Joe Barlow Writes

Quirky Books for Quirky People–New Thoughts on Writing and Publishing in the Digital Frontier

Category: Writing Process

Surviving a Rejection Letter

RejectedSo I got a rejection letter yesterday for one of my short stories.

It’s not a big deal. I’ve gotten plenty of them over the years, and this one rolled off my back without crushing my spirits, or initiating a crisis of faith in my writing ability.

As I prepared to send the manuscript off to the next market on my list, it suddenly struck me just how much my attitude towards rejection has changed over the years. I remember the early days of freelancing, when rejection letters would hit me with the force of a sledgehammer. The sense of failure I’d experience upon receiving such a letter could last for hours. Even if I received an acceptance letter for a different piece on the very same day, I would disregard that victory in exchange for reveling in the failure.

Hey, I’m nothing if not dramatic.

Rejection letters aren’t fun. How could they NOT discourage us? The term itself conjures up painful memories of getting turned down for dates, or being picked last for the school softball team. It’s a letter specifically sent to inform you, a writer, a creator, a storyteller, that your work does not meet an arbitrary benchmark of quality.

Or at least that’s how I felt back then.

However, having spent some time on the other side of the editor’s desk in intervening years, I now realize something very valuable — rejections aren’t personal, and you shouldn’t take them that way.

Don’t let a rejection letter utterly derail you. The next time you receive a rejection letter, consider the following:

1. YOU aren’t being rejected. ONE SPECIFIC PIECE of your work is being declined by one particular editor at one particular time.

I once attended a Sci-Fi convention in which novelist Spider Robinson boasted that he had never received a rejection letter, which frustrated him greatly, because he dreamed of wallpapering his office with rejection letters from prestigious publications in order to impress girls.

His story got big laughs from the audience, but I don’t believe it for a second. Remember: a person whose work appeals to everyone must have a bland writing style indeed. 
Even two of the most successful novelists in history, JK Rowling and Stephen King, both received dozens of rejection letters from publishers who considered their work to be below substandard. And let’s not forget that Decca Records turned down a band called The Beatles, believing that guitar groups were on their way out.

2. The rejection isn’t necessarily a reflection on the quality of your writing. 

Consider any of the following scenarios:

– You may have written a perfectly fine story that happens to slightly resemble a different story the editor has already purchased, but which hasn’t appeared in print yet. (Although this doesn’t seem to affect Hollywood: how many similarly themed films open within weeks of each other? Remember Deep Impact and Armageddon? Or Dante’s Peak and Volcano?)

– You may have written a first-rate private-eye story, but the editor, having read thirty of them this week, is momentarily burned out on the genre.

– Your story may have too much humor (or not enough!) to suit the editor’s preference.

– You may have written the world’s greatest western, but Publisher’s Weekly just ran a story declaring the western dead.

– Maybe the magazine has purchased its allotment of fiction for the upcoming year, and has simply decided to reject all stories for the next six months to clear out the slush pile. (Yes, this happens.)

– Maybe you called your protagonist Walter, and the editor has an old boyfriend named Walter, and therefore can’t bear the fact that your protagonist doesn’t die at the end of the story.

Hey, stranger things have happened. Editors are people too, and like all people, they can be extraordinarily illogical when it suits them.

The best thing to do? Send the piece right back out into the world. Do it today. Don’t let the sun set on your rejection. Send your work to the next market on your list, and start crafting a new piece of writing if you haven’t already done so.

What about you? How do you handle rejection? Leave a comment and let me know!

[This post originally appeared on the blog The Coffee House Wordsmith on September 16, 2011.]

Coming Out of the Writing Closet

funny-pictures-cat-pidgeons-star-warsWhen we last spoke, I shared with you the story of how I wrote my second novel, The Phantom of Mulberry Street, over a two-month period by getting up an hour early each day.

I think it’s fair to say that I’ve now made this formerly alien behavior a habit, and I can barely remember what life used to be like before I embraced it. It feels so natural, so correct, that it’s hard to believe I ever tried to write at night, after my brain was fried from a hard day of corporate writing and various household responsibilities.

I realize I’ve been living a lie for years, and I can’t take it any longer. I need to come out of the closet. I’m finally ready to admit it:

I am, and always have been, a morning writer. I deluded myself for over a decade, trying to make myself be something that I wasn’t, but I was wrong.

Well, no more denial of my true nature! No more will my novels have to subsist on my intellectual leftovers! Now, Clayton Gyler and his sidekick, the lovely Jennifer Watkins, will get served first at my creativity buffet each day, when I’m at my freshest and most focused.

What has impressed me most about this method of working is not just how great I feel when I’m done (knowing that even before many of my friends have gotten out of bed, I’ve already made substantial strides on a project that matters greatly to me, and furthered my long-term career goals).

No, what has impressed me most is how quickly the pages pile up when a person commits to writing each and every day. Even a relatively small amount like 1,000 words (about four double-spaced pages) can yield impressive results after a few weeks.

Referring back to my notes, I see that for the first 39 days I worked on Phantom, I wrote a total of 44,510 new words (162 pages). That’s about 2/3rds the length of the first book (Coffee to Die For), the first draft of which took me eight months to complete. By the time the first draft of Phantom was complete a few weeks later, I’d written 85,183 words (306 pages). This meant that Phantom was about 25% longer than Coffee, yet was written in one-quarter the time. That’s music to my ears.

