Readers are hungry for ‘a good story well told’ as publishers often say.
But what is a good story? And how do we know if it’s been well told?
In the late 1990s I started sending out short stories by the mail. A thick returned envelope was a bad sign. The story was rejected. A thin letter – hooray. Occasionally the words Keep writing were scrawled across the rejection slip. I now know this was a ‘good rejection’. Back then, I was puzzled.
Keep writing? Did it mean the story wasn’t any good? It certainly hadn’t made the cut. Or did it need a little more work. Or another theme. A different plot line. Less characters. A punchier opening/ending. Perhaps I’d sent it to the wrong place. Or was it a good idea poorly delivered? Or vice versa.
These days I think keep writing means just that. Keep writing. But behind those two words lie others. Keep learning, reading, editing, rewriting, trying to improve. Keep working away at your sentences (to paraphrase Gertrude Stein.)
Keep making each piece is as good as it can be, as Priscilla Long says in her focused and practical workbook The Writers’ Portable Mentor. Because, as she points out, we only have an ‘allotted time’ at the keyboard. Life’s too short to put out lazy work. You could say The Portable Mentor doubles as The Portable Encourager.
The long and hilly writing path can be bereft of encouragement. If/when it does appear, I soak it up. Whether it’s a kind comment from a reader, or a piece picked up for publication, or someone in the writing world opening a door, or a positive review – encouragement can be a life saver when (like many writers) we spend a lot of time splashing about in a sea of doubt.
A few weeks ago my novel The Floating Garden was shortlisted on for the 2016 MUBA prize – for books that ‘haven’t received enough attention’. It didn’t win the MUBA, but it was as if my novel gave the literary equivalent of a high kick before shuffling off the stage.
I’ve learnt to savour ‘good rejections’, to learn from them, to apply them as a balm against the inevitable stinging ones.
Above all, encouragement in all its forms, refuels this writer to… keep writing.
Here’s a recent Q&A and review of The Floating Garden by Lisa Hill on her excellent blog ANZlitlovers.
Emma’s short stories have been widely published including in The Age, Commonwealth Writers Magazine adda, Griffith Review, Overland, Review of Australian Fiction, Sleepers Almanac, and on three Brisbane billboards for #8wordstory. She was shortlisted for the 2019 Commonwealth Short Story Prize, 2019 Newcastle Short Story Prize, 2018 Overland/NUW Fair Australia Prize and 2001 Age Short Story Award. Her debut novel The Floating Garden was shortlisted for the 2016 Small Press Network MUBA prize. Her short story collection Dreams They Forgot will be published in September 2020 by Wakefield Press.