Rejection Email Blues

guinea pig sad

First things first. If you are a new writer, you have to be prepared to get many, many, many, many rejection slips. Many. Many. Did I say many? Yes, many.

When you receive a rejection slip (and actually this is a metaphor because actually, you probably aren’t going to get a rejection “slip” in the mail, but a rejection email. I realize that some literary journals still take—or even require—physical copies of submissions as in, through the mail using STAMPS (I know! Right? How 1985!), but I personally don’t submit my work to those journals. Why?  Because if a journal editor does not embrace technology and accept submissions via email or by using Submittable (or similar), then I figure they probably won’t appreciate my experimental, non-traditional writing style, either. But I digress).

Where was I? Oh, yes, when you receive a rejection email, don’t fret. Don’t be sad! All a rejection slip means is that what you currently sent the journal just wasn’t what they were looking for at that moment.  It does NOT mean you are a terrible writer and that you will never get published or any of that. Don’t even think it. It just means that out of the hundreds (or even thousands) of submissions they receive, yours was just not the one they chose. That’s it. So, like water off a duck’s back, you need to file it away and move along.

There are a variety of reasons for a journal rejecting a story/poem/what-have-you and most of them are purely subjective.  I know because I have worked as a fiction editor in the past and I am here to tell you, it’s a subjective world out there. I have had very heated discussions with my colleagues about which pieces to accept and reject for a contest and when it comes down to it, the decision was highly subjective. I have heard (and can easily believe it to be true) that decisions can be made about things as simple as the use of first person (“We don’t want any stories that rely on the crutch of first person”)  or that editor’s dog just died and you just submitted a story involving a dog. Or your main character is named Sam and reminds the editor of his cousin who stole his screen play….you can’t control any of that (although if you know that a journal doesn’t want stories written in first person, then don’t send them any, although sometimes they won’t tell you in advance what POV they currently prefer).

Some things you can do to improve your chances of acceptance, of course, is to:

Read the submission guidelines. Read them carefully and do EXACTLY what they say.  If they say they want the short story cut and pasted into an email in Helvetica with a specific heading in the subject line, well heck, you’d better do that. Don’t give a cranky editor a reason to decline your work before she even gets to the first paragraph. Some of these guidelines can be super picky and pretentious, but just take a deep breath and do them.

Read some back issues.  You want to determine if your work aligns with the rest of what the journal publishes in terms of style. I don’t actually belabor this too much, but if they seem prefer a minimalist style and your story is jam-packed with twisty-winding sentence constructions, you will want to send that one someplace else. You also want to make sure you would be cool with having your work published that journal. It may sound great to be published, but if you read a few pieces and realize that the journal should be named BuxomBum Esquire, then you may want to submit elsewhere (I made that up. I hope that journal doesn’t really exist. My apologies if it does. I recommend you don’t google that, especially if you are at work).

See their response time and make sure they take simulteneous submissions.  I am surprised at the number of people who don’t realize that you can and should send out simultaneous submissions.  After all, if you send off a story and then wait patiently for six months, receive a rejection, cry, send another one out again, wait six more months….you don’t have to be a math wizard to figure out how long it would be to actually publish that piece. So, don’t do that.  Most journals will accept simultaneous submissions (and if they don’t, do it anyway. This is the one submission guideline you should ignore. Just make sure you keep good records so you can withdraw your piece if it is published elsewhere), so a good rule of thumb to send out about ten journals at a time.  This is fine to do, as long as you make sure you keep organized records of where you submitted each piece and when and then promptly withdraw your work once the piece is published. I also withdraw my work if I don’t hear back from a journal in six to eight months. I also don’t submit my work to journals that say, “If you don’t hear back from us, that means we passed on your piece.” (Does it, now? I feel that if I am going to consider sending my work to a journal, they can at least send me an email to let me know if they reject it. That’s a professional courtesy.)

Keep track of “nice rejections” and take note.  You will get a variety of rejection emails. Most are polite and encouraging to all, which takes the sting out of the rejection, so I always appreciate the effort. Most of these are still templates, sent to everyone, however.  Sometimes, though, you get a rejection email that is clearly written to you, personally, and these will be more encouraging. These will tell you that your work is really good and the only reason your piece wasn’t chosen was because of space restraints, or it just wasn’t chosen this time, but will ask you to make sure you submit more of your work in the future.  This is a good thing and a very special kind of email to receive because it reinforces how you really don’t suck at writing. Make a note of that and submit your next story to that journal. Also, these rejections should make your day because they do validate your skill as a writer.

Send them at the right time of the year. Generally speaking, if the journal is run by an educational institution, don’t sent over the winter holidays or the summer.

