Category Archives: The Writing Life

Rejection, with a side of Acceptance

Believe it or not, rejection is an important part of every writer’s life. No one is immune. I was reminded of this recently when I read the editor’s column in the July 2018 issue of The Writer. Nicki Porter described the reality of writing submissions, whether the submission is to a magazine editor, a literary agent, or an editor at a publishing house, the mathematics are much the same. Each receives hundreds of submissions a week. Porter wrote: “The amount of manuscripts a typical agent receives in a year could fill three train cars, but the amount she accepts will fill a tidy desk drawer — and she’ll successfully sell even less.” Rejection, then, is an important part of every writer’s life no matter if the writer is a beginner, experienced, or an award-winning author.

I tend to look at rejections the same way I look at mistakes: they are opportunities for learning, for improvement. Yes, each rejection hurts initially, but I learned a long time ago that the rejection is never about me personally. In fact, the rejection might not even be about my writing. Sometimes it’s about an editor who has already scheduled to publish a story similar to mine in theme or story. Or it could be that despite my research into the publication, my story just doesn’t fit it. Once, I even encountered the reason that the publication had changed hands and editors with an entire new approach to the magazine.

When I suspect the rejection is about my writing, that’s an opportunity to go through the story with a more objective eye, an editor’s eye, and revise and tighten it as needed. If an editor takes the time to write a note, I pay close attention to what the editor says in that note. There was one time, however, that I dismissed the note — it was from a young literary agent writing about Perceval’s Secret that I’d submitted to his agency for consideration. The agent expressed interest, but wanted me to change Evan Quinn, the protagonist of the novel (and the subsequent 4 novels in the series), to a woman because female protagonists were “hot” and it would be easier for him to sell to a publisher. The agent didn’t say that the character didn’t work as a male, or even ask me anything about my decision to make Evan a male, or any other comment specifically about Evan Quinn or the story. No. It was what I considered an extremely shallow comment that totally ignored the amount of work already put into the book and the amount of work what would be required to change the gender of the protagonist, not to mention how the gender would radically change the story itself. Needless to say, after politely declining to consider the change, I moved on.

Photo: aliyasking.com

So, how can a writer increase his chances that his submission will be accepted for publication or representation? Here are three essential tips I see over and over in articles about gaining acceptance of one’s literary work:

  • Follow submission guidelines to the letter. The guidelines are not there to amuse or frustrate you. The agent or editor has created them to make his or her job easier for processing submissions. I judge scholarship essays every year, and it never fails to astonish me that 25% of the submissions never make it through the first cut because those writers failed to follow the guidelines.
  • Submit polished writing. Never submit first drafts. Just don’t. It takes at a minimum 3 revisions — and often far more — to get a piece of writing into publishable shape. Do ask for help in the form of first readers or members of your writing group to give you relevant and intelligent feedback about your piece. Do not rely on spellcheck or grammar check. Read your piece out loud. That is hands down the best way to catch grammar and syntax issues as well as word choice issues. When you submit polished writing, you are also showing that you are willing to do the work necessary to make your writing the best it can be.
  • Be a respectful professional. Forget the gimmicks. Follow the submission guidelines. Provide a succinct cover letter that includes what the editor or agent requests – nothing more, nothing less. If you receive a rejection, resist the temptation to fire off an angry or derisive e-mail in response. Doing that marks you as a disrespectful amateur. Every submission is like a job interview for your writing.

Each writer possesses a unique view of the world, a unique writing style, and unique stories to tell. Be true to the process and honor your own uniqueness by writing what you are compelled to write in your own voice. And while you’re at it, forget what other writers are producing or how other writers’ careers are progressing and focus on your own writing life and work. After all, that’s where you are.

Where I write

 

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Thanks to Aanora, I’m on a Mini-Hiatus

For the last two weeks, I’ve been working feverishly to finish the first draft of the Aanora story. It’s going very well!  But, as a result, all my other writing endeavors have had to take a back seat for a while. I love, love, love it when the fiction writing is on fire!

Thanks for your patience. I’ll have more news and a blog post next weekend, I hope!

To Journal or not to Journal?

This weekend, I’ve been thinking a lot about journal writing. I’ve written a journal since I was 11 years old, not always daily but I’ve kept at it all these years. The last few years I haven’t written for long periods of time. I miss it. The hole not journal writing leaves in my day is a different kind of hole that not fiction writing leaves. I know the reason revolves around how I use my journal and the kind of writing I do in it.

