Monday, May 16, 2022

To trunk, or not to trunk?

Every serious writer has at least one. It’s that one story you really believe in, that special story, that every one of your friends who’s read it says is really good—and yet no matter how much time you spend polishing and revising it, each time you submit it to a magazine, it comes back with the dreaded “nice try, real close” vaguely encouraging but content-free rejection. 

How do you know when it’s time to give up on a story? How can you tell when continuing to work on improving and selling a given story is just a waste of your time, and in the vernacular of the trade, it’s time to toss that story in the trunk, forget about it, and move on?

My short answer is, you don’t. Making that determination is someone else’s job. As long as you still believe in the story, you should keep trying to get it published somewhere. And while you’re waiting for that to happen, you should work on writing something else, because maybe that something else will be easier to sell.

This doesn’t seem to be sufficient answer for most writers, though. In fact, Pete Wood and I have been having quite a back-channel discussion about this question, which apparently has spilled over onto CODEX. Since I don’t belong to CODEX I’m not privy to what’s being said there, but as there seems to be lot of interest in the subject, we’re going to declare an ad hoc Trunk Story Week here on Stupefying Stories and explore the topic in some depth.

To lead off, I’d like to tell you my own hopelessly unsaleable trunk story tale. It may surprise you. 


In the early spring of 1980, I wrote a little story about a band of teenage hackers. You may have heard of it. The original version of the story ended with a paradigm shift, and the words, “Dad, there’s going to be some changes around here.” I immediately sent the story off to George Scithers at Asimov’s, who hung onto it for a bit longer than usual, then sent it back with a letter detailing everything that was wrong with my story but inviting me to rewrite it and resubmit. In particular, he wanted me to fix the ending, on the grounds that Asimov’s readers would never go for an ending in which the tech-savvy teenage punk was able to win, because he understood an emerging new technology far better than his father ever would. 

I thought about his comments for a bit, then slapped on a coda in which the protagonist gets his comeuppance and gets packed off to a military boarding school. I resubmitted the story to Asimov’s, and this time it stayed there for quite a bit longer than usual, then came back with a note from Scithers saying that while the story as a whole was much improved, he’d run it by a real mainframe computer expert, and the whole idea of punk kids running around causing serious trouble using cheap computers the size of notebooks was just too far-fetched to be credible.

After Scithers at Asimov’s rejected the story a second time, I shrugged, then sent it off to the next magazine on my target list: either Analog or OMNI, I can’t remember which and don’t feel like looking it up in my submissions log right now. The point is, between the summer of 1980 and the summer of 1981, every editor at every major magazine then in the science fiction publishing business got the chance to read this story.

And every one of them rejected it, usually with some variant on the “real close, nice try, kid” brush-off.

In the summer of 1981 I sent the story to Amazing Stories. Founded in 1926 by Hugo Gernsback—the Hugo Gernsback, for whom the Hugo Awards are named—by 1981 Amazing was the Nora Desmond of science fiction publishing; a once-grand old lady lately fallen on hard times, and no longer considered even close to being an “A-list” market. What I didn’t know then was that there was also a lot of turmoil going on behind the scenes, as the magazine was in the process of being acquired by TSR (the makers of Dungeons & Dragons), and the editorial staff was struggling with continuing to put out a magazine while also wondering whether they’d still have jobs once the acquisition was complete. (It turned out the answer was no, they didn’t.) 

My story sat gathering dust at Amazing for about a year. In response to my ever-more-frantic queries I received a series of ever-more-promising replies from a soon to be unemployed assistant editor, until my final shit-or-get-off-the-pot query produced a reply from none other than George Scithers, just hired away from Asimov’s. Scithers informed me that the outgoing editorial staff had thrown out every manuscript they’d been holding for further consideration and I should consider my submission lost. However, if I wanted to resubmit the story…

I shrugged, thought ‘why not?’, and sent a fresh printout of the manuscript to Scithers, who loved it, had to have it, and in July of 1982 finally bought it. My little story, “Cyberpunk,” was at last published in the November 1983 issue of Amazing—strictly speaking, AMAZINGTM Science Fiction Stories combined with FANTASTICTM Stories; the magazine by that point was quite a conglomeration of merged trademarks—which was on the newsstands in September of 1983.

And the rest, as they say, is history.


The lesson here is simple: everything changes. Writers change and grow. (At least, I hope you do.) Readers change. Publishers change. Markets change. Magazines change.

Even editors change.

In 1980, George Scithers was the four-time Hugo Award-winning editor of Asimov’s, the top magazine in the field. (Although Ellen Datlow over at OMNI probably would have argued with that.) In that role George’s job was to keep Asimov’s the best-selling monthly magazine in the industry, and between the magazine’s reputation and Davis Publications’ generous budget he had first pick of the best stories being produced by the best short-story writers then working. The 1980 George Scithers had no trouble filling every issue with first-rate stories by big name authors.

In 1982, George Scithers was the new editor at Amazing, and his job was to use TSR’s enormous budget and marketing power to dethrone Asimov’s. The problem was that because of Amazing’s dodgy reputation and faltering circulation, a lot of “his” writers chose to stay with Asimov’s rather than follow him to Amazing. He would have to start over and develop a new talent pool.

In short, the 1980 Scithers didn’t need to take risks, he just needed to keep doing what he’d been doing all along. The 1982 Scithers absolutely had to take risks and be open to finding new talent, because that was the only way he would be able to grow his magazine’s circulation.

That, in a nutshell, is what turned a story that was unacceptable in 1980, and rejected by every major editor then working in the business, into the legend that was born in 1983. Not one word of the story changed.

The only thing that changed was the relative career situation of the editor who had rejected it twice, and then on the third try bought and published it.

Submitted for your consideration,

—Bruce Bethke


Invictus said...

For me, the stories that end up permanent residents of the trunk are the ones that I ultimately didn't believe in for one reason or another. Maybe it was an idea I hadn't worked out entirely, maybe I hadn't reached the skill and subtlety needed to express what I was trying to say, maybe it was just a dumb idea; whatever the reason, some of my trunk stories really belong there. The ones that get out and get published are the ones that, at the end of the day, I just couldn't let sit forgotten. I've got a handful out in the world right now, and one of them is like that; it's been to many, many markets, and tends to get the "pretty good, but not what we're looking for" treatment so far. That one is the one I believe in most, and the one that keeps haunting me out of the current bunch, so I'll keep it in circulation as long as it takes.

Eric Dontigney said...

I have plenty of trunked forever stories. The vast majority of them went into the trunk because they were journeyman efforts and suffered the problems all journeyman stories suffer: lack of originality, irreparable structural problems, lack of originality, mimicking the voice of whatever author I'd read most recently, did I mention lack of originality?
There was this one story, though, that I believed in. I worked on that story on and off for ten years. I'd send it out and get rejections. Revise and repeat. Put it away for a while. Then start the cycle all over again. In defense of the editors who rejected it, the final version looked substantially different from the initial draft. The beating heart of the story, though, remained constant. That little gem, which has sadly gone out of print, was picked up by Stupefying Stories and went by the title of "Memory Makes Liars of Us All." In retrospect, it could probably have used a better title.