On Rejection

So let’s talk about rejection.  It’s the inevitable and unpleasant companion in the journey of every writer.  The Rejection Beast walks before us and beside us, it eats up our energy and dogs at our heels and bursts into the room to knock you down when you least expect it.  No writing career is free of it.  It’s only a question of how to handle it.

So, how does one handle it?

Well, like so many aspects of the writing life, the answer is, it depends on the writer.  So if you find yourself with this unwelcome house guest, here are some strategies you can try out.

View rejection from a different angle. This is my preferred strategy.  I look at rejections not as signs of failure but signs that I’m actively sending my stories out into the world.  I may not always succeed, but I am making the attempt.  Trying is better than doing nothing.  After all, the presence of the Rejection Beast in my living room is only a reminder that my front door is open for when Acceptance finally arrives.

Make like a mad scientist and take the “I’ll show them!” route.  This is a good strategy for those who need a little bit more fire in their belly to keep them going.  As Neil Gaiman once famously wrote,

“It does help, to be a writer, to have the sort of crazed ego that doesn’t allow for failure. The best reaction to a rejection slip is a sort of wild-eyed madness, an evil grin, and sitting yourself in front of the keyboard muttering ‘Okay, you bastards. Try rejecting this!’ and then writing something so unbelievably brilliant that all other writers will disembowel themselves with their pens upon reading it, because there’s nothing left to write.”

Granted, Mr. Gaiman probably has less to worry about when it comes to rejection these days.  But using rejection as fuel to push your own improvement and perseverance is a win-win.  It’s a hard climb up the mountain, and sometimes you need to hit the red button and fire up the turbo-boosters.

Get yourself a cheerleader. Let’s face it:  writing is a lonely business, and it’s easy to get deep inside our own heads.  That’s why it’s good to have companions on this road:  beta readers, fellow writers, and cheerleaders.  Sometimes people will fill more than one of these roles for you; but when the Rejection Beast squats in your best writing chair and just Will Not Leave, the cheerleader is there for you, giving you a much-needed boost when you’re feeling down or adrift and the words just aren’t coming out right.  And cheerleading can be a reciprocal act, too!  Let’s face it, it’s incredibly fun and uplifting to stan* your friends when they need it.

Remind yourself why you’re doing this. Whenever I hit a slog, when the words aren’t coming and I need a little more motivation, I love reading books where writers talk about their experience living the writing life.  It helps to put me back into a good mental place, reminding me why I want to keep doing this, despite the obstacles.

Those are just a few strategies I know off the top of my head.  Whichever one you try, the important thing is to keep trying, to find the strategy that lights that fire in you.  The Rejection Beast will come, whether we want it to or not.  And we can yell at it, or blend it in with the décor, or call up our friends to vent about it.  But eventually we need to keep doing what we love doing, and refuse to let this Beast stop us.

*Yes, I know ‘stan’ is a trendy new word that All the Kids Are Using These Days, but it fits so neatly into a hole in my vocabulary that I find myself using it a lot!  It’s a great mash-up that encompasses cheering, supporting, and promoting something/someone you love in one easy one-syllable verb.  What’s not to like?

Getting Away From It All

I spent last weekend camping in Linn Run State Park.  The timing was less than stellar:  we just missed peak foliage, and we drove in late Friday evening under a blanket of chilly rain that turned into the season’s first snow overnight.

But the cabins were heated and cozy, and the cold wasn’t that cold once I was out and walking in it.  The next morning, the four of us–myself, my husband, and our friends Bill and Lauren–walked up the Beam Rocks trail through a pristine inch-thick layer of snow on top of fallen leaves.  And we had a nice view of the woods under a mostly blue sky, and a distant smudge of gray where a snowstorm was drifting past.  It was time well spent, unplugged from the world and focusing on good company and long conversations.

Linn Run
A view from Beam Rocks at Linn Run State Park.

You can probably guess where this story goes.  That unplugging for a weekend somehow changed my life, that severing myself from the constant flood of the internet left me open to blessings by the muse.  And maybe it would, if I gave it more time than a day and a half.  I’ve written before about the value of cultivating mental green space, of giving one’s thoughts space to play, about changing up the scenery in order to nurture a sense of wonder.

