By N.M. Cedeño
A number of the stories sitting in files on my computer were written years ago, some over ten years ago, and have never been published. At times, when cleaning up my laptop, I’ve been tempted to delete some of these old stories, but I restrain myself.
Most of these old manuscripts fall into three categories. The first category consists of early writing efforts that reflect my learning process. These stories are not publication-worthy, but the ideas aren’t all bad and may warrant revisiting. The second category contains stories that could be publishable, but still need work. These stories need revision to be ready for submission or publication, but aren’t finished because I haven’t found a solution to whatever needs fixing. The last category consists of stories that are finished, but that haven’t been published even after being submitted multiple times. These manuscripts tend to be stand-alone short stories because I usually self-publish the ones in my Bad Vibes Removal Services paranormal mystery series.
Instead of deleting these unsuccessful works, I hold onto them because I know someday I may determine how to fix the unfinished ones or I may see a call for submissions or a new market that fits the finished pieces.
For example, earlier this year I discovered a call for cozy mysteries was coming, and I knew I had an old story that might fit the guidelines. The piece was a Christmas mystery set during an ice storm with all the suspects trapped together. The first draft was written in 2011 or earlier. Around 2018, I reviewed the story, updated it, and tweaked the characters, giving them more depth than they’d had in the first draft. I also changed the ending several times before I declared the manuscript done and started submitting it to markets. It was rejected eight times.
As I reread the story while considering whether it fit the new call for submissions, I changed one or two lines and double-checked the editing. Then, I submitted the story, and it was accepted for publication by Black Cat Mystery Magazine. The story will come out next year, but I don’t have a date yet. More details will be coming on this one later.
Another one of my stories, a science fiction crime piece entitled “The Wrong Side of History” that features a 130-year-old politician being blackmailed over the political stances he held in his youth, was first written in 2015 or 2016. This story was finished long ago and ready for publication. I held off submitting it anywhere, at first, because it didn’t quite fit any of the publication niches I could find. The story was set in a future, post-apocalyptic society that handled a number of problematic social issues differently than we do today. Those issues include topics that are politically divisive. For a brief time, the thought of being “canceled” also held me back from submitting the story.
Eventually, I decided not submitting the story out of fear of offending someone was cowardly and exactly matched the form of self-censorship described by Ray Bradbury in Fahrenheit 451. I began submitting the story to magazines. Nine times the story was rejected. The rejections weren’t surprising since the story didn’t completely fit the niches available and because some magazines will shy away from difficult issues in stories.
Then, I found another market for the story, a magazine called After Dinner Conversation that specifically features short fiction that includes ethical and philosophical issues. After nine rejections, having the tenth response call the story a wonderful piece that the editor would love to publish was reason to get up and dance. It was nice to know that I was right. The story was ready for publication. I simply needed to find the right niche for it. And so the “Wrong Side of History” is now available for pre-order in the October issue of After Dinner Conversation.
And that is why I don’t delete “unsuccessful” old manuscripts. Sometimes they only need a few changes to be successful. Other times, they just need to find the right editor at the right magazine.
N. M. Cedeño is a short story writer and novelist living in Texas. She is currently working on a paranormal mystery series called Bad Vibes Removal Services. Ms. Cedeño is active in Sisters in Crime- Heart of Texas Chapter. Find out more at nmcedeno.com.
2 thoughts on “Don’t Delete “Unsuccessful” Manuscripts”
It took me twenty years to trash the pencil draft of my M.A. thesis, and then only because I was moving–so you can see I don’t delete things. I don’t have book manuscripts, but I do have a zillion scenes that are in a jumble and lost on the hard drive. (You’d have to see my files to understand.) Last week I rewrote two scenes originally written ages ago; they needed to be redone anyway, and I was sure they’d be better. Now I’m sure the originals are infinitely superior and am on the verge of searching for them, which would be a waste of time and effort. The old ones can’t be that good. The new ones will be revised anyway. But there’s this compulsion lurking in my brain . . .
Re self-censorship: Robert Cormier said readers don’t realize that many writers whose works are subject to complaint–on the “banned books list,” as his are–have already “censored” their books in process by cutting or revising passages they’ve reconsidered. Bradbury once received a request to publish an abridged version of Fahrenheit 451. He said, NO, good grief, THAT’S what the book was ABOUT. I’m glad you went with Bradbury.
I do sometimes keep multiple versions of the same story– longer versions and shorter versions if I’ve changed the length in order to meet submission criteria and submit the story. Sometimes I have to eliminate plot points or side characters that I liked in order to make the length right. Then, I may have two versions of a story that are both good, but slightly different. I understand completely the difficulty in deciding which version is better.
RE self censorship: The magazine publishing my story (After Dinner Conversation) is focused on providing material in the form of short fiction to spur thoughtful dialog and debate of philosophical and ethical issues. Bradbury was particularly effective at illuminating social issues in his fiction. I read many of his stories decades ago, but they have stayed with me.