Swing Away, Merrill…Even If Every Editor Rejects Your Best Work

 

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“Perseverance is the hard work you do after you get tired of doing the hard work you already did.” — Newt Gingrich

Recently, I chatted with a fellow writer in dire need of commiseration. She slaved over a story for nearly two years, rewriting draft after draft following feedback from writer friends and polishing and refining it until she was not only happy with it but considered it her best work to date. And she wasn’t wrong. It’s a pretty damn solid story.

When it was old enough, she released the story from the nest and let it fly to her targeted list of the publishing houses a story of this type was properly suited for. It wasn’t her first time at the rodeo, so she knew precisely what she was doing.

Skip ahead past the anxiety-filled months of the story crossing the desks of slush readers and editors to the point of contact, only to discover that her baby, the best story she’d ever produced, had been rejected by everyone on her list. Majors and minors alike. Which, of course, raised the question:

What does a writer do when they’ve put their all into a story and no one wants it?

The answer is obvious, and I’m sure you’re already thinking it before you’ve read it here:

You put your best, unwanted story away for later use, and you start writing again. Instead of moping and getting down on yourself and allowing them pesky writing demons to take up valuable real estate in your head, start your next project. And it doesn’t have to be some laboriously over-complicated piece. If you’ve got something easy-breezy on the back burner, something you can bang out relatively quickly, why not give it a go? A sort of cleansing of the palate before your next magnum opus—and there will be another magnum opus, trust me on this.

My old man was a fountain of homespun wisdom and one of his favorites was:

“Nothing beats failure like a try.”

And he was right. Perseverance trumps rejection. That’s the advice I gave my friend and that’s the advice I’m giving you. Since she’s a diehard Mets fan—a trait she shares with my mother—I tried delivering it with my best baseball analogy:

When you submit your work, you’re like a hitter crowding the plate in order to have a better swing at pitches on the outside half of the plate. Rejection slips are the brushback pitches, fastballs coming at you high and inside, designed to intimidate and force you away from the plate. If they make you quit the game, you didn’t really come to the stadium to play ball. And sometimes opportunity also comes at you high and tight, so—to quote M. Night Shyamalan’s movie, “Signs”—Swing away, Merrill. Merrill, swing away.

Of course, she laughed at this because she knows I don’t know squat about baseball and my analogy stunk, but it lifted her spirit, so despite looking like an idiot, job well done, I’d say.

Well, it’s half past wrap-up time, but you know me, as long as there are famous authors to quote, I never travel alone. They’ll take the mic in a second and talk to you a bit about rejection—sans the baseball references, I promise. Until next time…

Sally forth and be swinging-at-the-pitches-ly writeful, my friend.

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“If you’re going to try, go all the way. Otherwise, don’t even start. This could mean losing girlfriends, wives, relatives and maybe even your mind. It could mean not eating for three or four days. It could mean freezing on a park bench. It could mean jail. It could mean derision. It could mean mockery–isolation. Isolation is the gift. All the others are a test of your endurance, of how much you really want to do it. And, you’ll do it, despite rejection and the worst odds. And it will be better than anything else you can imagine. If you’re going to try, go all the way. There is no other feeling like that. You will be alone with the gods, and the nights will flame with fire. You will ride life straight to perfect laughter. It’s the only good fight there is.” — Charles Bukowski, Factotum

“Was I bitter? Absolutely. Hurt? You bet your sweet ass I was hurt. Who doesn’t feel a part of their heart break at rejection. You ask yourself every question you can think of, what, why, how come, and then your sadness turns to anger. That’s my favorite part. It drives me, feeds me, and makes one hell of a story.” — Jennifer Salaiz

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“Over the years, I have come to realize that the greatest trap in our life is not success, popularity, or power, but self-rejection. Success, popularity, and power can indeed present a great temptation, but their seductive quality often comes from the way they are part of the much larger temptation to self-rejection. When we have come to believe in the voices that call us worthless and unlovable, then success, popularity, and power are easily perceived as attractive solutions. The real trap, however, is self-rejection. As soon as someone accuses me or criticizes me, as soon as I am rejected, left alone, or abandoned, I find myself thinking, “Well, that proves once again that I am a nobody.” … [My dark side says,] I am no good… I deserve to be pushed aside, forgotten, rejected, and abandoned. Self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us the “Beloved.” Being the Beloved constitutes the core truth of our existence.” — Henri J.M. Nouwen

