Friday, February 4, 2011

Rejection Letters and a herding stampede

6:15 am, and when I could have slept a little longer, I jolted awake from a frustration dream. Setting: WIFYR. Character me, in role as Mike Knudson's workshop assistant. The good part: his workshop was completely full. The bad parts: 1) at least two of the students hadn't graduated pre-school. Maybe confusing the workshop to mean reading chapter books? When I tried to run an errand, I couldn't get past the hallway pack of stampeding football players. One of them actually picked me up and carried me down the hall! Weird.

A lot of this stems from the rejection letter I got last night. From a magazine that's published my work before. The OUCH part is that the editor's very kind comments included the advice to "show, not tell." How often have I heard that? How about in my very first year at WIFYR, as Ann Cannon gave us a great example from her book, Charlotte's Rose?

I can learn from this, though, and thought I'd include some thoughts on how not to fall back into old bad habits.

Straight from the editor:
[SPARING READER'S FEELINGS]
You write very well. Your essay is poignant and honestly written....Your essay is right there on the cusp of being a great essay. I think what would help push it over into that great category is if you did more showing and less telling, if you wrote more in scenes. While you include lots of good details, your essay is often more summary than scene. Of course, in any essay there has to be some summary, but you want to have primarily scenes, with some summary in between. This is an example of summary: "His birthday didn’t end with cupcakes and bliss. That weekend, we found out he took a video game—that same one he loves as much as I hate—from a friend’s house without permission. So once again I got to feel like the wicked witch. Brian really struggles to understand how I can love him and yet discipline him." You could turn this into a scene by showing us what happened: you walk into his room and see the video game. You ask him where he got it, he tells you he took it from his friends's house. You tell him he's grounded. He yells, or retreats into silence. See how that is a scene?
[We may fail to show because the subject is painful, and we want to spare the reader some of the details. But they need to understand why the subject is painful for the protagonist.]

[INFORMATION DUMP]
Here's an example of a scene in your essay: "Another birthday, fourteen years later, and I wait in the kitchen again, hoping pizza and presents will lure my son out of the closed-door room where he gathers darkness around him." You know how to write scenes; you just need to write more of them. You will have to choose which incidents you want to portray, of course, and you won't have room for everything....
[We may fail to show when we rush to include too much information all at once.]

I guess it's good I'm going back to WIFYR this year. I'm feeling like it's time to get all my notes back out and figure out what other bad habits may be creeping back into my writing.Thank goodness the hallways never feel that congested in real life. The workshops do fill up almost that fast at times, though, but not by preschoolers and the football team.

1 comment:

Julie Olson said...

That's an AWESOME rejection letter. Don't be humiliated. Learn from it, make your work better and be honored that an editor took so much time with your work. Focus on the first line of the letter!