Tuesday, 3 April 2012

How do we Cope with Rejection and Comment?

I can clearly remember that first envelope with that first rejection.
I had thought that my little story was pretty good...I’d worked hard on it. I’d read it aloud to my writing group, and they all loved it...or so they’d said. I printed it out, checking there were no errors throughout and using A4 white paper, wide margins and a cover page. I’d done my market research; I’d chosen a magazine that I was sure would jump at the chance to publish this story.
And yet, a rejection had arrived, paper-clipped to my submission, its logo clearly announcing that the magazine did not want my work – not this time anyway. And so curt was the wording on this slight slip of paper, I was pretty sure they would never want my work. Never want to hear my name spoken in public again.
It was as if someone had released a little valve on me (somewhere around my solar plexus, I think). The sort of little valve that beach balls have so you can blow them up. Sending off my story, I’d felt pretty blown up; all colourful and bouncy. Now I was entirely deflated. My head buzzed with disappointment. I didn’t feel I could move from the sofa, or even put the rejection slip down. I didn’t think I’d ever be able to write again. There was only one thing in the world that could make me feel better right that minute and I fully indulged in a good wallow...no – not whisky, not chocolate...a soppy musical on afternoon telly.
We have all felt like this; especially at the start of a writing career, when rejections tend to come thick and fast. We all have our own way of dealing with the pain – and please, do tell kitchentablewriters what yours is (if printable!) by leaving a comment below.
But finally, if we are to call ourselves writers, we have to get back to writing. We have to start something new, that we can, all over again, work hard on, redraft, read aloud, research a market for, type out neatly and finally send off hopefully. We also have to look at the work that came back and work out why it did. This can, of course, be left until the pain levels have receded, but it is a massive part of the learning curve and the transformation of a ‘person who scribbles’ into ‘a writer’.
In those dim days of first submissions, it wasn’t long before I noticed there were two sorts of rejection. The first was anonymous; at best, the thin slip of printed paper, at worst, an unreturned submission.  The second was more interesting. Instead of a slip, I was getting letters, often (in those days!) handwritten – quickly dashed off, but nevertheless a personal message from the editor. Mostly, those letters still said thanks...but no thanks. But they often said something extra...something specific about the work they’d sent back. Advice on improving it, in fact.
I read these carefully. No one likes altering the work they thought was perfect, and not many of us want to hear criticism, but it did occur to me that the editor didn’t have to write at all, and if they did, I really ought to listen to what was said.
One of the earliest of these letters came from the fiction editor of Bella magazine, Linda O’Byrne, a well-respected member of the publishing community. She told me exactly what she didn’t like about my story. And then she suggested she would read it again, if I could put these things right. I didn’t really need second bidding. I worked hard on improving the work and altering it so that it was closer to the ‘house style’ – the style Linda wanted because she knew it was what the Bella reader wanted. This, after all, is what market research is all about.
I sent this off, and within the week I had an acceptance from Linda, asking me to invoice her for a three figure sum. Everyone in the house stared at this figure for some time. My previous fee for a published story – in the now defunct Annabel – was exactly 10% of this one. My daughter suggested they’d put a zero on by mistake. I couldn’t believe my luck. But now, when I look back, I realize it wasn’t all luck. Obviously, getting published does need a big dollop of good fortune, but it also requires careful planning, some talent, and some of the things I mention above (such as market research). Plus the ability to take criticism on board and do something constructive with it.
Mslexia recently published some findings from a survey they’d carried out. They asked readers how they coped with criticism. A wealth of facts emerged. Around two thirds said they were...hungry for criticism, and a massive 95% of those surveyed (obviously women writers) did show their writing to others before submitting it somewhere, although a lot of those chose to keep this in the family or show it to close friends, rather than other writers. Not a good idea in my eyes. You might get kindly words from your mates, but you’re unlikely to get useful advice.
Half of the responders felt ‘exposed’ when asking for a critique, while one in eight (quite a few) had felt in the past that criticism they’d received was marred because...it was distorted by the insecurities of the person offering it...which might be the reason they were concerned with exposing themselves in the first place! Finding the critique of your work is all bound up with the critics own personal issues may be a genuine problem when asking friends – or even writing circle members – to look at your work, and does suggest that using a professional appraiser is a sensible thing to do, even when it costs money.
About two thirds surveyed waited until they had a full good draft of their work (even if this was a novel, I believe). This was sometimes because they sensed that any advice might destabilize their efforts. Certainly, there is nothing worse, when you’re planning complex but still incomplete work, than having your hopes dashed by someone who can’t see the ‘bigger picture’. Many didn’t want people to read their work until they were totally finished because they were sure they’d ‘lose the creative spark’. I do think this would depend on who saw your work. I certainly hope I never do this to my students. After all, a major reason for showing your work to a mentor or tutor would be to encourage these sparks to grow.
Those looking for, or using, a critical method, might be interested in the levels of criticism that other writers have received. Nearly 20% found these levels...unnecessarily brutal...some found them... contradictory and confusing...or...oto general to be helpful...(‘it doesn’t work for me’ was a comment cited). ‘Too specific’ was another issue – where comments became all about where to put the commas. You might bear this in mind, the next time you’re asked to comment on someone’s writing. You might check through it, the next time you receive comments on your own.
Some of my workshops in the past have included advice on how to critique other peoples work. In workshops, I tend to ask the participants to simply ‘be nice’ initially. When we’re in a room together for five or so hours, I really don’t want people coming to blows. I then usually suggest the obvious; that they might comment positively on one thing they liked while balancing that by talking about one thing they thought might be improved. I’m there to keep an eye on getting that balance right and add suggestions on just how that improvement might be gained.
But when I look at work myself, reading it first and commenting in full later, I try to be as honest as I can, keeping that honesty constructive and practical. Sometimes the way one phrases an honest appraisal is most important. There is no point in being brutal, as those writers above experienced. All it does is deflate the writer’s beach ball, sending them in the direction of chocolate, movies or the whisky bottle. I would never tell someone that their characters were 2 dimensional, or that their plot was laughable. What I might do, however, is talk about how to work towards a fully rounded character or a convincing plot. I would possibly find the very best bits of the work and praise them, suggesting that the sections that don’t come up to scratch in the same way might be improved by asking...what did I do right there?
I’m honoured and fortunate to work with degree students over a period of a year or more, reading up to 6 pieces of their work, so I’m able to use this sort of format to encourage slow but steady improvement. It is amazingly rewarding to see such improvement, and from the feedback I receive, I know that my students think so too...they can really see how their work has moved on.
Believe me, I still need my movie moments. I think every writer always will – even after publication, there are still the newspaper critics ready to tear your work to pieces. But it’s a wonderful thing if you finally find a good mentor, who will help you see your weaknesses at the same time as praising your strengths. For me, this is without doubt the wonderful Lisa Moylett, who is my agent and always ready to give me an hour on the phone. Even if she's telling me what I don't want to hear, I seem to come away feeling nicely inflated, colourful and bouncy. 
And I do hope, for some of you out there, I’ve been a good mentor to you, too.