But I didn’t write a single word while I was away.  I chatted with my friends, I walked in the woods with them, we played board games, cooked, did a little shopping in the local town of Ligonier 20 minutes away.  We just took our moments as they came.  When I woke up two hours before my husband on the chilly, frosted-over Saturday morning, I climbed up to the upper bunk, threw a blanket over my lap, and played games on my Nintendo 3DS with the volume turned off while I waited for the sun to grace us with its presence.  The whole weekend was cozy and pleasant and I had a great time.

And I came home with lovely memories I’m going to toss into the stewpot in my head.  And maybe some time in the future, the crunch of frosted leaves and the musical rush of the creek and the feeling of waking up in a dark cabin on a chilly morning will make its way into a story.  And that’s fine.  Not every weekend spent camping is going to come with a revelation.  Maybe all I learned about myself in the woods is that I had a lot of fun and I’d love to do it again.  And that’s enough.

Coffeehouse reading

The reading for the Steel City Speculative Series went swimmingly!  The event took place at Steel Valley Roasters, a coffeehouse I’ve never been to but it was very nice.  Large artworks dominated the bare brick walls, a low counter was piled with old board games, and I got to relax on a huge and incredibly comfortable couch that filled most of one wall.

There were five readers total.  Jamie Lackey, who organizes the series, started us off with something short and sweet, “The Straw Mother,” one of her stories which appeared in Triangulation 2014.  Then I read the first few pages of “The Evening Path,” which appeared in Triangulation 2016.  And because that’s a heavier story, I followed it up with the beginning of my much sillier story, Why I’m Asking for an Extension on my Paper. It seemed appropriate, since it’s Halloween Season and if there’s one thing Pittsburgh does well, it’s zombies.

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Left to right: Jennifer Hykes (that’s me!), Jamie Lackey, Diane Turnshek, Frank Oreto, and Doug Gwylim

Diane Turnshek, the creator of the Triangulation anthology series, read her intriguing short story “Vegan.”   I won’t give it away but I will say that the title has a double-meaning.  Frank Oreto, one of the anthology co-editors, read a short story from Triangulation 2017 that managed to be both horrifying and hilarious (a rare combination to pull off well); I unfortunately failed to get the name of the story or the author, but it involved a giant statue of Elvis carved out of jello.  And Doug Gwylim, the other co-editor, finished us off with a reading of “Soulmate’s Song” by Christina ‘DZA’ Marie, published in Triangulation 2018.  It’s a story that deals with the heavy topic of race relations in World War II, but it was an incredible story.

Overall, it was a great night for coming together and enjoying some excellent stories with some amazing people.  A perfect way to spend a crisp autumn evening.  So if you’re in the Pittsburgh area and you love a good SFF tale, this is definitely a reading series to look out for!  And if any of these stories pique your interest, definitely check out the Triangulation series!



Reading on November 5

This Monday, November 5, I’ll be doing a reading at Steel Valley Roasters in Homestead, PA at 7 pm.  This particular reading will feature several authors whose works have appeared in the annual speculative fiction anthology Triangulation.  So if you enjoy good SFF, come out for a nice evening of storytelling!

The reading is part of the Steel City Speculative Series, which hosts regular SFF readings featuring local writers.

Not gonna lie, I’m a little excited and nervous, since this is my first public reading.  So we’ll see how it goes!  If you’re in the area on Monday night, and you like my stuff, feel free to stop by and show your support!

New Story at Cast of Wonders

A new story of mine is now available over at Cast of Wonders!  It’s called The Sound of Her Voice, and I am super excited to share it with you!  It’s read by the lovely voice of Dani Daly, and is also viewable in text.

BBW 2018 generic square
Step into a book, and step into a whole new world.

This story is part of Cast of Wonders’ Banned Books Week, because it is a story about books and the power they have to change our lives, sometimes literally.

I’m particularly exited for this story because it takes place in a world that is very near and dear to my heart.  So perhaps you’ll see more stories of mine in the future that take place in the same world!  A world of gate-keepers and gate-crossers, where magic and monsters lurk just on the other side of everywhere…

Banned Books Week – Day 7

On this, the last day of Banned Books Week, I decided to cast my net a bit further in defining what counts as a book.  And I chose 20th Century Boys, a Japanese manga series by Naoki Urasawa.  It’s an amazing story—honestly, one of the best stories I’ve ever read, hands down—executed with a deft hand for character and pacing and emotional weight.  And it’s in book form, so it counts!

