In the Eye of the Beholder

By Alaina Alexander

I remember reciting stories into a tape recorder and playing them back for the neighborhood kids. Sometimes my stories wouldn’t go over well or the tape would run out, and in either case, I found myself high-tailing it home with a gang of kids close on my tail. They debated whether or not to throttle me, but many times they just wanted to hear the end of the story. Usually, I was forced to improvise an ending on the spot.

Fast forward to high school and I was writing for the school newspaper with dreams of becoming a 20/20 correspondent. My journalism teacher raved about my writing and encouraged me. Unfortunately, My honors English teacher was unimpressed with my writing style and she seemed to always be on the verge of flunking me.

“You just don’t have any literary style,” she told me in a clipped tone during our one-on-one conference.

I didn’t take her criticism personally; besides, I had more in common with Diane Sawyer than Kate Millet.

The following semester I was sitting in a regular English class with the rest of the slackers and misfits. I didn’t consider it a real class; it was more of a study hall environment. It was also the perfect place for me to brainstorm and write short stories.

During college, I became a frequent contributor to the school newspaper. I wrote opinion columns and a recurring mystery series. Some of my classmates were unfamiliar with the genre of the serial story. Some of them inquired as to why I couldn’t seem to fit the whole story into one edition of the newspaper.

My mystery series engaged one of the Christian Brothers whose monastery was attached to the school. I will never forget being summoned to meet him. He was a small-boned man, but he had this incredible presence and a tall walking stick. He informed me that he enjoyed having my stories read to him before he took his daily nap. For months after that meeting, I felt invincible against criticism of any kind.

After college graduation, I was published a couple of times in the Minneapolis Star Tribune and in a metro weekly. My illusions about the life of a writer were violently shattered with each rejection slip that I got, even though I was used to receiving criticism about my writing. It was soul-shaking when it came from magazine and newspaper editors. It was an extremely stressful time for me and I was no longer able to seek refuge in my writing.

I figured that if magazine and newspaper editors didn’t want my writing then I would find away to bring it to the public at large. Six months later, I created with a former college classmate. is designed to help folks get started in the creative arts industry.

During this time, I was also in my first year of law school, where I witnessed first hand just how clunky legal writing could be. Instead of being detailed and concise, many of the legal briefs I read were rambling and downright repetitive. Each time I wrote an assignment, I envisioned myself as an overworked law clerk plowing through a pile of briefs. I reasoned that in order for my brief to stand out, I only needed to state my case and back it up with law and precedents. I was naïve to say the least.

Amazingly, my concise technique worked for the first seven months of Legal Writing, but towards the end of the spring semester everything fell apart. My D+ in Legal Writing proved to be the death knell for my brief law school career. In hindsight, I realize that legal writing in a law school atmosphere differs greatly from the real world. Armed with my new knowledge about legal writing in law school, I think that the second time will be a charm.

It took ten months to recover from the Legal Writing debacle. Even after I enrolled into a paralegal studies program, the professor’s words haunted me each time I wrote a legal brief or memo. I would spend days laboring over a single sentence, fearful that my paralegal instructors would discover just what a horrible writer I was

During this time, I was also working on the book version of my Website and I was terrified to write the agent query letters. I kept thinking that no literary agent in his or her right mind would ever want to represent a legal writing loser such as myself. I wrote the query letters anyway and within a few weeks the rejections started pouring in. Surprisingly, though, four literary agents requested a copy of the book proposal. Five months later, I was taking meetings with literary agents in New York City. On the plane trip back to Minneapolis, I reflected on all of my writing detractors.

I wondered what my former honors English teacher, former Legal Writing faculty, college classmates, and the detractors would say if they knew that I had a literary agent. Then I realized that I didn’t care, because writing is truly in the eye of the beholder.

Alaina Alexander is a freelance writer living in the Twin Cities. She is also the creator of

The Zen of Rejection

By Magdalena Ball

It couldn’t have happened at a worse moment.  My car had just been hit by a truck and I was standing amidst the wreckage of glass and metal when my post lady pulled up.  After ascertaining that I wasn’t hurt, she handed me a package: the obviously thick SASE that went along with my novel manuscript.  I was being rejected again, and this time by the small local publishing house I thought would definitely take the novel.  I’m not sure which hurt more: the loss of my lovely wine-colored people mover or the final rejection of the novel.

