Sunday, May 1, 2011

Begin Again

There was an old man named Michael Finnegan,
He had whiskers on his chinnegan,
Along came the wind and blew them in again,
Poor old Michael Finnegan. Begin again!

- Kid's rhyme

Hi all,

How highfalutin', yes, starting off a blog post with a quote. Well, that's me in a nutshell: highfalutin'.

The other day I had an experience that is pretty common to me in ye olde writing life, but actually I haven't experienced in some time: the dreaded "R" word. Yes, that's right: regurgitation. Oh, wait, no--rejection.

Now certainly I, like many writers, have dealt with my fair share. But lately, partially as a result of just not wanting to absorb it, partially due to the fact that I'm not a freelancer at this point and so I don't HAVE to absorb it as a prerequisite of paying my rent, and partially because lately I've only sumbitted work where I've been invited to (meaning I'd pretty much have to shit the bed entirely to get rejected), I haven't had much of it.

But now I'm in a situation where I've got two pretty major things, a 9,000 word piece of long journalism and a 120-odd K novel that are finally coming together--they're not there as yet, but they're close--and the duty will soon fall to me to send them out into the wide, wide world.

In fact, I did so once already with the 9k piece. A word, from what I have gleaned, about magazine pieces: 9k is tough as hell to sell. 5k, maybe. Long form journalism in general is suffering a bit. At my magazine, Maximum Fitness, and a lot of others, we generally work on two things: "front of the book" pieces, which are 100-150 word bits that you can read quick, splashing 3-4-5 of these over the page to suit a theme, and our "feature well," where we have our 1,500-2,000k pieces. I wrote a piece for our upcoming issue (on penises, naturally) that clocked in at 3k and is probably the longest piece our company has run in years.

Now some magazines, like the New Yorker, Harpers, The Atlantic, GQ, Esquire, etc, will run longer form journalism. But what I've also come to realize is these places have their staff writers, who are on contract to write, say, 60k a year. With these writers tied into those contracts, there's a lot less room for freelancers to come along and snag a spot. There's no anger on my part at this---frankly, I'm glad for the writers who have a steady gig, as I do now. It's just harder to get in the door, especially when you're lugging a 9k behemoth.

That said, it's what I wrote, I think it's a decent piece, so I did with it what I usually do: I grind. I figure out ways to get an audience, at least.

So here's what I did: last year, at Here Weekly, I interviewed Adam Gopnick, a New Yorker writer. He mentioned his editor's name. I found said editor's email address and shot him off a missive asking whether he'd like to read this piece I'd written. He said sure, send it. So I did. A couple days later I sit down in front of my computer at work, 7:30am, and the email is there:

Re: Precious Cargo

Thanks, Mr. Davidson. This is a skillfully-written piece, with evocative prose and a compelling voice, but it's not quite right for us. You may want to try Harpers or American Scholar. -HF

Now, of course, you've got to go absorb that first gut-punch, that first setback, and (a) get through the remainder of your work day, and (b) embark on the necessary process of internalizing rejection, kicking it over, settling yourself to it and moving on.

This is an easier process sometimes than others. In this specific case, my line of reasoning went:

1. It's the New Yorker--this was a flier at best.
2. Next month you will have a book come out featuring a 20+-page scene where a dead man embalms himself, and the managing editor at the New Yorker just gave your piece a serious read and offered some kind words ... this, Craig, you should find terribly funny (and I did)
3. There are many other markets, and you have plenty of chances to find the one that suits this piece best; perhaps the New Yorker just wasn't the ideal market, and even if so, there are plenty of talented writers who are vying for that same spot.
4. Stop moaning and groaning and move on, you big softy!

And as such, I did move on. As one must. But this is a process that you have to go through a LOT when you're submitting. Now some people may be saying, "But Craig, you have an agent---why not send this to her and let her submit it?" My answer would be that, as much as my agent is a fine agent, I basically feel that I'm my best and most fervid cheerleader in most cases (which is kind of sad, really) and I have contacts of my own, and those I don't have I can usually find. I can send work to just about any magazine I want and get an audience, and I can know for sure it's been sent and the covering sentiments are my own. I NEED that knowledge. My agent has a million clients---not actually---and she's got lots of people to try to take care of. I have myself. So I submit a lot on my own, just for the surety.

Anyway, the point I'm trying to get at is that a lot of writing is the dealing with rejection, internalizing it, playing little tricks to get yourself to accept things, make changes, and still maintain a hopeful outlook with a given piece of writing. But it can be a hellishly long slog sometimes, and some days you'll get 2-3 rejections and it takes the wind right out of your sails.

And I'm especially mindful now because I'm living with someone who I love and my concern is that ... well, sometimes this stuff follows you home. It's an uneasy time for a writer, while their stuff is out there. You are casting your psyche upon the waters and you really don't know what you're going to get back, if anything. And I am normally a well-adjusted individual, but I've always been concerned that the dreaded "submission darkness of mood" is going to linger, that I'm going to carry it around like a pebble in my shoe. Sometimes writers are solitary, I think, because they aren't fully in control of their emotions during submission time---their emotions are dictated by what becomes of their work.

