February 24, 2022 § 30 Comments
Last month I responded to 113 essays and book beginnings. A fraction of what a literary magazine might see in submissions; a lot for me to comment on. Nobody got a form rejection, because the pages were for a webinar—What’s Wrong with this Work: Turning Rejections into Publications—and the learning was the point. The authors listed their previous rejections from literary magazines, mass media, websites and agents, as many as 35 rejections for a single essay.
I hadn’t expected so many submissions. About 50 had arrived, and I’d been on a roll, picking pieces to edit live while screen-sharing during the webinar, and thought “Sure, I can do one comment on everyone!” Then the coordinator sent a reminder email. I wasn’t publicly committed to 113 responses—officially, I needed 2-5 volunteers—but I’m glad I plowed through them all, because I needed to know this and so do you:
It’s probably not your writing.
By “your writing” I mean sentence-level prose. The ability to frame a paragraph, write a rounded character, show setting and imply backstory. Almost every essay was well-written, from competently to marvelously. I only told two writers: “Consider working with a writing group or taking a class to improve your craft—your story is bigger than your ability to tell it right now.”
So why were they getting rejected? For that matter, why are you? And what can you do about it?
Many well-written pieces made a good point but didn’t say anything new. Writing about the pandemic, cancer, addiction, aging parents or cultural racism? Your angle must be something we haven’t heard many times before—and/or your writing must be incredibly moving or incredibly funny. The world doesn’t want another “sorry about being a white lady” piece. Sorry.
For memoirs, most opening pages lacked cultural relevance. How does your story intersect with the larger world now? What makes your book more than a family album?
Fix this: Read widely in the publication you want to be in and in your genre. What’s already being talked about? How can you add to the conversation? Make your fresh angle or new insights clear from the first page.
Many essays with strong concepts lacked a dramatic arc. The stakes weren’t clear. A series of observations showed another person’s character, or the narrator retold past events without a clear choice in the present. “Slice of life” pieces portrayed a particular family or group, but read as charming collections of characters rather than a personal journey for anyone.
Fix this: Ask of your essay, “What’s my state at the beginning? What’s my state at the end? What made me change and where in the essay does that moment of realization happen?” If you can’t put your finger on a sentence showing change, you don’t have a story.
Style of Writing/Where It Was Submitted
Literary essays had been rejected by mass media. Essays with the style and tone of mass media had been rejected from literary magazines. I could see why the authors were confused—they had strong writing and great stories! But they were trying to wear a ballgown to change the oil. Great dress, wrong place.
Fix this: Pick three recent pieces from your chosen publication. Analyze paragraph by paragraph. Where is the premise established? What’s an active scene and what’s imagery or reflection? Does the writer give advice, tell personal anecdotes, reference needed cultural change? That’s mass media. Crying at the end but you’re not sure why? Literary all the way. Now analyze your own work: do you see similar components to the published pieces?
When too many names, places or events show up in the first few paragraphs, the reader gets confused before they get oriented. They’re trying to track who or what will be important, and they don’t yet have the background to care about anyone.
Fix this: Count the nouns. Seriously. People, places, things. How many concrete things are in your opening? If there are more than three proper nouns, three objects or one location, make sure you have a specific reason to put them there…and that it’s working.
Opening with Death
I’ve seen many memoirs open with a loved one’s death, then flashback to fill in the story. But we don’t know why the person you’re mourning matters! You’re asking the reader to attend a stranger’s funeral and fully empathize with the chief mourner.
Fix this: The death was a big event…but this is still your story. Where does your journey begin? Start there.
Not many magazines take essays over 5000 words, and not many readers want to soldier through one. Most mass media essays are 900-2000 words, with the sweet spot around 1500. Most literary magazines take work up to about 25 double-spaced pages. Over 5000 words is long for personal essay that’s not deeply researched or culturally situated, and you’ll probably need previous publication credits in big-name, similar journals, or even a shorter piece in the same magazine.
Fix this: If your story’s big, make a choice: either tell sections of it in a couple of shorter essays; or write the whole book.
Rejection is often not “bad writing.” Often, the submission is a mismatch with the venue, the opening is muddy or the overall point isn’t clear, or someone’s narrating their family album. You can fix this. Why not pick your favorite piece without a home, and fix it now?
