25 November 2019

Recycling


by Steve Liskow

One of the first short stories I wrote fifteen years ago featured Maxwell and Lowe, the Detroit homicide detectives who played supporting roles in the still unsold "Woody" Guthrie series. They investigated the death of a wealthy banker who died from what appeared to be a self-inflicted gunshot. I called the story "Walking After Midnight," a Patsy Cline song. Several markets rejected it and I kept writing more stories because I was teaching myself to write short stories by...wait for it...writing short stories.

I sent out many other stories that got rejected, too, but eventually I sold enough to become an active member of MWA. In 2010, MWA called for submissions on a theme that "Walking" seemed to fit. I expanded it to make the theme more explicit and changed the title. It still didn't sell, so I cut some of that new thematic detail, changed the title again, and kept sending it out. The shot of my spreadsheet tells the story.

By the time the story sold, I had sold seven or eight other ones and was working on my sixth self-published novel. As "Dead Man's Hand," all that remained was the original premise, a blind man who still has a pistol permit and appears to shoot himself to death. I replaced Max and Lowe with different cops, and the POV shifted from the police to the son of the dead man, who didn't even exist in the first version.

Four other stories I sold in that period also changed titles. Two of them changed almost everything else, too. "Stranglehold," which won the Black Orchid Novella Award in 2009 as a 16,000-word novella, earned seven rejections as a 6700-word short story.

As I write this, eight of my 25 sold stories exist in at least two very different drafts. Sometimes I've cut them, but I usually change the characters or plot to make them better. My premise has only changed in one story, and that story still hasn't sold.

Last week, "Two Good Hands" appeared in Tough, and that story is unique. I added about 100 words after the first rejection because I decided the ending was too abrupt, but the other eleven rejections came with no other changes. I have a story knocking on doors now that is the only story I've never altered even though I'm running out of markets for it. That should tell me something, shouldn't it?

Where do all these versions live? I have a flash drive with a folder called "Stories, Unsold," and it has 34 drafts of 21 stories. They date back to 2004, and some of them are pretty awful, but I never throw anything away. One story exists in four different versions under two different titles.

That same flash drive has notes and outlines and early versions of several unsold novels. Blood On The Tracks earned 112 rejections between late 2003 and 2011. It went out as Death Sound Blues, Killing Me Softly (With His Song), The Cheater, and Alma Murder. The titles alone show how much it evolved. The first version was set in 1991, at Guthrie's 25th high school reunion. All that remains of that version is Megan Traine's name (Guthrie is the PI's fourth name, and he was a journalist in the first take) and the dead singer. That singer even went away in The Cheater and Alma Murder, which teetered dangerously close to Lifetime TV. I resurrected (?) the dead singer when I self-published the book in 2013.

My point is pretty simple. Never throw away ANYTHING. Someday, you will be able to  use the description of an intriguing place, a good line of dialogue, or a character you abandoned years ago. You will recognize that fact because now you've learned to write better and use stuff more effectively.

That flash drive still contains a gunfight I wrote in 2004 for a Woody Guthrie story that was never going to work. It also involved Blue Song Riley's boyfriend, and he never got to first base either. I recycled the idea and the mindset of that gunfight into Words of Love, the fifth Guthrie novel, which came out last week, too. (Last week was a good week.)

Postcards of the Hanging, published in 2014, had 44 rejections under that title, its fourth. I wrote  the first draft of my first novel in the early 1970s. Between then and 1982, it went out under three different titles with increasingly complex characters and subplots. Along the way, I learned how to write a bad novel more quickly and fix it later. The third version became my sixth-year project at Wesleyan in 1980, and that version is about 95% of what eventually saw print. I changed from chronological order to  flashbacks to make the book open with more energy. I also added about 12 pages of prologue and epilogue so agents understood that the book was NOT really a YA novel even though the main characters were in high school.

Six unsold novels. 34 drafts of 21 stories.

And people still ask me, "Where do you get your ideas?"

8 comments:

O'Neil De Noux said...

Good advice. I've expanded stories, cut, retooled. It's not like sculpturing from marble. You don't have to throw words away, just save them in a doc file.

R.T. Lawton said...

Steve, like you, I have several versions of some stories in my computer. If I happen to sell one of those versions, but didn't change the title, I then often have trouble figuring out which version I sold. And, you are very correct: Never throw anything away. I've had several rejects resurrected to see print and a paycheck as a different version.

Steve Liskow said...

R.T., it took me awhile to figure out how to solve the "current" and "sold" problem, but now I use different colors. If you look at the picture of my spreadsheet, a GREEN story means it sold in that version with that word count. Stories that I have sent out and are waiting for a response are in RED, and markets I have not yet sent a story to are BLUE.

I also love excel because I can sort by any column and see what word count sells best, which markets I've sent stuff too, or even by date of submission or response. Helpful.

Don Coffin said...

Not to try to ingratiate myself, but I (finally) caught up with some things and now have 4 more books to read...
Before You Accuse Me
Postcards of the Hanging
Words of Love
Back Door Man

One of the good things about retirement is that I now have more time to read.

Lawrence Maddox said...

Great advice Steve! Love the spreadsheets.

Steve Liskow said...

Dan Coffin,
I hope you enjoy them and tell millions of friends to buy them as Christmas gifts ;-))).
My cat needs his prescription meds. He and I both thank you.

Seriously, I love excel.
Even more seriously, as I get older, I don't remember ideas unless I jot them down promptly.
Once they'rd down there, I can tinker with them forever like a cat with a ball of yarn.

Experience shows that this is pretty much what I do, too...

Deborah Elliott-Upton said...

I keep everything and have used bits and pieces for other stories. It’s like finding buried treasure in a time capsule you’d forgotten. Great blog!

Eve Fisher said...

I keep everything, too. And I, too, have different versions - I usually subfile by word count or the reason for change. And I have a separate flashdrive with simply everything I've ever written (that I've transferred to digital) on it.