Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Minors and the Big Leagues

Okay, I’m stealing the baseball analogy from the current issue of Poets and Writers, but I’d like to think that I would have come up with it on my own, what with the start of the baseball season in the near future and my husband, a big-time baseball fanatic, getting increasingly excited as spring training games get closer. I’m talking, of course, about the minor and major leagues in the literary world: small journals with low circulations verses larger, more prestigious journals.

The question I’ve been pondering lately is this: how do you know when you’re ready for the big game?

I’ve heard many different writers offer a range of opinions on the subject of small journals. Some writers argue that an acceptance in a small journal is meaningless and that you shouldn’t even waste your time submitting to these places. This attitude, in my opinion, doesn’t really make sense. Of course getting published in the major journals is a bigger deal than the small ones, but that doesn’t mean that an acceptance from a small journal means nothing. Based on my experiences working on two very small journals, I can tell you that even the small guys get a ton of really great submissions, and most of the submissions have to get rejected. An acceptance still means that your work rose to the top of the slush pile, that someone, or more likely several someones, read and liked and wanted to publish what you wrote.

I’ve also heard the argument that, while of course writers have to begin in the minors, it looks bad for you to linger down there for too long. Once you have a few small scale publications under your belt, you need to move up and start playing for the big leagues. I haven’t quite been able to make up my mind on this one yet. In some ways it does make sense that if you just keep publishing for years and years and years in the small presses, agents and publishing houses might wonder why you’ve been in the game for so long but haven’t made it up to the next level. But then, what about the idea of exposure? I recently had a lit agency contact me about querying them, and the story of mine that they had read was published in an extremely tiny journal. I have a much larger journal in my publication past, but that wasn’t the one the agency noticed.

Part of the reason I’m thinking about this right now is because I’ve noticed lately that the stories that I feel are my better ones have been getting mostly form rejections, but the ones I don’t feel are as strong have been getting extremely enthusiastic personal rejections, and sometimes, acceptances. At first I wondered if this meant that I’m not gauging the quality of my work properly, but then it occurred to me that I’ve been sending my better stories to bigger journals, and I’ve been sending the less strong ones to really small journals.

I’m the sort of person who likes to closely examine and analyze everything that ever happens so that I might take something away from it for next time, but I have to admit that I’m stumped about where to go from here. The fact that the small journals have been extremely encouraging of my work might lead me to believe that I should be starting my submission runs with larger journals (another argument I’ve heard from writers is that you should have a sort of hierarchy worked out for which journals you’d most like to get published in, and you should submit your work first to the top journals and work your way down the list, only submitting to the smaller journals when your work has already been rejected by the bigger ones).

The problem with that, though, is that the stories that I believe are my best have been getting a great big yawn from the larger journals I’ve been submitting them to. I’ve been getting mostly form rejections from those places, sometimes with a handwritten, “Thanks, Ashley. Submit again,” or something to that effect, but rarely real responses: “We really enjoyed X and Y about this story but ultimately had to reject it for Z reason.” I worry that if I take my recent realization to mean that I should aim higher, the result will be that I will stop receiving acceptances altogether, and I will receive far fewer encouraging rejections, too. And let’s face it, encouraging rejections are what the new writer lives off of.

So how do you know when you’re ready for the big game? When is it time to start demanding something more of yourself and when is it smarter to stick with what’s been working? And should you be satisfied with the minor leagues? Should small scale publications continue to mean something or do you reach a point where you have to move up or accept that you never will?

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Why We Write

Think back – far, far back and farther still. Think back to the time before the time you knew you wanted to be a writer. Yes, I realize this may feel like asking you to think back to life inside the womb, but humor me for a second, will you?, and try.

Do you remember where this desire came from? Do you remember where it all began? Do you remember that feeling of excitement, that thrill, that would overcome your senses when you would sit down and scribble your stories or poems or plays? Do you remember, specifically, the difference between that time – the time when you wrote with no expectation for reward, no thought that this thing might some day get published or that you might some day be recognized for the exceptional talent that you are – and this time – a time when everything seems to hinge on acceptances and rejections?

