21 November 2020

The Same Old Story

How many of you have unfinished or unpublished stories (or novels) stashed away in a drawer or under the bed, or in a folder someplace on your hard drive? Most of us do, if we've been writing fiction for a while. Oddly enough, very few of mine are unfinished--when I think of an idea for a short story I usually go ahead and churn it out–but I certainly have plenty that are unpublished and unsubmitted. Alas, typing THE END doesn't always mean it's ready for prime time.

old manuscript

Most of those abandoned stories are those I wrote many years ago, when I was just getting started. Occasionally I dust them off and look them over, and sometimes I go back in and do a complete rewrite, until that story is what I consider to be submittable and battleworthy. I've done that several times, and so far I've always managed to sell them afterward.

One of those rewrites was on a never-submitted story called "Molly's Plan," written in the early '90s about a New Orleans bank robbery. A few years ago I rediscovered it, changed it in about a dozen ways but kept the same title, and sent it to Strand Magazine. They bought it, and it later wound up in Best American Mystery Stories, was reprinted in Russia's leading literary magazine, was selected for New York City's Subway Library project, etc. All this after sitting idle for more than twenty years as a stack of dot-matrix-printed pages in a box in the corner of my home office. A similar thing happened with another long-ago story originally called "Footprints," about a college student involved in a cheating operation. I rewrote the whole thing, retitled it "Calculus 1," which was the name of one of my first college courses, and sold it to the print edition of The Saturday Evening Post. That story will soon appear again in a bilingual collection of my SEP stories by a Moscow publishing house. Just call me Ivan.

My point here is that some of those early and forgotten manuscripts of mine had some promise and have been worth revisiting, but in their original state none of them were very good. Which was why I never sent them anyplace. Some things about them that were okay from the beginning, I thought, were in areas I've always been pretty comfortable with: premise, dialogue, hooks, endings, structure, etc. Most everything else about them was terrible.

What was it that made these stories so bad? Here are some of the things I found:

  • Too much repetition. Not just of words or phrases but of ideas and thoughts and plot elements. I probably wanted so badly to make everything clear to the reader, I kept saying the same things too often, in different ways.
  • Too many cliches. At the time I don't think I even realized they were cliches.
  • Too many pet words and phrases. My characters were way too fond of sighing, shrugging, turning, staring, nodding, taking deep breaths, etc. This probably belongs under "repetition," and some of it still shows up in my current creations.
  • Too much description. It took me a while to learn there's no need to describe in excruciating detail things like settings, items, or the way people look or dress. Unless it reveals something vital about either the plot or the character, writers should leave most of that to the reader's imagination.
  • Too much exposition. This is just as dangerous and tedious as the overuse of description– I just didn't know it at the time. Overwriting of any kind is bad, and especially when it involves technical details, which I also happily added to the stew now and then. I guess I figured it'd be a shame to waste all that stuff I had to listen to in engineering school.
  • Too many semicolons. All of them were grammatically correct, but I used them far too often. As I've said before at this blog, semicolons can make your writing appear stiff and formal even though that might not be your intention. I still use too many, but I'm cutting back. (Same goes for parentheses, ellipses . . . dashes--and especially exclamation points!)
  • Overuse of dialect. At first I thought anything that makes dialogue sound more "real" is a good thing. The truth is, using too many slang expressions and misspellings is not only lazy writing, it's annoying to the reader. You know what I mean.
  • POV problems. I found that I often made dumb decisions about viewpoint. I didn't know when to use only one, when to switch, how best to use third-person to heighten suspense, how much head-hopping is too much, and so forth. Basic things that I learned later, mostly by paying more attention when I read.

I'm not saying that's everything that was wrong with my early efforts, but those points come first to mind. I still have several stories (several dozen, actually) sitting out there that are unchanged and unsubmitted and gathering dust. On the one hand, I might take another swing at 'em, one of these days. On the other, I might treat them as training exercises and let them rest in peace.

Do you have some of these underachieving stories lying around in your office, or on your computer? Do you ever try to resurrect them? If so, were they later submitted, and published? Do you look back at some of your early published work and see problems there as well? Do you ever update those published stories a bit when you market them as reprints? What are some of the ways you feel you've improved, in your writing?

