overcoming rejection

May 1, 2013

Monday, I posted about my copious collection of rejection slips.  How did I get out of the rejection grind and start selling stories?  I can pinpoint three things.  And they’re not about networking, building an author platform (that concept didn’t even exist 15 years ago), changing the way I submitted, having an inside track, or anything.  They’re all about craft.

In 1998 I attended the Odyssey Writing Workshop and I give it and its director Jeanne Cavelos a lot of credit for kicking my ass and helping me get my first sales.  The two most important things I learned at Odyssey:

Plot 

This isn’t so much what the story is about.  This is about how the story is structured to pull the reader through it.  To make sure that there’s something in the story — a question raised, suspense created — that means readers won’t stop once they start.  This is also about the “so what” factor.  What’s important about this story, why am I writing it, and how can I get that across?  Why should the reader care?  Turns out, this is one of the things that separates good stories from “meh” stories, and great stories from the merely good.  At Odyssey, Jeanne made me analyze some Ray Bradbury stories for plot.  It turns out, even stories where nothing much happens can have plot.  This was a revelation.

Revision

I write shitty first drafts.  Turns out, I’d been submitting shitty first drafts for ten years.  Now, I know there are some vocal proponents out there of the “don’t rewrite” philosophy.  People who feel that revising kills stories, or who cling to that step in Heinlein’s Rules — “You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order.”  Well, you have to actually catch an editor’s attention before you’ll ever get an editorial order, and you’re not going to do that with a shitty first draft.  Odyssey prompted me to revise stories for the first time — really revise, take them apart, rewrite them from scratch.  My last week at the workshop, Jeanne said these magic words:  “Your revisions are so much better.”  And they are.

For me, learning to revise involved looking at my stories from the reader’s point of view, and realizing that what I had on the page, or what I thought I had on the page, was not what my readers were getting.  I wasn’t making myself clear.  I wasn’t getting across the story in the best way possible.  The first draft is the brain dump, getting down the ideas and scenes and structure and heart.  The second draft is making sure it all makes sense to the reader.  The good news is, over time I’ve internalized a lot of revision techniques.  I no longer have to cut the first five pages of every story because I’ve learned to just start writing later instead of messing around with unnecessary early stuff.  Experience has taught me how to get a lot of this right on the first draft.  But I still ask a lot of questions of my writing and I still work hard at looking at it fresh, as a new reader.

Most editors have a choice — publish the story that’s already great, rather than try to work with a story that’s only kinda good but has potential.  In close to 70 short story sales, I can count on my hands the number of times I’ve gotten “editorial orders.”  Might as well make that story great before sending it out, yeah?

I made my first pro sale less than a year after attending Odyssey.  But I wasn’t finished learning.  Here’s the big one, I think.  The one that took years to learn.  The one I have no idea how to explain.

Voice

Voice is confidence.  It’s personality.  Voice convinces the reader you know what the hell you’re talking about.  Voice makes it real.  Perfectly clear, yeah?

Voice is also a matter of taste.  To me, writers like Toni Morrison and Peter Beagle just sing.  But I know they don’t do that for everyone.  You are never going to appeal to absolutely everyone with your writing.  You will drive yourself mad trying.  This is why we talk about finding your voice.  Because that’s what you have that no other writer has, and you’re not going to make anyone happy, least of all yourself, if you’re writing to fill some external mold.

Kitty taught me a lot about voice.  That character is so well defined, so chatty, so vivid — I have to be confident when I’m writing her.  I have to be absolutely sure what’s going on with her, all the time, and then get that across.  In the course of writing about her, I’ve been able to bring that confidence to a lot of my other stories.  It’s kind of like jumping into the deep end and just knowing I can swim.

My stories don’t all have the same specific “voice,” I think.  My World War II stories necessarily sound different from my stories set in the Renaissance, or the contemporary urban fantasy stories.  But I also think they’re all identifiably mine.  There’s a quality to the language and characters that comes out of experience, practice, my own philosophies, and over time has turned into a spine that goes through all my writing.

“Voice” was never something I worked on or practiced.  It happened over time.  I’m still learning, still getting better, and recently my writing seems to have taken another major step forward — some of the best short stories I’ve ever written I’ve done in the last couple of years (and this is after getting the Hugo nomination).  (Seriously — I’ve got some great stuff coming up, I can’t wait to show you all.)  I was thinking about why that’s happened, and I think a lot of it has to do with voice.  Having something to say, and being able to nail that down in a story with confidence.  And really, that’s only come after twenty years of working hard, and working hard at getting better.

I’m trying to put together a workshop/lecture about voice.  But I also wonder if it’s one of those things that has to come with time and experience.  However it happens, I think it’s important, because it separates the stories you remember and the authors you go back to over and over again, from the ones you don’t.

9 Responses to “overcoming rejection”

  1. Debbie W Says:

    You have said perfectly what so many aspiring writers need to hear, especially about voice. I, for one, am anxious to hopefully attend your proposed class! Please keep us posted.


  2. Yes, this really speaks to my experience as well. Thanks for sharing it.

  3. Sooz Says:

    Your point about ‘voice’ – which I interpret as the distinctive ‘sound’ or ‘style’ of a particular writer – is a good one. I can tell early on whether I am going to like a particular writer by this. I might read a book by a writer whose voice I don’t like, but it’s so much nicer when I do like the voice!

    One point you don’t touch on (maybe it’s for later?) is making characters sound distinct. I love John Scalzi’s books, for example, but often his characters sound similar (and very like him!). Your characters do sound distinct, but presumably that takes work?


  4. […] On Wednesday, I’ll talk about some of the things I learned that I think helped me finally start selling stor…. […]

  5. Jim Van Pelt Says:

    Brilliant post, Carrie. I want to cut, paste and quote all of it.

  6. Carrie V. Says:

    Thanks, Jim!

    Sooz, I do think the issue of making characters distinct is slightly different than voice (but voice ultimately touches on every part of writing). Characterization is another one of those things I have trouble explaining how I do it — basically, the characters are living in my head, they’re all different, and that somehow makes it onto the page. But I do spend lots of time thinking about how they sound. (I’m not sure this is making any sense.) For a concrete example, I’m working on the Cormac novel now, and he is so very different from Kitty, I’m actually stopping quite a bit and thinking, “Well, Kitty would do things this way, but Cormac would definitely do things this way.” Cormac is laconic, so I’m constantly trimming back his dialog. You pick traits that distinguish each character, then emphasize them.


  7. What a fantastic article, Carrie. Your last next-to-last paragraph, that’s the kind of confidence and feeling I want to have eventually. Where I can say, “Wow, I’m becoming really good at this.”

    I’ve been writing fiction for only a couple of years, but it’s interesting to look back at my old stuff and see just how cringeworthy it is. I’m sure I’ll feel that way about my current work, several years from now as well, but I guess that’s progress.

    Thank you for sharing your insights. You make me want to pull out some Bradbury and perform plot analyses.🙂

  8. Carrie V. Says:

    “Homecoming” and “The Million-Year Picnic” were the really eye-opening ones to analyze. I recommend it!

  9. Sooz Says:

    Thanks for replying, Carrie🙂.


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