Archive for » January, 2010 «

Jan
21

Character emotion is a tricky thing. Not enough and readers won’t invest; too much and you lose realism. I gave a tendency toward the former – emotionally distant characters that create emotionally distant readers (especially in long works). It’s something I’ve been looking at – been looking at for a few years now, actually.

My first angle was to look at whether or not I feel anything when I write. There was a period when I didn’t. It took time and practice, but I started to feel more. I began to connect to my characters and my stories. I laughed, I cried, and, yeah, they became a part of me.

But strangely, the more I felt about my characters and stories, the less emotion I actually put on the page, as if the distance kept me safe. I was creating a distance between me, the writer, and the reader. That created a distance between the reader and the story. In short, I was having a hard time making readers care.

Sometimes I could even see it for myself. So I would go back through and add more of what makes me feel. I would add sensory details, atmosphere, setting with carefully constructed details to evoke my own emotions in hopes of doing the same to the reader.

But it didn’t always gel with readers. They could see the emotion I was trying to evoke in them, but it wasn’t real. It was more of a series of cardboard signs like the kind held up at the airport. One character would hold up “Happy” in hopes it would come along. Another had “Angst” scrawled on a piece of cardboard. Each just a sign to connect the reader with the emotion. But the distance was too big to be bridged by a cardboard sign.

I started working on collapsing that distance more. I took some workshops. One workshop leader said the emotion was there. She could see it. She found it effective. But she wasn’t casually reading. She was reading every word, thinking, analyzing. She was reading to find out what I needed to be working on. She wasn’t reading for story but for teaching.

I don’t think most readers read every word of a story. Especially in emotionally heated moments where the action is moving quickly. They’re rushing ahead to see what’s happening. If I’m sort of hiding the emotion in the scenery it might not be noticed. Subtlety probably isn’t my best tack

And yet, I couldn’t figure out how to come at it head-on. What, do I just write, “She was sad. Really really, really sad, the kind of sad that can only be expressed in banal repetition.” That seemed vulgar to me. And it cheated readers like my workshop leader.

But somewhere over the last few weeks I’ve noticed a tendency I have in my own life that might be the key to this problem. I’ve been told that I seem to have it all together. I kind of hear that a lot. Whatever ‘it’ is, I’ve got it rounded up and singing cowboy odes to the lonesome prairie. But this is, of course, ridiculous. I know that I leak insecurity and near-panic all over the place. But I hide it in the details. I say the together things but I throw in details I hope someone sees. But when people are concerned and ask you straight out, they’re listening to your words, not analyzing and dissecting for contradiction. They just want an answer.

I think it’s that way in fiction. In a highly emotional scene, the reader is asking questions. With those questions asked, the reader is listening for the answer and believing the words in the quote marks or coming from the character’s mind, not trying to weigh those words against sensory detail or scenery description. Yes, there is room for contradiction and nuance and complexity, but not for hiding. Big difference.

I don’t need to hide emotion from readers; they can take it. More than that, they want it. Now to figure out how to give it to them – one revelation at a time. Just like life.

Category: writing  Tags:  6 Comments
Jan
15

I want to be one of those people who can look back and smile at rejection letters.

Rob Sabo commented on my last post: “Perspective: The first Harry Potter book was rejected 12 times. I think I read somewhere that Jo Rowling is the first billionaire author.”

This got me to thinking. I love stories of failure before success. Especially ones where hindsight makes that success seem inevitable. I like to fantasize about the day when I will speak proudly of my rejections as an audience gasps and titters in shock that anyone could have overlooked my obvious brilliance. I will be the example writers give to each other for reassurance when they are feeling down about their own rejections. One writer will say, “I might as well just quit. Another rejection. That’s nine! I should just take the hint and quit.”

And the supportive writer friend will smile wryly and say, “Oh no. Did you know that Cindie Geddes was rejected 500 times before she sold her first novel? And even then, you know The Bad Parts (at which point the friend will roll her eyes and snort, because everyone knows that book) was rejected nineteen times and she just gave up! It only got published because her friend Wolf made her send it out again on a bet.”

The dejected writer will shake her head and laugh, and she will feel better. And she will send out her story – again and again and again, determined to not give up until she at least sends out as many times as Cindie Geddes did.

Yeah, these are the kinds of fantasies have. I am a very exciting woman.

But since it’s going to be at least a few months until I reach the kind of success that will make this fantasy a reality, I figured I could list a few real-world examples* we can offer one another during those inevitable dark times.

  • James Joyce’s Dubliners: rejected 22 times. The publisher only printed 1250 copies. 379 sold the first year. Joyce had bought 120 of them. And, yeah, he did OK.
  • To Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street by Theodor Geisel writing as Dr. Seuss: rejected by 29 publishers.
  • Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig: rejected 121 times.
  • Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach: 140 times
  • William Saroyan built a pile of rejections 30 inches high (equaling around 7000 rejections) before he sold his first story.
  • M*A*S*H by Richard Hooker collected 21 rejections.
  • Meg Cabot’s The Princess Diaries: rejected 17 times.
  • Carrie (by Stephen King) was rejected 30 times.
  • Watership Down by Richard Adams: 26 rejections.
  • Auntie Mame by Patrick Dennis: 15 no-thank-yous.
  • Chicken Soup for the Soul by Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen: 140 NOs.
  • Frank Herbert’s Dune: nearly 20 rejections.
  • A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle: 26 maybe-next-times.
  • Alex Haley once told me (yes, in person, and I didn’t even faint, though I did stutter when I asked him about rejection) he had been rejected 800 times before selling anything. 800. Even I haven’t hit that many. But C.S. Lewis has. He was also a member of the 800 club.
  • James Patterson saw 26 rejections for his first novel.
  • William Golding’s Lord of the Flies: 20 not-right-for-us(es).
  • Kathryn Stockett stopped counting rejections after she received 45 on her best seller The Help.
  • Gone with the Wind brought Margaret Mitchell the sting of 38 rejections.
  • Ray Bradbury has been rejected more than 1000 times and STILL gets rejected.
  • Judy Blume submitted for 2 years straight with nothing but rejections.
  • Stephenie Meyer gathered 7 or 8 rejections for Twilight, including one that came in after she’d gotten a three-book deal from Little, Brown.
  • The Dairy of Anne Frank was passed over by 16 publishers.

