Our Writerly Roundup blog series features a curated collection of articles on the craft of writing and the creative life that we don't want you to miss.
What Rejection Taught Me About Doing the Work, Gabriela Frank (@CivitaVeritas), Submittable
Gabriela Frank recently wrote a noteworthy essay for Creative Nonfiction’s imprint, True Story. She toiled over it for years, doing the hard work of research and writing, and when it was published, literary agents began to contact her about a book of essays. But to the author’s frustration, the publication process stalled as each agent said no thank-you to the manuscript. After the success of her essay, the rejection was troubling.
Normally, I weather rejection well, but [the agent’s] letter felled me into a stupor. Not because I took it to mean I was a bad writer, but because I realized I had been futzing with these essays since 2010. Even after seven years of sacrificing early mornings, late nights, weekends, and vacations to take classes and learn how to be a better writer, I had never looked beyond the current page.
Frank’s story seems familiar, on some level, to many writers. When that first essay finally comes into focus, we may feel that the rest will come more readily. But it probably won’t. Each essay is a labor of its own, and Frank came to realize that the work continues to be challenging for all essays and all writers. (Even the great ones.) Mastering craft is a process, not a definable achievement. As writers, we must continue to push harder and dig deeper.
I now appreciate the gargantuan favor that these agents paid me. Their generous critique revealed an illusion that I had unwittingly convinced myself of: all this time, I believed that I was creating small masterpieces when I was actually mastering craft. I was doing the work, but not yet Doing The Work.
Frank’s essay both cautions and uplifts. We can do this, but we have to actually do it, block by block, piece by piece.
Four “Types” of Creative Writing Careers, Tony Tulathimutte (@tonytula), Catapult
Tony Tulathimutte’s piece is a dose of reality seasoned liberally with dark humor. We writers know we’ve chosen the difficult path. Writing is hard; writing careers are even harder. We’re tough on ourselves. We become familiar with rejection. We don’t make a lot of money. Yet, we keep going. “Four “Types” of Creative Writing Careers” may sting just a bit, but I think it offers an interesting perspective on who we choose to be as writers.
Lots of people assume that a writing career is, like other careers, linear and incremental, a slow-and-steady race punctuated by opportunities and breakthroughs. The traditional narrative goes like this: You start off by writing short stories, often in a workshop or MFA setting, until they’re good enough to be published, likely in an online or college-affiliated literary journal. You keep writing, you improve, and your previous publications unlock the gates to more prestigious magazines. This is one way, but not the only way, and not the most efficient, especially if short stories aren’t your deal.
Instead of the academic writer, are you a secret writer, toiling quietly away at a manuscript by yourself? Maybe you’ve found a comfortable home on the small stage, giving public readings and performances. Perhaps you’ve got your eye on a freelance career. How do you do that, exactly? Tulathimutte offers bits of advice on the pros and cons of each path.
For early-career writers, the publishing industry’s one big vulnerability—the exhaust port in the Death Star, so to speak—is that all those fancy, intimidating New York media companies? Well, they’ve got websites, and those websites are neverendingly voracious for freelance content. I’m talking about VICE, The New Republic, Salon, Buzzfeed, NPR, erstwhile Gawker sites Jezebel, Deadspin, Gizmodo, Slate, GQ, Vogue, Elle, The Atlantic, and so on. They’ve got to get literally dozens of posts up every day, and their editors are always looking for reliable freelancers who can quickly assemble 800-word takes on whatever topic is relevant that day.
It's fair to say that many of us will fall into multiple categories as our writing careers progress. None of them are easy, but we write. It’s who we are and what we do.
FYI: The piece contains some strong language.
For Readers, Writing Is a Process of ‘Emotional Osmosis’, Joe Fassler (@joefassler), The Atlantic
In this piece by Joe Fassler, author Viet Thanh Nguyen recalls the difficulty he had in writing his novel, The Sympathizer. We’ve all been there: stuck in a particular section. Usually, we continue to look to that unfinished page for inspiration because it’s easy to lose sight of everything but our stuck-ness. In fact, it behooves us to step away from the page and look to other authors. Nguyen did this very thing.
I was having trouble with my novel. For months, I struggled to write the section that would begin the book. But as I worked through various first lines and opening scenarios, nothing seemed quite right. Then I came across this book review of António Lobo Antunes’ Land at the End of the World. The excerpts I read in the review had an incredible effect on me. I have to go out, I thought, and read this entire book. For two years, every morning, I’d read a few pages of the book until my own urge to write became so uncontrollable that I finally had to put the book down and start writing myself. Two or three pages at random every morning before writing, until I felt my own creative urge take over.