First of all, my journal is not for publication. This rule evolved gradually over the years when working through personal problems in my journal (writing as therapy) competed with describing how my days had gone or the people I knew. I use my journal now as a friend that I spend some time with when I can; i.e., to spend time with myself writing in my journal and learning how I’m doing in my life. I rarely use my journal as a place to work out problems with my fiction or nonfiction — I do that separately and keep a small notepad in my purse to jot down ideas when they come to me.

This past week, I was reminded of another way I’ve used my journal in the past. I have kept separate journals when I’ve traveled, describing the trip, the sights, the people, the smells, food, sounds, and anything else that grabs me. They have become valuable records of major trips that I’ve taken, usually outside the country. There are three trips that I actually typed up the journal of them to share with family and friends, something I would not normally do with my journal.

Years ago, when the Troubles still raged in Northern Ireland, I traveled there to visit a pen friend who lived outside Belfast. We had been corresponding with each other since childhood but hadn’t met until I flew there to spend a week with her and her husband before traveling on to Vienna, Austria. I dug out that journal this weekend because I was talking with a co-worker on Friday about that trip. I’ve been reading through it — re-living the trip — this weekend and marveling at my writing. It’s actually quite good which surprises me. But I had not remembered the great extent the Troubles had dominated everything while I was there — I was hyper aware of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (their police) as well as the British soldiers we saw, the signs of bombings, the different areas blocked off as “Control Zones” where parking was prohibited to prevent car bombs, my friends’ vigilance when we were out in public, being frisked to walk into the center of Belfast or into some other controlled area, the graffiti, and how open people were about talking about the Troubles at home but never in public. It was a shock to me at the time, an education I had not expected.

Lough Neagh (Photo: Andi Perullo de Ledesma)

In contrast, I also wrote about meeting people, playful children, visiting museums, famous sites (like the spot where King William III is supposed to have stepped onto the island), castles, tea rooms, Giant’s Causeway, the spring flowers and the hedgerows looking like the stitching in the many shades of green countryside quilt, getting used to driving on the left side of the road, shopping, and the lady at the post office who refused to allow me to affix the stamps to my postcards. So, to my surprise all these years later, my journal is not only a record of an enjoyable and happy trip visiting friends, but also an historical snapshot of a part of the UK caught up in violence.

To journal or not to journal? Reading my Northern Ireland journal this weekend has reminded me of the place my journal writing holds in my life. It is much different from blogging — I write my journal in longhand with a, usually, ballpoint pen in a spiral notebook — because it is much more personal in nature for me. I miss writing and spending time with myself in my journal every day.

Do you write a journal? If so, why? Would you publish your journal eventually or no?

Photo: panerabread.com

Facing the Blank Page…Again

Every writer I know has trouble writing. — Joseph Heller

The blank page taunts me again. It demands my attention, requires me to make the Big Decision. In order to do what they love, writers make sacrifices. Some writers don’t think of them as sacrifices while others feel guilty about them. Writers also need to really get to know how their minds work in order to survive writing. Curiosity rules the writer’s mind, especially a curiosity of why human beings behave as they do. Trouble writing can be about the writing itself (find the right words, editing, grammar, narrative structure, etc.) or about creating the conditions in a life in order to be able to sit at the desk to write.

Yesterday, a realization seared my mind. The Blank Page was throwing a tantrum in order to get my attention, and when I stopped long enough to pay attention, the thought marched through my mind like a screaming subtitle across the screen of my life: I needed to focus my attention and just do it.

What does that mean? For the rest of the day, I reflected, had discussions with myself in my mind, and finally realized that I’d been giving myself too many free passes. My Attention Butterfly flits from one interest to another, never staying too long in one place before moving on to something else. My imagination latches on to an idea and spins endless variations on it, testing different directions, capturing my attention away from what I know is most important to me in my life. Granted, it’s been a rough year lifewise, and that’s interfered with a lot. But it looks like my life will be settling down and now it’s time to return to my creative process and trust it.

My “Office”

What does that mean? The short answer: I need to laser aim my focus on my writing. I feel a tremendous pressure, both mentally and physically, to stop restlessly wandering and concentrate on my creative process, figure out what I need to do to nurture it now, and then spend the time I need to spend to get down on paper (or the computer screen) all the stories that have been skipping around in my mind lately. I’ve known for a long time that my ravenous curiosity can consume me, and what I need to do is put it on a diet of writing or writing-related food. It’s particularly helpful when I’m doing research for something, and I’ll need to ratchet it up to research questions that have been coming up as I’ve been working on the Aanora story.

