Friday, April 30, 2010

Thanks, but This Isn't for Us

If you’ve gotten rejection letters, then the title of Jessica Page Morrell’s book may sound familiar: Thanks, but This Isn’t for Us. (Subtitle: A (Sort of) Compassionate Guide to Why Your Writing is Being Rejected.) The book is meant for people who know that sting that comes with bland, generic rejection letters, and nevertheless want to keep going until they’ve reached publication (and beyond, of course).

Morrell’s book is provocative. Sometimes it’s intentionally so, to the point that it becomes obstreperously badass. For instance, was it necessary or even fruitful to compare writing to striptease? How many times did the author need to mention that she was going to act tough, but that editors out there are much worse? Still, the judgmental and unrestrained voice is effective. It’s funny, too. She has no patience for some types of fiction, and she is quite vocal about it.

All of this works to jolt you into realizing that many things can be wrong with your writing while you haven’t even noticed them. That’s probably what explains the rejection letters, although the letters themselves don’t bother to explain what the problem with a given story was. Morrell takes those things seriously, and fleshes out her points with dozens of examples from both published and unpublished material (quite a few of her clients were pilloried in the book—their names aren’t revealed, but still, poor souls).

The book covers plenty of ground. You get chapters on structure (such as how to divide your fiction into three acts, plot points, and scenes) as well as chapters on details (such as veering away from adverbs ending in “ly”). All of this is useful for people who are committed to writing.

I particularly liked how Morrell understands writing. Yes, there’s a lot of focused activities and long hours and an almost pathological love of words, but it’s also a craft used to entertain readers. No altars, no shivering. Take a look: “[I] want to suggest you need a more working-class version of the writing life. You need to see yourself as a skilled laborer, not an artiste who awakes each morning wondering how best to flirt with your muse. […] This means you write with a fully loaded toolbox of craft and habits and understanding” (34-35). More: “Repeat after me: my job is to entertain” (86). And more: “Grab a clue: stories need to be accessible in order to work. And a story that is a tortuous labyrinth of description is often a sign of a bloated ego” (113).

Notice how Morrell talks straight at us, and she doesn’t settle for half measures. In order to entertain adequately, and to make it in a very competitive book market, you need to produce something brilliant, accessible and powerful. Not easy. But Morrell’s advice is a good way to move closer to getting there. You won’t end up writing Beckett’s brilliant but rebarbative Worstward Ho. You’ll produce good, readable prose that’s fit for the market. And that’s not a bad thing.

One point Morrell emphasizes is plot. Plotlessness is not her friend, and in fact she considers it a deal breaker (her chapters always include a compendium of deal breakers). Characters can’t be wimps, and they have to become entangled in situations so messy that mere mortals wouldn’t know to handle them. Does that mean that they don’t have to be true to life? Morrell would blurt out that no, they do not. Reality is often too boring to make it as fiction, and Morrell wants us to realize that stories have to be hyped up, that problems in them need to be life-changing, that characters need to struggle (in fact, she wants us to have them suffer immensely to get what they want). Dialogue, for instance, is not a mere replica of what we hear every day: “it’s more like conversation’s greatest hits. It’s always crisper, punchier, and embedded with subtext” (166). And still it has to remain credible. And characters have to be people we can relate to. Again, not easy.

There are probably better books with which to get started on the literature about craft (in fact, there’s a recent one I’ll discuss later that suits the purpose marvelously well). But Morrell’s book is refreshing. On a side note, if we go by what we’re seeing in print lately, Morrell’s advice applies better to novels than to short stories. I’ve mentioned before how many of recent published short stories (in all sorts of venues) show precisely the problems Morrell considers deal breakers, such as lack of tension and plotlessness. It may be that short stories are indeed becoming the literature of a clique of loyal readers, and so they don’t demand the sort of thrills the mass market expects. Some people have said this already, and quite eloquently, so it’s nothing new. I’ll keep reading short stories, but it would be good to get a nice thrill from a short story every once in a while.

P.S.: Morrell has a webpage called The Writing Life. From there, you can jump to her blog: The Writing Life Too. And, while you’re at it, you can write her and ask to sign up for her newsletter, which is loaded with information about writing.

2 comments:

  1. Most of these books on how to publish hammer on the advice usually given to people willing to sacrifice any number of personal priniciples and artistic tenets in order to publish. It´s worth knowing how editors look at the books they review, but then again "this is not for us" might be a plain and simple truth that shows you are doing something right.

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  2. Juan: It could be. But these books are often packed with good advice, which does not always clash with a person's artistic vision.

    It depends on what you want to do, of course: if you're a rich heiress or a successful lawyer writing just for kicks, then it doesn't matter whether the book sells. If you do want to make a living off of it (and I know writers who would love to temper their artistic vision if that could get them a more robust share of the market), then it's not a bad idea at all to nudge your writing into what editors publish and the market craves.

    The prejudice against pandering to the market is in fact rather new. People like Charles Dickens were writing for the market, and unabashedly so. The catch is in retaining artistic distinctiveness while becoming compatible with the market. And that's tricky. Some writers can afford to turn more experimental once they have a bestselling book under their belt. It's not that fun to stock up on "thanks, but no thanks" letters from editors--or to score a publication that will only gain attention in a literature class three hundred years later. Again, it depends on what you want to do.

    Thanks for your comment.

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