by Dora D’Agostino
I’ve been struggling with writing short stories for a while now. After winning an honorable mention in a contest over a year ago, I was sure I knew the formula. No more rejections for me. Boy was I wrong. I’ve since suffered one rejection after another until I had my Aha! moment – two as a matter of fact. These two moments came courtesy of an editor who was kind enough to comment on why the piece I had submitted was rejected. I have much to thank him for, for if it wasn’t for this rejection, I’d never have had my epiphany.
I wont kid you. That rejection hurt: I had thought the story was perfect. But after brushing myself off (it took a couple of days), I realized hey, I can’t just give up. I’ve heard it said that a writer must be prepared to suffer through more than a couple of rejections before finally getting published, but that editor’s comment made me go back and look at the structure of the story I had submitted for clues to what I was doing wrong. It was then that I had my first Aha! moment. I discovered that I had been concentrating so much on character and setting that I had neglected a particularly crucial element of the story: plot. I realized that all of my rejected submissions were more character sketches than stories. Sure they each had a plot, in my mind at least, but I was not utilizing that plot to show the character, nor was I magnifying the character’s conflicts.
Perhaps now is a good time to digress a moment and tell you a little bit about myself. I don’t have a postgraduate degree in Creative Writing: everything I know about writing short stories I’ve learned on my own. Coupled with this is the fact that I haven’t been to school in over 30 years (I’m what you call a mature writer), so it’s no surprise that I would stumble with some of the technicalities of story writing. A couple of years ago I studied with an established writer who gave me a much needed boost in confidence, but other than that I’ve been what you might call ‘lawless’ when it comes to my writing. With a very ambitious full-time job I haven’t had time to take classes, but I have found a plethora of wonderful websites, such as THRESHOLDS, that have helped to enlighten and educated me about story writing and the state of the short story today.
I’ve always liked short stories, but during the 1980s and 90s something seemed to happen – to them or to me – and I found that I simply couldn’t understand the sort of stories being published anymore. I more or less gave up reading modern short fiction altogether. Every once in a while I’d buy an anthology to test the waters again, but invariably it would wind up on my shelf, largely unread, having nothing between the covers that spoke to me. Contemporary short fiction had become mysterious, and I was baffled.
It seemed to me that the more obscure and convoluted a story was, the more it was lauded and looked upon as being literary. Stories were no longer about plots or events. In fact, in most of the stories I encountered, I could not find a plot if my life depended on it. What conclusion could I make except that I just wasn’t smart enough to understand what the writers were saying?
But to get back to the matter at hand, I suddenly realized that the one story of mine that did pass muster, the story that won an honorable mention, was one which had a definite plot with a beginning, middle and end. Here, then, was my clue – I felt like a regular Sherlock Holmes! At this point, I started to brush up on plotting and found that even in a character-driven story, something has to happen to give the story purpose. I can’t simply have a character ruminating on his or her life – I need to show that they have changed in some way as a result of what they have experienced. This was the lesson of my first Aha! moment: in stories where not much seems to happen in terms of action or events, I must show that the character’s transition is a result of their experience of internal conflict.
The second Aha! moment came a couple of days later when I realized that for some reason my stories tended to start at their ending. That’s right. It seems that, conceptually, my characters originate in my mind at the moment when they are experiencing their epiphany, the most emotionally charged part of their story. The epiphany, however, is not the story. My task, and any writer’s task, is to show the journey the character takes to get to that point. It’s obvious, then, that I need to start working backwards, always mindful that my situations and characters will have to organically funnel into the story, driving it to the end.
Rejection has taught me that a writer must examine his or her own process, carefully. Sometimes, one little well thought-out comment can lead to a life-changing realization – if the writer is open to it. I’ve always thought that the short story writes itself and that the best writers have in some way been blessed by the gods. I’m learning the hard way, though, that this is not the case – there’s a lot of hard work and self-examination that goes into it. How or when I learned this lesson is not important – what is important is that everyday I continue to strive to become a better writer. I will let you know if these lessons translate into more publishable stories. I hope so!