Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Rejection: A Love Letter

A few years ago, when I was about to move from one state to another, I was talking with a moving company sales representative whose job it was to estimate the cost of transporting my household. We got to talking, and I asked how he'd ended up in that line of work. In the course of telling that story, he told another, about his first job in sales. The owner of the business had directed him to go home, stand in front of a mirror, and say "No" a hundred different ways.

When I laughed, he gave a demonstration:
Heck, no!
Are you crazy?
No way!
That's insane.
No can do.
Not on your life.
That's a negative.
That ain't happening.

He said it was the best career advice he'd ever gotten. How did it help him? He didn't say. I imagine it probably plucked some of the sting from the waspish word (in the immortal words of Henry Taylor). After all, a basic tenet of social psychology is that people tend to seek acceptance and avoid rejection. To be free of the need to avoid rejection means--to be free to take risks. And the bigger the risk, the bigger the payoff. Courting "no" allows for unexpected yeses.

When first I started submitting stories and poems to literary journals, I was felled by rejection as is a redwood by a chainsaw. Then I read an article in some writer's magazine about the rule of 12. The writer tracked all his submissions, and found that every piece he wrote ended up getting accepted, on average, the twelfth time out. I started tracking my rejections and found that my average was four times out the gate. (Maybe I chose less demanding markets. Certainly the markets counted on those who wrote for love, as the payment was frequently just a nice note from the editor, along with two complimentary copies of the journal.) Rejection lost its sting in that context. (Most of it. I still remember that one letter, in which an editor schooled me about the construction of plot: "A story has a beginning (sets the background), a middle (something happens) and an ending (the problem is solved)." I sure didn't like reading that letter at the time, but I think it's funny now.)

A story of mine was rejected recently. I didn't write it intentionally to take risks, nor to get rejected -- but I did take risks in the writing. Did the rejection bother me? Not at all. I can use the story elsewhere. And even if I couldn't--it was fun to write.

Let's say that I aspire to this degree of equanimity in every circumstance.

Saturday, June 16, 2012


We all use shorthand communication. As much as I like to talk, there are times when I don't want to explain every single little detail of every single little thought process (in the immortal words of Voltaire, the secret of being a bore is to tell everything), and instead rely on the person I'm talking with to envision the shape of the glacier that lies beneath the surface.

When I went to that workshop on writing picture books for children, a writer was musing about how to refine language for a lower grade level. She said she needed to "dumb it down."

In the project I'm working on now, several writers have used that phrase about revising a text to be suitable for a lower grade level. (Not at all to single out any one writer in particular; I've heard it so many times now from so many different writers that I couldn't even say which said it when.)

These writers are thoughtful people. They're probably using shorthand. They probably mean to say "revise the language and syntax so that it works for the grade level."

Still, I can't help but react to that phrase. Writers can't afford to think that way about our audience. Habits of thinking create habits of being. And then we are what we repeatedly do (in the immortal words of Aristotle). This is really part of a bigger belief. How we use language affects (and may reflect) how we think. Edward Sapir suggested that our very view of the world is shaped by our language.

It comes back to intention. When writing for art or self-expression, a writer has the freedom to demand whatever he or she likes from the reader, and then the reader has the freedom to participate or not. Writing as a job--according to given specifications--doesn't allow for that.

In our case, we've got a captive audience (as discussed previously). And in the work of writing stories, poems, articles, and other types of text for reading tests, we're writing for a specific purpose. Of primary importance is integrity to the purpose: In a paper for Apex Learning on interpreting Lexile readabilities, Dr. Elfrieda Hiebert said that "the goal of writing and publishing texts for schools is to provide the most comprehensible text possible." If the integrity of the text can't be maintained simultaneously, then a new text is required. Because the integrity of the text is essential. But we have to have both, and the former can never be sacrificed to the latter.

What is developmentally appropriate changes rapidly and drastically from a child's first turn of a page through the journey to adult reading: picture books, chapter books, novels, textbooks, classics, technical manuals, employee handbooks, fifty-page volumes of health insurance gibberish. We wouldn't ask a 3rd grader to lift a suitcase weighing 50 pounds, and we shouldn't present a 3rd grader (4th grader, 5th grader, 6th grader) with text that is far beyond his or her knowledge and abilities. It's a bad practice that sets kids up for failure, and one that ultimately defeats our purpose.