20th Century Boys
20th Century Boys, Volume 1, by Naoki Urasawa

I’ve been a fan of graphic novels and manga for many years now, and I’m incredibly impressed by the breadth and quality of stories told in this serial art format.  From stunning, complicated art styles to very simple styles, these creators weave amazing stories, using panel composition and framing, color and linework, to guide the reader through.

20th Century Boys, in particular, is a favorite of mine.  It follows an ordinary workaday Japanese man named Kenji, thrust suddenly into a conspiracy involving a cult trying to take over the world.  And the seeds of this cult—and the means to stopping them—lie in Kenji’s past, in the stories he and his childhood friends wrote together when they were just kids hanging out in their secret fort.  There’s a LOT more to it than that.  But suffice to say it’s equal parts mystery, thriller, horror, and intense character drama, and the time I devoted to reading it was time very well spent.

I think (I hope) that graphic novels are being viewed more often these days as the mature, varied medium they are.  They encompass a wide variety of genres and have a lot to say to us.  And honestly, there are so many I could recommend to those willing to give them a try.

Anyway, that wraps up my week of talking about books that have had an impact on me!  There are so many more that I could have included here, that I’d love to talk about in future posts.  So, watch this space!

And in the meantime, if any of my listings have inspired you to pick up something new, or at least gotten you thinking about books that have impacted your own life, I’d be happy to hear all about it!  After all, the world can always use more Book Love.

Banned Books Week – Day 6

As I approach the end of this week, I’ve found it harder to narrow down “books that have had an impact on me” to just seven.  In truth, books have shaped me in so many ways over the course of my life.  They’ve taught me lessons, opened my eyes to new ways of seeing, pushed my writing further, introduced me to characters who’ve made a home in my heart, and brought me countless hours of joy.

All this is to say that I may just continue these book love posts as a regular feature here at the blog.  Because the world could always use more book love!

For today’s entry, I decided to cheat a little, and select an unusual anthology I stumbled across many years ago in a used book sale.  1000 Beautiful Things, by Marjorie Barrows, is a curiosity cabinet in book form.  It’s a collection of poems, short stories, essays, psalms, quotations, and excerpts of larger novels and plays.  Whatever Ms. Barrows found to be examples of beauty in word form.  Compiled in 1945, its contents may show their age, may come across as a bit stuffy to modern readers.  But there is something very dear to me that I can open this book and find a few paragraphs from John Ruskin, writing about the transcendental majesty of water.  Or find a tiny poem about a quiet, starlit night.

1000 Beautiful Things
1000 Beautiful Things, compiled by Marjorie Barrows

Ms. Barrows and I are alike, in that we are both magpies, collectors of beautiful words.  I have files and folders in my computer where I store quotations and poems and favorite short stories.  I have a little tin full of short phrases and interesting images written on slips of paper, that I can dive into whenever I’m in need of inspiration.  I once papered an entire stairwell with photocopied poems.

Words are my joy, and that joy can come from so many sources in so many ways.  So I plan to keep adding to my little curiosity cabinet.  And when I am feeling down or discouraged or uninspired, I can open up my collection, and find something to refresh my heart.

Banned Books Week – Day 5

Everyone knows Tolkien.  The influence of The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy on the modern fantasy genre cannot be overstated, and Tolkien himself is a household name.  Ask a lot of fantasy writers for someone who was a big influence on them, and many of them will tell stories of reading Tolkien in their youth.

So you don’t need to tell me those books had an impact.  But I will point you to a far less well-known Tolkien work, which had a greater impact on me personally.  Tree and Leaf is a deceptively slim volume, originally containing Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy-Stories” and the short story “Leaf by Niggle.”  The later edition I read also included his poem “Mythopoeia.”  The book was recommended to me by a friend in college, and I was so glad when I finally tracked it down in my grad school library; at the time, the book was not easy to find.

Tree and Leaf, by J.R.R. Tolkien

The essay and the poem are both defenses of the value of myth and fantasy in our lives and in our stories.  While fantasy has broken out much more into the mainstream today, for much of my young life, it was derided as useless at best and actively dangerous at worst.  In academia, professors and even fellow students often didn’t know how to approach it, and assumed that fantasy was intended for younger readers, lacking depth and unable to reach the lofty heights of True Literature.  So reading these defenses were important to me.  They reassured me that the space I chose to play in, the stories I wanted to tell, had value.