Cover of Noah Lukeman’s The First Five Pages: A Writer's Guide To Staying Out of the Rejection PileBoth hurt, but crying that afternoon, I’m sure it was my manuscript I was primarily thinking of.  After all, I had won a mentorship for this work, and my mentor, a multi-published novelist, told me that the work was publishable and ready for submission.  I’m not naïve about the difficulties of getting a first novel published, but I did begin the submission process in a very hopeful state of mind.  It wasn’t all bad news though. Although I did receive a few form letters (“due to the volume of submissions, we regret that we are unable to provide feedback, etc.”), many of my rejections, including those from large houses, were very positive, and cited the quality of the writing, the strength of the characterization, and the powerful nature of the plot, using words like “heart-wrenching,” “complex,” and “rich.” Many also suggested that the sluggish market for fiction, especially literary fiction, meant that to be accepted, a novel had to be startlingly well written, need no editing, and possess a strong commercial angle. Mine was apparently good, but just not good enough.

The criticism received was very thorough in some cases, and provided specific examples where the work could be strengthened, and once I was over the sting, I began to feel grateful to those professional readers, who had taken such trouble over my manuscript, and who were unwilling to accept a novel which hadn’t reached its complete potential.  I am after all, the author, and this book will set a benchmark that my readers will judge me by.  The quality of the work is really all that counts.  Everything else is just ego and transition.

I have heard many people, authors and publishers alike, bemoan the state of publishing, and criticize the overtly commercial world that seems to be focused solely on profit.  It’s a natural defense mechanism and one that I have been tempted to participate in.  After all, it’s so much easier to blame my rejection on the state of “publishing today” than on the work.  However, looking back over my novel, and reading through the criticisms, I have come to believe that the comments are both generous and valid, and that however close it may be to being publishable, the work does indeed need a rewrite before it is ready for another round of submissions.  I am heartened by the full scale and thoughtful reading that even the most commercial of publishers have given my work, taking it seriously and taking the time to provide real feedback.  I rarely encountered the dreaded slush pile and was taken seriously, without an agent, by almost all the publishers I submitted to.  I also now appreciate, and this is certainly part of the tremendous learning curve that goes along with writing a full length novel, just how much hard work—not inspiration, just work—is involved in taking a novel from sketchy draft to full scale polished work of art.

I’ve always loved fiction, perhaps even more as a reader than as a writer, but writing my own novel and seeing just how much crafting is involved in the books I love, read, and re-read, has made me appreciate even more what a wonderful and powerful art fiction writing is.  There’s no point in sobbing, or putting the work away in a drawer forever, shunning further rejection.  It’s all part of the game; the very reason why great literature exists.  Good novels take time and a tremendous amount of work, and in the end, the speed and ease of publication is the one thing that readers and critics will ignore. This is no easy lesson for an impatient writer used to fairly instant gratification.  But it’s a lesson worth learning.  Every rejection is another part of the process, and to be welcomed and embraced.

So what can you do if, like me, you receive your twentieth rejection and begin to wonder if you’ll just print up an e-book as is and sell it from your website, or leave the work sitting in the dark, unread caverns of your computer’s hard disk for the rest of your life?  The answer is simple and almost too obvious.  Ask for help from a clued-in editor, gather in the criticism, and get back to work.  At the end of the day, you’ll be grateful that you took the time to make the work shine.  And so will your readers.  It’s all part of becoming an overnight success story.  A true Zen exercise.

Magdalena Ball was born and grew up in New York City. After earning an honours degree in English Literature from the City University of New York (CCNY), she moved to  Oxford to study English Literature at a postgraduate level. She then migrated to NSW Australia, where she now resides on a rural property with her husband and three children. She runs the Compulsive Reader review site. You can find her books and poetry collections on You can also find Magdalena Ball on Twitter

Writing and Menopause

By Laura Lee Carter

Becoming a writer is made so much more interesting by menopause. Since I’m going through “the change”and changing everything else in my life (hair colors, houses, husbands, etc.), I decided to change careers too. Ask my new and unbelievably patient husband, Mike, who listens regularly to my sobbing fits in the midst of a career crisis turned career change at age 50. I continually rail against the injustice of it all: “How could those mean old editors ignore my valiant efforts to become a writer?”

