The Big Rush, or What I Learned from Sending a Story Out Too Soon


By Julie Wu

I stood outside Columbia’s main gate at 116th and Broadway with Professor K.  It was evening, after his fiction workshop, and he smoked as always, squinting and throwing his cigarette butts after the receding tail lights of roaring buses and yellow cabs.  He was, to me, the quintessential, old-fashioned writer–a Raymond Carver contemporary who had drunk and smoked away the decades, who lived by himself and told stories about his lady friend, a former escort.  Sometimes we went, with or without a bunch of my classmates, to a café to schmooze, but I was in a rush to study for an exam.  It was 1996, toward the end of my final semester of medical school–the only semester in which I’d been able to take a writing course.

“You should get published as soon as possible,” Professor K said in his ravaged voice.  “Because then, when you see your name in print, you’ll feel obligated to write more.  Now, as for the story of yours that’s most ready to go out as is—” He punched the air with his cigarette, and named one of my stories.

I moved to Boston for my medical residency.  Between shifts, I researched literary magazines and sent out that story.  Of course, Professor K and the rest of the class had given me critiques.  Several people complained that the story’s ending—the protagonist’s final choice, wasn’t convincing.  I changed a sentence here or there, and thought that should be enough.  I liked my story and the man had said, “as is,” so I sent it out.

I got one rejection slip after another.  Some of them had handwritten comments:  Sorry.  The story made it through several rounds, but . . .  Sorry.  We felt it missed a bit of this, a bit of that.  Please keep us in mind for your next piece.  Sorry.

During Professor K’s workshop I had dreamed up the stories whole.  I had sat on my bed in the dark and drawn up the characters until I could see them there in my memory, hear their voices, know their fears.  I knew I couldn’t write a word until they were real to me.  I couldn’t rush to pin them down or they would dissolve into meaningless words, people with checklists for personalities.  If I needed to look at notes to remember them and their struggles, how memorable would these characters be to someone else?

But once I had printed that story out, it fossilized in my mind.  I didn’t want to mess with the images I had created, and so I revised it without reimagining it.  After it was rejected, I continued, sporadically, blindly pushing words around.  I changed the ending back and forth.  The protagonist chose A.  No, B.  No, A.  B.  I sent it out, and again it was politely, but definitively, rejected.  Again the handwritten notes told me I was close, but missing something.  I started sending out my other stories, too, the ones Professor K had said weren’t ready.  Not suprisingly, they were rejected, too.

I abandoned short stories and wrote a novel.  Maybe short stories weren’t my thing.  In a book, I had more elbow room.

It was in the process of writing and rewriting the book over many years that I learned something: when I revise, I have to put down my pen and shut down my computer.  I have to sit in the quiet again and re-imagine the story, thinking it through until it feels real.  I learned something else: a good ending doesn’t start at the end of the story.  It starts at the beginning.  The ending must be surprising, but inevitable.  If the ending doesn’t make sense, tweaking the last page won’t fix it.  It’s the setup that needs fixing, and in a short story, the setup is the story.  I needed to revise my old story from the very beginning.

I finally sold a story in 2010, fourteen years after my workshop with Professor K, and it was not the story he had thought was ready.  As soon as possible turned out to be, in my case, not very soon at all.  But I’m glad my old story wasn’t published “as is,” because it simply didn’t make any sense.  Now I believe I can write it properly.  I can shut down my computer and dream, breaking the story down from the beginning and reassembling it by the light of experience on and off the page.  I’ll write when the story feels real.   I won’t rush.  And when I send it out, this time it will be the best it can be.




  1. I love this post — especially this: “I can shut down my computer and dream…” Great advice!

  2. Erika Robuck says:

    I love the way you crafted this essay. I can see you and Professor K vividly in each scene, and your advice is very good. Nice post!

    • Julie Wu says:

      Thanks, Erika! Finding the right angle for this essay took a bit of dreaming and false starts, as well, so I’m very pleased that it works for you!

  3. P. Jo Anne Burgh says:

    I’m in the process of revising (and re-revising) a story, and I was nearly at the point of saying, “Oh, fine, I’ll just send it out as is.” Thanks so much for showing me why I should wait until it’s truly ready instead of “as is”!

    • Julie Wu says:

      Glad to be useful, P. Joe Anne! I try to ask myself if my work is truly the best I can make it. If it’s not, there’s work to be done.

      Good luck with your story!

  4. We’ve all sent something out before it was ready. I’m mortified by manuscripts I queried early on in this process. But it was part of the process of getting there. In the case of writing, if it doesn’t kill us, it does indeed make us stronger (writers.)

    • Julie Wu says:

      You’re right, Priscille. It’s all part of the learning process. And I can only thank my lucky stars my novel wasn’t published in the form it was the first time I sent it out. Thank goodness for discriminating agents and editors, who save us from a lot of potential embarrassment! Thanks for your comment!

  5. I have tried to explain this realization several times, but have never succeeded as clearly as you have. I think this is one of those lessons every writer has to learn on her own. We hear people say it, but until we get our own rejections and learn to really dig into revisions, we don’t quite believe it applies to us. But, of course, it does. Nice post!

    • Julie Wu says:

      Thanks so very much, Annie! You’re right. I’m sure every writer has to get over the same hurdle. It’s so hard to have perspective on your own work and realize you need to really revise down deep.

  6. Good post. I think I have the opposite problem. I spend so much time revising that I’m hesitant to send out a story. During the past year, however, I’ve pushed past that and am trying to “know when to let go.” I guess it’s all part of the writing and publishing process.

    • Julie Wu says:

      Thanks, Denise! I’m so grateful for your comment. I know exactly what you mean. It’s a different journey for everyone and not every novelist wants to debut at 46, as I will next year. There is of course a balance between too much and too little revision!

  7. Dell Smith says:

    Great post, Julie. I’m never sure when my stories are ready (finished, done) but you give some wonderful insight into the process. How a story’s ending starts at the beginning of the story. I never really thought of it that way before, but it makes absolute sense–You train the reader how to read your story, and you have to include an ending that allows the setup (the beginning) to follow through to a logical conclusion.

    • Julie Wu says:

      Thanks so much, Dell! I made a mistake with this story in that I tried to make the ending a surprise, but I did not quite understand that the best surprise endings don’t just surprise–they also illuminate the story and make you think, “of course.”

      Thanks for commenting!

  8. Amy Herlihy says:

    Well said, Julie! We met at Backspace this year and these are wise words for an aspiring novelist like me!