Updated State of the Writer

Most of my recent posts to this blog have been book reviews. I’ve been reading a lot lately, and it’s fun to write a review of what I’ve read, and even more fun to receive feedback from some of my favorite authors who have seen and appreciated my reviews.

I didn’t intend to drift away from more frequent posts about my own writing, not because I perceive there to be a large number of people anxious to know more about the author of a bunch of stories they haven’t read, but because it’s useful for me. This is a way of keeping track of my progress and forces me to think about my own situation and status as a writer from the outside. It’s a way of forcing a bit of (at least slightly) objective self-evaluation.

So, let’s see. It’s been about 10 months since my first fiction publication, “Remodel With Swan Parts” which appeared in Electric Spec. The kind of thing I’ve been writing this past year or so is quite a bit different from that, but unfortunately I haven’t had anything else published yet so I don’t have any visible-to-the-public examples to show in order to give an idea of what I’m up to.

On top of changing, as far as genre or “feel,” what I write in the past year or so, I’ve also changed focus in a couple of other ways.

First, I’m challenging myself to write shorter pieces, somewhere between flash fiction and very short stories, at least once a month. I find it’s fun to start something and finish it fairly quickly. A new creation of 600-1500 words allows me to experiment a bit with different voices, styles, point of view. I’ve come up with a few interesting pieces like this recently, and so far reaction to these pieces has been positive. This is something I plan to continue, at least for now. I’d actually rather focus on writing longer, rather than shorter, but I have to face the fact that I’m still in the mode of learning, trying to improve and to break through. It’s more important for me to get stronger, to create a broader diversity of stories, and to create shorter pieces which might be more acceptable to a larger number of editors and venues than the longer stuff I might rather do. 

Second, I’ve been writing for submission to themed anthologies lately, rather than just writing for myself and then sending to any and all periodicals that fit what I’ve created. I find it stimulates me to move in different directions, to try thinks I might not otherwise have done. I took a first stab at “writing to order” when an editor I know gave me an opportunity to create something for such an anthology, and enjoyed the experience so much I’ve since written and submitted to a second such venue (story already rejected and resubmitted elsewhere) and I’m currently working on a third. This shift is not just about a desire to launch myself toward a different kind of publishing venue, but also challenging myself to create to order, within certain limits or parameters. It’s good practice for if my work ever ends up in some kind of demand, and it’s also good inspiration. I can cerainly say that the two completed stories along these lines would never have been written if not for the impetus provided by the theme.

Still working, still submitting. Still going through occasional periods of thinking it’s just so tough to break through and get my work a chance to be notice. Hanging in there, though. Perisisting.

How I Really Feel About Rejection and Persistence

Yesterday’s post was just a bit of fun, mostly inspired by the number of markets I’ve seen close up and the number of editors I’ve seen quit editing at the very moment one of my stories was under consideration or even on the short list. It’s been quite a year.

I’m really grateful to have seen my fiction published for the first time (thanks again, Electric Spec). I’ve signed up for “writing intensives” and workshops. I’ve joined and quit three different online critique groups. I even hired an editor to give me one-on-one critique. I’ve started getting up earlier and earlier every weekday morning to give myself more time to write.

This last thing, making more time to write, doing it more consistently and very nearly every day, has had a greater effect on what I’m doing than any of the rest of it. I think critique groups and workshops can be useful, but I’ve become skeptical of them. They’re most useful at drumming into the beginner’s mind a lot of “thou shalt not” rules, which can be great for the beginner so clueless he or she really has no idea where to start. The closer your writing gets to being publishable, though, the less useful such groups really are. If you want to make that transition from competent fiction-writing technician to confident literary artist, it’s probably more useful to shrug off the “thou shalt not” list. Push yourself to color outside the lines a little.

Yes, getting published is hard. It’s absurdly hard, really. There are few endeavors I’ve encountered in life that require such hard work for such uncertain feedback and such distant rewards. If you set a goal of running a marathon, or becoming a great copier salesman or learning to cook desserts, you’re likely to find easier ways to measure your success and fewer frustrations between commencement of diligent work and the achievement of your goals, than if you set the goal of getting your stories out there into the world. This is a goal more like aspiring to become an astronaut, or an Olympic decathlete, or an actor in motion pictures.

Far, far more applicants than available positions.