I started out in libraries at 24, always with the understanding that I would change careers as soon as I discovered my true calling. I went through one husband and two master’s programs searching for the perfect fit. Then writing chose me. Soon after being laid off from my 25 years as an academic librarian, starting my own dating service and meeting Mike, I hired a career counselor to reveal to me my heart’s desire. She suggested writing a local column to market my dating service. The writing freed my soul. I now had no doubt. Writing was my passion. It came to me as easily as tracking down my soul mate, which is to say agonizingly slow! But, lucky me, I began working at my dream job, sleeping with my dream husband, and living the life I always dreamed of, the year I turned 50.

It seems I am cursed by the fact my father, a college professor, always loved his work. I now know that most people don’t love what they do for a living, but this very early propaganda raised my expectations of employment. I knew I didn’t love being a librarian, but I could never seriously consider becoming a writer. It all sounded so risky and irresponsible. Turning 50 and hearing on public radio that one of my writing heroes, Laura Ingalls Wilder never published anything until she was 60 convinced me it’s now or never.

Perhaps unconsciously I was waiting for life to bring me the proper “material” to write about. Yes, divorce, job layoffs, menopause, and all the other illustrious revelations of midlife do give one pause to think. And if you’re fortunate, even pause to write. So now I’m busily learning about clips, query letters, writer’s guidelines, and waiting impatiently for someone to buy my work, while suffering through hot flashes, memory lapses, crying jags, and various other forms of irrational emoting.

One element of the professional writing experience caught me by surprise. I had no idea how obsessive I could become with my work. Once I got the hang of it: latching on to a great story idea, researching it, finding a couple likely suspects to interview and writing the query letter, I couldn’t stop.  I just counted up more than 20 queries I’ve sent out in the past two weeks! At three in the morning, I wake up and immediately start ruminating:  “Am I taking the right approach in that story? Have I offended the editor? Am I crazy to even try to get into this business?”  I had to cut back cold turkey; it was starting to take over my life! This left me wondering if there are 12 step programs for new writers.

The good news is that I now finally know the excitement of “working in the zone.”  I sometimes get so wrapped up in my research, I actually forget to eat! Up until now, no job could distract me enough to miss lunch, or any other meal for that matter!

The bad news is the insufferable wait for responses. You would think that after 50 years of waiting to become a writer, I could wait a few more months for an editor’s opinion. Not so. I thrill in the process of getting excited about the story, the build up to writing the query, and sending it out. Then the serious waiting begins. In agitated anticipation, I wear a path to my mailbox and e-mail account everyday, trying to imagine the wording of that next illusive acceptance note.

I suppose the truth is, regardless of all those mean, thoughtless editors, I will continue to sweat and cry and write because I love the process of creating an entirely new story and sending it out into the world. In the midst of so much change, I feel fortunate to have finally found the two loves of my life, writing and Mike.

Laura Lee Carter has found some success as a writer after only one year of almost perpetual rejection notes from many editors!  You can find her books at Amazon. She blogs at Adventures of The New Old Farts.


By Mark Terry

A long, long time ago (in what occasionally does seem a galaxy far, far away), I decided I wanted to be a writer. This was toward the end of my college career, between, I believe, my junior and senior years. I was majoring in microbiology and public health and not doing a very good job at it. My girlfriend (now wife) had graduated and moved back home where she was working nearby, and my college roommate (Andy) took an internship for the PASS network in Detroit, so I was living alone, working full-time in a mailroom of a veterinary laboratory at Michigan State and not doing much else.

I picked up a book of essays about Stephen King and he had written an introduction called something like “The Making of a Brand Name,” which was all about how he got started. I was struck, naturally, by the paperback reprint sale of Carrie for $400,000, but I was hit even harder by the idea that a writer was somebody who wrote things and sent them out to editors, who did or did not decide to publish them and pay the writer for the privilege. I started writing.

