The Canadian Writers' Collective

Writing, and writerly tangents

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Timing is Everything

By Anna McDougall

Note for next summer: Upon return from holiday, have the good sense to write first and open mail second.


Great vacation. No laptop, no newspaper. Even the cell phone was without service on those country roads. Camping and visiting family in the pleasant land of Saskatchewan did me good. Put life in perspective: family – spirit – mind - body. Returned home rested and inspired. Must capture this mood in my writing! Can’t wait to start fresh tomorrow morning.


Four pounds heavier and two shades darker, I plunk down at the computer at five AM. Three bolded subject lines, each a variant on the ‘your submission’ theme pop into my mailbox. Without regard to what I’m risking mood-wise, I eagerly double click. The first is the standard “thanks but no thanks; good luck in publishing elsewhere”. Fine, I think. I will find it another home. The second note surprises me, but when I reread the flash with well rested eyes, I agree it could be better.

Opening three rejections in one day can be disheartening enough, but my third note includes lengthy detailed comments that crush any possibility for a productive morning of writing. My writing is bad and my topic uninteresting. I worry my story actually offended the editor. I read his words ten times before I stand up and go to the backyard to breathe. I’m not angry – yet. I’m still inspecting every word he chose and every sentence (which I memorize) hunting for a hopeful speck on which I can hang my shrinking esteem.


I read it again.


His assessment is bare and final. That the harsh comments are specific and well supported only hurts more. There is no wiggle room. Reading that the piece had major flaws that I can’t see myself – not before I submitted and not even now – is infuriating. How will I ever be able to edit my own work? At first I try to be thick-skinned and mature and all that. I read the comments as suggestions, make plans to improve the piece. I print off the letter and compare it with feedback from my writer’s group. Had my peers been too kind?

Long ago, I accepted that I’m not a natural, but I believed my writing would improve through reading and practice, if I was honest and determined. This rejection takes me back to the beginning, without the consolation that it is just the beginning. Maybe I won’t submit for a while. Just write for my own pleasure. Stick to workshops. Stay safe.


With this modest goal in mind,
I try to build something new.
Too scared. Too tense. I have no ear.
My best description deep blue.

Editing works in progress,
I second guess every word
Spend more time reading manuals,
Rewriting clichés I’ve heard.

Now I’m pissed.


I’m ready for a fight so I show the note to my husband.

“Can you please read this? And don’t tell me that ‘it’s ok’.”

“Yikes,” he says, handing me back the sheet.

“Yeah, I know. I need you to listen for a few minutes. Please don’t argue with me. Or agree with me. Just listen.”

I’m desperate to clear my head of the defensive arguments that naturally appear in the mind to protect the heart. Once voiced, they might stop rolling around in my head, blocking every entrance and exit, ruining any future chance for creative thought or expression.

“First of all, this guy obviously doesn’t have a clue what I’m trying to get at. Can you believe him criticizing the narrator’s values and behavior? Even in non-fiction, editors should be open to multiple points of view. Not everyone sees the world the same way.”

My husband doesn’t flinch. I’m safe.

“I honestly don’t know what’s so wrong with it. I don’t agree AT ALL with his assessment. I wasn’t trying to pretend anything with that middle section; it just is what it is…”

I sip my coffee.

“I’m actually working with the assumption that this poor fellow finished a hard day at work and came home to yet another deadline on a pile of dull submissions. He decided to take it out on someone. He may not have even read the whole thing. Probably skimmed it. Once.” I’m shaking my head, checking out small sandy footprints on the lino.

“Oh! Oh ! And did you see where he contradicted himself? Ha! What a joke!” I feel a sour smile form on my face.

“Seriously though, who do they think they are anyway? It’s not like they even pay their authors.”

“And that pretentious rhetorical question at the end! The answer is NOOOO!”

On I rant, slicing the air with my fingers, my best debating voice coming out of retirement. My poor husband stands across from me struggling to keep his face blank, but the slight wrinkle in his forehead suggests a concern for my sanity.

I imagine his gentle voice: I always felt you were pretty open to feedback.

“Well…of course there were some valid points, some things I can learn from…like the grammar error is an obvious one, but I’ll be damned if I’m giving up on this story! They’re lucky I let them be the first to consider it!”

At this, he raises an eyebrow.

“Thanks.” Time for a walk around the block.

I walk and walk. I think good thoughts.

You’re still a writer, because a writer writes.
Absorb encouragement, ignore the distractions.
Don’t look too far ahead, concentrate on today.
Focus on what you do well.
Float your own boat.
Your voice is valid.
Write what you know for now and when the timing is right for a challenge in content or in form, stretch. You’ll know the timing’s right because you’ll feel confident, courageous, and open.

Kind of like I felt on Sunday.

Emotionally spent, it takes me fifteen minutes to lope around the block. I remind myself that the submission process is nothing like a workshop. Rejections have no obligation to help or to inspire; they are explanations for why a story is simply not good enough to publish.

Rounding the driveway I am one step closer to my goal, calmly accepting professional criticism of my work, grateful to be treated as a serious writer.


Blogger Tricia Dower said...

Oh Anna, you need a big hug! Rejection sucks. I was right there with you going through your hurt and anger and dismay. You're a wonderful writer. Here's an inspirational anecdote: Mary Yukari Waters has won numerous awards for her work. In a workshop she told us that one of her stories was rejected by 40 different magazines until it found a home. That same story won a Pushcart Prize. Keep believing. You've got the right stuff.

Tue Aug 22, 01:16:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger J.A. McDougall said...

Thanks for the boost, Tricia!

Tue Aug 22, 07:12:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger H.E.Eigler said...


Every single writer on the planet can identify with this post. Keep on truckin' and you'll get where you want to be - Lord knows you have the talent!!

Tue Aug 22, 08:07:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger tamara said...

But I applaud you, you're actually submitting! The alternative, shying away from it as I do, is a poor excuse for fear of rejection. This post helped remind me that it's never a sure thing, for anyone. Thanks for that, Anna.

Mon Aug 28, 12:17:00 pm GMT-4  

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