rejections

Blog header: Twenty Years a Writer

Twenty Years a Writer, Part 7: Unwritten and Unrealized

Some writers say their characters come alive during the writing process and even push the story in unexpected directions. But do we owe anything to characters we’ve thought up but whose stories remain unwritten, stuck halfway through Chapter 3? Or languishing in an abandoned notebook?

A while ago, in a discussion among several indie authors, I declared that I had no unfinished works. That’s actually true, although She Who Comes Forth stalled at page 17 for months before I found my way back to completing it. But I do have a complete novel that’s been sitting around unpublished since 2008.

Winter Journeys is literary fiction unrelieved by any genre fiction attributes. Moreover, it grew out of my obsession in the early 2000s with Franz Schubert’s song cycle Winterreise. And said obsession was due in part to my experiences of rejection while trying to get my first few novels traditionally published.

The twenty-four songs that make up Winterreise follow the wanderings of a man who has been rejected by a young woman and her family, and who finally rejects the world. I turned that story arc into a novel about a woman who goes through a similar trajectory in the present time, while she becomes fascinated with a particular recording of Schubert’s music.

I hesitated to publish Winter Journeys myself, first, because literary fiction doesn’t sell unless boosted by the forces of Big Publishing, literary prizes, and being made into movies. And second, because I had an intention to send it around to Canadian publishers. They do publish literary fiction, with the help of arts and culture grants from the federal government.

But since entering the realm of self-publishing, I’ve totally lost the mindset and desire to submit. (I actually hate that word, even.) So this novel continues to lurk in the shadows, although I’ve designed a number of cover images for it. Here are two of them…

Winter Journeys cover image 4
Winter Journeys cover image 5

2028 will be the 200th anniversary of the publication of Winterreise, and incidentally, of Schubert’s death. I think that would be the right year to publish Winter Journeys.

In the meantime, I’m getting psyched for writing a sequel to She Who Comes Forth, provisionally titled (what else?) She Who Returns. (You read it first here, folks.)

This is the final post in this series. I hope reading about my writing journey has been informative, interesting, or at least diverting. Here’s a link to Part 1 if you want to read it again. Links to all the other parts are there.

Well, fellow writers, do you have any stories languishing in unwritten or unpublished limbo? Do you feel you have an obligation to give them life?

Throwing Darts at the Moon

Toward the end of my “submissive” period as an author, I realized there is an unfathomable gap between a submitted manuscript and the preferences of the target — the professional reader. I wrote my novels with an ideal reader in mind, a receptive, welcoming reader to whom I was eager to present my fictional world and characters. The professional reader can’t be that way, for good reasons. Publishers must perforce reject the majority of manuscripts sent to them by hopeful writers. The professional reader approaches manuscripts with rejection in mind.

Manuscripts rarely return to their authors with a list of reasons for rejection. Unless an editor is almost inclined to accept a manuscript and suggests specific changes that might tip the balance in its favour, the writer is forced to guess. Even when reasons are given, they are often less than helpful. In my submissive days, I used to brood over sentences such as, “Your narrative voice slightly missed the mark at drawing me in,” wondering exactly what would have elicited a different result.

From my experience with critique groups over the years, I have realized that a piece of writing provokes a range of opinions from a group of people. Some want more backstory, others none at all. Some love lush descriptions, others hate them. Some focus on certain words or punctuation marks, others question the motives and personalities of the characters. When your opus is read and rejected by an unknown stranger, you have no knowledge of their quirks and preferences. You do some tweaking or rewrite the whole thing and send it into another black hole where it will be read by someone with completely different ideas about what constitutes a good piece of writing. For any rewrite to match the idiosyncrasies of the next professional reader is like throwing darts at the moon.

That’s if the manuscript is read at all. Most writers who have sent manuscripts to publishers have at least one story about a submission that was rejected more than a year after being sent, or received no response at all. Ever. And yes, we’ve all heard stories about enormous slush piles clogging the premises of beleaguered publishers. Shame on all of us wannabees for burdening them with our stuff. But declaring themselves open to submissions, especially with statements that queries meeting their requirements will be read within a specific time period, implies that publishers will treat those submissions with respect. But not all do. It is, after all, a “buyer’s market.”

