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January 2006

January 2006: Phoenix



  • EMG News:
    January 2006
  • Wombat Droppings:
    Poking the Gravid Chicken
  • Healthy Green Artists:
    Artmakers as Friends of the Earth
  • Behind the Art:
    Fighting Artist Blocks with Brainstorming and Thumbnails
  • Cosplay101:
    An Introduction to Cosplay Costuming
  • Myths and Symbols:
    The Two-Headed Phoenix


  • Rising From the Ashes
  • Online Marketing Part I


  • Critique Corner: Phoenix
  • PA Spotlight: Crackle character from Camilla Grow


  • Movie: Aeon Flux
  • Movie: The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe
  • Movie: The Fog
  • Movie: Ringers: Lord of the Fans

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  • Rising From the Ashes
    by C.E. Murphy

    If you are an artist of any sort—whether you're a writer, a painter, a sculptor, or a photographer—and you intend to pursue a career in that field, there is one certainty to face:

    You're going to get rejected.

    It's possible, even likely, that you're going to get rejected a lot. It's the nature of the beast. Whether it doesn't fit our current specifications or needs more development, whatever the reason given (or, as is so often the case, whatever the reason not given), there will be rejection and it will drag you down. Odds are good it will make you doubt yourself and curse the foolishness of those unable to see your talent. You'll wonder if this is really such a good idea, pursuing art as a career, and you'll think maybe you'll never make it.

    And then you'll do what everyone who succeeds in art does: You pull yourself together, and rise from the ashes.

    There's almost no better image for the pursuit of art as a career than that of the phoenix. We all know the fiery death of being told we're not good enough, our work doesn't suit, and thank you, please try again later. We also all know the only way one can survive is to do as the phoenix does, and live to try again.

    As a fantasy novelist, I've had my share of rejections. In my filing cabinet is a folder labeled "Rejection Letters--the fools, the fools!", and there are enough letters in it to say I'd taken my lumps before I reached publication.

    I thought--I really, truly thought--the first novel I wrote was publishable. That it was as good as or better than a sizeable chunk of the stuff already printed. That was fourteen years ago.

    I'm afraid to look at that manuscript, now. Oh, I still think it has some merit--among other things, it was a finished piece, and as a novelist there's nothing more critical than finishing a book, and then writing the next one--but I got a form rejection on that manuscript, and it probably didn't deserve more.

    I didn't send another book out for five years. That was IMMORTAL BELOVED, a TV tie-in based in the "Highlander" universe. That book was publishable, and I got a rejection letter saying, in essence, "If we hadn't just cancelled this line, we would have at least taken a look at this book."

    I didn't send another book out for three years.

    You may sense a theme here. It's not one I recommend, although if you spend the intervening time working hard to improve your craft so it has that much more chance of selling the next time you send something out, it's certainly time well spent. It would be best, of course, if we could all recognize that yes, this is the one that will make it, and only send it out, but the only way we learn that is by submitting and learning from what we did wrong. For writers, especially novelists, there's usually a lot of time between submission and response. (I have had pieces take two years to be rejected, in the not-so-distant past.) I've found that time gives me a lot of leeway to learn the flaws of the piece I've submitted. Distance can be a harsh judge.

    The best thing to do with that wait time is to write (or draw, or photograph) more. When, in 2002, I finally began submitting things regularly, I had several completed novels. I think having a number of projects to sell is a plus for any artist; it shows diversity, and it also allows you to say, "Well, I can send this second book out while I work on revisions for the first."

    Because you will almost certainly need to. There's another spate of bitter ashes that need rising from: revisions, feedback, improvements, call it what you will, but it does tend to sting when someone tells you your baby isn't perfect. It's a completely irrational reaction. It usually takes me about two days to work up to reading a revision letter, and another day to get over being offended that my prose is not deathless art and should be improved upon.

    Then, muttering and grumbling, I admit that my editor is 90 percent right, and I haul myself up from my pathetic lump of misery and do my rewrites. Editors and agents will not always be right, but if you're submitting to professional markets and are receiving professional feedback, and they're turning you down, there's a reason for it. If the reason is something you can tackle--more characterization, more depth of light, less black ink--then consider that what they say might be true. Experiment a little and see if you agree. This is critical to any artist's ability to survive his own career.

    Because here's another hard truth:

    Succeeding does not mean the rejection letters stop. You still have to keep writing new books, taking new photographs, finishing new paintings, building new sculptures, and you will still have to sell those new projects. They're not all going to sell right off. I've gotten more rejection letters on my young adult fantasy novel in the two years since I sold my first novel than I can count. You have to continue to adapt, learn, and improve, and every single one of those things requires the ability to get up from the ashes and start again.

    It sounds dreadful, doesn't it? Here's the thing:

    If this is where your heart lies—if a career as an artist is what you want more than anything—you will find yourself able to get up again and again, to build a pyre and fling yourself on it one more time, because there is nothing in the world like the joy of succeeding at your heart's desire.

    In 1993 I met fantasy novelist Anne McCaffrey, who said, when I told her I was a writer, "If you can do anything else, do it."

    It took a long time for me to understand what she meant. Certainly I could do other things--I spent years as a web designer, and have had my share of the odd jobs that writers are supposed to hold--but during all that time, I also wrote. I couldn't not write, and finally I understood what she meant. She was telling me that if I could be happy and satisfied with a job outside the writing field, then to do that, because any artistic endeavor is a hard row to hoe. That if I could do something else and be happy, then I wasn't cut out for the writing life, because there are much, much easier ways to make a living. If I could do something else, I should.

    And so should you.

    But if you are like me, one day you will find yourself doing the equivalent of what I did when my first novel was published. You will find yourself writing, at least metaphorically, a letter to Anne McCaffrey in which you say, "Now I understand what you meant when you said if I could do anything else, I should.

    "It turns out I couldn't."

    And honestly, if you can't do anything else, all you need now is a file folder titled, "Rejection Letters--the fools, the fools!" Because you're going to get up again after every crushing defeat, pull yourself together, and try it again. Because that's how a phoenix exists.

    C.E. Murphy is a writer with a rejection folder and several acceptance letters, too.

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