Jan 202011

Please read this if you just had something rejected:

It’s part of being a writer. Everyone gets rejected. Repeat after me: EVERYONE GETS REJECTED. This does not mean you are a bad writer or a bad person. Stories get rejected for all kinds of reasons, from “just not the right style” to a just plain grouchy (or really dumb) editor. Take a few deep breaths, do a little research, and send the story right out again or put it in a drawer, forget about it, remember it again, take it out, read it, and realize it really is DAMNED good. Then send it out again.

Never forget that writing is subjective. My idea of a good story is not yours, yours is not his, and his is not mine. Just because an editor doesn’t like your story doesn’t mean that everyone will, or must, dislike it as well. Popularity and money don’t equal quality, and struggle and disappointment don’t mean bad work. Keep trying. Keep trying. Keep trying.

Think about the rewards, about what you’re doing when you write. I love films, but I hate it when people think they are the ultimate artistic expression. Look at a movie – any movie – and you see one name above all the others: the director, usually. But did he write the script, set the stage, design the costumes, act, compose the music, or anything really except point the camera and tell everyone where to stand? A writer is all of that. A director stands on the shoulders of hundreds of people, but a writer is alone. Steinbeck, Hemmingway, Austin, Shakespeare, Homer, Joyce, Faulkner, Woolf, Mishima, Chekhov – all of them, every writer, created works of wonder and beauty all by themselves. That is marvelous. Special. That one person can create a work that can last for decades, centuries, or even millennia. We pick up a book, and through the power of the author’s words, we go somewhere we have never been, become someone new, and experience things we never imagined. More than anything else in this world, that is true, real magic.

When you write a story, you have created something that no one – NO ONE – in the entire history of history has done. Your story is yours and yours alone; it is unique and you, for doing it, are just as unique.

Take a walk. Look at the people you pass on the street. Think about writing, and sending out your work: what you are doing is rare, special, and DAMNED brave. You are doing something that very few people on this entire planet are capable of, either artistically or emotionally. You may not have succeeded this time, but if you keep trying, keep writing, keep sending out stories, keep growing as a person as well as a writer, then you will succeed. The only way to fail as a writer is to stop writing.

But above all else, keep writing. That’s what you are, after all: a writer.


Please read if you just had something accepted:

Big deal. It’s a start. It’s just a start. It’s one sale, just one. This doesn’t make you a better person, or a better writer than anyone else out there trying to get his or her work into print. You lucked out. The editor happened to like your style and what you wrote about. Hell, maybe it was just that you happened to have set your story in their old hometown.

Don’t open the champagne; don’t think about royalty checks and huge mansions. Don’t brag to your friends, and don’t start writing your Pulitzer acceptance speech. Smile, yes; grin, absolutely, but remember this is just one step down a very long road.

Yes, someone has bought your work. You’re a professional. But no one will write you, telling you they saw your work and loved it; no one will chase you down the street for your autograph; no one will call you up begging for a book or movie contract.

After the book comes out, the magazine is on the stands, or the Web site is up, you will be right back where you started: writing and sending out stories, just another voice trying to be heard.

If you write only to sell, to carve out your name, you are not in control of your writing life. Your ego and your pride are now in the hands of someone else. Editors and publishers can now destroy you, just as easily as they can falsely inflate you.

It’s nice to sell, to see your name in print, but don’t write just for that reason. Write for the one person in the whole world who matters: yourself. If you like what you do, and enjoy the process: the way the words flow, the story forms, the characters develop, and the subtleties emerge, then no one can rule what you create, or have you jump through emotional hoops. If a story sells, that’s nice, but when you write something that you know is great – something that you read and tells you that you’re becoming a better and better writer – that’s the best reward there is.

But above all else, keep writing. That’s what you are, after all: a writer.

Apr 292010

Taking criticism is challenging for everybody. In the writing business, it’s a given that you’re going to get some; in the process of learning to write, it’s completely unavoidable. Personally, I was lucky enough to write with such single-minded obsession and singularity of vision for the first part of my life that I got virtually no negative feedback on my writing – adults in my life just sort of stared and said, “Um,” which led me to believe that I was some sort of genius. That kept me writing.

Then I enrolled in creative writing seminars at U.C. Santa Cruz, and somewhere in the mountain lair of mad scientist Dr. Critic, this saturnine villain rubbed his razor-nailed hands together and said, “Exxxxcellent. Finally we can end this meddlesome crusader’s pathetic scribbling once and for all — Release The Flying Monkeys!

