The writing business is tough. Every writer that’s submitted a story has a rejection or thirty to prove it. At the beginning, it seems like it won’t be so bad. The editor just doesn’t get the story, so you send it back out. You know a good story when you see it, yours is just fine, and the name on the check is Baldwin, B-A-L–. And then those rejections start to pile up.
That’s the harsh truth of this business. You’ll be rejected far more than you’ll be accepted. It’s a painful lesson, but from it, I’ve discovered something very interesting:
There’s more to be learned from failure than from success.
Every published story succeeds in more ways than it fails. We read because we love getting lost in the fictive dream, but that very dream, that spell that good fiction weaves around the ol’ gray matter, it lies. It fills us with adventure or romance or wonder and obscures the craft it takes to evoke those emotions. Writing is magic. It’s not just the art of mind control, it’s mind control at a distance, both physical and temporal. That kind of magic takes skill.
If you’re starting out as a writer, it’s hard to see why another story works. It’s even harder to see the ways your own stories are failing. What you can see, however, are the failures in other stories. We’ve all read books that were disappointing. We’ve all read stories that made us stop and thank, “Someone published this?”
It takes hours to write a short story. Weeks or months or years to write a novel. And inevitably our early stories are flawed. It’s supposed to take 10,000 hours of dedicated work to become a master of a given skill. Notice the key words there. Not the hours. Not the mastery. The dedicated work. Those hours spent blindly consuming; those hours spent repeating the same mistakes? They aren’t helping you.
Around a year and a half ago a fellow writer convinced me to read slush for Flash Fiction Online. I say to you now, fellow ink slinger, that I learned more in the first six months of reading for FFO than I did in the previous decade.
Every writing teacher and every writing book talk about avoiding clichés. How do you learn what the clichés are? You see what’s overdone. There are other red flags they tell you to avoid. Dialog without personality. Prose without attitude. Sure, you can read that you should have personality and attitude in your writing, but how do you know what that means? You see the failures. Dozens or hundreds, far more than you’d see if you wrote them yourself. And you learn from them.
In addition to the straight up failures, slush also provides an opportunity to see the stories that almost work. The ones that could be amazing with a little more work. I’ve found that often a story will bother me, but I can’t put my finger on why. The comments from the other readers often help me see the flaws. And as time has gone by, as I’ve invested more and more into this fickle mistress of words on the page, my ability to diagnose failure has grown.
So I suggest to you, tale spinner, that you go forth and read some bad fiction. Find the things that don’t work and ruthlessly cull them from your own writing. Find the things that do work and marvel at the craft behind them. And after a year a half, you’re pretty much guaranteed a sale.
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