story or will be scared to offend you. Keep track of the people who said they will read it and save their email for when you're ready to send out your next story. Remove people who never get back to you. And don't be shy to remind people to get back to you but also tell them it's okay if they can't do it. They are doing you a HUGE favor by reading it.

When most people say, "I liked it or I didn't like it" that is when you know you are almost done. What you DON"T want to hear is "I didn't get this part" or "I didn't get it." That means you are using too much subtext or your story is so boring that they skimmed it or didn't even finish it.

When you ask things like, "Did you get this part, or did the ending make sense?" and they respond with, "Yes and I loved it/hated it." That is a good sign. If people don't like your story, that means it's cliche or just not to their taste. And that's ok, you can't please everyone. But the worst thing you can do is bore or confuse your readers.

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This is what I do, and I am sure people will disagree, and I'm open to all ears to hear new suggestions.


And most of all, here's the answer from Chuck Palahniuk himself:


Q: How do you know when a story is finished?


A: I do the same with my books. I take them to my workshop and read them aloud and notice when people laugh or gasp. Then I take their notes and bring it back to the workshop again. Then I might send it to Gerry Howard. I won’t dwell too long on a story as to not work on or create a new one. I will continue to work on a story or book until it comes out. Publication is the death of a story.

Nick Wilczynski's picture
Nick Wilczynski from Greensboro, NC is reading A Dance with Dragons by George R.R. Martin October 26, 2011 - 4:10pm

For a short story it's done when someone publishes it or when I personally murder it. Do Unto Others, Exceptionalism, I still like those stories, but they are dead to me and I have nothing to add to them. Other stories, ohhh, this is a bigger pile, are dead dead dead dead dead because they do not work and I do not think they are worth the effort to get into working condition.

Take, on the other hand, Southern Nights or Legal Technicality, those are stories that I've tried to get published repeatedly, but they aren't done, I've come to that conclusion after several rejection letters, so I put them in the workshop, so that people can show me what I do not see. 

How did I know when my novel was finished? That is a more interesting question. I remember thinking I was done with that story at 20k words. 20,000 words that had very little to do with the present version. I remember thinking that it was done once I got the plot done, but once I got into swapping manuscripts and doing the equivalent of "workshopping" it I started to feel that I didn't really know when it would be done. So I got through the workshopping stage, did more checks for run on sentences, seduced english majors so that they would read over it and help check grammar, that sort of stuff. At this point I had been sending out query letters for a year, and I decided to go with a self publishing route.

Which meant more editing, more english majors, more exchanges before I felt like, yeah, self publishable.

But a self published book is very much still alive, if you go with a self publishing route you will be working on that book until you meet your own  expectations for it. But is a book dead just because the "query letter" stage has transformed into the "Hey, can I get a review on your blog" or the putting up posters to advertise, or trying to look like you aren't spamming forums when plugging it, there is a lot of work left while I try to develop it as a commodity (not that this takes editing the book, but it still requires work), it is a new stage but it is still just more work on the book.