I came to publication rather late in my writing career. My first publication didn’t come out until a few months ago. (I’m not counting college literary magazines, college newspapers, or the one time I wrote an article for the New York Sun and they put “NYU” in the headline instead of “Columbia University.” The Sun went out of business a year or so later. I’m also, for these purposes, at least, not counting the numerous pieces I’ve written for the 2 Rules website. Maybe I’ll bring out an essay on that process, but not today.) But anyway, I thought it would be interesting to talk about my first publication and how it came about.
I Dreamed a Short Story
It all started when I dreamed a short story. It’s this one, by the way, published by Spoonie Press in June of 2022. I don’t usually remember my dreams; or, if I do, not in any real detail. Or if I do remember them in detail, the details start to fade by the time I’m sitting upright with my computer and ready to write them down. But this time there was an almost seamless download. I woke up, opened my laptop, opened a word processor, and wrote until the whole dream went from being in my head to being on the page. Then I took a breath. This leg of the process took a little over an hour.
The story is actually a typical dream-trope: a person shows up to a high-anxiety event in improper attire. No, I didn’t show up to school naked or anything like that. I showed up to an unspecified black-tie function wearing shorts and a tee-shirt. That alone wouldn’t make or break the story. Lots of stories start with a generic premise. But I think I did a good job ratcheting up the tension throughout the piece to the point where, by the last line, it became unbearable.
Reading back over the story, I knew I had something. Obviously, I continued to tweak it for a long time after that first draft was on the page, but I never really doubted that I had written a story worth writing, worth reading, and worth sharing. I started sharing it among friends, who read it and offered their thoughts. The responses were overwhelmingly positive. If they hadn’t been? I don’t know. But they were. So anyway, once I had finished tweaking, I did indeed start shopping it around to literary magazines.
One of the first magazines I sent it to (I don’t remember which) had a feature whereby, if you paid them a few dollars at the time of submission, they would give you a detailed response in the event your piece was rejected. Most magazines just send a form-letter. I decided to pay the few dollars as a way to support a magazine that I was hoping would support me in turn. As it happens, the piece did get rejected, and I received the following feedback:
-Too much focus on the main character. Not enough development of the other characters.
-The premise of a person going to a fancy party in shorts and a tee-shirt is unrealistic. Was there no place to change on the way? An airport bathroom? The back seat of the taxi cab? A restroom in the lobby of the building?
-The story feels like a dream.
Sonofabitch. They got me dead to rights. I say I never really doubted I had a good story. But that’s not true. I doubted myself in that moment. It would take a nerve steelier and steadier than mine not to recoil even one iota from criticism like that. Especially given that the editor correctly identified the piece as being inspired by a dream. I started asking myself: what else are they right about? Does this story that I sent out with such confidence need a complete overhaul? Was my confidence in it misplaced?
My Response to my First Rejection
Not Enough Characters
So I took a few weeks to think. I decided that I liked the telescopic focus on one character. Yes, a more expansive story would need more characters. But this wasn’t that kind of story. The claustrophobic focus on the main character gave the story a kind of intensity. If I widened the focus, I would lose that intensity.
Actually, there was an interesting transformation in my response to the criticism I received. When I initially read the criticism, I took it to heart. It’s one thing being told that your story needs some work. A story might be fundamentally sound but still need some work. That’s not devastating. But it’s another thing altogether to be told (or to feel like you’re being told) that something is fundamentally wrong with a piece you poured your heart into. But as I worked on the story and spent more time with it, I came to reject that piece of criticism.
Not every story needs more than one character. As I said, adding other characters would take away from the intensity of the vision into this one person’s life at this one moment. So I decided to keep that aspect of the story intact. We all have that right as authors: to accept or reject criticism. Mind, if you reject the criticism, be prepared to look for a different publisher. Or, if it comes to that, for no publisher at all.
Next. The dreamlike quality of the story. I found I liked that, too. Mind you, I experimented a bit. I even considered writing a continuation that would give some opportunity to develop the other characters a bit. Having other characters would have made the whole piece feel less dream-like. In the end, I decided not to. None of the continuations I was trying were working. Any attempt at serious revision felt like messing with something that was already finished.
Plot Needs Work
But they were right about one thing: if the central plot point was that a guy arrives under-dressed for a party, I needed to sell that plot point a lot better than I was doing. So I rewrote some of the narration and dialogue to make it clear that the main character did not feel he had a choice but to show up to this party, a tee-shirt among tuxes.
My First Publication
Then I sent it out again (crucially, not to the same place that had rejected me, and whose criticism I, in turn, had rejected). And it was accepted.
Postscript: These days one uses Submittable and Duotrope to send works to the right publications. The main difference between the two is that Duotrope costs a few dollars a month and has more features. I’ve used it; I recommend you do, too. But Submittable is also quite useful. The point is: if you’re thinking of trying for publication, drop us a line on our Facebook page and let us know what we can do to help!