Part 1 can be read here.
Part 2 can be read here.
Airship Ambassador: Caitlin, you and Cherie Priest are friends and critique partners, and when you lived in Seattle you were part of “Team Seattle”. How has all of that been helpful in the various aspects of your writing?
Caitlin Kittredge: Cherie is a kick-ass writer and is much better than me and pushes me to try to be better even though I know I will probably never be as awesome as she is. I think you want at least one friend like that when you’re a writer, you want one friend who you can look at and say, “Ok, some day.” because it motivates you and it pushes you. If you’re at the same level, then you’re kind of feeling your way through the woods together, and sometimes it doesn’t work out, but I think, I firmly believe that you should befriend writers at all different stages of the process because you can all learn something from each other.
It was great being a part of Team Seattle, and I’m still an auxiliary member–I’m the East Coast contingent. It was great having a circle of friends who understood the frustrations and the triumphs of the writing process and we’re all in different points in our career and we all had different stuff to contribute. It was a good little circle to be in, but yeah Cherie is consistently amazing, so I’m just kind of content to sit back and be amazed and just say, “Wow, you’re great. Maybe some day I can be like you. Maybe I can be you when I grow up.” Yeah, that’s the take-away quote from that. I would like to be Sherry when I grow up.
AA: Let’s talk about rejection and some of the things that you’ve posted on your website in response to other people about rejection. Rejection is about the book, not you. It’s not personal. Some people consider their work, whatever it is they do, to be fully representative of themselves, and rejection is personal. Other people clearly mark out a boundary between self and “work”. How did you handle and resolve rejection? Do you ever look back and laugh, or be thankful for a given rejection or are you alternately thankful for that rejection, that it led to something better or different?
CK: I’m definitely one of the boundary people. I have my 10 minute rant about, “How could they be so stupid. Clearly I’m brilliant. And I hate them all, and I’m going to go eat a gallon of chocolate ice cream,” and then just get over it. I would say the best way I’ve found of dealing with rejection is allow yourself that 10 minutes. Obviously don’t post it on the internet and don’t say it to anyone who can get it back to the editor or the agent who rejected you. You can rant to your cat if you have one, or your husband or your wife, or you can just do it alone in your cubicle and let your co-workers think you’re nuts. But yeah, give yourself that 10 minutes and just get it all out and then get over it.
That’s my best advice, because, yes, especially in big commercial publishing, editors and agents really aren’t rejecting you, they’re just making a business decision and it’s not personal, and if it is personal, then that’s their issue, it’s not yours. If it comes across as personal, and if they seem to have some kind of vendetta, you know what, they’re human, too, but again not your issue. Probably not your writing’s issue either if you get a crazy rejection letter that’s just clearly beyond the pale. I haven’t gotten one myself but I’ve seen some of them and it just makes me go, “WHAT? WOW!” And I told the people who kept them, “Do you really want to work with this person who was so unprofessional?
Dealing with rejections will teach you professionalism really fast, if you hold onto stuff and you come across as bitter and or crazy, you’re probably going to have a lot harder time getting agented and published. If you come across as someone who’s able to say, “Ok I understand. Business decision. Not a good fit right now. I will a. revise or b. keep trying to find something that’s a better fit.” It’s going to teach you how to just kind of you know take it down a notch and divorce the business side of writing from the artistic side of writing.
The artistic side of writing is very dear to me, and the only bad reviews I get upset about are when somebody picks on something that I was really specifically trying to do or that I was really specifically proud of writing-wise or character-wise, or something. That will get me down for a little bit. But if someone’s like, “I just didn’t like the book. It didn’t work for me.” I’m thinking, “Ok, that’s fair.” If somebody doesn’t want to buy a short story of mine, I’m like, “Ok, not a good fit. That’s fair.” But if you can keep the business side as business and keep the creative side close to you, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being personally invested in your work.
I think great writers are personally invested in their work and have a little bit of their soul in everything that they publish, and I think that’s what makes writing great. And, yeah, you do have to just build a wall against the bad reviews that pick on that side of it, but the rejection side, the business side, don’t even worry about it is my advice.
Wait until you’re published and you get really crappy reviews from major media outlets and then you can freak out and go rant to the heavens. But don’t worry about it when you’re just trying to get published. When somebody writes you a review and says, “I don’t even know why this person continues writing. The world would probably be better off if they didn’t,” which has happened to me. then you can get a little more upset. So don’t get upset about rejections, get upset about horrible reviews and don’t ever read your Amazon reviews. Oh my God. If you want a quick trip ticket to the nuthouse, go read your reviews on Amazon.
