Sandy Asher and David Harrison

Friday, December 3, 2010

Topic 3: The Reality of Rejection

Response 1: Sandy

Rejection. Huge sigh. The very word picks at the scabs of ancient schoolyard wounds. The myth, the hope, the dream is that literary – and perhaps even personal -- rejection will end once we’ve “got our foot in the door.” That may be true if the foot belongs to J.K. Rowling, but it’s not true for most of the rest of us. I’ve had my foot in the publishing door for well over 40 years now.  Rejection continues to graze nearby, raising its beastly head from time to time to charge my way.

If it’s okay with you, David, I’d like to talk about dealing with rejection BEFORE it happens in this first part of our chat and dealing with it AFTER it happens when I chime in later.

My favorite pastime during the first 10 or 15 years of my writing career was reading other authors' comments in writers' magazines about the numerous times their work had been rejected before it finally got published --10, 15, 20, 25.  After a while, I didn't need those reports anymore, because I had my own war stories to tell, but I believed in the happy ending: Those folks did, eventually, get published. I clung to that happy ending with all my might. I was willing to battle my way through any forest of tangled and thorny vines to get to it. What I wasn’t willing to do, at first, was acknowledge that our field has rules and that I need to play by those rules if I hoped to get anywhere.

There were no marketing skills taught in my college creative writing classes. I happened to see a copy of The Writer on a newsstand one day, bought it, and submitted a poem I'd written in class to a tiny literary journal I found listed inside. I sent the poem off without requesting a sample copy of the journal to study first, and without enclosing a self-addressed, stamped envelope for its very possible return. 

A few weeks later, I received a postcard telling me the poem had been accepted for publication. A dream come true, and possibly the worst thing that could have happened to me at that stage in my development. I thought, "Oh, this is easy! All I have to do is write stuff down, mail it off, and they'll print it up and send back money." (Well, okay, not money -- but two contributor's copies and that's a start!)
So I sent out all the poems, stories, plays, and articles I could think up, as fast as I could get them down on paper. Never mind rewriting -- I was clearly a genius. Never mind studying the markets. If publications had rules, and The Writer hinted that they indeed might, they'd break them for me because everything I wrote was divinely inspired.
About ten years into this vigorous and arrogant attack, I had indeed published quite a few pieces, but when I finally paused to take account, I realized that for every 50 envelopes stuffed with brilliance I was sending out, 49 stories, poems, plays, and articles were coming back rejected, and ONE was getting accepted for publication. Chimpanzees typing randomly could probably have done as well.

The moral of this story reflects ten years of trial and error on my part.  May it spare you much effort and time: Study the market. When editors state their requirements in a market guide or in contest rules or at conferences -- believe them. I can’t promise that will stop rejection in its tracks, but it’ll definitely slow the beast down.
Response 2:  David

Sandy, I enjoyed your remarks, all the more because they sound so déjà vu-ish. I hope that someone reading this has a better story to tell than yours or mine, but early, easy success, as far as I know, is rarer than a joke book from Kirkus.

My quest for publication began as a college science major. I took a creative writing class and the professor told me I had a knack for writing. Being unfamiliar with the market (Oops, was there a class in that?), I dreamed of instant recognition, which would save a lot of time and work. My voice was so singular, so remarkable, so undiscovered that somewhere an insightful editor was going to read my story, slap his forehead, and gasp incredulously. Okay, that last part was over the top. But I’ve always wanted to write, “gasp incredulously,” and not be engaged in purple prose. Whatever, it didn’t happen.

During the following six years in hot pursuit of that head-slapping editor, I read that writers keep more than one story in circulation. Also, writers keep lists of places to send each story, on the remote chance that it comes back with its tale dragging, before rigor mortis of resolve sets in.

I followed both pieces of advice. I devoured Writers’ Market; made lists of “friendly” sounding publishers; copied names of editors and mailing addresses; laid in a supply of 9x12 envelopes, address labels, and reassuring rolls of stamps; maintained detailed records of each story’s history of submissions and rejections; and churned out new stories with a sense of impending destiny. I took pride in having at least a dozen stories out at all times.

During the next half dozen years I averaged ten submissions per year. I averaged ten rejections. Net gain: zero. This was not the best time of my life. But it was the most necessary. Now, after dozens of books on my belt, I can laugh and say, “Ha-ha-ha, no more rejections for me!”

