Friday, November 11, 2016

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back--Getting Your Work Out in the World

It's been an up and down week.  I got news on Monday of a student whose short story was accepted by a very prestigious journal and who'd been nominated for an equally prestigious award.  I also heard from three clients whose books were accepted for publication this month.  Very sweet. 

I also got an email from a student, raw from having pages of his manuscript critiqued by two colleagues at the university where he works.  He was soldiering on but underneath his good questions--how seriously do I take these comments?--I could hear the discouragement.  "It's like that old Bruce Springsteen song," he said.  "One step forward, two steps back."

Another colleague who just sold her manuscript to a very good publisher said she'd gotten feedback from her agent over the summer that depressed her so much, it took weeks to get over it.  Basically, a major rewrite, and she'd already spent years on this novel.  Was it really necessary?  She ate a lot of ice cream and eventually got back to her desk, made a revision list, and dove in.  "Lucky I did," she said, "because I didn't see the problems staring me in the face.  Now that it's going to be published, in this new version, I'm embarrassed I thought it was finished before."

We don't just get to learn the craft of writing a good book, which takes a long time (trust me!).  We also have to learn how to get it out into the world.  And the world isn't automatically a friendly place for many artists. 

This week, I joined a private Facebook group for rejection support.  No kidding.  These exist, and they're actually quite wonderful.  They are made up of mostly published writers who are needing help getting their new writing out into the world.  We post our rejection letters, one after the other.  I'm new to the group so still learning the ropes, but it has a feeling of hope, enthusiasm, and encouragement, despite the downer of a topic.

If you're planning to submit your work, there are skills to gain.  One is to become friendly with rejection. 

I don't think it requires a thick skin, though.  My best writing comes from a place of vulnerability and honesty about what I see and want to write about.  If I cover that over too much, I don't write as well.  So the goal, for me at least, is to view the process as a kind of game instead of a desperate search for acceptance and acknowledgment.  Because publishing can be that, for many writers. And the danger is, when publishing or not is tied to your self-worth as a creative person, you begin to die a little every time someone says no.

Why do that to yourself?

Easy for you to say, you might think.  Yes, I've published a lot.  But each time I send something out, I still have the butterflies.  I still feel the desperation.  The need for someone out there to love it, unconditionally.  I think a lot of published writers do.

I recently came across a method that I'm trying out, along with the Facebook rejection support group:  set a goal for a number of rejections, not a number of acceptances.  If you're shopping for agents, make a long list (maybe 100 to start) of ones you've researched and like, and be willing to (1) not hear back from at least 25 of them, (2) get no from another 50, (3) get comments and some small encouragements from 10, and (4) possibly have 15 who like your query enough to ask for more.  That's about the going average, right now. 

The theory is simple:  it's a numbers game, and the more you submit, the higher your chances on getting that "please send more" response.

You may not be close to sending out query letters, but if you are, here's a great article from the Kenyon Review on this method of accumulating rejections.  It's your weekly writing exercise this week. 

One step forward.