Lessons in novel writing: panning for gold in the rubble of rejection

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Writing novels is a strange way to spend your life.

You take months (in my case, years) working alone on a project then there comes a point – if you want your baby to develop, to grow and not remain swaddled to your over-protective breast forever – when you must push what you’ve made into the world and watch from a safe distance to see if it will fall on its face or walk, perhaps even run.

But what if it manages to both face plant and saunter cockily round the block on the same day?

A few weeks ago, I learned I’d come second in a Writing Magazine competition (more on that nearer publication day). My prize was either a modest amount of cash or a critique of 9,000 words.

Now, as I’m a writer with heaps of artistic integrity and a yearning to polish my craft until I can see my squadgy face in it, I opted for a critique of my Urban Fantasy novel opening.

On Tuesday the critique popped up in my inbox and I avoided reading it for three days.

This was my Schrödinger’s cat moment. I left the email unopened for the same reason it takes me weeks to check the numbers on a lottery ticket – if I don’t look, the unread critique/lottery ticket has the potential to be at once a marvellous review of my talent/worth millions and a hideous rip in my self-esteem/a worthless scrap of paper heading for the recycling bin.

Better not to know, right?

Except of course, wrong. I had to know because otherwise what’s the point in any of it? I opened the document …

And read the most delightful feedback I’ve had in a long while. The opening was engaging, the reader said, the characters realistic and sympathetic. My descriptions were good. I create a sense of mystery and the only thing that she truly found disappointing was not being able to read more.

Now, I’m British. Pretty reserved generally.

I tell you, I was dancing round the kitchen in my slippers after reading that. I fist bumped the air and I’ve never fist bumped anything in my life before.

Filled with renewed self-confidence, I sent a (very polite) follow up email to an agent I sent my chapters to back in August and submitted to three new ones. This could be it. If a professional reader at the UK’s bestselling writing magazine thinks my story has promise, it could be the vehicle that sees me become a published novelist, right?

Towards the end of the afternoon, another email popped into my inbox. From the agent I’d sent my (very polite) follow up to.

After apologising for taking so long to get back to me, she took around a page to say:

  • That no publishers want Urban Fantasy just now.
  • That the perspective in the first scene was confusing.
  • That the premise was too well-trodden to grab her interest.
  • Basically, that she didn’t think the story was strong enough to sell.

At this point there was not another euphoric little dance around the kitchen. A professional had now told me my story was unoriginal, not good enough to warrant a read in full.

A black hole, a nobbly Hell especially for writers would surely now open up in the lino and swallow me whole. Tiny demons armed with nothing but sharpened quills, reading extracts from Fifty Shades of Grey would poke my eyeballs for all eternity, whispering, If E.L.James can get published, why can’t you?

Of course, this didn’t happen.

Because she also:

  • Said the mystery at the heart of my story was a strong one.
  • Said I wrote well.
  • Actually gave me a personal response, took time to read my submission carefully and gave me guidance on how to improve. And anyone who’s been down the submission route will know that getting any kind of personal response feels like a small win.

So, what have I taken from yesterday?

That writing is utterly subjective. That what one professional enjoys another will not.

That I need to be more adventurous with my story telling, not just thinking outside the box, but climbing out of the box – hell, I just need to burn the bloody box!

And that I can write. I really can.

And for now, that’s all the speck of gold I need to keep me panning for more.

***

NB For my dear, generous beta readers, Maureen, Chris, Jane, Karen, Sammi, Jane and Lauren, I’m not giving up on finding Caro and Neil a home just yet. And whatever the story’s merits, you’ve helped make it that way. Many thanks again, all of you.

35 thoughts on “Lessons in novel writing: panning for gold in the rubble of rejection

  1. I would hope you don’t dump them! Keep going after the agents though. To get a reply at all seems to be pretty good going. It’s a story I remember which I can’t say about much of what I’ve read lately. I did hear it said that urban fantasy was out years ago, so it’s probably going to have a big come-back soon.

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    1. Thank you, Jane. I’ve not submitted that much to agents, really – five or six rejections between two books so far – and this is my first personal reply. I feel honoured she took the time to do it, to consider the thing good enough to comment on. I’m delighted it stuck with you – can’t be a bad sign 🙂 And I’m never quite sure what fits into what category anyway. I’ve reclassified the novel Contemporary Fantasy for other agents, as it’s not really set in a gritty urban environment at all. Is it just a pure ghost story? I don’t know really. I’ll keep trying, don’t worry and thank you again for your keen eyes and good judgement.

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      1. It’s certainly worth persevering with agents. You’ll get a shot at the bigger publishers if you hook one. And five or six rejections for two books is nothing. I reckoned I’d had over a hundred (pubs and agents combined) before I decided to have one last go before chucking it in. I’m still no further advanced, but at least I know I’ve done all I can. Hoping this latest one will crack it, but I’m not holding my breath.

