Category Archives: Submissions

An Appetite for Rejection

A guest post from Jeff Sullins, award-winning short story author.

Emerging from the holidays and vacation time at year’s end, it’s a daunting task to crawl back in front of a keyboard and get back to writing. I first must wade through a hundred distractions, some new, many returning from being temporarily laid aside. Finally, after cleaning the office, catching up on the day job, caring for sick children, and so on, it’s time to write. Maybe.

For me, writing is all about motivation. Everyone has ideas, or at least, the seeds of ideas. Turning those seeds into something interesting, that’s what it’s all about. But it takes work, and work takes motivation. And that’s the tricky bit.

Some would say it’s more about finding time. I will concede that time, or the lack of it, may be a factor. But it’s my assertion that the time exists if we want it to. It’s motivation–the magic that turns desire into work–that is the necessary catalyst for writing to happen. Time will fall into place if the motivation is there. At the risk of making enemies, let me throw this down: “lack of time” is an excuse. One excuse among many. Perhaps, one that may harbor a grain of truth every now and then, but still an excuse. In my, ah, less-than-humble opinion, I suppose.

This brings to mind a quote I like to refer to when I find myself lacking the motivation to get back to the stories I need to finish. While I haven’t been speaking about writer’s block specifically, I choose to interpret writer’s block as a simple lack of motivation to push the creative process forward:

“Writer’s block does not exist. It’s just a form of laziness. Or distraction. Or, perhaps in the case of some true genius, a form of madness.” –James V. Smith Jr.

I can safely exclude myself from the category of true genius, and am known to be an exceptionally lazy person. I need a new kick in the pants to find some motivation. Already nearly a week into the new year, and three short stories languish “almost finished” on my computer, having petered out in the face of holiday cheer.

After pondering how to give myself that kick, I have decided that in 2017 I will make use of a limitless, free resource to find motivation! This resource requires a minimal effort to obtain (I always like that), and comes straight from great minds steeped in writing knowledge.

Is it a book? No. A seminar? No. I am referring to rejection letters, of course!

I’ve become a fair collector of rejection letters, as I’ll assume everyone has. But what about these letters, perhaps more accurately termed simply rejection notes, could be considered motivating? Well, sometimes there is useful feedback in the note. That’s a high-value rejection, a treasure worth seeking.

Then there’s the even rarer, but highly rewarding, “we almost published your story” rejection. Here is one I received just before the holidays for one of my own stories:

“Dear Jeff,
Thank you for giving us the opportunity to read your story, <redacted>.
Although the decision was close, we have decided not to accept it. However, please know that your story made it to our final stage of consideration, something less than 10% of all submissions achieve.”

Now that is motivating! If I had only been a little more careful, or had taken a little more of my beta reader’s critiques to heart, I would have cleared the final hurdle. Coming close can be even more motivating than scoring a win, if you ask me. Well, up to a point.

More often than not, though, a rejection is merely a polite “no thanks.” But that, too, can be motivating in the right hands. How? Well, not without a willingness to accept some contrived goals, I admit.

For me, it will go something like this: every time I receive a rejection, I will either create a new draft of an existing story, or write 3,000 words in a new story. I’m still working on the details, so perhaps some adjustment will be in order. But the idea is there.

I think it might also be fun to collect a journal of rejections, too. Sort of a “greatest hits” album with no hits. But, one thing at a time. For now, I’ve got to send off some drafts and earn some rejections! And who knows, maybe 2017 will be the year I break a personal record for the number of rejections I can generate. If I do, it will mean I’ve been busy writing, and I’ll count that as a success.

Jeff Sullins works in the software industry by day and attempts to keep up with two young children the rest of the time. A former musician, game designer, and programmer, he’s begun to explore the strange new world of fiction writing.

Reframing Failure

A few years back, I had a conversation about horses that changed how I viewed my writing career. A dear friend of mine was telling me a story about when she was teaching her son how to ride a horse. She had grown up on a West Texas ranch and wanted to pass that legacy on to the next generation. One day he was thrown by the animal and landed hard. My friend went to her son to ensure that he hadn’t been seriously hurt. Once she had confirmed that he would be okay, she stood over him in the dust and heat of the Texan summer. Her boy was on the verge of tears, but she didn’t try to sooth him. Instead, she told him that he needed to choose if he really wanted to know how to ride. If he didn’t, he could sit and cry, and that would be fine. But “cowboys don’t cry,” and if he really wanted that life he would need to show her how tough he really was. He’d need to stand up and go show that animal that he wasn’t afraid of it. He needed to take back his power, right now or not at all.