“I love my rejection slips. They show me I try.” — Sylvia Plath

“You have to know how to accept rejection and reject acceptance.” — Ray Bradbury

Related articles:

Taking It On The Chin: The Graceful Art Of Accepting Rejection

It Ain’t Impossible Once Somebody Gets It Done

Wanna Succeed as a Writer? Buddy Up to Failure, it’s the Best Friendship You’ll Ever Make

You’re Where You Are Because of Who You Are (but that ain’t necessarily a bad thing)

Taking It On The Chin: The Graceful Art Of Accepting Rejection

“Was I bitter? Absolutely. Hurt? You bet your sweet ass I was hurt. Who doesn’t feel a part of their heart break at rejection. You ask yourself every question you can think of, what, why, how come, and then your sadness turns to anger. That’s my favorite part. It drives me, feeds me, and makes one hell of a story.” ― Jennifer Salaiz

Rejection is akin to getting sucker-punched in the gut and, as a writer, you know this because you’ve undoubtedly experienced it in one form or another. We all have. Even with this blog, as harmless as it is, I sometimes receive comments that take issue with or flat-out reject things I’ve posted (hey, it happens, and you can’t fault people for having opinions that differ from your own).

While it’s no big secret that we all seek acceptance, rejection—impossible to avoid once your work steps out of the For-Your-Eyes-Only comfort zone and into the hands of the reading public—is an important part of your journey if your intention is to develop as a person and grow as a writer.

After you’ve gone through your initial grieving period (don’t deny or bury your feelings because that’s just not healthy), try these suggestions on for size to help you cope during the initial rejection rough patch:

1. Take yourself out of the equation

Your written piece is your baby, forever tethered to you by an unseen and intangible umbilical cord, and although it will always be a part of you, when someone disapproves of your work, they’re not necessarily rejecting you, the person.

Yes, I’m well aware it’s impossible to completely divorce yourself from something you’ve created. Especially when that sly critter Self-Doubt sidles up beside you and makes you question if there’s something wrong with you or your talent. But instead of taking this to heart and allowing it to consume you, you need to adjust your thinking.

When your work is rejected it’s usually more a reflection of the viewpoint, needs, or requirements of the person making the decision. The thoughts in your work may not align themselves with the thoughts of the target audience, which doesn’t necessarily make it bad, it’s simply not a piece that fits into their jigsaw puzzle.

Of course, if they offer you a reason why your work was rejected, you shouldn’t rush to dismiss it. Take a step back, look at the critique objectively, and if it has merit, consider incorporating it into your next draft.

2. Anticipate rejection

It’s coming whether you like it or not, so why not bake yourself a big ole Bundt cake, put the kettle on, and have yourself a little nosh when it arrives.

When writing, if you expect rejection, what it should do is make you up your game by challenging you to raise the yardstick, push the envelope and send your best work out into the world. And before you mistake my meaning, I’m not asking you to get down on your work and take the negative view that your writing isn’t good enough and never will be. I just want you to adjust your mental outlook. It’s like the saying goes, “Hope for the best, expect the worst.” It cuts down on the disappointment that may come later on.

Also, don’t let a verbal or written rejection kill your drive and lead you down the path of procrastination. Use it to become a better, stronger writer.

3. Stay focused

You can’t control your peers, society, or the world at large, so why not concentrate on your own thoughts, feelings, actions, and behaviors? Just because you’re not gifted with the inhuman ability to alter reality, doesn’t mean you’re powerless to alter your personal reality. By turning your focus inward, you acknowledge what you want and realize you have the power to set events in motion to achieve your goals.

How does this apply to rejection? You may be able to avoid the downward spiral of self-doubt by accepting there will always be cynics who are entitled to their opinions, be they informed or otherwise, and said opinions do not—and I repeat do not—have power over you. Instead of focusing on their negativity, turn your attention to what you can control, apply what you’ve learned from their comments, and move forward to produce more powerful work.

4. Spot the merit in rejection

I know I’ve taken an “it’s them, not you” approach in this post but honestly, not all rejection is unfounded. We’ve all produced work that exists on different levels. Some writings strike the right chord with the majority of your audience and others miss the mark by scant inches and even a country mile. This is when you let slip your inner critic and examine your work for uninspiring ideas, a poor approach, confusing views, unclear writing, passive voice, etc.

