Turning in Papers

A-on-examSupposedly you never get out of high school. That might be true, but I think I never got out of elementary school. I suspect this is true of most writers, aspiring and professional. Nothing can match the glorious feeling of self-worth and accomplishment that came with turning in a paper and getting it back with a circled A and maybe a succinct comment of praise. “Excellent!” “Keep Up the Good work!” “Well done!” Unfortunately grown-up writers rarely get this kind of unqualified ego boost.

 Criticism and rejection come with the territory. Editors, agents, reviewers, and readers line up like a firing squad–or at least it can feel that way.  The competition is tough, and the marketplace changes with every new mega-bestseller. Writers are often urged to follow the trends, then later condemned for being trendy. Originality that sells is praised, but when it doesn’t sell–or when a publisher can’t foresee it selling–it gets the hook. The secret to success is to be totally original and exactly like everything that came before. Readers–as well as the gatekeepers of written content–want material that’s meaty, entertaining, and even startling as long as it comes in a reassuring form. Tell readers what they don’t know but in a way that they do know. Think about it. How many contemporary sleuthing duos hit the bookshelves every year following the blueprint laid down by Conan Doyle in his Sherlock Holmes stories? Retellings of Shakespeare? Too many to count. And even the Bard borrowed freely from works he read and plays he saw. It wasn’t considered plagiarism back then; it was working within the tradition. And then there’s the Bible, which is the bible of relationships, conflict, hardship, hope, dreams, salvation, and retribution. Plot lines and characters galore to filch and rework for fictional purposes.

But I digress, as writers tend to do–got to fill up those pages after all. My original point was a nostalgic observation. By the time the writer is an adult, the sweet memory of turning in a school paper and getting praise has long evaporated. Publishing is a business, and businesses are about making a profit. If the content provider gets a good feeling from creating his work, all well and good, but the writer’s gratification is no one’s top concern. I understand that. I’ve been working these fields for a long time. But I still yearn for the giddy elation of getting an A on an essay and pleasing my teachers. And let me just point out that many of the no-nonsense nuns I had in Catholic school were not easy to please.  They could be merciless. Just like publishers. I’m just saying.



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