And “Leaf by Niggle” is its own gorgeous story whose images continue to haunt me to this day.  It’s a story about a man working tirelessly to achieve his grand artistic vision, and the unexpected way in which that vision is finally realized—in many senses of the word.

So, you could say that Tree and Leaf is Tolkien explaining, exploring, and justifying the act of imaginative creation (or sub-creation, as he would term it).  In prose and poem and essay, he reflects on the value and importance of a topic that meant so much to him—and that means so much to me.

Banned Books Week – Day 4

In thinking about books that have had an impact on me, I wanted to include at least one book about writing.  I didn’t know any writers in my immediate circle growing up, so I turned instead to tracking down books on the topic.  And not necessarily dry tomes on grammar and composition, or books with shiny, bold-print titles insisting they know the One True Technique to crafting an Instant Bestseller ™.  I’m talking quieter books where one writer shares anecdotes about how they got started writing, what their relationship to the muse is like, the sorts of experiences they had in the industry and what led them to writing certain stories.

I gobbled these books up.  I still do.  Especially when the well of inspiration is running dry and I can’t quite bring myself to put in the necessary butt-in-chair time, reading the creative experiences of others has often helped me get back on track, and inspired me to put hand to keyboard.

I can list off so many of these books that are definitely worth your while (maybe in a future post, I’ll do just that!).  But for now, I want to talk about Wild Mind by Natalie Goldberg, which was like a bolt of lightning directly to my college-age writer brain.

Wild Mind
Wild Mind, by Natalie Goldberg

Goldberg’s book is a blend of musings on creativity, writing exercises derived from Zen practice, and deeply personal vignettes into her life.  She advocates a writing practice that is very stream-of-consciousness, letting the words and images flow without editorial judgment.  After reading Wild Mind, I tried my hand at more freestyle journaling, letting the muse take me where she would.  I also tried to notice more sensory details about the world around me.  Goldberg painted her own experiences so vividly that I felt like I was traveling with her.  The summer I read this book, the sunlight seemed brighter, cool fruit smoothies tasted sweeter, and I have never been more in love with the sound and smell of rainy days.

Anne McCaffrey showed me how to build entire worlds out of my own imagination.  Natalie Goldberg showed me the world I already lived in, through a new lens.

Banned Books Week – Day 3

*kicks down door*

Okay, it’s time to put the pedal to the metal this Banned Books Week, by talking about a book about banned books, that has itself been banned!  I am, of course, talking about the science fiction classic, Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury.

Bradbury is an absolute master of craft, and this book was my gateway drug into his deftly-written work.  He is able to pack so much into his stories with just a few careful strokes.  With only a single sentence, he can evoke entire worlds.  This is what astounded me the first time I read Fahrenheit 451.  Bradbury doesn’t dwell on details—a sharp contrast to the richly-detailed fantastic worlds I was used to reading—and yet he can convey so much.

Fahrenheit 451
Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury

He didn’t need to spend whole pages describing the malignant robot dogs that chased down our protagonist; he only conveyed just enough that I knew they were terrifying.  To my young imagination, they were lethal shadows, they were ghosts, and my mind could fill in all the details on its own.

As for the story itself, it’s famous enough:  in an unspecified future, the world passively consumes shallow media that’s high on petty drama and low on substance, while books are contraband, fit only to be burned by Firemen.  Our hero, Guy Montag, is one such Fireman, but defects when he is introduced to books and learns to slow down and start paying attention to the world.

Much can and has been said about this book’s reflection on real-world trends:  the speeding up and dumbing down of media, a 24-hour cycle of nonstop sensation at the expense of quieter reflection, and the slow atrophying of our connections to ourselves and others.  Make no mistake, this book’s world is a dystopia and it reflects the very worst of ourselves back at us.  I’m not going to belabor its points here, because this blog entry would go on forever and turn into a book report.

But suffice to say that while I believe some media trends are cause for concern and even active pushback, I am also seeing positive trends in how we tell stories and the sort of stories we are telling.  The human thirst for stories that move us is a bottomless well, deep and full of starlight.

And I will leave you with this:  the most powerful image this book left me with is the image of people who have become books.  Memorized every line, every word, and carried the books with them into the future.  I’ve often wondered what book I would choose to become, if I had to.  Or even if I just wanted to.

We don’t need to memorize books word for word.  But if each of us takes at least one book into our hearts and carries it with us into the future, I think there is hope for us yet.