Want more of Allison’s writing advice? Join the upcoming webinar Writing Memoir for YA and Middle Grade, with tips and techniques for learning the market, writing a captivating memoir, and getting published.
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor.
January 13, 2022 § 18 Comments
For editors, rejection is often a gut-level process: they’ve edited this journal for 5, 10, 15 years; they know instinctively if a piece doesn’t fit. For writers, rejection sucks. No matter how much we know that rejection is not feedback, we take it to heart. Question our worth. Wonder if we’ll ever write anything publishable. Rejection’s sting is the price we pay for the occasional, glorious feeling of acceptance—that we can’t predict or control.
But we can control our work. Often, a piece that’s been rejected multiple times has an identifiable problem. Take a look at your orphan essay, book or pitch. One of these issues might apply:
You’re submitting to the wrong outlet. The lowest bar to clear. Editor after editor has told me that half—half!—of what they receive is “wrong.” Not necessarily poorly written, but sent to the wrong place. A sweet personal essay sent to bitterly satirical McSweeney’s. A pitch about wolverine conservation sent to Glamour. Here at Brevity, we receive many submissions over 750 words, some of them thousands of words over. Double-check the guidelines and know the venue.
You’re submitting far above your skill level. Does our writing belong in the publication we admire? It’s hard to judge our own work, so judge theirs. Ideally, you’re already reading that press’s books, or essays on that website. Go back to a real stand-out, one that made you think, Wow. What makes this writing impressive? What tools did the author use? Was it a lyrical voice, a gripping plot, a whiplash structure? Take a look at your own recent work. Are you actively or instinctively using those same (or similar) tools? This can be a sign you’re reaching for the right level.
The piece starts too early. Does your first page, paragraph or chapter situate the reader clearly in the story? Or is it backstory, set-up, or explanation? Start the reader in “the room where it happens” rather than giving a house tour first. See what happens if you chop your essay’s first paragraph. For a book, cut the first 50 pages—then figure out what needs to be added back.
The piece ends too late. About half the essays I edit can cut the last line, sometimes even the last paragraph. The other half need a sharper “button” to feel satisfyingly finished. Why so many problems at the end? Perhaps we subconsciously need to be certain our point is made. Maybe we honestly don’t know where the story ends. Great endings are often deceptively simple, so we may not have worked on that element of our craft.
Does your piece end with a summary, explanation, justification or excuse? Summarizing and explaining tell the reader, I’d better spell it out in case you aren’t smart enough to get it. Justifying and excusing say, I haven’t fully examined my role in this situation; I know I’m not the hero but I don’t want to be a villain, and they tell the reader, I’m not truly ready to write about this yet.
Instead, use the last line to usher the reader into a larger image, gently enfold them in your confident arms, or rip off their bandaid. More on endings here.
There’s too much filtering language.
I looked at James as he stomped over.
I knew his balled-up fists meant trouble, and I felt terrified.
I heard him shout my name.
“Looked,” “felt,” and “heard,” all remind the reader, “There’s a narrator seeing and feeling and hearing these things. You’re reading a book.”
James stomped over, his fists ready for trouble. “Caroline!”
Removing filtering puts the reader more in the emotion of the scene. They can feel for us, instead of being told what we felt. Editing out most filtering language will immediately improve your work and increase your chances of acceptance.
Not making the abstract concrete. Often, our work deals with higher-level concepts, and it should! But are you embodying those concepts in concrete situations or action? If you grew up in poverty, are you telling how crappy that felt, how the other kids weren’t kind…or making “poverty” visible?
We bought mac and cheese from the dollar store and made it with water instead of milk.
Read your work. Can you make abstract concepts concrete?
No space for the reader. Explaining, filtering, excess set-up and wrap-up are all the same problem: we’re worried our audience won’t “get it.” As memoirists, this hits even closer to home—what if someone reads my book and they don’t understand me? What if I don’t sound logical, or reasonable? What if I don’t make sense? But spelling everything out distances the reader. Instead of offering the whole picture, spread out the pieces. Make the reader a detective. Let them put clues together, notice dialogue and actions that seemingly contradict each other, guess a character’s thoughts from their gestures. Don’t lay the evidence out neatly with an explanation—meet them on the page to investigate the scene of the crime.