It also helps to learn to self-question, which is far and away different from self-doubt. Turning detective and analyzing why the editor in question didn’t accept the story, what were they looking for and what you could have done differently to meet their needs, may help you decipher learning points of which you were previously unaware.

A word of caution: Unless you have a personal connection with an editor or publisher, I would advise against contacting them directly to ask why your work was rejected. While you may see it as a means to improve your craft, your intent may be misconstrued. You never want to gain the reputation of being that writer. Or, perhaps you do. In that case, have at it. Who am I to tell you what to do?

5. Understand that rejection is growth

You’ve heard the saying, “One step forward, two steps back,” and you might believe receiving a rejection is taking those two soul-crushing backward steps, but you, my friend, are absolutely 100% incorrect. It’s the one step forward to understanding what people are looking for in the real world and how you can progress your writing to accomplish your objectives.

And if you have a piece of writing that has received more than a few rejections, instead of chucking it in the drawer of misfit tales, why not give it the once-over one more time, taking all the constructive comments into account while you do it. You just might find that you can spot and understand the weak points in your story’s structure and fortify them with the experience you’ve gained from learning how to cope with, deconstruct and master the lessons within the criticism you’ve received.

As I said from the start, you’re not the only person who’s dealt with rejection. Click this link to view some of the rejection letters received by bestselling authors. If they can handle it and press on, so can you.

Sally forth and be brush-your-shoulders-offingly writeful, my friend.

It Ain’t Impossible Once Somebody Gets It Done

“To believe a thing impossible is to make it so.” – French Proverb

Everyone talks about the writer’s toolkit and all the utensils it should contain, but writers also need to have a storehouse equipped with a shelf that holds just one thing:

The belief that anything is possible.

I’m sure you’ve already figured out that if someone has already done a thing, you can do it, too, once you’ve set your mind to it. But have you ever stopped to consider that even if no one has done this writing task that’s swimming around in your brain, you still can do it? All you need to do is cut out the middleman. You really don’t need anyone else to prove that your project is possible. You can just go on out there and do it for yourself.

Don’t worry, I’m not gonna sell you a load of universal law nonsense like “everything in life is possible because you’ve been gifted with all the necessary tools, skills, drive, and connections you need to make it happen.” If your aim is to do the impossible, you’re gonna have to work at it. Hard. And that’s a fact, Jack.

Now, you’re no doubt saying. “Okay, I get that it takes drive, dedication, passion, and the right mindset, but let’s get to the meat of the nutshell. Just how do I do the impossible?”

Well, my friend, I’m glad you asked.

1. Find the cost of your impossible.

You know very well I’m not talking about money (you can cross that financial bridge when you come to it). Failure (as discussed in a previous post) is the coin of the realm if you don’t reach your seemingly impossible goal, and you pay by taking in the pitying glances from the mundanes that use you as an example of why the impossible must never be strived for. You pay by watching your dreams burn to ash before being scattered by the winds of harsh reality. You pay by having your creative center scooped out of you with a melon baller. Or, you might pay in some other way, but make no mistake about it…

You. Will. Pay.

As stated previously, very few things in this world are truly impossible. Most times the price is just too high. You need to take a moment and truthfully examine what the personal costs to you will be (time, relationships with friends, family, etc.) and if you’ll make the commitment to remit payment should the ferryman demand a toll for crossing impossible waters.

2. Take baby steps towards the impossible.

Once you’ve zeroed in on that impossible writing endeavor, start small. Slip on your water wings, dip your big toe in the shallow end of the pool and learn the basics. The impossible isn’t one gigantic thing, it’s a series of things that increase in difficulty or complexity. Splash around in the kiddie end of the pool and get yourself acclimated to the waters before you decide to breaststroke your way into the deep end.

3. Handcuff yourself to inspiration.

Some people create a vision board with images, inspirational sayings, and the like. I know, these received a bad rap after Rhonda Byrnes’ book, The Secret, came under critical fire, but having a visual reminder of your ultimate goal is akin to keeping your eyes on the prize.

Others surround themselves with like-minded people or people who have achieved some level of success in the same or similar fields. Buddy up to them, pick their brains—politely and tactfully, of course—and find out what motivated them. Learning from someone else’s experiences, though your own will undoubtedly be completely different, can help you avoid potential pitfalls up ahead.