I’ve often said that I believe if you’re writing solely for the purpose of publication or because you hope that one day you might make a living off of this, you are doing it for the wrong reasons. This, of course, is unfair. Everybody has the right to their own secret purposes in life. My point, however, when I make a broad statement like that, is that you’re probably setting yourself up for failure if this is why you write. It seems like a waste, to me, to spend so much time and energy and effort, if you’re only doing it because you think it will bring you things that may never come. Publication, whether small scale or large, seems like an achievable goal for anybody who keeps at it, but the chances that you will one day make a living off of writing are extremely slim, no matter how good you are, and they seem to be getting slimmer with the changing technologies and DIY trends in today’s publication industry.

In addition, I believe that your chances of reaching any measurable level of success as a writer are greatly diminished if success alone is your driving force. Here’s why: rejections will always be more plentiful than acceptances. Period. You may have to live through years of rejections before you even get an acceptance at all, and that first acceptance will probably be for a very small journal that is mostly (or perhaps even only) read by other contributors. (I don’t mean to suggest that such an acceptance should be taken lightly. I’m a firm advocate for small journals, as an editor of an online journal myself, and I believe that getting anything accepted anywhere is a big deal. However, a small journal acceptance certainly is a smaller triumph than, say, if you were to get something published in the Paris Review or Granta.)

If success alone is what’s driving you, it seems unlikely that you will be able to bear through the years and years of scratching your way up to finally reach a level of success that someone other than you might be impressed by. That is to say, I believe that writers who write to get published will, most of them, eventually give up. It just isn’t worth it.

But if you write because you love to write – if you write because it gives you pleasure, because it adds meaning to your life, because it helps you to understand and interpret the world around you – if, in other words, you write now for the same reasons you wrote back then, in that forgotten time so long ago, then none of the rest of it matters at all: not the acceptances or the rejections, not the money or the recognition (neither of which are ever likely to amount to much, anyway). The only thing that matters is the feeling you get when you write. The only thing that matters is the writing, itself.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Just Keep Swimming, Er, I Mean, Writing

I talked a little bit last time about accepting the likelihood that my graduate thesis, which I’ve been shopping around to agents for the past few months, will probably not get published, or at least, not as my first book. This is something that I think most writers have to accept when they are in the middle of the early stages of their careers.

There’s a common story: the writer who can’t get his or her first novel published, writes a second (or third one, or fourth), finally gets something accepted and then goes back and dusts off that earlier manuscript, now that he or she’s broken into the publishing world. We’ve also all heard the stories of people who write a first book, a second, a third, and finally on their fourth or fifth they get a book published, but they don’t try to publish those earlier manuscripts because they know now that those early ones weren’t good enough.

Whatever the case, it’s important to remember that real writers – the ones who actually write and publish and slowly but surely make progress in their writing careers – just keep writing, no matter what. What distinguishes the ones who make it from the ones who don’t, as far as I can tell, is the ability to accept the inevitable rejections and the fact that you’re not perfect (and neither is your work), without getting discouraged and without ever, ever, EVER giving up.

Yes, this seems to involve a certain contradiction at the very core of your being. You’re willing to take criticism and you haven’t deluded yourself into thinking that you’re a genius (maybe once upon a time you had those delusions, but you’ve grown out of them by now, I hope, and now you know that you weren’t born to become the next Hemingway, that, in fact, Hemingway wasn’t, either; he just worked hard and got lucky, both). And yet at the same time, you believe in yourself, in your skills as a writer and your ability to keep getting better, and perhaps most incongruous of all, you truly believe that other people will want to read these things that you write.

It’s that balance you always hear about: hubris checked by modesty. Believing in yourself and your work just far enough, but not too far. Not so far that you become one of those a-holes who argue with anyone willing to give them feedback and who believe that every editor and agent who has ever rejected their work is an idiot.

