December 17, 2020 § 12 Comments
It’s hard to judge the quality of our own work. Most of our friends are more supportive than critical—thank goodness! But in order to figure out if our own writing belongs in the publication venue we admire, we need to step back and take a long hard look. Since it’s hard to judge your own work, start by judging someone else’s.
What’s the last great thing you read in the place you want to be published? Ideally, you’re already reading books from that publishing imprint, or issues of that magazine, or essays on that website. Go back to a real stand-out, one that made you think, Wow.
That wow is the first step towards judging our own writing—and improving it.
Go beyond the wow, and think analytically. What makes this writing impressive? What tools did the author use? Was it a lyrical voice, a gripping plot, a whiplash structure? Being able to see those tools at work is a sign your own writing ability is getting closer to what you’re reading.
Check out those transitions.
Love that she told that whole story in just 700 words.
The way that structure looped around was so unexpected and satisfying.
OK, it’s simple, but it’s so fun!
I’d never have thought to put those two parts of the story next to each other, but it makes them both better.
It’s so well-told – not a wasted word.
Take a look at your own recent work. Are you using those same (or similar) tools in your writing? Which ones are popping up through instinct, and which do you actively employ? Think about the essays, stories, articles or chapters you’ve most enjoyed writing: are you covering similar dramatic ground to the already-published pieces? If not, is there a topic or experience you could investigate in your work?
When you can regularly identify writing tools and techniques, the next step is employing those techniques in your own work. Go back and revise, choosing a craft element you admire from the published piece and consciously employing it in your next draft. Another great way to practice and internalize writing techniques is by copying and changing: follow the sentence structure and format of a page or two from a writer you love. Change the nouns, verbs and descriptions to your own, but see what making sentences with their rhythm feels like. After spending time consciously self-editing, the tools will become habits, and even first drafts will begin to incorporate more skilled writing.
Wait—I don’t need this whole paragraph, the transition is implied.
Too many adverbs, I’m going to punch up the dialogue instead.
What if I told this non-chronologically?
I’m having so much fun writing something commercial!
Yes, this is where that description goes, and it shows what the hero is thinking.
OK, I can totally trim this down.
What if I did the next draft in first person?
Finally, a tough one—think about the way your work is received right now. Does anyone ask to read it? Not just when you ask for feedback, or when it’s your turn in the writing group, but do people not related to you read your work and approach you to ask for more? When you share a piece, do readers give a specific reason they liked it, or tell you the feelings they had when they read your work? Those are all good signs you’re writing at a publishable level. Ask some of those people what else they read, and go read those publications, too. How good is the writing? Would your work fit?
If you’ve been timid, or haven’t had a chance yet to get your work into a public forum, blogging, Medium, or writing-community sites like Wattpad and Sixfold can help you reach readers you don’t know personally.
Going through these steps is not a one-time thing. Every time your work improves, you’ll get better at analyzing others’ work, which in turn allows you to level up again. It’s a virtuous circle. Keep enjoying what you read and looking for the wow. When a writer impresses you, look for the tools they used. Practice using those tools in your own work. And start submitting to the places you love to read.
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Her forthcoming book is Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book. Join her and Ashleigh Renard Tuesday December 22nd for an Ask Us Anything episode of the Writers’ Bridge Platform Q&A (free, sign up here for Zoom link).
June 25, 2019 § 15 Comments
As online writing communities proliferate, new writers flock to groups that include members of all experience levels, asking some of the same questions over and over again. Some questions are difficult to research independently—seeking a consensus of opinion or a specific sliver of information—but other questions could, and should, have been Googled first.
Starting to write is overwhelming, I know. Annie Proulx I am not, and yet even I have been asked “how do I know where to submit my stories?” more often than I can count. Just because I’ve done it before. I suspect that new writers are often so worried about starting that they want to talk to another human being about it, even if that human being isn’t particularly impressive. In grad school, I was asked so many times where and how to submit short stories, I wrote a series of blog posts about the question and related ones. In online groups, I refer curious new writers to this series of posts at least monthly.
I’m hardly the only person to write helpful blog posts aimed at beginning writers. Any online search reveals a boatload—a yachtload—of opinions about market and submissions. Maybe this is part of the problem; maybe there’s simply too much out there, so overwhelmed young writers post “How do I know where to submit?” instead of sorting through Google results, knowing that a human will offer a narrower, less intimidating place to begin.
