Friday, April 30, 2010

About Rejections (Part 4 of 9)

Some manuscripts are published that don't deserve it, and we can point to many reasons.

A few years ago, an aspiring writer asked me to look at a few chapters of his book. I did and wrote back, "It's as good as thirty other books; but it's not better than thirty other books." By that I meant it was all right. It wasn't particularly insightful and he wrote nothing significant that hadn't been said countless times.

Whenever I hear agents and editors at conferences, they say they want excellent writing. By excellent, I think they mean more than cleverly crafted sentences, but they want distinctive writing as well. "Say it to me in a fresh way" is my interpretation.

I'll tell you the secret to distinctive writing: It comes from within and expresses the depth of your soul. The best kind of writing occurs when you speak from your heart (and it doesn't have to be autobiographical). It's called being vulnerable or transparent. Too many writers can't do that. They had an insatiable need to be liked or admired and those needs become more important than being true to their convictions.

I would rather be disliked for who I am than to be admired for who I'm not.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

About Rejections (Part 3 of 9)

Why do editors reject our manuscripts? Aside from personal taste, here are what I consider the two most common reasons.

1. It wasn't well written. Too many writers seem satisfied with their work. Today the word entitlement reflects that attitude. "I worked hard on that article and I think it's good. Therefore. . . "

2. The writing or the material isn’t distinctive. Here’s an example of what I mean by that statement. A few months ago, I received a book manuscript from a writer who wanted me to endorse it. He was thoroughly orthodox and totally boring. Everything he wrote was true, but most of the illustrations probably originated with Tolstoy or Dickens. Today’s writers need a fresh approach to any topic.

By contrast, I wanted to write an article about getting an agent. That’s usually considered ho-hum material because articles like that appear annually in most writers magazines. How could I make my article different? Simple. I shifted focus and called it, "Why Would an Agent Want Me for a Client?" The editor bought it and I’ve had the article reprinted several times.

Was my article better written than others? Probably not, but it was distinctive. I took a different approach and that made it stand out.

You don't have any new truth to offer; you can write from an original perspective.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Permission to Quote

Shirley Corder asked permission to quote from my blog. The answer is yes.

People may quote as much and as often as they like provided (1) they ask permission, and (2) they include my name, spelled correctly.

Twila inserts comment here: Cec's last name is Murphey, spelled with an E. Cec really has a problem with those non-E Murphys.

Too many stories and quotations flow across cyberspace without identifying the author. Somebody wrote those words and deserves the credit.

I appeal to all writers: Don’t forward anything unless you know who wrote it and you have permission.

AND don’t change any words. Would you want someone to do that to your writing?

Friday, April 23, 2010

About Rejections (Part 2 of 9)

One of the most painful lessons to learn is that when editors say no, it's not personal. Editors and agents turn down the material and that makes no personal judgment about the writer. Although I knew that intellectually, for several years I went into an emotional downswing every time I received a rejection.

And why wouldn't we have emotional meltdowns? We throw ourselves into the writing arena and many of us can’t separate the professional response from personal rejection. Here’s something I used to say when I received turndowns: This reflects the work I submitted; it says nothing about me as a person.

I also want to encourage those of you who receive rejection slips: Don’t allow rejection to shake your faith in your work or in yourself. (Your work may deserve rejection but that's another topic.) If you believe in something you’ve written, keep sending it out—a dozen times if necessary—until it’s accepted. Occasionally manuscripts are accepted after twenty or more rejections. In 2002, I wrote a book for women whose sons, husbands, or relatives had been sexually abused. Every publisher I tried turned me down, although I got close once. An editor wrote, "This book deserves to be in print, but our company will never do it."

In the summer of 2008, at a book trade show, Steve Barclift of Kregel Books told me he'd wanted to publish something by me for several years. "I have one book," I told him, "but you won't take it."

"Try me," he said.

I told him the idea and he said, "I'd like to see it." In early 2009, Kregel issued a contract. When a Man you Love Was Abused: A Woman's Guide to Helping Him Overcome Childhood Molestation comes out this spring.

A rejection reflects the work I submitted; it says nothing about me as an individual.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

About Rejections (Part 1 of 9)

Early in my writing career, I sent a manuscript to Christianity Today and within weeks I received a rejection. Inadvertently, I sent the manuscript back to the same magazine. Two weeks later, the same editor not only accepted my article but also asked if I wanted to write paid book reviews. (Not being stupid, I said yes.)

I’m not encouraging writers to follow my example but only to point out that rejection is a subjective response. The cliché holds true: "What one editor hates another one loves."

Here’s another truism: If you’re going to submit material for publication, you’ll receive rejections. That’s a guarantee.

At a writers’ conference in North Carolina in 2001, the speaker asked those of us who had received more than ten rejections to stand. More than half the conferees rose. "How many have received twenty? twenty-five? thirty?"

As the numbers increased, fewer people remained standing. At the end, I was one of only three left. All of us admitted to having received more than a hundred rejections. I’ve been writing longer than the other two, so I assume I had more rejections. None of us felt embarrassed. In fact, one of them said, "Rejections are our red badge of courage—we had fought the battles and turndowns are our wounds."

Rejection is an unwanted-but-necessary part of professional writing. If you can't handle rejections, don't submit for publication.

