The story of a story
What it takes to get a story published, from first draft through acceptance
I recently received good news about one of my stories, “You Are the Mannequin.” Keep reading to find out what the news is. (Or, if you can’t wait, jump to the “recent writing” section below.)
For a piece so short it’s called “microfiction,” this story went through a lot to earn its outcome. I thought I’d take you on this story’s journey from idea to first draft to publication, to offer a glimpse behind the writing curtain.
February 2020: On a trip to Rome (we were living in Florence at the time), I spotted some mannequins at an outdoor flea market. They were naked, and they looked like they had once been alive. I felt moved by them, their still life tragedy.
February 2022: Recalling those mannequins, I imagined someone feeling saddened by them. But why? I had to write the story to find out. I drafted the first version, “Weight Here,” in a flash fiction workshop. It clocked in at 575 words, about 2 1/2 pages long. Three workshop participants read and critiqued it, and I revised the story using their feedback as guidance.
March 2022: I sent the second version, “Weight,” to two members of my weekly writing critique group (shout out to Jody and Edie). They asked useful questions and provided feedback, and I revised the story again.
April 2022: Thinking the story, now entitled “She Wished,” was ready for publication, I submitted it to three literary magazines (aka “lit mags”). All three lit mags rejected it within two weeks, which is fast. Rejections are a bummer, but a fast rejection is much better than a slow rejection.
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May 2022: More revisions, especially of the opening and the ending.
June 2022: Submitted “Enough” (new title!) to three more lit mags. These lit mags took from 50 to 100 days to reject, so “Enough” sat in limbo. I’m bad at limbo.
July 2022: I retitled the piece “Why Marly Speaks Her Heart” and then “Why Marly Stopped Saying Please.” (Titling = agony!) I submitted it to three more lit mags, including one that would provide personalized feedback on my piece, in exchange for a donation to a nonprofit. (Most lit mags only accept or reject; very few provide feedback unless you pay extra.)
August 2022: The lit mag above rejected my work, with feedback. Below, a screenshot from their email.
What are your takeaways from this feedback? Here’s what I saw: the story is trite, expected, unsubtle; it tells the reader what to think. Most brutally: these readers don’t understand why they’re seeing this story at all.
So what did I do? Did I bravely take their feedback to heart?
No way. I’d been burned, shut down, so I shelved the story. Couldn’t bring myself to look at it.
December 2022: By now, I’d collected nine rejections, and I had set the story aside for five months. I was ready to dive back in, to take it in a new direction, per Cactus Lit Mag’s (not its real name) feedback. I rewrote it as a reverse chronology (“mixing up the narrative”). It grew in length, and I retitled it “Fourteen Hours In Which Marly Tried to Rewrite the Past.” I might have been channeling real life: fourteen hours in which Jill tried to rewrite her mannequin story.
But even I could see this new version didn’t work.
January 2023: I felt a sudden spark to chop the piece down dramatically. Maybe it was January kicking in, the instinct to declutter, reduce, trim. I rewrote it as a one-paragraph “breathless sentence” (here’s a good explanation of that form). The new form made sense, since the narrator is emotional and distraught, the kind of person who might tell you this story in one dramatic burst. To my eyes, this version felt fresh and unexpected (Cactus Lit Mag was still in my head). I submitted it and received a “tiered rejection” from a dream publication- which means they liked it, and although they passed, they encouraged me to send more work. Although not as good as publication, this was still a victory.
Feb - April 2023: The wind was in my sails! Over three months, I submitted to eight more magazines and, on a whim, a contest. I received a few rejections, including more “tiered” rejections.
May 2023: I received news that my little, hard-fought story won third place in the writing contest. From among 750 entries!
Six major revisions (and countless minor tweaks)
Three rounds of feedback from different readers
10 or more title attempts
16 months from first draft to acceptance / publication
All for a 245-word, one-paragraph story!
Read it here (scroll until you get to “Third place,” or Control-F / Command-F for the word “third”).
And, for context, the novel I’m currently revising is roughly 83,000 words long: more than 300 times the length of that story. Let’s hope the time to publication is not a linear function.
In case you skipped to this section, here’s a link to my microfiction that won 3rd place. It should take you all of 1-2 minutes to read.
You Are the Mannequin at Brilliant Flash Fiction
Thoughts on the story? I’d love to hear! Share them in the comments.
This month’s recommendation is the best book I’ve read all year. I’d go so far as to call it a modern classic. It also just won the Pulitzer!
Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver. You don’t need to have read David Copperfield in order to enjoy this, although it’s fun to see the ways in which Kingsolver riffed on and referenced Dickens’ novel (which provided Demon Copperhead’s structure). A poor orphan grows up in Appalachian Virginia, trying to survive and thrive amidst challenging circumstances. Kingsolver’s writing is a marvel.
Have you read any great books recently? Let me know in the comments!
Other fun links
Read / Listen: 500 Days Alone In a Cave - I don’t know if I love science enough to do this. Then again, I’d get a ton of reading and writing done.
Read: Mother’s Day Gift Guide - Because it’s not a satire, but it should be.
Watch / Listen: Alex Newell performs “Mama Will Provide” - I have a special place in my heart for the musical Once On This Island, which I produced my freshman year in college. I’ve just discovered Alex Newell, a gender-nonconforming entertainer from Glee and currently Tony-nominated for her role in Shucked on Broadway. Their voice, their presence- both amazing!
What have you been up to this spring? What are you looking forward to this summer? Any favorite books, music, shows, links? Let me know. See you again soon!
Wow love the walk through of your process Jill, and how you have captured the exquisite agony that is readying a piece for publication. I am in that place myself now with my book, and am inspired by you. The mannequin story is haunting, thank you for sharing and congratulations on the award. I too recently read Demon Copperhead and absolutely loved it, as did my book club.
Your fiction piece is beautiful and thank you for sharing the story of how it came to be and to win a prize. I'll be sharing this with a bunch of writers I know!