Two different posts on facebook got me thinking today – about this writerly journey. One was an outpouring of those hurt emotions that come along with rejection, the other about where we see ourselves on the spectrum of achievement.
It’s difficult, but two of the most important things we need to develop as writers are persistence (downright bluddy stubbornness, in fact) and a tough skin (think rhinoceros or – why not? – dragon).
As writers our work is rejected all the time. It’s rejected by the gatekeepers: competition judges, agents, publishers; and it’s rejected by our audience: readers, critics, colleagues.
It’s also rejected by us – and by our inner critic, who just doesn’t let up, and, worse, when the gatekeepers turn us down, shouts ‘I told you so!’ at the top of their voice.
First up, growing a tough outer skin does not mean that our hearts are not allowed to hurt. Grief is natural and acceptable. Even having a bit of a wallow is okay, but, if publication and acclaim is what you really, really want, then, just like the character in your book, you have to keep going.
Push through the pain. Become a dragon. Breathe fire.
Take every rejection as a lesson. Ask yourself, What can I take away? Feedback may well be helpful, but it can also be confusing. I received feedback from the judges of one of the comps I entered that was totally contradictory. One loved exactly what the other hated. No joke.
So perhaps it’s time to give yourself feedback.
First, shelve the inner critic. We are not going to be subjective here.
I am going to assume that you have taken time to grieve properly. If not, then do. Go away. Eat ice-cream. Walk in the forest. Write heartfelt poetry. Your baby, the seed of your heart, has been rejected. It hurts.
It hurts whether you are new to writing or whether you have been at it a while. Grief is okay.
Start by writing a synopsis.
What?! I hear you say.
Yes, I respond.
No swearing, thank you.
What this will do is help you get a feel for whether you have a nice tight structure in place. Until you have this, then you are only hiccuping smoke. Now, I’m not leaving you to do this all alone. I found a FABULOUS tool to help, and I don’t care whether you are writing picture books, junior fiction, middle grade, young adult, new young adult, genre fiction, literary fiction, literary/narrative non-fiction, or poetry (not sure about informational non-fiction, but you could try). This tool will help.
Go now. Go to Writing NSW. Follow this process. Come back when you are done. I'll be waiting.
Anywhere you had difficulty answering a question tells you where you need to focus your work.
Did you have a clear idea of what you character really, really wanted? No? Go find some resources on character development.
Could you pinpoint the turning point from reactive to proactive action for your character? No? Back to character development PLUS think about how you could strengthen the plot to show just how badly your character wants what your character wants. Brainstorm some obstacles and come up with solutions.
Darkest point? Find it, or create it.
Resolution? Is it real or did it all turn out to be a dream and everything is okay after all? Make it real.
If your structure is sound (be honest with yourself) you can move on to the next bit.
Plotter or pantser, it doesn’t matter: Map your plot development (and your character development) against a story arc. Choose your own favourite outlining tool, but I’m keen on a simple arc like this one:
[percentages are approximate]
Okay… work out how many words into each section you need to go to pace your plot. Starting with zero at the beginning and your approximate finished word count at the end.
This should tell you if you have a waffly middle or an abrupt ending, or if you took too long setting the scene and forgot about getting into the action.
Fix this. You may need to kill your darlings.
All good on this front?
Now, read to yourself. Out loud.
(Tip: record yourself and play it back – your reading doesn’t have to be perfect – both the time spent recording and listening will tell you things.)
Does it sound good? Do your sentences flow? Do you have changes of pace from pulse-quickening action to slow, restorative description? This is good.
Have you fallen into the trap of using too many big words? Or writing down to your audience? This is not so good.
How is your grammar? Have you broken any rules? If you did, was it intentional (I do it all the time, but I know what rules I’m breaking – it is part of my voice)? Do you need a quick refresher in grammar and editing? There are some fabulous courses and resources online.
Okay, let’s look at your content. Is it original? Maybe your story idea has been done to death. Change it up. Transform your characters, re-imagine your setting. I did this recently with a manuscript, and loved the outcome… I’m just waiting to find out if my publisher does, too.
Or is it too original? Maybe the world isn’t ready for your cutting edge, avant-garde thinking – but don’t give up if it is. Brainstorm some ways to introduce your thinking more softly.
What about your themes? Are they suitable to your audience? If you don’t know what works well with which age group, that is your next point of research.
Change what you have to, or store away what you have learned to put into your next work in progress.
Yes, it’s all work, but if you believe in your story and you want to be taken seriously, it’s work you need to do.
And do again and again.
And sometimes you do have to let a story go. And start the next one. It doesn’t mean you can’t come back another time.
But you will be there again, with everything you write.
Which brings me to the second element of my thinking this morning.
Someone posted a question about how you classified yourself as a writer: emerging or established?
If your answer is aspiring, by the way, change it.
Do you write? Then you are a writer. You only aspire to write if you don’t actually ever do any, although this does happen.
Developing is allowed, if you are still on L-Plates and are immersing yourself in learning. Emerging is for when you are putting all that learning into practice. Established is… well, this is where we all decided that there is a sort of shimmery, oasis-in-the-desert type mirage. Established suggests that you are there, you have made it, you know all there is to know and you are NEVER in fear of rejection.
Trying to think of someone.
All the writers commenting said that, although some of them were regarded as Established by that amorphous group of someones out there, they still saw themselves as learning, honing, developing, that is: not established.
And that is where I want to finish.
We never stop learning.
And – being creatives who put our hearts and our souls on display in our stories – we never stop being rejected.
It never stops hurting.
We just need to keep breathing fire.
NB If you got this far but you still feel it is all too much, that is okay, too. Changing directions is better than continually walking into a brick wall and might lead you to a place where you feel you are better suited. It might still be writing related, or it might be something totally different. You are a whole and beautiful person with so much potential inside you. Wishing you joy.