If you’re an author trying to get published, rejection is part of the process. I have no problem with that. As part of my day job as an architect, we submit our qualifications for projects and are rejected 90% of the time. It’s not that we’re not qualified; most of the time it just means we’re not a good fit for that particular project. It’s the same with writing. And though I’m accustomed to rejection in general, I’d like to see a little more success with my writing.
Authors seeking to be published by a traditional publisher generally seek agent representation first. Thus, agents are the first to offer rejection. Here’s a typical rejection letter (email) from an agent.
Dear Mr. Bird:
Thank you for your recent submission. We enjoyed reviewing your work. Unfortunately, at this time, we do not feel we have a good place for you on our client list. We wish you all the best success in the future.
Just a form letter. No real feedback. Nothing to tell you if your writing is truly bad or if it’s just a wrong fit for that particular agent. And this judgement is based typically on no more than the first 50 pages of your novel, and more often, the first 10 pages. I can also imagine than an agent can make the assessment after the first few paragraphs.
Here’s another I recieved.
Dear Mr. Bird,
Thank you very much for your query below. I liked the premise of this story, but I am sorry to say that I did not connect with the writing in the way I had hoped. For this reason, and with regret, I cannot offer you representation. However, I wish you every success and hope you will find the perfect home for this material.
Hey! Positive feedback. This was for Heather Girl and apparently she liked the premise of my story! So that tells my I’m not completely off base with the overall story idea. This is good. Great, actually. Now the bad news.
I did not connect with the writing.
In other words, my writing sucks.
This is what authors tend to do. One minute you’re receiving the Pulitzer, the next your pages are not worth lining the bottom of a bird cage. We’re an insecure bunch. Reality is somewhere in the middle.
After a few days of self-loathing, I decided to try to figure out why the agent might not have connected with my writing. Working under the assumption that she started at the beginning, that’s where I start. And one of the first rules of novel writing is to have a good opening hook. So I spent a few days trying to craft a hook. That was more or less a useless excercise.
Did the agent really not connect with my writing because I didn’t have a clever hook? I doubt it. It’s more than that.
What did I do?
I scrapped the first three chapters altogether. I’ve moved one of my favorite scenes to the beginning of the book. I think it’s more engaging and my hope is that readers will be caught up in the story right from the beginning and be completely unconcerned about the words I use to tell the story. It’s the story, after all, stupid. That stupid is for me.
Yes, it’s taken a lot of work to rearrange the pieces and I’ve lost some of my favorite passages in those first three chapters, but wasn’t it William Faulkner who advised authors to “kill your darlings”?
I’m almost ready to begin another round of agent submittals. We’ll see if any of this has helped.
As announcements go in a fourth grade class, that’s a big one. When your teacher says something like that, you first realize that she has a life outside of the classroom and that there are other people in her life besides you. And getting married? That’s a lot for a nine year-old to process.
It was a little school, Lakewood Elementary in St. Albans, West Virginia. Miss Yount was the teacher. (For the sake of simplicity, I’ll refer to her as Miss Yount, though Yount was her married name.) As tradition of the day dictated, the students would normally get their teacher a Christmas present. but being the wise young woman she was, Miss Yount asked the kids to come up with something “creative” instead of a traditional Christmas gift.
One of her students was Robert Taylor, the fourth child of seven in the Taylor clan. He was a serious student and took Miss Yount’s request to heart. Using a pattern his mother had, Robert fashioned a nativity scene using styrofoam balls and felt. Nine figures in all, including Mary and Joseph, angels, wise men, and shepherds. No phoning it in for young Robert Taylor. Even the face of the baby Jesus in Mary’s arms was detailed. An artistic masterpiece? No. But what is evident is the time and effort that he took to create this seasonal memento for a teacher he would not likely see again after he graduated fourth grade. There was obviously a fondness for her.
And so he graduated, and she married and moved away.
Robert grew up, graduated college and began working as a structural engineer for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, despite the B in math he earned in fourth grade from Miss Yount. He married, had four kids of his own and now has four grandchildren. He retired from the Corps a couple of years ago, but even after retirement, he has been to Mosul, Iraq five times where he has assisted in the engineering of the stabilization of the Mosul Dam. Miss Yount would be proud.
And then a couple of weeks ago, a message appeared on Facebook.
“I’m in search of a Robert Taylor, Asian-American who attended fourth grade at Lakewood Elementary School in St. Albans, WV. His teacher was Ms. Dale Yount. I believe the year would be 1967, 1968, or 1969. His expected age would be 60-62.”
It was a friend of Miss Yount, helping her try to find Robert Taylor.
After she left St. Albans with her husband, Mrs. Yount, now Dr. Yount, traveled the world. She lived in Egypt, Japan, Malaysia, England, Singapore and several states in the U.S. In all they had moved 39 times. At each place they lived, every Christmas Dr. Yount displayed the nativity scene that Robert had so carefully crafted so many years ago.
And she never quit thinking about that little boy and wondering how his life had turned out.
