Unpacking a Rebuke

????????????????????????????????????????We’ve all met at least one—the writer who simply cannot take any criticism of his work. Such folk gleefully hand you their writing for review. But when you offer a tiny suggestion about a passage they’ve written, small funnel clouds begin to form over their heads. They’ll have none of it. Their eyes pinch. They are certain you are thick, even dim-witted, and probably don’t floss or exercise. Such writers typically don’t last long in the world of words, because as Justice Brandeis once said,

“There is no great writing, only great rewriting.”

Then however, there are those of us at the other end of the spectrum. We are so certain that the opinions of others must be more credible than our own, that we buy into anything anyone says about our work. This can have us constantly scurrying off in the direction of the most recent advice.

So when evaluating a rebuke or criticism, where is the balance? What questions should we be asking?

Was the rebuke from the wrong person? In my critique group we have a few poets. But I don’t get poetry. There. I said it. Thus, any constructive comments from me must be taken with a grain of salt. In fact, I typically find myself saying the same thing over and over again:  I don’t get poetry, but I love your imagery. Not very helpful. Our poets would be perfectly sane to pause before taking my poetry advice.

But what if the rebuke came from someone a bit higher up? What if a book proposal to an agent was rejected?

Was it a good idea with a bad pitch? I had a great talk in my roster of workshops but no one ever selected it. Finally someone said, “Yes, we want this talk! But you’ve GOT to change the name.” When they explained why, a light bulb went on. My title had completely misled would-be attendees as to what would be presented. Most hadn’t even read the description because the title sent them packing. The same thing can happen in a query or cover letter. You may well have a great idea, and your writing might actually be ready. But if the agent or editor didn’t catch the fever in your pitch, or if it left them confused, they most likely never went on to your writing.

Agents and acquisition editors aren’t magical. They don’t have a clairvoyant wisdom that lets them know exactly what’s going to take off and what’s going to fizzle.  Even with decades of experience and loads of algorithmic analysis, it’s still a highly unpredictable business. Which means they sometimes get it right and they sometimes don’t. (Well, all except for Word Serve Agents. They really do always get it right. Whew. Dodged a bullet there.)

Say what you want about the Harry Potter series; I still cannot imagine anyone reading through some of J.K. Rowlings writing and saying, “Ehhhh. I just don’t see it. This won’t interest a soul.” And yet. . . twelve publishing houses said just that.

Learn to Unpack a Rebuke

Most of the time, we really could improve what we’ve written. Most of the time, our writing needs some work. But don’t chase after every single comment as though it is Gospel. Measure it. Weigh it. Give it reasonable consideration. Develop a mature view of your own work. Most of the time, there is value in the criticism. But in the end, if you think your reviewer got it wrong, stick with the plan a bit longer. Look for the gatekeeper who gets you.

The obvious conclusion of this line of reasoning is that even advice from this writer must be evaluated carefully and perhaps dismissed. I’ll admit, sometimes I get it right. And sometimes I get it wrong. For example, if I had been on the committee to evaluate and select new TV programming, we’d never have heard of World Wide Wrestling or Honey Boo Boo.

Pet Peeves And Grace

????????????????????????????????????????If you’ve been in a writer’s support group for any length of time, you’ve certainly seen it before. It’s an evergreen discussion that makes a pass every year or so. When a professional association has covered all the topics they can think of—Saying No to a Mentor Request, Keeping Social Media from Eating Your Time, How to Have a Book Signing that Doesn’t Look as Though it Occurred Post-Rapture, there eventually comes a lull in which no one can think of a fresh and original topic to pose to the group. So we pull out that good ol’ standby—Grammar and Spelling Pet Peeves. These are words which–if misspelled or misused–will send a usually stout-hearted editor into a quivering literary swoon. Announcing such a topic is a siren call. It’s like the ice cream truck tune of the writing world; it brings everyone running. We gleefully fly to our keyboards, our mental pockets stuffed with dangling participles, contractions that shouldn’t be contracted, and the horror that is the “vulgar singular they” (best delivered with the affectation of English Royalty).

Our pockets soon begin to empty as we showcase our favorites of the misused, abused, and confused of writing errors. Lead instead of led. Its instead of it’s. Less versus fewer. And let us not forget the useless and hapless apostrophe seen with so many CDs, DVDs, Dos and Don’ts. Everyone has a favorite peeve and we share with gusto. (Feel the confetti flutter by your head)

Then we get to the fun of misspelled word crimes.

The police poured over the evidence looking for the culprit, which unfortunately would give them no new insight, but would make for a very messy crime scene.

I turned my paper into my professor. Imagine his surprise. But he’ll thank me later when he notes the ample margin I’ve provided, which as we all know is essential to a balanced and enjoyable life.

She excepted Christ as her savior when she was 9. Her poor parents were horrified to learn that while little Petunia was open to all other gods, she had strangely ruled out Christ at such a young and impressionable age.

