Dear Gallant Girl Heather Angelika,
As I understand it from your Gallant Girls posts, you are a published writer. I also long to be a writer someday. I am only 19 years old but I have the goal of becoming an author. I have already taken the steps to publishing but have begun to get very discouraged. I have received many rejection letters. I am trying not to let it get me down, but I wonder what I am doing wrong? I wondered if you could review one of my short stories and offer me some advice? I know that I have plenty of time and need more education, but I figured some pointers and constructive criticism from other writers could help.
Thank you for your thoughts.
Tisch School of the Arts
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Dear Gallant Girl Donia,
Thank you for writing in with such a fun topic! I am very happy to talk to an aspiring writer! I will be honest, I have a lot of people ask me about writing (from friends to other word lovers like yourself). I must admit that though I am a published author, I still consider myself merely a creative writer, and I often refer to myself as more of a Literary Artist. This is because, thus far, I have only published poetry books under my real name. Even though I am a freelance writer who has published articles, reviews, columns, and even app descriptions under various aliases, handles and pseudonyms, my predominant body of work is in poetry. This tweaks my “professional” advice quite a bit because poetry is a tricky genre—many publishing companies have given up on poetry (other than new editions of the classics) because it simply does not sell. So, my advice is less advice as it is just a conversation between two writers.
The first thing I want to tell you comes strictly from my own experiences… When you begin the submission process, it is VERY important that you follow each publisher’s submission guidelines down to the finest detail. One misstep and a publisher will toss your submission package to the “Rejection Pile”, lickety-split. This is because they have an overwhelming amount of submissions to go through and they won’t even bother getting past the title if they think you’re not put together enough or serious about your manuscript.
Yet, there’s one guideline I tell every writer to ignore, and that is that most publishing companies ask that you do not submit your manuscript/work to any other publishers while you’re awaiting a response from them. This is typically 6 months, give or take. I say NOT to do this. Every writer receives their fair share of rejection letters during the submission process, and if you don’t throw yourself out there to as many publishers as you can, you may not get a bite until you’ve got one foot in the grave! I have never followed this guideline—I took it as suggestion—and because of this, I not only got hits on my books, but I actually had choices. Even so, it took me a year and a half to get a book deal on my first release (I was 27). Publishing is a hurry up and wait industry. You have to have patience to be a writer because it can be so daunting, and if you’re anything like me, once you’re done with a lovechild/brainchild, you’re ready to send it out into the world the minute you have raised it into an adult.
As for the creative aspect of writing, I believe that writing is personal to every writer and it should always stay that way—creatively speaking. I tell all writers to avoid seeking advice and critique (unless in school). This is because there are all kinds of writers in this world, and just like any pastime, hobby or profession, there will always be people who think their way is the right or only way. Writers can be very hard on other writers! I hate to say this, but I have to: there is a lot of elitism and arrogance in writing, if you get involved with the wrong writing community. The most important thing you can do is to stay true to what works for YOU. I always tell other writers, “Get inspired, but don’t be influenced.”
Just like you’re doing with me, I once wrote another poet whose work I admired. I was asking her to write a forward for my third title. Her work is entirely different from mine, but that did not bother me one bit! Conversely, it bothered her. She told me to “strangle my darlings”, which essentially meant that she did not think some of my “darlings” in writing style were sophisticated enough, if not banal with my occasional rhyming couplets and frequent metaphors. I respected her opinion, but in no way am I going to give up the things I do because they are my things I do! They are darling to me, so even if they only appeal to one reader besides myself, than that’s what matters. Don’t abandon the things you love the most about your work; not even for publication. You must make yourself happy first. Write for you. Write like no one else is going to read your work; this is how you stay naked and honest.
What I will tell you is something one of my writing professors told me: Stay away from pretentious language as often is possible.
I have always had a mad love affair with words. I collect words because I LOVE vocabulary. I can’t tell you why I love some words more than others, but I just do (i.e. – asunder, splendor, doldrums, tenterhooks, persnickety, clandestine, lollygag, crestfallen, etc.). It’s okay to use whatever words you want whenever you want to use them, but if you have a treasure trove of what I call 10 Cent Words like I do, you might not want to use all of them at once. I used to do this because it is, literally, how I speak to myself in my head. Nonetheless, it might come off as pretentious to other people.