Incidentally, I worked on the first draft of the second novel in the morning, and spent any free time I could find in the evening writing the second draft of the first novel. Any new words I wrote while revising were in addition to the words I wrote in the morning, and were not counted towards my daily word goal. (Nor are blog posts.)

I’m thrilled by this new routine, and the progress I’ve made. I’m now finishing up the third draft of Coffee, and am excited by how close to the end I’m getting. Then I’ll turn my full attention to revising Phantom and getting it out into the world, too. (Don’t forget to sign up for my mailing list, if you’d like to be notified when they’re available.)

What about you? What’s your daily routine? Are you a morning person, an afternoon writer, or a midnight oil burner? I’m genuinely interested.



The Morning and the Muse

typingIt’s the age-old question for literary storytellers: how much writing is enough for one day? At what point can you step away from the keyboard, secure in the knowledge that you’ve put in a solid day’s work, thereby entitling you to spend the rest of the evening sitting on the couch, streaming 30 Rock episodes from Netflix? (Oh, Liz Lemon, how I want to cuddle and strangle you at the same time.)

There’s no right or wrong answer. In the world of business writing, we’d typically have a firm deadline for a project, a completion date by which we must deliver a final draft to the client. At such times, work can feel exactly like what the name implies: work. We pound the keys until we’re done, no matter how long it takes, regardless of how tired we might be. The number of words we write is governed entirely by how many words remain before we reach the end of the project.

But things aren’t so clear-cut when we’re writing without a contract, especially in the world of fiction. Even if we ultimately hope to publish the final product, either through a traditional book deal or via the blossoming medium of self-publishing, we’re essentially writing on spec. When our manuscript is done, it’s done. Since we have no contract, we have no deadline. No editor is likely to call us up, demanding to know the status of our manuscript.

As such, it’s easy to let these projects fall onto the back burner. That’s why so many more people begin novels than complete them. With no deadline, or word count plan, we write only when we feel like it, rather than because it’s time to write.

Well, no more.

Thirteen days after finishing the first draft of Coffee to Die For, I began work on my second Clayton Gyler mystery, tentatively called The Phantom of Mulberry Street. As I mentioned in my previous post, I completed the initial draft of Coffee in about eight months. But what I didn’t mention was that I didn’t write every day during that eight month period. Not even close, in fact. I would tend to wait for inspiration to strike before I fired up my copy of Microsoft Word, leading to long, frustrating dry spells where I wouldn’t think about the book at all for a week, interspersed with other days where I’d pound out 5,000+ words in a frantic attempt to make up lost time. As satisfying as it was to complete a week’s output in a single sitting, this method of work left me a frazzled wreck by the time I called it a day.

This is a classic example of working harder, not smarter.

What I now know is that if I’d simply sat down at the keyboard and began typing, the words would have come. They always do.

Woody Allen famously said that eighty percent of success is simply showing up, and he should know: he’s been faithfully writing and directing a feature film (and sometimes two!) per year for more than four decades now.

How does he manage this superhuman feat? Easy. He writes. Every day. He shows up for work, in other words. He doesn’t wait for the muse to strike. He hunts it down and drags it to the office with him if he has to. Because he’s got a film to deliver.

When it came time to write the first draft of Phantom, I decided to follow Mr. Allen’s guidance. Rather than repeating the haphazard writing schedule of my first novel. I promised myself that I would show up at the keyboard every day. Regardless of whether I felt inspired, I would do the work. And I told myself that I would not get up from my chair until I’d hit my quota.

I always made myself write when I had a corporate writing deadline approaching, even if I didn’t feel inspired. I couldn’t afford to wait for inspiration. I just sat down and did the work. Well, I’d do the same for the second Gyler novel.

I set myself a goal of 1,000 words per day. That’s 1,000 new words, by the way. I’m not counting minor revisions to the previous day’s writing, nor time spent answering e-mails, fooling around on Twitter, or writing blog posts. 1,000 new words per day, all directed towards my novel’s word count. If I felt particularly inspired, I would allow myself to write more than 1,000 words. But I couldn’t refuse to write because I didn’t feel the muse’s presence.

Just as importantly, I also refused to accept the excuse that I didn’t have time to make my word count on a particular day.

No one has the time to write. But anyone can make the time, if they want to.

Borrowing a suggestion from my friend, the writer/blogger Nicholas Strange, I began getting up an hour earlier each morning. My body protested, but I made myself get up and spend that extra 60 minutes of consciousness tickling the keys of my laptop before my wife and kids woke up.

As such, I wrote the first draft of Phantom in just a couple of months. I wrote between 1,000 and 1,300 words each and every morning, at the time of day when my brain was at its freshest and least cluttered, and when the house was silent and free from distractions.

It was marvelous.

Before I even had my first cup of coffee, my day’s writing (at least in regards to the novel) was done. No matter what came up during the rest of the day, I knew I made my fiction word count.

The take-away from all this? Don’t wait for inspiration. Set a target quota, and deliver! It’s the only way to get the results you deserve.