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At least once before I've posted interesting or inspirational quotes related to long distance running, partly because I've been a runner for about thirty years (with a few short breaks in there), and partly because I receive a "quote of the day" email from Runner's World (annoying mass-market running magazine I used to subscribe to). One of the most recent comes from perhaps my all-time favorite runner, Steve Prefontaine, who was not only one of America's all-time great runners, but also an inspiring personality. Not only that, but he went to University of Oregon, and you've got to love the Ducks!

"A man can fail many times, but he isn't a failure until he begins to blame somebody else."
--Steve Prefontaine, American middle and long-distance runner

I've been fighting through a period of self-questioning with regard to my writing lately. I'm still working as hard as ever, and producing what I consider to be increasingly strong work, but just lately I've been feeling the sting of rejection a bit more than usual. Really just feeling a bit fatigued, though no less determined.

Prefontaine's quote reminds me that at times when you feel bogged down in the accumulated mire of rejection or failure, it can be tempting to blame your circumstances on others. I could convince myself I'm not finding receptive editors because they're only looking for big names anyway, or that magazines aren't looking for the kind of thing I'm doing because the SF community only wants to see the same Heinlein and Gibson tributes over and over. I don't really believe those things are true, but I could blame others as a way of deflecting the pain of the struggle.

Like Prefontaine, though, I believe pointing the finger at others is the beginning of failure. A writer who blames everyone outside himself won't look hard enough at what he needs to improve, or consider what new approach to his craft might get him where he wants to be. I think looking at your own work with honest appraisal, and consistently putting in the labor, are requirements of improvement and eventual success. It's also perfectly healthy to admit your own disappointment, so you can deal with it and move on.
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I usually keep my music stuff and my writing stuff completely separate. Hypnos Recordings and ambient music on the left, weird stories on the right. One side of my face is M. Griffin and the opposite is Michael Griffin, like those white-black split guys on the original Star Trek.

Sometimes, though, I think what I've learned by running a moderately successful ambient music record label for the past 13-ish years actually has given me some insights I can carry over into the fiction thing. Particularly useful is the ability to see the acceptance/rejection process, in which eager young artist tries to gain the approval of the gatekeeper (editor, agent, label head). Having participated in this process from one side for so long, having rejected all kinds of work for all kinds of reasons, helps me understand what it means when I get a story back in the mail (or more often lately, receiving a "sorry, no" email). Also, what it doesn't mean.

In the realm of music, sometimes I've received a demo when I really don't have any more capacity to release new music, regardless of quality. That artist gets a rejection no matter what. More often, the backlog isn't quite so distressingly full, but there is a great imbalance between the number of people seeking to have their creative work released into the world, and the number of slots available. This means that lots of great work gets rejected because it's too much like something else we're already doing, or it's perfectly competent but not distinctive enough. Maybe it's pure genius, but slightly out of bounds with regard to genre or style.

I wrote once before about Degrees of Rejection, and because of my work with Hypnos, I know one thing for sure. Now, I've talked to writers who believe that a rejection is a rejection, and trying to argue that not all are equal amounts to self-delusion. The thing is, having sat on the opposite side of the desk taught me something. A huge difference exists between someone who is doing professional-level work, but missing certain details, or not quite a perfect fit, and someone who is falling far short. It doesn't surprise me to read that editors reject certain stories on page one. I've rejected some demos less than a minute into the first track. Hell, some demos you can reject based on the dipshit cover letter, without having heard a single note, or based on the shirtless, Fabio-esque picture the guy enclosed. There is a great difference in how I respond to different categories of inquiries or demos, and I believe editors are no different.

The first thing an unpublished writer (or other artist) should seek to do, an interim goal they can strive for even before they actually break through, is to reach a level of competence and artistic potency such that their work is at least in the realm of serious consideration, even when it is not accepted. At that point, the gatekeeper listens to the whole demo (or reads the entire manuscript), possibly sticks it in the "maybe" pile, checks out the artist/writer's web site, and replies with a personal note.

Of course, this all amounts to guessing and divination, trying to understand intention behind a rejection letter, which doesn't really get you anything. That's the kind of thing we grab hold of, though, while waiting.
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Even people who aren't themselves writers are familiar with the idea that writers just starting out encounter lots of rejection, over and over, before they ever get anywhere with their work. We've all heard the stories of Stephen King getting hundreds of rejection slips before he became, you know, Stephen King. It's not too different from aspiring actors going to a thousand auditions before they get their first gig, or a garage band playing all kinds of small gigs before they get a shot at a record deal.

In all these legends of paying your dues until you finally make it, the implication seems to be that you toil away without of a sense whether you're getting closer to the goal or not, until WHAM -- all at once, you've made it.

What I'm finding with my own writing is that although I haven't yet had any stories accepted for publication, I've noticed a change in the quality of many of the rejections that leads me to believe I must be getting closer.

Non-writers may not know this, but most of the time rejection comes as a form note (more often a half-sheet than a full letter) that says nothing more than, "Sorry, we can't use this, good luck to you placing this elsewhere." I've received plenty of this, and I don't let it bother me. It's silly to think it's some kind of slap in the face, when almost everyone is getting this same bulk rejection treatment. Editors have a ridiculous number of terrible-bad manuscripts to sort through, and they can't take the time to offer coaching or suggestions or (usually) even specific reasons why they don't want the story.

Several of my latest rejections, though, have included more encouraging language. Compared to a flatly generic "Sorry, no," getting a rejection that says something more specific like, "Very nicely written and I like much of it, but didn't grab me quite enough for a buy," is more like rejection LITE. After getting a few such notes this month, I feel like I'm getting closer to the goal. Maybe I'm crazy-delusional, but I think this is a good sign.


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[ GriffinWords ]

August 2013

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