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Making Love to a Skunk: Writing is a lot like it

Charles’ grandmother had a very temperamental pet skunk. She had the stink glands removed of course, but the skunk, whose name escapes me at this late age, had sharp little teeth that she was not afraid to use. She lived in a cage made of chicken wire, but occasionally Charles’ grandmother would allow her the freedom of her fenced-in backyard. Charles and I loved that skunk, and we were determined to show her just how much. We would slowly walk toward her, mumbling little nonsense words.

“What a friendly little skunk. You’re such a sweety sweety skunk, aren’t you? You wouldn’t bite anybody would you?”

When we were close, we would extend a hand. The skunk would lean forward, sniff the fingers, and bite whichever hand was closest. The teeth were small, sharp and invariably drew blood. We never gave up trying, however. We were determined to pet her, and she nearly always bit.

However, there were those rare moments when she would gaze at us with those beady eyes, stand still, and allow us to gently scratch her forehead or lightly rub her back. This always excited us. We would high five, strut around the yard, and congratulate each other. “We have broken through,” we would say, and the glow of success would last until the next time she bit us.

We did learn a few tricks to put the skunk into the mood to allow us to pet her. For example, she liked it when we talked softly to her, so we would whisper words of praise about her beautiful tail, her dark bubble eyes, and her vivid black and white coloration. She also liked it when we hummed her a tune before we attempted to pet her. She especially liked “These Arms of Mine” by Otis Redding. However, these tricks did not always work. There were days when she was determined to draw blood, no matter what trick we employed.

Charles’ grandmother gave us a book about skunks, and we learned everything there was to know about them—their feeding habits, their personalities, their scent weapons, their mating habits, and so on. The more we learned about our skunk, the more successful we were at befriending her.

Sometimes, I think that writing is a lot like trying to make love to a skunk. It is not enough to have the desire to be a successful writer. There are steps you must follow before you can become one. The first three steps are obvious.

First, you have to learn how to write. You can accomplish this in many ways. You can go to a school and earn an MFA, for example, but that is no guarantee that you will be successful. You could also take workshops with published writers and learn from their tutelage, or you could simply teach yourself. Many books exist that can help with that. Whatever road you take to learn to write, there is one constant—what my friend and mentor Ernest Gaines called the six little words to learning to write, “Read, read, read. Write, write, write.” Read what others have done before you, and put words down on paper—or in the computer, now days.

Second, you have to learn how to edit. Words and ideas may flow from your head to your fingertips like water, but you will never be a success if you do not control them. You must know grammar. Few magazine or book editors will tolerate a manuscript riddled with grammar errors. All successful writers know this and work hard at making sure their work is error-free. How do you learn grammar? Well, if you paid attention during your schooling, you should already know how to write grammatically correct sentences. If not, then you need to re-school yourself. However, just knowing grammar does not necessarily make you good at editing your own work. It takes a hard heart to look at your creation and determine that it is not perfect. If you are fortunate enough to know someone who can read your work and be brutally honest with you, then take advantage of that person, or do what I did; join a writers’ group.

Third, you have to learn to follow directions. As a writing teacher, one of my biggest gripes is that students do not follow directions. If the submission guidelines for a particular magazine states that you must double space, use doc or docx, include page numbers, use only one space after periods, use straight quotes, rather than smart quotes, and include a word count, then be sure to do so. The editors have reasons for those requests, and not following those guidelines will likely earn you an immediate rejection.

Okay, you have a brilliant manuscript. The grammar is perfect. You followed the directions meticulously. So now, all you have to do is send it out to an editor. Not quite. There are still a couple of steps to go through.

Fourth, you have to familiarize yourself with the magazine or the types of books the publisher puts out. I know the arguments. You have worked hard on getting that manuscript written, researched, polished, and ready to go out. You are tired, and all you want to do is send it out—you are not a businessperson—you are a writer. But there is still work to do. Most magazine editors and book publishers have a vision or prefer a particular genre. Read the “about” page. Find out the editors’ names, and read what they might have written. Read the stories in the magazine or one of the publisher’s books. Does your manuscript fit that vision? Does it fall into the right genre? If not, move on. By doing this, you are actually making yourself a better writer. Refer back to Gaines’ six little words.

Fifth and finally, you have to realize that editors are human too. They have moods, pressures, likes, and dislikes just like everybody else. Your manuscript might arrive on an editor’s desk when he/she is having problems with a significant other, and your manuscript just happens to be about wedded bliss. The odds of it being rejected just increased dramatically. It seems unfair that the fate of your dreams and aspirations rests in the hands of an angry editor, but hey, if your manuscript is a good one, it will find a home. One more note about editors. They need respect. Most of them are writers too. They know what rejection feels like, and I don’t know of any who like giving it out. If you get a rejection, square your shoulders, crank up the computer, and find somewhere else for your manuscript. Don’t waste your time and reputation blaming the editor.

IMG_0173None of this is new, but if you’re like me, you need a reminder every once in a while.

Remember the skunk? We did everything right, but although Charles and I were careful and loving when petting her, she still bit us sometimes. Making love to a skunk is an iffy business, and so is writing. No matter how careful you are, and how well you prepare, editors will sometimes reject your work. That does not mean it is not worthwhile.

This post is contributed as Guest post by Jude Roy

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