That troubles me. Online communities are poor substitutes for the kind of genuine mentorship that can give a young writer the aesthetic foundation and emotional stability to persist in a difficult career. Plus, dashing off a post with a broad question betrays a desire for the easiest way. It shifts the labor of research onto the answerers, rather than the questioner. It’s akin to skipping a seminar, then asking at the next class, “What’d we do last week?” It’s the student’s job to find out and make up what she missed, and—crucially—not to waste the time of the other students, who are ready to get on with that week’s class.
This is the labor underneath writing: research, trial and error, reading. Hours of browsing online content to see if your work is a good fit. Honing queries, word by word; mourning lost opportunities (and determining to do better next time) due to not reading the submission guidelines down to the last comma; poring over prize-winning collections and pieces to figure out what makes their work different from yours. Pitching and following up. Writing interview questions. Crappy spreadsheets.
It’s hard, annoying labor, but it’s not possible to outsource. You have to learn how to do it. Most of learning how to do it happens on your own.
Asking other people to do or explain the under-labor of writing will make you more helpless and, ultimately, less successful; it will mean always buying fish from the grocery instead of catching your own.
If you have no idea how to fish, then of course you need to learn from the ground up. But would you go directly to Kevin VanDam, the greatest living bass fisherman, to learn to cast a line for the first time? No, you would not. You’d probably start with YouTube tutorials, or a library book, or someone’s dad. When your skill level grows beyond what you can figure out on your own, then you seek help.
A writer asking general questions of a community of experts when he hasn’t put in enough effort to learn the answer on his own demonstrates that he doesn’t work independently very well. That’s a real problem for a mostly solo profession. It also shows that the writer has minimal understanding of the time and work publishing takes, how much research writing involves, how frequently it requires sorting through overwhelming noise for the harmonies that make the work sing. Writing is a profession like any other, and learning a profession takes time and effort. Enough lazy, broad questions online and expert writers will stop answering. Then all of us lose out on the value they add to such communities.
(Incidentally, a writer who is discouraged from asking more directed or complex questions by this message of “figure out the basics before you seek help” is missing the grit and perseverance necessary to be a writer. Feeling rejected, overwhelmed, and lost is a daily condition. Get past it.)
The early stages of being a writer are full of such uncertainty, so many questions, and it seems impossible to know what you’re doing. But no one guidebook will tell you what you need to know. No number of answered questions will prepare you for being inside the profession. At some point you have to get a rod and reel and go, learn in the moment what it feels like to have a fish on your line. That experience will only bring up a whole new set of questions, some of which might not appear to have answers you can Google as easily as your early ones. Voila, the community will be there to help.
Ask your questions, by all means.
But do your research first.
Katharine Coldiron’s work has appeared in Ms., the Washington Post, NPR, LARB, and many other places. Her novella, Ceremonials, is forthcoming in 2020 from Kernpunkt Press. Find her at kcoldiron.com or on Twitter @ferrifrigida.
September 28, 2018 § 3 Comments
By Ashley P. Taylor
Holding a box of stationery shut in my desk drawer is a giant rubber band. The box was never in any danger of falling open, so I don’t know why I rubber banded it, unless the purpose was simply to do something with the rather large bag of giant rubber bands that I ordered from Amazon two years ago.
I was querying an agent who asked for hard-copy submissions, and I’d heard that one of two ways to collate one’s score of sample pages was to use a rubber band (the other way being binder clips).
Of all the rookie writing questions one could ask a novelist, “What size rubber bands did you use?” has got to be one of the worst. To ask it is to be little better than the small children who, after John Updike read a kid’s book aloud, persistently questioned the author about the mechanics of using a typewriter: “Do you ever make mistakes, typing?” Updike repeated the question. “Do I ever make mistakes . . . typing?”
So instead of asking around, I went on Amazon and ordered a one-pound box of 40 Alliance-brand rubber bands, seven inches around and five-eighths of an inch wide. It’s easy, now, to look and see what I bought, but the choice of rubber band was not easy. So many things could go wrong. With a rubber band too big, the pages are loose; one too small and one’s precious leaves get crumpled or bent; one too thin and the band snaps and flies into the agent’s eyes, blinding her to your manuscript, nay, to all manuscripts, to everything!
The rubber bands I chose were way too thick. Luckily, there was an alternative: I headed to Staples. There I did indeed find a rainbow assortment of long skinny rubber bands that looked capable of restraining a manuscript, but I wasn’t tempted. Binder clip it was, and with a little help from the guy at the mailing counter, I even put the metal flaps down so that my manuscript could fit into a Priority Mail envelope.