I have yet another set of words that can annoy me. These are not words that are misused, but rather which, even when properly used, seem poorly designed. Some words just don’t sound at all like the things they’ve come to mean. I have tried my whole life to grow comfortable with the word “pithy” as meaning “brief, substantive, powerfully expressed.” But all efforts to the contrary, I continue to feel I’m listening to someone with a speech impediment who’s in a really foul mood.

“Bucolic” is another word that instantly goes in the wrong direction. Instead of thinking of lovely farm scenery, I think bucolic, alcoholic, diastolic, metabolic, even vitriolic. You can’t take a word like colic, made up of nasty sharp consonants, and believe you’ve rendered it lovely, peaceful, and rural just by throwing a byoo at the front. If that works, then saying you byoosgust me should be a sign of extreme endearment.

The truth is I love words. But I also love the people who are doing their best to express a new thought or idea by using them, even if they don’t always do so perfectly. So I feel the sting, right along with them, of the language sometimes used in pointing out their errors.

Things like. . .

“I’m so annoyed by. . .”

“I find it unforgivable that. . .”

“It makes my ears bleed to hear. . .”

It strikes me a tad on the haughty side. Certainly there was once a day, many years ago, when each of these purveyors of perfectly used English also had to learn to use led instead of lead. But rather than feeling some sympathy for the person still making these mistakes, they now find themselves in the enviable position of being able to cast literary impropriety stones. They’ll tell us that these folks should be ashamed for not learning their craft before venturing forth. The problem of course is that one often doesn’t know what one doesn’t know until one has ventured forth. I also know that every one of these critics has looked at their own work—work that passed before a minimum of fourteen pairs of eyes before finally making it to print, and always they find something that slipped by them.

I think it’s okay, even important, to point out errors and encourage improvement. But as we each grow in our craft, I hope we also can recall that one word that never annoys, that flows perfectly off the tongue, that has a beautiful lyrical sound when spoken, which perfectly matches the beauty in its meaning. Grace. Ah, may we see and hear (and dispense) more of it. And if that doesn’t suit, I think byoosgust is still up for grabs.

She Never Had a Rejection?

hI once met a woman at a writers conference and, as writers often do, we began sharing what we’d written, what we hoped to improve on, perhaps publications we’d like to write for some day, editors we wanted to meet. The usual stuff. But when I talked about the last rejection note I’d received, this woman got a curious little smile on her face and sweetly said, “You know, I don’t typically say this out loud, but I’ve never ever gotten a rejection. . .not even once.”

That conference was a while ago, so I no longer remember where I hid the body.

But at the time, my snark-o-meter went on full alert, and I found myself thinking dozens of less-than-charitable thoughts.

Maybe she’s never submitted anything. That would sure hold down the rejection letters.

Maybe she’s writing for a very tight niche–like Amish women scuba divers–and she just happens to be one of three writers on the planet with the right contacts.

Maybe (and here’s where I sank to my lowest level of cynicism), maybe she’s sleeping with the editor. That’s because she’s married to him, and together they started a third-rate magazine and she provides 90% of the content with snappy pieces like “You, Ginseng Tea, and a Happier Colon.”

See, I told you I’d reached a new low.

Big sigh. God probably just sent her my way to improve my humility and compassion skills. Apparently I have a ways to go.

Here’s the thing—I think she was being sincere, and was possibly even surprised at her own good fortune. And she may well have written lovely and informative pieces for top-notch magazines. But the problem with her comment is that it’s the writer’s equivalent of winning the lottery. The real truth is, in the world of writing, if you’re not getting rejections, you’re just not in the game.

The publishing industry has a very steep learning curve. For much of it you’ve just got to get in there and start. I’m not saying you should skip the process of researching the publication ahead of time, spelling the editor’s name correctly, and fashioning your piece with their readers in mind. In other words, don’t ignore the process of learning craft and industry. But much of that learning will come from doing, failing, rethinking, and doing again. Almost every published author I know has at least one massive fail to their credit.

A rejection letter can mean many things, but the only sure thing it means is that you sent something in. So instead of seeing it as proof positive that you can’t write, consider other very likely scenarios such as:

  • The magazine had something like it recently.
  • The magazine has something like it already in the hopper and it’s working its way up.
  • The magazine has worked with a particular writer who’s been talking about doing something like this, and they’d rather take a chance on someone who has some history with the magazine.
  • Or maybe the piece was just too ______ [insert word of choice—edgy, tame, academic, casual, ecumenical, evangelical, rural, urban, prissy, intense] for their magazine’s style or their audience.

Learn to embrace rejections. Unless you plan to win the writers’ lottery, there’s simply no way to avoid them. In fact, they’re like a merit badge, proving you’re in the game. I’m not saying you’ll ever come to love them. But you can see them as useful. I, for one, open them, learn from them, and then use them to wallpaper my bathroom.

What about you? Do rejections bring you down, sometimes to the point that they impact your next submission?

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