Writing Wednesday: The R&R Roller Coaster

Writing WednesdayWhen I was a kid, I loved going to Cedar Point. I love the sights and sounds, buying $3 slices of pizza, spending $20 to win a small stuffed animal, running around thousands of acres of pavement with my friends. Here’s the thing, though: I had a heart murmur, a condition that prevented me from riding any but the most tame rides. Before I knew about that, I was just too short. But I could feel the excitement in the air, and I imagined what it would be like to get on a roller coaster every time I went to an amusement park.

I did eventually get to ride a couple coasters, and let me tell you, the experience was harrowing, to say the least. Aside from the actual iron monsters that hurtled me up and over and around peak after peak at breakneck speed while I held on for dear life and wished I’d never stepped foot on them, my pursuit of publication has been one long roller coaster ride, filled with ups and downs. I’m sure most writers can relate.

Today the specific coaster I want to talk about is the Revise and Resubmit, or R &R coaster. The R&R and its accompanying revision letter can feel like a blessing and a curse. Last Wednesday I received my first R&R on the full I submitted to Blurb to Book. It’s taken me this long to sort out all the feelings associated with it. Here’s how the roller coaster went for me:

A couple of fellow contest entrants and I were discussing the lack of news and speculating when another contestant announced privately that she had received an R&R. I was surprised but didn’t think much of it. The ladies and I were talking about the feedback we received from the previous round, and it was my turn to say what my feedback was. I went to my email to pull a quote and there it was: a new email from an editor with the name of my Blurb to Book entry on it. The roller coaster rolled downward and picked up speed along the way. The air whooshed out of me. Was this the end of the line?

I cast my eyes to the end of the subject line and saw the reassuring shape of a paper clip. There was something attached. So not a form rejection, and the very least. I read over the email quickly, my heart plummeting as I read that she was sorry that they weren’t making an offer on the book. HOWEVER–that shimmering beacon of hope of a word–if I was willing to CHANGE ALL THE THINGS, they would be happy to reconsider it or another manuscript.

OK, being honest, it didn’t say CHANGE ALL THE THINGS, and certainly not in all caps, but that’s what it felt like. Reading through the attached letter–pages and pages of single spaced, bullet pointed suggestions–was the part of the roller coaster where your heart is beating so fast and you’re being jerked around so many ways and pulled into so many loops you’re not sure which way is up but you ARE sure you should not have gotten on this ride.

ALL THE FEELS. Feelsville, population 1. You get feels and you get feels–everyone gets FEELS!

What are these feels, you ask?

The first feeling I had is “what in the world did they actually like about this story?” Getting a letter pointing out all the things that didn’t work can be overwhelming. It makes you wonder if they liked YOUR story at all. What had they seen in what I sent them that they didn’t want to change? How in the world did I get this second chance if this book is that terrible? Maybe I should just give up writing. I can sell all my stuff and sit around in a sweat lodge until I receive some sort of enlightenment on what I’m ACTUALLY supposed to be doing with my life. I’m a horrible writer. It’s all over. Lights. Growing. Dim…

The second feeling. How dare they? I sent them a masterpiece–literary perfection! So what if I thought that many of these same things weren’t working. I mean, really, some of these suggestions. Well, you can rest assured I’m not doing that. My character would never do that. This is just not going to work for me. They just don’t understand my genius. Self-publishing, here I come!

The third feeling–I’m a little too close to this. Maybe I should put this letter away for a while, send it to my critique buddies for a different perspective. In the meantime, I’ll just wander over to the store and buy ALL THE FOOD and eat ALL MY FEELINGS. SN: Feelings taste pretty good with caramel, y’all. Like salty sweet goodness.

Now that I’ve had time, second opinions, sugary goodness, and a change in perspective from the ever wise Mr. Perfect, I peeked at the letter again. Hmm…not as bad as I thought. Yes, I knew that wasn’t working like I wanted it to before I hit send. No, I don’t think my character would do that normally, but if I did it this way it could work…

If this were the stages of grief, grieving the loss of the book I thought I was writing, I think I’d finally be at acceptance. I wrote my heart out. The manuscript still needs work. But they like it. And it’s not impossible to fix.