Some years ago, I took an evening course on the business side of writing and publishing. One of the statements made by the instructor that has stayed with me was, “Self-publishing is masturbation.” In those days the only means of self-publishing was the vanity press, years before “indie authors,” print-on-demand, ebooks and Smashwords arrived on the scene. When those avenues to self-publication became available and quasi-respectable, they were taken up with such eagerness, in such huge and overwhelming numbers, as to constitute something more like a revolution than a mere trend.

Is that any wonder, given the exigencies of trying to get published in the time-honoured, submissive way? Rejections for unspecified reasons, after months- or years-long waits, repeated as many times as the writer can endure (and some of us are more patient and persistent than others), is not what any writer signs up for. Most of us writers — well, here I had better speak for myself — I want my works to be read. My novels are “out there,” not languishing in someone’s slush pile or abandoned in a drawer. If I can make a few bucks from them, that’s icing on the cake. If that constitutes metaphorical masturbation, so be it.

Why Do You Write?

The other evening, poet and creativity mentor Ahava Shira, speaking to the Victoria Writers’ Society about writing and performing poetry, mentioned that one of her clients needed advice on what to do with her poems. She also spoke of her own experiences with self-publishing a collection of her poems and producing a recording of herself performing her works.

Last week, out of curiosity, I peered into a book by Mike Nappa with the rather cumbersome title 77 Reasons Why Your Book Was Rejected {and how to be sure it won’t happen again!}. Mr. Nappa, as we are informed on the cover of his book, is the “founder and chief literary agent of Nappaland Literary,” and knows a good deal about rejections.

These encounters, one with a self-published poet, the other with a book of advice for writers, led me to today’s topic. Many writers are driven to write by an irresistible impulse, even obsession. Once that first act of creation is completed and the chaotic and glorious adventure is over, the writer has to decide what to do with the results. Many writers think they must get their works published by a “real” publishing company. Then they will go on a book tour, do readings and signings and be interviewed by the CBC. If they can’t accomplish this, they will be failed writers. The thing that was a source of joy becomes a burden and a source of disappointment, shame and bitterness.

Mike Nappa’s book lays out the facts about what a writer needs to do in order to have a chance at being published by a large corporate publisher, or represented by the agents who work with these publishers. The writer who really wants a shot at this would benefit by reading the book and jumping through the hoops so thoroughly described by Mike Nappa. (Hint: take a marketing course or become a celebrity).

Financial planners ask their clients about their risk tolerance when presenting investment options; writers should honestly assess their rejection tolerance. Perfectionists and people who have a tendency to beat themselves up have a hard time with rejections.

So what about the writer who has no interest in jumping the hoops? Or the one who has given their best shot at the submission process, received rejections and doesn’t know what to do next? It used to be the case that there were only two categories of writers: published and not published, with the self-published in an unmentionable category labelled “vanity.”

Things have changed. Any writer can now be published, and is free to market their work as much or as little as they please — or not at all. The crucial thing is to adjust expectations accordingly.

Don’t consider yourself a failed writer if you don’t meet the criteria of the industrial publishing machine. As Mr. Nappa emphasizes in 77 Reasons…  there is only one reason a book gets published — profit. If an author measures success or failure only by that criterion, fine. But there are so many more possibilities.

First, learn to write well. This is an absolute requirement, no matter how, or even whether, you publish. Take courses if you find them helpful. Read books about how to write, or (even better) just read. Read as much as you can and pay attention to how it’s done. Then write, write, write.

Find a group of writers who will read your stuff and offer good criticism. By good criticism I don’t mean unconditional admiration, but sincere suggestions that may help to improve your work. Aside from actual criticism, such readers will reflect your work back to you, helping you to see it from unexpected angles.

Find congenial opportunities to bring your work out into the world, however limited their scope. Self-publish in e-book form, in print or both, depending on how much money you want to commit to the project. Read to friends, family members, fellow writers or the general public. Record your book and turn it into a podcast. Make a video of yourself (or someone else) reading from your book and post it online. Create your own book trailer. Make a video of a friend or fellow writer interviewing you about your book, and post that online. All of this is doable at low or no cost, and without a degree in marketing.

Above all, write. The only failed writers are those who give up and kill the creative part of themselves because its creations did not meet the harsh criterion of profit.