One of the first rules I learned as a writer is when it comes time to submit your work–to a fellow writer, a writing group, and most especially an editor–make sure your copy is as clean as possible. Does formatting meet requirements? Is there word repetition? Are you prone to incomplete or run-on sentences? Is there consistency in the world you’ve created. (One of my favorite inconsistent moments occurs in the movie “The Mummy.” Why does Evelyn (wonderfully played by Rachel Weisz) need glasses when working in the museum library, but is never again seen wearing them?)
And dear God in Heaven: do not, under any circumstances, rely on spell-check to save your ass.
Have enough respect for the work (not to mention other writers, editors, readers, and–oh, yeah–yourself) to pick over the manuscript like you’re combing for nits. Endeavor to let nothing escape notice because, honestly? Things will. You’ll grow tired and your eyes will slide over mistakes. Errors will creep in despite your best intentions, but that’s no reason to be lazy in the first place.
To paraphrase a remark once made to me by writer Harlan Ellison: Perfection is probably forever beyond our grasp, but we do our best to get as close to it as we can.
That being said: Don’t slack off. Give your best effort every single time. Work to the best of your ability, and if your ability isn’t very good, then work to improve it. Love the craft. Honor it.
Or leave it.
I made the decision yesterday to walk away from Facebook. I don’t know yet if this break is temporary, as I’ve done in the past, or permanent, and I’m not wasting much time thinking about it.
Back in the day, FB was a fun place to connect with long-distance friends and family, reconnect with people from my past, and make new acquaintances. Now–as I’m sure you’ve observed–it’s largely a format for political diatribe, hate messages, finger-pointing, and laying blame.
There are positive messages as well–I don’t mean to imply that there aren’t–and people engaged in doing positive work on both sides of the fence to ease the turmoil that’s erupted in the wake of the latest U.S. presidential election. Unfortunately, as is often the case, the mudslingers are the ones who get the most attention.
So, I’m taking a break. I will continue to do what I can, in my own small way. I will donate to those causes I feel are worthy. I will speak out when I think I have something important to say. I will strive to be polite enough to give every side an opportunity to state its beliefs, and hope they will offer me the same courtesy.
And I will continue to hope, and to believe in the essential goodness of humanity. Perhaps one day soon, people still stop to draw breath, and think on these words, penned by Abraham Lincoln, who anticipated even then the brutal war in which the United States would soon be engaged:
(For a look at this in detail, please read this opinion piece from NPR.)
It’s a quandary to me–and likely to most writers–how one story can flow from your brain and through your fingers to the keyboard with hardly any effort at all, while others are like the largest breech-birth on record.
Sometimes it’s a question of finding your voice. I experienced that while writing THE MAN WHO LOVED ELEPHANTS. For the longest time, it felt as though I was dryly reporting events to the reader rather than showing them as they occurred. Once I found my voice–or, rather, Roger’s voice–the story came together with astonishing speed and ease.
Conversely, I’m working on something now–might wind up as a short story; possibly a novella–that’s been plaguing me for ages. I’m making progress, but it’s in inches rather than leaps and bounds. That’s okay, because at least progress is being made. Writing always feels like work–it should, because it is–but this feels like WORK. Once it’s finished, though, what a sense of accomplishment there’ll be.
I found myself thinking about that question this morning as I worked on the third … no, wait … probably seventh incarnation of a bit of flash fiction.
The story began a few years ago as something much longer, but never went anywhere after the first dozen pages or so. This made me sad, because I like the idea behind it a lot and I’ve grown very fond of my main characters. Because writers get rid of nothing, I filed the story with the idea of revisiting it every now and then to see if the characters had anything new to say. Eventually, I plucked them out of that story and set them down in a piece I did for The Exquisite Project. Now I’m working on it again, expanding it a bit, following the trail of breadcrumbs the characters have left behind.
There are writers who never edit their work. I don’t know whether this is because a) they aren’t certain how to go about it; b) they’re afraid of facing the work again–after all, writing can be damned difficult; or c) they’re convinced their prose is so golden, sprouting unblemished from the brow of Zeus, that it needs no revision.
On that last one? They’re wrong.