4. Stop gabbing about it and start doing it.

It’s great having a goal to achieve and having done all your knowledge-gathering groundwork and psyching yourself up to the point where you become a one-person cheerleading squad, but a lot of people get stuck in that complacency gap between research and action. You’ll know you’re there if you spend more time talking about conquering your impossible task than you are acting on conquering your impossible task.

Making it happen is the point where your inspiration gets put to the test because it’s where you’ll begin running into obstacles and roadblocks, where excuses for why you can’t take action start springing up like daisies.

The workaround? Micro-goals. Remember when we talked about baby steps? Get used to them because you’ll be taking a lot of them. Inch by inch, everything’s a cinch. Set daily tasks, give yourself deadlines and milestones, and keep in mind that you will have bad days, encounter setbacks, and missteps along the way. It’s all part of the process when conquering the impossible.

And get out of the habit of beating yourself up when things don’t go your way. Things will change as you begin to work towards something new, but the great thing is that your plans are not set in stone. If something doesn’t work, switch things up until it does. You’re a shark from this point on, always moving forward.

5. Celebrate the completion of micro-goals.

Why shouldn’t you? You’ve just taken a chunk out of the impossible. You’ve pressed your nose to the grindstone, torn down mental barriers, plotted courses around obstacles. Take a moment to pat yourself on the back.

6. Do it again with the next plateau.

Sure, get into the habit of doling out self-attaboys (“boys” being gender-neutral) but don’t get too full of yourself because you’ve still got a long, long way to go. The good news is, you now know the impossible is possible, so Go get ’em, tiger!

Side Note: There is one circumstance in which I will advocate for the impossible. In your attempt to pull off your Herculean task, you will encounter people who will try to hold you back—strangers, acquaintances, friends, family members, and fellow writers—out of fear, envy, spitefulness, or even a misguided sense of love. They will make you doubt yourself, keep reminding you of your faults, constantly criticize your ideas, discount your strengths, and generally make you feel unimportant.

In order to see your way through to the finish line, you must make it impossible for these people, regardless of who the hell they are or what they mean to you, to stand in your way. Kick their obstacle-shaped backsides straight to the nearest curb. And if they happen to be a friend, family, or someone you really care about, have no fear, you can always swing back and pick them up upon your return from Successville (and allow them to gnaw on a slice of told-you-I-could-do-it pie).

I do have one request for you: After you’ve accomplished your mission, do me a favor and drop me a line to let me know about the sweet taste of breathing the rarified air atop your lofty perch. If I must live vicariously through your success, so be it! I accept my fate!

Sally forth and be impossibly writeful, my friend.

Wanna Succeed as a Writer? Buddy Up to Failure, it’s the Best Friendship You’ll Ever Make

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Far better is it to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure… than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much, because they live in a gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat. — Theodore Roosevelt

The act of screwing it up, getting it all wrong and falling flat on your literary face is the worst, most evil thing that can be thrust upon the fragile ego of a creative person. No writer ever wants to be standing hip-deep in a congealing bucket of epically proportioned failure. Not only does it cling to you, branding you with the scarlet letter of incompetence, but the fumes from it seep into your pores and attack your confidence, enthusiasm, and self-esteem.

And even worse than failing? Atychiphobia:

From the Greek phóbos, meaning “fear” or “morbid fear” and atyches meaning “unfortunate” atychiphobia is the abnormal, unwarranted, and persistent fear of failure, often leading to a constricted lifestyle, and is particularly devastating for its effects on a person’s willingness to attempt certain activities.

But “fear of” is getting kicked to the curb in this post because—if you haven’t guessed from the title—I’m actually advocating for failure, which in my insolent opinion, gets a bad rap.

When you first begin to write for an audience, or writing in a genre that’s new to you, or in a different format, etc., your first attempts will most likely not be optimal. No two ways about it, no getting around it. Why? Because your life isn’t a movie, wunderkind wasn’t conveniently inserted into your backstory, and greatness isn’t DNA-encodable at this point in time, it still has to be strived for.

You. Will. Fail.

Fail to connect with your audience. Fail to notice logic issues in your plot easily spotted by a reader. Fail to end a story properly (if you even complete it at all). Fail in your use of words to convey the intended images. Fail to make a sale. Fail to impress your literary heroes. Fail to please everyone (always), the majority (on occasion), and anyone (trust me, it happens).