But I believe that anybody can reach that balance. It just takes emotional maturity and perhaps being around other writers long enough that you realize that you’re not special but that doesn’t mean that you don’t still have something worthwhile to say. So the real deciding factor, then, is whether you’re willing to keep at it indefinitely. To receive rejection after rejection but still continue sending stuff out. To write every day, even when you’re positive that nobody will ever publish what you’re working on, even when you’re afraid that nobody will ever publish anything that you write, ever. To write a second novel, even if your first one never got published. And to revel in the small triumphs: journal acceptances, encouraging rejections, and those flashes of inspiration that send you breathlessly rushing to your computer, carried away by your own excitement to get this written down.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Rejections: The Greatest All Time Motivational Tool?

I asked a couple of people recently what I should write my next blog about and they said rejections as a motivational tool. OK, and in what way are rejections motivating? They make you want to get out there and try again. They make you feel like a real writer because a “No” response is still better than no response. Yeah, these things are true . . . but rejections are still kind of discouraging, aren’t they?

The topic has been stewing in my mind since then, and I’ve been trying to decide what rejections are better at: encouraging you to try, try again, or making you feel like you’ve been fooling yourself all along. All writers, if they’re going to stick with it long enough to actually reach any kind of steady stream of acceptances, have to develop a thick skin about rejections. We all get rejected. All of us. A lot. Your favorite writer has been rejected. Your favorite writer, come to think of it, probably still has people who don’t like his or her work. This is a subjective business.

My current agent search has shed a bit of light on the topic of rejections for me. So far I’ve sent out about twenty five queries. I’ve gotten a few form rejections, about an equal number of personal rejections, about an equal number of no response (yet?)s, and two requests for partials, which eventually ended in rejections. Of the personal rejections and the rejections from the agents who requested partials, the response has remained pretty similar across the board: This is interesting. This is well written. This sort of book is very hard to sell (or sometimes, “But I’m just not the right agent for this book”).

While I would be lying if I said these rejections haven’t been discouraging, there has been a very motivating element to them. For one thing, I’ve been encouraged by the fact that I’ve gotten a fair amount of personal responses, and those responses have been very positive about my writing. The writing itself.

The topic of this particular novel, on the other hand . . . well I knew this book might be hard to market. It’s literary fiction, which is difficult to sell to begin with, and it’s about a somewhat controversial issue. It’s frustrating to have worked on a book for three years and finally realize that it might be inherently unmarketable, but these responses really have pushed me to get back to work, serious work, on my next novel.

I wrote the first draft of my next novel in a feverish writing spree when I was inbetween drafts of my thesis (the novel I’m currently shopping around). I got back to work on it after I decided that my thesis was ready to start sending to agents, but I wasn’t able to quite get back into the groove of it. I rewrote the first twenty five pages or so, then spent a bunch of time mapping out the events that would follow them, then decided that this first twenty five pages that I had just rewritten wouldn’t work and so went back to page one and started over . . .

But these recent agent rejections have made me realize two linked things. One is that my first novel (this was actually not the first novel I ever wrote, by the way, but it’s the first one I actually thought might be publishable) will probably not get published, at least, not as my first novel. That is to say that I think it’s a good book and I still believe that it’s publishable, but I don’t think that anybody’s going to take a chance on it when I don’t have any other book credits to my name. This sort of book, as some of these agents have told me, is, by its very nature, simply hard to sell. If I had a stronger track record I think I’d stand a better chance, but as of right now, I don’t think it’s going to happen.

The other realization that came quickly on that one’s heels was that I needed to get back to work on that next novel. I needed to take it seriously and actually get that next draft written. My thesis probably won’t be “the one,” which means if I want to make it, I need to get another one finished, and perhaps another after that. I need to keep trudging onward and writing new and better books if I ever expect one of them to make it past the slushpile, past the partial request, past the full manuscript request, and finally – finally! – sold to a publishing house.