But once your heart and mind are fixed, even knowing the difficult odds, you just keep pushing forward. Another rejection doesn’t make you think “Maybe I’m not cut out for this.” You just file it away, and you don’t stop. You do what you have to do.

Another Running-Related Quote

At least once before I’ve posted interesting or inspirational quotes related to long distance running, partly because I’ve been a runner for about thirty years (with a few short breaks in there), and partly because I receive a “quote of the day” email from Runner’s World (annoying mass-market running magazine I used to subscribe to). One of the most recent comes from perhaps my all-time favorite runner, Steve Prefontaine, who was not only one of America’s all-time great runners, but also an inspiring personality. Not only that, but he went to University of Oregon, and you’ve got to love the Ducks!

“A man can fail many times, but he isn’t a failure until he begins to blame somebody else.”
–Steve Prefontaine, American middle and long-distance runner

I’ve been fighting through a period of self-questioning with regard to my writing lately. I’m still working as hard as ever, and producing what I consider to be increasingly strong work, but just lately I’ve been feeling the sting of rejection a bit more than usual. Really just feeling a bit fatigued, though no less determined.

Prefontaine’s quote reminds me that at times when you feel bogged down in the accumulated mire of rejection or failure, it can be tempting to blame your circumstances on others. I could convince myself I’m not finding receptive editors because they’re only looking for big names anyway, or that magazines aren’t looking for the kind of thing I’m doing because the SF community only wants to see the same Heinlein and Gibson tributes over and over. I don’t really believe those things are true, but I could blame others as a way of deflecting the pain of the struggle.

Like Prefontaine, though, I believe pointing the finger at others is the beginning of failure. A writer who blames everyone outside himself won’t look hard enough at what he needs to improve, or consider what new approach to his craft might get him where he wants to be. I think looking at your own work with honest appraisal, and consistently putting in the labor, are requirements of improvement and eventual success. It’s also perfectly healthy to admit your own disappointment, so you can deal with it and move on.

Rejecter and Rejectee

I usually keep my music stuff and my writing stuff completely separate. Hypnos Recordings and ambient music on the left, weird stories on the right. One side of my face is M. Griffin and the opposite is Michael Griffin, like those white-black split guys on the original Star Trek.

Sometimes, though, I think what I’ve learned by running a moderately successful ambient music record label for the past 13-ish years actually has gives me some insights I can carry over into the fiction thing. Particularly useful is the ability to see the acceptance/rejection process, in which eager young artist tries to gain the approval of the gatekeeper (editor, agent, label head). Having participated in this process from one side for so long, having rejected all kinds of work for all kinds of reasons, helps me understand what it means when I get a story back in the mail (or more often lately, receiving a “sorry, no” email). Also, what it doesn’t mean.

Iin the realm of music, sometimes I’ve received a demo when I really don’t have any more capacity to release new music, regardless of quality. That artist gets a rejection no matter whaty. More often, the backlog isn’t quite so distressingly full, but almost. There is a great imbalance between the number of people seeking to have their creative work released into the world, and the number of slots available. This means that lots of great work gets rejected because it’s too much like something else we’re already doing, or it’s perfectly competent but not distinctive enough. Maybe it’s pure genius, but slightly out of bounds with regard to genre or style.

I wrote once before about Degrees of Rejection, and because of my work with Hypnos, I know one thing for sure. Now, I’ve talked to writers who believe that a rejection is a rejection, and trying to argue that not all are equal amounts to self-delusion. The thing is, having sat on the opposite side of the desk taught me something. A huge difference exists between someone who is doing professional-level work, but missing certain details, or not quite a perfect fit, and someone who is falling far short. It doesn’t surprise me to read that editors reject certain stories on page one. I’ve rejected some demos less than a minute into the first track. Hell, some demos you can reject based on the dipshit cover letter, without having heard a single note, or based on the shirtless, Fabio-esque picture the guy enclosed. There is a great difference in how I respond to different categories of inquiries or demos, and I believe editors are no different.

The first thing an unpublished writer (or other artist) should seek to do, an interim goal they can strive for even before they actually break through, is to reach a level of competence and artistic potency such that their work is at least in the realm of serious consideration, even when it is not accepted. At that point, the gatekeeper listens to the whole demo (or reads the entire manuscript), possibly sticks it in the “maybe” pile, checks out the artist/writer’s web site, and replies with a personal note.