It’s been a very long and often twisting road, but I’m happy with where I’m at. It took talent, but I can’t define it let alone identify it. It took persistence. A lot of it.

Did it take luck? I can honestly say, I don’t think I’ve been all that lucky in this writing gig. My second manuscript almost got picked up by St. Martin’s Press. My first book contract was with Write Way, and they went out of business before the book got published. I signed a contract with another small press, and they disappeared into the night, their website replaced by—I kid you not—a site for a veterinary incinerator. I’ve had three agents. The first was this kind of fly-by-night outfit in L.A. The second was a good, well-established agency in New York and my agent there tried to sell stuff of mine for six years without success before I moved on. In my efforts to get another agent—the one I have—I sent out nearly 100 query letters.

I kept writing. I branched out, often not intentionally, into nonfiction. I wrote and I wrote and I wrote.

This could have been a faster process. I could have networked more. I could have gone back to school and gotten a journalism degree.

I could have given up and gotten an MBA or whatever.

I didn’t. So where am I now, in the spring of 2006, versus the summer of 1985, when I started this path of folly?

I make a full-time living as a freelance writer. I make a decent, even good, living. I have published two books, one self-published (not recommended), one by a small press. I have a two-book contract for two more, the first of which is coming out from Midnight Ink in October 2006. I’m very busy. I can pay my bills. Clients come to me with work.

Is it talent? Yes, some.

Is it luck? If you keep being persistent, you’ll get some luck; you’ll be in the right place at the right time because, frankly, you’re always working.

But I’ll tell you what. It’s always, always related to persistence.

I grabbed a tiger’s tail back in 1985 and didn’t know how to let go. I didn’t even want to let go, although I definitely had some low spots where I wondered what the hell I was doing. But I knew I loved writing and I could never quite give up the dream of being a novelist (still can’t).

There’s no advice here, really. It’s just that, yes, if you persist—probably persist past any norm of common sense—you can probably succeed at some level.

There’s this brutal story about a master violinist who, after a concert, was approached by a young man who said, “Master, will you listen to me play and tell me whether there’s a future in music for me?” The maestro nods and the young man plays and the maestro shrugs and says, “You lack the fire.” The young man abandons music and goes on to have a successful life in business. Years later he runs into the maestro and tells him the story and asks, “What did you hear in my music?” The maestro shrugs again and says, “I wasn’t really paying attention. I never do. If you’ve really got the will and ambition— the fire—you won’t listen to anybody who tells you to stop. Nothing can make you stop if that’s what you’re meant to do.”

I really don’t advocate destroying your life in pursuit of anything, actually. I think there’s a lot to be said for “getting a grip,” and deciding what things are worth to you, and deciding what’s important. Writing, for me, is a passion, yes, but it’s also a job, and I don’t think I should wreck my marriage or alienate my kids or ruin my health over a job.

Cover of Stephen King's On WritingStephen King, again, wrote a lovely essay about this subject and comments on how do you decide when to quit. He suggests that if you quite after three or four or six tries, it’s too early. But if you’ve received 1,000 or 2,000 rejections, rejections that NEVER say anything like, “Pretty good, try again,” or have no other encouragement, then it’s time to re-evaluate your time.

My guess would be most people can decide long before that 1,000 or 2,000, but it depends on what you’re doing. If it’s journalism, unless you’re a total hack who can’t string words together at all, I think you’d get an article published long before you hit the 500 mark, let alone the 1,000 or 2,000. If you’ve gotten 2,000 rejections from agents or book publishers, there’s something wrong, not the least being that there just aren’t that many markets.

But it’s your life. Only you can decide what’s important.

Mark Terry is a full-time freelance writer, editor, and novelist. You can read more about his books at

This is Your Editor Calling

By Karyn Langhorne


She sounded young. Really young. I took a deep breath, and answered, hoping I didn’t sound old. Really old.

“I’m Selina . . . and I’m going to be your editor on this project. First let me tell how much I loved your book.’

She might be young, but she was certainly smart. Anyone who loves my book has to be smart. As well as attractive, intuitive, talented, articulate, engaging, educated . . .

