Excerpt from Thanks, But This Isn’t for Us, A (sort of) Compassionate Guide to Why Your Writing is Being Rejected
This isn’t a book about false promises or cheery u-rah-rahs. This book will never claim that anyone can write a best seller or become a billionaire just by typing away, or even that writing is the greatest joy, because after all we cannot forget about dancing, chocolate, and sex. Rather, it’s written by a Demon of Harsh Reality and meant as a hefty dose of reality along with encouragement to keep trying, to keep learning. Because writing is a craft and it can be learned. And like any craft, we need to recognize our weaknesses before we can succeed, and often the period of mastery is proceeded by some truly awful attempts.
Let’s start at the beginning of your tale and talk about making a kickass first impression. Your story openings are like a job interview and if the words on the page entertain, you get the job. If they don’t, somebody who writes better gets the job.
The best openings of a story, novel, or memoir are contagious—they make the reader yearn for more because you’ve commenced your story by choosing the best words at the best moment to launch the events that will follow while raising questions that demand answers. After all, you’re writing for an editor, a highly discerning reader. Editors are word people. They are connoisseurs who love the written word; appreciate delicate language, carefully crafted sentences, and refinement.
Along with a knack for crafting beautiful language, your first paragraphs need to set the tone for the story to come. Especially in these days of blogging, dashed-off emails, and self-publishing, it’s important to strive for perfection. As in strutting-the-red-carpet-at-the-Academy-Awards-first impression. And your opening needs to have the impact of a starlet draped in a strapless gown and diamonds or a debonair actor in a crisp and oh-so sexy tux. It needs to dazzle and assure the reader that you can handle what follows. It needs to make a promise about the kind of story that will follow.
So your opening words contain a promise to your reader: Read these pages, and I’ll transport you to a world based on your expectations, where the story events will deliver an emotionally-satisfying experience. And the unfolding events in your novel must be appropriate for the genre or type of story that you’re writing.
This works for memoir also. When a reader opens the first page of a memoir he wants to read the truth about the author’s dramatic experiences. Your opening promises that the true events of a life are fascinating and possibly horrifying. Now, your story might be a bare-assed expose′ of squalor and debauchery with your skinny-necked stepfather starring as the true-life villain. Or it might be luminous and uplifting tale of endurance, or a life story that lies somewhere in between. No matter your approach, your first words telegraph that this story will make a reader laugh, cry, and ponder truths about the human experience.
On the other hand, when a reader opens a novel he’s signing up for a pack of lies. You, the writer, are the liar and your reader is the sucker who is going to buy all these lies, hook, line and sinker as the old saying goes. It’s part of the contract that you and the reader are agreeing to. Your opening promises that you are going to tell the sort of lies that the reader specifically wants to hear. This logic is fairly simple because each genre has a built-in audience and your opening winks a come-on at that audience like a saloon girl in the Old West.
If a reader plunks down $24.95 for a fantasy or science fiction novel, he expects fantastical elements and interesting explorations of themes that perhaps cannot be explored in a story that’s based strictly on realistic elements. Of course some sci fi stories are set in today’s world because lots of chilling truths can be told about this world, especially about ecological nightmares or technology unleashed. So your opening can start in a galaxy far away or just down the street, but your opening promises that imaginative ideas will be explored.
Buy it on Amazon
The best fiction touches the deep layers in us. A writer achieves this affect by embedding dozens of techniques into his story. The process is artful, and, I’m sorry to report, often sly. In fact, fiction writers employ the sort of sleight-of-hand used by a magician; he distracts with patter; whispers so that we lean in to hear his low, confiding tone; surprises us when we least expect to be surprised, produces flourishes that awe with their boldness. And somehow he makes it look easy, although often the techniques are invisible.
But of course, writing fiction is not easy or merely a matter of employing tricks. Fiction writing means applying craft and artifice, and, like a conjurer’s lightening-speed maneuvers, it can be learned. You’ll look beyond the magician’s charming grin and focus on his ever-moving fingers, on the devices tucked up his sleeves, and then peer into his bag of gadgets. You start by mastering a few card tricks and then move on to a more difficult step: disassembling the magician’s contraptions, applying them to your understanding, and finally adding them to your stories.
Let’s begin with this understanding: Stories explore how interesting people act while dealing with significant problems at an important time in their lives. Stories explore human vulnerabilities and strengths and are usually focused on a character’s goals and dilemmas. Stories inquire into why people act, react, struggle and change as they do. Stories are shaped from techniques that make the narrative lifelike and involved, complicated, and tense. And these fundamentals saturate the story with meaning which result in a deep, deep world.
