As I have said before, since I was a little girl I have been looking forward to the milestones on the journey of the writing life. This summer I encountered a milestone that I didn’t see coming. Indeed, I didn’t know it was a thing to look for. Maybe you do and that makes you smarter or cooler than me. Personally, I hadn’t heard of this one and so was surprised by it.
And it is the revise-and-resubmit. Not the accepted-and-now-you-have-to-edit. No. The well-we-see-something-in-your-piece-so-we-don’t-exactly-want-to-throw-it-out-but-it-also-has-to-be-different-before-we’ll-say-we’re-going-to-publish-it. Zero commitment on their part, and a glimmer of hope for you. Because, honestly, after flopping about on the shore of my writing career for the last two decades (I was so busy being other things, most of the time) that I was not a little tickled that someone had sent back a response to my very few inquiries (it always seems like I’m sending a lot but then I count) with more than a polite rejection. (Actually, I was even celebrating the polite rejections as a step up from ignoring me under a slush pile of epic proportions (and perhaps a mediocre cover letter). I was told in the past year that you should aspire to 100 rejections per year.)
In case you find yourself in this same surprising situation, then, I wanted to have a little chat about it.
Before we react, what is a revise-and-resubmit? It is the editor of a publication (or maybe even an agent) asking you to make certain revisions to a story and resubmit it. In other words, they’d like to take another look (and perhaps see how good you are at working with a team, being cooperative, and correcting your own mistakes). In most cases, the editor is going to give you a list of things that don’t jive between what you’ve done and what they’re looking for. (This can range from very specific (I don’t like that phrase) to general (the ending is too vague).) It is the editor saying they don’t want to take a hard pass, but they’re also not wanting to go into a contract with you, yet—there are some serious issues to resolve before a happy marriage of piece and publication can happen. There might be some time constraints, there might be some must-haves and options. It’s not the most likely of responses in the fiction world (academic papers are another thing, altogether), but it’s pretty sensical and straight-forward. You can say “No.” You can say, “Sure,” and then they don’t like the changes and say back to you, “No, thank you.” Or you can say “Sure,” and you wind up with a “Sign on the dotted line!” From what I can tell, the chances are about fifty-fifty (assuming you are doing your best to both meet their needs and be true to your art. We’ll talk about that in a sec.)
The first thing to do (as in many situations) is to remain calm. This is a thing. It happens to writers. You are not a freak. You are not being rejected (again). You will live to see another day. Now,
The second thing to do is to take this as a good sign and an opportunity. These are different things, but both of them should be considered and embraced. It IS a good sign: authors (in case you didn’t know) get something like a bazillion rejections during the course of their careers and a revise-and-resubmit is not a rejection which means that someone saw something in your work. They saw potential. They saw something they liked which meant they didn’t want to walk away from it. Woo-hoo! Celebrate. Do a happy dance or just a bunny hop. Which leads us to: it IS an opportunity. As long as this editor or these editors aren’t jerk-holes (and it’s as likely as not that they’re not), you might actually learn something from both them and the process. Here are some of the things you might learn from the revise-and-resubmit process:
- How to work (play) well with others. How to cooperate. How to interact with people, again. And all this while your tender ego is on the line. (Bonus note: If you don’t want to loll about in vast hinterlands of self-doubt, then perhaps the writing field is not the choice for you.)
- The technical side of walking through the submission and publication process, or at least some more experience of it.
- How to choose what is important to you about a story, because you are going to have to do this during this process (unless by some miracle their issues are exactly what you were hoping to change, anyhow. Ha!). They’re going to put their finger on something and you’re going to have to ask things like, “Is this me or is this the story?” “Is this integral to what I was trying to say?” “Does this change the story too much?” “Are we getting stronger or weaker?” Etc.
- To agree with truth. You know? You can feel it like a letting down somewhere in the solar plexus. Ouch, but totally. That correction rings true. I should have killed that darling, myself.
- To disagree with lies. Maybe flash fiction doesn’t need a resolution and I’m willing to die on this hill to make that point. Maybe Jenny doesn’t get the guy. Maybe adverbial clauses are my voice. And now brace for the consequences.
- You should have just revised a million times yourself, first (and with friends). Perhaps this whole almost-embarrassing process didn’t even need to happen. You didn’t actually revise it twice (or once) yourself. The story was all shiny and new and with stars in your eyes you shoved it out there into the world. Well, this was a poor choice and you should learn not to do this.