All this to say that I’m seeking alternative uses—beyond stationery security overkill—for heavy-duty rubber bands. Slingshot component? Aid for drawing—or dyeing—smooth lines around dinosaur eggs? Giant-asparagus fastener? I throw the bag of them at the floor, and it bounces a little, so the rubber bands could make a giant rubber-band ball, although its core would have to be quite large. If I crumpled up all the pages of my manuscript . . .
I wonder what the rubber-band manufacturer imagines they will be used for. The Alliance Rubber press kit, “Holding Your World Together,” lists novel applications not necessarily for giant rubber bands but for rubber bands in general: jar opener, cutting-board securer, box-flap holder-downer, wallet altogether replacer, and, my favorite, waist extender. “Whether you’ve got one on the way or just want to breathe easy while you sit,” Alliance instructs, “simply pull a rubber band through the buttonhole on your pants. Then, put that loop around the button. It’s that simple!” A picture of unzipped black jeans, their waist flexibly expanded by a thin brown loop, accompanies this suggestion.
When I post to Facebook this bit about rubber-band-cum-waist-extender, hoping to make people laugh, a friend comments that she did the same thing with a hair elastic when she was expecting. Perhaps I am the ignorant one. Maybe if ever become pregnant, I’ll understand. But a hair elastic is one thing; a small thing, specifically. I really hope I won’t ever need to expand my waistband with a seven-inch rubber band capable of stretching to seven times its original circumference.
Alliance also says that the rubber bands they produce in a year could encircle the globe 23 times. I wonder how close my rubber bands would come to doing that. Each can theoretically stretch to 49 inches. I’m not sure what Alliance envisions, but I imagine hooking the bands together to form something like chain-link rubber. In that case, each rubber band covers 25 inches, max. Earth is 1,577,727,360 inches around, according to Google. At 40 bands per box, each box covers 1,000 inches, and I’d need a million and a half boxes, which is, oh, about a million and a half times beyond the scope of my project.
Maybe I’ll put the rubber bands in a drawer and return to the novel.
But would the world bounce? I sort of want to know.
Ashley P. Taylor is a Brooklyn-based writer of journalism, essays, and fiction. Her essays have appeared in LUMINA Online Journal, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, The Brooklyn Rail, Entropy Magazine, and Catapult and have been listed as notable in Best American Essays 2016, 2017, and 2018. Her short fiction has appeared in Vol. 1 Brooklyn and Joyland.
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.
March 20, 2018 § 31 Comments
- Marked the rejection on my list and reassured myself that it was only one
- Thought: two isn’t bad. Imagined the soaring joy of acceptance that would come with the next notification.
- Reread essay and decided I still liked it.
- Repeated to self: “Rejection is just another step on the way to success.”
- Read too much into the “In Progress” notification on Submittable.
- Ate chocolate.
- Reread the essay. Found words, phrases and whole sentences that could be cut. Clawed in anguish at the proverbial bosom. Cut the damn words.
- Sent the essay to another batch of journals. Checked Submittable in a non-obsessive way.
- Was able to quote from memory all of the variations: “We’re sorry, read with interest but, not for us, not the right fit, pass this time, good luck.”
- Ate more chocolate.
- Made another list of journals and sent the essay to a dozen of them. Nothing grim about it. Nothing at all.
- Castigated myself for ever imagining the soaring joy of acceptance.
- Watched Netflix during designated writing time.
- Reread the essay and decided it was awful. Got a friend to read it. Didn’t know if they were just being nice by saying they loved it.
- Sent out another batch.
- Considered whether “Received” or “In Progress” held more possibility. Decided both were inscrutable and, possibly, sinister.
- Went to Costco to stock up on chocolate.
- Marked off the rejection on my list and wondered if it would have been better if I had chosen another color besides red for my color-coding system.
- Determined that two Costco-sized bags of chocolate-covered blueberries were, in fact, inadequate for my needs.
- Resorted to sports analogies: “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”
- Made a pact with myself that I wouldn’t check Submittable any more.
- Checked Submittable.
- Reread the essay, decided it really wasn’t so bad.
- Got a pair of trusted eyes on the essay. Sank into the depths of frustration and despair when told, “It needs something.”
- Repeated to myself my first writing teacher’s encouraging words: “We’ll throw a party for the first person to get 50 rejections!” Half-way there!
- Realized that my only success might be in failure.
- Sent the essay out again because I was like those zombies I watched but shouldn’t have. Nothing could stop me but a blow to the head.
- Read articles claiming that sugar is the cause of all ills. Read articles stating that chocolate has 4 grams of protein per half cup.