The approach we all need to take to rejection slips is to embrace them for what they are—each one is evidence that you are progressing. You are moving forwarding with what you want to do. And that counts for a lot. Just keep it up and don’t become discouraged!

When to Use First Person Point-Of-View

IMG_3903

When I was writing about The Blank Page the other day, I pointed out that one of the most difficult choices to make initially is deciding which point-of-view to use.  Whether you choose to write a story in first, second, or third person POV will depend on a variety of elements and, ideally, should be an intentional decision you make at the outset. It’s not always intentional, but upon revision, that choice should make sense.

A first person narrator, for one thing, will ALWAYS  be at least a little unreliable.  Always. Why? Because a first person narrator can not necessarily be depended upon to tell the entire truth about his or her experiences, even if the narrator is sane and reliable on the outset. With a first person narrator, everything in the story is filtered through that first person conciousness.

For example, you are probably sane for the most part, but pretend you get a speeding ticket and later, you are telling someone about that speeding ticket.  You may, as the unreliable narrator of your life, change the details of your life just a bit so as to paint yourself as not driving so fast. You may paint the cop as being unfair or brusque or determined to give a ticket.  Or maybe, you want to depict yourself as a speed demon, so you tell the tale where you are driving very fast, with flames following you down the road, but then, you slowed down just in time–so it could have been worse!–and yet you still got a ticket because you were going that fast.  And so on. The details you choose to tell in that story will be filtered through your consciousness–they will be the details you choose to tell so as to continue on with the narration of your life, so no matter how truthful you may be on the bare facts of life, you are still not fully reliable.  And this is only a speeding ticket. We can only imagine what you might say (even to yourself) when depicting the deeper elements of your life–the things that keep you up at night. We all do this, which is why first person narrators are unreliable.

So, if you plan to exploit a narrator’s unreliability in your story, then you should write your story from first person. If the lack of reliability adds to your story, then you should write your story in first person POV.  For example, take the narrator from the “TellTale Heart” or the novel You by Caroline Kepnes or American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis. Those are extreme examples, but even John Updike’s “A & P”  would not be the same story unless it was written from a first person point of view. That story is told from the perspective of a 19-year old who doesn’t fully understand why he walks off his job, except that it makes him feel “squishy” inside to see the way the girls were treated. He can’t even articulate his emotions or why he chooses to take certain actions and this adds volumes to that story.

I am always very careful when using first person POV because in order to use it responsibly, first person POV HAS to exploit that lack of reliability some way and this exploitation has to add to the story in order for it to work. You can’t just use first person as an immediate go-to point-of-view because you like it (Well, you can, but your story will be stronger if you don’t).  You will use first person POV because the character is lying to herself, maybe, and this inability to see the truth is part of the story.  Or your character is very young and unable to see the bigger picture or come to a full realization due to inexperience.  Or your character is insane or going insane and you want to raise the question of that insanity (“The Yellow Wallpaper”).  Or your character is hurting deeply and lying to himself about the reason for that pain.  Or your character is doing something wrong and lying to himself about that wrong (for a brilliant example of this that will reduce you to tears, read “Dark Meadow” by Adam Johnson. Read it. Then read it again. And again).  But whatever the reason, you need to have a purpose for exploiting the first person’s unreliability and that needs to add to the story. This doesn’t happen often.

Not everyone understands this. I once ran across—years ago—some editor’s comments in the submission guidelines for a literary journal (not sure which one) which said something to the effect of how the magazine didn’t want short stories that “used the crutch of first person.” That comment always bothered me because first person POV is NOT a crutch. It’s actually harder to write an effective short story in first person POV, but beginning writers don’t always know this. Nor do editors of certain literary magazines, apparently. Or maybe they just worded this badly.

I rarely use first person when writing fiction because it IS more difficult to do.  Still, if I choose to use it, the aforementioned are the reasons.  If there is no particular unreliability at play, then third person or second are possibly more appropriate choices.

At any rate, this was one of the most valuable lessons I learned and it has saved me rewriting stories on several occasions.

Conquering The Blank Page

birdie bear

So, I’m about to face The Blank Page this morning. I tried to face The Blank Page yesterday, but in the end, I had to work on other things to meet my daily writing quota and give The Blank Page some further consideration before I began to type. After all, The Blank Page cannot stay blank forever.

I have a love-hate relationship with The Blank Page, and I’m sure I’m not alone. On the plus side, The Blank Page offers so much potential. It is an unscripted world I’m about to create and I know that I can write anything I want on that page. It is an unpainted room awaiting a brilliant accent wall. It is a new garden in springtime. It is a refrigerator full of food that I can combine to make a delicious meal. The Blank Page is an uncut pattern and two yards of luxurious fabric. The Blank Page is full of beginnings and possibilities.

