Remember it’s subjective

Here’s where the day job is at (AKA, the newspaper/magazine writing): I heard from one editor who’s happy with my work. Then I heard from another editor who doesn’t like my work and wants changes.

And *shrugs* that’s how it goes.

Different people are going to react differently to your work. Some will love it, some will hate it, some will go “meh.” When it’s an article, or some other type of work-for-hire, well, revisions are part of the deal (which is why I’m revising). When it’s your own work — say, your novel — you’ve got a bit more leeway in how you respond to those reactions.

But here’s the key: These opinions will vary by person. This is why literary agents usually have a line about “this industry is subjective” in their rejection letters. A manuscript that leaves them feeling “meh” might completely wow the next person to read it. You are the same person, and your work is the same work, no matter who’s reading it. You can’t control the other person’s reaction.

I’m not saying writers (or artists) need to toughen up, or grow a thicker skin, or whatever other figures of speech are floating around. But it is useful to take someone’s reaction, positive or negative, and evaluate it to see if there’s anything you can learn from it. If so, then go ahead and use that feedback. If not? You’re entitled to nod politely and move on.

Your opinion of your work, in other words, should exist a little apart from the opinions of others. And it should sustain you on the negative days.

Rejection evolution

When you get a rejection from an agent or editor, you should:

  1. Grumble loudly and stomp around the house
  2. Eat ice cream
  3. Announce to the world that you are never ever writing a single word again
  4. No, seriously, take a breath, it’s OK

(Please guess 4.)

Hey, 1. and 2. are fine. I’ve done both, sometimes at the same time. But the thing about rejections is, they really aren’t personal. They don’t mean you’re a bad writer. They do mean you should keep trying.

I deal with rejections at the day job as well as with my fiction. Not every article pitch gets accepted, even from editors who know and like my work. Maybe they just ran a similar article, or maybe the topic doesn’t wow them. It’s not personal, so I shrug and move on to the next thing.

But for a while, I had a harder time doing that with my fiction. Those stories feel like pieces of me in a way that something I write for a magazine or other publication doesn’t. So I stomped around the house, got epically frustrated, silently begged friends and family not to ask how my writing was going. And ate ice cream.

I finally had to ask myself why I was doing this. Was it helping me improve my writing or my chances? And how could I teach my kids about persevering and working to achieve their goals, if I weren’t willing to do the same?

So I changed my reaction. I quit taking it personally.

This week I got a rejection on a short story I’ve been sending around. I read the email, shrugged, and moved on with my day.

It’ll find a home somewhere, or it won’t. The point is to keep trying.

The gift of time

I had a novel to revise (and also type up) and a noisy house. So I drove to a cabin in the woods.

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You can also be inspired by nature.

 

The Highlights Foundation offers year-round workshops for kidlit writers and illustrators on its campus, the former home of the founders of Highlights magazine. It also offers Unworkshops: You can stay there a few days without registering for a formal workshop, so you can get some creative work done, and they’ll provide meals and snacks. 

The last time I tried to do a DIY writing retreat, I ran into two problems. One, at some point you have to flee the hotel room so the staff can clean. And two, you end up eating alone in restaurants. I don’t mind bringing a book to dinner, but it did look a little weird when I was surrounded by couples on dates. An Unworkshop solved both problems, because no one bothers you. You don’t even have to socialize with other people during meals, if you’re feeling especially introverted or time-crunched (although I did end up socializing after all). You can stay in your little cabin and get work done.

The cabin was quiet, the scenery outside was gorgeous, I had a desk and constant coffee. And now I have a manuscript.

Some notes on the experience, if a cabin creativity retreat interests you:

  • You will be driving up country roads to get there. Several will be gravel. Drive carefully.
  • Beware of bears (didn’t see any), and also ticks (didn’t see them either).
  • The staff is incredibly nice and will introduce you around to whoever’s there.
  • The internet is spotty. Hey, you’re in the country.
  • Seriously, it’s pretty outside. Take a walk.

But the best thing the campus offers is quiet free time to get things done. Never feel like you need to earn that, or you’re not at a point in your career where you ”deserve” it. Camp out at the library, find a diner booth, DIY it like I did and get a hotel room somewhere. But take the time. You’ll be a better writer or artist for it.

And then what happens?

In the great plotters vs. pantsers debate, I fall pretty firmly on the side of pantsers. I have a general idea of how the story is going to end, but I discover things about it as I write—who my characters are, what they want, where they’re going. It’s not quite freewriting (which is also a good exercise!), but not quite organized, either. It’s a little bit like story improv.

In improv, in order to keep a scene going, the performers onstage will play off each other, building a scene together line by line. There are no mistakes, and no one gets to say “no” and kill the scene. It’s called the “yes, and” principle. Usually this requires another human being or two, but you can do “yes, and” as a solo game.

