Fish Every Cast
by Eric M. Witchey
My father was an avid sport fisherman, so my head is full of little gems of parental wisdom couched in angling metaphors.
More on that in a minute. First, a joke.
Have you heard the one about the aspiring writer who asked the editor, “What is the difference between a manuscript you accept and one you reject?” The editor smiled, sipped her wine, and quipped, “Lunch.”
In Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” Scrooge suggests to Marley that the ghost might be the result of a bit of underdone potato. We are all glad Marley wasn’t, but he might have been. Scrooge’s experience and the editor’s quip share very significant characteristics. Marley really is a ghost, and Scrooge embraces the possibility that human perception is influenced by environmental factors. The editor’s response assumes that the manuscript is a story, and she also embraces the knowledge that her perceptions might be influenced by blood sugar or general attitude in the moment.
Where Marley is actually a ghost, the editor’s assumption that the manuscript is a story is a huge and kind assumption. She is really only speaking to the selection between two stories from equally skilled writers. She has, in her mind, automatically dismissed the other 99% of her slush pile. Given her obscene workload, we have to allow for that.
Keep our hypothetical editor in mind for a moment while I return to my father. We used to go bass fishing on a pond in the woods at the back end of a Catholic Seminary in Ohio. That pond is where I learned to use a spin-caster. I can still hear my father saying, “If you want to learn to cast well, cast more.” I have fond memories of that place.
Now, having travelled the world and fished in many places, I can say that the little pond of my childhood was a bit of a shithole. It was choked in weeds. It was surrounded by a wall of cattails ten feet thick in places, which made water access difficult. Additionally, that pond wasn’t more than fifty yards from a landfill where we used to shoot rats, but that’s another story. Luckily, the shithole pond was full of nasty, hungry bass.
Learning to cast was an exercise in managing mind, body, equipment, and environment. Little-by-little, under the patient tutelage of my father, I got the hang of finding access, seeing where the bass might hang out, flipping the bail on my reel, letting out a little line, locking the line with a finger, swinging the rod to load the fiberglass and establish the throwing arc, and releasing the line by pointing my finger at the spot where I wanted my bass lure to land. Then, I learned to work my lures in the water in order to attract bass.
I caught bass.
However, and I actually started keeping track because that’s how my sad little OCD brain works, I only caught a bass about every 50 casts. Now, it turned out that in 50 casts, a fair number of them went astray of my intentions—especially early on while learning to cast by casting a lot.
One day, while trying hard to impress my father with my casting (and catching), I sent a hoola-popper (bass lure) out into the lily pads and tangled vines of elodea (weeds). That was not what I wanted. It was embarrassing because my father was standing next to me watching, so I quickly started to real the lure in to try again.
My father put a hand on my frantically cranking arm to still it. In his quiet, fishing voice, he said, “Fish every cast. You never know what might happen.”
Frustration at my failure battled with my desire to appear as though I believed my father. That day, the desire to please won out over my frustration. I slowed down. I worked the lure, and I caught a bass in the middle of the weedy, mucky, lily pad-laden shallows.
What has all this to do with writing, Scrooge, and jokes?
Well, in case you don’t already see it coming, it has everything to do with them. Sometime in the last few years, and I won’t say exactly when, I won an award for a story that had been rejected 65 times. That’s not an exaggeration, and I won’t name the story here for the same reasons I won’t pin down the timeframe more specifically. No organization wants to believe they gave an award to a story that other editors had rejected 65 times, but that prejudice is a human foible to explore another time.
The point here is that the story didn’t change over the almost 15 years it took before an editor had the right things at lunch to set their mood and allow them to embrace it. The manuscript was always a story, and it was always a “good enough” story. I put it out on the pond over and over and over because you have to cast 50 times to catch a bass. I put it in the lily pads. I put it in the elodea. I put in open water. I hit the bank. I got it tangled in the trees. Then, one day, it magically became the right story in the right place with the right editor, who, incidentally, had had the right things for lunch. In short, I caught a fish in the weedy, mucky, lily pad-laden shallows.
If, as writers, we are sure the manuscript is a well-crafted story, then it is important for us to remember that my father was a wise man. When he said, “If you want to learn to cast, cast more,” and, “fish every cast,” he wasn’t talking about fishing. Fishing was just the tool he used to slip his wisdom past my anti-parental advice defenses.
Every story is a lure. Every submission is a cast. You can never be completely sure which lure and which cast will bring a trophy bass up out of the muck and weeds. So, cast more and fish every cast.
I have to say one more very important thing. Editors are not bass. I never said that they are bass. Don’t ever tell them that they are a bass. That’s a very bad thing. Editors are people who have nothing whatsoever in common with bass. It also helps to buy them good lunches. Never let an editor eat a bad lunch.
PS: I’m adding this post script about thirty minutes before this blog entry is scheduled to go live because I just found out that the one and only science fiction story I have written about a boy and his father teaching one another to fish just sold to Daily Science Fiction. The story is titled, “Vincent’s First Bass.” I love it when the universe throws these tiny convergence parties.