by Vylar Kaftan
I’m often asked about when to revise rejected stories, and whether I change stories before sending them to another market. Previously I posted the raw data for my story submission history, which was cross-posted to the SFWA blog. Here ’tis, if you want to look. Readers had other questions, so I promised to cover some related topics:
1) How many times do you submit a story?
Until one of the following happens: a) I sell it, b) I trunk it. And by trunk it, I mean consciously decide that I won’t circulate that story anymore (as opposed to indecisively letting it rot in my files). So far, my record is 19 submissions before a sale. As for when to trunk it…
2) When do you trunk a story?
According to my records, there are only two reasons I trunk a story. a) I don’t think it meets my current standards, or b) I run out of suitable markets to send it to.
What’s a suitable market? Any market that I would be proud to appear in which publishes that type of story.
What are my current standards? Well, when I finish a new story, I give it a thorough evaluation. I weigh factors like what I think of the story, what crit group readers said about it, its general salability, and so on. This process is non-creative and purely businesslike. It’s a lot of guesswork too.
I classify my stories (very loosely) on three levels: A, B, and C. A = I think I can sell this. B = maybe, maybe not. C = I’m not even sending this one out. To keep myself honest, I have a (very) approximate ratio of 2/3 A, 1/3 B, and the occasional C. Why such a biased ratio? Because the way I work, most of the stories which would be C’s never get finished. Many of the B’s don’t either, because I notice the problems while still drafting. You should see how many abandoned fragments I have in my files…
If I decide a story is an A, then I don’t care how many rejections it gets–it keeps circulating until I run out of markets. (I never decide which is my best “A” story; they’re all part of Team Kaftan once they make the cut.) If I decide a story is a B, then I still circulate it… but after a few rejections and several months have passed, I’ll take another look and ask myself, “Is this story worth it?” And that depends. Sometimes I think, “Yes, it’s better than I remembered.” Other times I think, “This one really isn’t that great.” And so I re-rank it A or C, and proceed accordingly. Sometimes I’ll keep it in B status for another six months.
You could say that my B ranking is like probation. If I’m unsure about a story, I put it on probation, and take another look 6 months later before I either lock it up, set it free, or possibly keep it on probation.
3) What’s your submission strategy?
Same as all the pro advice I’ve ever heard: start with the top-tier markets and work your way down, with some exceptions made for themed anthologies and other “perfect fit” situations. Sometimes this means that a story circulates through the big markets before I notice a problem, and then I fix it just in time to hit the lower-tier markets. Annoying, but that’s the way it goes. Leading to the last point, which is…
4) Do you revise rejected stories before sending them out again?
Now this is the most interesting and the stickiest question here. Because on one hand, you can make a lot of improvements to the story if it circulates for a few years, which can happen (as I demonstrated in my last post). After all, you should be a better writer a few years later. But, on the other hand… you can waste a LOT of time revising stories that aren’t worth your time. Your earlier stories are probably weaker than your newer ones. As some say, you can’t polish a turd (but I prefer to say “you can’t build a skyscraper on a sand pit,” meaning that your older stories probably are built on shaky groundwork). The amount of time it would take to bring an old story up to your current standards is usually better spent writing a new story.
I’m going to repeat that, because I see so many new writers get hung up on this. The amount of time needed to fix an old story is usually better spent writing a new story. It’s actually less work to build something new on a strong, fresh foundation than it is to retrofit a shaky old story that isn’t really working. (This is NOT the same thing as me telling you not to revise. I’m saying: draft it, revise it, then circulate it–but once you’ve started it circulating, don’t waste your time revising it.)
So back to the question: do I revise between submissions? The answer is mostly “no.” But there’s a few exceptions to my rule. I definitely look at stories again after they’ve been circulating for six months, if for no other reason to assess whether I still think the story is strong. I permit myself one (ONE!) passthrough on a prose level, to tighten sentences and catch bad phrasing that I originally missed. This process usually removes a few hundred words. I put an unofficial time limit on this revision: seven days or so. If I haven’t done the revisions within seven days, I put it back in circulation. Why? Because if you let it sit in your files, it tends to stay in your files. For a very long time. Not getting revised–and worse, not circulating.
Every once in a while I change a few sentences on the ending. (I don’t know why it’s always the ending, but it is.) I still make myself send it back out within a week. And I never revise “between every submission” or something insane like that. If I did, I’d never get stories sent out.
With all rules, there are exceptions, and I suppose someday there will be the story that I pull from circulation and completely revamp. If my intuition told me to do this, then I would. (Just don’t confuse intuition with laziness or fear.)
If I find myself stressing about whether my stories are good enough, and shouldn’t I revise them more so they sell, and maybe if I revise them they will sell… you know what? 100% of the time, that indicates I should be writing new stories. Because you can’t really assess whether your older work is any good unless you’re writing new stuff. You’ll be too biased and want the older stuff to work so you don’t have to write anything new. If you only have one story circulating, there’s no way you’re going to make smart decisions about what to do with it. By generating new material, you give yourself the freedom to be honest about your older work.
In short, this whole post boils down to The Rule, which has only a few exceptions as detailed above: Write new stories, polish them, and then circulate them until they sell. That’s how you get stories published.
Hopefully this is helpful for someone. Ask if you have questions.
Vylar Kaftan has published about three dozen stories. A 2010 Nebula nominee, she blogs at www.vylarkaftan.net and as vylar_kaftan on Livejournal. She founded FOGcon, a literary-themed sf/f con in the San Francisco Bay Area. She has stories forthcoming in Lightspeed and Realms of Fantasy.