Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Ripen Your Writing

A growing number of my students have come to me lately, wondering why their work is steadily rejected. These are good writers, careful proofreaders, and they’re enthusiastic about their work.

Their opinions on the matter mostly consist of:

1) I suck.

2) Too many people are writing and submitting; I don’t have a chance in hell unless I know somebody.

Both of those are not correct.

First of all, what’s “good” and what’s “bad” is subjective, once you get past sloppy writing, lousy spelling and careless grammar. There are thousands of stories that long to be told and thousands of ways to tell them. Human beings have an insatiable need for stories, and have since Bards traveled around singing histories around campfires. There’s always room for a well-told story.

I know the work of these concerned students. They do good work. And, because of the vast variety of personal points of view held by publishers and editors, it takes a good bit of work to find a good match, but it can be done.

So why are these good writers getting rejected?

Because they’re sending in early drafts instead of completed work.

I challenged several of them recently, and the process for the rejected work is the same:

Writer gets excited about a new idea.

Writer gushes out idea; sags in the middle, picks back up and forces through.

Writer skims over the work, catches grammar and spelling errors, changes a phrase here and there, prints a clean copy, and sends it out.

Writer is rejected.

Why?

Because the work is not yet finished.

There are very few writers who can do one quick pass over a first draft and have something that’s saleable. You are still to close to the work, too caught up in the excitement and the love affair of creation to be able to sit back and look at it with any sort of objectivity.

So what should the writer do?

Stick it in a drawer for two weeks to two months and go work on something else.

Obviously, if there’s a deadline attached and you wrote the piece the day before the deadline, this won’t work. We’ve all done it; we’ve all cringed. Sometimes, we even get away with it. Often, we don’t. The process can be truncated, once you have plenty of experience.

But, if you’re not on an official, paying deadline . . .put it away.

Work on something else.

Come back to it when you can read it as though it was written by someone else.

Then and only then will you be able to truly see what works and doesn’t work. Then you can work on another draft. Maybe several other drafts. A few more drafts down the line, you can show it to your Trusted Readers – and then go back and do yet another draft.

Now it’s ready to be sent out. And now, when an editor or publisher receives it, it is less likely to get a rejection. It’s seasoned, it’s ripened, it’s improved with age.

This is not the only way to write, and yes, there are some writers who work through their drafts slowly and methodically and turn out a perfect first or second draft. “Slowly” and “methodically” are the keys, and sometimes it takes years to produce a finished work. Most of those writers have solid track records, with years of experience and a string of novels in which they’ve honed their process.

If you’re close to the start of the career, don’t shoot yourself in the foot, burn needless bridges, and use the clichés I’m using here that are sure to get your work rejected. Remember, if you pummel an editor with a flurry of early drafts, hoping that this one will be accepted, all you do is annoy the editor. The editor needs to see growth from piece to piece, and needs to see that you’re doing everything in your power to make it the best, most complete, well-written piece it can be. Take the time to craft the work. Send out your best version of the work – even if it takes months or years to achieve.

Work on new projects as drafts ripen. Always have something to write, something to edit, and something in the drawer fermenting. Keep the creativity in motion, but don’t shoot it out before its time.

A half-baked pie is not going to win the top prize at the County Fair. A half-baked novel is not going to win a contract.

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