Monday, April 5, 2010

The Value of Rejection

In one of my earlier posts I discussed how magazines provide a vital stimulus to the world of literature by the simple fact that money, in amounts large or small, flows from the publisher to the writer. Almost nonexistent are the authors who make their first sale in the form of a best-selling novel, and few would pen that first novel at all without the encouragement of smaller sales.

But cheques and publications are not the only currencies in which magazines trade. There is a third essential coin in the market of literature. I speak of course of rejection letters.

There's a famous line that Chuck Jones used to use with his animators, encouraging them to keep drawing at all times:
"Every artist has 100,000 bad drawings in him, and the sooner you get through them, the better it is for everybody."

I've always felt that the sentiment applied equally well to writing. In my mind, I usually set the equivalency at 500 pages, though that's a rather substantial discount on the usual picture-to-word exchange rate. And, while I believe that it's nigh impossible to write something truly brilliant without a good 500 embarrassing pages in the round file, the truth is that many people keep writing drek well beyond that.

Writing is a learned skill. Like any learning process, it needs feedback. And, with a task so complex as crafting a story from whole cloth, positive feedback will only get you so far. Family and friends will tell you when something works, but to learn when it doesn't you need to open yourself up to strangers. You need to embrace criticism, destructive as well as con-.

Trading stories of harsh and repeated rejections is a time-honoured pastime among writers. Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano was rejected by one publisher with the opaque observation "Its quality is too rare to be successful" and John Irving's best-selling The World According to Garp was turned away by one early editor for "contribut[ing] nothing new to language or form."

But these letters serve far greater purpose than simply to provide amusing war stories. I remember one of the first rejection letters I ever received, in response to a science fiction story of some seven thousand words sent to a now-defunct magazine. It was a form rejection. "Sorry, this is not for us, but good luck in placing it elsewhere." That sort of thing. But penned in at the bottom of the slip was this: "Too long, and the characters are flat."

What? Who do they think they are? I'd like to see them do better. No-talent editors of some two-bit rag.

And then, after the rage had worn off, I slipped the manuscript into a fresh envelope and sent it off to another magazine. Of course, it was rejected again. And again. And when, I finally decided to try rewriting the thing, I ended up cutting about two thousand words from it. The story was much better for it. I never did sell it, though. The characters were kind of flat.

As the years wore on, I came to cherish the accumulating rejections. They, as much as the far rarer acceptance letters and attendant cheques, were a badge of the craft.

The difference between the writer who has never been rejected and the writer who has is huge. In comparison, the gap between a best-selling author and an unpublished writer with a drawer full of rejection slips is a trivial thing.

And at no point in an author's career does criticism cease to be of value. The world of literature is littered with writers who achieve just enough success to find an editor willing to buy anything with the right name on it and too meek to send a manuscript back for changes. Invariably, these writers cease to improve and the true extent of their talent is never known.

Now, the accumulation of rejection letters can be a slow and arduous task. Each story can generally only manage to produce one rejection every six to eight weeks. Fortunately for the devoted collector, there is a second avenue for criticism: writing workshops.

Over the course of my life, I have been a member of several face-to-face writing circles and workshops, and I greatly enjoyed each of them. But I believe that only through the Internet was the full potential of the writing workshop realized. For years, I have been a member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Online Writer's Workshop, a group which includes in its membership such luminaries as Elizabeth Bear, Karin Lowachee, John Klima and C.C. Finlay.

It is a thing of beauty. An author can upload a draft of a story to the server and, within days (sometimes hours), be treated to several harsh but invaluable indictments. I can't imagine a more potent recipe for improvement.

Thus, I am particularly excited that the folks at SFF-OWW have been so generous as to sponsor AE Micro. If nothing else, I am confident that by steering two new writers into their arms we will have wrought a significant good upon the institution of science fiction.

So keep writing those pages and remember that, unless you open yourself up to rejection, you'll never know when you've got through the bad ones and started on the good.

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