But, of course, that would not be true. Rejection is always with us. As Sandy points out, it’s not unusual to get turned down. There can be lots of reasons: Ignorant editor, the stupid economy, out-of-touch editorial board, backward sales force, malicious promotion director, clueless art director . . . Okay, sometimes maybe the story is a teeniest weeniest bit shy of the mark. These are obstacles we live with. Emerging writers may feel rejection a bit more personally than beat-up old pros. At some point a writer becomes more philosophical about rejections. He or she learns to roll with them to a certain extent. They still smart and frustrate and aggravate. But editors, some claim, don’t really hate us. They work for companies that hope to show the stockholders a profit at the end of the year. How mundane.

Here’s my advice to emerging writers. Frame your first rejection letter. Choose a nice frame and hang it where you can see it every day. It may only be an impersonal printed slip but it’s still important enough to keep. The first rejection is your ticket into the fraternity of eternally optimistic folks who make up stories, write nonfiction, or pour out their hearts in poems. There is no sin in being rejected. The only sin is in quitting because the big boys kicked sand in your face.

Response 3: Sandy

“...Ignorant editor, the stupid economy, out-of-touch editorial board, backward sales force, malicious promotion director, clueless art director...” 

David!  What a delicious incantation! I think I’ll post it above my computer and chant it out loud – with gusto! – whenever another rejection rolls in. Take that and that and THAT! I just know I’ll feel cleansed, cheered, and most importantly, energized.

Anger has its upside. It tells us our needs are not being met. It provides the adrenaline rush needed to get them met. Earlier I mentioned “revenge” as a response to rejection. Sounds destructive, but guess what? Properly employed, revenge can be quite a healthy and productive response. I figured that out just about the time the steady waves of rejection finally began denting and rusting my faux armor of ignorant self-assurance. (For more about that, see Response 1.) As I tore open more and more dreaded envelopes containing returned manuscripts, I took to sprawling on the sofa for long, sometimes tearful, sulks. My husband and children would wander by, murmuring words of sympathy and encouragement. Sort of.

Me: Whatever made me think I could publish my work? What made me think I could even write? Never again. I give up. I mean it!

Them: How long is it going to last this time? Are you planning to cook dinner or what?

Eventually, even I would grow tired of my own self-pity. That’s when the second tsunami would wash over me: REVENGE! 

Me: I will revise this thing until it’s so wonderful the next editor to see it will snap it up – and it will be so successful the rest of them will eat their hearts out that they didn’t grab it when they had the chance.

Them: Okay. So what’s for dinner?

I’m not a vengeful person normally, but I do have an older brother, so I learned early to stop sniveling and fight back. My current household confirmed that sniveling would get me nowhere. But thoughts of literary revenge gave me the energy I needed to stand up and get back to work. And cook dinner, too.

These days, I’m less of a drama queen. No kids at home means a reduced audience anyway. “Self-pity Meets Revenge” is a short one-act instead of a full-length play, and it’s performed mainly inside my head. But that “I’ll show them!” impulse still gets the adrenaline flowing.

Not everyone needs to face rejection. Writing is a good thing. Writing for oneself, one’s family, one’s friends – all valid and worthwhile endeavors. Writing for professional publication is a whole other challenge. As I’ve often told my students, “It’s art when you create it; it’s art when your audience receives it. Everything in between is BUSINESS.” Rejection is an unavoidable part of that business. But no one’s required to go there. If you can be happy doing anything else, do that other thing and write for the joy of it. But if you can’t be happy without sharing your work through professional publication, figure on spending considerable time wending your way through the Big Business Forest that stands between you and your audience. Prepare to meet lions and tigers and bears. Oh, my.

I don’t remember which Hollywood mogul said it, but an agent passed it on: “If I’d known I was getting into this business, I never would’ve gotten into this business.”

Well, I’m in it. If you decide publication is the way you must go, learn to read between the lines of those rejections. The standard form says, “Not for us at this time.” Okay, that’s a “no.” But it does leave open, “Maybe for someone else at some other time.” The handwritten note, even a “Sorry” scribbled at the bottom of a standard form, means “Not for us, but, busy as I am, I still want to let you know you’ve impressed me.” The more extensive personal comment means, “Not for us, but likely for someone else, and I’m hoping we connect with another piece soon.” And if an editor’s comments end with “If you’re willing to revise along these lines, I’d like to see this again,” you’ve got an open door. Walk through it!

Hang onto those personal comments. Editors do not make them lightly. I keep a collection of them and was able to remind an editor of her former kind words when submitting something entirely different to her years later, after she’d moved to another publishing house. She remembered. That’s how much those comments mean to a busy editor taking the time and making the effort to write them! 

Oh, and given her new job and my new material, she was able to offer an entirely different response: “Yes.” So, burn no bridges behind you. David’s incantation is strictly for home use only. Repeat as needed, then forge ahead!

Your turn to wrap it up, David.

