Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Working Hard

One of the refrains in the writing world*: "You can control only how hard you work."

In other words, you can't control what "they" are publishing these days or two years from now. You can't control who else applies for an opportunity you want or need. You can't control who evaluates those applications. You also can't control world events that may make it more (or less) difficult to share your work--a new form of technology will or won't make digital reading or paper reading obsolete, a shortage of X makes it harder or easier for Y to happen, and that means publishers do Z.

Yep, stuff happens, and you can't control any of it. So, the thinking goes, all you can control is your work. 

I agree with that. And I think it's super-important to define what you mean by "work."

Say you submit a piece of writing (or a novel) to a literary journal (or agent) and it's rejected. Okay, you can't control what your target chooses to publish (or represent). Your response is to "keep working hard." But what does "work hard" mean in this context?

* Find another publication (or agent) (or ten, assuming they allow simultaneous submissions) and send your piece (novel) again, without changing anything.

* Do extra research into agents (or publications) and rewrite your cover letter. Tell them you really admire the publication's July issue and note that they're open to experimental forms of narrative, or that the agent has a great track record representing left-handed poetry written by right-handed people

* Look again, with careful eyes, at the piece (or novel) you're submitting. Is it the best you know how to make it? No, really. Maybe it's time to read it again--especially because it's been off your desk for a while (presumably), so you have fresh eyes--and see if it's really finished or if you're just sick of working on it.

* Revise intelligently. What are you trying to do? Find someone else's work that you think does a spectacular job of what you're attempting, and study it. If you admire how a writer conveys who's speaking without using conversation tags, look closely at how she does it--Through word choice? Through a character's tendency to never finish sentences, or talk about anything BUT what's important? Through pairing action with words or perhaps substituting action for words? Whatever you find, try to apply it to your work.

* Read intelligently, doing many of the same things. What is it about this specific title in the cozy mystery (urban literary dystopia) (contemporary family comedy) genre that you enjoy so much? What does this title do that your work doesn't?

* Write something else from scratch. Get out a draft of a different poem or novel. Choose an old short story and revise that instead of working on what was rejected. Finish something new. Send that out.

* Get outdoors and walk someplace. You can be open to a magical breakthrough from the repetitive nature of walking if you want (lots of people seem to advocate that) or you can just go for a walk. Whatever you do out there (or in a pool) will be good for you.

My point is this: any of the activities above can be a reasonable definition of "work" in the phrase, "you can control only how hard you work." Learning how to define "work" in the face of a "no" is part of maturing as a writer. Getting yourself to do what you know you need to do is another sign of maturation (not only in writing). (Or so I've been told.)

My own tendency (as you may have guessed from the boldface above) is to send something out when I'm sick of working on it--or when I'm particularly pleased with a revision and mistake that pleasure for the feeling of "hey, it's done." So I'm always trying to develop my ability to revise earlier and more often. Or at least be OPEN to that idea. 

I can work on it, anyway.
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* Not ONLY in the writing world, or even the world of creativity. It's one of those Life Lessons that floats around and is true in lots of situations. For example, you can't control what others think of you, but you can control how you respond to that snarky comment.