#ROW80 8/10 & Advice from The Help

We have read your manuscript with boundless delight. If we were to publish your paper, it would be impossible for us to publish any work of lower standard. And as it is unthinkable that in the next thousand years we shall see its equal, we are, to our regret, compelled to return your divine composition, and to beg you a thousand times to overlook our short sight and timidity. ~Rejection Slip from a Chinese Economic Journal, Quoted in The Financial Times

Frank and Ravetch adapted many of the novels b...
William Faulkner ("Good God, I can't publish this!")--Image via Wikipedia

A writer friend e-mailed that her novel has been rejected for publication.

The editor declining the manuscript wrote a personal letter explaining the reason for rejection. The editor also encouraged the writer to query again when her next manuscript is complete.

That’s a good rejection. Not so good as the one quoted above, but better than a standard form letter—”Your manuscript does not suit our needs at this time”—which leaves the writer without a clue.

Is it the quality of the writing? The subject? A poorly developed plot? Too much graphic violence? Not enough graphic violence? Overuse of dialect? A boring first line? A typo on page 3?

Or that the manuscript really didn’t suit the publisher’s needs at that time?

The truth may hurt, but it at least leaves you knowing where you stand. And possibly the direction in which you should go.

I’ve heard that in the context of submission and publication, rejection isn’t an appropriate term. Editors who reject manuscripts are really bowing out and allowing other editors the opportunity to accept.

To me, that’s a bit like calling a scheduled test date Opportunity Day. But whatever works…

I haven’t received many rejections, not because my submissions for publication are universally accepted, but because I haven’t done much submitting. There are several reasons for that, among them that I haven’t written much short fiction and I haven’t completed a novel, so I’ve had little to submit. I’m working to rectify that.

If I’m successful, by this time next year, I’ll have rejection slips all over the place.

Every writer—and that includes all of us, not just those who’ve been published—has read about authors who have received negative word from editors before finally reaching print. Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time was turned down by twenty-six publishers. J. K. Rowling received a dozen rejections for Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. William Golding’s Lord of the Flies was rejected twenty times.

Sometimes, editors’ comments stray into the personal.

On Rudyard Kipling: “I’m sorry, Mr. Kipling, but you just don’t know how to use the English language.”

On William Faulkner’s Sanctuary: “Good God, I can’t publish this.”

The Help, Kathryn Stockett’s bestselling novel, was rejected sixty times before a publisher picked it up. Acceptance came after five years of writing and three and a half years of rejection. The movie adaptation of the book is slated for release this week.

“…I can’t tell you how to succeed,” says Stockett to others aspiring to see their works in print. “But,” she continues,

I can tell you how not to: Give in to the shame of being rejected and put your manuscript—or painting, song, voice, dance moves, [insert passion here]—in the coffin that is your bedside drawer and close it for good. I guarantee you that it won’t take you anywhere. Or you could do what this writer did: Give in to your obsession instead.

Stockett racked up rejections because she was industrious enough, and brave enough, to put her work out there.

Instead of invoking the Muse, I’m going to start invoking Stockett. First thing tomorrow, I’ll print out her picture, clip it, and tape it to my monitor. When I’m working–or not–hers is the face I need to see; hers is the voice I need to hear.

What’s an old lady worth?

The writer’s only responsibility is to his art. He will be completely ruthless if he is a good one….If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is worth any number of old ladies. ~ William Faulkner

One of my instructors, citing William Faulkner’s statement that good writers are ruthless about their art, asked the class whether there were any subjects we could not write about.

William Faulkner
Image via Wikipedia

One of the students came up with an extensive, and very funny, list of things she couldn’t write about.

But for anyone aspiring to publish, it’s a serious question.

In her memoir, Limbo, A. Manette Ansay writes that to tell her story, she had to tell a story about her father as well. It was a memory so painful  that he disclosed it to her only when she was experiencing a deep personal crisis and he believed hearing it might lessen her pain. If he hadn’t given permission to tell his secret, she would not have written her memoir. Her father was more important than her art.

Against all the rules, I’ll digress to say that Limbo is a wonderful book, and everyone reading this post should run to wherever you go and borrow or buy one. I borrowed the book from my library, when I had one, and received no perks for stating this opinion. I say this in a spirit of full disclosure and a certain amount of pique that I have to say it at all. (Actually, since this isn’t a review, I probably don’t have to say it, but I’ve always wanted to use the word pique, and this way I have an excuse to do so.)

Back to the original topic. Because so much of my so-called inspiration comes from people I’ve known or heard about, I’ve spent a fair amount of time thinking about what I can’t write about. Is there anything in my life or that of my family that would be best left alone? Is there anything I cannot use as fodder? Anything really really good that, if I were lucky enough to get it into print, might be considered indiscreet? I can use my grandfather’s roll-your-own Bull Durhams and my Cousin Ruth’s statuesque leg, but is there anything that simply must not find its way into the bookstores?

General Robert E. Lee mounted on Traveller, hi...
Image via Wikipedia

I’m talking about family here.

Of course there are things I can’t write about.

In my case, family includes a whole raft of people I’m not related to, I hardly know, or I’ve merely heard about from other people. For example, my grandfather once knew a man who, as a boy, saw General Robert E. Lee sitting astride Traveler.

There’s nothing wrong with writing about a boy seeing Traveler (who both my grandfather and I knew was much more important than General Lee), but, for the purposes of my art, I consider that boy part of the family. It’s complicated.

Anyway, back to the question, What can’t I write about?

Like many other answers, it depends. Fiction allows–requires–the writer to stretch the facts to get to the truth. Characters aren’t people. Plot isn’t memoir. With that kind of leeway, the possibilities are endless.

And let’s face facts. I am neither a William Faulkner nor an A. Manette Ansay, and I’m in no danger of producing anything that will cause readers to confuse me with Keats. Or even with Janet Evanovich, more’s the pity.

Still, if I were forced to give a straight answer to the question, I would agree with Ms. Ansay.

Whenever I read Faulkner’s declaration, I think of “Ode on a Grecian Urn.”

Bold lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal – yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!

Keats took comfort from the urn. I take comfort from the poem. “When old age shall this generation waste,” those things of beauty will continue to delight. It’s difficult to put a price on that.

But then I think of all the old ladies I’ve known.

From what I’ve read about him, I believe even Keats would consider them worth more than an ode.

Is there anything you can’t write about?


Another disclosure: Zemanta didn’t help me write this post, but it did provide the pictures and the link below, which accesses an audio archive of William Faulkner’s lectures and speeches. According to the accompanying article, the author was “quite the wit” and would “routinely slay audiences.” I’d planned to say I felt guilty for using Zemanta, but I’m so pleased at getting to hear Faulkner speak that I’m going to allow Z to assist me as often as it wishes.

Image of William Faulkner by Carl Van Vechten,  Library of CongressPrints and Photographs DivisionVan Vechten Collection, reproduction number {{{2}}}

Image of Gen. Robert E. Lee, September 1866, author unknown; [Public Domain]; file has been extracted from an original image in The New Student’s Reference Work:Image:LA2-NSRW-3-0037.jpg.

Image of Grecian Urn by John Keats (1795-1821) (http://www.flickr.com/photos/litmuse/64111434/) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons