Friday, June 22, 2012


I'm not going to mince words. Rejection sucks.

In the writing business, rejection happens far, far more often than acceptance. It's probably something like a 1000:1 ratio. Although maybe it just feels that way. Most writers accept that rejection is part of the terrain, and learn to make peace with it by realizing that rejection doesn't always equate with lack of quality. We console ourselves by looking up the rejection letters of famous people (like here) and citing statistics like C.S. Lewis' 800 rejections before selling anything (like here). No matter what type of writing you do, rejection is going to happen when you're trying to get other people to spend their money to support you.

If you can't come to terms with that, you've got no business calling yourself a writer. 

At a certain point, you find yourself opening those envelopes and emails, reading the "sorry to disappoint you" message, shrugging your shoulders and going back to what you were doing before, which is, most likely, working on a new writing project (because, seriously, if you are sitting around waiting for your masterpiece to be accepted for publication before you start working on the next project, you've also got no business calling yourself a writer).

As I've been sending Altar of Dead Pets out to agents, I've gotten rejections. It's part of the business. I fully realize that, even if Altar were the most amazing, extraordinary novel EVER written, not every agent is going to like it or, even, if they do like it, be able to sell it. And I've gotten rejections from agents who definitely fall into the latter category. They like it, think it's well written, but don't feel as if they could be successful with it. (in the writing biz, that's called a good rejection - we actually have different categories of rejection because, hey, when you're dealing with a 1000:1 ratio, not all rejections are created equal and you've GOT to find some way to make yourself feel better - maybe I'll do a post about the 50 Shades of Rejection for next week). Most of the rejections are fine - a couple of lines that tell me the agent read my query and pages but doesn't think it's the right project for him or her. No problem

However, sometimes, there's a rejection letter that is just...well...insulting.

I got one of those this week. And it wasn't for the novel. It was for a piece I submitted to a literary journal. 

It wasn't that the letter was rude (a friend of mine has gotten those - the ones that basically tell you you should give up. NOW) or led me to believe my writing hadn't been given courteous consideration (again, gotten those - the insta-rejections that hit your email inbox less than 24 hours after you sent something. Another friend just got one of those TWO hours after she sent the query on a Sunday evening - that's REALLY telling the writer you don't care because it seems like it was an automated rejection letter).

This rejection letter was none of those things. Instead, it bent over backward to be...nice. And it bent over backward to take my feelings into consideration. And it bent over backward to assure me that I should, in no way be discouraged by this rejection. And it bent over backward to let me know how many really good writers this publication has rejected over the years and how much work - work that they really, really like - they've had to reject because they simply can't publish everything nor do they have the time to give me a critique of my work. And they really, really hope this won't make me stop writing.

And there it is. The thing I find insulting.

This was a literary journal with a very good reputation. It has a professional editor. They publish professional writers. Many of whom have international reputations. And yet, the letter treats me as if I am some fragile flower who's feelings will be so damaged by this rejection that I will stop writing. 

As I said above, if rejection is going to make you stop writing, you're not a writer. 

My real point in this is not to be snarky about the rejection, it's to say that rejection happens and it's, essentially, meaningless to the writing process. Part of being a professional, an adult, is to know and have faith in the work I'm doing and recognize that one person's opinion is not the world's.

And my other point is to ask editors and agents to please, please, have respect for the writers with whom you come in contact. If we are truly professionals, rejection, even yours, will not kill us. Treat us like the professionals we are. Please.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Back to Basics

I got together with a friend of mine this morning for our weekly summertime writing, support, marketing, critique group meeting. We met at the SF Conservancy of Flowers and talked for a bit and then wrote for a bit and then talked some more, and I've been feeling great ever since then. It's amazing how much of a difference being able to jot down a few words makes to my sense of balance and well-being. But more than that, I made some connections today that I want to share with you.

Traci came up with our writing prompt. It was a really simple one: Choose an object in this room and have your character interact with it in some meaningful way. 

Both of us are working on fantasy projects right now, like I wrote about in my last post about Decoding the Muse. I decided to use a traditional quest/hero's journey pattern for my project and was outlining it while I was at Lake Tahoe last week. I know where it's going, and I know most things about the plot, but where I kind of got bogged down in my outline was in Chapter 3 -the small tests, trials and obstacles that my characters encounter on their trip. I couldn't figure out what those would look like and finally had to tell myself that I'd figure it out when I got to those middle chapters. The small obstacles portion of the plot is important - it keeps the action going while the characters are learning the rules, getting to know each other, and discovering the skills they will need to be successful on their quest. If you think about Lord of the Rings, these are the small trials the Hobbits have to survive before they meet up with Strider at the Prancing Pony. In the book, it's things like the Barrowdowns (where they get the swords that will ultimately allow Merry to defeat the Witch King of Angmar) and they meet Tom Bombadil (an alley who helps them safely on to the next phase of their journey). When the Fellowship is formed, there's a similar phase as each member of the Fellowship slowly learns to trust each other. In the movie, it's the scenes where Boromir is teaching the Hobbits to fight and when they're trying to climb the mountains, but Frodo is allowed to say they will turn back when the Sauroman brings a blizzard on them.

Anyway...I was having trouble figuring out what obstacles my characters would face, what skills they would need to acquire, and basically just over-thinking the whole thing (how strange for me). Today's prompt gave me a road map.

The object I chose was a strange plant (see right) that, as I wrote, turned into an animal and then became a cub that drove a spike through the toe of one of the character's shoes when he nudged it. One of the other characters recognizes that what looks like a plant is actually an animal and that it has a MOTHER that is much larger and they must get out of there now. And suddenly, there it was, one of the first tests this group of characters has to face. 

What also happened was that I realized I had a road map for the rest of the tests, a way to figure out how to write them. I'm going to do them as a series of prompts based on locations in Golden Gate Park. I realized this after I stepped outside the greenhouse and came across this tunnel. After turning a plant into an animal, seeing this tunnel as dark and dangerous, almost like a mouth, was no problem. 

Writing prompts are one of those "tricks" all writers keep in their tool boxes. Prompts are a way of narrowing down choices which, in a perverse bit of psychology, actually helps us make decisions. Too many choices = no ideas. Put limits on those choices and suddenly the world is just bursting with the EXACT THING YOU NEED FOR YOUR STORY.

A little bit after this, I picked up my younger son from chess camp where he's a junior counselor after having been an attendee since he was in first grade. He's teaching the younger kids the skills that he's learned and discovering that it's a good refresher in the basics for him as well. Which is when I realized why teaching creative writing to the kids in elementary and middle school has been such an important part of my creative process for the past eight years. It's about remembering the basics and continually reminding myself that the fundamentals are important. Keep writing. There are no wrong answers. When you can't think of something to write, make something up. Those are the things I tell my students all the time. All the fancy bells and whistles and terminology with which writers want to dress up the writing process come down to basics. Traci's simple writing prompt was enough to open up the world of my novel in a way that all the convolutions of my outlining and knowledge of the hero's journey didn't.

And don't get me wrong. Having those technical skills and depth of knowledge about craft is important - they'll save me when the novel bogs down and I can't figure out why. I'll be able to go back and figure out what went wrong because of those skills. But the basics...that's what's going to keep the project moving forward and get me working on the next one and the one after that...and it's what's going to have me back in the classroom in the fall telling the kids to keep writing. When they tell me they can't think of anything to write about, I'll tell them to look around. The world is full of possibilities.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Decoding the Muse

The lake was spectacular yesterday.
I spent yesterday in Lake Tahoe with a friend who needed to make a couple of sales calls for her company and didn't want to make the round trip from the Bay Area by herself. While she took care of her appointments (which resulted in two new clients for her business Asta Glass), I spent the time outlining a new writing project (I don't know yet whether it's going to be a novella, novel or even (gasp) a series because I'm not sure how big it's going to get on me, so for now it's "the writing project" - though my instincts tell me it's at least a novel).

To be honest, I've been resisting this project for awhile mainly because it's fantasy. My intention when I finished Altar was to begin work on the novel I originally applied to grad school to write, but I've found that, as much as I would like to be, I'm not really "finished" with Altar. As I've conducted my agent search, writing and rewriting and revising the query letter, writing multiple versions of my synopsis depending on the requested length, maintaining the novel's Facebook page, etc, etc, etc - it has kept my brain very much preoccupied with that novel and its characters and the new project is too similar in intention (ie; contemporary/literary fiction) to receive much bandwidth. Plus, as much as I hate to say it, it spooked me. I started working on it, wrote one page, felt it start to go very, very deep and begin to acquire depth of layers in the images and, to put it bluntly, FREAKED OUT. I haven't been able to go near it for months.

Earlier this week, I had coffee with a friend of mine who was going through a similar problem with a novel of her own. It got too big too fast and scared her. So she started working on a children's book. It made me think about this fantasy project. The one that's been niggling at me lately. The one that's been patiently waiting its turn and always getting shunted to the back of the line. The one that has invaded my working notes lately, the one the muse has been sending me plot points and character details for lately.

So I went home and wrote the prologue for the project. And it went terrifically well, even adding a heretofore unknown plot point that was positively genius for the final reveal of the main character's identity - the thing on which the entire story rests. And I spent yesterday, while my friend was at her appointments putting together an outline of the project.

I don't usually do outlines - so this was new territory for me. Since this is a plot-driven work, I wanted to get my ducks in a row and figure out where my motley crew of characters is going to go and what they're going to do when they get there. It's proving to be a great exercise, giving me lots of new things in incorporate in the work. But above all: IT'S FUN. It's just what I needed. Something fun. Something that is designed to be entertaining for myself (and any readers, if I'm so lucky) and something in which I am not so terribly invested that if it doesn't work out, I will be devastated (at least not yet). And, above all, something which is writing very fast.

My "desk" at Tahoe.
Which brings me to the main point of this post. Sometimes it's really difficult to understand what the muse is trying to say simply because IT DOESN'T MATCH WHAT I THINK I SHOULD DO. In this case, my conscious brain was telling me the smart thing to do, the right thing to do, the serious thing to do would be to start the next literary novel since I consider myself to be a literary writer. But the writer part of my brain (the one where the muse resides) was telling me to go have fun. The harder I tried to make myself work on the serious thing, the less I wanted to write and the more time I spent inventing reasons to stay away from my writing desk. I am, working on a fantasy novel (okay, I said it) about a character named Mouse who is a LOT more than she seems, and having a blast. And, most importantly, my muse is curled up like a fat and happy cat in a patch of sunshine, quietly purring to herself. Onward...

Friday, June 1, 2012

Neil Gaiman's Commencement Address

If you haven't seen this yet, you should. Especially if you are a writer, artist, freelancer, creative person trying to figure out how the hell to have a career in this crazy world where no one seems to be paying attention. It will be the best 20 minutes of your life this week. Trust me.