The Blank Page also holds risks, which often prevents me from writing at all–as it did yesterday. The Blank Page holds the potential of a paint color that dries too dark to be beautiful. The Blank Page can get taken over with weeds to choke out the roses.  It is a refrigerator full of substitute ingredients that don’t quite work. The Blank Page is an ill-fated home-economics throwback jumper. The Blank Page is so….blank.

Usually, when I first approach The Blank Page, I already have an Idea. Having an Idea is not really the problem—as I’ve aged, I have tons of great Ideas. I’m not sure whether it’s just my life and experiences and outlook have come together to marinate just so to allow me to have endless writing ideas or what, but I am currently backed up three story Ideas already. And all of them are currently Blank Pages.

No, it’s the smaller details. I know the big picture, but The Blank Page forces me to face the little details before I even begin and I must make choices. Once I puzzle my way through these, I am able to write some words.  So, yesterday, here is what I concluded:

First, the biggest question we need to ask ourselves is which point-of-view to use. I am going to write about this in more detail with my next post, but this might be the most important choice we make when we are facing The Blank Page. We have to ask ourselves, who should tell this story?  There are some very specific reasons to choose first person POV over third person POV, or vice versa and it pays to be intentional with this choice.  The problem is, we don’t always know the whole story before we write it (at least I don’t), so we don’t realize a story should be told in first person instead of third until we are several pages in. C’est la vie. We still have to face The Blank Page.

Next, we need to decide how to structure our story, more or less.  Are we going to tell it from the present tense fully? Why? Or will it all happen in the past? Why? Are we going to flash back to various events? Are we going to circle back into the past, then up again in the future, then to another point in time, in a figure eight?  Or will it be a frame story? Are we going to focus all of the scenes over one image or theme?  What is our reasoning, more or less, on any of these decisions? Eventually, the structure will find itself, but a little forethought can get us going. Then again, sometimes we just feel like telling a story a certain way and we have absolutely no reason for it. Generally, though, when this happens, we aren’t staring at The Blank Page.

If we want, we can put a character in a situation and see what happens—to an extent.  I love to put a character in an interesting or difficult situation and see what happens. Or give the character an object and see what he does with it. Still, this sometimes gives me angst because it can cause spinning wheels after a page or two, or start a story that slides into ennui if nothing happens. Or I know I will have to hack off the first half of the story on rewrite and start it in the middle if this happens, which is   one reason why I like to have a basic idea about what the story MAY be about. I might be wrong about what I think the story is about—in fact, I generally am—but I like an idea to have some sense of gravitas before I begin. I am nearly always wrong about my stories—they always end up being about something entirely unforeseen as my unconscious works its magic, but I like to be able to answer the question, “This story is about x” or “This story explores y,” even if I am wrong.

We will revise anything we write, so we need to not get too worried about any of this.  All of the above is just to get us started writing. To have a game plan of sorts.  It does not mean that we have to stick to it and not change anything. Think of it as a general guide for a road trip. If we want to, we can just hop in the car and go (that would be fun), but most of us, due to time and financial constraints, like a little focus. So, we navigate the trip, plan a few rest stops if we are organized about it, and maybe decide where we’d like to eat. When we actually leave the house, however, we never know if a road will be shut down and we will have to take a detour, or if there will be an accident, or if we will all decide to pull into the Amazing Cave of Bats because why the heck not? or buy fake-grass flip flops at a funky cafe.  The trip itself will pan out—we just need to make some general plans to get us on the road.

So….if you are having to face The Blank Page like I am currently facing, those are just some thoughts to consider to get  you on your way.

Well, let’s see if I can follow my own advice….here I go! Wish me luck.

Using Concrete Details in Writing (The Love-Coat Hanger Story)

coat hangers

When I used to teach creative writing, I realized early on that new writers needed to learn the difference between concrete and abstract words.  After reading how a girlfriend or boyfriend was “the most amazing person,” or throwing the word “love” around all willy-nilly, I knew that we had to discuss this very important skill upon which believable writing relies.

I’d ask them to name a concrete word. Sometimes, someone knew what I meant, but usually, they blinked and looked confused.  So then I explained how concrete words are words that readers can experience with their five senses.  Then, I’d name them, ticking them off on my fingers as I went because I’d always forget one:

Smell. The scent of popcorn popping. Sea salt in the ocean.

Taste. Dill pickles. (“Salt in the ocean, too!” someone would interject. Exactly!)

Sound. Rain on a rooftop. Tinny music from an old radio.

Sight. A red dry-erase marker (I’d hold one up). A blue Volkswagen Jetta (I’d point out the window).

Touch. Sand clumping between toes. A bumpy seam on a sock.

