So I have this story of mine called “Shoot Like You’re Awesome.” The story concerns a cog in the roshambo (read: Rock, Paper, Scissors not Eric Cartman’s version) tournament circuit. I wrote it as part of my MFA thesis in 2007. It’s always been, in my mind, the best story I’ve ever written. Nevertheless, this story has garnered 50+ rejections.
One kind rejection a few months ago, one of those “I loved it but…” rejections, mentioned a flaw in the story that caused something to click in my head. The editor of the rejecting lit mag suggested that though she loved the story’s humor and the depiction of the main character’s eccentricities and single-minded obsession, the ending failed to deliver a punch worthy of the rest of the story. I’d always been reluctant to change the ending. The story is analogous to my own experiences as a writer: struggling to place my own work in literary journals, disappointment, unjustified rejection. I wanted the main character (Westinghouse) to lose and then soldier on, silently, resolute and without emotion. As writers, we’re trained by seemingly endless failure that we can’t get too high or too low… that we just… keep… writing. And for a long time this is how I felt. Resolute. Confident. Every so six months, I contemplate giving up writing altogether but after a few days of inactivity I’m drawn back to the blank page. There’s just too much going on in my brain to walk away. Writing is a disease I endure, for the most part, willingly.
After receiving the aforementioned rejection and another half dozen or so in close proximity, I forced myself to pause and consider that this story I loved so much might need to be retired, for good, and never thought of again. But I couldn’t do it. Not yet. I decided to give it one more edit, one more last ditch effort to save “Shoot Like You’re Awesome.” I considered all angles. And the more I hemmed and hawed the more angry I got about my experience trying to find this story a home. The culmination of this rage resulted in this post back on March 14th: Putting Fun Back in Short Fiction? In summary, I lamented the boilerplate-loving nature of many of the major lit mags who refuse to give off-beat, humorous fiction an audience.
The click came when I embraced this anger and gave myself an outlet for my frustration. The grind of submitting work to literary magazines wasn’t about “enduring.” It was about fighting. It was about raging, but ultimately continuing the grind after coming back down to Earth. Even Steven wasn’t the answer. So instead of the story ending with reluctant, silent hope, I harnessed my more honest recalcitrance so that Westinghouse might rebel, if only briefly, in a fleeting moment of weakness. And there it was. Weakness. I had thought Westinghouse’s weakness had been his single-minded obsession that lead to social and emotional inadequacy. It turned out, his obsessions, like my own pursuit of writing, had been his strength. It could be a tantrum in the wake of failure that would make him human. With this in mind, I re-edited for the billionth time, but instead of cutting (as per every other suggestion) I added three full pages to the short story, pushed the word count over 3500 and slowed down the ending to give Westinghouse a chance to lash out, somewhat irrationally. After the new edit, I sent another round of submissions and went about working on other projects. Hope had been restored, at least until I started receiving those brand new rejections for a story I felt had become stronger than ever.
Late last night, after an epic four hours of watching the highly entertaining The Hatfields & McCoys (coincidentally, a story all about irrational rage), I checked my email before going to bed and received that long awaited acceptance for “Shoot Like You’re Awesome” from the literary magazine P.Q. Leer. Visit their site. Feed them some traffic. I really dig their style and sense of humor. That they had enough sense to publish my favorite story is just extra sauce.
Writers, if you love a story that no one else loves, stick with it. Listen to the criticism but don’t necessarily take it to heart. If you really love a story, there shouldn’t be a such thing as a last chance. Also, Star Wars wisdom aside, maybe sometimes it’s better to give in to your hate, if only just a little while. Also, at some point, make some time to watch Kevin Costner, Tom Berenger and Bill Paxton go all dueling hillbillies against each other.