Your Story Submission is Just an Audition

Journey III was listening to an interview of actor David Tennant (Dr. Who, Jessica Jones) the other day and he said something I think we’d all benefit in hearing.

Tennant was recapping his successful acting career and mentioned that he’d had to audition for a part recently, which was something he hadn’t done in a long time. Successful actors often get to skip the audition given their status as a known commodity, so an audition is rarely required. Tennant is a very funny man, and his story harbored no malice or jealousy, but he did mention in passing how an audition is very competitive, and that on this day he was bested by someone else who showed up and did a better job.

This made me think about the process of getting published.

As writers most of us are unknown. We send our little envoy along, our speaking part if you will, in hopes of impressing an editor enough to put our story in their publication. When the story comes back rejected, we feel a wash of negative emotion, from despair to disgust to anger, and believe simultaneously that the editor is a fool and we are delusional to think we’d ever succeed at writing in the first place.

But what if we had to audition? What if we had to physically carry our story in hand, down the littered sidewalk and into narrow alleys, up steep stairs into a crowded room with chairs lining the walls, nowhere to sit, the competition staring into our faces with polite contempt while we wait for our name to be called. During the wait, our resolve diminishes. Fatigue sets in as we study the pages in our hands – our best work. How embarrassing. The room is warm, stuffy, the air disgusting as we breathe in the fear and self-loathing of everyone else, just as they breathe in ours. And finally our name is called, and we step behind the door with the frosted glass window, the loose glass rattling once as the door shuts too loudly behind us. Seated at a table in what amounts to a tiny classroom are three strangers, experts, who are about to listen to us read our story, judge us to our faces, letting us know as we finish that they will be in touch.

At home we are sure others must have done better. In excitable moments we rise in the feeling that maybe, this time, we did it right. We remember how we stumbled in our reading, how we misspoke the line when Clara revealed to her mother that she was contemplating a divorce. How could we have botched such an important moment?

When the call comes, sorry, we’ve chosen a different option. Please contact us again for future opportunities. Spurned, we are outwardly grateful for the opportunity. Will try again soon. Have a lovely day. And then for an hour, we completely give up.

Thank God it isn’t quite like that. Writers are spared the physical confrontation with our judges. Our envoy makes the trip for us, and stands in for our audition beside hundreds of others. Once in a while, we get the part.

Every successful actor is no different from every successful writer. Whether by person or pen they showed up, did their best, walked away for a time to return once more and try again. This is you. Many times you will be bested. But show up for each opportunity, again and again. Get better. One day you will get the part. Each chance is only one audition. Whether you failed or succeeded the time before, remember that it’s the next time that matters most.

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Des Fruites de Mer – A Poem

Des fruits de mer

 
I knelt beside a tide pool, cold,
the brackish water swirling black,
and studied there a fragile skirt,
a disembodied jelly head.
And I in giving nothing much
toward purchase price of this event,
paid my respects to that great sea,
its living things, as well as dead.

Then at once the abandoned shell
of a red abalone snail
blushed brightly in the dragging surf
and took me near the water’s edge.
This I gathered to carry home.
And there with treasures standing by,
one in the hand, one in the mind,
I thought upon the bounty that
the sea had given me that day –
a shell, the surf, a spray of mist,
salt on my tongue, the sting, the taste.

But best of all, with its great eye,
did judge my worth, no more, no less
than any other passerby,
and blessed with memory instead,
a tattered hood – a jelly, dead.

*Poem originally published in the Summer 2014 California Writers Club Literary Review

The Update Blog: Just where have I been lately?

reflection

I have to admit, it isn’t always easy keeping up with a blog. It’s not like I’ve been gone a lot (I was gone a little) or that my life had a major change (well, it sort of did) or that I was in the hospital.

I have been around, but . . .

What has kept me from keeping to a regular blog schedule? I blame it on Twitter. In this sea of information that we are all floating in, with the many platforms flooding our lives with information of all sorts, it’s more important than ever to try and say things that really matter. After all it seems everyone is saying something, so why should I be adding one more roaring thought to the information highway unless I think it’s worth being said? Carry that idea one step further and consider what one can (and cannot) do with Twitter. Rather than write four to eight hundred words every day I can write one hundred forty characters and be done. Off it goes, the best bit of wisdom I can muster in the smallest moment, and if it’s worth a damn then someone might notice.

At the risk of sounding jaded by overload I acknowledge that the blog is still a viable source of information. In fact, according to a recent article I read on social media, it seems the longer an article is the more likely it is to be shared. It seems the pain of reading a long essay is so masochistically intense that we all want to share it with those we love.  It makes me wonder whether everyone is really reading, and preferring, longer articles. I am suspicious. The imp on my shoulder tells me some of you are hoping your friends will read the behemoth and then tell you what it was about when you ask for their opinion. It’s a form of cheating on the exam, I suppose, but we humans are prone to taking shortcuts when we think we can get away with it. Still, Twitter has a lot of appeal and it’s where I’ve been spending a lot of my time . . .

One shortcut we cannot take is in reading the tome of a book I am attempting to read. As with eating an elephant (and truly that task might be far easier in the long run, though ultimately not as enjoyable) I am consuming David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. The book is elephantine if you don’t already know, full of pages and pages. These pages contain characters, plots, subplots, lots of big words, looping inter-connectivity, and footnotes aplenty. I don’t know that I will honestly finish it, but it isn’t a bad read.  It’s just so hard to physically hold onto for very long.