Seeing what’s wrong in our own work is hard. Be methodical in your later drafts. Identify what great writers are doing and try those techniques. Make checklists of specific elements to fix, change, and write better next time. Rejection’s hard, but it’s not forever—and the more we work to anticipate and fix problems in our writing before submission, the more likely we’ll be able to send our words into the world.
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Tired of rejection? Join her and Creative Nonfiction magazine for What’s Wrong with this Work? Turning Rejections into Publications January 19th (yes there’s a recording). Register here.
On Continuing to Love and Support My Favorite Literary Journals That Have Rejected Me and Knowing When It’s Time to Cancel
April 7, 2021 § 10 Comments
By Melody Heide
The short essay took several years, dozens of drafts, and multiple peer critiques but finally, finally, it felt ready—the last image, the last metaphor clicked into place to make the whole thing come together in what felt like, to me, a satisfying read.
I sent it out to my top four literary journals—the ones I subscribe to, the ones I read cover to cover, the ones I felt might be a good home for this little essay. Four literary journals is my own personal magic number right now; it is what I have the time and resources for and this past year I decided to try and only submit to the literary journals I regularly read and support.
Rejections came quickly from three of them; I was sad and disappointed but also, if I’m honest, angry. I’ve financially supported these journals for years! I bought gift subscriptions! I talked them up on social media! I even went to journal sponsored conferences! I felt that dangerous You owe me.
I dwelled in this cocktail of hurt feelings for over a week. I thought, I’ll show you! I’ll stop subscribing, I’ll stop reading, I’ll stop sharing. But when I toyed with this decision a wave of grief came —I truly love these journals.
These journals have enlivened my interior life; they’ve given me poems and stories that I’ve returned to over and over, that I’ve shared with friends and with students. They’ve provided opportunities through conferences and workshops for time and space to work on my own writing, to work with brilliant writers and thinkers. In those places and spaces I’ve made life-long friends.
I do not subscribe and support these journals solely because if I do so they’ll publish my work (though of course I hope they will); first and foremost I subscribe and support because they give to the world beauty, thoughtfulness, and a diversity of voices and perspectives. I’ll continue honing my work—I’d still like to see my writing in their pages—but, at least through a cycle of three rejections, I’ll also continue reading, sharing, supporting, and attending conferences and classes.
Yes, a cycle of three rejections. I have given myself another rule because I believe boundaries are important, I believe it’s essential to protect time and resources, and I believe in believing your own work is good and worthy of publication—after the third rejection from each journal, I re-evaluate. Perhaps the things I’m writing do not fit with the aesthetic of the journal, perhaps it’s time to start looking elsewhere, perhaps it’s time to discover a new journal, a new world, a new place for my writing to hopefully call home.
The relationship between a writer and a literary journal is a strange one. Who owes who what? Literary journals can’t survive without subscriptions and support and it’s hard for writers, who generally aren’t getting paid, to survive, to grow, without validation and encouragement. You owe me feels icky—an internalized, Americanized type of transactional relationship. But writers want and need to publish and literary journals want and need subscribers. Even though the literary journal can’t survive without its subscribers, it still holds most of the power.
And that’s why my rules for submitting, subscribing, and knowing when it’s time to cancel and start discovering other literary journals makes sense for me right now. I don’t want to unsubscribe out of anger or even out of a flex for power; I want to say thank you for what you’ve given me, maybe it’s time for me to discover something new.
Melody Heide’s writing has appeared in Blue Lake Review, Switchback Magazine, and the anthology Love & Profanity: A Collection of True, Tortured, Wild, Hilarious, Concise, and Intense Tales of Teenage Life. She lives in Minnesota and teaches writing classes at Anoka-Ramsey Community College.
January 1, 2019 § 59 Comments
It’s midnight in New York but I’m already twelve hours into 2019, because I’m in India. Last night I ate Chinese food and passed the leftovers through a taxi window, saying to the beggar, “It’s non-veg, OK?” Last night my taxi driver pulled over by the side of the road so he could pee against a wall. Last night I was already in bed and mostly asleep by midnight, waking only to type a little bit on a book-in-progress, because my personal superstition is that whatever I’m doing on New Year’s, that’s what my year will be like.
Last week I had almost no WiFi, power or heat, and crashed my computer moments before getting on a plane to a part of north India with no Apple Store. Mostly, it was exhilarating, and good to be off social media. It was also a pain in the ass, making it difficult to return editing projects or even work on them. In one of the few moments of cell reception, I instinctively checked my email.
