Literary thin ice and inspiration comes from rejection

Wise words for writers from Lon Otto and Marcos M. Villatoro on finding inspiration from rejection

Over a week ago, I found out that my Searching for Von Honningsbergs manuscript had not made it to the Vogel Award shortlist, but had again been commended by the judges and Allen & Unwin have commissioned a reader's assessment. It is just like what happened to me in 2007, five years ago. I've done two extensive rewrites since the last reader's assessment and I felt as though the manuscript was almost as good as I could make it.

Whilst it is always a joy to hear anything positive from a Publisher, I must admit that my first reaction was a spoilt, not this again! I didn't want to be so close, yet so far away again. I've done this already.

A day later, the Publisher sent me an edited version of the judges' comments. Here is some of what they said ...

'... this ms still struck me as an original concept, if a touch far-fetched. I did like the fact that she used a painting to generate a story and then had the main character re-interpret that in his own artwork ... A flaw was her inability to write effectively about the act of painting ... writes convincingly from the male POV ... handled plotting across four different countries well, however I felt that was unbelievable. Did really like the anorexic Latvian fire twirler.'

'I was taken by the idea of a novel consisting of catalogue notes ... story is told from too deep inside the narrator's head. Every twist and turn is telegraphed by description rather than being permitted to unfold.'

'Wiseman gives Peters an appealing, no-bullshit, Australian tone of voice. Peters is scathing and hilarious in his critique of art wankers who write dense, critical crap in catalogue essays and the like ... There are questions about this novel. Why is the creation of the fake so shameful? Why must Peters be dead before his best paintings are revealed? And, why does it feel as if Wiseman ended the novel 30 pages too soon? The ending lacks the punch that the lead-up seems to promise, but its voice, the character of Lawson P and the cast of weirdos he meets are so fresh that I almost didn't mind. With another couple of drafts, this book could be very good.'

My first reading of these comments stung because they are so accurate. These are some clever judges ... I haven't been able to bluff them with my inability to write about technical aspects of painting, or remove all instances of what my husband likes to call 'blow by blow' descriptions of Lawson travelling from one place to the next, and I know that my ending is going to make some readers feel unfulfilled, but I kind of like it.

The comment that overwhelmed me most of all was 'with another couple of drafts, this book could be very good.' For a couple of days, I didn't feel as though I could ever face another draft of this book again. I felt like it was almost beyond me. I couldn't even remember how I had ever done it before.

But then I went on my morning walks, with my dog who often bangs into unexpected curbs because her sight is failing, and my headphones in my ears and some podcasts that I had recently downloaded from The Writing University, from the University of Iowa in the US. And two podcasts in particular have saved me this week and turned my disappointment and sense of despair into hope. I want to share them both here.

The first was Lon Otto on how to avoid literary thin ice: Some of his suggestions on how to deal with narrative thin ice are: 
  • go around it (or let it happen off stage)
  • don't put too much weight on it
  • get across it quickly
  • make it thicker
  • make it thrilling
  • change the laws of gravity

These are helpful strategies on how I can work on some of those weaknesses in my novel, that I have always felt, but not really known how to fix.

And then, in Marcos M. Villatoro's lecture 'Finding Inspiration from the Work Itself' he goes through one of his three rejection files.“finding-inspiration-from-the-work-itself”

He says, 'Rejection letters are like masturbation, no one wants to talk about them at the dinner table. If you don't talk about it, they'll go away, right, and you're son will never do it. But I like to talk about it. This right here stops a majority of us from continuing on ... The last thing I want to leave you with is this - inspiration can come from rejection, believe it or not. Those first rejection letters that are just photocopies that say thanks but no thanks, you don't get much out of those. But if you as a writer start getting letters that say something to you then something could happen.' He then goes on to read some of his more interesting rejection letters and explains how it is like entering a marriage for an editor or agent to take on a book. They have to be really passionate and committed to it. 

He then goes on to say, 'I'm emphasising to you, those of you who have received letters that have actually written something to you - that's a good sign of you as a writer. You'll get 10,000 Xerox photocopies, but if you get one every once in a while like this they are saying you write well. And that's the only heroin you're going to get for a while to keep you writing ...'

Hearing this, was like an angel being sent to me to say, it's all right, keep on going. You'll find some time again to revisit that manuscript. And it also reminded me to not be so disappointed. In fact, I should be rejoicing instead that two sets of Vogel Award judges, some of Australia's most esteemed authors, have thought that my manuscript was worthy of special attention. And another detailed reader's assessment may just be the help I need to get it over the line ...