Looking Beyond the Red

When you are in the throes of querying or submission, rejection can play mind games with you, so I figured why not write a post about rejection this month?

Let’s talk about rejection.

It comes at many levels. 

  • Querying/Submitting manuscripts (short stories, novels/novellas, chapter/picture books, etc.), at agent or editor level,

  • Entering contests (many Twitter-related),

  • Applying for grants/fellowships/writing opportunities,

  • Providing your manuscript to a beta reader or critique partner and they annihilate it,

  • Submitting to jobs related to writing.

  • And many more!

Per Merriam-Webster (one of my favorite websites), the definition of REJECTION is: 

a.    an immune response in which foreign tissue (as of a skin graft or transplanted organ) is attacked by immune system components of the recipient organism

Okay, okay. As a trained immunologist, I was compelled to keep that definition above. But the one I sought is below.

b.   The action of rejecting : the state of being rejected, or something rejected

Digging deeper: reject = to refuse to accept, consider, submit to, take for some purpose, or use. Unwillingness to accept something asked for. And Merriam-Webster even lists the example: “To reject a manuscript.” Ah, there we are.

I do love a good thesaurus, be it a writer's help guide or the regular old kind. Let's check out some synonyms for "rejection." Ouch. How about we toss those words down into that bubbly hot spring, shall we? Even if that beauty is called Morning Glory Pool (Yellowstone National Park) and is an exquisite sight.

Let's toss those synonyms into the depths of Morning Glory hot spring!   Photo by Jean M. Grant

Let's toss those synonyms into the depths of Morning Glory hot spring!

Photo by Jean M. Grant

Moving on to antonyms. Those are a bit more uplifting so instead of letting them sizzle inside a geothermal hot bath, we’ll let them rise on the warm muddy surface of Grand Prismatic Spring (Yellowstone National Park).

Bring on those happier words! And the muddy surface of Grand Prismatic Springs, Yellowstone National Park.   Photo by Jean M. Grant

Bring on those happier words! And the muddy surface of Grand Prismatic Springs, Yellowstone National Park.

Photo by Jean M. Grant

There are some enlightening words in that antonym box. Validation. Acceptance. Approval. Isn't that what we seek as authors? Don't we wish for that magic seal of approval stamped on our shining manuscript after we send it off to an agent or editor/press? Yes, we love our work. Our best friends love our work. Yes, we do write for ourselves. But, we do also write to get published, and we write the reader's enjoyment, too.

Like those hot springs, the surface to publication success is delicate. One wrong step, and down into the hot bubbly abyss you go. But if you can hover on the top, the heat is turned up...and you're okay.

How do we pull ourselves out of the heat and rise up for a warm bath instead? How do we keep our cool?

The road to publication is paved with rejection. Some authors  print all their rejections and line their entire floor’s square footage with it. Stephen King used to tack his rejections to the wall. What do I do? I made a spreadsheet! I even color-coded it:

Yellow: pending response (due to volume of submissions, many agents provide a timeline [sometimes] and say a “no response equals a no”). So when I first query, that entry gets highlighted yellow.

Green: positive response! The agent or editor asked for a partial or full. (insert dances and nervous checking of gmail five times a day!)

Red: where most of the queries end up. Rejection.

A bit blurry, but you get the point. Agent names have been deleted. But here is one of my many spreadsheets I created for each project and the querying status. Agent name, their specifications, turn around/info, date of submission, and response (if any). 

A bit blurry, but you get the point. Agent names have been deleted. But here is one of my many spreadsheets I created for each project and the querying status. Agent name, their specifications, turn around/info, date of submission, and response (if any). 

 

40 rejections. 1 yes. It only took one.

With A Hundred Kisses, I began writing in 2012-2013. After 6 months of writing, 6 months of initial beta feedback and revision, I began the querying process. During this time, I added a lot of red to that spreadsheet. In addition to thickening my skin , I also revised, again and again. I met with agents at conferences. I focused on the feedback that came with some of those rejections. I re-sent to betas. Finally, it was more ready. But instead of sending to agents, I took a leap and submitted to two small romance presses. One said yes. And there is my happy-ever-after, folks! Granted, it was not the traditional agent-editor/publisher path, but I am very happy with it. From start (writing, 2012) to finish (contract, 2016), the process for that book took 4 years. Disclaimer: A Hundred Kisses was my fourth book written. The other 3 hang out in a closet somewhere and are learning experiences in writing and querying.

