Saturday, April 28, 2012

Reject Me - I love it!

I got a rejection today.   Actually two rejections.  The first one was just your generic rejection - here it is:


Thank you for your submission. Having read it carefully, we don't feel it's the right fit for XXXX. Although we will not be publishing this piece, we appreciate the opportunity to read your work.
The Editors

Do I think it was read carefully?  I guess.  Ok, yes, probably.  I don't know.  Sure.

In my darker moments, I think that my story was probably read by a few undergraduates who have nothing in common with the middle aged me and liked nothing about my story because it wasn't about drinking or suicide or having anonymous sex.

In my lighter moments I think someone read it who appreciates good writing but it wasn't, as they said, a right fit.
The other rejection - this is the one I like a little better, although, well - still a rejection.
Here it is:

Dear Katherine:

Thank you for sending your work to XXXX. We are always grateful for the opportunity to review new material, and we have given "Wonderbread" close reading and careful consideration. We found many strengths to recommend your work and, overall, much to admire. We regret, however, that "Wonderbread" is not quite right for us. We encourage you try us again in the future, and we hope that you will.

The Editors

First, you'll notice there's no name.  Won't somebody take responsibility for dashing a struggling author's dreams?  

Secondly, Do they mean it?  Do they really encourage my submitting again in the future - do those editors really "hope" I will.  At least here they mentioned the name of my story.  I have so many stories out to magazines right now, I have no idea what the first Journal is rejecting.  At least they let me believe the fiction that someone actually read my story and enjoyed the way I used language 

Thirdly, the second rejection is better written.  It actually reads like a story.  And they are polite - Jane Austin polite: we are always grateful for the opportunity to review new material...So, there you go.  But, once again, no one taking responsibility for breaking my heart.

I'm clearly being a melodramatic.  But I'm a writer, you know? - Supposed to dramatize...

Monday, April 16, 2012

End of the Semester

In two weeks my students will hand their portfolios in to me and I will sit down and grade them.  It is my least favorite thing about teaching.  I love working with my students, I love discussing literature and essays and how to craft sentences and paragraphs and finally, ideas.  I love working with them one to one, listening to them suddenly see what exactly it is that they mean to write about.  But grading sucks.  I get museum head when I read so many papers.  I stop being able to look at things objectively - was that really a run on sentence or did she actually have the right amount of commas?  Is his argument incomplete, or am I missing something?  I doubt myself when I have to judge - thank goodness we grade our gen-ed writing class though a grading committee.  It provides me the checks and balances wiped out after a day of reading on my own.

Sadly, though, I feel just as judgy and lost when I go to revise my own writing.  Recently I wrote this nifty little flash fiction, that I then proceeded to edit the crap out of until it was nothing but a shell of it's former self.  Now I can't seem to get it back.  I liked it, but I became enamored with my red pen.  The problem is that I am in love with eliminating the excess, with paring my stories to the point where it is more like the scaffolding of a really elaborate house.  I kinda want my reader to figure things out on their own, to bring their own floorboards and wallpaper to the story, to, when they are reading, live in two places at once: my reality and the reader's reality.  Unfortunately this desire also leads to unnecessary editing.

I don't know if this scaffolding idea is weird, and also impossible.  I've read writers like this.  I think Virginia Woolf did this in novels like The Waves - where it's all stream of consciousness and shifty from one narrator to the next, and you cannot find your footing in it at all, rather it sweeps you along just like a big wave with a big undertow.  And a lot of Eudora Welty stories are the kind you get to the end of and say, did she write what I think she wrote?  And then you have to go back to page one.

But I will say, revision can be exciting and kind of fun, maybe a little bit transcendental  - in the way a worksheet that you know the answers to or a set of math problems you really completely understand and so have fun working on - can be a little transcendental.  Even if one (i.e.:me) tends to get a little carried away -

There's an art to it, I tell my students.  