There’s a reason that the phrase “get back in the saddle” is a cliché for starting again after a failure. If you’ve never ridden a horse, you can’t know what it feels like to have a thousand pounds of animal underneath you. To feel the shifting of muscle and sway of the saddle as your mount walks. Or know the sensation of speed and power as the horse runs. As a rider, you are only in control as much as the mount’s training or your own skill allows you to be. All the while, you are aware that falling or being thrown can be a bone breaking, paralyzing, or mortal experience. For new riders, it’s frightening. And for good reason.

Most humans are programmed to avoid painful situations. Sometimes it’s something we’ve already experienced, and others it is simply the anticipation of harm that warns us away. While this instinct helps us survive, it doesn’t allow us to grow. We only develop as individuals if we are challenged, pushed to leave our comfort zones, and are forced to adapt. In doing so, however, we risk mental, emotional, or physical hardship. And no one gets through life unscathed.

Little did my friend know that when she told me that story, I was struggling with my own fall, just of a less literal nature. I had recently been rejected by an agent that I had queried a few weeks before. It wasn’t even a personalized rejection, but rather a form letter that was addressed to “Dear Author”. I was embarrassed, angry with myself, and ashamed of my failure. I was still lying in the dirt, hurt and wallowing. However, I needed to make a decision.

I wasn’t considering quitting writing. Storytelling was and still is my passion. I had been warned that rejection letters were inevitable and that I would need to develop a thick skin to being told “thank you, but no.” However, rejection letters have a powerful effect on us writers because they feed the part of our brain teeming with doubt. I was trying to decide what that particular rejection meant for me and my story. Did I still believe in these characters? Did I still believe that the work represented the best of my skills? Was the problem something in my query letter or my manuscript? I didn’t know and so was paralyzed by indecision.

My friend’s story reminded me that I was letting the letter have power over my actions and needed to show it, and myself, that I wasn’t afraid of it anymore.

And so, I decided to reframe my problem. Quite literally. I went to the store and spent about five dollars on a plain, black, plastic picture frame. I printed out the first page of the rejection and hung it on the wall in my office. I stepped back, looked at my framed failure, and told myself aloud that this was a step in the process. I would fail again. I would succeed. I’d hang each on my wall because I owned them, they did not own me.

In the years since, I’ve added many more black frames to my wall. However, I’ve also added a few silver frames, my wins. There aren’t many silvers in comparison to the blacks, but they would not exist at all had I not decided to move past my fear and self-pity to keep pushing myself to grow. Each time I look at that wall, I am reminded of what those failures taught me, and that I have persevered. Despite the failures, I am still writing, still submitting, and still growing. With enough hard work and determination, I will have my writing career. I just need to keep dusting myself off after each and every failure and choosing what I really want.

Kristin’s 2016 Year in Review

Although the urge is strong to write a piece a la David Foster Wallace and title it, “2016: Consider the Dumpster Fire,” I’ll resist.

But also I can’t resist and here’s a picture of a dumpster fire.

It's small, it's compact, it's perfect.
It’s small, it’s compact, it’s perfect.

Oh c’mon, Kristin, it wasn’t so bad. (Pause to picture me straining to find really good things about 2016.) If I’m doing my math right, which is rare, all of the good things were canceled out with two bad things. I’m not saying this to garner any pity. Quite the opposite. I’d be happy if you joined me in watching it all burn in the dumpster fire above. Ah, bonding over warm flames. 2017 is looking better already!

In 2016, I finished editing a book I completely rewrote, hoping the huge improvements could snag an agent. Instead, the manuscript was declined by seven agents. I decided perhaps it’s time to table that book for now and move on to other things. I wrote two short stories, one of which has been declined four times so far.

via GIPHY

You know, I don’t know if you’ve heard, but sometimes this writing thing is hard. And I have never felt that more deeply than this year. And I know what I’m supposed to do. I’m supposed to take a good 15 minutes to feel sorry for myself, then get right back on that horse, nose to the grindstone, ass in seat.

Part of me thinks that’s a fine approach. But the other part of me thinks that’s just more of the same.

If you’ve started on the same crazy choice of careers, you know the one thing there is no shortage of: writing advice. Everyone from your aunt Carol to Stephen King has something to tell you about how to do this thing. The right way, the wrong way. Write, write, write! Write when you have something to say. Write your first three books then throw them away. Don’t let any time go to waste, be deliberate. All of it’s well intentioned. All of it has at least some merit.