I notice that a lot of writers do this in different ways, but it all boils down to the same thing: Many write unlike they speak. This always comes off as pretentious language and lends itself to their readers thinking that the writers are trying too hard. It not only makes the work mildly painstaking to read because it becomes dry and stuffy and challenging, but it also comes off disingenuous. I know someone who has been trying to publish for most of their adult life without being able to. They are a good writer—they really know their stuff!—but they do not write the way they speak to themselves in their head. They are both incredibly too formal and literary, but also run off with clichéd run-on analogies (they have never asked my opinion so I have not offered it). In not so many words, their writing style is not relatable. We all do it! We all get longwinded, fluff laden and overly verbose. It’s something we all need to work on as writers because we’re excitable when it comes to words. Therefore, we need to train ourselves to trim down and become more plain-speaking and real on the page.
We also need to quit writing while thinking of who is going to read it and seeing all the faces of both them and our critics. Write like no one is in the room. Take that “Dance like no one is watching” adage and apply it to your craft.
I know my messages are contradictory right now, but as writers we have to understand the balance that keeps us sincere.
Unless you’re writing a dissertation, being graded, or have contract guidelines for a gig you need to put food on the table and pay your rent with…
… my advice, in simple terms, would be this:
* Stay true to you
* Write with the authentic voice inside of your head
* Write for you and let your readers follow
* Don’t overthink
* Don’t listen to anyone else’s advice unless you wholeheartedly agree
* When it comes to publishers: Don’t be too picky, but don’t be too eager, either.
Lastly, I would suggest not being opposed to small presses. I know a lot of writers who are holding out for a big book deal from a notable publishing company. I, personally, feel this is a sad loss on the publishing industry. The small press/independent publisher is a dying breed. Beyond too many writers holding out for a publisher of notoriety, we also have so many self-publishing options available now (and I have nothing against those! (I am just not there with my own writing……yet)). Self-publishing is putting a lot of indy publishers out of business. This is very, very sad to me. For my own books, I sought these small publishers out on purpose; it was because I wanted full creative control. Other than getting me set up with the Library of Congress, getting me my ISBN #(s), copywriting all my work, writing my synopsis, promotion, editing and printing my books, I oversaw everything from my books’ layout, promotional photos and cover art. I had publishers and editors that worked right alongside of me without me ever having to hand over full creative control once I signed on the dotted line. This is really a wonderful perk to signing a book contract with a small press. I wish more people would seek them out and give them their art. I believe the small press is still art in itself, and I don’t want to see them die out. Do not measure your success by whether or not Penguin Random House or HarperCollins want to put you in print. They are great publishers, but there are so many options out there that deserve you as much as you deserve publication.
I am 40 years old and you are 19, so you may have been in elementary school when MySpace was the social media playground (I can’t remember now how long it has been), but back in the day when I was promoting my second book, my publisher and I ran a promotional MySpace page for Don’t Rub Salt in the Heartbreak (now out of print). While on there, Harlan Coben requested me. I will admit to having never read one of his books, but my mom was a huge fan so I was familiar with him. Not knowing if it was a legitimate profile, I messaged him personally. Low and behold, it was indeed him. Because my book was still in production then, I asked if he would be interested in writing my forward. He confessed to appreciating poetry, but also not fully understanding it. However, in our back and forth, he once told me something I never forgot (yes, I saved and memorized it):
I like your enthusiasm for writing; I respect your loyalty to your work; I enjoy your spirit. Don’t get soured by an industry that celebrates books without celebrating rare writers or always originality.
That stuck with me, so I am passing it along to you. It was solid.
Publishing is a tough (and struggling) industry, so we all need to support one another. I have published books through 2 publishers (and am getting ready to sign with a third if I ever get this manuscript where I want it!), and have been offered contracts by 6 different publishing companies over my writing career. You will know, as you get in the negotiation phase of the publishing process, if the publisher is going to be the right fit for you. They won’t always be, and you have to take pride in the vision you have for your lovechild/brainchild by not sacrificing them before they’re ready to go out into the real world.
Good luck, Gallant Girl Donia! I look forward to picking you up from the proverbial shelf someday. Keep having faith in YOUR voice; no two should ever be alike. Keep it real, my friend.
Owner/founder of Gallant Girls