Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Healing through rejection

You might be thinking, Okay, there's a weird title. She must have meant healing from rejection.

I don't.

Many have experienced the healing power of writing in a journal. Spilling carefully guarded emotions onto the page can be frightening at first, but once you have survived doing so you feel stronger. More yourself. Reading your truest thoughts is fortifying; like drinking your own blood. 

Building deeply felt emotions into a story and then submitting it for publication is a whole new level of scary. The agents you submit to are not only industry professionals with informed opinions as to what will sell, but as passionate and voracious readers they are your ideal audience. So when you meet with rejection it's hard to know which is worse--getting a form rejection letter stating your project wasn't right for their agency or a personalized letter stating why the public won't embrace it. Either way, it felt like you slit a vein in public and the agent didn't connect with your blood type. It can make the most heath conscious among us want to curl up on the couch with a gallon of Häagen Dazs and say to hell with it all.

Yet an inner voice nags: you feel that you do have something to say that's worth sharing. What to do?
  • Make sure that your panic concerning publication failure isn't premature. Leave no stone unturned. Your best prospects may be used up, but do you have a second tier of agents to submit to? A third? Have you submitted to new agents in your genre without a track record? Have you contacted every agent who has ever represented a book remotely similar to yours?
  • Have you made the book the very best it can be? Have you attempted to decode personal messages within personalized rejection letters for ways you might be able to improve it? (I grant that this is useful in a limited number of instances, because the notes are hastily written after the agent has decided not to represent you.)
  • Many books are rejected because the agent can't figure out where this book fits on the bookseller's shelves. Are you willing to make changes to better fit the market? There's no one right answer to this question, it's just a matter of knowing yourself. If you make concessions you might move farther along the path to publication. If you can't force yourself to make the changes, then you are happy on the path your writing is taking you down, publication or no.
  • Remember that each project stands on its own. Your writing is a journey but each project is judged on its own merits. Try to erase the tally on the rejection chalkboard with the submission of each project—it is the project they are rejecting, not you. 
  • If you want to be published traditionally—meaning you've decided against self-publishing—you can't "make" it happen. You must wait your turn, whatever that entails. There are economic pressures at play that you cannot control.
If you are a submitting writer, stuck in the nether region between form rejection and infrequent personal rejection—or perhaps you've been told you're a good writer but just can't seal the deal—keep in mind that thousands of writers will seek publication this year and never receive the courtesy of a form rejection letter.

Hundreds of thousands of writers will seek publication this year and never be told that they are good writers.

Hundreds of thousands of people will seek publication this year and never be the recipient of a brief analysis of why the book didn't work for this one particular agent.

Many will abandon their dream in a huff.

Most will not have the grace to allow for indeterminate variables and fail to preserve hope by allowing for the outside chance that the publisher may not be looking for something just like their project at this time, and they will do so because cynicism is just a whole lot easier.

Some will take a good hard look at the pros and cons of seeking publication and have to admit that the cons are growing and that they are no longer happy—a good reason to redirect focus.

A determined handful will heal through rejection. They will eat that gallon of ice cream, return to the keyboard, and continue with the writing that gives their life meaning. They will look to their writing friends who are in a more hopeful part of the submission/rejection cycle to lift them up. They will live life trying to bring their publication dream to fruition. They will become strong in themselves in both a private and public way. They will become better writers.

I believe that in this world there is one resource that is always renewable.


Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Motivation Game

My younger son just finished his freshman year at Drexel. Despite finishing eleventh in a high school class of over 500, there were times I didn't think he'd make it. He never really bought in to college life, choosing instead to come home every weekend and hang out with local buddies. When asked how school was going, he threw the word "hate" around a lot. So when he got home last month and immediately got on the phone to line up interviews for his fall/winter co-op experience, I was compelled to comment.

"I'm impressed with your initiative."

"My only motivation is that I'm going to the shore with my friends and I don't want to have to come home for any interviews," he said. "So I'm trying to line up as many this week as possible, then finish up when I get home."

I didn't care. In my book he was still showing initiative. Going to the shore is as good a motivation as any, as long as it worked for him. It's one variation of a game he'll need to play the rest of his life.

As someone who's self-employed, I know this game all too well. If I write for three hours I can have some tea. If I finish editing this manuscript by Tuesday I can go to lunch with a friend on Wednesday. If I meet my income goal this month I'll allow myself to buy those capri pants I've wanted. The demanding employer and the lazy employee, having it out in my head.

But it's not just work-related. I play this game in every aspect of my life, anteing up exercise hours against a sweet reward (which in my case typically has something to do with dark chocolate), or hours mowing the lawn against a good long soak in the bath while reading a good novel. I have grieved deeply so the pain wouldn't drag me down my whole life long. 

I built such behavior into our early family life as well, through a game I'd play with the boys that would motivate us to clean the house. I'd look at a room and assess how much time it would take us to straighten it up and clean it—at top speed. 

"Your room's a wreck, guys. Fifteen minutes. Think we can do it?" "Yeah!" Then I'd set a kitchen timer and off we'd go. One square foot at a time the wood floor would clear as they tossed toys back into cupboards and re-stacked books, with me following behind to mop up their footprints. If we were finished to my satisfaction before the buzzer went off, we'd each get a reward—a couple of peanut M & M's would do—and then we'd be off to the next room.

So it wasn't a perfect plan. I now need to think of ways to reward myself for NOT eating the M & M's. But at least I understand the methodology for doing so. And so, apparently, does my son.

Motivation doesn't have to be perfect, it just has to work.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Before I go...

It was ten o'clock the night before our 6-1/2 hour drive to our summer home and what I really needed to be doing was sleeping. Of course I also needed my bags packed and the car loaded and the dishes washed but was I tending to these things? No. I was doing what any self-respecting writer would do: knocking out a last-minute press release.

For me, one of the joys of being a writer is finding opportunities to use my skills to help other people: in this case, an awesome young tenor named Orin Strunk. This is not the kind of guy who has enough swagger to brag about the fact that he was tapped for The Juilliard School's prestigious Pre-College Division, which is the opportunity of a lifetime. He is a shy, sweet kid who adopted his overachieving ways to satisfy an itch for constant growth—but when he opens his mouth, he just happens to sound like a young Pavarotti. Unfortunately, his parents can't afford to send him.

I am helping to organize a benefit concert for Orin to help defray the cost of attending the New York City program, to which he will commute every Saturday of his senior year in order to prepare for a career in the opera. At the benefit, professional musicians and exceptionally talented Boyertown graduates will be performing in a range of musical genres, as well as Orin (and my son, baritone Jackson Williams) at 7 pm, Saturday, July 26, Boyertown Area Senior High School auditorium, 120 N. Monroe Street, Boyertown, PA 19512. Suggested donation: $20.

If you love music or want to support a talented young artist in need or simply love a good "small town boy makes good" story, please contact me and I'll gladly e-mail you a copy of the full press release. It includes a way to contribute even if you can't attend the concert, and I know I can say, on behalf of his humbled and overwhelmed family, that any amount would be so appreciated. This is not the kind of opportunity any aspiring performer can afford to turn down. And it's an opportunity for the rest of us to make something beautiful happen in the world.

Plus, then you'll know more about what I do in my "spare" time! Whether the last day of vacation or the last day of my life, I hope to be dashing off one more story before I go.