There are ten short stories in my new book Stopping for Strangers. I spent about ten years working on the book, so on the face of it, that makes for easy math: I averaged a story a year. The truth, however, is more complicated. When I switch on my computer and look at the folder where I keep old story drafts, there are dozens and dozens of abandoned or finished-but-never-published stories. There are also some stories that were published but didn’t make it into the collection. While none of this work was good enough for the book, it was all vital to the writing of it.
I saw a picture the other day of what people think success looks like: a straight arrow, a single bold line headed in one direction. Next to it was a picture depicting the reality of success: a wild squiggle, a twisting line gone across itself over and over again.
When you hear an interview about an author’s latest book, they don’t spend a lot of time talking about the squiggle or discussing what they didn’t write: the false starts, the mistakes, the wrong turns. Looking back on that folder filled with abandoned stories, I knew the false starts were worth discussing.
I’m writing a novel now, but in the days when I wrote nothing but short stories, I wrote a lot of them, or at least I started a lot of them. My first drafts were usually written longhand and some of them didn’t even make it into the computer. Others I typed in, but quickly abandoned; some I revised for eight or ten drafts but never submitted to a magazine. There were others I sent out but never found a home for. And in the end just over half of the stories I’d published found their way into this book. The truth is that I wrote about ten stories for every one that appears in Stopping for Strangers. People who don’t write don’t realize that it takes a lot of abandoned and failed work to get ten good stories. I never found any shortcuts. For me, the only way to find out if a story is good or not is to write it out, revise and rewrite it, take it as far as you can, and then see what you’ve got.
Here’s my advice to short story writers struggling to find their way. Start ten stories over the next year, work every one as hard as you can, and take it as far as you can. If you finish ten stories, polish most of them, and send a few off to magazines, with luck one might get published. Ten years from now, one of the stories might even appear in your first book.