The only surefire way to avoid writing failure is to either never commit your ideas to paper—let them swirl around in the magical kingdom of your imagination, living their Peter Pan existence, as you vegetate in front of the TV—or never put your writing out into the world. If either of these sounds like a viable solution, good on you, and go for it. I’m not here to judge.

If, however, you’re not satisfied with letting ideas fester in your gray matter as you wait for the opportunity to unleash your genius in that perfect moment that never ever seems to swing around your way, you’ll need to look disappointment square in the eye and accept the fact that the outcome of your writing endeavors will not always line up with your expectations.

And though I’m not here to judge, should you actually consider never committing your ideas to paper, one possible adverse effect is that idea can metamorphosize into a bloated squatter that takes up an unnecessary amount of mind space, thereby blocking the arrival of new ideas. If it were me, I’d serve it an eviction notice and make way for a new tenant. But that’s just me. Still no judgments.

Once you’ve wrapped your noggin around the simple truth that you will fail and have given up feeling hopeless, weak, and belittling both yourself and your talents, you’re finally ready to accept the fact that failure plays a very important, incredibly positive role in your writing life. In fact, it offers you a chance to grow and learn.

The first step in learning how failure breeds success is to let yourself fail a few times. Experience it in it’s totality. When you discover that it does not, in fact, destroy you, feel free to brush yourself off and climb back on the horse. All successful writers have experienced failure (and a great deal of the time the success/fail ratio favors the negative) but what made them successful is they weren’t afraid to fail and if they did, they just learned from their mistakes and moved on.  They didn’t allow themselves to be defeated by rejection, hurt, or disappointment.

There will be those of you who poo-poo (yeah, I said poo-poo, deal with it) the notion of getting accustomed to failure because you personally know someone whose first-ever novel made the bestsellers list, whose first draft screenplay became a Hollywood blockbuster, whose tweets became a TV series, blah-blah-blech. There’s a professional name for that phenomenon. It’s called a miracle. Right place, right time, all the planets fall into alignment. This is great when/if it happens, but you shouldn’t factor it into your overall game plan. It’s akin to being dirt poor and signing the deed on a mansion just because you’re sure you’re gonna win the lottery.

Well, writing calls, so I must be off—I’m sure I’ll speak more on this topic in the future—but before I go, let me leave you with a list to help you on your way to palling up with failure:

  1. Read.
  2. Write.
  3. Fail.
  4. Learn.
  5. Repeat.

It’s as simple, and as difficult, as that.

Sally forth and be failingly writeful, you intrepid writer, you.

You’re Where You Are Because of Who You Are (but that ain’t necessarily a bad thing)

Recently, a blog post caught my eye in which a writer was coming to terms with her station and progressor lack thereofin life, and not a day later two different writers contacted me (one via DM and the other email) expressing similar concerns.

It doesn’t take knowing me long to suss out that I’m not a believer in a great many things. I’m also not the most observant person when it comes to spotting signs, but Life isn’t exactly subtle when it gives you the old elbow to the ribs and suggests you write about a particular topic.

So, this post is dedicated to the older crowdage being relative, of coursewho aren’t quite sure they’re meant to be a writer, despite the deep-down sense that urges them to touch pen to page. Doubt is a bastard of a beast that silently creeps in and builds its nest in your confidence and only rears its ugly head when you look at your writing and whispers, “You aren’t where you should be for someone your age. Maybe you’re just not good at it because a great writerhell, even a competent onewould be further along by now, don’t you think?

This couldn’t be further from the truth.

Writing doesn’t come with a sell-by date and it doesn’t give a damn how long in the tooth you are. Don’t believe me? Do your research. In your info gathering, you’ll no doubt discover that Laura Ingalls Wilder was 60 when she first published her “Little House” series, Raymond Chandler sold his first pulp crime short story at 45, Richard Adams was 50 when “Watership Down” went to press, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. So, the question I put to you is, if they can do it, why can’t you as well?

The mere fact that you’re questioning yourself and your abilities probably means you’re meant to be a writer. And who knows, maybe the words you write will help change the world in some small way or impact the lives of your audience. And even if that isn’t the case, should you feel that something is missing and recognize that the world, in spite of its diversity and splendor, simply is not enough and that your dreams are so much bigger than the reality that surrounds you…why not write about it?