- Decided that I couldn’t please everyone else and maybe couldn’t please anyone else but myself. Pretended that this made me powerful instead of lonely.
- Gave myself a stern lecture about doing the work for the work’s sake. Very nearly believed it.
- Decided that the essay did need something. It needed me to not give up on it.
- Checked Submittable.
A knitter, gardener and avid dog-snuggler, Lea Page lives in Montana with her husband. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Rumpus, The Pinch and Hippocampus, and she is the author of Parenting in the Here and Now: Realizing the Strengths You Already Have (Floris Books, 2015). Find her at www.LeaPageAuthor.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.
January 4, 2018 § 2 Comments
Last call for submissions to the Brevity Podcast One-Minute Memoir episode! We’ve heard and read some fantastic submissions so far, and we’ve been blessed with a bounty of glorious writing, so the deadline is staying put at THIS SATURDAY, January 6th.
But our ears are still open–tell us about a single moment that summed up everything, or everything you can fit into 150 words, or a powerful fragment of a fraction. Make us laugh, make us cry, and make it happen by Saturday, midnight EST.
There’s still time.
Original call for submissions below.
The Brevity Podcast is seeking submissions for our One-Minute Memoir episode. We’re looking for ultra-flash nonfiction of 100-150 words (on paper) and up to one minute (recording time). Accepted pieces will be broadcast in our February episode and receive a $25 honorarium.
November 28, 2017 § 10 Comments
We’re settled into our seats, ready to watch Meryl Streep perform in the new musical adaptation of Gone Girl (“Gone!”). We’re leafing through Playbill, counting up Oscar nominations, when suddenly Ms. Streep steps out in front of the curtain to address the audience.
“Hi everyone, I’m really excited you’re here for this show, based on the book about a woman who fakes her own disappearance and sets her husband up for a murder rap. I hope you’ll especially enjoy the scene where I write all the journal entries at the same time with different pens.”
Or she says, “In rehearsals for this show, I worked on my high E notes with a noted vocal coach at Julliard, maybe you’ve heard of him?”
We’re already here, Meryl. We’re ready to watch. We trust you to deliver. Just let us watch you–don’t tell us the story you’re about to tell us. And if it turns out the show isn’t to our taste, your pre-show explanation won’t fix that.
Reading submissions is a lot like being in that audience. Around the Brevity Podcast house, we’re settling in with pages of Submittable entries for the One-Minute Memoir episode. Each essay is the curtain going up on a show we’ve never seen before, enjoying how much humor, sadness, quirkiness, reflection, action, and adventure can be packed into under 150 words, sometimes many fewer than that. There are pieces totally unique in content, and others with universal situations but new approaches. Every author has something truly, beautifully theirs…and some of them tell us about it in advance.
Cover letters everywhere range from a single sentence of author bio to a full page of credits, context, and background information, and every variation in between. Sometimes, authors get nervous that the editors won’t get it. Or they’re really excited about their time working with a prestigious teacher. Maybe they feel like they don’t have enough publication credits, and explaining the story fills up that space. Or there’s a backstory that’s totally amazing.
These things don’t suck, but they’re not helping your submission. I don’t actively read the cover letter until I’ve read the essay–though I end up seeing some of what Submittable displays before clicking through to the submitted piece. Most editors want to come to your words as readers do: a fresh impression on the page. They don’t get to sit down and explain to subscribers what they meant when they picked that piece, why they think it’s great. As authors, we rarely get to discuss why or how we came to write something unless we’re talking about it with our friends or being interviewed. But that’s bonus material for the true fans, not a base to start from with first-time readers. Don’t give away the game.
For example, when submitting your terrific flash essay about knitting with a women’s circle in Guangzhou:
This essay focuses on the time I gave birth in China surrounded by my knitting class. I wanted to tell the stories of the amazing grandmothers I met while doing handicrafts in China. They all had children who had emigrated, and I saw how conflicted they felt.
For the purposes of submission, one sentence maximum about the circumstances directly affecting the writing (not the story).
I wrote this during my missionary work in China.
I’m a professional knitting teacher.
Will detailing parts of your story get you rejected out of hand? Not by us. In the long run, this isn’t a huge issue. For most journals, it doesn’t really matter what you write in that space–at this point in the process, they’re interested in the story and the writing. Explaining neither fixes nor destroys a submission. So don’t sweat it if you’ve fallen into this category before. Just stop doing it.