But the second part to the advice that they don’t tell you is: now reflect on who you are, and if that advice can be applied to how you are.

I wish I had a greater epiphany this year, but perhaps this is just one of those sleeper-epiphanies that I’ll be thankful for when I’m 80. I learned I have only a few truly great ideas, and I have hundreds of good ideas. And I just want to write the truly great ones.

That means advice I followed before does not apply. Like: write, write, write! Get those million words in! Any writing work counts!

Instead, it means: slow down. Fully develop the story. Allow myself to think on the idea for however long I need to. Don’t write a good book. Only write the great ones. No matter how long that may take.

That’s not everyone’s road. But that’s what 2016 taught me personally. I don’t want to get merely paid for doing what I love. I want to be damn proud of every word in every book. I want it to mean something. I want it to be more than entertainment.

But first, I just gotta get out of this dumpster fire.

See you all in 2017! It might be better! What did this dumpst… I mean 2016 teach you?

 

 

What Kind of Year Has It Been?

So what kind of year has it been? A year of transitions—although that may not be saying much since it increasingly seems that all years are transitioning to and from one thing or another. The idea I once held in my imagination of a stable life and career seems more far-fetched every day.

The reality is that I didn’t make much overall progress on my fiction in 2016, although the business of my writing life is a different story. After a four-year absence, I dove back into the convention pond (I attended two, When Words Collide in Calgary, Alberta and World Fantasy in Columbus, Ohio) and emerged with some excellent prospects. I had a very good year in my writing-adjacent day jobs, as a newspaper owner/editor and freelance book editor. I broke ground on a novel which I expect to be my most challenging and ambitious project to date; it’s the sort of project that keeps you up at night for the sheer excitement of plotting it out.

And yet I didn’t actually do very much writing, an ugly truth which I must stare down. In the face of this, it can be small consolation that I’ve greatly strengthened the infrastructure of my life. I must do better in 2017. It’s as simple as that.

Let me talk about those convention appearance, which I came back from energized to produce more and better work. Every time I attend a convention, it solidifies my certainty that there’s a market for my writing. That’s the value of conventions, but they are really hard.

Well, maybe they’re not hard for everyone. For me they’re nigh impossible. Gone are the halcyon days when I went to my first conventions and filled my days with programming. It didn’t take long to realize that the panels are mostly doesn’t come at all naturally to me. You need the ability to walk up to strangers, or near-strangers, and find something to talk about instantly—without seeming needy and pushy. This is quite a tightrope.

Because that’s what you’re there for. You’re generally not there to listen to a panel of novelists talk about the importance of map-making in fantasy literature, nor are you there to listen to well-established professionals wax eloquent about their decades-long careers and the generally pretty unrelatable logistics of publishing fifteen-volume epics. Those are definitely perks, but eventually you’ll realize that those panels are more or less all the same, and they don’t get you from A to B. You could get a similar result from an afternoon browsing YouTube clips.

I spent the first evening of World Fantasy returning periodically to my hotel room to steal precious alone time, breaks from the stress of wandering through the convention halls looking desperately for people to talk to, like a feral animal.

At one point, a friend of mine said to me that most of the people there were just like me and they were wildly faking their smiles and easy-going manners. He pointed out that a majority of writers are probably introverted shut-ins, which explains why they would be attracted to a field where so much of the work happens when you’re, well, very much alone.

But anyway, you don’t spend hundreds (thousands) of dollars on convention fees and airfare and hotel rooms and pub food only if you’re going to actually dive into that pond. So when the second day dawned, I pulled on some swimwear and got wet. The water was excruciatingly cold at first, and only slightly warmer by the end when I finally crawled onto shore like a beached whale, but damn it I came away with a couple of manuscript critiques and some short story anthology opportunities. (One of those opportunities came when an editor inadvertently dumped his entire beer all over me, a soggy mess which ultimately paid off handsomely by weekend’s end.)

It’s not comfortable, and it’s not my favorite part of the job, but I’ve already booked a couple of conventions for 2017 and hopefully it won’t take me so long to acclimate this time.

Evan BraunEvan Braun is an author and editor who has been writing books for more than ten years. He is the author of The Watchers Chronicle, a completed trilogy. In addition to writing science fiction, he is the managing editor of The Niverville Citizen. He lives in Niverville, Manitoba.