Learning from mistakes

I got a rejection letter from an editor at HarperCollins, who included a report from his professional reader… As I read the report, the world became very quiet and stopped rotating. What poisoned me was the fact that the report’s criticisms were all absolutely true. The sound of my landlady digging in the garden got the world moving again. I slipped the letter into the trash…knowing I’d remember every word.” – David Mitchell, British author with two novels shortlisted for the Booker Prize

“Rejections slips, or form letters, however tactfully phrased, are lacerations of the soul, if not quite inventions of the devil – but there is no way around them.” – Isaac Asimov

Media Commons

On January 11, the feedback on my novel, for which I’d been waiting a month, arrived. The accompanying letter began innocently: “There are many wonderful things about the manuscript you have created. The era, the exotic location, the big issues (religion, faith, children, family, culture), and characters with enormous obstacles all provide the basis for a very dynamic novel.

It ended with a more dispiriting conclusion. “To that end, I want to give you the strongest tools available for digging into the rewrites. That means I’m going to suggest what may feel like major changes. Keep in mind it’s not just that a person has to write well, they also have to write engaging [sic].”

Fourteen pages of comments later, everything she suggested did feel like a major change, and I didn’t know how to respond except by feeling a huge letdown. I’d been working on this novel for so long and suddenly I felt humiliated, that I’d wasted years of study and work and should have put my retirement to better use. Worse than the disappointment was the thought of facing a complete rewrite.

Friends were consoling and reassuring: “You’re a good writer.” “I like your story.” But the comments couldn’t make up for the critique.

The good thing about receiving disappointing news is that although the words might stick with me, the initial feelings–the tight chest and sense of hopelessness–faded. I got over my disappointment, first by recognizing the truth of what the editor said. Then, I stopped castigating myself for having spent the time writing. The pandemic has kept me and everyone else indoors for nearly a year and my activity choices were to write or clean out closets. At least I’ve been engaging my brain.

In 2015, Psychology Today reported on “8 Ways to Bounce Back from Disappointment.” Tip number eight was, “Find your grit.” It’s difficult to keep showing up, but by doing so, you will gain respect from others and feel better about yourself.” 

I am showing up and paying attention to the feedback, starting with chapter one. Last week, I received a critique from my writers’ group with responses that confirmed I had learned something from the editor’s critique. One person said my protagonist was “coming alive.” Another said, “Held my attention throughout. Not a boring word anywhere.” A third said, “I really liked the sense/feel of the scene!””

Positive feedback won’t always be this good and negative feedback won’t always be helpful. So it goes when you’re dealing with “not quite inventions of the devil.”

Writing with robots

Lately, news reporters and cartoonists have been taking on the topic of Chat GPT, the Advanced A.I. If you don’t know what this is, neither did I, until recently.   “Chat AI for writers,” who are now known as “content creators,” responds to prompts such as “Write a blog about… Write an ad for… Explain…

Lost homing pigeon to be driven home

Here goes 2023. During December, three people asked why I’d hardly blogged in 2022; a friend on the East Coast emailed to ask if she’d been removed from the blog mailing list; and someone else said she’d like to start reading it. All it took was an audience of five to lead to my return.…

The age of distractions

Recently, I read that the average adult can stay on a mental track for eight seconds, whereas goldfish can stay on track for nine. (How does anyone know the mind of a goldfish?) Fishy story or not, a lot of us find our minds wandering and we feel besieged by distractions. But following Google links…

About stillalife

I retired June 30, 2010 after working for 40 years in the field of education and most recently doing school public relations/community outreach in a mid-size urban school district. I wrote for superintendents and school board members. Now I'm writing for me and I hope for you. In this blog, I offer my own views coupled with the latest research on how to preserve our physical and mental health as we age, delve into issues most of us over 50 can relate to like noticing wrinkles and forgetting where we left our keys, discuss the pros and cons of different ways to engage our minds and bodies after we leave the workplace, and throw in an occasional book review, all peppered with a touch of humor, irony, and just plain silliness. Also, I'm on the third draft of my second novel since retirement.
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9 Responses to Learning from mistakes

  1. Darlene Bishop says:

    That a girl—“Pull yourself up by your bootstraps!” I know you’ll write (perhaps draft after draft) an amazing story—I can’t wait to read it!!!😘

  2. Vicky Murray says:

    Now YOU can write, Ann!!! Loved this piece. Your comment about disappointment goes beyond your rejection letter. Thanks!


    “You are a light. You are the light. Never let anyone–any person or any force–dampen, dim or diminish your light. Study the path of others to make your way easier and more abundant.”–John Lewis, From his 2017 memoir, “Across That Bridge: A Vision for Change and the Future of America”–1940-2020

    Don’t be afraid. . . Be focused. . . Be determined. . . Be hopeful. . . Be empowered. . . Empower yourselves with a good education. . . Lead by example with hope, never fear. –First Lady Michelle Obama, January 6, 2017 “When they go low, you go high.”– First Lady Michelle Obama

    “Take your pain, turn it into your passion and then make that passion your purpose.” –Congressman Elijah Cummings, 1951-2019

  3. Laura Hodge says:

    Based on the chapters I’ve seen so far, I’d say you’re putting the feedback to good use.

  4. Eleanor Owen says:

    This is a gem. Not only showing a philosophy for a meaningful life, but a practical guide for writers. Loved itl

  5. stillalife says:

    Thanks, my wise friend.

  6. Evelyn says:

    Hi Ann
    Sometime ago I read an article about rejection letters and remember one especially that was sent very early in his career to the author, Tony Hillerman, who wrote truly great mysteries about the the police in the Navajo reservations of New Mexico and Arizona. The rejection letter said his writing was good, as was the story, but he needed to leave out the stuff about the Indians. He didn’t, of course, and much later (as a best-selling author) was the recipient of an honorary award from the Navajo nation. So all that is to say is that some criticisms should be given consideration and some not. Hang in!

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