Of course there was a rejection, a painful one. I’d tied a lot of hope into that submission, and the rejection was kind and thoughtful and had a bit of feedback. But for the first time I had the feeling I’ve heard other writers describe but hadn’t personally felt: I wasn’t a writer any more. This was it. I didn’t want to write anything again, ever. Sure, I’d probably edit some people’s work for money, but writing wasn’t for me, it wasn’t about me, it wasn’t a world I belonged in. I was wasting my time. Part of my brain was gently reminding me, You tell writers all the time that one rejection doesn’t mean anything, it only means your work wasn’t the right fit for that person at that time. But I cried myself to sleep as quietly as possible so I wouldn’t wake my husband, and I’m crying as I write this now, because it still sucks.
That’s the missing piece for most of us as writers. We believe that somehow, somewhere, there’s a place for us where writing doesn’t suck. Where we’re happy with our quality of work, we’re getting published enough in the places we want that rejection still stings a little but doesn’t debilitate us. Where we can see the light at the end of the tunnel, even when the tunnel’s long.
That’s writing’s nasty little secret. That’s the horrible underbelly of great art, the Achilles’ heel of incredible physical prowess, the flip side of being good at anything.
Being good doesn’t lift you out of failure.
In fact, the better you get, the more awful failure feels, because you can’t let it go with “Oh, I wasn’t ready,” or “Yeah, that magazine is just really hard to get into.” You start to feel like you’ve paid your dues, you’ve put your time in, and when is success going to show up please, because it’s getting late?
Olympic gymnasts still break bones. Olympic hopefuls don’t get on the team because someone they beat in practice ran faster than them today. Movie stars don’t get cast because the producers aren’t sure how they’ll do in the Asian market. Writers don’t get published because their book doesn’t land on the right person’s desk at the right time. Or because they aren’t ready. Or because they suck.
All of those situations feel the same on the other end. They all feel like “I suck,” and “I suck” is a hard feeling to climb out of.
As writers, we are told over and over again, it’s hard work. Just keep doing it. We try our hardest to believe that, while still hoping it’s not true. While hoping the feeling of writing something wonderful, something we’re really proud of, will carry us through rejection and writer’s block and ennui, and sometimes it does.
The day after the Olympic trials, the gymnast who failed has two choices: Quit, or go back to the gym. It sucks to go back to push-ups and flip drills and conditioning when you know your friends are training for the big time. But it’s easier to condition than to create new choreography from the depths of heartbreak. It’s easier to embrace the routine.
Right now, what I’d really like to do is get on a plane and fly across time zones until I’m back when the rejection hadn’t happened yet. What I’d like to do is quit.
What I’m actually doing is writing a blog post in a hotel lobby, after working a little on a novel and a lot on a writing craft book. Trying to practice what I preach about showing up when it’s not fun. Putting together my writing goals for 2019: Finish another novel, finish the craft book, write another play. Say yes to enough editing to make money. Say no to enough editing to have time to write. Show up for my fellow literary citizens. Show up for Brevity readers. Show up for the writers whose work is going well and for the writers who feel like they suck. Show up to the page. Show up, show up, show up.
See you there.
According to my superstition, my 2019 will have low-key charity, unexpected public urination, and writing whether I suck or not, because I’m committed to the routine.
What will your writing year bring?
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor, and truly sorry for being such a downer today. Why not leave your 2019 writing goals in the comments, and we’ll check back in six months?
November 30, 2018 § 16 Comments
By Jessica Terson
Years ago, I wrote a personal essay for Cleaver Magazine exploring why I persisted in dating total losers. Read the first few paragraphs of that essay and you’ll find a laundry list of questionable lovers. Whether I was dating a man with a heroin addiction or one with a tendency toward violence, I could always poeticize falling in love with a scumbag. And although I ultimately acknowledged that I dated losers because I thought of myself as a loser, I left out an essential detail. Why did I feel that way?
Writers often feel like losers too.
Last night, I received a distressing phone call from a girlfriend. She had just received her fourth rejection letter in a single day. “I feel like such a loser,” she told me between tears. “It’s bad enough getting rejected on Tinder.”