Reading your story is more powerful than reading about your story. Let us be surprised and delighted and astounded–the way we want our audience to be when they get to read your work.
Edited to add: Aerogramme offers some more terrific cover letter advice from Tahoma Review Prose Editor Yi Shun Lai.
October 26, 2017 § 65 Comments
I need a sweater. So I go to the mall. (The mall is a temple of consumerism with an indoor ski slope overlooked by The Cheesecake Factory, because I live in Dubai.)
The first store specializes in argyle sweaters. Argyle is just not my thing. Do I:
A) Assume this brand is garbage and everything they will ever make is argyle.
B) Say “no thank you,” and head for another store, dismissing argyle from my mind because it’s not that big a deal, I’m shopping all day anyway and hey, someone else is going to love diamond plaids.
In the second store, I see a terrific red sweater. It’s got sleeves of exactly the right length and those cool little thumbholes so you can pull the wristbands over your hands, and it’s super soft. Then I look at the tag, and it’s 30% wool, which I am allergic to and makes me itch. Do I:
A) Laugh heartily at the incompetence and stupidity of anyone who would dare make a sweater with wool in it, exiting the store in the grip of near-hysteria?
B) Sigh, because it was otherwise just perfect, and remember the store because they will probably have something else I like another time, maybe a dress or a coat that is totally perfect instead of mostly perfect.
In the third store, I lay eyes on a gorgeous blue sweater. Sleeves, check. Thumbholes, check. No wool, check. In fact, it’s glorious!
My husband already bought me a blue sweater yesterday. I like that one too, and it came from a no-returns store (also a thing in Dubai), and today I really want a red one. Do I:
A) Think whoever made this sweater sucks, and they should never make another garment.
B) Sigh sadly because I already have a blue sweater, and resume the hunt for a red one.
You get where we’re going, right?
Rejection is not feedback.
Rejection is not feedback.
No really. Rejection. Is not. Feedback.
As writers submitting our work, we often get mad at ourselves and the process when our work is rejected. It’s easy to feel they thought my work was terrible, or I’m a bad writer, or I’ll never be any good.
None of those things can be determined from any single rejection.
The process of reading work for publication is not the process of reading to give feedback. When journal editors read, yes, they are evaluating the overall quality of the work. But they’re also asking, Does this fit our mission? Do I personally like it? Did we already accept something similar last week? They are assessing where the work fits in the overall structure of the magazine and its mission. A piece that isn’t the right fit must be let go, regardless of how good it is.
Our job as writers is to display our work to its best advantage, with skilled craft and professional format on the page. To enlist friends and fellow writers and teachers and mentors to give us constructive criticism, and to incorporate the notes that help us write the best essay or story or book we can. To do many drafts until we truly feel a piece is ready to send out. And that’s where our control stops. We can’t make the customer want our particular sweater–we can only be ready with an excellent sweater when they walk in, or a rack of sweaters we’ve prepared to appeal to a selection of shoppers. We must focus on knowing our buyers, reading their journals, finding out about their taste and style and mission and what else they recently bought–not agonizing about why one person didn’t want one thing.
Rejection is market research.
One rejection tells us one specific thing: this journal couldn’t use this piece at this time. None of those variables is a judgment on the quality of our work. Once we have ten or twenty or fifty rejections, that’s enough information to start reassessing. Is the piece really ready? Have I gotten any personal comments in my rejections? Have I gotten an outside opinion from a reader I trust? We don’t get better from nursing hurt feelings. Considering the answers to those questions helps us improve.
Rejection will always sting at least a little. For me, it hurts less when I have more submissions out, and when I remember that rejection is part of the job, that a 10% acceptance rate is excellent for a full-time professional writer and more than that is gravy.
Every “no thank you” is proof we’re doing the work, and getting our work out there. Any single “no thank you” is the equivalent of a single shopper not buying a single sweater–one failed transaction says nothing about that particular piece.
Besides, it’s Dubai. No matter how amazing it looks and feels, nobody needs a freaking sweater. Anybody got a nice cotton tunic?
September 5, 2017 § 18 Comments
“What is it Mama?” my daughter asked, her so voice so hushed I could barely hear her. “What did they say? Mama?”
My daughter is not a quiet person. When she speaks, she’s usually heard. Maybe she was afraid of my answer. Or maybe I couldn’t hear her over the rush of blood in my ears, the slap of my palms on the hot steering wheel, the tepid air conditioner in my ancient Honda, barely keeping out the one-hundred-degree Texas heat.