The protagonist is at school and overwhelmed about something he’s struggling with. What does he do? He storms out of class. Then what happens? He sees something suspicious in town and runs to tell his father about it. Then what? His father shrugs it off, and his worries—about his problems and about the strange visitors—only grow, especially after . . .

Well, I haven’t written that far yet. But I hadn’t planned any of the above details when I started writing.

One action leads to the next one, and the next and the next. Eventually you’ve got a plot, and because it’s built off what the main character and supporting characters will do or say next, it’s focused on their needs and desires, which means you’ve gotten to know your characters very well.

I might not keep everything in this story-in-progress after I’ve written my way through it. But it’s a lot easier to see what’s working and what isn’t when I’ve got a full story in front of me.

This technique isn’t going to appeal to everyone, which is fine—there’s no one right way to write a story. But it works for me, and it might for you too. Just keep asking yourself: What happens next?

Lining up dominoes

I recently finished another round of revisions on one of my middle grade manuscripts. I extended a few scenes, cut a few others, and changed small but significant details about the protagonist’s background. Going through the process was a good reminder: the key to revising is revising consistently, throughout the story.

Changing where my protagonist lived, for instance, meant checking every reference to his childhood home to make sure it was still accurate. And it meant thinking through the repercussions of that change. How would this have affected his childhood? How did this change the dynamic between his parents? Did this change mean other changes were needed, too?

It’s the domino effect of storytelling. (Or the butterfly effect, if you like that better.) Every action impacts other actions, ultimately changing the story overall. The hard part about revising isn’t making changes; it’s keeping those changes consistent with each other, and with what was already on the page.

In the middle of revising something? Not sure how to go about it? Think of a line of dominoes. If everything is properly aligned, all the details will fall into place, and so will the story.

What writers need to hear

In drawing class, our instructor was talking about how professional artists could create using a toothbrush, if they wanted. The tools don’t matter, he said; what matters is how you use the tools. The only difference between us students and the professionals, he said, is that they kept drawing.

It’s fascinating how much of what he says also applies to writing. The tools and methods don’t matter—you can reserve early mornings for writing time at your computer or (like me) stick tiny notebooks in your purse for use during the kids’ swim classes or long car trips. The point is that you’re writing, not that you’re writing in some official approved manner.

And I think writers look for that official approval because they want that validation. They want someone to tell them they’re a writer, that they belong, and they’re not being pretentious, especially if they haven’t written professionally before. They want proof to wave around, like a certificate, to show that they’re legitimate.

You don’t need it. If you write, you’re a writer. If you’re serious about learning and improving your craft, it will show. You need no seal of approval from anyone.

A while back, our drawing instructor went around the room and asked everyone why they were taking his class. Now, I have no expectation of becoming a professional artist. I’m too much of a beginner to plan on gallery shows or book illustrations. So when he asked me why I draw, I said, “Because I can.” It was the most honest answer I could think of, and I still think it’s the right answer. It’s also why I write.

You don’t need to prove that you deserve to create. You just need to create. Everything else flows from that.

Using the insider’s perspective

We were in synagogue over the weekend, attending a cousin’s bar mitzvah (and mazel tov to him!), and I thought I’d properly prepped my interfaith kids for the experience: Use the transliteration to pronounce the Hebrew words, turn the siddur pages from the left, stand when the Torah scrolls come out, don’t talk when everyone is praying silently. Afterward, my daughter asked why people had been bowing during the service, and I realized I’d left that out of my prep talk. Jews bow while reciting specific lines in certain prayers, I explained.

It’s a little more tricky than the standing and sitting, when you can just do what everyone else is doing to blend in. There’s no advance notice on when to bow, it doesn’t say “bow here” in the siddur, and by the time you notice other people bowing, the moment’s probably passed; you need to know when to do it from experience. Oh, and the details are likely to vary by synagogue.

Confused yet? (If so, here’s a pretty good overview on the subject.)

The conversation reminded me why firsthand knowledge is important, in life and in writing. If you wanted to write about a synagogue service, you’d probably know about the Hebrew chanting and the Torah scrolls, but unless you’d sat through a service yourself, you might not know to include the bowing.

That insider’s perspective can make all the difference in the authenticity of your work. When researching a topic, don’t stop at the surface level; try to figure out what an insider would know, someone who’s an expert or part of the community being written about, and look at the topic through that person’s point of view. Then you’ll know the details that are important to explain for the reader, and the details your characters would so take for granted as part of the landscape that they might not remember to notice for more than half a sentence. 

Or if your characters aren’t meant to be insiders in the world you’ve created, make them as observant as my daughter, who caught the one detail I’d forgotten to tell her about in advance and got me to give her the insider’s perspective.