The Truth Hurts: Evaluating Your Writing
by Alex Schumacher
Welcome back to another Bread Crumbs from the Void! I am back and wishing a very happy hump day to those of you who are out there reading this bile. Along with my editor, Nathan, that makes about five of you. You have now endured a month of my berating so you deserve a round of applause. Or a nice stiff drink. Do not celebrate for too long though, you pansies. We have work to accomplish here. This is going to hurt you a lot more than it is going to hurt me, but remember it comes from a place of caring deep within my gut. Caring or indigestion, one of the two.
As I touched on last week (if you have not read that article yet you can do so at: http://five2onemagazine.com/2072-2/), rejections happen for myriad reasons. Editors receive a deluge of submissions constantly and they are looking for any excuse to shit-can a prospective contribution. The piece does not go anywhere. The piece is not the right fit for the issue they are currently producing. The piece is too raw for their fragile psyches and delicate sensibilities. Hell, I am convinced some editors have read two lines of my work, puked all over their designer jeans, and promptly sent me a rejection.
It is par for the course.
While I continue to receive my fair share of ‘thumbs downs’, I take solace in the fact that I have also found several homes for my wayward work. Along with those homes come the handful of individuals who appreciate the blood, sweat, and tears soaking my pages. With that support I continue to forge ahead, refusing to bow to the skewed fucking expectations of the literati. Now, if hyper-intellectualized storylines and flowery verse is your thing then I urge you to follow that path. Do what comes naturally. Emphasis on the ‘naturally’. The most important factor in writing is to be sure you are being honest to yourself and your work. Do not simply succumb to the opinion of dime store academics or attempt to impress some dipshit from the Atlantic Monthly.
If you have honed your craft, molded your writing, and you are still met with nothing but dismissals it may be time to reevaluate. It is not enough to be honest in your work. You also have to be honest about your work. Here are a few ways to do just that.
Putting Yourself Under the Microscope
To get those hard to reach problem areas in your writing, sometimes you need to dig in and be ultra-critical. I know, I know. Most writers already are their own worst critics. I am sure you have a short story, poem, haiku, or love song to your guinea pig that you cherish. One of those pieces you cannot cut loose. One of those pieces that, in the face of overwhelming apathy or derision, you continue to wish upon wish that it will find an audience.
If you have one of those pieces, these are your options: heavily revise, completely rewrite, or scrap the bastard. Especially if the thing has been unanimously shit on by a multitude of publications.
One of the best practices is to set the work aside for a few weeks or months and come back with fresh eyes. Focus on another project. Go on a bender. Join a cult. It does not matter what you do to while away the days and weeks, but make sure to give yourself enough distance from the piece to play the stranger on the subsequent read-through. If the words are still too familiar when you are reunited, it has not been long enough.
Put Baby back in the corner for a longer time-out.
I am not trying to suggest you will ever be able to fully remove yourself from your work. You conceive, incubate, and birth the deranged brainchild. Even if it turns out to be the most repulsive and hideous newborn, it will forever remain a part of you. It will forever be a parasite you cannot remove. What you can do is give yourself enough space to properly appraise your piece. When you are reading it through after a decent separation there are several questions, among many, you can ask yourself:
I also would strongly recommend reading some of your favorite writers, graphic novelists, essayists, etc. to assist in gauging your own work or providing some much needed inspiration. There is nothing like absorbing the work of someone you truly admire to simultaneously spark creativity and make you want to set your entire body of work on fire. Both are good for the soul, provided you do not indulge your arsonist tendencies. Not too often, anyway.
Writers and books you enjoy are not just for coffee table decorations anymore. They are extremely handy tools for revamping your technique. Cherry pick aspects from authors and poets you dig and see if you can weave them seamlessly into your own vibe. As an exercise try to write in the style of Hubert Selby, Jr. or Richard Price and see if you are up to the task. The good Doctor Hunter S. Thompson used to retype entire novels such as The Great Gatsby to get a sense of how to expertly pace and construct a sentence.
Putting yourself up against the giants of literature can be daunting and intimidating. You are not as good as they are. Most of them do not even belong on the pedestal where they have been placed. Keep in mind there was a time when they were not legends. There was a time when they were insignificant shit-stains looking for a way to put the Spanish Fly in their work. You have heard of them because they found their aphrodisiac.
That is the real lesson to take away from the icons in the field.
Wear the Bullseye
Something to consider while in self-deconstruction mode is how you are writing. It is possible your style comes across as contrived or forced. Maybe your lines that twirl with simile and metaphor smack of inauthenticity. Perhaps you need to drop the thesaurus and worry less about wowing with your gargantuan vocabulary. Knowing how to use ‘tumescent’ in a sentence does not make you a good storyteller. Whatever the case may be, if you have been continually submitting and continually had the proverbial door slammed in your face then this is certainly worth reviewing.
As it can be painfully difficult to meticulously scrutinize your own missives, seeking the council of one of the voices who does not live in your head could be beneficial. There are a remarkable number of resources online. It is not all free porn and pirated movies, kids. You can find a group on Goodreads or Facebook to network with other writers on social media and ask for their input. A quick Google search will turn up a staggering number of critique sites such as The Internet Writing Workshop (http://www.internetwritingworkshop.org/) and Toasted Cheese (http://www.toasted-cheese.com/).
Barring those choices, you could always solicit the honest opinion of someone in your life. The trick is being entirely sure that you can take their assessment for face value. My advice would be to find someone who would not mind ripping you a new asshole. In fact, locate someone who would jump at the chance! Off the top of my head I would recommend a spurned lover — maybe someone you gave herpes for Valentine’s Day — or the kid you pantsed in middle school in front of the entire gym class. That guy definitely still hates you.
Find someone you can trust to take you down a peg or two, and have them do just that.
Literary journals and magazines are by no means the only avenues to explore with your words in this day and age. There are comics and graphic novels which are finally starting to garner the literary recognition they deserve. Blogs are still relevant and fertile ground to develop your voice and/or a following. Worming your way into a position as a staff writer for a magazine is a great option to explore as well. In that scenario, you may just find a soul who is sympathetic to your plight. At some point they may even take pity on your sorry ass and publish some of your mostly ignored fiction or poetry.
Being objective about your own work is a boner killer. I know that as well as you. No one wants to pour over a finished product searching for cancerous moles and lesions to remove. Unfortunately such examination is absolutely critical in not only improving your writing, but uncovering the writer you would like to be.
To reiterate, do not just be honest in your work. Be honest about your work.
Come back next week when I will be chatting a bit about finding and crafting your voice and style. Until then keep scribbling, you freaks.
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