Sorry, Darlings: Depression, Rejection, Revision and Publication

When I was seventeen, my mother and sister were killed in a car accident. I’ve said this, almost word for word, to many people over the years, and saying it has always been more than a statement of events. It’s always been a self-aware explanation (at least in part) of who I am.

But even with the impact (crash terms naturally enter my writing when I think about their deaths), I’ve never written explicitly about the accident (or, to me, THE ACCIDENT). That changed, however, with my story “Sorry, Sis” (which has been published over at Liquid Imagination).

[I break down the story below, so if you’d like to read it without spoilers, now would be a good time.]

Three Stories, One Ending

I wrote “Sorry, Sis” nearly a year ago during a period of depression, which I’ve experienced to greater and lesser degrees for most of my life. I cried a lot while writing the story, and it’s as personal a tale as I’ve written. The mixture of sorrow, dark humor, and self-recrimination is very me.

You might even say those are my calling cards.

I wrote two other stories during this period. At some point I stepped back and recognized that all three ended with a type of suicide, and I thought (1) ending every story with a suicide would make me a bit of a one-trick pony and (2) I probably needed to stop “winging” my depression and address it seriously.

I did address it, and I developed what I believe are helpful tools for moving forward. I find myself in a good place, with many wonderful people in my life. Still, I’ve been living in my skin for forty-six years, and I know a lot about myself, and I know depression can descend at any moment, without warning.

Those tools are going to come in handy.

Kill Your Darlings

Most writers have been advised to “kill their darlings,” which, essentially, means that you should edit out writing that is too self-indulgent or is more important to you than to the story itself. As I went through the process of getting “Sorry, Sis” published, I had to take heed of this advice—no easy thing given the emotions invested in the story.

When I wrote “Sorry, Sis” I employed what I thought was an interesting structure, one that I believed made sense for the story and also kept the reader off-balance.

I was thinking of the story being published online. Knowing that an online audience can click away from your story at any moment, I thought that I could maintain that audience’s interest by giving readers a number of different looks.

That was my hope, anyway.

But hopes, like too many of us, oft die early deaths.

In my first drafts, the story employed a three-part structure in which the first part, describing a childhood incident, was told in the third person. The second part, in which the main character reveals that he is being haunted by his dead sister, was told in the first person past tense, while the third part, which brings the story to its conclusion, was told in the first person present.

I also employed lists in the story, and I was, quite frankly, in love with the structure. This is brilliant! I can’t wait for the raves to pour in!

It turns out that reality is less kind than a writer’s initial impression of his own work.  

Rejection Can Be a Good Thing

Six submittals. Six rejections.

Your stories are going to get rejected for all kinds of reasons. That’s part of the process, and it doesn’t necessarily mean you have to revise your story with each rejection.

But it does provide you with an opportunity to revisit your work and to take a hard look at what’s working and what’s not.

I’d already made some substantial revisions even before sending it out. In the earliest version, the character had lost both his mother and sister to a car accident. While that was true in my life, it was too much for the story to bear.

So my mother was expelled from the tale.

Sorry, Mom.

The more substantial structural revisions came after comments from one of the editors who rejected the work. (While having your story accepted for publication is the ultimate goal, receiving helpful comments is a pretty damn good thing too.)

The editor’s critique made me realize something I already knew: the first person voice was, by far, the strongest part of the story.

So I also jettisoned the opening third person passage, and the story was immediately stronger for it.

A common criticism of fledgling (and not-so-fledgling) writers is that they don’t know where to begin their stories. An editor might look at a story and determine that the real beginning is actually three pages in.

That was certainly the case here.

When you’ve put your heart into your work, it isn’t easy to step back, approach it again, tear it apart, and reassemble it. But that’s art, and you have to be merciless.

Kill your darlings.

All’s Well That Ends Well

So the story was published, and in the introduction to the issue editor Edwin Riddell called it “a creepy cracker if ever there was one, with some great writing, searing truth, and insight into little-explored aspects of the duality of our motives and actions.”

Kind words.

Words that made me proud and made me happy I wasn’t too proud to heed a professional’s advice and kill my story for the sake of my story.

I hope my mother and sister would have been proud as well.

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