Before you ask me, No, not everything I publish is old. I've written 32 new stories so far this year, and I typed this column on Wednesday. Whether it's really finished is another matter--but I'm done with it.

Thanks for indulging me, and best to all of you. Keep turning out that good fiction!


  1. Thanks for this encouraging blog-post, John. It's great to see how you can turn an old, archived story into a success. Being aware of your own weak spots as a writer, is important to bring your stories to a higher level and develop as an author. You gave some excellent insights, that I recognize from own experience. Yeah, I put stories aside, too. Reading them months or even years later helped me discovering their weaknesses and remedy them.

  2. I've stayed away from trying to comment on SleuthSayers because the site won't accept my comments, probably because I use the Safari browser. I'll try again right now. I liked this, John. I too have dusted off a few old stories I never got around to submitting and fixed them up, sold them, even turned a couple into novels. Mine go back to handwritten and typed (long before dot matrix prints). I have one idea in front of me now, handwritten notes on a story I will write soon. At the back of my ideas files in my filing cabinet are several folders of ideas and stories I started in high school and college. I never run out of ideas.

  3. Hi Anne -- "Archived" is a nice way to describe some of those old stories of mine, some of which SHOULD be forgotten. And yes, examining them does make me see my weak spots! Glad to hear that you too have left some of your older stories to stew in their juices. I guess the time and effort we put into those isn't really wasted--and especially if we can sometimes give them a facelift and send them out into the world.

    O'Neil, I too am having a lot of trouble with Safari when I use it to comment on the blog, and even when preparing the posts. I downloaded Firefox the other day and will see if that helps a bit. As for revisiting and recycling your stories, it's wonderful that you've occasionally been able to turn them into novels. And yes, some of mine too are written in longhand, way before computers--but I only began submitting them about the time computers were becoming universally available, in the early- to mid-90s. With regard to ideas, I think you and I have both been blessed (is that really the word?) with a lot of those--maybe too many!

    Thanks for the early-morning comments!

  4. I have indeed dusted off old stories and sold them. As I've said before, one of mine, "Zoo Story" I wrote and could never find a market for, until 20 years later AHMM published it! Huzzah! Never give up.

  5. Thanks for this post. It comes just as I'm starting work on a story that has lain dormant for over a year, so your post encouraged me to keep going.

  6. Hi Eve -- "Never Give Up" is right! Some stories are hard to find a market for, and at times it pays to just wait and keep looking (an anthology that happens to have the right theme sometimes pops up, even years later). I've also found that a lot of rejections doesn't necessarily mean you don't have a good story. Thanks for the note!

  7. Leone, I only just saw your comment--thanks for stopping in. Glad to hear you've unearthed that older story and that you're working on it again.

    I honestly believe that revisiting the old ones can be an advantage sometimes, and that those second efforts can make a story turn out better than it would've been if you'd finished it and submitted it long ago. We're all learning, every day, and taking another look at these old WIPs can certainly pay off. Best of luck to you!

  8. I also have revisited and re-edited older work. If I think there is something worthy, I'll try submitting again. Sometimes it works out.

  9. Hi Jacqueline. I find that the hard part is deciding whether reworking it is worth the effort. If it's really a good story idea, I'll usually give it a try. Several times I've found that the premise is too similar to another story I've finished and submitted since then, and in that case I let it go. Usually when I do consider them worthy and revise them, though, they seem to turn out well.

    Hope all is going great with you. Stay in touch!

  10. Thanks for another instructive and thought-provoking post, John. Like many others, I have many stories that I couldn't sell originally, but finally found a home years later. My story in the upcoming Masthead--along with one of your stories--got its first rejection in 2007. Only three or four are unfinished, too. About half my short story sales are actually second or third versions of earlier rejections. Some of them have the reasons you list, too: repetition, too much description, etc. Others weren't good enough and I found a better (stronger) premise as I learned to write "better (?)" material.

    What's even more interesting to me is the number of rejected novels I wrote and later re-worked. Several them were rejected by many publishers and went through a substantial revision before finally being self-pubbed, and only one was unfinished because I finally realized that the premise didn't work. I recycled the characters into a different book that was a Shamus finalist, though.
    I still have the spreadsheet listing my 372 novel submissions...and one sale to a publisher (70th query) I left as soon as I could without financial penalty. At least four of my other novels have only bits and pieces of their original form. Maybe I'm finally learning how to do this. But most of that comes from listening to people like you, Michael, and O'Neil.

