Ahead of the Curve

This blog is updated every Monday at 6pm. To the reader of any regular publication, it should seem as though the content trickles out on a predictable basis. But that rarely happens in practice.

English: Question Mark
English: Question Mark (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In my case, I’m sometimes able to plan two or three entries ahead, or I have difficulty deciding what to leave out. Other times, I’m still deciding on a subject or writing an entry a few hours before it’s due to be published.

This week has fallen firmly into the second category, bringing little writing news, other than a rejection e-mail that simply said: ‘Gavin. Clever, but not quite what we are looking for.’

So rather than swerve off-topic for the sake of making an entry, I was going to leave this one here and think about next week’s content.

That was until I learnt that my friends at The Beans Podcast had a worse week than I did. They’ve lost an entire episode.

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Edditing Other Peoples Piece’s

A couple of friends have recently asked me to look over pieces they’ve written. At one time, it would have been difficult for me to do this as I didn’t like to give negative feedback. Having received honest critiques of my own work, I now feel comfortable about identifying areas of improvement in others’ work and making suggestions for improvement.

Firstly, I received an 11-line poem. Among other suggestions: I could see that each line began with a capital letter even in run-on sentences, which is unconventional in modern poetry; I swapped around a couple of clauses to create a stronger image; and I broke up the poem into three stanzas instead of one. These suggestions are partly personal preferences, but they’re informed by reading a lot of poetry and considering what works well and not so well.

Editing film at the Lubin film studio in Philadelphia, 1914. A reel hard job.
Editing film at the Lubin film studio in Philadelphia, 1914. A reel difficult job.

The other piece I looked over was an application for a university course, and I had help from a friend who has experience in this field. In this instance, I didn’t know all the specialist terminology or concepts, but there were aspects common to most writing styles that I could point out: using shorter paragraphs to create more negative space, which is easier on the eye; thoroughly checking spelling and grammar, for which I suggested reading the piece out loud while alone; and moving a certain project nearer the top of the application as it stood out among the others.

Ultimately, the writer has the final call on how to present their own piece. As such, I made it clear that the corrections were merely suggestions.

There is always a risk that the other party will react badly or become disheartened, particularly if you don’t know each other very well. It’s impossible to police another person’s feelings, but there are ways to make an unfavourable outcome feel less harsh. A classic is the Bad News Sandwich: a positive greeting, the negative result, a positive next step. Here’s a rejection e-mail I received last year:

Thank you for entering the August 50 Word Fiction Competition.

Unfortunately, your story was not selected as the winner this month. It was another very busy month and very difficult decision for our judges.

If you’d like to enter again, we’d love to see your words.

So when I close that message, I don’t think What an arrogant bunch, I think, I’ll up my game for September.

Game over. Try again?

Over the last three weeks, I’ve received two similar e-mails from two completely different publishers. They were both rejections, but each invited me to submit another piece for their respective next issues.

The first of these was a bulk message, but sent only to selected writers. This group invite experimental and unclassifiable work, so while I’m particularly pleased they liked what they saw, I’m unsure if I’ll have anything else quite so nonconformist. The other place sent a personal thanks, and as it’s more mainstream, it shouldn’t be too difficult to resubmit.

I’m reminded of when I submitted one of my novels to a publisher. They liked the first three chapters enough to ask for the rest of it. They ultimately turned me down as they felt the plot didn’t place the character in enough peril. But they did it in such a constructive manner that I felt I could raise my game and resubmit it, even when I thought it couldn’t be improved upon.

Sometimes it’s just a matter of waiting before a second chance comes along, although James Jones didn’t live to see his reprieve. In 1951, he fought to keep the swearing and gay content in his novel From Here to Eternity, but his publishers wouldn’t allow it. By 2011, times and attitudes had changed, and the uncensored book was finally made available.

More E-Rejection™ Slips.

A couple of months ago, I discussed the content of rejection slips, or their modern electronic equivalent, which I’ve dubbed E-Rejection™ slips. In that entry, I discussed the feedback to one of my stories, The Strange Case of Mr Brown. I felt the editors had missed the point of the story by their response.

Last weekend, I received another E-Rejection™ from a local publication, and the sender told me that one of the two pieces had been discussed until a late stage in the decision making process, but both had ultimately been refused. That piece was The Strange Case of Mr Brown.

The latest slip didn’t provide any other information about either piece, but I had faith in Mr Brown. It’s written from the point of view of a lawyer in the late 1800s, so it has a certain period style that needs to be believable but understandable to a 21st century audience.

Yet there is such a fine line between self-belief and self-delusion, and not just in writing. It’s terrifically difficult to judge yourself honestly. Just look at the singers on talent shows who are so convinced they’re the next big thing while missing every note.

I’ve considered the question of how to decide whether your self-belief is justified or not. There is probably no single good way, but it’s worth examining any recurring themes in your feedback. If editors or reviewers have different negative comments to make, you probably haven’t made a complete hash of it. But if they all focus in on one or two negative aspects, then there’s a chance you need to put it more work.

One recurring theme I find is that editors like my writing style, but feel that the plot never took off. That often spurs me on to add twists that I otherwise wouldn’t have felt the need to include.

But if you have a better way of using feedback to your advantage, I’d like to hear it.

Dissecting Two E-rejection™ Slips.

If you’re a writer, feedback is a great thing, although less so if you’re a sound engineer. But the quality can vary considerably. Let’s consider two of my recent rejection slips, or the e-mail equivalent thereof. I think I’ll trademark the term e-rejection™.

We’ll endure the bad one first.

An anthology publisher sent me an e-rejection™ to my short story The Strange Case of Mr Brown, with the opinions of three readers.

Two of them commented that the story was bland, but neither of them offered up any specifics about why they thought so. With that information, I could have refined the weak parts. The third one pointed out that the eponymous Mr Brown had an eidetic memory, and that this case wasn’t strange, but I believe the reviewer missed the point that the, “case,” also referred to an unusual court hearing.

And now for something a lot better.

Some time ago, I sent a synopsis of my novel Fifty Million Nicker to an publisher. Less than two weeks later, they asked for the whole shebang.

In the e-rejection™, they told me that they felt the story didn’t take off and lacked a sense of drama or excitement. But they planted a useful nugget halfway through that summed up the areas for improvement: “You needed to surprise us with unexpected twists, and real obstacles, and genuine peril for the protagonist to overcome.”

Essentially, they were telling me to up my game, and I agreed with 90% of the criticism. I’d spent so long honing and polishing it that I’d never stepped back and considered if I could improve the actual story. And I’m now halfway through rewriting the some of the sections.

The common thread.

Both publishers commented that they liked my writing style, the latter even stated they would be happy to consider future work. When I write, I work to the principle that a sentence is only successful when you understand it after one reading. So it annoys me when I read a headache like this: “He knew that she wanted him to think that she had failed to call his bluff.” That’s not from a real book, thank goodness.

If you’re a publisher and want to slate consider the aforementioned works, I’m happy to send them on.