Rejection Doesn’t Bother Me

Being in the query trenches–doing research, entering contests, connecting with fellow authors–I hear a lot of people talking about rejection, how it’s disheartening and soul-crushing and despair-inducing.  And honestly, that reaction leaves me kind of perplexed.  Not that I haven’t encountered rejection, but my reaction is usually a brief “Drat” before popping over to my handy spreadsheet to note the details and see where it’s going next.  It’s not as though I’m a particularly optimistic person (I’m a ruthless pragmatist if nothing else), so for a while I just couldn’t figure out the disconnect.

Then it hit me.  See, from elementary school all the way up through college, I was heavily involved in choir and theatre.  So there’s the sheer volume of experience points I’ve earned in the “getting passed over” skill, true, but I think it also means I approach the whole process with a rather different mindset.

Since illustrative examples are my very favorite thing in the whole world (or at least in this blog), it’s story time.  My senior year of high school, I finally made the All-State Honor Choir.  Rather than being placed via directorial discretion, singers went through a series of exercises, were judged based on a standardized metric, and given a score, which then translated to a ranking.  Take the top-ranked people and you had a choir.  But there was something curious about the scores: the range for qualifying as a soprano was 95-98, while tenor scores ran 92-96.  So a singer who scored a 94 would make the cut if they were a tenor, but not if they were a soprano.

That’s bullshit, right?  Nope!  Because even when the point is ostensibly to show off the objective best of the best, it is not about how good you are.  They weren’t just publishing a list of the rankings: this was an ensemble, one that got together and rehearsed and then gave a big concert.  So it wasn’t the 200 best singers in Arizona (or it would be mostly sopranos *CHOIR BURN*), it was the 50 best singers in each of four voice parts, except the music occasionally goes into six or seven parts so you have to make sure you’ve got sopranos who can take the harmony instead of just camping out on the high notes, and everyone has to blend together while still holding their own parts.  So yes, there’s a minimum standard of skill and talent (you couldn’t even audition for All-State unless you’d first made it through the whole process at the regional level) but meeting that standard is not enough to guarantee placement.

More recently, I was reminiscing with some fellow Disneyland vets, and we got onto the topic of Entertainment casting.  Specifically, someone brought up the fact that the girls who play the princesses all have busts no larger than about a B-cup.  See, the costumes are heinously expensive, and they have a small army of pretty clones that rotate through the different characters from day to day, so they aren’t going to alter those gowns for anyone.  Either you fit into it or you don’t.

One friend hadn’t known that, and told us about going through character auditions where they seemed to really like her, but she didn’t get called.  Said friend was probably a B-cup for only about a week during puberty.  “Is it weird that knowing that makes me feel better about the whole thing?” she asked.  I told her that it wasn’t.  She’s spent years thinking that she just wasn’t pretty or graceful enough to make the cut, when it was really just never going to happen because of her huge tracts of land.

The “it was never going to happen” bit might seem fatalistic and depressing, but keep in mind that we’re not talking about her entire performing career.  We’re talking about one single audition.  An actor or performer knows that their career is going to consist of dozens of roles and hundreds–if not thousands–of auditions.  You learn quickly that there are tons of factors you just can’t control, like the bust size thing, or if your judge has an irrational hatred toward your chosen audition piece, or if the whole thing is just for show because the part’s already been cast.  Pinning your hopes on every single audition as your big break is exhausting, draining, and ultimately unsustainable: a sprinter taking on not a marathon, but a transcontinental journey on foot.  One-way ticket to burnout.

So, 750 words in, what does this have to do with writing?

I get a distinct impression from some of my fellow writers that they approach querying as a request for admission to the publishing world in general, like all you need is an insider’s stamp of approval and then you’re on the gravy train.  But while I don’t pretend to speak with any authority here, I’m seeing over and over and over that a given query is really an audition for a spot on that agent’s list.  Really, that’s it.  No more, no less.

Just like with an audition, there are numerous factors that could lead to a pass that have nothing to do with the quality of your manuscript: one of their existing clients could be working on a similar concept, or the sense of humor might not be to their taste, or they might have a pretty full roster and stay open to submissions only so they don’t miss the next giant blockbuster.

And just like with an audition, all you can do is show up, act professional, and give your best effort.  You make sure that you’re ready to play with the big boys by putting your manuscript through several rounds of revisions and of readers who aren’t concerned about your feelings.  (Friends and family don’t count unless you know they’ll be brutally honest.  I’m sure all those tone-deaf people in American Idol auditions have loved ones who tell them they’re amazing.  Get objective feedback before you go for the pros.)  You read everything you can in your category and genre to get a feel for what’s popular and what’s been done.  You keep up with industry chatter to learn what’s expected and what rookie mistakes to avoid (something the internet and social media have made dead easy).  You follow submission guidelines exactly.  You research agents and focus your energy on the ones that represent the sort of thing you’re selling.