  11. Once again, John, you've touched on a subject to which I can really relate (he said, being careful not to use a preposition to end the sentence with).

    Back in the '80s, when I heard about a new crime-fiction magazine called Espionage, I dusted off a number of old stories I hadn't been able to sell, added a spy element, and was able to place several of them with editor Jackie Lewis ... including one I'd previously marketed (unsuccessfully) to the other mystery mags, the science-fiction mags, and the women's mags.

    I'm a firm believer in not throwing anything away. Yesterday's failed manuscript might turn out to be — whether "as is" or with some revision — tomorrow's sale!

  12. Steve, those 372 novel submissions shows how dedicated you are, and I have no doubt that your reworking of the early novel manuscripts (and story manuscripts too) paid off many times over.

    As for rejections, I think if you believe hard enough in a piece of fiction, you should keep submitting it, over and over, and--as Eve said in one of the comments--never give up. If you decide to self-pub, fine, and if you don't, just keep it out there, as long as it takes. I realize it's hard sometimes to know what, if anything, to change in a story after it's been rejected many times, but it's important to realize that good stories and novels get rejected every day. Bad writing's only one of the reasons for rejection--sometimes the market you're trying has recently published something too similar to your story, or maybe an anthology or an issue of a magazine doesn't have space left to include a story of that length, or maybe the editor/publisher just had a fight with his/her spouse. Who knows? Main thing is, never, never give up. I think I've mentioned before, at this blog, that I once had a story that had been rejected two dozen times. I like it, a lot, but apparently NObody else did. I finally sold it, to a more prestigious market than many of those I'd tried, and for far more money than ANY of the others would've paid for it. This business we're in is an inexact science.

    I think it's always a good idea to occasionally take a look at the old abandoned-stories file and just see if anything can be salvaged. It can actually serve as a break in the routine, especially if you're having trouble with story ideas.

    Thank you as always for your thoughts! Be safe, and keep writing.

  13. Hey Josh -- Yes, ending a sentence with a preposition is something up with which I will not put.

    I love to hear tales like yours about the stories you reworked for Espionage. I never sent anything to (or even knew anything about) them, and I suspect they were no longer around when I started submitting stories in the mid-'90s. But I also suspect that it was a more highly-regarded publication that some of the others you might have tried beforehand--funny how Fate works, sometimes.

    I agree with you: Don't throw anything away. Even notes, about ideas.

    Thanks for the comment, and keep in touch!

  14. Where do you find a list of mystery and general publications to submit to? Besides the obvious EQMM and AHMM it's hard to find which mystery publications and general publications accept mystery short stories? Also, how do you find which anthologies are mystery and looking for submissions? I have Duotrope but there aren't many mystery pubs on there, it leans heavily toward literary and horror. TIA!!

  15. You're right, Anonymous, there don't seem to be a lot of mystery publications out there--but there are a few. First, try googling the following, and most of their sites will direct you to their guidelines for submission: Mystery Weekly, Black Cat Mystery Magazine, Strand Magazine, Tough, Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine, Shotgun Honey, Switchblade, Mystery Tribune, Down & Out: The Magazine, and Mysterical-E. And you already know about AHMM and EQMM. Probably the best way to find out about anthology calls is to google something like "anthology submission calls"--I know that'll give you a few links to check out. Also, I did a SleuthSayers post in September that points readers to a lot of these magazine and anthology markets: https://www.sleuthsayers.org/2020/09/prepare-to-launch.html

    Hope this helps, and good luck!

    1. Adding to John's list: Hoosier Noir, Thriller, Pulp Modern, Pulp Modern Flash, Close to the Bone, Rock and a Hard Place, All Due Respect, Black Mask, EconoClash Review, Noir Nation, Pulp Adventures, Saturday Evening Post, Woman's World, The Dark City, Suspense, Yellow Mama, Crimson Streets, Big Pulp, Beat to a Pulp, Kings River Life, and probably more I could list if I wanted to do a little digging.

      Finding mystery publications (or publications that will publish mysteries) isn't difficult. What is difficult is finding markets that pay top dollar. What is also difficult is keeping track of which publications are open for submissions at any given time.