Response 4: David 

So I’m attending a major convention. This morning I made a presentation about Word of the Month Poetry Challenge which, I think, was well received and might result in more teachers introducing their students to the project. Not ony that, I'm signing books at the Scholastic booth and last hour I signed books at the Boyds Mills Press booth. In both places, I greeted many old friends and met a number of new ones. When I finish here, I’ll attend the Authors Luncheon and sit around a table of teachers, each of whom will receive a copy of my latest book. They will ask me to sign their books and I’ll do it with pleasure. It’s hard not to feel good about this day. Until I check my e-mail just prior to the luncheon. And there I find a r-e-j-e-c-t-i-o-n.

And I am bummed.

Never mind how grown-up we all try to be about having our work turned down, it still stings when someone says, “Not for us.” As Sandy says, we gradually reach a point where we take these rejections in stride as being part of the job. Maybe our sulk time shortens and the hysterics diminish. But come on, I’m having a Rejection Moment here. How about a moment of silence?

Okay, I’m back.

Today I visited with several other writers, among them some of the brightest and best. And guess what? One of them just got turned down twice; same for another. Others mention how hard it has been lately for them to get approval for new projects. These are STARS for Pete’s sake. I also talked with editors and they, too, lament how difficult it can be these days to get a book accepted. I mentioned earlier in my conversation with Sandy that I developed a habit years ago to keep a list of potential publishers for every new manuscript so that I could get a rejected manuscript back in circulation as soon as possible after it came back. The tactic still works. 

We’ve talked about dealing with rejection before the fact and how to handle it after it happens. Here’s my executive summary.

1. Write something.
2. Polish it until you can’t read it without sunglasses.
3. Study the market.
4. Make a list of potential publishers.
5. Submit to the one at the top of the list.
6. Remind yourself that there is a strong chance you’ll be rejected.
7. Be prepared to hold the briefest pity part possible before going to #2 on your list.
8. See #7.
9. See #7.
10. See #7.
11. If you sell something, bask in the glow, but don’t get used to the idea that you are now invincible.
12. See #7

Topic 2: Dealing with Obstacles to Writing
On Being Distracted
by guest Joan Carris

I have been writing something or other since 1976. My first writing assignment was a plea from the Unitarian church in Princeton for an original play celebrating the BiCentennial. Having no idea of how difficult that could be, I said YES. At the time our kids were 14, 9, and 6. “When I’m writing,” I told them, “don’t bother me unless you’re bleeding.”

I settled down at my typewriter with a ream of paper and rolled in the first pristine sheet. Instantly heard a terrified screaming outside my workroom window. I flew outdoors just in time to see our 6 year-old son hit the ground under the neighbor’s giant willow tree. He and I had a red-hot discussion right there. “But I stopped myself by grabbing a branch,” he said. “See?  I’m hardly bleeding at all!”

That was the beginning of my distracted life as a writer. Over time I have managed to learn a little something about the craft—mainly that it is a heckuva lot harder than it should be. As Hawthorne wrote, “Easy reading is damned hard writing.” I believe it’s hard because we keep expecting more of ourselves. We intimidate ourselves, and then call it writer’s block.
Fran Lebowitz, an extremely funny essayist (Social Studies, 1981), was quoted in the online Writer’s Almanac as saying, “Most writers have a hard time writing. I have a harder time than most because I’m lazier than most…I would have made a perfect heiress.” She is now at work on a novel that was commissioned more than 20 years ago.
Okay, so writing IS HARD. Clearly we deserve not just a room of our own, as Virginia Woolf said, but some peace and quiet, dangit. The world should tiptoe away. It should, but it won’t.  Some damn fool will ring your doorbell. Your back left molar will start throbbing. The cat will meow to be let in.

Real life and writing simply are not compatible. Life is always interrupting. I tend to feel lucky if it isn’t interrupting with an illness or a new litter of kittens. Long ago I decided that writers must become more devious. How? Try running away. Ask your church for permission to write in an empty classroom. Ask a friend if you can write at her place after she leaves for work. Some writers work at a public library table in a nearby town, not in their own library where people know them. I like the study carrels at our community college.

Most of the time, though, I write at home. I let the bloody distractions go on, run a fan for white noise, and force myself to focus. That’s easier with a good outline, by the way. In a long, lean period in my past, when I was the only one stoking my fire, I began talking to myself. I said, “This is who I am and this is what I do. Now shut up, Joan, and get to work.” I still tell myself that.

Recent books include Welcome To the Bed and Biscuit (2006), Wild Times at the Bed and Biscuit (2009), and Magic at the Bed and Biscuit (January 2011), all from Candlewick Press.

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