Welcome to SCRAWL SPACE, Greg’s blog. Here he waxes eloquent on all things relating to writing and the writing life. In other words, it’s where he loves to waste his time and that of his readers. He’s very happy you’ve stopped by. You, too, Dad.
If you’re a writer – particularly if you’re a fiction writer, or a poet (you poor thing) – you know how it feels to work your creativity to the bone for little reward.
You can change all that. All you need is a little self-deception.
The trouble with many of us writers is we set challenging and often unrealistic goals, expectations and standards with regard to our work and our financial gains related to it. We all aim to create books of Cormac McCarthy-type quality and rake in J.K. Rowling-type sales figures. And when we inevitably end up falling ridiculously short, we brood, question our talent, and seriously consider pawning our laptop and thesaurus.
There’s no need for us writers to be so hard on ourselves. Leave that to literary agents and publishers, and to readers who comment on our Amazon page after we self-publish. What we need are a few easy wins, a couple of small accomplishments, to help inspire us to keep fighting the good fight and writing the good (or at least mediocre) write.
What we need is to lower the bar a bit.
With that in mind, following are some slightly less lofty goals, expectations and standards to shoot for going forward:
Write 100 words a day. Stop being so ridiculously ambitious with your 1,000 or 2,000 words-a-day goal. All that does is leave you burnt out and disappointed. Now, a hundred words a day… that’s something you could do in your sleep, leaving you with a lot more time during the day to get drunk in celebration of your achievement.
Receive personalized rejection notices. Enough with your pipe dream of having a literary agent tell you she/he is interested in your novel. Just be happy when you get a rejection notice that actually includes your full name and the title of your book that will never get representation. Most agents these days either completely ignore queries or reject them with a form letter, so yeah, you’d better be proud when you get personally spurned. It means you’ve almost come close to making it.
No more than one typo… per page. With all the distractions of Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and Tinder, nobody can expect a writer to write totally clean copy, or even to catch their grammatical and spelling errors during the editing process. If you can keep your typos down to just one per manuscript page, you deserve a pat on the back and have earned the right to continue wasting valuable time on social media and dating apps.
Sell more than one copy the first week. All your friends and relatives and people you corner at gatherings and the grocery store will express tremendous interest in your novel, but only .001 percent of them will actually buy it. Knowing this going in will save you lots of disappointment and self-harm. Now, certainly your own mother or father (though probably not both) will buy your book immediately after it becomes available, so selling one copy the first week is nothing to cheer about. However, if another human being (and no, you don’t count) purchases your book the first week, you’re allowed to pretend to be proud. If five or more people buy your book the first week, you’re allowed to actually be proud.
Get two legitimate reviews on Amazon. Too many authors – especially newbies – eagerly check their Amazon page for rave reviews every few hours after releasing a book. First off, it’s difficult to garner a ton of reviews when only three people have read your book. Secondly, most people hate to take the time to write anything, aside from Facebook posts about their kid or how upset they are about the season finale of their favorite TV show. So waiting for a bunch of reviews to pour in is an exercise in futility. Set the bar at two reviews on Amazon (over the life of your book), and there’s a fair chance you’ll achieve your goal. Just don’t expect either of the reviews to be more than three stars. Remember, you’ve got to aim low to guarantee the illusion of success.
Win an award…of your own making. Forget about the PEN/Faulkner Award or the Man Booker Prize – those are for masters like Philip Roth and Don DeLillo or writers you’ve never heard of but who got their MFA at Brown. It’s easy to feel like a failure if you shoot only for the elite book awards. Still, winning at least some type of book award is essential to tricking yourself into thinking you’re a successful writer. That’s why I recommend vying for awards that have a minimal number of entrants, such as awards you yourself create. You’re a fiction writer, so there’s nothing wrong with winning a fictional award. Before I was lucky enough to win an Independent Publishers Award (“IPPY”) in 2015 for my novel The Exit Man, I was the proud recipient of such awards as “Best Dark Comedy About a Party Supply Store Owner Who Lives a Double Life as a Euthanasia Specialist” and “The Greg Levin Lifetime Achievement Award For Literary Brilliance.” Not to brag.
