Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The importance of rewriting “Ernesto”

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In an excellent interview today on the A.V. Club, Steven Soderbergh talks about the surprisingly large impact that small changes can have on work of art: “Two frames can be the difference between something that works and something that doesn’t. It’s fascinating.” He’s talking about film, of course, but the same principle holds true, if not more so, for fiction. A cut here, a new sentence there, a tiny clarification early in the narrative: such invisible changes can turn a decent but unpublishable story into one that sells. Often the changes are so small that the author himself would have trouble finding them after the fact, but the overall effect can’t be denied. And I’ve learned this lesson more than once in my life, most recently when I went out with “Ernesto,” a short story I thought was finished, but turned out to have a few more surprises in store.

When I was done with “Ernesto,” I sent it to Stanley Schmidt at Analog, who had just purchased my novelette “The Last Resort.” Stan’s response, which I still have somewhere in my files, was that the story didn’t quite grab him enough for him to find room for it in a rather crowded schedule, but that he’d hold onto it, just in case, while I sent it around to other publications—not a rejection, exactly, but hardly an acceptance. I then dutifully sent it around to most of the usual suspects: Asimov’s, Fantasy and Science Fiction, and the online magazines Clarkesworld and Intergalatic Medicine Show. Some had kind words for the story, but all of them ultimately passed. At that point, I concluded that “Ernesto” just wasn’t publishable, which was hardly the end of the world—it had only taken two weeks to write—but an unfortunate outcome for a story that I thought was still pretty clever.

A few months later, I saw a call for submissions for a paperback anthology, the kind that pays its contributors in author’s copies, whose theme—science fiction stories about monks—seemed to fit “Ernesto” fairly well. The one catch was that the maximum length for submissions was 6,000 words, while “Ernesto,” at that point, weighed in at over 7,500. Cutting twenty percent of a story that was already very compressed, at least to my eyes, was no joke, but I figured I’d give it a try. Over the course of a couple of days, then, I cut it to the bone, removing scenes and extra material wherever I could. Since almost a year had passed since I’d first written it, it was easier to see what was unnecessary. I also added an epigraph, from Ernest Hemingway’s interview with The Paris Review, that made it clear from the beginning that the main character was Hemingway, which wasn’t the case in the earlier draft. And in the end, I found myself with a story that read a lot more smoothly than the version I’d sent out before.

It might have ended there, with my submitting “Ernesto” to a free anthology, but as luck would have it, Analog had just accepted a revised version of my novelette “The Boneless One,” which had also been rejected by a bunch of magazines in its earlier form. Encouraged by this, I thought I’d give it a try with “Ernesto.” So I sent the story to Analog again, and it was accepted, almost a year after my first submission. The moral, I guess, is that if a story has been turned down by five of the best magazines in your field, it probably isn’t good enough to be published—but that doesn’t mean it can’t get better. In this case, my rule of spending two weeks or less on a short story ended up being not quite accurate: I wrote the story in two weeks, shopped it around for a year, then spent two more days on it. And those two days, like Soderbergh’s two frames, are what made all the difference.

Written by nevalalee

January 18, 2012 at 9:43 am

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