      Regardless, as John suggested, become intimately familiar with how to use your search engine. If you put in the right combination of search words and phrases, you can find markets (anthologies, magazines, webzines, and more) all around the world.

    2. Thanks, Michael, for the additions--I have indeed sold stories to some of those you mentioned. What I regret, of course, is that so many mystery markets are gone now: Flash Bang Mysteries, Orchard Press Mysteries, Blue Murder, Murderous Intent, Mystery Time, Detective Mystery Stories, Whispering Willows Mystery Magazine, Red Herring Mystery Magazine, and so many more. But I'm thankful for those that are still around.

      Another good point can be made by looking at some of those markets that Michael listed: some magazines, like Woman's World and The Saturday Evening Post, aren't primarily mystery magazines but they do also publish mystery stories. And some of those pay better than those that exclusively publish mystery/crime.

  16. Thank you for another thought provoking post. Sadly, I think that at some time, and probably all in the same story, I've committed the errors you mentioned. The good thing is that with rejection, revision, and growth as a writer (which means I can see a few of the errors the first time around), some of those dusted off "gems" have found homes.

  17. Hey Debra! I didn't mean to imply that I no longer commit those sins--I just recognize them now and find myself trying hard not to. As you mentioned, the more you write, revise, and yes, get rejected, the better you become as a writer. I do think (hope) I'm getting better at spotting those errors early on.

    Keep up the good work!

  18. John, I'd love to emulate your example. Only two obstacles: 1. I am not incredibly prolific like you, so I don't have oodles of old stories lying around to mine for gold. 2. What's wrong with the stories I've abandoned is not any of the things you've mentioned, which I can iron out in revision, but that the plots don't work or I can't figure out how to finish them. Master plotter that you are, you don't even mention this problem. On the plus side, I've never given up on a story yet once I've decided it's a keeper. And I do continue to revise.

  19. Liz, you are very kind, but I'm not a master at anything. Well, maybe at throwing cards into a hat from ten feet or so--I'm really really good at that, which is fun but not financially rewarding. As for having a lot of old stories lying around, I confess I do have a lot of those, but we are definitely alike in that I too will not give up on a story once I'm satisfied with it. I also agree that plot problems are sometimes hard to fix--often the only way to do that is to craft a whole new story. (Which might be one of the things that has led to my huge inventory . . .)

    Thanks as always for chipping in, here. Be safe!

  20. I have a ton (now a digital ton) or unsold (shall we call them that?) stories, some of which may be good1 Years ago, I got a few of them out of my old word processor from the 90s, some were bad, most were unfinished, but I managed to sell one of them! Your posts are allways eagerly looked for, John!

  21. Hi, Jeff. Yes, let's call them unsold, not just unfinished or unsubmitted. In fact, let's call 'em as yet unsold. Might as well dust them off and give them a try, right?

    The ones I have a hard time tackling are the ones that are longhand-only, and not yet entered into the computer. But, as has been said, there might be a hidden jewel in there someplace.

    Thanks as always, Jeff. Have a great week!

  22. John, thank you for this writing lesson. I keep rewriting and rewriting the beginnings of my stories until I feel like I've gone mad and doubt I even know English (I was born here!).

  23. John, this is such a good topic! I love the idea of balancing mostly new material with occasional revisits to old work to see if it can be salvaged in some way. About 6 or 7 years ago I wrote a story, and I shopped it around a bit but frankly I wasn’t that much more fond of it than the editors who turned it down - then not long ago I stumbled across it, kept the first scene and rewrote the rest in a flurry of inspiration. Came out in Mystery Weekly earlier this year. So I’ve come to think you’re right, sometimes there’s something in those story ideas even if we don’t get it right the first time!

  24. Lisbeth, I too rewrite beginnings over and over. If it's any consolation, I've heard Hemingway did, also. Hey, if you're still doing it and you haven't gone mad yet, you're probably okay!

    Adam, congrats on rescuing that story and getting it published. I've found it's a lot of fun, and often profitable too, to revisit those old stories and maybe change the premise or the plot, etc., and give them new life. As was said earlier in these comments, don't ever throw anything away!

    Thanks, both of you, for commenting! Keep writing (and rewriting) those stories.


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