My One-Sided War With the Editor: A Constructive Way to Deal With Rejection

I’m not sure which is worse: being continually rejected, or not caring about it anymore.

I’ve received word back from two more potential handlers of my novel manuscript (can’t call it a book yet, as that implies something that can be held). Not surprisingly, they were rejections. Admittedly, they were very kindly worded rejections, but of the “Dear Author” variety.  “I regret to say that I’m going to pass on this. But please remember, tastes are subjective, so please don’t internalize your feelings of rejection and show up at my office armed with a cheese grater.”

Under ordinary circumstances, this would be the place to cue the rant.  Beginning in 3… 2… wait!

There is an alternative. Be constructive with that soul-crushing sensation that your work, however literary and phenomenal it may be, will forever go ignored because it just doesn’t have commercial value.  Yes!  Be constructive.

So, for all of you stifled writers out there, your voices mercilessly quelled by avalanches of form rejection letters, here is a short story. I wrote it a few years ago, after a vain attempt to get published in a certain lit mag.  I gave up eventually, but not before sending this story to the editor. No, it was not accepted.

Hope you enjoy.

My One-Sided War with the Editor
How I Learned to Love My Weight

I lay all the blame on a story I wrote in grape juice concentrate on a sheet of corrugated tin beneath the baking Arizona sun. I called the story “Editor K and the absence of pronouns.” It was, I thought, a bit like buying the editor flowers. The story was short, just 40 words. Had to be. I only had so much grape concentrate. After a few drafts, it read as follows:

Editor K lapped water from a crevice in the rock like a cat. Dense fog swirled around Editor K, beaded on Editor K’s clothing, and dripped from Editor K’s limp hair. A cold wind blew, but the fog did not dissipate.

Obviously, the hook in this story was the lack of pronouns. Instead, I would use the complete proper noun. I could already taste the acceptance letter.

It seemed, however, that Editor K had other views. After waiting a few days, this reply found its way to my inbox:

Dear Jack, Thanks for hitting us with this one, but unfortunately we are unable to use it. The exposition is too heavy for our current aesthetic. Please submit again in the future. —Editor K

Strange, I thought. I tried to pull apart the words and understand their meaning. The use of the word ‘unfortunate’ led me to believe that some circumstance beyond Editor K’s control had made it impossible to use my story. The revelation that the ‘exposition was too heavy’ concerned me. Was it the simile in the opening line of the story? Or the adjectives in general? What was a dense fog anyway? Maybe Editor K has no hair, making it impossible for it to ever be limp.

But there was hope. That last line of the rejection letter, ‘Please submit again in the future.’ Clouds mixed with sunshine. I tried again:

The mist parted, long enough for Editor K to see that Editor K stood on the lip of a cliff. Below, farm houses dotted the fields. Then the clouds pressed in, and Editor K was alone again.

You’ll notice that I did away with the adjectives, and even the similes. I kept the exposition light. Just the facts, or so I thought. But then came the reply:

Jack, Thanks for sending this piece our way, but we’re going to pass. The exposition is just too heavy for our current aesthetic. Please feel free to send something else our way. —Editor K

Clearly, it wasn’t the adjectives. I thought maybe I could solve the riddle through a process of elimination. Perhaps I had used verbs that were unnecessarily descriptive. ‘Parting’ mist and ‘pressing’ clouds. This time, I would strike a more conversational tone. It would be a text so light that Editor K would have to tie it down to keep it from floating away:

Who lived in those farm houses? Editor K spent a lot of time thinking about that. Editor K tried to find a way down to those fields, but the cliff was just too high.

Short. Concise. And above all, not heavy. I’d sacrificed, wanted to mention the way it made Editor K feel to long and remain unfulfilled. But I held it in. Maybe unencumbered writing was all about mastering one’s urges. Suddenly the current aesthetic seemed very Zen.

Short turnaround times are a mixed blessing. Those editors who take six months to respond give you enough time to forget you ever submitted anything, and so rejection comes not so much as a disappointment, but as a surprise. As in, ‘I submitted there?’ But not Editor K. He was back in no time:

J, Thanks for giving us a look, but we won’t be using this. The exposition is just too heavy for our current aesthetic. Please keep us in mind for the future. —Editor K

Again with the references to weight. When I looked at my stories in the mirror, I saw nothing but flesh sagging from places I’d never known existed. I became an anorexic writer. In my despair, I hit the drink. I went on a bender. When I sobered up, two months later, I learned that I’d filled a notebook with scrawl, most of it illegible. But on the last page, I saw this:

A longing to be down among Editor K’s own kind gripped Editor K with such animal strength that Editor K contemplated throwing Editor K’s body over the precipice. But Editor K just clung to the cold stone and wept.

This was heavy. This was visceral, guts hanging, cellulite curdling. This would never be accepted. And something about that tasted sweet in the back of my mouth, like the Boone’s Farm I’d been swallowing by the gallon over the past two months. I had finally learned to love my weight.


A Useful Website: Best Fantasy Books

Yesterday, I shared my opinions here about The Neverending Story, by Michael Ende. Upon reflection, I realised that it could seem as if I am a hater of fantasy writing. Not so. I am, however, a somewhat picky reader of fantasy. I did some Googling, and I found a useful website, called Best Fantasy Books, which has this to say about the genre:

Take a stroll through any mega bookstore, and you will be inundated with countless fantasy fiction books. A few will be great fantasy books, some will be good fantasy books, and most will be bad fantasy books. Finding a good fantasy novel is difficult, like sifting for gold among sand. But occasionally, just occasionally, you’ll find that rare nugget, that grain of gold to forever treasure.

