The Long Story of a Short Story

I’m chagrined to admit I started writing The Bear Box in 2017. As I put the final polish on it this spring and designed the print edition, I imagined I began a few years ago. Yet, when I opened up the “old versions” folder, the evidence was there. Damn, I’m slow. Didn’t the author of Twilight write the whole book in three months? It somehow took me five years to get 69 pages in good shape.

Cover of the book The Bear Box

I don’t know if this will be a pep talk or discouraging to aspiring writers, but if you have a full and busy life, getting a story from vague idea to reader-worthy text takes time. I never knew this side job would require so much patience and persistence. I’m not that kind of person. I’m a creative problem solver who doesn’t overthink and gets things done with whatever is at hand. I love the satisfaction of building a bookshelf in a few hours with leftover lumber from the garage. Done! Problem solved!

I created the first outline of this story on June 17th, 2017, in Lawrence, Kansas, at a speculative fiction workshop. I did a development session–something I’d never done before. You get to pitch a wild idea and workshop attendees comment. I’d illustrated key scenes with a black sharpie and taped the papers to the wall. Pat Cadigan, our amazing guest author, led the session.

Writers at dinner

I’ve got the notes. I didn’t take 90% of the advice (some of which was oddly specific given the story hadn’t been written yet) but what I did take away was the group’s excitement. They liked the premise and the setting and the characters and one person said if I didn’t write it he would.

Over the next few months I finished a complete draft. After that, I revised it nine times, doing a “save as” any time I made a big change. I submitted the story to my writer’s group and got helpful feedback, most of which I did take seriously and made changes.

After a few more drafts I sent the story to a member of the speculative fiction workshop who’d participated in the development session. She gave me good feedback. I revised and sent it back to her a few months later and incorporated her additional feedback.

In February 2018 I started submitting the story to magazines. I was already fighting an uphill battle because the piece is over 10,000 words. That’s way above what most places will accept so my options were limited.

The submission history is:

It’s hard to read much into a rejection other than the piece didn’t work for them for whatever reason, and I was buoyed by the positive rejections. By this point I’d put a lot of effort into polishing Bear Box and it had reached the stage where, when I read it after not reading it for a few months, it didn’t feel like I’d written it. It existed apart from me. Also, the last line gave me a shiver. That’s how I knew it was done.

You can see from the submission history what happened. I started out full of eagerness and then lost steam. Searching for places to submit is time consuming. I subscribe to Duotrope, a website that allows you to search and filter publications that publish fiction, but it can take an hour plus to find one suitable publication. My minimum requirement is that they pay something. Less than one cent per word – fine. I just want a professional relationship with a publisher and that means at least a token payment. I spend hours and hours on a story. I hope that’s worth $15.

Duotrope screenshot

When I did find a promising publication, I would visit their website to learn more. Then I’d discover they only take work from Australians, or that the theme for the next issue is ghosts, or that Duotrope thinks they take stories up to 10k words but it’s actually capped at 5k, or the submission window is closed, or they now charge for submissions.

When I finally, miraculously, found a place that was a good fit, I’d then have to strictly follow their submission guidelines. They may take files via an online submission system or may have you email the story with a particular subject line. They may or may not want a cover letter. You might have to submit “blind,” meaning you remove your name from all the pages which means having to create a whole new draft of the manuscript.

The whole thing is a pain in the ass and starts to feel like procrastinating. I’m working on a novel and that’s my priority. I’ve got two hours tops to devote to writing each night so combing through publications that might be open and submitting and knowing I won’t hear back for six months starts to feel like a bad use of my time.

I neglected poor Bear Box for a few years.

engravings of moons

A year or so ago I ordered a book a friend of mine had written and it turned out to be a tiny book. I read and enjoyed it, and it lay on our coffee table for many months. Why I didn’t immediately put two and two together is beyond me. We were in pandemic lockdown and I wasn’t feeling super creative and that’s as good a reason as any.

Finally, one day up here in the attic I had that little book in hand, probably to put it away on the bookshelf, and the light bulb finally turned on. How many words is this? I wondered, and then, Is The Bear Box the right length for this format? Then, excitedly, OMG it is the right length! I can do this! I can publish this myself and do whatever I want with the layout. I can design my own cover and have illustrations. I have an ISBN number. I can get a blurb for the back. I can get this out into the world.

There’s a stigma against self-publishing that is cultivated by publishers and internalized by writers and I understand why. Traditional publishers are gatekeepers who weed out unpolished and unfinished manuscripts that readers wouldn’t enjoy. I know this because I read submissions for The Shoreline of Infinity and 98% of the material was not ready for consumption. It wasn’t crappy junk, it just wasn’t done.

The Bear Box was extremely polished after countless revisions and reviews. I suspect I put it through more gates than many pubs would have.

In July 2021, I sent the manuscript to an author/editor friend for a final, professional review (that means I paid for it) and revised based on her feedback.

Early in 2022 I began work on the layout. I’m a graphic designer, so I was able to do this step myself. Having to pay people to do this might be cost prohibitive for many authors because a little book like this isn’t going to make a ton of money.

Book layout in InDesign

I hadn’t uploaded a book to IngramSpark (a service that offers global distribution for print on demand books) in quite a while, so I had to reread the how-to manual. The process is both straightforward and confusing…like everything online. Given the theme of the book is about real life vs. virtual life–this book would be print only. I submitted PDF files and waited a few days for them to be accepted, then approved the proof. I had to wait more days for the title to be available…then I could order a copy to see how it looked in real life!

It turned out great. I was in love with the little object I’d created. It was real. It existed. I did it.

Final step was to order a case and have a book launch. I asked Borderlands Books if they could host, but they aren’t doing any instore events due to covid. I visited another local bookstore with book and proposal in hand and was primly informed by the cashier–who would not take my book–that they were a cooperative and no one was in charge. I could email the address on the website and ask. I did and waited weeks and got no response. I checked in with a local café with a nice outdoor space. The owner wrote down the info on a coffee filter and big surprise–I never heard back.

Frustrated and eager to get the book out into the world I decided to launch the book in Precita Park. Why stop the DIY now?

Book launch in Precita park

I like to imagine that someday I’ll be a famous author and someone will ask me, what was one of your favorite moments? And I’d answer that this was one of them. The day was chilly and the wind so strong the books blew off the table I’d set up. Still – my friends came. They bought books. They had me sign them which was super strange. (I’ve got to work on my signature.) We had a really nice time. A friend of mine waved her hands up and down on either side of me and said, “There’s so much talent in this,” and that nearly made me cry. After 5+ years of work by myself in an attic that meant a lot to me.

That’s the long story of a short story and there will be an epilogue as I figure out how to promote the book. The journey continues and the path could lead…anywhere.

Green lines leading everywhere

BUY THE BOOK! (and then give it a review). Love, Merin.

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