As far as personal rejection, I can’t remember any when I was trying to get published that really upset me and there have been some after I was published, that were certainly disappointing. I wouldn’t say they had to do with prose writing, but stuff I’ve tried to pitch in other media that hasn’t gone over so well with people I really would’ve liked to have worked with. It was just very disappointing that it didn’t work out, obviously, but what I took away from it was that I should probably rewrite and improve and come back and try again because it’s not like the door is closed forever. Because I didn’t flip out and say, “Don’t you know who I am? How could you pass this up?” The door is still open, so I just have to be better next time and try again. So that’s what I take away from most of that stuff is to just be better.
It’s about the fit, it’s about the quality, it’s about the timing. It’s so many things, and if you try to perform rejection alchemy, you’ll just drive yourself crazy. Bad reviews–Yes. Rejection—No, in terms of freaking out.
And I can’t stress enough, if you get a bad review, don’t post about it on the internet. Again, just talk to your cat, if you’re upset. You don’t want the sour grapes going out to everybody. Just be professional. I never respond to bad reviews. I may occasionally respond to good reviews and say, “Hey, thanks.” That’s it. Anything beyond that either way, good or bad, can get you into some really sticky situations, so it’s just better, keep your lips zipped for bad. Say, “hey, thank you” for the good.
AA: Good advice for a lot of life’s business situations. That leads me to your comment, or directive, to “grow as a writer” In what ways have you grown as a writer? What are the biggest changes that see you over the last several years?
CK: I think that I’ve grown in every way as a writer; at least I hope I have. I think I’m much better writer on most levels than when I started. I’m certainly better technically than when I started because I’m able to create stories with many more layers, and I think that once you can just kind of forget about the technical side of things and just know that you can put out good sentence level prose that is decent, then your brain frees up to kind of worry about like story, theme, and layering, and you know whether all your scenes are doing all the work that they should be doing, and just stuff that’s a little more cerebral than actually writing stuff down.
Although I still spend 10 minutes on one sentence sometimes just trying to find the right word and, “Umm, how about this. No. Delete. Maybe this. No. Delete.” When I draft my books, I have so many place holders that say “Put something cool here” because I’d be a terrible stand-up comedian; I’m not good at like on-the-fly stuff so I just have to sit there and think about it for like a half an hour sometimes. Then I come back to it at the end of my writing session and be like “Oh, I should put this here.” That will have given me time to work it out subconsciously. I used to just straight, flat-out write. And they were fine, readable stories, but I think they weren’t as deep as I would’ve liked them to be.
I think around the time I started writing the London books, I kind of started to figure that out, and my advice for growing as a writer is write the stuff that you’re afraid to, because fear is a big indicator that that’s probably something you should try to take a leap into, if you’re afraid that you’re not good enough to write this story, just try it. You may not be good enough to write it yet; it may crash and burn, but you will know, you will have tried it; you will have learned something. So, my advice absolutely is try, take that leap. Write what you’re afraid to write. I still do that, there’s still thoughts like “Oh I could never write that. I’m not good enough. How would I ever? It’s so complex–how could I ever incorporate it?” And I’m thinking, “Ok, well I’m going to try.” And I have crashed and burned with stuff like that. I’m like, “I’m not capable of doing this justice,” and I have shelved it, and I have stuff that’s still shelved.
I read this quote from Neil Gaiman in one of his short story collections were he said, “I came up with the idea for this 17 years ago, I just wasn’t good enough to write it until now.” And I’m saying, “Good on you for realizing that,” But I’m the proponent of ‘better to have tried and failed than to have been afraid to ever try it at all.’ That’s more my philosophy.
I think that’s the big secret to growing as a writer is to take risks and write stuff that you might be afraid to write and just go for it, as cliché as that sounds. Take the plunge. As you go on, you’ll know when something’s not working and when you need to backpedal or maybe try something else. But again, you won’t learn until you’ve tried and failed a couple times.
AA: Talking about spending ten minutes on a sentence, I’ve done that when I’ve written a chapter and then decided at the end that it wasn’t really what I wanted. Then I would scrap it and write something that was totally different so it’s not even similar.
CK: Right, and I’ve actually reached the point where I’ll start to get migraine headaches if the story isn’t working. Like when it becomes physically painful to write something, I realize I have gone off track somewhere and I need to go back and figure out where that was. So yeah, that’s my weird little writing neurosis.
We’ll take a break here in our interview with Caitlin Kittredge.
Join us next time when Caitlin concludes with her thoughts about writer’s block and criminology. Until then, read more at her website.
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