You can guess the rest. Yes, they have connected via email but have yet to talk to face to face. Her current residence is near the home of Robert’s youngest son so it’s likely a meeting will happen soon. It will be heartwarming in so many ways, and it seems they share the same values and the same faith. Which is one of the reasons the nativity scene that Robert made is so special to her. It’s not just another Christmas ornament, it depicts what Christmas is all about. It speaks of the eternal bonds of love and grace.
copyright 2019, joseph e bird
This story is true, though some of the facts from 50 years ago are affected by fading memories. The author has taken the liberty to create a narrative that expresses the truth more or less as remembered by the participants.
Confidence. Most people only feel confident when they’re sure of themselves. The rest of the time, and generally the majority of the time, they’re faking it. It is impossible to tell the difference. Especially if you say less instead of more. Stand as straight as possible, and look people in the eyes during conversations.
Explaining. Don’t make explanations: Anyone who expects one has already come to his own conclusion anyway. Or, to quote a fortune cookie I got in Sacramento in 1992: Never explain. Your friends would never demand it, and your enemies will never believe you.
Be shrewd. Never go into business with a friend, or loan money if you expect it back.
Friendship. Very few friends last a lifetime. This is because people always change. This is the natural progression of life. When the shared experience is removed (school, work, community, club) there becomes no link or mutual appreciation. Expecting the friendship to retain the old mold will end in heartbreak. Move on and expect nothing. Appreciate the honor of glimpsing another human being’s life for a time – but keep growing.
Giving. A gift is not a gift without both hands open. If you expect something in return for a gift or favor, don’t give it. Give only for the good feeling of being able to share something. Anything else is usury.
Love. People are becoming afraid these days to make commitments and allow themselves to love others because they know the other person will either leave them or die. This is true. All the more reason to love them now. Change is the only thing we can depend on.
Reputation. Your name is the one thing no one can take away from you. It will be your most valuable resource. Make sure that when people hear your name they associate it with honesty and decency. This is more important than I can say here. Your word must be your bond.
Promptness. Always be on time, if not early, for any appointment little or small. Keep no one waiting. It is rude and presumptuous. It implies that your time is more important than theirs. Which is not so. All time is equal.
Courtesy. Look people in the eyes when you talk to them. Smile and mean it. Make it a point to remember the name of everyone you meet. Everyone likes to be known and remembered.
Tact. Life is full of petty irritations – people who say and do rude things, forget your name, seem to exclude you in or from gatherings, or generally fail to remember your own humanity. Let it go. Things are not always what they seem. People often have problems going on in their private lives that we know nothing of but would explain their apparent self-involvement. Try not to judge. Let it go.
Diligence. Bosses never want to hear why something didn’t get done. They are only interested in what has been accomplished or how soon it will be.
Responsibility. There is no one to credit for your successes or failures but yourself.
Clarity. Fear exists to show us where we need to improve ourselves.
Foresight. You can follow your heart if you want to, but be sure to pack a survival kit. Millions have already perished believing they could live on passion alone. It does not hurt to be practical.
Want to know how to write a novel? Read One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, by Ken Kesey.
I saw the movie…40 years ago? I just read the book.
There’s so much to talk about. It’s a great book (but not without controversy) and another day we’ll get into what the book’s about.
If you’re a student of the craft of novel writing, you know the rules. And as you try hard to stick the rules, you see so many successful novels that break them. Cuckoo’s Next follows the rules. And is brilliant for it.
Randle McMurphy is serving a sentence at a prison work farm and gets himself committed to a mental hospital in hopes of doing his time in a cushier setting.
McMurphy arrives at the hospital. No backstory. No set-up. No character development. No prologue, just story. In medias res. The way it’s supposed to be.
The rules say to tell the story from one perspective. Yes, modern sensibilities allow for multiple points-of-view, but that approach is fraught with potential trouble. One point-of-view is the safe choice.
Cuckoo’s Nest is told from the point-of-view of mental patient, Chief Bromden, a Native-American. Everything is told from his perspective. If Chief doesn’t see it, we don’t see it. Chief can only surmise character motivations based on what he sees and what others may tell him. The author doesn’t jump around and tell us what the other characters are thinking. It’s all from Chief’s point of view. No omniscient narrator. And because we know what he thinks, we know much more about him than any other character.
McMurphy is the protagonist. That doesn’t mean he is the most virtuous character in the book. That’s probably Chief Bromden. McMurphy is the classic anti-hero. He’s not a good guy, but he’s very likable. And as he hustles his fellow patients, he does it in a way that lifts their spirits. Everybody loves him. Everybody but Nurse Ratched.
Sometimes the antagonist in a novel isn’t a person, but something keeping the protagonist from reaching his/her goal. McMurphy fighting the system? Well, yes, but the antagonist in Cuckoo’s Nest is not so amorphous. It’s Nurse Ratched. No doubt about it. One of the most unlikable characters I’ve ever met. She’s not evil in a Bond villain kind of way; she’s just cold and mean and against McMurphy in every way. The lines are drawn. The reader wants McMurphy to win. And Ratched to lose.
I’ve read that in classic literature, there is comedy and tragedy. The comedy isn’t necessarily funny; it’s prime characteristic is the happy ending. The tragedy is just the opposite.