Monday, April 19, 2010

The Slant Question

Jim asked if slanting meant changing the message. The answer is a loud no. Slanting means to shift the writing for those who read that magazine. My values remained the same. In that instance, instead of directing my article to parents I edited it slightly and aimed it at adults.

(Twila tried hard to think of a humorous slant to Cec's new post, but the subject was much too serious. At least I can pop up and say hi, she thought. "Hi, everybody!")

Friday, April 16, 2010

Slant It

You can write your article two different ways. The common method is to write an article and search for a magazine or ezine to publish it. A better way is to slant the article to fit the needs of a particular publisher. That's called "knowing your markets."

For instance, I don’t like put-down jokes and I decided to write an article on the subject. I aimed it at parents so that they could set the example for their children.

I sent the article to Focus on the Family and their guidelines stated that staff wrote 90 percent of their articles. I had studied the magazine enough to know my article fit their scope and style, so I sent it. Three weeks later an editor wrote to say she liked the article and that it was exactly the kind of material they wanted. (I felt affirmed by that comment.)

The problem was that they didn’t see how they could use it for at least a year. "This isn’t fair to you," she wrote, "so please feel free to sell it elsewhere. If you have not sold it within six months, please send it back and we’ll accept it for publication."

I didn't want to wait. I changed three sentences to focus on adults in general, gave it a new title, and sent it to Signs of the Times. They bought it and also paid more money than Focus.

In my early days of writing I wouldn’t have known how to do that. Despite my changing the slant for a second magazine, the principles of writing articles still holds. I started my article with one basic thought, illustrated my point, illustrated the harm of put-down jokes, and offered suggestions on how to avoid that type of humor.

Slanting is part of the craft we learn. It's more work to slant your writing for a specific publication, but it's a sign of professionalism.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Start to Finish (Part 10 of 10)

Stop. Let go.

When I finished the eighteenth draft of my first article, I knew I couldn’t improve it. Today I could, but that was the best I could do then. An editor or someone else might make it better, or in another year I might have developed my skills enough to make it better. But not then.

To myself I said aloud, "This is the best I can do at this stage of my development." I still repeat those words before I send in a manuscript. It’s my way to let it go.

When you say, "This is the best I can do at this stage of my development," you give yourself permission to stop.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Start to Finish (Part 9 of 10)

Polish the article again.

You've edited once and you're finished.

I doubt it.

Keep editing and revising it until you know you can’t make it better. The first article I ever wrote for publication (and it was accepted the first time out), I wrote eighteen full drafts, and that was in the typewriter days. My first draft was slightly more than 900 words. I tend to be a skinny writer (physically and professionally), and each time I revised I added information and illustrations. When I finished, I had about 2,000 words, which was the right length for periodicals in the 1970s.

Look for redundancies. Most writers tend to overwrite and to say the same thing three or four times with different words. In print, you need to say something only once (unless you're using it as a literary device). Therefore, when you polish, aim for brief articles and short chapters.

Today, articles run 800 to 1800 words and if you stay below 1200 words, you're probably about right. Chapters have also gotten shorter. Look at the novels of James Patterson for example. None of his chapters takes up more than five pages. Each is one scene, and a decade ago editors would have combined several of them into a single chapter. Patterson caters to the byte-size generation and his books consistently hit the best-seller lists.

Your writing may not hit the best-seller lists, but you can make it the best writing you're capable of producing. And if it's your best, that's good enough—for now.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Start to Finish (Part 8 of 10)

Ignore the manuscript for a time.

Many writers feel exhilarated or relieved when they write the final word and want to get it to the editor or agent. Resist that urge. Look at it again critically. Does this sentence make sense? Did I explain it thoroughly? Did I over-explain?

After I close the file on a manuscript and leave it a few days, perhaps as long as a month, I've always improved it. I use the absolute always because I mean without exception.

When I return to the material, I read it with new insight because the material has been churning in my unconscious mind. (I intentionally put the previous sentence in the passive voice. I could have written: My unconscious mind churned the material, but the emphasis was on the action (churning) and not on the actor (my mind). This is an extra tip.

Write to get the story written; rewrite to improve the quality.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Start to Finish (Part 7 of 10)

Shorten those sentences.

Grumble if you like, but terse-and-clear is the mark of good writing. Whether or not you think a sentence is too short, in order to write well, it probably isn't too short at all.

Read that 15-word sentence again. You can cut words. Whether implies or not. At all is redundant and you can cut in order. I'd suggest you make the sentence read this way: If you think a sentence is too short, it probably isn't.

When I first started to write, the late Charlie Shedd taught, "Never make a sentence longer than 15 words." His words were a bit arbitrary, but in those days 50 words wasn't too long a sentence. Yet vigilantly limited to no more than15 makes choppy writing.

Here's how I say it: "Let your sentences average no more than 20 words." Good writing doesn't demand a word limit on a sentence. Take as long as you need to express a thought. Afterward, go back and ask if you can eliminate words or perhaps make a long sentence into two.

If you write succinctly and clearly, you're one rung higher on the good-writer ladder. You can figure out the antithesis of that statement. Antithesis is a good word, but it may be beyond the vocabulary of some readers. Why not say the opposite? That's another tip.

Good writers cut ruthlessly.