Needs a Little Work: guest post by Rich Chiappone

Thanks to Rich Chiappone, who has been our featured author this month and is also the author of this week’s cover story, “Rich! Bear!” in The Anchorage Press.

Last week, in my blog titled “Will You Read My Manuscript For Me?” I encouraged writers to both give advice freely and to receive it with an open mind. It seemed like a generous and well-intended thing to write about. Today, one week after posting that I got an e-mail from a national magazine informing me that they are planning to use a story I sent them back in March. This is a very well respected, big circulation magazine that I am extremely pleased to publish in. But, it is not all good news. As if to prove the old sarcastic comment that no good deed goes unpunished, the acceptance e-mail opens with this:

Thanks for sending us your story “Special.” We enjoyed reading it and would like to see it in the magazine, but it still needs a little work on your end.

Of course, what I wanted to hear was, “Don’t change a word.” What I got were suggestions for editing and revising the story. Back in the prehistoric days of the hard copy manuscripts and snail mail responses, what followed a comment like “needs a little work” was usually twelve pages of red pencil marks hacking out the excess verbiage. Today, the actual editing is often left to the writer. The editors allude to overlong writing that is “a little too much”; a character’s behavior is declared “a little hard to believe.” And so forth. There is no manuscript. There are no red pencil marks. Maybe that’s for the better. Maybe trying to guess just how little work this story needs (or more to the point, how much) will make me a better editor of my own writing in the future. We’ll see. In any case, I now have to print it out again and sharpen my own red pencil. Wish me luck.

This much-appreciated acceptance letter was waiting in my computer today when I got home from teaching in the intensive residency portion of the Masters of Fine Arts low residence program at the university in Anchorage. It’s been a wonderful week and a half. Working with grad students in creative writing is a dream come true for me. But getting this acceptance now, after spending ten days talking to students about their own attempts to publish, took me back to my years as a student –also at UAA—and reminded me of my first attempts at placing short stories in magazines, almost twenty years ago.

At that time, as I mentioned before, everything was done by mail. I printed out a story and sent it to a magazine with a self-addressed stamped envelope paper-clipped to it. Months later (that has not changed) the rejection slip or (rarely) an acceptance letter arrived in the mail. I still have the log I created to keep track of all the optimistic submittals and all the heart-breaking rejections during the four year period between 1990 and 1994, when I was a grad student at UAA.

On six faded, dog-eared (tear stained?) pages of yellow legal pad paper I have the record of that dismal and yet exhilarating time in my life. Each page has four vertical columns: on the far left hand margin the column is headed “date sent”; the next column is the title of the story; continuing across the page is the name of the magazine; in the far right hand margin the column heading has the rather cold-blooded words “date rejected.” I was a tough nut, even then (forget that stuff about tear stains; it is probably coffee or beer). Me. Tough.

The earliest date is 10/31/1990; on that day I must have been feeling particularly optimistic, or maybe just full of myself: I sent three submissions out to three separate magazines. Looking in the right hand margin, I can see they all came back rejected the following February. February always was a mean month. I revised them, put them in new envelopes and sent them out again.

According to my log, it looks like I sent out a total of thirty-nine submissions in 1991. The columns of names and submission dates cover two pages of notebook paper. The far right hand “date rejected” column has one or two notes scribbled among the infamous rejection dates –things like, “not reading until January 92” or “don’t read in summer” indicating I was not paying attention to the magazines’ submission guidelines. I was new at this. But I was getting older quickly. The file folder full of rejection slips was getting thicker. Placing fiction was not any easier then than it is now.

Halfway down the page labeled 1992, one line of writing is circled in bright red marking pen. Date sent: 2/17—Story: “Things Come to Mind”—Magazine: New Virginia Review. In the “date rejected” column the word ACCEPTED. It was my first year as a grad student. On the next page are two more of the effusive ACCEPTED’s. 1992 was a very good year. But the rejection file was really bulging now. Still, I felt like I was improving; instead of form letters and rejection slips I was now getting encouraging letters from editors telling me that although the liked my writing, they were declining to publish it.

On the next page of the submission log the output declined: fewer than twenty submissions in 1993, fewer yet in 1994. But the results were getting better; maybe I was getting better. Three ACCEPTED’s on the next page of the log: ZYZZYVA, Gray’s Sporting Journal, Sou’wester. Hardly any form rejections anymore. Nothing but warm and friendly letters saying they weren’t going to publish my story, notes asking to see more of my work.

All told, that six page submission log shows that in the four years I was in grad school I got one hundred and thirteen rejections and six publications. One hundred and thirteen. The joy of the six acceptances burned off quickly; the cold pain of the rejections lingered like late winter ice clinging to my heart. Or maybe they were like war wounds. They proved I had been in the trenches of the submission wars.

In May of 1994 I graduated from the MFA program and sold a story to Playboy a few weeks later. By then I had been recruited by a big name New York agent. Life was good: a master’s degree, an agent, national magazine publication. What could go wring?

I did not publish another story for five years. I quit saving the rejection slips; they were not badges of honor anymore. Don’t ask.

Well, that’s my walk down memory lane, sometimes known as the Valley of the Shadow of Rejection. I have to get to work on this story that has been more or less accepted. How much of the editor’s advice shall I take? How much shall I choose to ignore? If I knew the answer to that, I’d write a book about it titled Needs a Little Work.

As I said before: wish me luck. It is always needed.

Richard Chiappone, a recipient of the Robert Traver Award, is the author of the story collection Water of an Undetermined Depth. His writing has appeared in anthologies and national publications including Playboy, the Sun, and Gray’s Sporting Journal. His story, Raccoon, was made into an award winning short film, and his work has been featured on BBC Radio. A thirty-year Alaskan, Chiappone lives with his wife, Lin, and several Siamese cats on a steelhead river near Anchor Point, the westernmost point on the contiguous highway system of North America. He teaches writing for the University of Alaska and serves on the faculty of the annual Kachemak Bay Writers’ Conference in the town of Homer.

1 thought on “Needs a Little Work: guest post by Rich Chiappone”

  1. It may be the digital age, but I still have paper-clipped pages with four columns, and ACCEPTED written in caps when it happens. I'm sure there are spreadsheets for it, but there's a certain satisfaction to some tasks in long hand.

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