The Dark Side of the Writing Life

Originally posted July 27, 2012

The sad truth about the writing life, at least for most of us, is that it’s mostly about rejection.  We have to steel ourselves against rejection after rejection from agents and editors who seem far more eager to say “no” to a manuscript than “yes.”

Even after publication, writers deal with rejection.  Why is it, for example, that I can quote the one reviewer who thought my most recent book didn’t quite measure up, while all the positive reviews have faded from memory?

While teaching recently at the Oregon Coast Children’s Book Writing Workshop, I was keenly aware of the dark side of our profession, especially as writers presented their work for the first time to a critical audience.  Some students seemed crushed as faculty advised them to “show don’t tell,” to cut exposition, or to create more conflict in their opening scenes.  Several students were ready to scrap their dreams of the writing life after the very first day. 

But no one did.  Why? 

Because this was constructive criticism—not rejection.  And there’s an important difference.   True, constructive criticism often zeros in on a manuscript’s flaws and identifies its imperfections.  But the underlying purpose is to improve a piece of writing, and ultimately to make rejection—from an editor or agent—less likely.   Constructive criticism doesn’t kill a manuscript, it gives it new life. We grow as writers from constructive criticism; it helps us push the creative boundaries of our work.  Of course, we have to decide which nuggets of criticism are golden.  But by polishing, revising, and rewriting our manuscripts, we strengthen our stories, we grow and change along with our characters.  We become artists.

By the end of that week at the Oregon coast, writers—students and faculty alike—were inspired to write better, to give themselves time to revise, to make their work more rejection-proof.  The manuscripts that emerged after five days of intensive criticism were far stronger and more likely to beguile even the most skeptical editor or agent.

Rejection will always be a constant for most of us.  Even such classics as A Wrinkle In Time and Harry Potter And The Philosopher’s Stone were rejected multiple times before the right editor recognized their magic.  But when writers embrace constructive criticism, we assume responsibility of the only aspect of our careers that we can truly control:  The integrity of our writing. 

And that makes rejection almost bearable.

 

Almost.

Holly Atkinson