Why I’m reading writing guides

I recently had two short stories rejected by publishers – two rejections each, so four rejections in total. This was my first attempt at submitting fiction, so I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I was. I thought my fiction was good, and I was spoiled after a success with submitting poetry. I thought I had a good eye for which piece of my writing is good, which is unworthy of publication, and which suits the market I’m submitting for. It turns out my self assessment skills don’t extend to fiction.

More people write short stories than poetry, so editors are flooded with interesting, well-written fiction with likeable characters and correct grammar. That doesn’t mean all those things are useless, but they were the things that got me an A in high school, and not the things that will get me published.

I have learned this lesson before, in the first creative writing course I did at university, when I received my first C. It was my first assignment in that class, and I wrote a small piece about a girl waking up trapped in a coffin. I got feedback that I didn’t tap into her senses enough, and didn’t ‘put the reader in the picture’. After an edit, my C was upgraded to an A, but I was cynical about the process and didn’t pursue a creative writing major. 

In retrospect, I was arrogantly convinced that the pleasurable flow state of the first draft was the better way to write. I was also studying for vocation and not pleasure, and I unwittingly followed the rule to ‘lean into your strengths’. It’s a better path to happiness than pushing for things you have little talent for, or take little pleasure in. Apparently ‘eating humble pie’ was not one of my strengths at the time, and neither was revising my work.

But it’s twenty years later now, and I have a career already. I’ve become a fan of activity for pleasure and fun, and that involves a lot of intelligent fast failure. I do a lot of things I’m not good at, and I don’t much mind that I’m not the best. IFF means you fail, you learn, you fail again, you fail better. And that’s a much better attitude to tackle the inevitable rejections of writing.

With this attitude, I’m re-learning how to write fiction, from scratch, and starting by reading a bunch of style and writing guides that will teach me the same lessons I first learned twenty years ago. This time I intend to listen.

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