Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The Bounce: How Smart Authors Handle Rejection

Some call it resilience, but I think that’s too nice a word, too easy. I prefer bounce, because it often comes with a smack, and the whole game can ride on which way it lands.

I’m talking about how writers respond to criticism, and how this relates to our overall success, which directly connects to how willing we are to fail. Writers aren’t so different from students in this regard. It doesn’t take much time in a classroom to realize that some students will never try very hard to succeed, and while there may be many explanations for this phenomenon, among the most fundamental is that if you don’t try, you won’t fail. In other words, you won’t need bounce.

Like a basketball, a writer must be pumped full to bounce back from criticism. Full of what, you ask? Some will say ego, but ego is unreliable and quickly deflated. Bounce is what you need, a blend of confidence and strategy.

If the book in your head is always better than the one that gets on the page, how much better is the book no one ever reads? Except that’s not the goal, at least not for most projects. At some point your book must meet its readers, and that’s where you’d best be ready with the bounce: when early readers don’t like it, when reviews are lackluster, when even your mother doesn’t seem impressed, when your sales figures are an embarrassment.  

At its core, the bounce is a state of mind. When teaching revision, I often direct writers in a process I call “Potholes and Spine,” a variation on an exercise I learned in Now Write, edited by Sherry Ellis. Part of the process involves looking hard at the places that aren’t working in a piece and recognizing that each one is a gift, an opening where you are able to go in and tinker around with the assurance that you’re zeroing in on an important spot, because in most cases the messy parts are messy because you’re trying hard to articulate something that matters.

The other part of the bounce involves set-up and reaction. Let’s say you share a chapter from a nonfiction project with your writers’ group, or with other early readers. Two of them misunderstand what you’ve written. Another objects to your use of present tense, which you thought was strategic. You duly note these objections, writing them down the way you record all reactions from first readers—without responding or defending your work. It’s a great way to distance yourself, to avoid jumping in and explaining or justifying what you’ve got on the page. Still, it doesn’t squelch all the internal dialogue you’re having with your writer self: these people just don’t get it.

Thankfully, another reader likes the chapter, a lot—no bounce required. Then your four writer friends launch into a lively discussion over whether you should have included speculative language that allows for scene-making in nonfiction: this character might have done this, or perhaps she would have done that. Or maybe you should have stuck to one point of view. Maybe the whole project should be redone as historical fiction, not nonfiction at all. These are all approaches you’ve considered and rejected, but you write them all down, because—guess what—sometimes you’re wrong. When they’re done, you thank them and gather up their written critiques.

One person. One person liked your chapter. The rest, not so much.

Even as you sum this up in your head, you know it isn’t an accurate rendering. That’s where a good night’s rest—maybe a good week’s or even a month’s rest, if necessary—is critical.

The next part of the bounce, perhaps the most crucial, is figuring out what to do with the hodgepodge of reactions you’ve gathered. Your first readers are also writers, creative thinkers who’ll open a lot of lovely little doors to you. You can’t walk through them all.  You can’t do everything they say, and you shouldn’t. But since you wrote down all their ideas, you go through them, one by one. You make a master list that includes even those items you’re certain you don’t want to change, so you can study it all on the page.

At this point in the bounce you go back and do a little reading in aspirational books, ones that line up nicely with what you hope your book will one day be. Regardless of the nuts and bolts of your first readers’ comments, at this point you especially rethink the voice—what makes yours as captivating, at least in places, as the voice in books you admire.

Then you review that summary list of comments again and consider what’s behind each of them. Everything is laid out and up for grabs. Often one concern masks another. The objection about tense, you realize, has more to do with choppiness, a real concern you’ve been glossing over in the draft. You also consider why you made certain decisions in the first place and whether that reasoning still holds.

You know you’ve bounced when you realize it won’t hurt to rewrite with some changes, even and especially big ones, and when you find yourself getting excited to discover how those changes might sound and feel. Then you thrash around in the muck that is your manuscript and, by some miracle, it starts to get better, though in the end you may not be able to explain exactly how or why. 

That, my friends, is the bounce.

Rejection isn’t so much the cross you bear as the uniform you wear, that dorky little hat or crazy vest or pointy shoes or whatever you symbolically put on each day to say look at me, I’m a writer, a real one. Then your readers know they don’t have to pussyfoot around with their remarks: you’re a real writer and you know how to bounce.