Feel free to leave a comment below. My goal used to be to get ten comments per blog post; now I’m following my own advice and shooting for one.
It’s not uncommon for writers to spiral into madness. Less common, however, is to have such spiraling captured nice and neatly in a spiral-bound notebook.
A couple of months ago, a waitress at a café in Portland, Oregon, found a journal someone had accidentally left behind at one of her tables. The waitress had never before seen the customer who‘d been sitting at the table, and the journal contained no name or contact information inside. What it did contain were numerous entries from an aspiring author who’d been gradually losing his patience – and, ultimately, his marbles.
Following are several key excerpts from the journal, which, ironically enough, will soon be published by Harper Collins.
August 12, 2015: I’m so excited – I finally finished writing my debut novel! Will hire a professional editor to get the book in tip-top shape before I start submitting it to literary agents. To help pay for the editing services, I plan to work a few extra shifts at my job, and to sell my plasma and sperm on a weekly basis.
September 8, 2015: Got my manuscript back from the professional editor, who corrected a ton of typos and grammatical errors, provided a lot of feedback on how to improve the beginning, middle and end of the book as well as most of the characters and dialogue, and she recommended I consider a career working with numbers rather than words. She did say mine wasn’t the absolute worst manuscript she’s ever edited, and I told her I was very grateful for the compliment. As soon as I stop crying and cutting myself, I’ll get to work on the second draft.
October 17, 2015: After more than a month of revisions and amphetamine use, I feel my manuscript is ready to submit to agents! I can’t afford to pay for any more professional editing, but my mother read the new draft and said it’s one of the best novels by one of her children she’s ever read. Tomorrow I shall send query letters to ten of the top literary agents specializing in my genre. I can’t believe it – in just a few weeks I might have an agent! Or a substance abuse problem. Probably both.
October 18, 2015: Wow, that was fast. Already received my first rejection from an agent. While she opted not to represent me/my novel, she must really respect me and my time; otherwise she would have drawn out the rejection process for weeks or months, or perhaps ignored my query letter altogether. Such prompt communication is a hopeful sign! Granted, the rejection came in the form of an auto-response email featuring the words ‘DO NOT REPLY’ in the subject line, but still, I believe good things lie ahead! Now where did I leave my Vicodin and my razor blades…
October 23, 2015: Received two more rejections today, one from an agent I didn’t even query, which is strange. Feeling a bit down, but nothing a little electroshock therapy and Red Bull won’t be able to fix. I keep reminding myself that Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was rejected 121 times before being published, and my manuscript features a much cooler font than his did.
October 29, 2015: There is a God! I received a request from an agent asking to see the first three chapters of my novel! I danced around the house naked for two hours. I then received a request from my neighbor asking that I close the blinds the next time I decide to dance.
November 8, 2015: Received two more form letter rejections, but what do I care? I’m practically signed already. I almost feel sorry for these foolish agents who are rejecting me now, as I can foresee the tremendous anguish and remorse they’ll each suffer once my novel explodes onto the bestseller list. It’ll be hard for any of them to bounce back from such an err in judgment, from such a missed opportunity. Just ask the guy who almost signed The Beatles or The Rolling Stones or The Wiggles.
November 17, 2015: It’s happening! The agent who requested the first three chapters a couple of weeks ago just asked me to send her the remainder of my manuscript. I drank a bottle of champagne and defiantly danced naked in the window facing my aforementioned neighbor’s house. Nobody tells this soon-to-be bestselling author what to do, not even the cops who are walking up my driveway right this moment.
November 18, 2015: Recovering nicely from the taser burns I suffered at the hands of the police yesterday. Thankfully no charges were made against me. The lead officer was kind enough to let me off with a warning after I promised to dedicate my upcoming bestseller to his German Shepherd.
