Monday, 31 August 2009

Writing It Off

A few years back, I had a piece of extraordinary luck: I won first prize in a writing competition with a hefty prize. I know why I won now, and I can say with complete confidence that it wasn’t the cleverness or the skill of my writing. Here is how I did it: I overwhelmed them with words.

I found out about the competition when my daughter brought back a form from school, inviting submissions. Reading it, I saw that there was a separate category for adults. I was thrilled: hidden away in a dusty file, I had half a dozen short stories, a much-rejected chapter book for kids, part of a play, four poems, and a couple of essays. I studied the form carefully, but although it stated that pieces had to be under 5,000 words, there seemed to be no limit to how many things you could send in. All genres were welcome, too: poetry, prose, fiction, non-fiction, play scripts, and best of all, there was no submission fee. I couldn’t get over my good luck: for ages, I’d been relying on long-suffering friends to serve as my beta readers. Now total strangers would read my work -- they had no choice.

Piece by piece, I sent my manuscripts off: three short stories, part of a play, a chapter of my kids’ book, two rhyming poems, and one blank verse poem. I shiver to think about it, too: all the prose pieces were over-long at just under 5,000 words; I had circuitous story lines, plot holes like Afghanistan has mountains, clumsy tags, protagonists who acted out of character, and chunks of dialogue that went on forever, but I am pretty sure no one else beat me for sheer volume of words.

I tell you this so you'll see that I'm not being humble: I know damn well I had no business winning that competition. What I did was the gambling equivalent of wandering into a casino with a couple of nickels, feeding a few into a slot machine, and walking away a millionaire. I like to think that the readers looked at all my stuff and saw heart and promise. I'm also pretty sure that the other contestants, had they read my work, would have liked me about as much as a seasoned gambler would like a lucky jackpot winner. Whatever the case, I will always be infinitely grateful to the judges for separating my bits of grain from all the chaff and awarding me that prize.

Winning this prize gave me a tremendous boost and all sorts of encouragement, and it also gave me something to tell the tiresome people who kept asking if I’d managed to get anything published yet. No, I would say, but I did win a prize. They always asked how much, of course, and I’m afraid I always told them. It shut them right up, too: everybody respects money in the bank.

Last week, I got a really good rejection. I’ve received many dozens of rejections over the years, of course, from the perfunctory I have read your work with interest to the I really liked this, but it isn't quite right for our list, to the longer, more personal, believable ones, but this one made me feel weirdly hopeful. The best part about it was that the next day I woke up with a clear vision of what to do with the rejected manuscript. For the first time, I saw what I had to do to make things right. Everything the people in my writing group have been telling me suddenly made sense. This time, instead of feeling mired in confusion and hopelessness, I saw the path ahead of me appear straight and true, and knew where I was going to go. I felt like Moses watching the waters of the Red Sea part.

Here's the sad thing: I can’t brag about this, can I? When I told people about my writing competition prize, they were happy for me. I got congratulations and pats on the back. Family members told other family members and mutual friends; my stock rose. Lately, when people ask me if I’ve managed to get anything published, I find myself choking on the words No, but I got a really good rejection, and how very pathetic that sounds. And yet that really good rejection ranks right up there with my writing competition win.

So I’m telling all of you here, right now. Please be happy for me: I got a really good rejection –- one that served as a much-needed kick in the pants. And that’s why I haven’t been around here lately: I’ve been rewriting my manuscript, and loving every minute of it. Which is every bit as good as money in the bank.


Charles Gramlich said...

Absolutely. Rejections are relative and and the good ones are to be celebrated and remembered, and used for motivation. Congratulations.

Vijaya said...

And this is why you need writer friends ... because we will be happy with you for that *good* rejection.


Eryl Shields said...

Just reading this has reminded me how exciting writing can be when you are really in the process.


Miss Footloose said...

Mary, how very exciting! Anything that moves you forward this way is good. Writing can be so lonely and frustrating, but the highs are really high.

Keep on going! Good luck from someone who knows.

Miss Footloose
Tales of the Globetrotting Life

laura said...

I find myself strangely excited about your rejection!! It sounds like it's ignited a fire within you that needed to be lit. Just remember that Harper Lee's first attempt at getting To Kill a Mockingbird published was also rejected. It took many years of re-writing to get it into Pulitzer Prize winning form. Maybe that's where you're headed!!!

adrienne said...