The red sometimes gets to be too much when you see rows of it glaring at you on the screen. So with my current work I'm querying, I changed it to a pretty lavender instead. That's a bit more soothing. My current work is women's fiction and I'm going the red route again - agent to editor. Given my happy experience with The Wild Rose Press, I'm also about ready to send my editor the prequel to A Hundred Kisses after a bit more revision and beta-reading. And if all goes well (and she says yes!), then I plan to work on a third book to turn those romance books into a trilogy.

So what do I do when rejection gets me down?

  1. Realize rejection is part of the journey

  2. Maybe take a day or two to be sad, eat more ice cream or binge watch The Price is Right or The Walking Dead (those characters can definitely make you feel better about your situation)

  3. If given feedback, glean from it. What did the agent/editor say about my story that is in my control to change? 

  4. Revise more

  5. Query more

  6. Take a break

  7. Write something else

  8. Keep at it

  9. Rinse and repeat the above steps

I'd love to hear from you. How do you organize and deal with rejection? 

Looking past the red,

Jean

Weeding out the Words

I love gardening. By gardening I mean flowers, usually perennials but some annuals. Vegetable/fruit gardens and I have not figured out our groove yet. Birds eat my blueberries and raspberries, the apple trees struggle to grow, and when they finally did thrive this year (I counted over 40 apples between the Macoun and Golden Delicious) in a matter of 48 hours some creature stole and ate them ALL. Yes, all. Oh wait, my son pointed out I have one little apple left. One. (insert my hysterical sobbing). I planted pumpkins once…only male flowers grew. And other vegetables…dead before they can even start. It’s not my forte (yet).

But flowers, oh lovely flowers. I’m a bit obsessed. They are my happy place. Living in frosty New England, I spend eight months waiting for them…nurturing, replacing, pruning, and watching. I have multiple gardens. I protect them with mulch but I also stock them full, so full that by mid-summer you can’t see the mulch, only blissful bouquets of day lilies, daisies, sage, lupine, irises and peonies, tall phlox, black-eyed susan, hydrangea, and many more. So full that you can’t see the weeds. (insert my best sneering laughter, bohahah!)

Oh, those weeds are there. They may be surrounded by gorgeous stalks of vibrant color, shape, and smell, but every now and then a tall spindly one pokes its mischievous head through. Despite my best effort to prevent weeds, they arise. Many remain hidden among the splendor. My plan is to hide them. Let the flowers outshine them. However, upon close inspection this doesn’t always work.

See where I’m going with this? Yup, weeding our words. I have a master list (see below) of the overused or weak words I stumble upon. It’s the part of editing nobody tells you about (I’m not sure everyone even does it; maybe some are master weeders as they write). I have my pitfall words I search for and destroy (at a 50-75% cut rate): out, up, down, over, more, even, day, one, just, still, so many, back, to name a few (I counted over 300 “up” before editing my current manuscript). However, there are the other words, perhaps not as overused, but equally weak. These include filter words (words that pull the reader out of the story, causing them to stumble), adverbs (eek, the dreaded –ly words, but hey, I leave some in!), or plain words that could use some spice.

We all have our own unique pitfall words. For some reason, I liked to overuse forms of the word “force” in my women's fiction manuscript. And I as I edit another one, my historical romance, I have over 50 instances of "kin". Kin, kin, kin everywhere! Oh, and too many "brutes" and "heathens". Those are all not necessarily weak words, but they are overused. My heroine has far too many weak phrases (they are getting cut, so I won't share them!) and I've employed too many of the weak words: "also, granted, in fact, rather, all, just, some, a few."  I also like to use "that", "these", and "those" when "the" should suffice -- insert more cutting! Although it's a different editing point to address, be mindful of was and -ing phrases (e.g. was buzzing, was being, was going to , was sleeping, etc.)

How do we weed these words?

I save this type of editing for last. First, grab some coffee or tea and get comfortable. Second, search. Unsure what to use? Try a word bubble/count website such as Wordart. Or locate lists online of crutch words, weak words, active verb lists, etc. I have created my own list over time and with each manuscript, new overused words creep in. Lists are pretty easy to find online. Third, cut or replace at least half of them. Yes, half. It’s tedious but worth it. I find that sometimes I over-weed – is there such a thing? On the next read through, I may add some of the words back in to keep the natural voice and flavor of the manuscript.

 

The cut list:

  • Adverbs (not all, but many)

  • Filter Words

  • Weak/crutch words

  • Weak verbs

  • Your own unique overused words (we all have them!)

 

It’s a fun game. Weed, add, weed, add…but eventually I find the happy place where the simple beauty of the words blends in with a few weeds to form a harmonious garden.