Step one, you need to divorce yourself from your work.  Have someone else read it to you.  Pretend to yourself that you didn't write it - that in fact that person who lives down the street from you, who you don't really like all that much, and who has been claiming to write the next great American novel for the last ten years, wrote it.  Prejudice yourself against your work.  That sentence you thought was so gorgeous, is it really just pretentious?  Or is it as lovely as you thought? While you are listening to your work, listen for sour transitions, or the places where you need to reiterate your argument (even fiction has an argument, a thesis, in my opinion - I'll write more on that theory later) so that your thought drives the work.  My students often repeat themselves because they know they have to have a certain number of pages - and because they are either completely overwhelmed by how much work they have to do for the final weeks of the semester, or because they are sick of writing or because they are just not feeling it - I get this way about my own work, so I listen for that.  I listen for those moments when the scene has gone on too long - like an awkward, beery, conversation when you should have left the bar an hour ago.  Take notes on all these things.

Step two: fix the easy things.  By easy things, I mean the grammar, the spelling, the run-ons.  This is busy work, and it is very satisfying.

Step three: go over your notes and fix the difficult things.  Take the bad stuff out.  That's actually pretty fun - it's like cleaning your closet of the clothes you wore when you were 20 lbs lighter and young enough to wear them.  It feels good to have space in that closet.  Then, move things.  Nine times out of ten your beginning is at the end of your paper, or you need to switch a couple of paragraphs for things to make sense.  Review your argument - is it moving forward?  If it isn't, then make it so.   Yes I did invoke Captain Picard there.  He is sitting on the deck of your work in that big captain's chair and he is looking through the window screen thingy at the stars before him and he is saying, "Make It So" and pointing toward the the rest of space with a little forward motion of his arm.  If he did not do this, nothing on that starship would get done.  They'd all just be hanging out in space, static, waiting for the Borg to come assimilate them.  Which is why I could never get behind Deep Space 9, despite how much I liked Captain Sisto.  

Anyway, I'm getting away from things here, which is exactly the kind of stuff I tell my students to take out of their papers.  

Your next to last step - look it over again.  Read it to yourself, I say to my students.  Out loud.  Don't feel weird about this, although you probably will.  Listen again.  If you stumble over something, then it needs fixing.  

Finally - let it go.  I have students who are still revising as they hand the paper in.  I've heard stories, probably apocryphal, about authors who have found their books on the shelves of Barnes and Noble and edited them even after they are in print.  At some point, you just gotta let go.  Send it out into the ether - not to get all '70s on you, but if you love it set it free.  Only in writing, if it comes back, it might actually be crap.  

I received 3 rejections today.  But who's counting...

Monday, April 9, 2012

This Thing Needs A Title

I teach writing at a local university and at a GED prep class and I say that phrase to almost every student about their first papers.  "This thing needs a title." I love titles - even if they change.  Titles get everything started - literally.  Recently Jumpa Lahari wrote this wonderful essay for the NYT about sentences - sentences that roll around you head like a pop song.  She says, "The best sentences orient us, like stars in the sky, like landmarks on a trail." - and I believe a title does the same.  It starts us out - it is the first breadcrumb on the trail, it is a handshake, the how-do-you-do.  Without a title it is difficult to take a piece of writing seriously even if you're the one writing it.

Another thing a title does, is get you out of your pajamas.

 I don't mean that the way you are thinking I mean that.

Years ago I was a follower of - a housekeeping website for the messy marvins of the world who secretly wished we weren't quite so-  messy.  Sadly, I couldn't keep up with it and my home remains a disorganized, cluttered, disaster.  But flylady had one piece of advice that I took with me and continue to find valuable: put some shoes on.  Her belief was that you would not be able to take your day seriously if you stayed in your slippers.  For us writers and work-at-home types, this is an important message.  If I get up in the morning, drive the kids to school, come back to write, but am still in my pajamas (yes, I often do have done that in the past), I get bupkis written.  Why?  Because when I'm in my p.j.s, or even slippers for that matter, I am not taking my day seriously.  Work involves pants, shirt, shoes.  Even if I'm staying home all day.  You know I'm right.  If I want to be comfortable, I'll put on sweats and tie my sneakers.  But I get dressed.

A title does this for writing.  It gets it dressed.  It makes it real.  Even a first draft.  You don't have to marry the title you start with - you can kick it to the curb once you figure out what it is you are writing - but flirt with it for a while.  Buy it a drink, take it to dinner - love the one you're with - You won't regret it - I promise.