Cuckoo’s Nest is a tragedy. The happy ending may give you a moment of contentment, but the tragedy stays with you, haunts you, makes you think. What might have been? What if McMurphy had won? What if Nurse Ratched had lost? Could it have made a difference for Billy Bibbit? And what of Chief Bromden? Did he ever make it home?
If you read this 50 year-old novel, you’ll be jarred by some references that are considered offensive today. But is it Kesey or his characters making the references? The characters, of course. They’re flawed. But does that give Kesey license to let them say what they do? We’ll get into that in more detail later. What Kesey does that’s indisputable is craft a story that takes you to the edge of realism at a pace that seems perfect. In the second half of the book, when the story rolls like a boulder down a mountain, he does nothing to get in the way. It’s a great example of plot and character development in perfect sync.
We’re visiting my brother-in-law, Paul, at the nursing home on top of the mountain in Williamson. It’s a typical visit. We bring Coca-Colas and 7-Ups. Not Pepsi. Not Sprite. Coca-Colas and 7-Ups. We drop them off at the dining hall where a local gospel group is beginning to play. Two men, two women. An acoustic guitar wired to a little Fender amp. They sing loudly, all feeling, no nuance. Gathered around are the usual assortment of residents in wheelchairs.
Paul is there but he has no interest in staying so we go back to his room to visit a little. After a while, it’s time to leave. We hear the music from the dining hall so we go back to listen for a bit.
The music is as country gospel as you can get, full of twang and southern West Virginia. They’re singing a song I’ve never heard.
He cruised in on his bicycle, coasting to a stop at the top of the hill, looking down on us.
I had no idea who he was, this older, skinny, scraggly guy with no shirt, riding a bicycle with streamers on the handle bars and a horn on the front. He was older, but I know now that it was by no more than ten years. Still old enough to not be riding around on a pimped-out, beater-bike, old enough to have better things to do than look for company with school kids, old enough to have enough sense to recognize real trouble in the form of Brando and Kevin, who had enough mean in them to put some serious torment onto the meek and the lowly, and all it would take was the sniff of arrogance, the notion that Brando and Kevin, though physically superior to almost all who crossed their paths, were not on the same playing field intellectually, or that over time, righteousness would reign and the meek and the lowly would indeed inherit the earth, and the beast would be cast into the lake of fire. As I would learn much later in life, God’s plans are fulfilled in God’s time where a day is like a thousand years and though justice would eventually prevail, it might not come soon enough for the victims of Brandon and Kevin. The scars of their torment could linger for years.
And so I wondered, what of Lawrence?
But I could see it coming.
copyright 2019, joseph e bird
This is an excerpt of a story in progress and is fiction, although it is based on true events. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
Not long after that, Johnny Cash teamed up with Rick Rubin and produced American Recordings. Cash was old, the production bare, stripped down to Cash’s raspy, but still strong voice singing Nine Inch Nails and gospel and old folk songs. One of my favorite albums of all time.
I knew a little about Hank Williams. Hear that lonesome whippoorwill, he sounds too blue to fly. Williams died in Oak Hill, West Virginia.
Kathy Mattea was born just a few miles from where I was.
And somehow I knew that the music I listen to now, The Avett Brothers, Tyler Childers, Parker Milsap, has its roots in country music.
And then there’s this whole songwriting thing I’ve been tinkering with.
So when I heard about the Ken Burns film, I knew I was going to watch it from beginning to end.
And here’s the thing. Yes, it’s about music. There are beautiful voices, virtuoso instrumental performances, showmanship and charisma. But also performers who wouldn’t make the first cut in today’s made-for-tv singing competitions. Modest talent. Three chords and the truth. The truth being what it’s really all about. Triumph and joy, but more often struggle and heartbreak. Stories set to music. No achy-breaky heart. More like Roseanne Cash singing I Still Miss Someone at her father’s memorial.
If you’re a writer, you’ll find inspiration in the film. If you’re a songwriter, you should be required to watch it. It features some of the best songwriters ever.
I’m so lonesome I could cry. – Hank Williams
I’d trade all my tomorrows, for one single yesterday. – Kris Kristoferson
I’m crazy for trying, crazy for crying, and I’m crazy for loving you. – Willie Nelson
Go rest high on that mountain Son, your work on earth is done. Go to heaven a-shoutin’ Love for the Father and the Son. – Vince Gill
I think I may be the only who saw it. Every time I try to start a conversation about it, seems like no one else has watched it.
Have you? If not, you can still watch the entire film online. Click the link below.
“Don’t worry about parking the car,” says the art thief. “Anywhere near the museum is fine.” When it comes to stealing from museums, Stéphane Breitwieser is virtually peerless. He is one of the most prolific and successful art thieves who have ever lived. Done right, his technique—daytime, no violence, performed like a magic trick, sometimes with guards in the room—never involves a dash to a getaway car. And done wrong, a parking spot is the least of his worries.
— Michael Finkel, from GQ Magazine.
A fascinating story by a great writer. It’s got to be a movie some day. Click the link below to learn everything about Stéphane Breitwieser and the art of the steal.