How Not to Respond to Success

Dame Sally Markham from Little BritainEmerging writers are tired people. We’re working on building our networks, improving our storytelling and writing, marketing ourselves as writers, and fretting over query letters to entice agents to represent us. The idea that novelists sit around eating bon bons and dictating prose into a recorder is a non-author’s fantasy. Real writers wear out their keyboards and keep going.

It’s impossible, quite frankly, to do all of this and keep every vestige of reasonableness in one’s body. Some of our patience wears thin; or we misplace a bit of perspective here or there. I think I have some alertness stuck under the dryer in my laundry room, for example. Or maybe it’s acuity; I can’t tell, because I’ve dribbled out some of my ability to ascertain my own aspects of intelligence.

In this context of entropy, then, receiving rejections becomes part of the process. Every single successful writer has more than one story about getting a form rejection, or worse, a cutting criticism about just how bad their writing is. What is last decade’s ironic note from a publisher, editor, or agent was at one point a crushing blow to the writer’s ego. If a person has thick enough skin to keep going, the list of rejections will grow longer, but at least she or he will become somewhat accustomed to getting back on the horse after a thorough bucking and fall to the dirt.

What I as a writer am still not used to are the successes. Last year I saw in my email queue a letter from the Pacific Northwest Writer’s Association literary contest chair, and I presumed it was a terse “sorry, but thanks for playing” email that would tell me of the wonders of the review process, the extreme number of entries and how these made it a very competitive year for the readers, and so on. Instead, the first word read, “Congratulations!”

I stared and stared at the screen, stuck and reading no further. Why on earth would the chairwoman taunt me this way? Don’t say congratulations and then let me down with a sorry, but you’re just not good enough. I may have had an iota of a second of anger. The next sentence made me drop my glass of seltzer:

You are a finalist in our 2010 literary contest for memoir.

Let’s say that success wasn’t something at which I had spent much practice time.

Fortunately, I wound up not winning in my category, and as I’d been seated with a bunch of screenwriters, didn’t get anything out of the networking during the awards dinner, either, although I certainly am a fan of screenwriters, no doubt.

Every time I hear back from a publishing professional with good news, I am astounded. It’s not that I think my work sucks—if I did, I wouldn’t send it off. But there have been so many silences, gruff, short notes, and gentle passes from others that I am simply unprepared for anything that isn’t a hard “no.”

Two nights ago I heard from an editor at a literary journal that I like a lot; after having read a short story I’d submitted, he had some questions and wanted some revision. The email didn’t say when to send it back, but this journal’s reading period ends on August 31. Because I’m an emerging writer (read: rank amateur in my case), I didn’t know if I still had to abide by this deadline or not. But in any case, we’ve got a baby coming probably next week (see previous post), so I figured I didn’t have much time to mess around in my 1,600-word story. I read through his comments. And then scratched my head.

Now then, I like in my short stories to leave a bit to the imagination; it’s not that I’m lazy, it’s that I trust readers. People drawn to short fiction tend to read a lot of it. They’ve seen everything under the sun—there’s not a plot twist or a red herring that is new to them—and so, I don’t want to overwrite. If I take a lot of time out of a <2,000-word story to explain how time travel happens, I’m risking believability and I’m detracting from what I care about: the character arcs and the conflict. Bam. There’s time travel. If it were a novel I would take a stab at grounding it, but please like the  characters so much that you don’t want to stop and ask how they wound up there. Same thing if someone morphs into a dragon, erases their partner’s memory, or raises a mummy from its tomb, all of which I’ve written about in some tale or other. In short work, I’m probably not going to mention DNA and reconstituting flesh. They’re mummies, damn it, they’re already not explainable.

I’m okay with the idea that some readers don’t like this approach, because many of them do. Love it, in fact. And I love all kinds of readers, not just the ones inclined with my philosophy toward short work. But when one of the readers who wants more explanation is an editor with one of my most-liked journals out there, well, I’ll try to make them happy. Problem is, now I’m in the position of writing against my own grain. This isn’t my usual way of telling a story.

I played around with the language, extending the conversation between the two characters. I’m not interested in characters who are right about their own motivations—I’d much rather work on an unreliable narrator who better understands themselves by the end of the story. That this editor wanted to see why one character took an action worked against the story itself. But there I sat, eyes pressed to my laptop screen, as I tried to do my thing in a new way.

Language changes, a new revelation, still more dialogue. I began wondering if I shouldn’t have taken up playwriting instead, putting more emphasis on dialogue and hoping the audience makes the right inferences. My mocha tasted off. I plugged away. Sweat at the back of my neck as the desert sun invaded through the blackout screen behind me, boiling my back. Type, type, type.

Revisions should not make a manuscript worse. I was dropping little cherry bombs in my text and hoping the editor liked cherries. It was a conference of bad ideas in ugly brown suits. Resave in a new file. At least I kept that shred of wisdom, against my slow hemorrhage of IQ points. Send button. Pressed before I could take it back. There were no grammatical issues, no typos. The mood was retained. It just didn’t feel like my story anymore.

I swear I’m not a prima donna. I’m a writer willing to work with others. I can blame my government project management experience, and being the youngest of six. But maybe it would have been okay to have withdrawn the story and tried with another editor more into the way I write. If we try writing for people who aren’t our own selves, we may be writing bad stuff.

Where the first email had been excited, this one was dour. My laptop took on an odor of overripe lemons. Now there were even more questions than before. I’d written outside of the original genre. There still was no explanation of the character’s choices. And how could I think I could make revisions in one day?

I sighed, I kicked myself metaphorically, creaky knee joints what they are. My inner critic, away on an extended vacation, returned post haste to belittle me. I wrote back to the editor, gently withdrawing the story and hoping to keep the opportunity door open for another day.

And I deleted the rewritten story. If bystanders ask me about it after today, I’ll deny I ever wrote it.

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2 Comments on “How Not to Respond to Success”

  1. Madison Woods
    August 26, 2011 at 6:23 pm #

    Love that you decided to stand by your convictions. Revisions are to be expected, but if you don’t feel good about the finished product, it’s not worth it in my opinion. I’m very new to successes and they’re still so far and few between that I haven’t had time to get used to it yet, LOL. But I hadn’t thought of it until now!

    • evmaroon
      August 26, 2011 at 7:43 pm #

      And this is not to say that one shouldn’t ever revise! But there are suggestions that work for a story, and others that seem at cross-purposes. Maybe I’ll just chalk it up as a limitation of mine, or say that this just the wrong story for them at the wrong time.

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