Then there’s my coworker. She never broke down crying. But she did mention that everyone from her old graduate school, besides herself, has a book deal. She said this while we laid out pastries at the coffee shop where we both make minimum wage. “I just keep thinking, am I wasting my life? Do I have what it takes to make it? Or will I be here ‘til I’m sixty?”
And it’s not just women who suffer from self-doubt. A man whom I went to graduate school with—over a decade ago, mind you—recently posted a Facebook status bemoaning his lack of success in creative writing. Thinking back to our graduate school days, I can’t help laughing at our naivety. I suppose I always saw myself winning the National Poetry Series straight out of school. Universities would line up outside my front door and beg me to come work for them. Sooner or later, someone would nominate me for the Nobel Prize. So you can imagine my horrified surprise when I spent the next decade blindly sending off work to literary magazines and receiving nothing but form rejections in return.
Maybe a professor should have warned me. A thesis advisor at DePaul University Chicago once told my girlfriend that she was more likely to get bitten by a shark than become a professional opera singer. Sound harsh? It is. But it’s also reality.
Luckily, in the last few years, I’ve learned to adjust my expectations. Like many other writers that I know, I aim to receive 100 literary rejections a year. That’s right: 100. One-hundred rejections means 100 submissions. And the more I submit, the more likely I am to find a journal that enjoys my work.
When I wrote my essay for Cleaver Magazine all those years ago, I hadn’t published anything in over a decade. Since then, I’ve received enough rejection letters to cover more than a wall in my living room (apparently, wallpaper rejections letters are actually a thing). But I’ve also had some success. Every year I add a few more publications to my name. And in December, one of my poems will appear in The Georgia Review. It’s not the Nobel Prize, but it’s a pretty good start.
Once I learned to make peace with the fact that writing was going to be hard, and that publishing was going to be even harder, I felt like less of a loser. Partaking in the various writing support groups available on Facebook also helps me to feel less isolated. It turns out that most creative types feel like losers, even the ones who find frequent success.
Success won’t happen overnight. The chances of winning a big prize or a book deal straight out of graduate school are probably slim to none. More likely, you’ll get enough rejections to break your heart (so take my advice and don’t double the pain by dating scumbags). There will be days—and these never completely go away—when you’ll consider giving up completely. But don’t give up. You’re not a loser. You’re just an artist figuring out the best way to proceed. It’s a hard road, but it’s worth it. And in the meantime, think of all the things you can decorate with those 100 rejection letters. I’ve seen way worse wall paper out there.
Jessica Terson’s poetry has previously appeared or is forthcoming in The Georgia Review, New Orleans Review (web feature), River Styx, River Teeth Journal, Southern Poetry Review, and elsewhere. She lives in Chicago, Illinois.
August 7, 2018 § 10 Comments
I got sucked into a carpet shop last night. Wandering the old medina in the center of Tunis, my husband and I came across the clerk who’d checked us into the hotel, now on his day off. He’d love to show us a handicraft exhibit! Right here in the souk! Only one day! Closing in an hour!
We let him shepherd us down alleys and through hallways lined with shops closed for prayer time. It’s a little sketchy, but he’s from our hotel, and there’s two of us. He takes us to a souvenir store built into a former palace, and the shop owner escorts us through shelves of turquoise jewelry and caftans and mini-mosaics. We go up more stairs, and outside there’s a reasonable view of the roofs of Tunis and a terrace covered in fantastically painted tiles. The colors and patterns are some of the most beautiful decorative work I’ve ever seen. Absolutely worth getting dragged to the back of the souk. Going back downstairs, we turn left instead of right, into a room full of rugs. The “exhibit” is a carpet showroom.
Tea is brought. The merchandise turns out to be lovely, authentic, government-certified to be exportable, and reasonably priced. Still quite expensive, but $750 for a large handmade Berber, beautifully designed in 100% wool, is not bad if you’re a person who buys really nice home decor (I’m not).
We’ve considered a carpet before. It would be a nice souvenir of our years in the Middle East, something we’d own forever, something hard to get somewhere else, something not touristy and awful. So we consider the carpets here.
After half an hour, we are genuinely interested. But after another half hour, the blue ones we like are too large for the room in our house that would suit a blue carpet. The green ones are too small for the room that could host a green carpet. I don’t want a white one—one juice spill and we’re screwed. That pattern is great but not that color. That color is great but those embroidered lozenges are a little busy. But the shopkeeper and his three assistants have worked so hard to sell us these carpets, and they are truly beautiful. I’m pretty sure that with a starting price of $750 (“Includes shipping! If you take it with you, we give already 20% off!”) I could walk out of here with a $400 rug.