- To say what you want to say. It is entirely possible that you will find yourself saying “Well, that’s not what I meant,” or “That’s not what I said,” or “It was the size of the tsunami that I was connecting to her father’s personality in that metaphor.” But here’s the rub: if the editor didn’t read it that way, it’s likely you have not clearly communicated what you thought you had. Maybe you had some pretty words. Maybe people even liked them. But if you are in left field and your readers are in right, well, you might want to examine your techniques and detail choices more carefully. Put a few more tools into the ol’ writing toolbelt.
There is more, I’m sure, but this is some of what I found myself learning during this process. Now let’s walk through the process one step at a time. Begin at #1 when the process has been initiated.
- Take a deep breath. Step away. DO NOT DELETE THE EMAIL. DO NOT REPLY WITH FIRE IN YOUR EYES OR TEARS ON YOUR CHEEKS. Just wait, please, until tomorrow at the very least.
- Seek some advice. This blog entry may be enough. Honestly, I couldn’t find a whole lot of advice about this except in the field of scholarly publication and much of this wasn’t applicable. So I took the issue to my writing group, first via email and then in person. Google it, if you want. Give all your writing books a peruse and let me know if you come across something. Call up an old editor friend and ask them. Likely, the advice is going to boil down to my step one with a dash of hopefulness and bolstering.
- Decide if what they have asked you to do is something you can do and if it’s something you want to do. If you submitted there in the first place, then try not to second-guess yourself.
- Respond to them and do it in a professional, courteous, respectful, and positive way. Thank them for the opportunity.
- If they want a deadline or an approximate deadline, choose wisely but don’t spend all year on it. Let them know quickly. I got advice for this that ranged from a week to months for a rewrite on a flash fiction piece. I wanted to communicate to the editors that I was willing and professional but I also didn’t have limitless space and time at the drop of a hat. It was going to take some time to get to it. On top of that, revisions should take time. They should be considered carefully and revisited a few times with some breathing space in between. It’s possible that you might even need a friend to give it a look-see. I went with a little more than a month the first time because that corresponded with some time I would have to myself at a residency.
- Gather the notes that they sent. Read them over carefully. Make notes of your own. Also give it a think.
- Do the revision in a fresh file. Make the tough choices. Yes, kill your darlings, but keep the integrity of the piece. The real deal, I think, is to clarify and tighten. Stay within those original word count (and other) requirements, which they may not remind you of.
- If there are issues that you have not yet resolved, something wheedling at you, a box you didn’t quite check, move that to the front of your mind and do some thinking. Take a drive. Take a shower. Do something creating like painting or scrapbooking or knitting. If you come up with anything brilliant or a breakthrough in that time: write it down!
- Give it some space. You may want a friend to read it or you may want to go for another walk to think or sleep it off or whatever. I would give it a few days, the beginning of which it would still be on my mind.
- Cross all the t’s and dot all the i’s, which you are used to doing as a writer, anyhow. In other words, make sure things are spelled correctly, have proper grammar, are clear and physically presentable (with proper margins, font, etc.). Don’t get all sloppy now that you have a foot in the door: they’ll have no problem slamming it on you if you’re careless, scattered, etc.
- Do at least one more revision and then call it a day. “Calling” art is a tightrope walk, whether a collage or a story. When is it done? Should you keep fixing things? Can you polish until you have nothing left? Have you added one too many layers? Have you removed the chaff? Are you about to run out of time, sanity, or passion?
- Meet the deadline. Seriously. (Then again, still don’t panic, even if it’s a little late. Apologize and move forward. If it’s a lot late, just apologize. On second thought, don’t be a lot late.)
- Resubmit. Thank them again for the opportunity and perhaps share a little about what you learned in the process.
In case you’re wondering, I got a revise-and-resubmit for a flash fiction piece from an online literary journal in August. I tried to meet their laundry list of demands/ideas and then got—surprise!—a second revise-and-resubmit. They said this rarely happens; I sighed and started the process—including the doubting and questioning—over again. After the second time ‘round I was pretty sure it was going to get the final boot but, lo and behold, they sent me a letter of acceptance and even had some really nice things to say about the story AND about my edits (which felt especially nice, to me). The story, “Pinned Up,” should be making a debut in Every Day Fiction in about a month. (Quick turnaround for a daily, internet publication.) Wish me luck and I’ll do you the same.