Nguyen’s experience with Antunes’ book illustrates why we should never stop reading. Even in an unexpected place we may find inspiration and direction. Antunes’ sentence structure inspired Ngyuen and the creativity began to flow once again.
The book acted as a condensed, compact, extremely powerful substance that woke me up to what I needed to do, each day, as a writer. I thought of it as espresso. It wasn’t coffee—I couldn’t drink it all day long. I could only take small doses, and that was enough. With caffeine, how do you quantify what’s happening with that? You just know you need it. The process was mysterious, and it worked.
I found inspiration of my own in Fassler’s piece. Sometimes I’m so busy writing that I give myself permission to stop reading. Instead, I should challenge myself not only to always be reading, but to look to unfamiliar titles and forms. Inspiration may lurk anywhere.
Has a book inspired you or gotten you through a rough patch like Nguyen’s? Tell us in the comments.
How to Spot Toxic Feedback: 7 Signs That the Writing Advice You’re Getting May Do More Harm Than Good, Susan DeFreitas (@manzanitafire), Jane Friedman
When I was an MFA student, I relied heavily on feedback from mentors and peers. Now, post-grad school, I continue to depend on my own personal writing group for support and advice. I don’t want them to read my work and tell me how great it is; I want real, honest critiques. But what happens when the feedback you receive feels wrong? Are you being too sensitive, or is the feedback toxic? Susan DeFreitas offers her thoughts in this piece on how to make that distinction.
The path to publication with your debut novel is seldom straightforward, but in my case, it was especially fraught—in part because I received a lot of feedback that wasn’t all that helpful, from people who didn’t understand what I was trying to achieve. If you suspect you’ve been subject to this sort of feedback, first let me say this: you are not crazy, and the people who have given you this advice are not necessarily malicious.
DeFreitas suggests you consider the tastes of your test-readers. While you don’t want to offer historical fiction exclusively to writers in the same genre (outside opinions have value), you should take into account each reader’s taste and bias. Sometimes a reader’s personal issues can get in the way of a fair critique. You may encounter an editor who wants you to fix your manuscript’s “problem” in a very specific way. You might receive inappropriately personal feedback.
One freelance editor I hired used multiple exclamation points to let me know that my story was boring and my characters dumb (he referred to one as a “complete airhead”). He also stated that my novel would have to abandon its multiple points of view in favor of that of a single character (apparently, the only one he could stand). When I sent him my book, I was not consenting to have it disparaged or degraded, and when you share your work, neither should you—no matter how many publishing credits a mentor or publishing professional may have to his name.
Feedback is imperative. We must offer our work to the scrutiny of other writers’ eyes. However, it’s equally important to remember that those eyes aren’t infallible. The author’s reminder to hold to our vision is an important one.
How to Copyright a Book: A Comprehensive Guide, Reedsy (@ReedsyHQ)
I’m covering a wide range of topics this month, and so I conclude the Roundup with Reedsy’s guide to copyrighting. This is a subject I’ve never quite understood, so I’m pleased that they’ve come up with this helpful article (and an infographic for those of us who haven’t had our morning coffee yet) that explains the concept in detail. For example, I knew this part:
In both the U.S. and the U.K., copyright protection on an original work exists the moment you create that work (and extends for 70 years after your death). You could be writing the next Great American Novel, or you could’ve just written one sentence. Either way, you own the copyright to your work the instant you write it. So if an author’s work is protected as soon as they commit words to paper, why do people talk about registering their copyright?
Good question. Also, can you mail yourself a copy of your manuscript to create a “poor man’s copyright?” (Answer: That won’t hold up in court.) Is a copyright even necessary and, if so, how do you do it? And what about the book cover? Fear not: it’s in the guide.
It’s important to remember that the chances of somebody illegally copying, distributing, or stealing your work…are extremely slim. Copyright infringement and plagiarism are the biggest taboos in the publishing industry, and almost everyone is extremely sensitive to it. All the same, there remains the small, non-zero chance that you’ll face copyright infringement in your future…so whether you register your copyright is a personal decision. It depends on your risk profile, and whether you think registration will contribute to your peace of mind.
You may not ever need to worry about copyrighting your work. But this guide will give you your options and give you something to share at your next local writers’ meeting.
Have you read a compelling article about craft or the creative life that you think should appear in the next Writerly Roundup? Please send links to lmblogcontact (at) literarymama (dot) com—we'd love to hear your input!