This is one of the reasons writers who write for children should spend time with children of the same age as their target audience. Children are a lot smarter than we often think they are. They just haven't been reading as long as we have, so they aren't able to do the heavy lifting we're capable of. It's not to say they won't be able to do it one day. Certainly they will. But in order to get there, they have to start where they are. It's our job to meet them there.

If we must use shorthand for how we do that, I think I'd prefer "simplify."

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Upside Down World

I was talking with my co-conspirator partner in crime colleague about how strange this world is in which we're working. I mean the world of educational assessment publishing, and specifically, what this world is like for writers.

In the real world, so many writers are writing, so many books are published. Writers are writing and writers are getting published, and the goal of getting published is a worthy one for a writer. Otherwise why write? Presumably a writer has something he or she wants to say to the world. Or at least say to a reader, or to as many readers as a writer may somehow cajole onto the page. All well and good.

And yet in that real world, the average book might sell 300 copies. (I don't know how many copies my first book sold, but I do know the print run: 1500. That number broke my heart when first I heard it.)

Here in this world, a story a writer writes may be read by thousands of children. Over the many years I've been writing in this world, considering the hundreds of stories, poems, articles I've written, I'm certain it's no exaggeration to say my writing has been read by at least a million. A million readers! Can you believe I'd never considered that until now?

Ups the ante, don't it?

You know what else ups the ante is that our readers, unlike most readers, who are at liberty to set the book down and walk away (or throw the book across the room, as I once did with a book I found deeply unsatisfying), are a captive audience.

Which makes our intention all the more important. The primary intention is to put something on the page that will allow those captive readers to show us what they know. If we can interest and entertain them while we do it, all the better. The only way to do that is with good writing.

The intention can't be simply to get published--because in this upside down world, what does it matter? One might have a million readers, and yet no fame. (Ahem, not naming any names, that would be me.) If I were in for fame, I'd be playing a different game.

Sometimes I think about the writer's quest to publish like I do about a college degree. Some of the smartest people I know never went to college. Some of the very best writers I know haven't published much. Getting published seems to be more a matter of sticking with it than evidence of the quality of one's writing. If a writer be determined to get published, I'm sure that writer will eventually find a market that will do it. Water finds its level. Every pot has a lid.

CORRECTION: I just had occasion to look at one of my reprint contracts. For one story alone, the print run was in excess of 2 million. My (captive) readership is at least triple what I'd estimated. Dang. The weight of responsibility, eh. I'll do my best to rise to the occasion.

Monday, June 11, 2012

The Nonsense of Inspiration

There are those . . . who think that the man who works with his imagination should allow himself to wait till--inspiration moves him. When I heard such doctrine preached, I could have hardly been able to repress my scorn. To me it would not be more absurd if the shoemaker were to wait for inspiration, or the tallow-chandler for the divine moment of melting.
. . . I therefore venture to advise young men who look forward to authorship as the business of their lives, even when they propose that that authorship be of the highest class known, to avoid enthusiastic rushes with their pens, and to seat themselves at their desks day by day as though they were lawyers' clerks. . . .                                       Anthony Trollope, An Autobiography

Anthony Trollope wrote 47 novels, 2 plays, 18 books of nonfiction (travel books, biographies, literary criticism, social commentary), and a pile of short stories--all apparently without the aid of inspiration.

I share Trollope's scorn for the nonsense of inspiration, but in me it is probably just envy. I write for a living. I can't afford the luxury of waiting for inspiration.

Then again, I never did think about nor talk about inspiration, even long before I wrote for a living. I always hated talking about writing. Writing is one of those things that one just does. (In those days, I wrote in the middle of the night, when the household was dark. It never felt particularly inspiring to be writing at two o'clock in the morning, it just felt compulsive. Or obsessive. Or both.)

There's something so disagreeably preening and precious about talking about writing, especially if one be a writer.

I hated talking about writing, but I didn't hate listening to great writers talking about writing. One might be fortunate enough to find oneself in the presence of someone who knows a great deal about writing (as I did in college), and then the only sensible thing to do is listen. That someone for me was Mr. Mudrick. Now there are several people in my life who can talk about writing to me, and I listen. All ears. They have something to say of value, and I want to profit by it. They rarely do talk about writing, so one has to be wide awake not to miss the flutter of that bird on the wing.