The mint tea is strong and sweet, and my husband and I discuss our budget in rapid-fire undertones. Everyone in Tunis has a minimum of three languages, but speaking very quickly gives a little privacy. We are now firmly in the market for a gorgeous rug.
Just not one of these.
I am truly sad to walk away from the beauty of this traditional craft. I am impressed and moved by the care and effort that have gone into 20,000 hand-tied knots per square meter. The price and time are right, but I do not have a suitable space in my home for any of these particular carpets. We thank the shopkeeper profusely. We elude the guy from our hotel (who wants to take us to a perfume shop next) by saying we’re late for dinner, and lunge randomly into a dark passageway because we are so embarrassed and sad we had to say no, even though saying ‘no’ was the right choice. Let the carpet find a home where it will sparkle with beauty instead of clashing with my walls. With someone who loves that exact pattern and color, who also appreciates the workmanship and investment of the craftswomen who made them.
When we finally reach a well-lit and charming area of the market, I turn to my husband and say, “Those rugs were so lovely and I wish we had the right place to really show one off. Let’s keep an eye out for another one?”
He says, “I really hoped we’d want one of them.”
“Me too,” I say. “You know how yesterday I was trying to explain what it’s like rejecting essays, how there’s nothing wrong with them, it’s just not the perfect match? That’s exactly what it feels like. I wish writers knew that.”
He says, “Tell them about the carpets.”
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. She highly recommends Tunisia. Keep up with her adventures by joining the (free, occasional) I Do Words TinyLetter.
June 18, 2018 § 11 Comments
By Maddie Lock
Three years ago I fell in love with Rebecca Solnit. It was at the start of my re-decision to become a writer. A bibliophile with a BA in English and high hopes to make my mark as a writer, I had allowed myself, many years ago, to be distracted by the business world. As I reached a definitive age and had acquired all the things that society says you need in life— a career, family, home, things to fill the home, a second home, vacations, and so on—I woke up one morning and said “enough.” Actually, it was “ENOUGH!”
Let me tell you, it shook life up; my marriage, my business, my circle of friends all had to come second for now. I sat down to write, allowing the strained and shaken pieces of my life to settle in.
I began with a children’s book about a dog who wants love and understanding. I self-published and won a small award. Encouraged, I wrote a few fiction stories which didn’t excite me or anyone else. Then, a friend gave me a book, a memoir, that in my brain begat fireworks. Now dog-eared, filled with yellow highlights and notations, spine struggling to hang on to worn-out pages, I keep it close to me as a talisman when I write.
The Faraway Nearby was a revelation to me. It fired receptors of desire and weepiness no other book had ever done. I wanted to write like this! When I finished the book, I immediately read it again. And again. And began my first essay.
It was about a trip I had taken recently, a solitary two weeks, off-season, on Monhegan Island, isolated from people but enfolded by nature. Into the essay I poured the story of my life changes and conflicts that had sent me away, of my husband’s confusion at the changes in me, the pulling away from the business I had worked so hard to build, the practice of meditation and study of Buddhism, and, mostly, my desire to be alone. It was a masterpiece in the Solnit style: meandering, contemplative, exploring the intricacies of life, revealing bruises and broken parts, threads reaching out and over and beyond, only to meet up again for a new revelation. I couldn’t wait to send it out for publication.
I googled the top nonfiction journals and, since I knew it would be snatched up immediately, I chose just one to submit to. I received a form rejection via email—about two weeks later. Shocked, I tried another top publication; another quick rejection.
I was devastated. I stuck my 5,500-word masterpiece into My Documents and simmered. I began my second children’s book. Every few weeks I picked up The Faraway Nearby, opened it randomly to read a few pages before my eyesight became bleary from tears and I tucked it away again.
I signed up for an online writing class: Writing the Personal Essay. Once again, convinced of accolades, I submitted “Sojourn in Solitude” as my first project. Like Ralphie in A Christmas Story, I envisioned a stunned and ecstatic review from my teacher. With a flushed face I opened up the highly-anticipated critique, and…cried. Honestly, I did. Although carefully worded, the message was clear: boy, do you have a long way to go. It also told me there was potential.