So, anyway, to that end I thought I'd take you on a little travelogue of my last submission, which was a short story entitled 'THE BURN.' This was over a year ago, when I wrote a story out of the blue. I realized that I kept a lot of the correspondence related to it and some people may find it interesting to see how I went about submitting it and some of the correspondence I received, plus my mindset (as best as I can recall) about how I dealt with rejection before moving on. Okay, so ...

Short Story
9k words (my fave length, apparently! This, again, is a tougher length to sell but it's the length I need to write a story.)
PLOT: A bus driver reflects on his time spent in Iraq, especially his fellow marine Billy Merryweather, who went a little Section 8.
Sent to: The New Yorker, Esquire, The Sun, Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, Crazyhorse, The Paris Review, The Walrus, some other places.

1. First off, send it to the New Yorker. It's the premier short story market. I sent it to their automated submission server.

2. That could take FOREVER to hear back, and chances were slim. I knew the fiction editor at Esquire. They don't publish much fiction anymore, but whatever. My email exchange with Esquire went as follows:


Hello T,

Ryan [D'Agostino, my editor at Esquire] shot me your email address. He said to tell you I'm 'the steroids guy' - how horribly reductive! But anyway, that is me. I started off as a fiction writer, and I still see myself as that. My first book, Rust and Bone, was stories. Anyway, I've written a short story and was thinking of sending it to Esquire. So if that would be okay, I'd be appreciative if you'd take a look.  Maybe it will be your cut of meat, maybe not. Maybe you'll tell me to go to hell and go through the proper channels - admittedly, I don't know what they are. Very best, Craig.


Sure, Craig. Send away. 
But a caveat—we’re not publishing a ton of fiction these days. Doesn’t mean we won’t again, but it’s always an uphill battle. You can send me stories directly, but do me favor and CC our fiction asst, as well. That way if I get buried etc, she’ll keep me honest.
Thanks, T

Months pass. Eventually I get a note (which I can't find, sadly), that said they'd been considering it very closely but ultimately had to pass. My internalization: Well, okay. It still got a good hard look from a publication not known to publish much fiction these days.

So then one day I open the email inbox to find:
Dear Mr. Davidson,
Your work here is truly impressive. Though the story is not what we’re looking for as far as publication, we do hope you continue to send us material.
The Editors

... took me awhile to figure out who the heck this was from. The New Yorker. So again, maybe close, maybe not, but definitely no cigar. But again, I say to myself: Esquire and the New Yorker said no. That's not awful, or particularly surprising. It would take a little luck to land either of those places. I can deal with that. It's shitty, but I can deal with it.

3. Next came a string of rejections. The Walrus, Crazyhorse, Glimmer Train, Tin House, The Black Warrior Review. A bit of a blow, seeing as these were pretty much form rejects when I'd been getting at least personal rejects from The New Yorker et al. This is the way a writer's mind works---even mine, despite the fact I'm pretty much the most leathery-hided member of our fraternity you'll find ... although every so often a rejection finds a soft seam in my bark and just pulverizes me.

4. One day I get this:

Mr. Davidson,

Thank you for submitting your manuscript to The Paris Review. We are unable to accept it for publication, but remain interested in your work and would like to see more of it. If you do choose to submit further work—and we hope you do—please remember to include a self addressed stamped envelope along with your submission.

All the best,
The Paris Review
62 White Street
New York, NY 10013
(212) 343-1333

... now I'm like "aaaaah, shit. Is this going to be one of those damn stories that gets serious consideration everywhere but doesn't get TAKEN anywhere? That would suck such serious rocks!" But whatever. You internalize, deal with it, move on, move on.

4. So another month goes by, maybe, and I've moved on to other work (which is another coping mechanism, in its way: just keep working). Open the mailbox and this is there:

Hi, Craig.
I'm one of the manuscript readers at The Sun, and the editors have asked me to get in touch with you about your submission of "The Burn." Please accept my apologies for the delay in our response. That delay is due in part to the fact that we liked the story very much, and so it had to make the rounds to our editors for their comments. Everyone here had very good things to say about the story. That said, there was a feeling that some revision could make the piece stronger still and give it a better chance of being accepted.
So I’m writing to tell you that the story is in a sort of limbo, in that we haven’t rejected it but we haven’t accepted it either. I want to share our thoughts about possible revisions and to ask whether you’d be interested in revising and resubmitting so we can take another look.
We were blown away by the rhythm and power of your writing: “So many perfect notes, it’s hard to resist just quoting them all,” one of our manuscript readers wrote (OK, that was me; I really admired this story). The story is extremely well written, expertly paced and compelling: “The characterizations of Bree, her father, Merryweather, the armless and legless vet … really excellent. The dynamics between them all are organic – we don’t have to be told how he feels about them, because it’s evident in their interactions. I love those interactions, the way they grow and evolve as he comes to love Bree. This story is tough and hard, but there’s a profound humanness that runs through it.”
That said, there were a few passages that we felt were written a bit too cryptically, the result being that we weren’t sure what happens, or why. We’d like to have these few issues clarified; otherwise, we think many readers will be left puzzled as much as moved.
I look forward to hearing from you.

