Well, yesterday marked the halfway point for putting The Dead Isle through the Extribulum process. It’s never an easy thing to undergo, but it has its pleasures too.
It’s hard and humbling to open up your work to the outside world and not just ask for but demand criticism. Nobody likes to be told they’re wrong, and being told you’re wrong approximately a dozen times per chapter is hard to handle. It’s good — it makes for a better book and it’s an ongoing process of education to hear what the readers want — but there’s a lot of work that goes into swallowing the instinctive No, you’re wrong! reaction and reiterating to myself, over and over again, that I am not an infallible writing god.
The flip side of that is the fascinating puzzle of fixing what’s wrong, and the euphoric feeling of being able to. I’ve reached a point in my career as a writer where I have not only hard-won objectivity about my work but also the skill to improve on it when it’s broken. It’s difficult to describe without sounding like an egotist or a nutbag, but I feel a little like an acrobat: capable of flipping and turning and tumbling in midair and knowing where I’ll land. For someone who is physically a klutz, to be able to do that intellectually is thrilling. Writing is the one thing I am really, solidly, enthusiastically good at, the one thing that I have done longer than I’ve done anything else, and I’m proud of that. It’s fun.
While I’ve been working with my readers on The Dead Isle, I’ve also been adapting a short story I wrote, Out Of Rome. I happened to see a call from a small press for LGBT-themed novels and novellas about the ancient world, and somewhat on a self-made dare I thought I would expand the thousand words of Out Of Rome into a novella. The minimum word-count for the call was 25,000, which worked out to about a thousand words a day if I wanted to get it in on time. A thousand words is a slightly higher goal than I like to set myself — eight hundred is about my average when I’m pushing, though when I’m in the zone I can hit a few thousand easily.
Still, I thought I might as well try, and if I failed, there was no real penalty. Happily, I’ve completed Out Of Rome — now titled Himself At War — with two weeks still to spare before it’s due.
What interests me most about posting The Dead Isle for critique while adapting Himself At War is how much less invested I was in making it the best novella it could possibly be. I wanted it to be good, of course, and I put plenty of effort in, but I didn’t push as far into burnout as I generally do with the stories I publish myself, and I was hesitant to send it to beta because I knew they’d be stricter with it than I was willing to be (fortunately they probably will, which will help motivate me to suck less).
Ironically, I seem to have lower standards for a submission to a professional publishing house than I do for my own. I’ve had to work hard to make myself care as much about the quality of the story as I normally do.
Perhaps it’s that, again, there’s no real penalty. It would be nice to have a professionally published novella and perhaps to make a little money from it, but if they reject the book I can publish it myself. Besides, I’ve done enough submission to professional houses and agents, and done enough slush-file reading as a theatre professional, that I have internalized two important things:
One, a rejection is mostly about the editor, somewhat about the story, and very little about the writer. While you may be embarrassed that they didn’t like your work, they probably won’t remember it or you in a few weeks.
Two, a rejection genuinely isn’t something to take personally, nor is it the end of the world. It sounds like boilerplate to say sometimes a story just doesn’t click with a reader, but sometimes it doesn’t.
Admittedly, I’ve always had a fairly philosophical attitude towards rejections, and I chalk it up to visiting the Jack London museum in Sonoma when I was young. I hadn’t yet started writing creatively, but I had read Call Of The Wild and White Fang, and I was a big admirer of London’s adventure stories. One of the cases in the museum contained what seemed to me to be stacks of rejection letters London had received, and I was deeply awed by the number of people who clearly had no clue what they’d held in their hands when he sent them his manuscripts. It impressed upon me just how irrelevant rejection letters generally are.
(Some of mine have been super-funny. One of them was from an agent who had changed her focus so that she only handled books about dogs, and regretted there were too many humans in my novel for her to consider representation.)
At any rate, being capable of doing my own typesetting and cover design, I find that the risk of rejection is negligible for me. Certainly it’s easier on the psyche than Extribulum, and I do Extribulum on a yearly basis. If nothing else, being able to put my work out there in the manner I choose has given me a certain freedom that rejection letters can’t really touch anymore. It gives me some concern that I don’t do my best work when I think someone else will be putting their publisher’s mark on it, but on the other hand it certainly takes the stress off sending it out to be judged.
Maintaining proper respect for the professionals is not a challenge I thought I’d ever have to tackle, but it should be an interesting one.