Congrats! You're bragging to the right crowd. I know about those good rejections...the ones that remind you that you are, in fact, making progress.
I also struggle to find the kind of accomplishments the rest of the world can relate to...

angryparsnip said...

Congratulations !

I understand the "good" rejections, just as you said the ones that clear your mind and moves you forward.
I have had lots of rejections good and bad.
When I read your blog today it was as if I was there with you...

Cheers !

MG Higgins said...

I, too, have had those "good" rejections and they are such a boost. I totally understand! I also understand that it's difficult information to share and expect people to be excited for you. Except for other writers, of course. We care! Hoorah!

Robin said...

Congratulations! That really is wonderful! It's a gift to be able to explain what needs to be changed in a work in a way that can be absorbed. Usually it's just as you describe it - you end up feeling confused and overwhelmed.

For the record, I love your writing and think you should be famous. Tell the agent that. Maybe it will help.

Anonymous said...

Congratulations! I'm still waiting for that kind of rejection. I have had a scribbled note here and there like you mentioned, but the Good Rejection is still eluding me.

Robert the Skeptic said...

I would write back and simply inform them that you must, unfortunately, reject their rejection letter.

Here, use this as your guide:

Mary Witzl said...

Charles -- This is the first time a rejection has motivated me this much, and I'm going for broke. Thank you for understanding.

Vijaya -- You get this too, don't you? This isn't one of those generic little numbers where they get your name wrong -- this is the real deal!

Eryl -- I really am excited about it, too -- all I can think about is the damn manuscript -- breakfast, lunch and dinner be damned.

Miss Footloose -- You're a veteran writer, so of course you know how this feels. As far as I'm concerned, there is no better high.

Laura -- Yay, it must be real if I'm getting other people excited over it -- thank you for enjoying this vicariously!

Adrienne -- That is so good, because I felt like a real wally when I slipped up and actually said to my daughter, home from Japan, "I've gotten a really good rejection, honey, so I'm busy revising." The look of pity just said it all.

Come to me with your next big accomplishment, whatever it is -- I'll recognize it and rejoice with you.

AP -- That is exactly what this did: it cleared and unmuddled my mind. Thank you for that better way of saying it.

MC -- I feel like I'm on a stage, receiving armfuls of flowers. Thank you for appreciating this too, and I'll be there when yours come through.

Robin -- Aw, thank you for those kind words!

Yes, I really was overwhelmed. Up until recently, I would look at the ms I had to rewrite and feel like crying as I closed the file. Like finding an interminable piece of knitting and noticing a couple dozen dropped stitches right at the very beginning. Now I know how to unravel the thing and start over. (Ooh: weird knitting analogy. Still, it's just how I felt.)

Catherine -- Those scribbled notes used to make me feel awful until I went through a long stretch of getting nothing, or automated responses. Then I saw those scribbled 'Not for me' notes as what they were: personal rejections. Here's to some better ones for you!

Robert -- Mais non, I embrace that rejection! I went through a brief period of pouting, then suddenly it took and I realized I deserved it -- and I knew what I should do to get a thumbs up. Rejections like that are the opposite of rejections. If I get another one, though, I may well reject that.

Anonymous said...

Congratulations :) And, hey, better than me. I get horrible rejections, ones that make me wonder if they even read it.

Anonymous said...

For that gave you another boost, I'm happy to hear that you received a rejection. Go baby, go, go, go!!

Charlie said...

O happy day! A kick in the behind from the Muse!

Marian said...

Some rejections make you feel as though a door is being closed in your face - "Sorry, not for us."

But some make you feel as though a window has been opened, giving you a glimpse of the maze that lies ahead - and a way to navigate it.

And I congratulate you for making full use of that window!

Kim Ayres said...

One of the greatest things about now defining myself as a photographer rather than a writer, is no one says, "have you taken anything yet?"

What's the difference?

In order to be "accepted" as a writer, it seems someone else has to publish your work. But to be a photographer, you can print your own.

You write so wonderfully, Mary. And you have dozens of people following you and reading everything your write every week.