For me (and I suspect for most of us), one of the drawbacks of becoming a writer is that I’ve become very familiar with rejection. Before December 2003, I had heard “no” so many times, I’d begun to believe that the whole world hated me and my writing and that the only reason I kept doing it was because I was either too pigheaded, or too stupid to stop. Hearing someone say something NICE about my writing immediately turned me to mush.

When Selina told me she loved my book, I started grinning so wide my daughter could see the gleam of my teeth in the playroom two floors below. And if hearing her praises for A Personal Matter wasn’t enough, Selina, smart woman that she is, followed up her advantage by asking, “Tell me about the new one.”

I’m pretty smart myself (or at least I like to think so), but that question made all of my intelligent questions about what it would be like to work with the publisher, what my new editor expected of me, what I should expect of her—you know, IMPORTANT stuff — go straight out my mental window.

She wanted to hear about the new project. She wanted talk about my writing!

No one ever wants to hear about my writing. No, that’s not exactly true. Friends and family ask, and they don’t mind hearing a short answer like “Fine” or “Working on something new.” But beyond that, their eyes glaze over and they start looking at me with the same look people give computer geeks and the desperately intoxicated. Don’t pretend like you don’t know what I’m talking about, like you’ve never gotten the look. Until you’re as successful as Nora Roberts, John Grisham or Steven King, every writer gets the look. The look that says: That’s enough already. The look that says: You’re over your limit, bub. No more words on that subject for you.

Of course, if you become a really successful writer, people want to hear you talk about your writing all the time . . . as if you know some magic secret that changes crummy words to great ones, that performs alchemy that converts the worst of ideas into best-selling novels. When you become a best-selling novelist, people will flock to hear you talk about your writing in the hopes that you might share the magic with them and then they too could live the life of fame and fortune —

But I digress.

Selina wanted to hear about my writing. And she actually listened while I tried to explain my new and not quite completed project. She actually asked questions about it. Wow, I thought, still talking a mile a minute about possible directions for the story line, similar novels already on the market, etc. I like her. I like her a lot.

I was so busy talking and liking that I almost missed what she was saying. Which turned out to be something about a revision letter.

“Revision letter?” I repeated, reconciling the words “loved your book” and “revisions” in my brain. “What’s that?”

The revision letter, Selina patiently explained, outlines the changes the publisher feels are necessary. In a week or so, she would send me said letter, along with my complete manuscript. I would make the changes and send them back to her.

“Since we’re on an accelerated schedule,” she told me cheerfully. “You’ll have about thirty days. I’m sure that won’t be a problem,” she adds. “Your work is so strong, I’m sure you’ll have no trouble with the revisions.”

Did you catch that? Did I say Selina is smart?

“Mostly you’ll need to cut it a little,” she continued.

“How much?” I asked, mentally imagining a little tightening here, tinkering there.

“Eighty pages,” she replied with that same bright, youthful energy.

The manuscript as submitted was 487 pages. Eighty pages is like . . . I do some quick math . . . 20% of the book.

“But that won’t be a problem for someone as talented as you, I’m sure,” Selina keeps right on going as if there isn’t a long silence at the other end of the line. And now I’m trapped by my own love of compliments.

“No,” I say, hoping that I sound neither old, nor ignorant, nor scared to death—and feeling every one of them. “That won’t be a problem.”

We hung up shortly after that. Reluctantly, I turned to my computer, opening the file named “A PERSONAL MATTER-final.doc” watching 487 pages load into my word processing program.

Final document? Apparently not.

Next Month: Selina’s Side of the Story. My editor has kindly offered to write next month’s column, sharing with AbsoluteWrite readers what she was looking for, why she chooses the manuscripts she chooses, what I did right in getting her attention (and wrong) and how other writers can put their best foot forward in getting published.

Karyn Langhorne Folan is a “recovering” lawyer and a long time writer, with over 25 books so far. She’s  written for the groundbreaking educational novel series, Bluford High as well as an exciting line of post-apocalyptic fiction called Ashes, Ashes. Karyn Langhorne Folan has a Website.

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