I love my writers’ group unreservedly. Even so, I’d have to be not just overinfatuated but also blind, deaf and stupid not to notice one very bad habit we have collectively: resubmitting warmed-over contents of our respective trunks.
Every now and then, it makes sense to resubmit. Say, for instance, you just started on a novel, you gave the rest of us the first chapter or two to critique, we had a lot of negative notes on it, and you went back to the drawing board. You now have a different POV, new revelations about your protag, you’ve taken out five pages of data dump that can wait until the fourth chapter to get into — essentially, you have a new sub. Or maybe you gave us a short story to read, we tore into it pretty bad but you still like it yourself, and it sat on a corner of your desk for a year or two. But, checking Ralan.com, you find that there’s a new market or contest that the story might play in thematically. So you rework it and submit it again to make sure that it’s polished enough for the editor to see.
So this is acceptable on occasion, but what makes resubmitting a bad habit is that it distracts you from writing new work. This is one of the few bad habits I myself haven’t exhibited as a writer. I may procrastinate, overuse exposition and resist cutting anything out of a manuscript, but I do (eventually) get something new out the door every month. This past month was the exception.
I’m at a pivotal point in Mighty Mighty. I have this penultimate battle scene which I need to write, but it just hasn’t flowed. So I wrote some scenes that take place afterwards, a few lines of dialog I want to keep track of and insert later in the book, and quite a bit of the backstory that, Watchmen-like, parallels and informs the main plot. But to submit this stuff out of chronological order would confuse my readers, so I was at a loss. I was going to simply not submit this month, just offer crits to everyone else.
But then I heard from the good people at Capclave that I was accepted as a program participant. They assigned me a reading slot and asked me what other programming I’d like to be assigned to. So I put a bid on, among other panels, the centerpiece of the entire convention: a workshop facilitated by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer. Capclave said yes, but I had to submit a story of a certain length, and my best work tends to run longer than 5,000 words. And, they told me, I had already missed the deadline so I’d have to give them something that day. So I looked through my folder of old stories and dusted one off that envisioned Hell as the cubicle farm of an outsourcing company that, when they “offshored” your job, sent it to the far shore of the River Styx.
I reached back about five years for that one. After giving it a little makeover, I sent it in to Capclave and also submitted to my crit group.
I don’t know what the VanderMeers are going to think of it, but my partners threw up all over it. When you’re told your 5,000-word story “runs too long,” then you know you’ve got problems. There were the usual comments about overusing my real-world experience in the corporate world (which I dismiss because these readers aren’t a representative sample — people who read sci-fi as opposed to write it are more likely to have worked in the office of a big company and thus understand these references) and about the non-sympathetic protag (that’s not a flaw, it’s my trademark, damn it!). Even so, there were more telling comments about plot predictability, not starting the story substantively until five pages in, and a lack of physical description of people and places. Just on a visceral level, nobody who read this story over the past week liked it at all.
And I couldn’t be happier.
It means that, since I first wrote this story, I’ve gotten a lot better. I must have heard a lot of these comments five years ago — who could remember? — and taken them to heart because nobody has told me these things about my work lately. I still have a lot of work to do before I can claim to be hitting my stride as a writer, but apparently the work I’ve done so far has shown results.
Fortunately, there’s been enough turnover in the group that I don’t think anyone (maybe just one, if that) had to sit through this clunker twice.
Now all I have to do is figure out how to explain to the VanderMeers why I’m wasting their time.