Some time back, I'm told one of us mentioned Shannon Cain, whose short story "The Necessity of Certain Behaviors" got rejected 24 times and then won the O. Henry Prize. (You can read an excerpt of the story here. To read other excerpts of her stories, click here.) Shannon contacted LROD recently, so we decided to feature her in our "victory over rejection" section. Maybe this will inspire you to go out there and win an NEA grant:
When did you start writing the O. Henry Story?
I wrote the first draft of “The Necessity of Certain Behaviors” in my second semester of graduate school at Warren Wilson, working with the amazing Jim Shepard as my advisor. This was in July 2003.
What prompted your interest in it?
I’d been reading Lorrie Moore and Lydia Davis and Stacey Richter. Their voices got all jumbled in my head, I guess. Mostly “Necessity” was a response to Richter’s story “An Island of Boyfriends,” in which a woman becomes stranded on a desert island inhabited entirely by beautiful, doting men. She still manages to screw up every relationship. I admire her work very much and wanted to be in conversation with it.
How long did it take to finish a first draft?
I’m thinking it must have been about 2 weeks from the time I started it to the day I stuck it in the mail to Jim. Nothing like a deadline to get you moving.
How many revisions did you write?
I wrote eight drafts, mostly because I had a hard time with the ending. Before this became an O. Henry story and before it was accepted by the New England Review, it was the basis for my successful application to the NEA. The version read by the NEA panel had an entirely different ending than the one that was ultimately published. I’d changed it somewhere around rejection number 20, finally taking the advice of another Warren Wilson faculty member, Judith Grossman, who thought the story needed to be treated with greater care from an anthropological perspective. Over the phone I told the NEA literature director that I’d changed the ending and she inhaled in shock and dismay. At that time the story was still pending at a few places, including the New England Review. When the New England Review accepted it, I asked if their editor, Steven DiDonadio, if he would let me publish it with the ending that the NEA panel seemed to like so much. He read the old ending and said no; he liked the one I submitted much better. The two endings are wildly different from one another. When Laura Furman selected the story for the anthology I spent more time thinking about the ending and came to believe it’s really the right one for the story. It’s much happier, more hopeful. I’ve always admired writers that can pull off happy endings, so it’s especially pleasing that this one seems to succeed.
Who reads your drafts?
In grad school my teachers did, of course, but now my best reader is the magnificent Robin Black, who’s on a hot career path as we speak, with the brilliant “Harriet Elliot” in the last issue of One Story and a personal essay in Best Creative Nonfiction, among other honors. We went through the MFA program together. Fiction critique is her superpower. Best of all, she’s a dear friend. She loves me, and would never let me publish a bad story. I wish she’d been around early in my career, when I published a couple of stories that weren’t so great.
What was your overall rejection experience with the story (how many places, who saw it, who rejected, what was said, was there a pattern)?
Including contests, the story was rejected 24 times by editors (or, more likely, slush pile readers) at all my top literary magazines. The Atlantic Monthly said the plot was “too bizarre.” I’d have sent it to the New England Review sooner, but they were busy considering and rejecting other stories; “Necessity” was my fourth attempt there. I kept trying them because of the little notes of encouragement they were sending me. Mostly I didn’t get any commentary at all, just those tiny anonymous slips of paper that make you feel so special.
Did you have an agent at this point? Or did you use your cool O. Henry status to get one? I’d already had an agent for about a year or so by the time the O.Henry was announced. Her assistant had found me by trolling the NEA website and reading the sample work of the 2006 fellows. At the same time, two other agents got in touch with me...one in response to a query letter I’d sent, and another through a story I’d published in the Massachusetts Review. It was completely weird, that convergence of interest all at once. I’d been trying to find an agent for several months, getting rejected or ignored by about a dozen or so. The NEA fellowship didn’t seem to impress most of them. So I found myself with the surreal experience of interviewing three agents over the phone on the same day, trembling all the while with fear and joy. It became immediately clear that Sarah Burnes at the Gernert Company was right for me. She’s so damn smart. When we talked, she didn’t try to pitch me with hints about big advances; she just wanted to discuss my work. After we’d been talking about the stories for an hour, she quietly mentioned a few things about how well she’d done for her clients on the business end of things, which sealed the deal for me. Earlier this year she placed my short story “Cultivation” with Tin House; it just won a 2009 Pushcart. Many agents won’t try to sell stories, but Sarah is a long-term career thinker, which is one of the reasons she’s so great.
Where were you when you found out about O. Henry?
I was home alone, at the computer in the kitchen. The announcement came by email, in prose too elegant to misunderstand. I jumped around the house in sort of a panicked giddiness until I could get my partner, Karin, on the phone. Then I called Robin.
What are you working on now?
I’m writing a novel about love and politics, set in Tucson (although being the consummate New Yorker, my agent Sarah says it’s about sex and real estate). I’ve been at it for two years and the end is in sight, thank god. It’s in its fifth draft, and I’m aiming to get it to Sarah by the end of the summer.
Has your philosophy on getting published changed? Would you do anything differently now? This is going to sound ridiculous, given my experience with rejection. But here goes: getting published is not hard. Writing is hard. Don’t get me wrong: I’m a believer in persistence. But there’s another, strange side to persistence, a sort of American perspective. The Never Give Up attitude. Never give up! Follow Your Dreams! Just Do It! What we don’t hear as excellent ancillary advice is this: Work Your Ass Off! Don’t Assume You Deserve Success Just Because You’re Not Giving Up! Keep Learning! Take Risks! Be Humble! Know Yourself! Revise! Revise! Revise! But if someone had given me that advice years ago when I was first starting out, I’d have ignored it. For all I know, someone did.
Publishers are hungry for great work, fresh voices, originality, solid craftsmanship. My day job is in literary publishing. I read a lot of work by writers that should be hunkering down at their desks learning how to write rather than trying to get their early work into print. Writing stories is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Including childbirth. What I do differently now is to remember to be disciplined and rigorous, and to keep myself humbly open to learning the craft. I no longer rush to publish. I’m working my ass off to make my novel as good as it can be before Sarah starts to shop it around.
What's your view of the rejection experience now?
For a while there my goal was to get 100 rejections a year. In 2006 I made it up to 87, my personal best. Since 2004 my stories have earned 239 rejections. My rejection rate is 97.5 percent. They tell you not to take rejection personally, and I don’t. I separate myself as a person from the work that got rejected. I do pay attention to rejection, because sometimes—often—it means the work isn’t good enough.
What words of advice would you give to a writer, rejected on the journey toward getting published? Ignore punishers’ guidelines about not accepting simultaneous submissions. That’s their rule, not yours.