How have you dealt with a revise and resubmit letter?

Advertisement

Painful Honesty

Image of a stylized eye

The eye that looks inward allows good writing to flow outward.-Me! Image via Wikipedia

I had a story published in Prize Papers, an anthology my high school gave to students to show them models of good writing. They would refer to different types of essays found in the book when teaching, giving an illustration to students how to write well.

I never would have gotten this honor had it not been for Mrs. Jackson. I was in a memoir writing elective class called Self-Portraits. This was my first writing assignment for the class, and I wanted to make sure it was good, so I wrote it a week early and gave it to Mrs. Jackson to read when she had study hall duty in the dorms.

I’d never seen so much red ink in all my life. What is this? I thought. I’m a good writer. I don’t make many grammatical errors or spelling errors. What all did she find that resulted in this massacre? It looked like the beaches of Normandy had exploded onto my personal essay. Never being shy when it comes to my writing, I asked her.

She went over all of her notes with me, pointing out all of the things she didn’t like about my essay. Her main critiques kept coming back to the main issue–it was surface layer writing. I didn’t use sharp enough descriptions. I glossed over how it felt. I didn’t stimulate the reader’s five senses or prick their hearts. It was a good idea for a paper, but not if I didn’t write it well. She said something like If you don’t want to dig past the surface, don’t write it.

After I got over being angry (she obviously had no idea what she’d just read; everyone knows how great I am at writing), I thought long and hard about the story I was telling. It was a true one, as far as that went. I’d faithfully recorded all the pertinent details, but I had to admit to myself it was a little flat. It was like the cold rough surface of a piece of coal; you know there’s a diamond inside, but how do you get to it?

While that realization was painful, her words are not the painful honesty of the title. The essay was about me in elementary school. I had a crush on a boy, and through a series of unfortunate events, he was told I was telling people he liked me. Not only did he disabuse me of this notion, the encounter ended with me being hit with a mud-filled tire, walking home soaked and muddy. It had crushed all of my self confidence, affecting all of my subsequent relationships with family and friends, and I couldn’t get away with chronicling it as if I’m telling you what I had for breakfast.

So I started over. I had to return to that moment. I wrote and I choked on tears. I paced my floor. Why am I saying this? Why am I putting this out there on display? I wrote honestly, crossed it out, wrote it in again. I went back and forth like a seasaw.

When I turned it in, my teacher was amazed. She chose it to be the first thing we critiqued. That wasn’t what I had planned. Everyone couldn’t read it! But they did, and they thought it was amazing. I was relieved. Then she told me she was nominating it for Prize Papers.

Since it was the first semester and they choose Prize Papers at the end of the year, I forgot about it. I’d been nominated before and hadn’t won, so I didn’t put much stock in my ability to win. I was sitting in the principal’s office (someone had opened an orange in class and I’d gotten sick; yes, I’m allergic to oranges) when in strode the best English teacher on the faculty (so I’d been told; I’d never taken a class with him, except a quick AP English Exam prep session). He saw me and put his hand over his heart (no joke). “I just read your piece for Prize Papers,” he said¬†(he was on the review board to choose the winners). Uh-oh. “It was so beautiful. I really related to it. It connected to…”

And that’s when it hit me. All of the choking and pacing and worrying, the struggle to be honest, the great care in choosing words to convey exactly how it was–all of that was so someone could read it and say “she’s writing about me! I’ve been there and done that.” When you write a piece that speaks to people and relays basic human truths, it’s going to hurt a bit. It forces you to look at yourself and make judgments. Whether it’s creative non-fiction or not, it has to be true and genuine and deeply felt.

I read a blog yesterday about finding the lie in your writing. The first essay didn’t work because I was lying, trying to make the whole thing seem like it was no big deal. I was attempting to distance myself from the incident, and ended up distancing myself from the essay.

How do you find the lie in your writing? How honest is too honest? Have you ever wrote until it hurt?