As with any skill, to be good requires hours and hours—10,000, it is said by many—to become a master at anything. So I began writing. And writing. And I’m still writing, because, according to the statistics, I’m looking at seven years at four hours a day before I can clearly see what my skills are.
I have this fluttery feeling I’ll still not be writing like Solnit; her meandering and my meandering share a big difference: her brilliant mind knows where the maze is taking her and can illuminate the path, whereas my only-adequate mind stumbles around, relying on hope and determination to find snatches of brilliance. An online teacher gently suggested a sizable gap between my writing skills and my reading tastes.
In the worn-out copy of Solnit’s beautiful book is a torn-out inside flap from a paperback copy of Paul Coelho’s The Alchemist. I use it as a bookmark. At the top is a quote: “To realize one’s destiny is a person’s only obligation.” I use this as encouragement.
And I’ll keep on writing, tallying my hours. I’ll call it practice.
German born and American bred, Maddie Lock fell in love with words as she learned the English language. Now a semi-retired business partner, she is putting her BA in English to good use. Lock has published an award-winning children’s book, has essays published in Gravel and Narrative Map, lamented about her writing obsession on Brevity Blog, and is working ardently on a memoir about her scattered roots.
May 4, 2018 § 13 Comments
by Jan Priddy
Three to one is my ideal ratio of positive to negative comments to be given to teenage writers. Three blessings to each noted failing. Teenagers are fragile on the page. They feel their writing is them—that who they are and what they write are synonymous. They are afraid of revision. They think having to revise means they are stupid.
I know I should give them overwhelming affirmation compared to criticism, and though three to one is my ideal, I usually fail. The comments I make on their manuscripts are too often negative. I mark errors of syntax, verb tense, citation, and spelling. I note wordiness, sentences repeating information from a sentence immediately prior, and point out that “restating the thesis” demands different wording from what is found in the first paragraph. I flag errors of fact, fuzzy logic, and bad math. I ask for proof every time they claim “always” or “never.” I highlight their assumptions and uses of cliché that they are too young to know are cliché. I mark inaccurate margins, headings, and missing URLs. Sometimes I correct the spelling of my name in the heading. Sometimes I correct the spelling of the student’s name. I mark in any color other than red, usually purple or green.
I put checks in the margin when they make a strong point. I write “me too!” when I relate personally. I applaud beautiful structure and finely crafted sentences. “Yes!” I write in the margin. Then, when I make myself take the time, I write a short script telling them what worked in their essay. I assure them they are improving. They need this. They must learn to persist.
It’s not easy being a teenaged writer.
It will never become easy.
(Seriously, has it ever become easy for you?)
Last month I left home for three days and when I returned I found two acceptances and a request from an agent for a full manuscript. There was also a rejection waiting in my inbox, but I did not care. I was winning! Three to one. I was, everyone likes to point out, “on a roll.”
I desperately wanted everyone to be right that my future would be one publication after another, but I knew better. Rejection was just around the corner.
This past weekend, my husband and I took a day trip and I returned to three rejections and an acceptance. One of the rejections was particularly kind but included the word “quiet.” I get that all the time. My writing is “too quiet.” And I want to sit quietly in that quiet way that I have so often been told that I write and plea: I can’t write any louder.
I know most of my writing flaws because I have heard about them over and over. “What are you feeling?” I am asked when I thought that lying on the floor, eyes closed, my hand plucking at dust bunnies would be a clear indication that I am an emotional wreck. Do I need to say “I was too freaked out to function”?
Perhaps I could be clearer about my feelings.
But then, again, there was acceptance. Wasn’t there? If one in every four email notices was an acceptance, that would be spectacular. Ursula K. Le Guin once told me that she found it was initially easier to be a published poet than anything else, because journals publish more poetry than everything else put together. It was good advice and I have found it to be accurate. I know that need for praise. And who am I to feel sad about a 25% acceptance rate? It won’t last.
Today I will try to be more encouraging in response to the work of my teenaged students. They need to know what they do right so that they can do more of it. They need at least three to one positive to negative. Even in their weakness, I will tell them where they succeeded. I will emphasize writing as a process. I will discuss the essay with 32 drafts, the story with over 40. I will honor their intentions. They need to know their value.
