Note: Like Clare, I’m in a topsy-turvy environment this week–a beloved family member has come to live with us (my father-in-law, who is 93 years old). I’m entering a brave new world, trying to make sure we can successfully manage his needs in our hectic household. I’m not sure our rambunctious Lab puppy has gotten the memo–he’s already torn up a pair of Dad’s slippers.
Meanwhile, I’ve been thinking a lot recently about what rejection means to writers. At the writer’s groups I attend, people frequently talk about rejection. Someone will mention that an editor, agent, or magazine has rejected a submission. When this happens, everyone at the table nods in sympathy. They make encouraging comments like, “Keep sending it out. You have to go through a lot of rejection to get published.”
I’ve been sitting silently during some of these morale-boosting sessions. In these cases, I know that the submitted work wasn’t publishable quality. Yet I’ve watched the writer toil over it in our group sessions, rewriting and revising the work, sometimes for years. And it just hasn’t gotten to the level it needs to be.
Recently a member came to a meeting in tears. She’s been working on a novel for years. After laboring over the story with us, she showed it to a friend who is a published author. The friend went ballistic in her comments.
“She sounded so angry about the writing,” the woman said at our meeting. “Outraged, like how could I have been so stupid to think this was good?”
This woman felt blind-sided and abused by her friend, but I couldn’t help agreeing with the critique. The novel isn’t ready to submit–it’s nowhere close. And yet in our group sessions, we have this polite way of focusing on the good, while regretfully, almost as a postscript, mentioning things that need to be fixed.
I think we let each other down by doing that. We have let this writer spend years on her novel, thinking that it’s getting better, thinking that it’s going to be published, when there’s no chance whatsoever of that happening.
I don’t know what the best approach is in these cases. What do you do when someone’s writing doesn’t improve no matter how hard they work at it? Should you continue to encourage, or hit them over the head with a sledgehammer like this woman’s friend did? In the end, I think it was our group that let her down, not her critical friend (to whom she’s no longer speaking, by the way). We should have been more honest with her all along. The problem is, you can lose a lot of friends and critique group members that way.
If you’ve made every suggestion you can think of and the writing hasn’t measurably improved, do you simply say, “This needs a page one rewrite–I’m afraid it’s not working at all.” I honestly don’t know what the right approach is.
What do you think?