Next time someone asks if you've had anything published yet, tell them you do, averagely twice a week and have a strong and loyal following :)

kara said...

well congratulations. there's nothing like constructive criticism, especially when it's actually constructive. like that thick colorful paper you can make things out of. no, wait, that's construction.

Mary Witzl said...

PN -- If whoever you sent your work to had any sense, they'd read it. It's SO good. Keep on writing and submitting, and someone is bound to come to their senses. In the meantime, I hesitate to wish you good rejection letters, so I'll just wish you whatever inspiration it takes. If you can't make it, there's no hope for me.

P -- Ooh, that is you, isn't it? Any news on the job front yet? I've still got my fingers crossed that we're going back...I hope we see you there!

Charlie -- Who'd have thought that I'd be grateful for a kick up the backside, eh? Shows you what two years of solid rejection will do. But that's me: always slavishly grateful for small favors.

Marian -- That is exactly it: a glimpse of the maze and the sudden inspiration that I WILL get through. It's still a maze: some of the plot holes still yawn open and there's a lot of overgrown stuff to trim out, but I'm not giving up until I've pushed my way through!

Kim -- Thank you for saying that! In fact, I've checked my site meter, and I know that most people come to this blog to know if you can really eat slugs (the world slump must really be bad if it's come to that, eh?), or how to get rid of montbretia. But the people who do come here intentionally and leave comments are first class, and I consider myself incredibly lucky. Still, I never tell any of the "Have you published anything yet?" people about my blog. Because what they really mean is "Are you still wasting your time writing, or have you finally figured out that you're nothing but a dreamer?" Besides, from time to time I like to write about them...

Kara -- Most of the time, criticism, constructive or no, just makes me smart, and I don't mean intelligent. Which is why I still haven't cracked the publishing thing. I think I must have finally achieved some sort of spiritual writing sattoku here, but I'll only know for sure when I get my next rejection letter.

Snacks from the cruise buffet said...

Amen to good rejections!

Anonymous said...

So happy for you! If you are happy, that's what counts.

A Paperback Writer said...

Oh, the irony!
Still, don't feel too guilty about winning that contest years ago: you may have been the best of what they had and justifiably the real winner.
And I'm glad you got an epiphany about your work.

Danette Haworth said...

The first time I received a personalized rejection on a magazine piece, I was so happy! Rounds of editors had marked their comments, mostly good, on the actual piece, which was then mailed to me. (Real editorial hands had touched the paper!)

I was so thrilled, I took it to work. The only person who understood what it meant was the graphic artist I worked with. Everyone else saw it as a rejection; they couldn't see the hope it represented.

Nandini said...

Congratulations on the great rejection letter and on finishing your revisions (saw that on the blue boards). What would we do without other writers who *get* it? Hope you're sending off the revised manuscript and that it finds a home soon!

Mary Witzl said...

Snacks -- So true! Crappy rejections are as common as dirt, but truly good ones are as scarce as hen's teeth -- and a lot more satisfying.

Anonymous -- Well, thank you. (Why does that sound like a Freddy Fender song?)

APW -- I nourished that hope for a while myself, then I happened to see some of the other writers' work. The truth is, I don't know what happened there, and I give you my word I'm not being coy. I didn't know any of the judges, either. Clearly something I wrote must have struck a chord. And winning absolutely launched my writing 'career'.

Danette -- You know exactly what I mean. A rejection like this will mean little to those who doesn't know what a tough, ego-destroying business it is sending our best out there again and again to have it snubbed and passed by. Getting any kind of detailed feedback is huge -- as though the work is finally serious enough to be given thoughtful commentary.

And look where you are now, too! Your comment has given me fresh hope.

Nandini -- You are so right: being around others who 'get it' just makes all the difference. I know what I did before: I cried myself to sleep, I lay awake through long sleepless nights, I wondered how to cope with the waiting that just went on forever. Now I can ask questions and get answers, I can whine, I can rant, I can sometimes even gloat a little. My cup runneth over. The revised ms is getting a polish even as I write this.

injaynesworld said...

I spent many years writing for television in L.A. and rejection was just something you learned to let float off your back. But occasionally, someone would give you a grain of wisdom along with it that allowed you to move forward. Congratulations on yours. You're a lovely writer and I'll return.

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