Good news #1: My third published story just came out.
Bad news #1: You can't access it online. You have to buy the journal. I have two contributor copies. One is for my parents. I guess that makes it hard to share it with you.
Good news #2: Yesterday, an editor told me his journal would publish another story, my fourth to be published.
Bad news #2: It doesn't come out until July. The story is set during Christmas, so the timing isn't great.
News I want to talk about: The editor who picked up this last story approved it a day after I submitted it. That does not happen, like, ever. But he had suggestions. That also has not happened before on stories that were accepted. Most of the suggested changes were minor, and really just catching small mistakes. But there were two major recommendations:
1) Change the title, and
2) Change the ending.
Not to give too many spoilers of a story you will never read, but the end of this Christmasy story involved two people who are starting to realize they are in love with each other giving one another gifts. Inevitably, this invokes O Henry's "Gift of the Magi." Not that this is necessarily bad. It's a story; everyone knows it for a reason. But the two characters in the story have their own existence, and to overshadow that existence by heavily injecting another meta-narrative onto them would weaken the story. I tried to avoid this writing the story one way; the editor suggested another.
All my training had led up to this
I knew that one thing I would not do at this point was act like a prima donna and refuse any changes. However, I wasn't really sure how to make the changes he was asking for. It would have involved really re-imagining who I thought the two characters were. I would have had to rewrite more than just the ending, I thought. So I felt myself in sort of a tough spot: wanting to NOT be a difficult, intractable writer, but also not wanting to find myself committing to writing a story I didn't know how to write.
I wrote him back, emphasizing most of all how grateful I was for his interest in the story. It's a story about refugees, and it was nice to have it accepted yesterday, of all days. I'd been trying to get it published for 9 months, according to my submission records. So I really was grateful. I tried to explain my reasons for my decisions to the editor, but also say that I was open to changes. In the end, we settled for just changing the title, which, in retrospect, seems to me like a good change. (Just recently, on the journal for which I am a reader, I recommended a story to the editor but also wanted to change the title.) The editor trusted me with the ending, even though it didn't fully mesh with his aesthetic sense.
So what did we learn?
If an editor cares enough to offer suggestions, it's a good bet he really likes your story. That also means his suggestions might be good ones, because if he liked the story enough to offer suggestions to begin with, it's likely he gets what's good about it. It'd be much easier and less time consuming to just reject the story. I've seen it happen, where the staff just says "this thing about the story dooms it for me." Offering suggestions meant more work for him--two emails worth of work where we hammered it out.
The moral is: work with your editor. Trust him, and he'll probably trust you, too.
A second lesson
There is something in common with story #3 that was just published and this one that will be published in July. I had hoped that both might be "breakthrough" works for me: that they would be published in one of the big 50 journals, granting me gravitas as a writer. I wanted something impressive to brag about when I send out query letters for my novel.
The day I was accepted for my third story, I informed the other journals I'd applied to that it was off the market. One editor from a journal I really wanted to get in sent me an email that she'd been just about to accept it. I was kind of disappointed; why hadn't I waited? I even thought of telling the first journal I wanted to pull out.
But Potomac Review, the first journal, had grabbed it first. They sent a letter that made it clear why they liked it. I'd connected with somebody there. No matter what resume-fodder the other journal could offer, I'd never find a more appreciative journal than Potomac Review. So I stuck with them.
With the story where the editor and I made changes, I had also submitted it to other journals, including some "dream big" ones. When questions about changes started, I thought maybe I should hold out. But that would have been foolish. The effort to suggest changes meant I already had someone who appreciated the story.
There are a lot of writers and too few readers. The odds of a big-time career are thin. The best I can hope for is to find people with whom my stories resonate. It would be great to find lots of people with whom they resonate. But it's also great to have a few people with whom they resonate deeply. I'm going to stick to that.