So, the “blank page” I’m writing about this time isn’t actually a piece of paper or the computer screen, but the dedication to writing. I have writing projects lined up like planes on a runway. But the control tower isn’t paying attention.

I know what I need to do, and I’m determined to do it again as I have in the past in order to write and write and write, i.e. establish a writing schedule and cut everything else out of my life. A comment by a writer in a magazine yesterday also hit home — the writer was talking about how the more writing a writer does on a consistent schedule, usually daily, the better the writing becomes, the faster it hits the page. I experienced this in 2007 when I edited a draft of Perceval’s Secret, then immediately wrote the first draft of Perceval’s Shadow and half of the first draft of Perceval in Love in about 10 months before life stepped in front of that writing train and stopped it cold.  I would love to get that kind of momentum going again, even with a fulltime job stealing time away from the writing during the work week.

My imagination is ready. My mind is ready. What about yours?

P. S. If you’d like to read my first Facing the Blank Page, it’s here.

When Inspiration Strikes

Dust Sculptures in Rosette Nebula (Photo credit/copyright: John Ebersole

I wrote one of my favorite blog posts, “Inspiration Doesn’t Wait for You,” here almost ten years ago, and as I read it over this morning, I realized that it is the best description of my writing process that I’ve written. However, it doesn’t really describe how, when, or where inspiration can strike when it does strike. So how do I know when to be open to it? I’ve been thinking about this lately because ideas have been popping into my head at the oddest times.

Housecleaning

One large project I’ve been working on (at the same time I’m looking for a fulltime job) is thoroughly cleaning my apartment. It’s not a huge apartment, but the clutter had been accumulating, as it usually does, as well as the dust and dirt. So I’ve been working on the cleaning a little at a time to keep this project manageable and not overwhelming. I detest housework of any kind. But I love it when my living space smells fresh and gleams. To distract myself while I’m doing this onerous task, I usually pick music I love to listen to while I work — could be classical, classic rock, or a Broadway musical.

I’ve just created conditions conducive for my imagination to come out and play. At some point while I’m cleaning, a thought will pop into my head about fiction or an essay that I’m working on. The most recent example occurred while I was cleaning in my bedroom — the thought came to me that my short story Light the Way was as much about different people having different expectations about the same thing as it was about the main character sharing her experience. I wrote a note to myself and finished the cleaning for the day. The next time I worked on that short story, I revised to make clearer the different expectations aspect of the story.

In the Shower

On Sundays, I like to have a relaxing, quiet day, and one of the things I do is take a nice, long, hot shower. My mind wanders all over the place, often thinking about the week ahead, what I accomplished in the past week, and my writing. Or I’ll start daydreaming about traveling or outer space, or being rich. Usually, when I’m almost finished, that’s when the idea will pop into my head. The most recent example of this occurred last Sunday. And the idea came to me with a physical jolt. I needed to rework one section of the Aanora story to add a little trip to another dimension for her to show another character something relevant to him in terms of character development and their relationship. It was one of those things of “Why didn’t I think of that before?” it was so obvious after I thought of it.

My suspicion: inspiration is like a cat stalking me, its prey, and that cat only pounces when she sees that I’m in the perfect position (or state of mind) to be captured. And I do often feel “captured” by a strike of inspiration.

Between Sleep and Wakefulness

Of course, it’s easy to think of inspiration striking while daydreaming or listening to music. That happens to me also, especially when I’m listening to music. But another fertile time occurs in the bleary state between sleep and wakefulness. I feel like I’m rising up or floating up or rocketing up depending on whether my alarm clock has gone off or not. The other morning, as I was slowly coming out of sleep, a sentence popped into my mind. Yep.  Just like that. I heard myself saying the words, and then I realized, oh my god, it’s the first sentence I’ve been seeking for Perceval’s Shadow. Now, I’m not working on the revision of that novel right now. In fact, I haven’t thought much about it because I’ve been trying to finish the short stories I have in progress. So for this gift of a sentence to come to me now is truly magical.

Inspiration can be courted but not coerced. Demand what you will from it, but prepare to be disappointed. Inspiration will not be forced. Invite it into your life and then provide welcoming conditions to entice it but don’t just sit around waiting for it to arrive. Do something! Write something everyday, read voraciously, clean house, take a shower, or take a nap….

Photo: Vasillisa/GoodFon.su