Some have a negative perception of fantasy literature (especially those who read only “mainstream” literature) as being cheesy, badly written, and cliche. Yet, rest assured there are some very well written fantasy books out there — books that can compete arm to arm with “literature”. You just have to know where to look.

And Best Fantasy Books is, in fact, a very good place to look. They have a “Top 25” books list (yes, Tolkien’s on the list, but so are many you may have not heard of). They also have lists according to sub-genre, some fairly closely associated with fantasy, and some not. For example, the stewards of that website have assembled a collection of what they deem to be the best of the Tolkien Clones, as well as Asian-themed fantasy.

So, hopefully that does something to dispel any false impressions that I am a fantasy hater. Hope it also gives you some fresh suggestions for reading material.

Respect for Character – Masterclass with Marina Endicott

On Sunday, November 23, the Manitoba Writers’ Guild will host a masterclass, led by Marina Endicott.  The title of the class is Respect for Character, and will guide writers in developing rich and believable characters in their work. Excitingly, Marina will present through the lens of the theater, sharing techniques that playwrights and actors use to enhance characters.

See the official notice from the MWG below.

The Blue Fox (Skugga-Baldur), by Sjón

I recently finished reading a book called The Blue Fox, by the Icelandic author, Sjón.  The book, titled Skugga-Baldur in the original Icelandic, was translated into English by Victoria Cribb.

The book is short (the edition I read is just 123 pages), and I finished it in what was essentially a single read (I briefly set the book down to eat).

First off, before any other commentary, I will say that the book was phenominal. Since stars seems to be thing to give or withhold, I’ll say 5/5. I base that rating on writing style, pacing and structure, depth of character and setting development, and overall composition.

From my perspective, it  and reads like two intimately intertwined short stories:

The first tells of a man on a snowy mountain, hunting a blue fox, the VixenThe fox is as much a character as the man, and the prose is very nearly poetry.

The second story follows a herbalist  who, upon his return from Denmark, decides to shelter a young and very much abused woman with Down syndrome. As I say, the two stories are utterly intertwined, even if the connection is not immediately apparent.

The writing style has been compared to folklore or mythology, and the comparison is apt. The hybrid story that emerges from the two sub-texts feels rooted deeply in time and in the landscape on (and at one point under) which the story occurs.

As a writer and editor, I find that my ability to read books for pleasure is sometimes reduced. The tripwire of my writerly or editorial self is triggered, and the veneer is peeled back on the book. There was no such “tripping” moment for me during the reading of The Blue Fox. No moment at which I thought, “I would have written that differently.”

And a note on translation is required also. I do not speak Icelandic, and so I can’t comment on how well the translation was done. I can say, however, that Victoria Cribb did a marvelous job of taking a work that (presumably) had an entirely different rhythm and structure, and building something marvelous in English. As a speaker of a few dissimilar languages, I know that it is very seldom possible to simply pick something up from one language and “English-ify” it.  There is nothing Google Translate-y about this book.

So, if you haven’t read it already, go find yourself a copy of The Blue Fox and read it. And if that whets your appetite, Sjón has written plenty more. I look forward to reading it.

November is National Novel Writing Month

This year I plan to participate in the National Novel Writing Month, or “NaNoWriMo.” The event starts on November 1 at 12:00 am (or 00:00 if you prefer).  Over the next 30 days, the goal is to write 50,000 words.  If a writer manages to achieve this word count, then he or she “wins.”

Now, for those of you who are thinking, “I would kill my own mother to win NaNoWriMo,” make sure you read the fine print.  It’s actually a contest with yourself, a battle against your own inertia.  Can you keep your ambition going and your fingers moving?  To win, you need to type a minimum of 1667 words per day on average.  And if those happen to be well-written words, all the better.

That, I think, is the real challenge: writing with even a modicum of quality for such an extended period of time.  In theory, the following sentence would be an acceptable part of a “winning” NaNoWriMo entry:

Leoius saerilji aoale jojeojeu bamseuo—eqoiups saolesu epoku!

Or if you’re after some serious word count:

A A A A A A A A A A A A A !

But a writer, even a sloppy writer, would probably not be happy with this sort of output. I hope to reach the 50,000-mark, and to do that, I’ll need to be content with a certain amount of systemic shoddiness.  Nevertheless, I hope to produce something with at least a little literary virtue.

If you’re up for the challenge, I encourage you to join me in NaNoWriMo.  Registering is free, and can be done here.  Remember, even if you find it challenging, it will all be over in 30 days.  Think of it as an form of insurance against becoming James Joyce, who took 17 years to finish his final book, Finnegans Wake.  You don’t want to do that.

Sheldon Oberman Mentorship Program: A Call for Applications

Hey Manitoba Writers!

The Manitoba Writers’ Guild is calling for applications for the 2013 Sheldon Oberman Mentorship Program. I was selected as an apprentice for this program in 2011, and can certify that it is an amazing opportunity.  (For more about my time as an apprentice, see here).  As an apprentice, you will have a unique opportunity to sit with an established writer over the course of five months and work on whatever it is you and your mentor deem to be important.  I not only came away with a much stronger sense of “craft,” but also with a renewed enthusiasm to tackle my writing passion.

Sheldon Oberman

For information about the application requirements and other aspects of the program, see here.  This year, the Writers’ Guild will be accepting seven apprentices.  You can also apply as an established author, and will work as a mentor for one of the apprentices coming into the program.

If you live in Manitoba and you are serious about writing, I cannot encourage you strongly enough to apply for this program.  You will not regret it.

Nominated for inclusion in “Wastelands” Anthology

My story, Water, (which originally appeared in The Last Man Anthology by Sword and Saga Press) has been nominated for inclusion in the Wastelands Anthology.  Got my fingers crossed!

Here is a link to the page where you can find out more about the Wastelands project.