I’ve heard of writers–the late Isaac Asimov comes to mind–who legend says could sit down at their keyboard, whack out a story, stick it in an envelope, and it was all good-to-go, destined to be sold. That isn’t me, nor is it any of the writers I know, whether personally or only through their stories. There’s always room for improvement.
So how many drafts are enough? The answer is in the question: however many it takes. That’s infuriatingly enigmatic for those of you who want a concrete answer, but it’s as solid as you’re going to get. Every piece of writing is different, but I’ve never written anything that wasn’t improved by time and editing.
In the first flush of completing a new story, you’re in love. You’ve written the next Great American Novel or Pulitzer Prize-winner! You just know it! My advice? Go take a long, cold shower. Put the story away for a few days, maybe as long as a week, and then come back to it with a fresh–and critical–eye. Trust me, you’ll find things that’ll make you cringe.
I can sometimes nail down a story in as little as four revisions, but seven seems to be my lucky number. However, my latest book, narrative nonfiction titled The Man Who Loved Elephants, went through eight revisions before I felt confident enough to offer it to agents. (Thank you, Bonnie Solow, for believing in this project!)
It takes time and effort to develop confidence in writing, let alone editing. It takes much practice, and it helps if you have other writers willing to critique your work with honest eyes–meaning not people who think your worst garbage deserves a gold star. It’s painful to realize, but it’s also growth to accept that some stories aren’t meant to be. I have a trunk manuscript of a novel I was convinced was going to be terrific. Three hundred pages–and many edits–later, I realized it was a muddy pile of dreck. There are good bits in it which I may use one day, and that’s why I’ve saved the manuscript. Among other things, writers are scavengers.
But you can also over-edit. Beware the EEL, the Endless Editing Loop, where you think that “just one more tweak” will somehow make the magic happen. It could be that the piece was never really very good and you should have abandoned it ages ago, chalking it up to experience. What’s more likely is that you’ve ruined what had been a fine bit of story-telling and it’s going to take even more work to go backward and try to salvage it … assuming you should.
My advice? Start something new. Always start something new.
What are you waiting for?
“Nothing is wasted when you are a writer. The stuff that doesn’t work has to be written to make way for the stuff that might; often you need to take the long way round. And … you’re bound to discover things about yourself you didn’t realize before, may indeed prefer never to have known …”
— Abigail Thomas, What Comes Next and How to Love It
The good news is that I’m healthy at last. I wasn’t sure it was going to happen. I’ve been sick before, but never has anything been so persistent as this last round of whatever it was. Four weeks it went on. But, you know, even that had an upside – at least I didn’t catch the stomach bug that’s going around (touch wood).
Another good–no, GREAT!–thing that happened is this:
Congratulations to Stacey and Jason at Books & Boos Press, and congratulations to my fellow authors in this project. Well done, us! A ginormous THANK YOU! to everyone who voted for us.
With the new year comes a new round of book submissions via my lovely agent Bonnie Solow. Fingers crossed that we connect with an editor who’ll love and nurture THE MAN WHO LOVED ELEPHANTS. (In case anyone’s interested, I’d prefer one of these two pictures for the cover:
The not-so-great news is that I woke this morning to another story rejection. Not a great thing to see first thing, but I took it on the chin and am determined to get two out to magazines this week, plus work on two more in the pipeline. Also cruising for a new book topic, something narrative nonfiction, if anyone wants to send ideas my way.
Hope this finds you well. However you plan to spend Inauguration Day, I wish you peace.
Apparently it wasn’t enough that I’ve been battling “le crud” for nearly three weeks. The universe also felt it necessary to shoot three more book rejections across my bow, plus a short story rejection.
On the other hand, I was guest blogger on Jeanne Melanson’s “Animal Bliss,” writing about our recent experience with canine epilepsy, and received this most welcome note from her:
Your Canine Epilepsy post was included in a “Favorite Dog Articles of the Week” roundup post on Puppy Leaks (.com). Your post is mentioned in one of the blog comments as well.
Bravo, girl! Oh, how fun.
And, as a response to the rejections, that short story has gone out this morning to another magazine. Never say die.