If the yearning is gnawing at your sanity, the onus is on you to hang your self-doubt on the coat rack (don’t worry, you can pick it up on your way out), stuff your excuses in an old cigar box, give perfectionism the night off, mine your soul for inspiration and when you hit a gold vein, start writing. And embrace what comes out. If it’s messy, let it be messy, chaotic, or terrifying, just turn the editor off and keep moving forward. You’ll have plenty of time to edit your piece after you’ve finished writing it.

One last thing before I sign off, whenever I got myself into trouble and grounded as a kid (which happened a lot but don’t judge me…sometimes you have to do a little wrong to know what’s right), my mother used to say, “You’re where you are, because of who you are” and maybe that applies to you when it comes to writing. Perhaps you’re meant to be the age you are at this very moment, filled with your own unique life experiences, to start writing that project that’s been pestering you for so long.

So, push the ages of the recent crop of bestselling authors out of your mind and follow your calling. Comparing the fruits of their labor to your current lack of same is ridiculous (and frankly, their success is none of your goddamned business). All you can do is your best, so get to writing, will ya?

I wish you nothing but the very best of luck in completing your piece (and enjoy the process while you’re at it).

This has been a public service announcement from The Old Geezer’s Unasked For Nickel’s Worth of Free Advise Dispensing Committee.

My Madd Fat Brain Bug: A Story Box Full of Regret

The damnedest thing can place a bug in your brain. Rod Serling is the source of one of mine.

It happened while I was deep within my Twilight Zone infatuation phase, in the prehistoric information days before civilian access to the internet, when I devoured every Serling-related book, article or fanzine I could lay my grubby little mitts on. In one of the pieces, I read how Rod’s widow, Carol, found a number of scripts and stories amongst her late husband’s possessions that were unproduced at the time.

And thus the bug found a home in my grey matter.

I pictured Rod in the final moments before he shuffled off this mortal coil, his gaze sliding across the room until it fell on the closet door, eyes filled with that unique brand of sadness only known to writers. Carol would remember that stare and later be drawn to the closet by a mysterious force that urged her to dig out a box buried deep beneath the material remnants of Rod’s life, shed like so much old skin. A box filled with his regrets, the stories that remained untold, that never found a proper home.

You don’t have to say it, I know that’s all rubbish. Simply me fictionally placing myself in the position of a man I never met. If Rod had any regrets at all, I certainly wasn’t privy to them. But that doesn’t make my brain bug any less real.

You see, I have a box–well, it started off as a file folder and grew into a box–filled with stories in various stages of development. Ideas written on scraps of paper, composition notebooks loaded with concepts and outlines, and completed stories that only exist in paper form–written pre-computer on an Underwood typewriter, circa 1950–as I haven’t gotten down to the laborious task of transferring them to my computer.

I don’t discuss my box much and I only brought it up to respond to an email I recently received (copied and answered here with permission):

I want to write a blog but I’m scared of being exposed and having people judge or attack me because of my opinions and I don’t think I have the writing skills to get my point across in the right way. What gives you the courage to write?

Guess what? Self-doubt and anxiety regarding humiliation and criticism is all part of the process and grist for the mill, so welcome to the club. What separates writers from non-writers is that instead of running away from that fear, we invite it in for wine and cheese. Befriend the beast that frightens you most because there’s a story just waiting to be revealed in that encounter.

It’s true that honest writing takes courage, as does sharing your writing with people who may not be kind in their opinion of it, but you also have to realize that it’s not your job to make people like your writing. Some people will flat out hate it because of your views or your writing style, and because they may not know any better, can possibly hate you because of it. Hopefully, it’ll be the minority. Accept it as an unavoidable truth and move on.

As for the question, “What gives [me] the courage to write?” Everyone has their own reason for writing, and fear of acceptance isn’t high on my list. Sure, it’d be great if the unwashed masses loved my work, but the simple truth is all writing has its audience, whether infinite or infinitesimal, and if you never put your writing out there, there’s no chance in hell of your audience ever finding it.

The real reason I write is because of the aforementioned box. I just don’t want to be lying on my deathbed–hopefully many, many, many years from now–and staring at that damned box full of unwritten stories. I no doubt will have my fair share of regrets in my final days, but I’m determined not to have that box be one of them.

