What I Learned From Publishing My First Short Story
I recently had a short story published in New Ohio Review: it’s about a mermaid mother, her half-mermaid daughters, an arctic voyage, family struggle, and it’s now up online and you can read it here!
It’s strange to look back on the whole process, from its first conception to its multiple acceptances and Honorable Mention in Ploughshare’s Emerging Writers Contest. The whole process has been exhilarating, wonderful, eye-opening, and also a little scary. Ultimately, I remember how much I doubted this story. I wondered if it was too “genre” for literary fiction; if adults would want to read about mermaids; if it was too long; too flowery; if it succeeded in being something serious despite the fantastical premise. It’s gone through more drafts than any other piece of writing I’ve ever written, and I’ve been working on it for years (on and off) so there is something momentous about this, like I’m finally letting go of something that (maybe in part?) wanted to be more than a short story.
Here are some things I’ve learned over the course of this story’s growth:
1. Trust the ideas you’re most interested in. A lot of my ideas have a similar quality to the ones in this story, yet for some reason, I remained fascinated with possibilities for this undersea world. I had pages of description of plankton cycles and hydrothermal vents that were cut ultimately, but they were part of my fascination about this story that never faded. I loved finding out more, inventing more, and that obsession with the nuts and bolts of this world kept this story feeling alive for me even after years of
2. Get more on paper than you’ll ever use. This ties in to the above point: Because I had far more material for this story than ever made it to print, I felt like I knew the world and the characters deeply, and this made revision and figuring out eventual plot arcs so much easier. (Plus having a lot of great imagery and details to choose from makes it surer that the strongest parts will eventually end up in the story.)
3. Trust your own “cringe” instinct. This one is HUGE. It’s often hard to know what truly makes you cringe until you’re forced to reveal your story to others. For me, it was a reading wherein I was revealing this story for the first time, and I was suddenly struck by all the phrases, extra similes, superfluous adjectives that made me cringe. I reworked the story quite a few times and was as merciless as possible towards those cringe-worthy moments.
4. Give it space/Gain perspective. One of the best things that happened for this story was the fact that it lay dormant for almost two years. When I returned to it, I saw it with fresh eyes that helped me revise and rewrite with added wisdom. I’m not saying it came out flawless, yet much of what wasn’t working, the parts I’d really struggled with, suddenly became more apparent and the solutions were more apparent too. The goal, I think, is to try to gain this kind of perspective by taking breaks that aren’t quite so long as two years!
5. Find readers who believe in the story. A few of the things that kept me working on this story (instead of abandoning it, which could have easily happened) were the people who attested to its worth. From very early drafts, my advisor Jeff Allen at The New School told me it could be a great story (though needed more work.) Julia Fierro at Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop encouraged me to revise and seek publication. Grub Street mentor Cam Terwilliger gave me brilliant revision advice as well as positive encouragement. But probably the biggest boost of moral support came from my partner Eric, who continually talked to me about the meaning he saw in the story, how it was more than a fantasy but spoke universal truth about immigrant families, how it reminded him of his experience growing up with an immigrant father, how needed it was in the world. I didn’t share the story with those close to me whom I felt wouldn’t understand it or wouldn’t care. I needed to give it all the love I could to get it off the ground and into the world.
6. Don’t feel rushed to publish. Let the story grow into what it truly wants to be. In the beginning (as I’m finding for myself) it may take longer for something to be ready to send out. Yet ultimately, you’ll be much prouder of the result. Publication is not an end in itself. After the thing is out there in the world, you want people to love it, enjoy it, think and talk about it!
7. When sending it out to journals, aim high. Okay, so I love the diversity that exists among literary journals. I love that there are journals for every type of literature, every style, every reader. But the fact that there are so many is definitely a confusing thing when it comes time to send your story out. What I’ve learned from this whole process (a year of sending this story out to countless journals) is to AIM FOR YOUR TOP CHOICES FIRST. I received more acceptances than I thought I would, and it put me in some awkward situations. I realized I didn’t want this story that I had higher hopes for to be locked away in some obscure anthologies that I’d never heard of, though the resulting withdrawal of the story felt like a taboo in the publishing world. (One place even chided me and said “You’re supposed to go with the first acceptance!”) So, in retrospect, I’m never going to assume rejection from my first choice journals, but will always send my best work to them first.
8. Embrace your editor’s insights. Working with a brilliant editor at New Ohio Review was a new experience for me. It amazed me that I was emailing back and forth with someone, discussing nothing else but my own fictional world! He had things he loved about it too, things that bothered him, things that he thought could be better. Some of his suggestions and ideas drastically improved the story, and I’m glad I was able to be open to what he saw in it, since it ultimately improved the story immensely.
9. Stick up for what you don’t want changed. On the flip side, don’t let your story be edited into oblivion by someone who’s trying to make it what it’s not. There is a fine line here, though I think the thing to always keep in mind is “What is the story trying to be?” Does the editor also want the story to be what it wants to be, or is he/she trying to make it something else?
10. Write more bad first drafts! Back to the drawing board, and what better way to give yourself permission to explore all the ideas you find most interesting than by writing BAD first drafts? Because they will be, and that’s okay. They should be big, messy, unorganized, filled with bad writing and lots of ideas. If I had set out to write a safe and organized mermaid story, I know I never would have succeeded in maintaining my own interest in it. Keep it messy at first! Learn to be okay with messy, and let the story guide you! It somehow has a way of knowing what it wants to be.
(I recently created an author website, so if you’ve read this far and want to find me online outside of medium, visit me at www.joybaglio.com.)