December 1, 2015: There must have been some sort of a mix-up. Maybe it’s just a practical joke. Today I received a rejection notification from the agent who had requested my full manuscript. When I called her office to get to the bottom of this, they told me she was out to lunch – all 23 times I called. She has also yet to respond to any of the 27 emails I sent her since receiving the rejection a few hours ago. I can’t think straight. I can’t feel my legs. I can’t remember if any of my friends own a gun, or what the penalty is for kidnapping.
December 2, 2015: The reality of my recent rejection – when I was just inches away from literary fame and wealth – has just started to set in. So has the severe gastrointestinal distress from eating seven pints of Ben & Jerry’s Chunky Monkey ice cream with Diazepam sprinkles on top. After I induce vomiting, I think I’ll take a nice warm bath with the toaster. Oh, wait a sec, I think I see the mailman outside, and he appears to be smiling. Mailmen can sense good news inside of envelopes! I bet the three he just stuck in my mailbox are from agents dying to sign me!
December 2, 2015: Nope. Turns out the three envelopes were: 1) a credit card offer; 2) a warning from the electric company about my past due bills; and 3) another rejection notification from an agent. The plan now is to use the new credit card to pay the electric company as well as to buy a one-way plane ticket to New York City, where I will hand-deliver a basket full of dead rodents to each of the literary agencies that have spurned me. While in the city, I plan to also visit the Empire State Building and see who makes it down from the observation deck faster – me or my unpublished novel. See you in hell, everybody! (Assuming I don’t get rejected there, too.)
NOTE: You’ll be relieved to know there have been no recent reports of anyone jumping or attempting to jump from the top of the Empire State Building. That said, the body of a man with an Oregon ID was recently found on a bench in Central Park, lying next to a half-eaten manuscript.
There are plenty of feel-good quotes intended to inspire writers to fully embrace the craft and to dream and create and succeed.
I prefer quotes like this one from American science fiction writer John Scalzi:
"Engrave this in your brain: EVERY WRITER GETS REJECTED. You will be no different."
I have received my fair share of rejection letters from literary agents and publishers in my time as a writer. When I received my first few (back when I was pitching my debut novel, Notes on an Orange Burial) I became very discouraged and dispirited. After a while, however, I grew thicker skin. I also realized it wasn’t the agents’ and publishers’ fault that they were born without the ability to recognize latent literary brilliance. I just chalked it up to bad genetics. (Theirs, not mine.)
I even started to feel sorry for some of the agencies and publishing houses for lacking the wisdom and foresight to sign me. But I knew my pity wasn’t going to help them. So I decided to start rejecting their rejection letters with a rejection letter of my own.
Since I’m not a complete sociopath with a writing-career death wish, I never actually sent my “Rejection Letter for Rejecting a Rejection Letter” to any agents or publishers. However, I think it would be a lot of fun if you did so the next time you receive a rejection letter. (For those of you who aren’t writers, feel free to pass this post on to your friends or family members who are, or who think they are.)
And without further ado, here it is – the Rejection Letter for Rejecting a Rejection Letter:
Dear (name of agent or publisher),
Thank you very much for your recent rejection notification. Unfortunately, I am unable to accept your rejection at this time. Please understand that I receive a high volume of rejection notifications and must be highly selective in choosing those that I am able to handle.
The acceptance of rejection notifications is a highly subjective process. The fact that I have decided to pass on your rejection in no way signifies your rejection is sub-par, and I encourage you to continue rejecting authors’ queries and submissions. Just because I have decided to pass on your rejection doesn’t mean there aren’t numerous other authors who’d be happy to be rejected by you.
I wish you the best of luck in your future rejection endeavors and want to thank you for allowing me to review your work.
(Your name here. Or a made-up name – to ensure that you have a snowball’s chance in hell of ever having another agent or a publisher even THINK about accepting your manuscript.)
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