Then I’d tell them that abstract words are words that cannot be experienced with their five senses and such, the reader cannot form an image of those words.

“Take love, for example,” I’d say. “If we all heard a knock on the classroom door and we opened it up and saw Love standing there, would we all be able to say, ‘OMG!  It’s love knocking!  Come on in, Love!’? No, we could not.”

This elicits laughter and then I go on.  I tell them that we do not know what love looks like. We cannot recognize love like we can recognize a dry erase marker or the President of the United States because love is not a concrete thing.

“Well, what about Valentine’s Day?” someone will inevitably say. “That’s love.”

“Well, I can see why you say that, but no, Valentine’s Day is Valentine’s Day. Technically, it’s February 14th on the calendar and that’s that, but it is not love.

I explain to them that when use concrete words, we are able to create an image in the mind of the reader using his or her five senses. The only way people CAN interact with the world is through their five senses–otherwise, those words are only black dots on a white page. They can’t come alive unless they transmit their images into another person’s mind.

“So, we can’t write about love?” someone will inevitably ask. I just wait for them to ask it because they always do.

I tell them that of course they can write about love. And hate. And freedom. And war. And sorrow. And loss. And redemption. And everything else because those abstract big concepts are the heart of why we write. Yet, we need to use concrete words to get there, to make the reader share in the world we are creating.

This is when I launch into the “Love-Coat Hanger Story.” To begin with, this story has a nice hook with the title and all that. I’m a little proud of the title and the story, which I invented it on the spot one day as about thirty eyes stared at me, waiting for me to illustrate the whole “use concrete words to access the abstract idea” point I was trying to make. So, I gave the story a title and then launched right into it. It worked out so well that I went on sharing it with future classes and now, I’m sharing it with you.

My husband and I share a closet. It’s a large walk-in closet with two doors–his side and my side–but once inside the closet, the closet is all one room. My clothes hang on the right side of the closet and also throughout most of the middle, but my husband has the left hand side. In the mornings, my husband, rushing off to work and taking a shirt off of a coat hanger, doesn’t always know what to do with the hanger. When I remove clothes from hangers, the hangers go in a special place on the bottom right-hand side of my closet on the lowest rod so that I know where all of the empty hangers are located. This makes it easier to either use them again or find them when I need to take a bunch to the laundry room for more clothes-hanging purposes.

My husband does not have a coat-hanger system as I do, so instead, he began tossing his daily hanger across the closet, so it landed on my side of the closet, on the floor.

Eventually, a small pile of three or four coat hangers grew and one day, irritated with his actions, I scooped up the whole pile and let them fly, back over to his side of the closet. Then I went on with my day.

The next day, I saw the pile back on my side, plus one.

I scooped them all up again, plus one more from my own blouse, and tossed the whole pile back to his side.

The next day, the pile was back on my side, plus one.

The pile grew considerably over the next few weeks, until the coat hangers not only fell on the floor in a haphazard pile when they landed, but also scattered across the rest of the closet, hooking in t-shirts and landing on the shoes which lined the floor. At this point, neatness prevailed and I declared him the winner of our little game. I gathered all of the coat hangers and took them to the laundry room.

In the morning, however, he said, “Where’s our coat hangers?”

“In the laundry room. Where they belong.”

“Oh. But I thought that was our little love game.”

So, the next day, I felt bad and tossed a coat hanger onto his side, but later, he told me, “It’s only fun it if it irritates you.”

At this point, people laugh and some people sigh and say, “Awwwww.” Which is a good time to debrief the story.  In order for that story to work, you have to have a pretty good sketch of the inside of my closet.  You don’t need to be overrun with details about which of my specific clothes hang where, but you do have to know enough concrete details to understand the layout of the room so you can see how it is possible for the coat hangers to be thrown. You also have to have enough details to hint at our personality differences.  I don’t want to say, “I am neater than my husband” because again, “neat” is an abstract word.  I need to show the relative neatness by describing how one character has a plan for dealing with accumulating coat hangers and the other has no plan except to toss his to the other.  These details speak volumes about our relationship, as does the romantic qualities of my husband, who sees romance and fun, even as he is attempting to irritate me.

All of those details are important because they reveal volumes about the complexity of our love, which an abstract statement such as “I love my husband” cannot. This is why it will not do to simply write,  “I love my husband.” The abstraction of that statement is meaningless, and in fact, we probably shouldn’t use the word “love” at all–only “tell it slant” to quote Emily Dickinson. Each love has a complexity to it and one can only get to that complexity through the revealing of concrete details that help create that meaning and access the bigger issue of our unique love.

So, there you have it. The “Love Coat Hanger Story” on using concrete words in your writing.