My First Rejection

Sunday, June 23, 2013
I'm going to camp next month.

NaNoWriMo has spawned at least two additional sessions of writing a novel in a month. These are in April and July, under the auspices of Camp NaNoWriMo. Because I've been having a tough time finishing up my sequel to Faith, Hope, and Murder, I've decided to go to camp this July. I'm hoping that being in a "cabin" with a bunch of like-minded writers will inspire me to put my butt in the chair every day and get this story done.

They've been doing a promotional campaign this week called #my1ststory. I gave the hashtag because that's the way I found out about it. I've seen the tweets on Twitter and have been enjoying the different accounts of when someone started writing.

I don't remember my first story. I do remember that I "wrote" it in kindergarten. I'm not sure whether it was something the teacher said to do or whether I came up with the idea myself, but I drew the panels of a cartoon on a large sheet of construction paper. I don't remember what it was about. I know it had a girl in it and it might have had a cat. I do remember bringing it home and sitting beside my mother, telling her the story so she could write the words under each panel.

That may have been my first story, but it certainly wasn't my last. Reading and writing stories was a big part of my childhood. My mother took us to the library every other week, where I always checked out the maximum six books and started to devour them the moment I got home. My favorite year in school was sixth grade, because my teacher, Mr. Baker, had us turn in a story we'd written every Friday. I always got As.

Like most nascent writers, I wrote stories for the fun of it. Making stuff up is great fun, particularly when you're doing it just for yourself, before you know too much about the rules. You just tell the stories that come into your head. I wanted to be like Isaac Asimov, who sat at a typewriter and typed very fast.

One day I decided I wanted to see one of my stories in print. Because I was a Girl Scout, I had a subscription to American Girl magazine (which has no relation to the current American Girl magazine).  Every month, in addition to articles about scouting, they had a section where they published poems and stories submitted by Scouts. I think there was one poem, one non-fiction article, one short-short story, and one longer story. I wanted one of my stories to be that longer story.

Which story it was is lost in time to me. I think it was "The Sand in the Lot" (I still have trouble with titles), which was about a space ship that landed in the parking lot of a school. My heroine met these aliens, but no one believed her. The only evidence she had that it had happened was a pattern of sand in the parking lot. Or it might have been "The Magic Ring." That story was about a girl who found a ring as a prize in a box of Crackerjack (remember when they had real prizes inside?) that turned out to have magical powers.

Regardless, the story was longer than the maximum word count by several hundred words. What to do?

My mother volunteered to help me get the story under that maximum number of words. It was one of the most painful experiences of my young life. I remember her sitting in a chair beside my bed, manuscript and pencil in hand, reading each sentence and suggesting words that could be cut.

I had no concept of editing back then. Proofreading, yes, although I doubt that I knew what it was called. I always checked my grammar and spelling before turning in a paper for school. But the idea of taking some of my golden words out altogether? Un Uh.

Every word removed was like cutting out a part of me. At one point, I think my mother suggested removing a whole paragraph. I wailed and thrashed around on my bed crying, "But I need that!" or something to that effect.

She must have typed up my story, now significantly shorter, on the old manual typewriter we owned. My mother did most of my typing until I learned how to touch type during the summer between junior and senior year in high school. I put the story in the mail and waited to find out which issue it would appear in.

You can stop laughing now.

I was crushed when the rejection letter arrived. I was sure the problem was all those words I'd been forced to cut out because of their stupid word limit. If they'd only read the story the way I'd written it in the first place, I was sure they would have recognized what a great piece of literature it was.

I wish now that I had had a mentor who could have told me that what I'd just gone through was perfectly normal. Even though a part of me knew that the magazine must have received hundreds of stories each month and only picked one, I wish I could have been told that the solution to rejection was to send it out again--not that there were too many markets for a story written by a thirteen-year-old. I wish someone would have told me that revision and writing to a word count were a normal part of writing for publication. But there was no one to talk to about this. No one that I knew anyway.

Maybe part of my problem with finishing my current Work In Progress is that I now know all of the rules. I know about plot points and the black moment and character arcs. I know about viewpoint and theme and not using adverbs.

I've also felt a lot of pressure with this WIP. I've gotten positive feedback on my first published novel and this sequel has to live up to that book. I'm trying to finish the WIP by September so I can publish it and move on to the next story. I worry about not being able to pull everything together so that the reader gets at least a hint of the wonderful story I see in my head.

What I really want is to have fun writing again. With NaNoWriMo, there is no pressure to write great literature. The only pressure is to write a lot of words. The whole idea of it is to have fun. And that's why I'm going to Camp in July.

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