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      2. Kept meaning to ask how your relationship with your agent is going. Are they working hard for you? Also saw you’re on a new WIP – excited to hear more when the time comes. You’re fantastically productive, Jane. I hope this will be the one for you.

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      3. She’s sent the book out to all the big ones but I’ve had only praise of the writing, no sale. So far, that was the only one of mine she thought was a runner. If you’d like to read the one I’ve just finished you’re very welcome. It’s YA. I’m waiting for her to look at it.

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      4. Praise for the writing is no small deal, Jane. I know it’s frustrating not getting a sale – can’t imagine how frustrating – but it feels very close for you. I’d be honoured to read the new book. Always a a pleasure to read your work

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      5. I think the agent was surprised she wasn’t having to beat them off. But she was wrong. Praise is wonderful but if the bottom line is that not enough people will want to read it for us to want to spend a lot of dosh on it, I don’t feel I’m much further advanced. Maybe with this one. It’s an easier read.
        I’d be truly grateful if you’d read it. You are a good writer and I value your judgement. I’ll send it over.

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  2. I don’t know, China Miéville seems to do well enough with his Urban Weird (or whatever he calls it these days) and YA shelves have enough steampunk amongst their romantic fantasy, bildungsromans and social realism titles to establish that whatever shade of urban fantasy one writes there will be readers to consume it.

    But the positive noises within your agent’s critique sound pretty encouraging to me, Lynn; and, as one of those readers you kindly namecheck above, I have to say that Neil and, particularly, the stroppy Caro have wormed their idiosyncratic ways into my sympathies and that I would would love not only to see them in print but also to hear What Caro And Neil Did Next.

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    1. Maybe China’s cornered the market? Maybe the story just isn’t for that agent? There’s certainly still a lot of fantasy out there, thankfully, or I’d never get published! Whatever, I know how highly those in the industry rate a personal reply – so many are form rejections or no reply at all, understandable with the 100s of subs agents get every year. And I’m so glad the characters stayed with you. I’m – very slowly – developing a new novel idea, with new characters wriggling into my heart, but I have such a soft spot for Neil, Caro and Sim, I don’t want to let them languish on a hard drive forever. We’ll see – more submissions (and no doubt rejections!) await. And thank you again for being such an early reader on TRD. I know how lucky I’ve been to have such generous people give up their time for me.

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  3. What a story Lynn, complete with its twists and turns and arc of its own…thanks for sharing. I’m like you: could not read or open that email. Maybe more than half of this writing thing is having the heart and nerve for it, right? You’re British, you do.

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    1. Aw, thanks Bill! You have to develop a thick skin, to be sure, and that comes with time. I’m not the least upset by the agent rejection – alright, it would have been better if it was a yes, but to get a personal reply is fantastic to me. You have to have a certain amount of self belief and that’s come with time, with me winning the odd thing, getting short stories and serials published. And you have to just love doing it, that’s the main thing. It’s me, it’s what I do. I’m sure you feel the same about your own writing – I know you do.
      Anyhow, what are your birthday plans? Hope you’ve done/are doing something nice with the family. Thank you for the kind comment

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Hey lady! Good passage here. Yes, it’s me and what I do as you say. There you are.
        Thanks for asking on the birthday plans. Dawn and I booked a room in downtown Seattle at an older boutique type place above a nice restaurant. I love staying at a place with a good restaurant, something comforting about that (especially when it’s really cold out). With any luck we’ll get out to a bar for a drink after, too. Though I’m a bit worn out from doing the same with a couple friends last night. Be well.

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  4. Hi Lynn,
    Those comments from the agent and in the critique are really positive. Keep sending the novel out. It’s unique. The right agent will come along who will love it.
    Maureenxx

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    1. Hi Maureen, lovely to see you here. Was going to email you with the news/not news. Thank you so much for the encouragement. I have tweaked again (with the suggestions from the Writing Mag reader) and sent out to three more agents. A personal reply is a first for me and fantastically encouraging. And I’m working (slowly) on a new novel too, trying to put all the advice I’ve been given together into another setting. I still have faith something will happen at some point! Hope your own novel writing is going well – whenever you’d be willing to share, you know I’m a huge fan of your work. And thank you – a thousand times – for all your feedback on TRD. If it ever gets published, you’ll have to flick to the acknowledgements page, for you know you’ll be there.

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  5. I’m excited for you. It’s great to get positive feedback, even if the general answer is a negative.
    I had heard that Urban is currently out of favour… though it could reverse at any time, and that the general advice is to slip it in beneath the radar by rebranding it. It isn’t Urban; it’s… whatever else it will fit into. But not Dystopian cos that’s out too. So is the Chosen One.
    Good luck on finding an acceptable genre. You’ve got a head start. You’ve been told it’s a strong plot etc.

