Wednesday, December 28, 2011

When do you trunk a story?

I ran across this question on the SFWA website recently. It's an interesting question, and not at all easy to answer.

Let's start with the more basic question: what does "trunk a story" mean?
Well, to trunk a story in its simplest definition means not to send it out, or to keep it in your "trunk" at home (at this point, this is a virtual trunk for most of us, rather than a literal one). So, once you have stopped actively writing a story, and have revised it to the point where you consider it "ready", then if you don't send it out, it might be considered "trunked."

Of course, if you're simply not sure you're through with revisions, you may just be letting it rest to give yourself a fresh perspective on it. This is not the same as trunking, and it is highly recommended practice. Distance makes for more effective revisions.

The question of trunking becomes much more relevant after you've sent a story out and it has come back rejected. Many writers will cite Heinlein's rule, that you should not revise a story except to editorial order. I don't actually agree with this. If you've sent a story out, and it comes back rejected without comment, and you look at it again and see some major way to improve it, then go ahead and rewrite. It's just like taking a rest from your editing to get distance. Even better is when the rejection actually contains advice - then you can decide if the advice seems solid, and if it is, revise as necessary. But once you've revised, you need to send it out again. And again. And again.

So when do you stop?

Well, getting demoralized is not a good reason to stop. There are a lot of markets out there, and markets come and go. A story that gets rejected at all the current pro markets might not be good enough yet (and it behooves you to try to figure out if that's indeed the problem with it), but it might just not have matched the tastes of a particular editor. Thus, you should keep going. There are a lot of great semi-pro venues out there (some of which may become pro in the future), and if exposure is what you're looking for, there are also venues such as small anthologies which can be terrific (though they pay less well). You can choose to trunk your story temporarily because you don't want to submit below a certain pay level... just don't lose it in your files! In the future, other markets will surely open up at the pay level you're interested in, and you will be able to submit to them at that point.

Deciding that a story just isn't good enough... may or may not be a good reason. Maybe you just haven't found the right editor yet. But if you're feeling pretty sure it's not good enough, or you're getting pretty uniform feedback from critique partners but you don't feel capable of doing the revisions required, then maybe it's worth setting the story aside and taking a look at it later. If you leave it aside for a few months, or even a few years, then you might be able to come back to it later. At that point you may decide it should be blown to smithereens, or you could have much better vision and better tools as a writer and really be able to make it work. This has happened to me.

Deciding that a story isn't your first priority right now... is a good enough reason. I have a story that I'm keen to revise, but I don't have time. Add to that the fact that it takes place in my Varin world, which not many people know, but in which I'm currently writing a novel, and I arrive at the following decision: I should probably be writing my novel and not rewriting that story right now. It can sit until I have the time and wherewithal to deal with it.

Deciding that you don't want a story to represent you... is a good enough reason. I had a story that I wrote on the basis of a story seed given to me by somebody else. It was fun to write. It was really different from what I usually write, and as such I found it refreshing. But when I started to send it out, the main complaint I got from editors was that the premise was not believable - and the premise was the part that I had been given as a seed. I couldn't change it without gutting the story. I looked at what I had written, and asked myself, "If an editor says he/she likes this, will I feel happy about having this in the public domain with my name on it?" In the end, I decided I really wouldn't. So I retired the story. I have only ever done this once.

I'm sure that my own personal experiences don't cover all the possibilities here. Have any of you decided to "trunk" stories? Why? I'd be interested to hear your thinking on this subject.


  1. Because technology moves so fast, some of my stories are literally ... obsolete. In some cases, they can be updated. In others, they're dead, curiosities on my hard drive from a time the Internet was new.

    Others I really don't want out there. They were more interesting to write than to read.

  2. Usually I trunk a story when I've entirely lost interest in the piece AND also cannot locate a suitable market for it. This happens more frequently with markedly Christian fiction than other genres, simply because there are far fewer paying markets for Christian short stories. If a market pops up on my radar that I think will work for it, I'll often go ahead and dig the story out to submit, but this happens pretty rarely.

  3. I agree with all three of you on reasons to trunk. I have a bunch of stories that are decent but are in a genre I'm not pursuing at the moment. I have stories with glowing green letters that are dependent on technology that is nostalgic at best at this point, and I have ones that I just don't feel inclined to bring up to my current standards and would be embarrassing to have out there.

    At the same time, I have short stories that still speak to me so I won't give up on them, and I'll trip across older ones that I don't remember anymore which catch hold of me and don't let go. Those are the ones I will not trunk because there are always new markets, but I do still rewrite/retype to make sure they represent my current level of writing.

  4. You made up a good list. I've actually trunked a lot of my short stories...mainly because I don't feel attached to the plot line enouugh to go back and rework it the way it needs to. But, I have one, I have been working on it for years and keep sending out. Recently I got to the point where I just KNOW that it can't be rewritten any more than it has. BUT, oddly enough, this is a story I would seriously consider self-publishing. I will keep sending it out, and I sent it out to a place recently that I think has a lot of possibility to publish it. But, for me, it's largely whether I feel connected to the story or not that makes a difference.

  5. Keyan, interesting point with the obsolete stories. My science fiction tends to be rather retro, so I run into that less often than some people. Thanks for commenting!

    Megan and Margaret, thanks for your comments. I agree that to keep going with a story you have to believe in it. If you've lost interest, that can't help - and even worse if the story embarrasses you!

    Nicole, I think you have much the same idea as Megan and Margaret, of a sense of connection with the work. Thanks for your comment!

  6. I've had to trunk two, one by choice, one not by choice.

    The was my first novel. I had such huge problems with -- I couldn't get past 100 pages. Every time I got stuck, I tried rewriting to see if I could figure out what the problem was. I should have stopped and gone onto another idea, but at the time, they were hard to find, and I'd already invested so much time trying to write this.

    Enter trunked novel #2. Someone approached me about cowriting. He knew I was having problems, and he thought we would be able to cover our weaknesses. I looked at the first novel, thought about. I didn't want to give it up, but I knew at that point that if I stayed with it, I was never going to finish a novel. The easiest thing was to set it aside, work on the new one, and revisit it later. We were able to finish the book, and I looked at the first novel again. I realized one of the problems was that I had grown out of it. I was no longer the same person who wrote it. It was much easier saying it was time to trunk it.

    On the second book, to make a long story short, cowriter and I had a nasty fight that had been building probably for months and was triggered by submitting the story to agents. We broke up, and I had to walk away from the story. He wanted full control of the story, but ended up shelving it himself.

  7. Linda, thanks for your comment! I'm really sorry to hear about the troubles with the co-written novel. Good luck with your new one(s)!

  8. I trunk very few stories. If I run out of markets to submit to and don't want to wait for new ones to open up, I self-publish it.

    However, there are three stories I have actually trunked. All three were published at one point in a magazine where I was a regular contributor. The magazine is long out of print, but while I have been self-publishing the other backlist stories I wrote for that magazines, these three will remain in the trunk, because I am no longer happy with them. I suspect it's because I wrote them to order, based on a scenario that the editor wanted and not one I chose myself.