The life of a short story

Okay, I know I haven’t posted in awhile, but with good reason. Even with my busy work schedule this summer (summer is a busy season for educational test development), I’ve found time to work on and submit some short stories. As a result, “Remission” was accepted by WORD CATALYST for their September issue. But not before it was rejected by three other magazines and didn’t even place in the DORIS BETTS FICTION contest.

This weekend, I finished a story that I’d started over a year ago, after my mother-in-law’s death, about how the death of an elderly woman affected several people. I couldn’t bring myself to finish it until now. I also wrote a first draft of another story, which started me thinking about the life of a short story, from conception to publication: all of the steps to a published piece. Every writer has their own process, and what I do may be very different–and probably is–from the process other writers use to draft stories. Heck, I don’t even write the way I used to when I first started writing fiction. Through trial and error and rejection, here is how my writing process has developed.

As I previously posted seeing my first story, “To Live Again,” in print was a most exciting moment. Writing an average of three hours a day, it took me a week to write the first draft of that first story. Now, if I’m inspired, I can write a first draft in just a few hours. Although I was very proud of “To Live Again,” it was not very good and I made the rookie mistake of submitting it the wrong markets. So, it is not surprising that the story was rejected 25 times before it finally found its first home in FULLY BULLY magazine. I had actually submitted it to the ATLANTIC MONTHLY and HARPER magazine, both literary and prestigious. Neither would have accepted a ghost story, especially a badly written one. But I didn’t give up. I wrote and rewrote this story about a woman who learns to take charge of her life through the love of her dog. And I learned some things about writing short stories.

First, you can’t force a first draft. No matter how earnest the message I’m trying to convey, or how it pulls at my heart, I have to let the story sit before I know where it needs to go. First drafts come to me when I’m half asleep at night, in the shower, or driving home from work. An inkling of an idea forms and then when I can get to a computer I write it down. Sometimes a story is born, sometimes the blank monitor screen wants to stay blank. Or there’s nothing but a paragraph or two, not enough meat for a story. Then there are times the story flows. For example, I wrote the first draft of a story Sunday morning after I had a bad dream. I used my dream as the backdrop for a man whose dreams are real. But what I haven’t yet decided is whether he can dream reality into place or if he is only able to observe what is happening. I won’t know until the story percolates in my subconscious for awhile. I can’t force the story to come. Also, I’m not sure if he has a brain injury, seizure disorder or some other specialness that gives him this ability. I’m toying with the idea that he commits the crimes rather than dreaming them. So, when I’ve found the answers, I’ll write the final draft and polish it. Only then will I be ready to look for markets for the story, as yet untitled.

This is how “Remission,” which will be appearing in WORD CATALYST in September, came to life. I wrote the original draft in a frantic rush, three mornings before work. In the story, pediatric hematologist Dr. Angel Carter treats young patients with rare blood disorders while grieving for her own lost child and marriage. “Remission” grew from my own experiences with spherocytosis, a rare blood disease. So, one afternoon, I reworked the story again and e-mailed it to WORD CATALYST. Harry had paved the way by telling the editor about my work. (Harry will be writing a column for WORD CATALYST). Within hours, publisher accepted the piece.

“Good Game” is the story that I’m most proud of. It is about a chess player who is paralyzed and sinking into depression, who is visited by his dead father. Again, I wrote the first draft in my spare time before and after work, and on the weekend. Originally, it was to be a piece about a woman with a personality disorder who suffered from drug dependence. I wanted to trace her parents and grandparent’s contribution to her condition. It was to be titled, “Into the Third and Fourth Generations.” This is completely different from the end result. One afternoon while doing chores around the house, I decided she should be paralyzed. And then I added the chess competitions and finally the story shaped up into a good piece, I think. I decided to change the gender of the main character to a man to reach the readers who play chess, predominately men, as previously posted. So far, the story has been rejected by one magazine, didn’t place in one short story contest, and is now being considered in two other fiction contests. I’m confident it will eventually find a good home.

Now, I’ve given myself the task of submitting my finished stories and getting back to the final edits of my young adult novel and world of espionage that led up to the American Revolution. I’m still struggling with the novel’s title, KATHARINE TAYLOR AND THE MAGIC QUILT.

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