And since we’re on the topic of regrets, I recently read a book, “The Top Five Regrets of the Dying: A Life Transformed by the Dearly Departing” by Bronnie Ware, a palliative care nurse who cited the most common lamentations as being:

  1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
  2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
  3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
  4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
  5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

So, while I can’t offer you reasons why you should write, I can tell you that most of the regrets listed above factor heavily in my need to write.

In closing, someone once wrote, “writing is like getting into a small boat with a wonky paddle and busted compass and setting out on rough waters in search of unknown lands.

So, paddle forth, friends, and be regret-freely writeful.

Text and Audio ©2021 Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys

 

Author’s note: Since I’m never at a loss for ideas, I don’t dip into my story box as much as I’d like to, though I will occasionally post one or two of them on this blog or slip them into or in between current projects. The story idea folder on my computer? That’s a whole different story.

Braiding Tales: We Built a World, Row by Row (a true story)

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“We gave the Future to the winds, and slumbered tranquilly in the Present, weaving the dull world around us into dreams.” ― Edgar Allan Poe, The Mystery of Marie Rogêt

I spent most of my early teens in the Bronx. The street I lived on, corner to corner, ran the length of three average city blocks and was the picture of diversity—the melting pot that New York had become famous for. It was all about migration. Italians were moving to new ground as black people nestled in and on their tail were Hispanics followed by West Indians. It was a neighborhood in transition where multi-cultures learn by cohabitation that differences in race didn’t make a person less human.

It was also the 70’s and I rocked a killer afro to end all ‘fros. Metal pronged afro pick with the handle clenched in a black power fist and a peace symbol carved out on the base, tucked in the back of my hair.

It drove my parents crazy. They rode my back constantly to get it cut but there was that preteen Samsonian fear that the strength of my personality—-my Madd-ness—-would be stripped away, were a barber to lay clippers on my precious locks. When I got the “as long as you’re living under my roof” speech, I knew I needed a solution and I needed it quick.

Enter: Cynthia Holloway. I mentioned my plight in passing and out of nowhere she offered to braid my hair into cornrows. So, we sat on the stoop of a private house and armed with only a comb and hair grease, Cynthia worked her nimble fingers like a loom.

She was one of those neighborhood girls that I’d never really spoken to before outside the odd hello. Not that there was anything wrong with her, she was simply a person that kept herself to herself. The type of person you’d have to make an effort to get to know.

It would take many years for me to become that type of person.

But in sitting with her I discovered she was both intelligent and imaginative, with interesting stories to tell. Her father was a retired Army Ranger colonel, who spent a great deal of his free time on the road in a jazz band.

I’m not sure how much of that was true. No one could ever remember seeing Cynthia’s dad, so maybe it was a story she invented to keep nosy kids at bay. Or perhaps it was one of the quiet lies that parents tell their children to spare them from the harsh realities of troubled marriages.

Since we had nothing but time to kill, we talked about our constricted home lives, mentioned the odd hobby, told a few jokes and had a couple of laughs, and when all the conversation wells had run dry, we told each other stories.

At the end of every month, when the braids began to look a little ratty, I’d take them out and Cynthia met me back on that stoop to repeat the process. And after a brief bit of catch-up, we’d go back to telling each other imaginary stories and without meaning to, wound up designing an illusory sanctuary from the burdens and pains of our everyday pre-teenage lives.

While we mentally terraformed our neighborhood row by cornrow, we got to know each other in those months as the monarchs of our fantasy world. We explored the surroundings, went on adventures, and basically forgot the world for a few hours a month.

Come the fifth month, I sat on the stoop and waited, my hair a wild crop of imagination waiting to be plowed, but Cynthia never showed. I later learned from a friend of a friend’s sister that she and her mother had moved away in the middle of the night without telling a soul where they were headed.

I tried to imagine all the possible reasons that would cause them to make a hurried escape under the cloak of twilight and seriously hoped it had nothing to do with her retired-Army-Ranger-colonel-jazz-band-dad. Nothing negative, anyway.

And yes, I eventually had no other choice than to submit to the butcher shop barbershop haircut. Much to my surprise, I managed to retain all of my Madd-ness afterward. I was still filled with my nerdy sameness and when I missed her a bit, I’d sometimes sit on the stoop and give an imaginary Cynthia updates on the latest goings-on in the world we created.

Thanks for humoring me as I wool-gathered.