And if you’re like me and feel better knowing that current rejection does not negate future success, check out this site of quotes from actual rejections of some of the best writing ever. http://schulerbooks.wordpress.com/2009/05/11/recent-article-30-famous-authors-whose-works-were-rejected-repeatedly-and-sometimes-rudely-by-publishers/

*Disclaimer: I didn’t fact check any of these. Some I saw in magazines, some I read on the Web, some I heard … somewhere.

Category: writing  Tags:  7 Comments
Jan
07

I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about rejection, considering I have so very little in my life. I don’t date (which works well with the whole being-married thing), I’m not out of work and looking for a job (I’m self-employed), I don’t compete in sports, politics or even the lottery. And yet, surveying a bunch of long e-mail threads I’ve had with people in 2009, I see a few subjects popping up again and again. The top 9 are:

9. God

8. Marriage

7. Beauty

6. Age

5. Parenting

4. Money

3. Politics

2. Time

1. Rejections

Yes, the greatest of these was Rejection.

Why?

Well, because I’m a writer. Now, I know there are lots of writers who never ever get rejections –they never submit anything. And I’m sure there have even been some blessed souls who submitted their work and sold it with nary a rejection (before their fellow writers lashed them naked to trees and peeled the skin from their bodies with clam shells, all the while telling each other how very happy we are for their success).

But most of us get our stories rejected. WE get rejected. If you think it doesn’t feel like the same thing, then you’ve never experienced the maddening schizophrenia that comes with the creative brain. Part of our brains always expects Stephenie Meyer-level success. The other part girds its loins (brain loins!) against the onslaught of criticism, belittling, and possible violence sure to come from anyone who sees us attempting to do something so obviously above the level of our meager abilities.

For someone like me, someone who is not naturally imbued with grace and aplomb, rejection is a bitch. She whispers the worst insults in my ear while raising a 2×4 behind my head. And as soon as she’s run out of heart-deadening half-truths to release into my ear like those awful creatures in Star Trek, she raises that board to bludgeon the rest of my ego free of my body. It’d be easier to split me open like an overripe cantaloupe and watch the seeds of inspiration fly chaotically to the dirt.

But I am determined to be a writer. The kind of determined that has stripped most of my ego off in slick strips I can make into shoes to keep me walking onward. My determination is fed by continuous hunger to try to fill all those gaps I can see between the stories in my mind and my ability to bring a story to the page. My determination is massive and undying.

So the only way I’ve been able to keep myself going through hundreds of rejections for my handful of sales is to change how I see rejection. Sure, there’s some delusion in here. A dash of denial. Some whimsy and naiveté dance above the scales that weight my rejections and acceptances. There’s tricks of work and tricks of the mind and tricks of the industry that I juggle when I can. And when I can’t juggle, I drop everything and break out into a scuffy little dance to draw the eyes away from my failures.

All this brings me to 9 ways I’ve come to think about rejection.

  1. It’s the same as having an envelope stamped Return to Sender: Address Unknown. I just sent the wrong piece to the wrong person at the wrong time.
  2. It’s a timing thing. Maybe they just got the same sort of story submitted by someone whose name alone sells copies. It’s not that my story is bad, just that my name is not well known. Yet.
  3. Maybe the editor had a very bad day and can’t see brilliance of any sort. I know I’ve had days when even a sunset pissed me off.
  4. The story is destined for better. If I’d sold some of my stories to the first place I sent them I would’ve missed out on greater sales later.
  5. Maybe I’m not ready for success yet. I’ll just keep sending stories out while I continue to work on making myself a better person, the kind of person who can at least fake grace and aplomb in the face of good reviews and awards.
  6. My karma’s getting dingy. Time to try to help and support other writers.
  7. I need rejections to keep balancing the scales I see in my head. Only when there are enough rejections to tip the scales will I achieve a sale.
  8. The editor is biased against … (insert ridiculous reason here: women, Nevadans, freelancers, bloggers).
  9. The editor is obviously just irretrievably stupid.

Keep in mind I’ve been an editor (nonfiction, though), so I can safely say almost any of these reasons could be true (except 9. I’ve never met a truly stupid editor). And I do actually know that even given these comforting stories I tell myself, it’s still possible that my story simply sucked. But I can’t really know why a story is rejected. And I’m not capable of judging the suckage of my own work any more than I can see anything but brilliance and charm in my son.

So regardless of the reason for rejection, all I can do is keep sending the work out.

    Everything else is just me telling myself stories.

    Category: writing  Tags:  8 Comments
    Cindie Geddes

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