Thursday, May 26, 2011

Facing Failure A How-To in Three Parts. Part Two: Working

I used to think it was hard to talk about my dream of being a writer. (See Part One: Wanting) What I didn’t realize was that talking about it was the easy part of this whole process. It’s much harder to actually DO it. Write, I mean. Over the years I’ve met many people who confide that they like to write too. Usually, they add the word but. But, they don’t have time. But, they started something and it didn’t go anywhere. But, they have an old messed up draft of a manuscript in a drawer and they don’t know how to fix it.

I wish I could say I had a magic answer for these people. I went to a conference once where the keynote speaker, a critically acclaimed and prolific children’s writer, said she did have a magic answer. The people in the auditorium sucked in their breaths, grabbed their pens and notebooks, and leaned forward to wait for the guru’s advice.

It came down to three letters, the speaker said. BIC.

“Bic?” everyone around me whispered excitedly.

But I let out an annoyed sigh. I’d already heard those letters. And there wasn’t anything magic about them. BIC stands for Butt In Chair. In other words, if you want to write a book, you need to put your butt in a chair and write the book. This is easier said than done too. It’s amazing how many millions of other things you can find to do each day. If you have a day job, of course, you’re busy with that. But then there are the things you’ve got to do at home, the day-to-day life kinds of things like cleaning toilets and carpooling and paying bills. Add to that the dumb stuff like scrolling around online and watching inane TV shows. If writing really is your dream, though, somehow you’ve got to let those things go (or at least put them off) and make writing your priority. If you want to get better, you’ve got to practice. Which means writing something, anything, every day or most days.

So over the years I did this. I wrote. I wrote and wrote and wrote. Stories. Articles. Book reviews. And book after book after book. And then complete revisions of those earlier books. I am almost embarrassed to say how long I have been doing this and how much stuff that I have churned out that has gone nowhere. A sane person would have to ask WHY?

Here’s my answer. When I was in grad school I was the managing editor of the university’s literary magazine. My job was to log in submissions and pass them on to the editor. If the piece was rejected, I mailed it back with a form letter slipped into the poor writer’s return envelope. The stories the editor wanted to publish got a nice personal letter with details about when the story would appear and how the payment was two free copies of the magazine. (woohoo!)

Quickly, it became clear to me that the majority of the submissions were bad. (The editor never let me cull through the slush pile for her, but even I, a lowly grad student, could see that a manuscript with a ripped first page and a coffee stain in the corner was probably not going to fly. I was amazed at the poor quality of so many of those stories. Misspellings. Basic grammatical errors in the first paragraph. Never mind the writers who clearly hadn’t researched what this magazine was, who sent romance stories or westerns or articles about parenting.) I never did a statistical analysis but I would guess that at least ninety percent of the stuff that came through fell into this “bad” category. The remaining ten percent was good. Really good. But the magazine only came out four times a year. The editor couldn’t take all the good stuff. Some of it came down to her personal taste. Or just bad timing, if we had published something on a similar topic the issue before.

I felt sorry for those good ten percenters. They got the same form rejection letter as everyone else. The editor simply didn’t have time to respond to each one personally. And I wondered, wouldn’t it be nice if I could let them know? Hey! This is good but we just can’t take it. But please, don’t give up. Sometimes the editor did find the time to scrawl out a Nice Work. That meant something and I hope the writer on the receiving end understood that.

When I started sending out my own manuscripts years later, my time as managing editor made me majorly anal about following the editorial rules. I researched the market before I sent my submission to make sure what I was sending was appropriate. I only sent my best work out and I was careful about the appearance of it. I was rabid about catching typos, etc. As the form rejection letters rolled in, I agonized over what category I fell into—if I was one of the ten percent who had potential. Or if I (gulp) wasn’t.

Let me tell you, whenever I got a rejection with a hastily scrawled nice story written across it, I pinned it up on my wall. This, I hoped, was my proof.

I told you that story because it’s the answer to how I’ve been able to keep writing all these years. I hold onto every smidgen of positive reinforcement I have ever received and I use it as fuel. I can get up every morning and put my butt in the chair and write because I believe that what I’m writing will eventually be read by more than just a few family members and friends.

So let’s recap. To pursue a dream (and therefore risk failure), first, you must verbalize what it is. Second, you must do the actual work. The third part, I’m sorry to tell you, is the hardest part of all.

Up next: Waiting

No comments:

Post a Comment