I have been writing fiction, with a notable lack of success, ever since I first learned to apply a fat black pencil to wide-lined paper. My unheralded output includes a couple of unsold novels and wads of short stories. My rejection-slip collection contains vintage beauties from magazines that haven't existed for decades.
The sting of rejection was always assuaged by the fact that I had a parallel writing career as a reporter, newscaster and foreign correspondent. My stuff got published, and many of the events I covered had all the strangeness, beauty and pain of good fiction. But now I'm retired, and I'm approaching fiction again, late in life. Whereas some of my contemporaries have become old masters, I feel like an old beginner. At least, I have the old beginner's dilemma. I have lots of life experience and lots of material, much of it exotic and some quite disturbing, but I don't always know how to approach it to achieve fictional truth.
I find a couple of things are really helpful to me at this point. One is that I've been lucky enough to join a good writers' group. I was invited by my neighbor, who enticed me in by lending me her copy of Binocular Vision by Edith Pearlman. What better declaration of artistic purpose could there be? My colleagues in the group are active, productive writers who publish in journals such as Zoetrope: All-Story and The Missouri Review. Our monthly meetings are convivial but purposeful. Presenters are expected to have work that's ready to critique, and reviewers are expected to give each piece their thoughtful attention. Everything I've submitted lately has gone through this process, and it has always been improved. Good groups are hard to find, but the company of serious writers can make you so much better.
I've also been paying a lot closer attention to the market. I read and research every magazine thoroughly before I decide to submit. I subscribe to my favorites. Some aren't a good fit for me, because I find them "writing-heavy" rather than "story-heavy." Some have themes that don't suit my preoccupations. But many present opportunities that I might not otherwise find. For instance, a flash-fiction contest led me to re-purpose the opening lines from a much longer story that never came together. Calls for themed issues inspired me to re-visit some pieces from a different point of view.
The result is that I've started getting more work accepted, and even when editors decline a piece, I'm getting more encouraging rejections. It's a gift when editors or readers provide feedback and specific comments. It provides me with guidance for possible revisions, and it helps to build relationships that may be helpful in the future.
It's not that I'm so old that I already feel the breath of eternity. When that time comes, it'll be something new to write about. But I am more aware that life doesn't go on forever, and no writer really has time to waste.