It’s commonly said, (among writers who do it for their living), that blood to a surgeon is like rejection to a writer — a necessary part of every day’s work.
Whether a surgeon likes blood is irrelevant. Do professional writers — and ambitious amateurs — enjoy rejection? Irrelevant.
It’s not a game for delicate souls, whether you are paid for your work or hope to, or do not.
I’ve earned my living selling my writing since my sophomore year of college; here are ten issues professionals/ambitious writers take seriously:
1) Study writing. No, you don’t have to sign up to be an English major or get an MFA or try to get into the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. But if you truly want to improve your work, you’ll put your bum in the chair (as Margaret Atwood told me when I asked her how to write) and put your work before the skilled, experienced eyes of a teacher. That might be a workshop, a writers’ group led by a professional, an on-line class. Great writing, like everything that’s excellent, demands discipline and some training.
2) Study with more than one teacher. Every writing teacher has his or her quirks and habits, and the worst students learn to mimic them in order to curry favor. Bad idea.
3) Know what you want to say. Simply emoting about your mean Dad or drunk Mom may feel terrific and be cathartic for you, but without adding clarity, insight and polish, it’s rarely sufficiently satisfying to your readers. What larger, ongoing, universal truth(s) do you also plan to elucidate?
4) It’s all about the reader. Not you. Not impressing your BFF or writing pals whose enthusiasm and support are lovely, but ultimately totally distracting. They are to a writer’s growth as a Mom’s cheering your soccer game are to a coach’s whistle, drills and experienced observations.
5) Who is your reader? Who do you want to read your material? Everyone. Bah! Think again. Car manuals and cellphone instructions and IKEA literature are written to appeal to “everyone.” Who’s your best reader? Do you crave the undivided attention of suburban moms? Ex-addicts? Current addicts? Fellow lovers of hummingbirds/hiking/sushi/petanque? Decide who you most want to grab by the lapels and write for them. Because not everyone is going to love your work. If they do, be very nervous. It’s not necessarily a good sign.
6) Read your work out loud. Yup. Your dog/cat/budgie won’t mind a bit. Artists look at their paintings in a mirror to catch it from a different angle. Reading your words out loud immediately alerts you to their cadence, rhythm, alliteration. Do they sound good? Do you want to hear more?
7) Let it cool down. Baked goods removed from the oven and consumed too soon — before cooling into the finished product — shred, crumble and waste the energy you spent creating them. Good writing should wait a while before it’s consumed by anyone other than yourself. Great writing can wait even longer. Write something and put it aside for 20 minutes, two days, two months. It will always read better after distance and reflection because you’ll see its flaws and have the dispassion with which to fix them.
8) Criticism is key to success. You’ve got to put your work out there — for review, criticism, thoughtful replies. Your work must be read by serious and ambitious writers/teachers/agents/editors. Some of them will have the skill to offer helpful insights, (some of which may surprise you or make you uncomfortable), and the generosity to do so.
9) You are not your writing. Until or unless you can separate yourself from the most intimate and private thoughts you share publicly, you’re toast — because you’ll overly personalize even thoughtful-but-challenging comments on your work as an attack on you. Wrong! As one pro writer friend told me, when I had to revise 10 chapters (there are only 12!) of my new memoir: “You’re a mechanic. Fix the engine.”
10) Rejection is essential. For many reasons. It means you’re actually putting your work and ideas out into the intellectual marketplace. Picture a bustling farmers’ market. Is everyone selling the same amount as quickly? Probably not. They know, and hope for, the best — a percentage of their goods to sell. If they go home with an empty truck, score! But they are wise not to expect it because they, like many others, took the risk of working hard to grow it, truck it and put it out for sale. No farmer expects buyers to coo over the beauty of their rutabagas. They have nutured their products with much hard work — but are able to remember that they are selling a product.
I have sold two non-fiction books to two commercial publishers. (And written another four or five full-length book proposals, circulated to many editors, that did not sell.) I’ve been through six agents, three of whom were very good, one of which — the final one — is truly excellent.
She’s very tough! We’ve even had shouting matches on the phone, as two hard-headed perfectionists hammer it out. Better to have so demanding an expert than some chatty, happy milquetoast who can’t sell my stuff.
Every day, these editors and the agents who put our work before them, are inundated with competitors. Both of my books were rejected by 25 others before they were bought. My agents kept on plugging because, as good agents do, they believed in the projects and in me.
What if I’d just given up, in floods of weeping and teeth-gnashing despair, after the 11th or 14th — or second — rejection?