Speed Dating for Creatives
While prepping for a recent “Pay it Forward Day” presentation, I stumbled on a useful analogy: submitting creative work for sale is a bit like dating.
It’s tempting when a submission doesn’t work out, to think something like a teenager who just got ghosted by the hottest kid in the “in crowd”, to think “I wish I knew why they didn’t like me, then I could change.” You might even be tempted to respond to a purchasing editor asking exactly that. Don’t. Don’t, because you are selling yourself short. Don’t because you’ll look like a pestering kid asking “but why don’t you like me? Why? Why?”
Most people figure out on their own why this behavior is futile in dating. For some reason, creatives seem to have more trouble with it as they transition into a career.
Here’s the thing: yes, you need to understand your weaknesses in order to improve and compete, but finding out why an individual didn’t buy your work is not the way to do that.
If you are a writer, for example, a purchasing editor might give you a pass for a zillion reasons, including but not limited to:
- Your story just doesn’t quite fit the market they are buying for
- Or it does, but they are subtly taking it in a new direction and don’t know quite what that will be yet.
- Your story is fine, but they recently bought one a little too similar to it.
- They have bought too many works from the slush pile lately and need more established names for the cover.
- Your writing style, while fine in general, just doesn’t appeal to the personal tastes of that particular editor.
- That particular editor was in a bad mood when they read your story.
- Your story just isn’t the right length to fit into the works that editor has on the planning horizon.
So let’s say you got a personal rejection explaining precisely what the problem was; what are you going to change? If an editor tells you your prose was lively and your idea unique, but the plot left them confused, you can perhaps correct that, but what if it was only confusing to that editor? And what if it wasn’t confusing to anyone, it’s just not that editor’s cup of pot noodle? What are you going to “fix?”
The reality is, rejection of your story is like rejection after a date. It just means that story isn’t the right fit for that editor at that moment. When dating, you need to shower and dress well and behave like a gentleperson or hipster doofus or whatever vibe is your thing, but you don’t need to mold yourself to fit someone you just aren’t a match for. You need to live your life, be the best version of yourself, and keep putting yourself out there till you find your partner.
Art is no different. Yes, you need to improve your writing, but you do that by joining a critique group and perhaps going to a workshop or two. I highly recommend the online critique site Critique Circle because it fosters social interaction between writers and reviewers. There are readers who concentrate on helping new writers, and readers who just love reading. There are readers who give fantastic feedback and those who are not so good, but when you get one of the latter or encounter someone who’s a bit of a dick, you can see what else they’ve done and take it with a grain of salt. Many conventions offer workshops for writers in which you can get more in-depth feedback, and lots of colleges and professionals offer classes.
From such feedback, you will learn in a hurry that you cannot please everyone. Of course, if three readers stumble over the same line in a story, there is something wrong with that line or its context–just almost certainly not what any of them said was wrong. Over time, you also learn to model the minds of your readers; you learn to see yourself as readers will see you and avoid making mistakes that may confuse, bore, or offend them unintentionally. This modeling your reader is one of the most critical skills for a professional writer, yet it’s one that isn’t taught in any MFA program and that you absolutely can not learn alone. To do it, you need feedback, not from the editors who don’t buy your stuff, but from a wide swath of your potential readership. And of course, all the while you will be improving your mechanics and usage and general writer craft.
Even after all this, however, you cannot count on selling a given story to a given buyer at a given time–all the reasons above can still torpedo you. But what you can do is build an inner and well-justified confidence that can see you through the setbacks. You can then do your best work, put it out there, and if it just doesn’t sell in a reasonable time, stick it on the back burner. In time, editors and market opportunities change. Your skill grows. If the ideas are good and the implementation is good, most works will find their home. And meanwhile, every setback is like a stone rolling down the mountain; you can let it crush you, or you can step aside, let it come to rest, and use it as a stair on your journey.