Do you know the Flying Monkeys? Dr. Critic keeps them locked up in his mountain lair behind roll-up doors marked “Danger! Helpful Feedback” and “Constructive Criticism: Stay Back 40 Feet!” These flying monkeys are the Doc’s secret weapon in the quest for world domination; they are gene-spliced in subterranean laboratories out of the pilfered tissue of creative writing professors, Stephen King fans, mutant sociologists and people who think every book should be as good as As I Lay Dying or Atlas Shrugged – or, at least, incessantly compared to them.

Said Flying Monkeys may have had a go at you before, or they might just haunt your nightmares. They carry garden shears and find your main character unsympathetic; they swing baseball bats at your head and think you have too much exposition; they wear steel-toed boots and think your most poetic prose is uninspired; they throw their own excrement in great disgusting globules and consider your use of the present tense to be annoying and pretentious. I could go on; the flying monkeys have a million weapons, always ones you don’t expect. They have a billion pieces of “constructive criticism,” a trillion “suggestions” and a quadrillion “observations.”

If you’ve ever handed over a treasured piece of prose – or, worse yet, one you’re feeling insecure about – to a lover, teacher, friend, class or critique group, you may have gotten the Flying Monkey Treatment. And let me tell you: once those flying monkeys have a go at you, it’s tough to sit up straight for a while – maybe ever.

What they said is not important – or, rather, it’s not what this post as about. Their criticisms might be true; they might be false. No writer is perfect, and let’s face it, your writing might suck. But even if you’re a brilliant writer, the story in question might suck; everybody misses the mark once in a while. Some of us more often than not. It doesn’t mean you’re not good. The flying monkeys could conceivably be telling you something you need to hear.

But the flying monkeys don’t have to sit down and write the next story, and the next one, and the next one. Dr. Critic in his mountain lair with his infernal servants, his I.Q. of 260 and his improbable tinfoil headdress does not have to continue the novel after being told the first three chapters are mediocre at best. Your well-meaning friends and teachers don’t have to sit down in front of a blank screen and think, “What story do I want to tell today,” and come up with one. If you’re someone who writes, who has to write, then you do. And maybe your friends and teachers, if they’re also writers, do that too. But they don’t have to write your story. That’s your job.

And once you’ve been kicked in the balls by flying monkeys, that job can be goddamn hard to do.

How is it done?

Other writers will tell you they know; I will tell you I do not. Other writers, and other writing teachers, may be able to give you the most helpful feedback of all — how to survive “helpful feedback.” I cannot.

Because while I know I should welcome constructive criticism – and in fact, to this day I occasionally claim I welcome constructive criticism, I do not and never did. I just thought I was supposed to.

Unlike Peter Lorre in the Maltese Falcon, I never learned to “take it and like it.” I take it; I don’t like it. I will never like it. But after years of letting the monkeys have a go at me, I learned one thing that, to me, has been helpful, and I hope it can be helpful to you.

Your stories are not perfect. They do not need to be. They may not even be good. Hear me: They do not fucking need to be.

In the best case scenario, the point of constructive criticism is to make your writing better in terms of structure, prose, sensual detail, character development, inventiveness, plot, and all those other things that make good fiction a pleasure to read.

But the point of writing fiction is to write. In my view it is not, I repeat not, to write well.

“Writing well” is an admirable goal, and I strongly support it. But if you dropped dead three seconds after your last keystroke, would you rather have told a tale someone else enjoyed, or enjoyed the telling of it yourself?

Ideally, you don’t have to choose; everyone will love your writing, you included, and you’ll be signing options with Scorsese and jet-skiing in the Bahamas this time next year, or better yet having your self-published chapbook lauded by grad students in 100 years.

But when you sit in front of the blank screen and wonder if what you write will be good enough for the flying monkeys: Remember. You can never write well enough for the flying monkeys. And you don’t have to. Just write well enough to create that ecstatic sense of thunder on the keyboard, the rush of living large that comes from telling a story told with passion, not perfection.

That keyboard thunder, that rage as you tear through a story with bliss and compassion and pathos and energy?

It scares the flying monkeys. It scares them. It makes them cry big monkey tears.

It’s why they hate you in the first place.