I was in a Starbucks drive-through, my 11-year-old watching slime videos on her phone in the backseat. We’d just come from iFly, an indoor skydiving place on the Interstate 10 feeder road. My agent had sent my memoir out in early July to 45 editors, and since then I’d become an expert at choosing activities–like indoor skydiving—that prevented me from obsessively checking my email. I’d taken a two-day road trip through the desert with no cell service. I’d made a vision board (ok, I made three.) It’s hard to check email with glue on your fingertips. And I discovered flying. iFly offers two minute “flights” in a 90 mile-per-hour wind tunnel. Two-minute intervals during which I couldn’t do anything but focus on keeping my body steady, my mouth closed (no one wants wind-tunnel cheeks), and chin up. What better metaphor for the process I was in.
“Mama?” my daughter asked again from the backseat.
“They said no, baby,” I replied, surprised by the catch in my voice.
When my agent first sent my memoir out, a couple of editors reacted almost immediately with good news. They were taking it to editorial boards, getting additional reads. My book, This Is My Body, is about my conversion from the Jewish agnosticism of my New York upbringing to the Southern evangelicalism of my husband’s. It’s about the romantic and political turmoil that followed (hello, Trump,) causing me to strip my beliefs to the studs and re-build from the ground up. Because it’s a book about love that also deals heavily with the evangelical subculture and what it means for women, I knew it wouldn’t be a cakewalk. Spirituality isn’t exactly the bread and butter of New York publishing. But I dared to hope.
Idling in the drive-through, full of post-flying false confidence, I unwisely checked my email. “It was a classic editorial vs. publicity stand-off,” my agent wrote. “Publicity won… There’s a lot of consensus about your writing… but there’s a disconnect with the business brass about how to reach readers.” This was one of the few progressive religious publishers brave enough to take on books dealing with controversial, too-often ignored issues in the evangelical church. Their mission statement read like the mission statement for my life. And the editor had loved my book, loved my writing. They were—my agent thought, I thought—the perfect fit.
I felt a tide of emotions when that email came in. Shame. Anger. Fear. Embarrassment. I’m a writer; I know rejections by the boatload are part of this life. I’ve had rejections by the boatload. But I’d developed—or so I thought—a way to avoid being paralyzed by them. This one hit me with the force of the iFly wind tunnel. It took my breath away.
No one knows what goes into writing our books quite like our children, our lovers, our partners. Our butts get numb and our health suffers, maybe we lose our hair, keys, minds—while glued to the computer screen. But they lose us. Or mine did, at least for a time. For six months last year while juggling three jobs and somehow managing to not tank my marriage, I’d taken a collection of fragmented essays and turned them into a book, a book I’m proud of. My daughter—in her last year of elementary school, her last year of being a kid before entering that netherworld of pre-teen—patiently withstood my divided attention. She pulled me back—to her after school activities, her latest math test, her plans for the weekend—when I got that far-off look in my eyes that meant I was solving some timeline, dialogue or structure puzzle in my mind. But she also celebrated with me. We jumped up and down in our socks, sliding on the wood floor when I found out I’d placed an essay with a dream publication. We toasted with Sprite at our favorite neighborhood restaurant when I finally finished the first draft of the book, and secured representation with a fancy New York literary agent. What took my breath away was not only the loss of this and other opportunities to see my book born into the world (35 more publishers had also passed, my agent included in the email) but that my daughter, my cheerleader, nervously sipping her black tea lemonade as we pulled into traffic, was also experiencing that loss.
It’s true that it would been nice to impress the “business brass,” those people with the power to write checks that could potentially replace the crumbling siding on my garage, or upgrade the ancient Honda. But that’s not why I started writing. I started writing because the terror of not writing was greater than the terror of writing. Because the joy of writing something new, of applying ass-to-chair and performing the mystical alchemy of revision, of seeing a project—like this essay—from start to finish, that joy is better than almost any other I’ve known.
“All is not lost, baby,” I said a few minutes later when I caught my breath between traffic lights.
“I know that,” she said, with her characteristic half eye-roll. As if nothing could be more obvious.
I choose to believe the right editor for my book is still out there. In the meantime, I’m writing. That’s what my daughter sees. And for now, that’s enough.
Cameron Dezen Hammon is a writer and musician whose work has appeared in or is forthcoming from The Brooklyn Review, The Rumpus, Ecotone, Guernica’s “The Kiss” series, The Literary Review, Houston Chronicle, and elsewhere. She earned her MFA in Creative Nonfiction at Seattle Pacific University, and is at work on a memoir about religious and romantic obsession.