Friday, January 29, 2010

Your Writing Makes Me Vomit (or Words Not to That Effect)

Reject (the verb) is such a god-awful word and its literal definitions are downright depressing:

--To refuse to accept, submit to, believe, or make use of.
--To discard as defective or useless.
--To spit out or vomit.

It’s a shame that we use the word so liberally in the writing world. “Honey, I got another rejection today!”

I know that journal editors are not vomiting my writing or saying it’s defective. How rude would that be! Yet, they aren’t saying much when they send the generic note card or half slip of paper that looks like it’s been photocopied a thousand times. Sure, some of those note cards are mighty fancy and would be something to ooh and ahh over if they were party invitations and not the bearers of bad news.

In five months, my “no” pile has grown to 36 and my “yes” pile is a lonely one acceptance. The good news is that those 36 rejections (no thank-yous) were for 13 different pieces. A published author I know said not to dare complain about rejection until one piece has been turned down 10, 20, 40 times. Some of my short stories and essays have only received 2, 3, and 4 rejections. I’ll hold the tears for now.

The best news is that from time to time you’ll actually hear from a real live person who reads your work and responds with feedback that will help you improve the piece. I submitted a short fiction piece to Our Stories literary magazine. Today, I received a critique from an editor. Below is a short excerpt from her much longer review:

As you have noticed, I hardly made any corrections throughout the text: your prose is really clear and beautiful; the voice sucks you in and doesn’t let go till the end. Right now, however, this entry has a feel of an exercise in the character’s background, voice and working out of the mother-daughter relationship dynamics, rather than a complete short story. The dramatic arc is lacking in the present. There is a slow reveal of information, but it has minimal effect on characters in the current set-up. So, given these wonderful, fully-formed, complex characters with distinctive voices and personal histories, launch them into a real story, while keeping all of the other info in either flashbacks or exposition or – in part – in the bride’s thoughts.

Eureka! This gives me something to chew on. I get what she’s saying and have tangible advice to guide my revision. That kind of “rejection” motivates me to rewrite rather than turn to chocolate ice cream. Hurray for these kinds of days in a writer’s life.

Monday, January 11, 2010

The Swirl and Swing of Words

Last year, my sister sent me a Laini’s Lady ornament called The Writing Muse and I keep it near my computer. On it is a quote from James Michener that has special significance as I reignite the passion for my work. “I love the swirl and swing of words as they tangle with human emotions.”

It was exactly a year ago when Cissy’s story first came to me in a hotel room in Phoenix. That morning as I waited to check out of the hotel after an amazing weekend with an old friend, Cissy’s voice was as clear as if she were in the room with me.

I’ve been afraid that I was losing Cissy’s voice over the last month. I got bogged down in self-doubt. I worried if the story was marketable and the story wasn’t even finished yet!

After some compassionate and insightful feedback from two fellow writers whose judgment I trust, I have delved back into Cissy’s world to add more setting description. Initially, their feedback shut me down a bit. I spoke about these feelings to a dear friend of mine who said something that turned my mood around. She said that when people ask for more details and description, they are not pointing out a deficiency in my writing. They are asking me to give them a gift of the details I already have in my head and have not committed to paper.

Once I let go of the self-doubt -– and did some serious talking to my guides and the universe -– a dam came crashing down and words rushed out almost faster than I could type.

Here are two rewritten paragraphs (from different chapters) infused with what Cissy and I “see”:

Mama said painting a wall white was telling the world you had no imagination so our rooms at home were bright yellows, greens and blues, colors of the Old South, she’d say. The utter lack of color at the hospital made me self-conscious. I suspected that my red hair, whipped wildly into knots from the drive, drew the girls’ stares or maybe it was my hot pink sandals, which I regretted wearing on my first day.

Sometimes when I’m not so interested in what Dr. Guttmann is saying, I think about how many things in his office beg to be touched – the sheet of thick glass that covers his cherry desk, the rough pile of the brown carpet beneath my slippers, the sleek coolness of the black leather couch. Although smell is my favorite sense, touch is close second because the surfaces of things sometimes speak louder than words. A porcupine’s quills say “Back off!” while kitten fur says “Squeeze me carefully.”

I can't wait to continue Cissy's story. She still has much to say.