Big weak words.jpg

If it’s Precious, Let it Go…

“In writing, you must kill all your darlings.”   - William Faulkner

The writing process is loaded with steps (forward and back), potholes, meandering trails, mountains, and valleys, so much so that your fingers, brain, and heart may need a few bandages sometimes. They don’t say it’s a blood, sweat, and tears career for nothing! There are epiphany moments, fueled by espresso-laced energy that keep you up half the night or rising before the roosters crow, to get that scene finished (as you think to yourself: “This is awesome!”). And then there are moments like when you get feedback on the first draft of your manuscript from your beloved beta readers, and your heart cringes with their review (and you think to yourself: “This is not so awesome” or worse, “I stink”). But remember that even gold starts out raw and elemental, and is worked and molded into a shiny ring.

Editing is just that – taking the gold, and working it into it a piece of art.

So what’s all this about killing darlings? Faulkner (or the numerous other authors credited with that quotation) put it well. You will need to kill off your beloved narratives or sentences, characters, scenes, plot points, and entire chapters…for the good of the manuscript. It happens to us all. Those golden nuggets written in feverish excitement that had you smiling (or chuckling) to yourself like Gollum from Lord of The Rings, “Oh, my Precious!” ...yup, those parts. Slice and dice, baby. Toss them into the fiery pits of Mt. Doom! Heck, you may even look like Gollum after the nights you’ve put into writing!

And the hard reality is that not everyone will think your darlings are so precious, though.

Killing your darlings can be like pulling a bandage off or as deep as stitching up a wound. With time, it will heal. Yet that doesn’t make the removal and stitching any easier. And in time, sometimes you forget all about the injury or what could have been. It becomes a distant memory or a bumpy scar that your hand glances over from time to time.  

So how do we kill our darlings? Judiciously. With sweet abandon. With hesitation. With strategic attacks.

Your red-penned manuscript sits before you on the desk (or the MS Word doc with the glaring colored marks of track changes hums on your computer screen). The edits, comments, and scratch marks stare at you with menacing eyes. Now what? Well, first, you read them. Then, if you’re like me, you mourn, cry, shout, even argue with your reviewer a little. This is usually followed by a sulking period of time, where self-doubts creep in. The comments may need to sit there and marinate for a few days or weeks. If you have other projects you’re working on, you may procrastinate and focus your efforts on those (hey, that’s good! Keep writing something!). But eventually those edits and comments need to be addressed. A version two, a glossier gold ring, awaits after all! The worst thing you can do is ignore it all and give up. Critiques and editing make for a better writer.

Once the sulking and defending are over, it is time to roll up your sleeves and dig in. Usually during the mourning period, I spend my time carefully reading the reviewer’s comments. Always remember, the final decision is yours as writer. You may not agree with your reviewer’s comments. Often, I agree with 75-90% of what my beta readers have said. Some of those thoughts may have already held a residence in my mind before I handed off that coveted first draft. So, I let the cutting begin.

I save those dissected wedges of lines, scenes, plot points, or character flaws in a file. To perhaps be used later. Honestly, those cut sections are usually never resuscitated. They stay forever filed away into a folder of the past. Some of these sections, at the time when they were written, may have indeed been one of my darlings. A scene, thought, or plot point I’d thought was amazingly genius! But with more time, ah, perhaps not so genius…recently, I spent a lot of time for a recent work in progress researching a military base and how to break into one. Yup. That scene got tossed into the burning depths of Mordor. In fact, I gouged out my entire last few chapters and rewrote them to clean up the story. Sure, I have those scenes tucked away in a word document. Just in case.

So how do you know what to cut? That’s up to you. In my previous post (Setting Goals for Your Characters), I discuss the points of GMC – goals, motivation, and conflict. All scenes must a). move the story forward in some way (a goal, motivation, or a conflict) or b). enhance character development. Does the scene (or plot point/chapter/whatever) that needs to be addressed make the cut? Or should it be revised or tweaked? Perhaps told from another character’s POV? Maybe parts of the scene can still be used, but moved elsewhere? Be strategic in your slicing. Look at it all carefully. Does it move the story forward? Is it truly needed? I am notorious for writing whiny, aimless female protagonists in my first drafts – they’ve needed major makeovers to become the strong heroines they’ve evolved into.

So, grab that red pen or keyboard, a side of dark-roasted java or a glass of aged Cabernet, and take a deep breath and dive in, knowing that some darlings need to be tossed into the fire to make room for a literary work that will shine like a golden ring that will lure all its readers in with its beauty.

Mt. Doom doesn't look too scary now, does it? (Mt. Ngauruhoe, New Zealand, inspiration for the LOTR's movie adaptation of Mt. Doom)

Mt. Doom doesn't look too scary now, does it? (Mt. Ngauruhoe, New Zealand, inspiration for the LOTR's movie adaptation of Mt. Doom)