In my work, sometimes I must talk about (or write about) writing. I try to think of what might be most important for (new) writers to know. When I see problems in manuscripts, I try to talk about how to address those kinds of problems in writing. Because that's the only way to make the work better: to be willing to look at the problems in one's work and then go at them like a terrier after the tennis ball that rolled under the couch.

This kind of talk, being necessary, isn't as horrible as the preening writerly conversations are horrible--there's craft to writing, there's technique, there are methods of accomplishing different purposes. These conversations can be absorbing. How did this writer create this effect, how did that writer create that tone. There are choices to make, there's intention. This gives you a lot to think about.

But that's not the same thing as waving one's inspiration like peacock feathers. My experience leads me to believe that those who talk most of their inspiration (and, God help me, of their muse) are most likely those whose writing one feels least inspired to read. 

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The Ritual of Reading

I've been slow to embrace e-books. My first exposure came late: it was the textbooks I received as pdfs when, in 2009, I enrolled in prerequisite classes for sommelier certification. (I can't say I greeted the innovation with enthusiasm. Nor did the other students, all of whom printed out the whole dang thing to put in a 3-ring binder. There's something ludicrous about the sight of cloth-covered tables bearing wine glasses, spit buckets, and 3-ring binders.)

For someone who doesn't read e-books much, I sure do have a bunch of them. I blame the free section at Amazon's Kindle store.

My disinclination to read e-books isn't based in Luddite ideology; I love the concept. Whatever brings good is good, to my way of thinking. E-books make it easy for people to acquire and carry books. That I could carry my entire stock on an iPad is a great and wonderful thing.

I don't, though. Instead, I have stacks. Because, like probably everyone who loves to read, I have too many books for my bookshelves. How appetite often exceeds capacity, eh.

I like books. I like to look at the covers. I like pages, and I like how books are printed in different type. And even though the weight of books can become a burden, I like that weight.

And there's a ritual in reading an actual book.

Last night (or very early this morning), the dog and I made our rounds of the house. We checked on the sleeping girls and the sleeping lovebird, and we made sure the windows were locked and drapes drawn. During the rounds, I picked up a book I'd been meaning to start. We turned off all the lights except the lamp by my bed, and then the dog curled up at the foot of the bed and I got under the covers. It was dark, and the moon was high and bright, and the lamplight golden, and I read a few pages, then turned off the light and went to sleep.

More on this topic of How We Will Read here. Some really wonderful interviews.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Topical Applications

We're (I've been using the editorial "we" freely this past week, not to be confused with the majestic plural, which I also quite like) launching a passage-writing project, which means, among other things, that the coffee cup is never empty and the day is never done.

A new passage project also means a marshaling of the brain cells and assorted Inner Resources for my favorite of all possible types of work: thinking of topics. In the past week I've offered up 35+ topics for reading passages. It's a barrel of monkeys.

I'm working with a few veterans, some intermediates, and some writers so new to assessment they are a bit dazed by the change in the atmosphere. And in working with new writers, I'm answering the kinds of questions new writers would have--which is all to the good. The best of all possible worlds, in the immortal words of Voltaire.

A question that should come up, at least in the writers' minds, is "What makes a good topic?"

The writers on this project are fortunate because rather than simply saying no when we reject a topic, we're explaining our decisions, thus providing a level of training that isn't typically offered in this business. We're also letting them see all of the topics that are approved by the client: even more training, especially for those possessing a willingness to perform a tiny bit of pattern analysis.

So if the writers do wonder about what makes a good topic (and I hope they do), they can look at the list, see everything that's been approved by our client, and then draw conclusions.

Some basic criteria used to evaluate topics include (but not necessarily in this order)
  • relevance and/or practical use
  • interest level to students at grade level
  • content value
  • general alignment to academic subject(s), if applicable
  • heft--I can't think of another way to say this, but I mean whether the topic is big enough to carry a work of writing in its entirety
There's also the glitter factor. Some topics are just so perfect that you can't believe someone thought that angle up all by his or her own self.

And then there is the most wonderful surprise of all, when you give a writer a topic that is all right, you think, but nothing to throw a party for, and she writes a passage that she must have dipped in glue and rolled in crushed diamonds before she sent it in.

Sometimes the topic itself is secondary to the skill of the writer. A great writer can write about almost anything in an interesting way.