PS. Cyn, if through some bizarre happenstance you should come across this, hit me up real quick. There’s a world in some need of serious upkeep.

The One Sentence You Should Get Used to When First Starting Out

You’ve done your research, worked your mental fingers to the bone, and devoted all your time, energy and attention to detail into nailing the anatomy, structure and formatting of your very first short story/novel/poetry piece/article/screenplay, before sending it out for mass consumption.

And you wait, and wait, and wait, and wait for a response. When it finally arrives, your eyes will skim over the body of the letter and lock in on one sentence:

“After reviewing your work, we’ve decided that it isn’t a good fit for us and we’re going to have to pass.”

Don’t let that sentence shake you. Very rarely is a writer’s first written work good enough to be marketable. It takes experience to craft a truly sellable piece, experience you’ll earn by pressing on. This written piece leads to a second and a third and eventually you’ll find an editor, publisher or what have you that believes in your potential.

Write until you get it right.

Sally forth and be writeful.

— Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys

Simple Anatomy of a Plot Outline

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Somewhere between the synopsis and the treatment lies the plot outline, also known as a one page. Typically one-to-three pages in length, the plot outline is the bare bones of your story before it’s fleshed out with action description and dialogue.

Although there are no hard and fast rules on the level of detail that should be included, a standard plot outline generally contains:

  1. The protagonist and their goal.
  2. The antagonist and their goal.
  3. The supporting cast and their main wants.
  4. The five major plot points (as mentioned in a previous post)
  5. The order of events and sequences.
  6. A list of scenes that properly convey the story.

And if want to keep the anatomy of a plot outline in mind but you happen to be the forgetful type, have I got just the t-shirt for you: Plot Outline Tee (Hey, don’t even @ me. There’s no point in having a blog if you can’t indulge in a little shameless promotion every now and again).

Sally forth and be writeful.

Skip The Tell And Bring On The Show

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“Show, don’t tell” is one of those bits of advice that gets handed to aspiring writers in writing courses, advice columns, blogs, seminars, and while it may seem simple on the surface, many scribes can’t differentiate the two in their own work.

Telling a story is the blunt delivery of facts. “She was pretty.” “He was hungry.” “They were angry.” Yes, it does get straight to the heart of the matter, which makes it ideal for journalism and academia. But for prose it’s too antiseptic and puts distance between your work and your audience. Your goal as a writer is to immerse the audience into the world and allow them to experience things, people and places for themselves.

How does pretty look on this woman? Is it in the way her terracotta hair carelessly cascades over her delicate shoulders? Or do her eyes have a certain indefinable sparkle to them, making them alluring and sensual, with a touch of mischief? How would you describe hunger? The growling of a stomach and salivation in response to the Pavlovian stimuli of the school lunch bell? And anger, believe it or not, offers you a larger palette to paint from when you explore the other emotions—hurt, fear, grief, exhaustion—at play within it.

So, how do you bring the “show” into your writing?

1. Dialogue – This is the easiest way to let your audience experience a character’s mood and emotions. The catch is to avoid “on the nose” dialogue (I’ll get more into this in another post) which simply means having a character say exactly what they mean. Not only is it bland and boring, it’s unrealistic. In real life people speak in subtext, hinting and beating around the bush, secretly nudging conversation toward what they want to know and even then have to decipher the other person’s true meaning.

2. Sensory language – Using words and details to add color and depth to writing by appealing to your audience’s senses (sight, touch, taste, hearing, smell, emotion) in order to let them fully experience what you’re writing about.

3. More descriptive, less adjectives – The tendency of most fledgling writers is to slap a string of adjectives together to describe an action or scene. But being descriptive is actually about selecting the right words and using them in moderation to put your meaning across. Remember: Adjectives tell. Verbs show.

4. Be specific – Want to frustrate your audience? Try using fuzzy language. Offering up vague sentences like, “It was a pleasant night”, “She was a strange-looking girl”, “His life was a mess”, doesn’t serve you as a writer. Why not invest the time and effort into describing the feeling of a scene and working out the best way convey it to your audience?

Does this mean everything you write should be “showing”? Of course not. Especially when you’re dealing with the dull bits of the story such as travel, transitions, unimportant characters, etc. Instead of boring your audience by expounding on necessary but not particularly interesting details, just say it and move on.

Speaking of moving on, I’m out of here. Sally forth and be writeful.