I have been on a DFW binge lately. I recently read Every Love Story is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace and a book of interviews of him as well. I do this – I become infatuated with a writer every so often and I binge on everything I can get. This is one of the things I have been doing with my time rather than writing blogs. If you like Wallace’s writing, or even if you don’t, his life story is complexly entertaining and tragically sad. I do recommend it.

As it appears we are in the update portion of this blog entry I suppose I should mention that I have a short story coming out in January. I haven’t said much about it yet because January seems like a long, long way off. I’ll make a bigger deal about it in, like, December when things appear almost impossible to fall through.

And, finally, I have been revising the current novel in hopes of getting it to an editor this summer. It’s coming along fine – thank you for asking!

Meanwhile, my writer friends elsewhere are enjoying some successes of their own. J.S. Collyer is debuting her novel Zero this August, and David Michael Williams had his story “Going Viral” honorably mentioned in L. Ron Hubbard’s Writers of the Future contest.

So stuff is happening. I hope everyone will keep sifting through the avalanche, keep reading. There is a lot to wade through but once in a while we find what we’re looking for and happiness happens.

See you out there.

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Feedback Rejections! (An editor responds)

I knew going into the writing life that eventually I would want to try and publish, and I knew also that getting published was difficult and that rejection was part of the process.  A lot of rejection.  A lot.  I mean it.

I didn’t know how much a lot of rejection was (I still don’t) even though I had heard that so-and-so famous writer got rejected ### of times before being published, or that famous novel TITLE GOES HERE was harshly shot down ### times before finding a home and infamy in the annals of literary successes.  For my part I have been rejected, oh let’s say my liberal estimation is thirty times — ever.  That’s not “a lot” I don’t think.  That’s quite reasonable actually, if you consider that every unpublished writer in the world is so much clover in the field, and even if one is born with four leaves it takes a mighty long time – or a stroke of luck – to get discovered quickly.

This is not to say that every single rejection is easy to accept just because it’s one of a relative few.  No, every rejection is a disorienting smack in the chops.  Every rejection feels like all rejection, and in the hours after that dull, dim letter crosses your desk the pursuit of writing feels hopeless and completely void of meaning.

One of my first rejections came from a magazine called “Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Fantasy Magazine.”  I knew very little about the publishing world back then and what I received when that rejection letter came in was the now-familiar form response letting me know that the magazine editors appreciated the chance to read my stuff and thanks for submitting but this isn’t right for us at this time, etc.  But unlike the other letters I was getting there was something else.  In the lower section of the page, below the short-and-to-the-point form copy of the rejection, was a handwritten comment.

I didn’t know it at the time, but this was the rarest of rejections.  An actual, helpful, critical response from a real live person.  In this case the person was none other than Zimmer Bradley herself!  In my naivete all I saw was a rejection, and though I was impressed that a real live celebrity author took the time to comment on my work (and send along an autograph via the signed comment) I took for granted that this sort of thing was the norm.

A few years later I submitted another story to another mag, not so famous, and when the inevitable rejection came once again there was an editorial comment attached.  With so few attempts and so little experience in the time of my efforts I continued to assume that this was normal.  But it isn’t . . .

This week I received a rejection, and once again it came with an editorial comment.  I knew this one was coming.  Not the rejection necessarily, but the editorial should the piece get rejected.  Yes, I finally realized (a while ago) that any response one might get from a potential publisher is nothing less than pixie dust, liquid gold, diamonds and rubies, dragon scales, and sometimes even the Crown Jewels.  When I saw in the submission guidelines that this publication offered feedback on rejections I submitted to them just for the sake of their response.  I didn’t even care whether the story was a fit.  Someone who knew the biz was going to tell me something that I couldn’t see for myself – and I was going to benefit from it.  Here’s what they said (parenthetical additions are mine):

“I liked the voice and the sense of detail, but the initial focus on description, for example of the (such and such) and of the appearances of (character 1) and especially (character 2), made the pace feel slower there than I needed at the opening of the tale.”

That’s it, nothing more specific about what worked and what did not, but oh the nectar contained in this tiny flower!  Here’s what I took from these comments:

1) The editor liked the voice of the story.  Hey!  I can live with that.  Voice is critical and to have that component down is something to be proud of – this guy is a professional after all and that’s a compliment to me.

2) Successful use of detail.  Ok!  I suspected that I had a good description of things going on: setting, mood, the things that make the story materialize off the page, and this confirmed it.  Score.

3) Looks like I got myself in trouble with too much detail early on, however, spending too many precious words on set up that didn’t need to happen.  The story got off to a slow start and for short fiction that’s a mistake.  My use of detail in this case was a boon and a bust.

The good news?  I now have a good idea about how to revise this story and get it a little closer to success.  Coincidentally this story is the same one that elicited the unexpected comments of the editor following Zimmer Bradley.  I like to think, with a little more work, I might have a winner here.

In conclusion, every rejection is a chance to get better.  You never know when the next one might come with a valuable editorial clue about how to improve your work.  Take heart when this happens.  So rare is this in the publishing world that, truly, it is the next best thing to acceptance.