Buy it on Amazon
Buy it from Writer’s Digest Books
Buy it on Amazon
Table of Contents
Introduction: Primal Fears
Chapter 1: Unforgettable
Chapter 2: The Case of the Unlikeable Protagonist
Chapter 3: Bastards: Anti-Heroes
Chapter 4: Dark Heroes and Bad Boys
Chapter 5: Antagonists: Bullies and Mischief Makers
Chapter 6: Bad to the Bone: Villains
Chapter 7: Sociopaths: Ice in Their Veins
Chapter 8: Batching Wits: Heroes vs. Villains
Chapter 9: Sympathy for the Devil
Chapter 10: Bitches: Dangerous Women
Chapter 11: Monsters, Creatures, and Lost Souls
Chapter 12: Bad Guys for Younger Readers
Writing can take you to the deepest parts of yourself and along roads of discovery that you never dared imagine. Writing is also is a wonderful occupation, but in all honesty, it’s scary as hell. I suspect that all writers are afraid. Of sitting in a room, alone, with a cold-eyed computer screen blinking as accusation, “What are you doing here?” Then there are the maddening times when you’re wrestling with a poem or story, and you can’t describe a thing, and it’s flat and vapid and stupid. You swear you’re going to lose your mind before you get it right and decide that you must be crazy to write at all. Crazy because you spend hours struggling to find perfect words to fit perfect places, while you fight off your doubts and grapple with your need to be flawless.
So you sit down to write and find that you’re scared. Of starting, of trying, of putting your bruised heart on the line and words on a page. But I believe that we can quell this fear, put it beside us like a sleeping dog, and write despite our fears, our doubts, our cowardliness.
You must be wondering, if writing is such a pain, why bother? The answer is easy: because writing is good for us. It deepens us, strengthens us, teaches us how to be honest and patient and loving. Writing is both a practical skill and a way of connecting to ourselves and a bigger source. Becoming a writer will unleash our creativity, and in turn, creativity brings meaning to our lives. It all adds up to something wonderful. . . . .
I’ve been teaching writing and creativity classes for years, and I’ve watched my students apply writing to their simplest or noblest desires and seen the transformation that follows. I’ve heard hundreds of students read a piece of their history or some precious invention for the first time in front of the class. My students begin by apologizing, explaining that what they’re about to read isn’t good, that they’re new to writing, that they haven’t had enough time to work out the kinds. Sometimes I think if I could collect all these apologies, they’d be tall enough to topple a skyscraper. The class is forced to sit patiently, squirming through their stumbling confessions, and then the room becomes still and church-like and words start spilling into the air. There’s a sort of collective that follows when they finish reading and something subtle shifts inside all of us. I wasn’t raised Catholic but I imagine that the absolution that follows these readings is a little like going to confession. Good for the soul. Cleansing. Revealing. I’ve noticed that even if we hate the student’s writing, we like that he or she had the courage to write it anyway.
Writing makes your life better because you get to speak your truth and turn a discriminating eye at this weird planet and tell other people just how you see things. Most people who write regularly, who make writing a crucial component in their existence, like themselves better than when they’re not writing. It’s really pretty simple. I know it words because it worked for me. If you write regularly—not matter what the subject or format—you’ll shift your muddled worries to clarity, your vague hopes to reality, and your denial to crystal truth….
But how do we get out of bed each day, calling ourselves writers and settling ourselves into that sacred spot where words come forth? Instead of putting off our dream, we write anyway. We write no matter what’s going on in our lives. We write despite our cowardly heart rattling loud enough to shake our bones. We write despite distractions and agonies. We write when our family or the ghost of Mrs. Schultz, our third-grade teacher, looms at our shoulder and whispers that we’re no damn good.
Then we write some more. Then we set some goals and eventually stuff our precious words into an envelope and mail it to a cold-hearted stranger. And return home from the post office and do it all over again. Until we die. Because writing feels so good when it flows, when you’re on a roll. And it brings meaning into our lives. Really. Because once we conquer our fears, writing is about the best legal fun there is. It’s right up there with sex and dancing, standing high on a mountain, or playing with children who belong to someone else.
You can also find my work in these fine anthologies:
Buy it on Amazon
Buy it on Amazon
Buy it on Amazon