It doesn’t mean that you can’t get through if you stumble on any of these, just like you can still get a part even if you miss a dance step or aren’t remotely what they thought they wanted.  You prepare the best you can, then get out on stage and see what happens.

Even if you’re lucky enough to be a full-time writer, you’ve still got a lot of other stuff to deal with, and a finite amount of brainspace and energy to dedicate to the querying process.  Don’t waste it on things that you can’t change anyway.  Once you’ve covered the bases that are yours to cover, it just comes down to finding the right fit.  So when an agent says that fit isn’t them, it’s really no big deal.  You just shrug and move on.

How SPEAK Gave Me (and YA) a Voice

How SPEAK Gave Me (and YA) a Voice

THE FIRST TEN LIES THEY TELL YOU IN HIGH SCHOOL

  1. We are here to help you.
  2. You will have enough time to get to your class before the bell rings.
  3. The dress code will be enforced.
  4. No smoking is allowed on school grounds.
  5. Our football team will win the championship this year.
  6. We expect more of you here.
  7. Guidance counselors are always available to listen.
  8. Your schedule was created with your needs in mind.
  9. Your locker combination is private.
  10. These will be the years you look back on fondly.

This passage probably did not just blow your mind.  It would fit in well with any number of novels published in the last few years, when sardonic and unsentimental takes on the high school experience have become the norm.  So it’s rather difficult to convey to someone who came of age in the current literary landscape what it was like to pick up Speak as a high school sophomore 15 years ago.  (Allow me to step away for a moment for the obligatory “Holy shit I’m getting old” crisis.)

Though Wikipedia tells me that YA can trace its roots back to the 1920s, that wasn’t my experience of the library.  The elementary school library was roughly sectioned by age: a big open area for the kiddie books, then a section of what would now be considered middle grade, with the Grown Up books arranged by Dewey Decimal along the back wall.  Junior high and high school shrank the kiddie sections and expanded the reference, but it was still roughly the same.  And the public library didn’t even bother with the age designations, just lumped it all in the kids’ room.  Sure, books with young protagonists like The Bell Jar or I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings were there, but they were Dewey Decimaled or hidden among the adult fiction (or, as it was always referred to then, “fiction”).  I was a precocious and voracious reader, but literature spoke to me as a mini-adult, not as a teenager.  Books that featured kids my own age were either fantasies, set in such different times that they might as well have been fantasies, or saccharine and twee series like Sweet Valley High and The Baby-sitters Club that this disaffected suburban loner could barely stomach.

Then my best friend Felicia, frequently the bibliophile Virgil to my Dante, told me about Speak.  “No really, you have to read this,” she said.

So I did.

And then I turned around immediately and did it again.

Seriously, I’m not sure I can adequately express how un-fucking-precedented this was to me.  I mean, I identified with the heroines of my girl-power fantasy novels, but my day-to-day problems rarely involved crossing the high seas or fulfilling prophecies.  No one wrote novels about disaffected suburban loners.  Yet here she was: barely tolerating pep rallies, looking for places to hide from the world, bewildering her unhappy parents, bouncing off of cliques that had no place for her.  I had not shared Melinda’s trauma, but there on the page was a girl whose life and observations looked like mine.

It was a goddamn revelation.

Recently in Barnes and Noble, I saw Speak on a table labeled “What Teens Are Reading.”  It was a display amid several shelves all labeled Teen, shelves at the front of the store that prominently preempt the good old “fiction”.  Make no mistake, kids, this kind of geologic shift is a revolution, and I couldn’t be more thrilled.

The fact that I still remember this experience so vividly all these years later is a testament to why representation matters, and why I am a huge supporter of diverse books even as a hetero brunette white girl.  Sure, I didn’t have any problem finding characters who looked like me, but I had never before encountered a character who acted like me, who thought like me.  Speak gave me a message for the first time that went counter to everything that everyone had ever told me:

You are not abnormal.

You are broken, but not beyond repair.

You will survive this.

You are not alone.

Everyone deserves to hear that message.  Everyone deserves to have their story told.

Speak was and is a capital-I Important Book, but I’m glad it’s no longer a unique one.  The increasing breadth, depth, and complexity of the YA landscape is bringing us, slowly but surely, toward the day where a kid reading their own voice reflected back to them is a matter of course and not a life-changing event.

Nothing to See, Move Along

I have a blog post percolating, I swear.  I actually have several percolating, about Captain America and Jack Sparrow and the Jungle Cruise and the merits of writing reviews.  (Those are all separate topics, before you go getting any ideas.)

However, there are two reasons why I have no new post today.

Reason the first: I am participating in CampNaNoWriMo this month (yay!) and am rather behind (less yay).

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Reason the second: Apparently the combination of Tylenol PM last night and caffeine this morning has resulted in Jitters O’ Doom.

bugs-bunny-jitters-o

So coherent thought isn’t really a priority at the moment.  I really am trying to set something of a normal schedule with this blog, but trust me, we’re better off this way.