Round about 2010–I don’t recall the exact date and don’t have time to look it up–the blog I was writing on WordPress began to slowly turn in the direction of Alzheimer’s as this debilitating disease took over my mother’s life and the lives of all who loved her. Over the course of five years, I wrote about it more and more, until I wound up changing the title of the blog to “The Wild Ride” and focused almost exclusively on this journey Mom and I were taking together. A lot of kind readers walked beside us during that time, sharing their experiences and–bless them–offering me emotional support.
Mom died on June 7, 2015 and was laid to rest with my dad in the veteran’s cemetery in Schuylerville, NY. Since then, I don’t think a day has gone by that I haven’t missed her.
I expected to, but I wasn’t prepared for how big a hole would be left when she was gone. For the last two years of her life–give or take a few months–I was her caretaker, both at home and also when she, unfortunately, had to enter a nursing home. I was with her daily, for hours at a time. Still, I wasn’t prepared.
I figured that, sure, I’ll miss her for about a year and then it’ll go. It didn’t. And it still hasn’t. It’s particularly tough now, as Christmas approaches, because this was always her favorite holiday and she put a lot into it–cooking, baking, buying gifts, wrapping, decorating, playing music on the stereo, and watching her beloved “Miracle on 34th Street.” (The original, not any of the make-over abominations.)
In observing my own grief, and the grief of others–friends and family who have lost those dear to them–I’ve come to understand that it never goes away entirely. Sometimes it’s a guilty grief–“Did I do enough? Could I have done more? I wish I hadn’t done xyz.” Sometimes it’s “just” sorrow. I’ve noticed how it changes over time … or has for me, at least. It isn’t as sharp-edged as it once was, although it still has the ability to make me weep. The longing to see my mom one more time can be overwhelming.
But not as she was. I wouldn’t want that. I wouldn’t want her to have to endure one more day of the Hell she found herself locked in. But if I could turn back the clock and give her a moment in the snow again, and see her smile, I’d do it in a heartbeat.
I’m not sure there’s a point to what I’m writing here, except to say we all grieve. We have that in common, among other things. So let’s be kind to ourselves, and kind to one another. Let’s not play “My grief is bigger than yours.” This isn’t a contest anyone should want to win.
And to those who remain untouched by grief, count yourselves lucky. Don’t look down on those who feel it. Don’t denigrate. Don’t say things like, “You should be over it by now” or “But it was only a (fill in the blank – dog, cat, horse, parrot, goldfish.” Love is love, grief is love, and no one should judge the length of yours.
I’ve been laying a bit low these past couple of weeks. You’re familiar with the drill: the hoopla of Thanksgiving leading to the crest of the hill you barrel down until you smack into Christmas like the landlady in Kung Fu Hustle sailing into the billboard. (Click the link; you’ll see what I mean.)
Add to this that I’ve been a bit tense … anticipatory, really … because the proposal for The Man Who Loved Elephants had gone out to a few editors before the Christmas publishing holidays. I feel strongly about the quality of this book and its historical value, as well as its hopeful look at the future of elephant conservation.
So far, the editors haven’t agreed with me.
I’ve been writing long enough that I take criticism and rejection on the chin most days. You can’t be an artist or performer of any kind and maintain a fragile ego. The two just don’t go together. Still, receiving five rejections in a single day was a bit … disappointing.
These were not “thanks, but no thanks” rejections. The editors took time to write out their thoughts about the book and give actual reasons for turning it down. This is a courtesy I truly appreciate, though it didn’t make the sting any less.
I’ll be honest – I cried. For about fifteen seconds. Then I heard THAT VOICE rising from the back of my brain. You know the one, the monkey-mind that snatches opportunities like this one to remind you of how worthless you are. I heard her start to open her big mouth, and I said, “Phyllis, shut the hell up.” (Well, I didn’t say hell … And, yes, I’ve given my deprecating inner voice a name so that when I tell her to can it, she knows I’m speaking to her. It works.) (And, yes, if you want details as to why I’ve done something that on the surface probably sounds wonky, shoot me a message and I’ll tell you.)
Anyway, she did as I asked. And in that silence, I heard myself say, “Screw them.” (No, I didn’t say screw, either). “I’m not giving up.” I gave myself permission to feel my bruises, and then I went to bed. I slept soundly and woke the next morning to plunk myself back at the computer because THAT, dear friends, is what it’s all about.