Manuscript Reader
The Sun Magazine
107 N. Roberson St.
Chapel Hill NC 27516

... okaaaaay, so, this is what I guess would be a potential acceptance. Ths Sun is a very good market. I'm pleased with this. I understand the changes he would like and can see why he'd like them, but this is not an acceptance: even if I make the changes, it may not get picked up. D was very forthright about it, and quite honestly it was a lovely and kind note and as a writer it's always nice to see your work has been read carefully and critiqued.

6. As I was stewing on this, the exact same day, this comes in:

Hello Craig:
Sorry for taking so long to reply, but this is not our usual kind of story. We were very compelled by THE BURN and would like to consider it for publication---if you were willing to make some edits to make it more palatable to our readership. Please get back to me on this as soon as possible and I can outline the edits.
Thank you,
Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine

... so this is a situation that has happened to me once before, when I had a story accepted by two Canadian journals. You have to get back to one to apologize, and they can be angry, but my feeling has always been this: it would take a writer 5 years, possibly, to get a story accepted via single sub. If it gets a serious look many places, that can be 6 months. 6 + 6 + 6 + 6 ... it adds up. That's not an excuse, totally not, and as an editor myself I cannot be fully onboard with multisubs, but still ... still. I have to, honestly. I'd go insane otherwise. What if it gets lost in the mail? You're waiting a year for something that never got there!

7. So, anyway, two sort-of acceptances in one day. AHMM wanted cuts that were particular to their readership, so axe the cuss words and some of the sexuality. The reason it sent it to them, primarily, is because my father reads AHMM and I wanted to have something in his favorite mag. Either The Sun or AHMM had simple, doable cuts. The Sun was my preferred market.

8. That night as I was thinking about cuts I get this:

Dear Craig:
Thanks so much for sending “The Burn” for our consideration at Cincinnati Review. We’ve read the story with great pleasure and admiration, and I’d like to accept it—if it’s still available and if you’re amenable—for publication in issue 8.1, to come out in May 2011. We pay $25 per printed page, upon publication, and you would see edited proof in early March. Does all this sound OK?
Our graduate-student reader, the managing editor, and I all love the story—it’s pungent, sharp, powerful, and the poignancy sneaks up on you. (I’m also a fan, as I told you in a less happy context back in the spring, of The Fighter.) I’m delighted—pending your approval—to have your fiction appearing in Cincinnati Review. Many thanks to you for sending your excellent work our way.
Fiction Editor

... so now there's three. And this is a for-sure, no cuts acceptance. I like the Cincinnatti Review. I think the editor is a very good fellow and a fine writer himself (that part he's referring to, "the less happy context," was in reference to a professor position I'd applied for when I figured I wanted to teach writing in the States, and again---close but no cigar on that app). Anyway, this was awkward.

9. In the end, I went with the Review. Last issue they published Amy Hempel and Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, so they work with very good writers. I wrote back the other two magazines and told them of the decision. They were both cool with it, seeing as they'd held onto the story for awhile. THE BURN will be out next month, the summer issue, and seeing as it's a 29-pager I make 500-something bucks, which I don't really need and is less than probably The Sun and AHMM would have paid, but I was interested in keeping it intact as I'd written it.

10. UPSHOT? Well, I'm content. But it took a loooong time, there were many rejections, and for 6-7 months I wasn't sure it'd get published at all. It was a nagging worry at the back of my mind, background static, but that's how it always is. Every day of those months it crossed my mind at least one. Which is why I'm so hesitant to submit things, sometimes. That perpetual niggling concern. But there's no way around it that I can see. It's part and parcel of writing. I'm scared of it, honestly, but I guess I'm more scared of giving up and not sending out anything. Just barely, some days, but yeah, just enough.

11. My name is now potentially on the radar at The New Yorker and The Paris Review, and I've established a good relationship with The Sun and AHMM, all fine markets that I may sumbit to again down the line; I keep those emails so that I can print them up and send in with new subs, sort of as a reminder: "See? You asked me to sub again!"

12. Anyway, that's the game and the way it's played from my perspective. And now I'm preparing to play it all over again. For how long? Who can say. Maybe I'll get terrifically lucky right off the mark (well, after the New Yorker rejection). Maybe neither of them will get picked up anywhere. Maybe it'll be a long pitched battle with a decent outcome. There's no real way to know right now.

13. Play the game. Win the game, lose the game. Play the game.

14. It's not really a game.

15. Poor old Michael Finnegan. Begin again!

All best, Craig.