Dawn Colclasure's Blog

Author and poet Dawn Colclasure

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Writing by example

So today I heard back from a small publisher about my proposal for the essay collection. They said they won't be taking on my book at this time, though they'd like to keep it on file if they decide to publish it in the future. I pretty much took this as a flat-out rejection. They did say, "If you have the opportunity to publish the book elsewhere, do so." (I'm paraphrasing here.) So, I've decided to look elsewhere. They're going to put more energy behind their own series, anyway. No problem. Fine with me.

I checked with some other small/independent publishers (the type of company I want to publish this book with), and found a couple I could try. One of them is not open to submissions until June, 2008, so I'll start with the other one.

The other one said to send the first chapter (in this case, it would be the first essay), the book's outline and the proposal. I pulled up the very first essay in this book, which in truth I have not laid eyes on for a looong time. (I started this book 3 years ago.) And I read it.

It was awful. Seriously, as I moved from one word to the next, I was literally squirming in my seat, dying a little inside with each sentence.


So after I finished reading, I made some notes on how to improve the essay, all the while wondering just WHEN I'll find the time to work on it. (These days, the baby isn't sleeping very much. Good Lord, I've given birth to ANOTHER "Tornado." Sigh.)

What exactly was wrong with the essay?

For one thing, it sounded too preachy. I've written and read A LOT of material since then, and I know that if the essay sounds too preachy, it's going to be a HUGE turn-off for readers.

Another problem with it is that it doesn't offer anything concrete to back up its claims. Particularly, no real-world examples to support its argument.

One thing I have done with the essay writing is changing how I present what I am trying to say. If I'm trying to make an argument for something, one thing I do is use real life to illustrate why this argument is sound. It may not be the BEST solution, but because it is one that has worked for one person, I use it as a way of showing this argument has merit.

I also try to allow real life retellings to take up the bulk of the essay's format, something a la a Chicken Soup for the Soul essay. I'll tell a story of something that happened and how that something reinforced what the essay is trying to say. In one essay, for example, I lament over a common sentiment felt by deaf parents: How we can't ever hear our child's voice. Or even REALLY hear it (even with a hearing aid, sound is still artificial). So I used an experience I had in which my child and I were on the couch together one evening, enjoying a movie, and of how she told me she loves me and how that made me realize we don't NEED to hear them to feel that bonding love with our children. I used this as an example of why we don't need to hear them, even as we mourn not being able to. I think in some way, readers can better relate to that sentiment and come to terms with their own feelings on the subject.

I know that my experiences in real life are unique. Not everybody has the same life, the same experiences. But I think as long as the experience touches on one which readers have had, too, even something SIMILAR to my own, I still think sharing my story can add strength to what I am trying to say. I suppose anything else would be better than something that is preachy, at least.

(On another note, I should keep in mind that the very first chapter/essay a publisher reads is representative of the rest of the book. It tells them what they should expect to see in the REST of the manuscript, and they use this as part of their consideration over whether or not they'll accept the book. So the first essay/chapter should definitely be at its very best. If it's too preachy, chances are the publisher will expect the rest of the book to be written the same way.)

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