And then I will stand up from my own metaphorical floor, spit out the dust bunnies, and get back to writing.
Jan Priddy’s work has earned an Oregon Literary Arts Fellowship, Arts & Letters fellowship, Soapstone residency, Pushcart nomination, and publication in journals such as the Brevity blog, The MacGuffin, CALYX, The Humanist, North American Review, and anthologies on running and race. Her work is forthcoming in Brevity magazine and Liminal. She earned BFAs in studio arts and an MFA in fiction from Pacific University. She lives and teaches in the NW corner of her home state of Oregon. Her new blog is https://janpriddyoregon.wordpress.com.
February 27, 2018 § 16 Comments
Who aims for rejections? It’s a crazy notion. Not for the fainthearted. And definitely not for those prone to negativity. But since the beginning of 2017, I’ve been aiming for rejections. This intention spurred writing, encouraged finishing, and helped me put more pieces out into the world than previous years. An original idea? Nope. In late 2016, I read a piece on LitHub, Why You Should Aim for 100 Rejections A Year. Sold.
Years ago, such a risk would have stopped my writing. I’d spent dollars on therapy to deal with my writing demons. I wrote pieces about quitting writing. I swore that I didn’t stand a chance in the world wide of publication. Fear. Yes.
But after years of writing workshops, sending out random pieces here and there, and on rare occasions getting an acceptance, I felt ready to commit. Ready to say I have work worthy of reading. Ready to risk rejection.
I created a writing intentions calendar, noting pieces that needed revision, listing pieces I wanted to create, placing deadlines for submissions of particular pieces complete with lists of potential homes. Each month, I crossed through what was done, and when things weren’t touched, I re-evaluated, deciding whether to move them to another month or simply remove that intention.
I began submitting. Aiming for rejections. And I received them.
Eighty-two times in one year.
In the past, I’d received rejections without much grace. Often, I’d utter nastiness at the publication, holding a fuck-you finger to the computer screen. Other times, I’d run to my faithful partner and ask her if I was wasting my time (I still occasionally do this after too many rejections in a row). But starting last year, I handled it like a business. I persevered, refusing to let external readers determine my writing life. I’d note the rejection in a list, add the number to a tally for that month, and evaluate whether the piece should be sent to other journals or put back into the revision pile.
When my rejections passed 50, I got a bit excited.
I hadn’t crumbled.
I hadn’t stopped writing.
I hadn’t submitted to fear.
There were moments I wondered if I could truly withstand 100 rejections. For years, I had worked and reworked an essay about the onset of my father’s Parkinson’s disease. Writing pals declared it ready—it would find a home. I sent it off to my dream publication, checking the box that said I wasn’t simultaneously submitting. I waited. It took only six weeks to receive a friendly, impersonal rejection wishing me “the best in placing [my] writing elsewhere.”
I submitted the essay to what I thought would be a sure shot. I’d read their issues. Read their mission. This fit. Again, it took only six weeks for the rejecter to wish me “the best finding a home for it.”
Fortunately, encouragement occasionally showed up in my rejection pile. Several pieces garnered “…we hope you will consider sending us more in the future.” Then there was the rejection that I celebrated as much as an acceptance. A hybrid piece of polyvocality, part Twitter/part narrative, had made it up to the editor’s table at another dream publication. The rejection came directly from the editor. She told me how interested they were, that it was a close call, even though my essay didn’t make the final cut. She gave me hope for a piece that was having difficulty finding a home.
My new mission of aiming for 100 rejections helped me finish pieces. After years of generating lots of starts and little finishes, I knew that in order to have enough material to aim for 100 rejections, I had to actually produce and finish work. A specific number gave me accountability.
At the end of last year’s experiment, I had four pieces published and one forthcoming. I had enough polished work that when someone solicited me for a potential submission, I actually had several pieces I cared about to send in (and one was selected for publication). It’s too early to predict this year’s outcome, but I’m into 2018’s writing intentions with a busy calendar filled with promise—and rejection.
Amy Braziller is a former punk rocker, sometimes banjo twanging foodie, and current Professor of English at Red Rocks Community College. Publications include Front Porch, Entropy, Split Rock Review, and Hippocampus. Amy is working on a hybrid memoir related to her punk rock days in NYC. She writes about food, film, music, GLBT issues, and social media distractions at amybraziller.com.