Of course, this all amounts to guessing and divination, trying to understand intention behind a rejection letter, which doesn’t really get you anything. That’s the kind of thing we grab hold of, though, while waiting.

Degrees of Rejection

Even people who aren’t themselves writers are familiar with the idea that writers just starting out encounter lots of rejection, over and over, before they ever get anywhere with their work. We’ve all heard the stories of Stephen King getting hundreds of rejection slips before he became, you know, Stephen King. It’s not too different from aspiring actors going to a thousand auditions before they get their first gig, or a garage band playing all kinds of small gigs before they get a shot at a record deal.

In all these legends of paying your dues until you finally make it, the implication seems to be that you toil away without of a sense whether you’re getting closer to the goal or not, until WHAM — all at once, you’ve made it.

What I’m finding with my own writing is that although I haven’t yet had any stories accepted for publication, I’ve noticed a change in the quality of many of the rejections that leads me to believe I must be getting closer.

Non-writers may not know this, but most of the time rejection comes as a form note (more often a half-sheet than a full letter) that says nothing more than, “Sorry, we can’t use this, good luck to you placing this elsewhere.” I’ve received plenty of this, and I don’t let it bother me. It’s silly to think it’s some kind of slap in the face, when almost everyone is getting this same bulk rejection treatment. Editors have a ridiculous number of terrible-bad manuscripts to sort through, and they can’t take the time to offer coaching or suggestions or (usually) even specific reasons why they don’t want the story.

Several of my latest rejections, though, have included more encouraging language. Compared to a flatly generic “Sorry, no,” getting a rejection that says something more specific like, “Very nicely written and I like much of it, but didn’t grab me quite enough for a buy,” is more like rejection LITE. After getting a few such notes this month, I feel like I’m getting closer to the goal. Maybe I’m crazy-delusional, but I think this is a good sign.

Griffin’s Theory on Rejection and Recovery

It’s easy to write stories — just type a bunch of words, and after a while you’ve got a story. What’s tougher is to show the stories to other people, tougher still to send them to editors whose professional mandate is to reject very nearly 100% of everything sent to them. That’s the deal you sign up for, though, if your goal is not only to write words but to form them into stories, and then to see the work published. You have to send the work out.

You have to detach a bit, remind yourself how long the odds are, especially for a new writer. Not only must the story be top-notch, it also needs to be the right fit at the right time. Even after moderating expectations, even if you’re the thickest-skinned, most confident individual, when a story comes back with a rejection form there’s still at least a twinge of disappointment.

Writers have to be self-assured, and full of the buzz of their own competence, in order to produce good work. The narrator needs to be able to proceed with that affirmative “Yes!” attitude underlying the putting of new words to the page. How best to reconcile these two things, then: the diminishment of self-esteem that occurs each time a submission comes back, and the upkeep of one’s own confidence in the face of repeated, frequent rejections?

My theory is that each rejection unavoidably represents a small chipping-away of the foundation of self-assurance. If the writer wants to keep going, to avoid ending up reduced to a self-loathing drunk who no longer writes a word – or worse, one of those writers who keeps writing but stops sending things out — the task is to reduce the damage. I try to help myself on two fronts.

First, I keep disappointment in perspective when a rejection comes back. I remind myself of all the usual stuff: It’s not personal. Plenty of great stories are rejected many times before finding a home or even winning awards. All my favorite writers accumulated many more rejections than I’ve yet seen. And so on.

Aside from trying to reduce the “damage” from each rejection by rationalization, though, I also spend time on the opposite effort. That is, rather than minimizing damage from the outside, I try to shore up confidence from the inside. Make goals, and keep track of progress toward them. This reminds me I’m doing all I can toward creating good work, and getting it out there. I also revisit earlier works I consider most successful periodically, to remind myself I know how to form a great story and write compelling words when I work a story through all the many drafts and revisions.

Every writer unavoidably faces knock-downs or disappointments. I try to keep my foundation strong by working hard, keeping track of forward progress, and occasionally pulling out one of my better final drafts and studying it. It can help to read interviews by writers who have made it, to take heart in their stories of struggle, of wallpapering their offices with rejection slips before finally breaking through. In many of life’s endeavors it’s enough just to work hard, but in some things such as the art of writing fiction, you have to not only work hard, but persist. That means making effort along the way to keep one’s morale propped up and avoid discouragement taking hold.