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    1. Thank you, Crispina. Yes, that’s exactly what I’ve done for most of the other subs – I’ve just called it Contemporary Fantasy, which it is. Weird how so much relies on what category you can put something in. Humans really aren’t happy unless we can name something. Thanks for the encouragement

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  6. Congratulations on your well-deserved successes, Lynn. Forget the buts; an agent sent you a personal response because she recognises that you are a talented writer, but your subject matter is not currently in fashion… a bit like my friends who formed a a local punk band named Optimax. Back in the late ’70s they went to London in the hope of making it big. Their unusual talent grabbed the interest of a certain very successful musician who was considering switching production. But he didn’t switch, punk was on its way out and they – presumably – were unable to change their style, so…

    The difference is that your genre will sell if it is good enough, and, surely, your book fits the bill. Also, you’re eminently capable of switching genres. your writing is more than art – it’sArt.

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    1. Aw, thank you Jane. It’s a funny thing, this pigeon-holing of books. Some publishers seem to demand you know where your book fits, others recommend spinning a couple of geners together to create something new, but some don’t like that because they won’t know where to place it on the book shop shelves. Tricky. Thank you for your support, as ever. I can’t claim to be an artist – not clever or sophisticated enough – but I do like a good yarn and I hope that’s enough. Thank you again x

      Liked by 1 person

  7. You’ve written your account of rejection beautifully. The sense of dismay comes across, mingled with the golden gleam given by positive feedback. Personally, I’m getting tired of polite rejections (nudging 50 over two novels – and counting). Every submission requires something slightly different, which takes a couple of hours to put together, check and re-check, and half the time you get – silence. I’d so much prefer to be writing (sigh).
    But from my beta readers, I’m sure I’ve got a winner. If I don’t succeed in snagging an agent, I shall self-publish!
    Keep pushing your work, Lynn. You’re a super writer, and I’m sure there’s a market for it.

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    1. I do know what you mean about it being tiring Penny. It’s not just a case of polishing a submission package, you have to research the agents, stalk them on Twitter, read interviews, find out what they like and don’t like, tweak the package to the agency’s requirements … As you say, hours on each one. It is tiring. I’m so glad you’ve had such positive feedback from your readers and I hope you can snag that agent this time round – your writing deserves it. Thank you for the encouragement. I’ll keep going a while longer 🙂

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  8. Burn the box! Best advice ever! And i’m so happy for you that you received some positive, encouraging feedback! 🙂

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  9. It’s great you got a personal response. And I don’t buy that there’s no market for Urban Fantasy. It might be a bit oversaturated, but that can also be a strength. There are plenty of publishers and sellers who want a sure thing rather than something risky. That’s what killed me on my first book. Got a personal response from the agent who sold The Martian, basically telling me the writing was good but the concept/structure was too unconventional to sell. The exact opposite of what you were just told. I think logic dictates that you’ll be better off with something more like what is selling now. Don’t worry!

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    1. Thank you so much for the encouragement. You’re right, it’s a weird thing to be told Urban Fantasy is out of fashion when there’s a fair bit of it around. It’s interesting to hear about your own experience with agents. Did you get your ‘unconventional’ book placed with a publisher in the end or did you self-publish. You seem to be very prolific and have no shortage of ideas

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      1. My current indie publisher, Fiction Vortex, picked it up. It just happened to be the sort of new thing they were trying to do. The book is called “In the Valley of Magic” and has been out for a bit now. I’m sure I would have been more successful with an agent, but you can’t win them all. And I’m in a somewhat comfortable position now, managing one of the publisher’s fantasy shared universes, but able to work at my own pace (because, you know, real work and life and all that).

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  10. If I were you, I would research more agents and find one that likes your genre. Because writing is subjective. Keep sending it out until you find an agent who sees it more like the reader. And if that doesn’t work, self publish.

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      1. Thanks Cynthia. Yes, I’ve done exactly as you say – stalked agents on twitter, found their likes and dislikes, read interviews, compiled a list of agents and the ones at the top who show a strong interest in fantasy and love authors and books I love or even represent authors I like too. I’ve sent out some more submissions, so we’ll see how I go. Thank you very much for the encouragement.

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  11. For only having a few submissions so far, this is a very positive response! I’m impressed! As you say, getting a personalized critique from an agent is unusual, and a sign that you are far above most of what they’re receiving, even if this particular piece isn’t quite to their preferences.

    Most authors I know had to try dozens of agents (or more!) before they found one that was a good fit. Keep trying!

    And yes, you CAN write — beautifully! I am always impressed by your micro-fiction and flash, and look forward to reading your longer-form works.

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    1. Aw, thank you so much, Joy. That’s such a kind and encouraging comment and so lovely to read. I am heartened by the agent’s response, even if it is a rejection – for someone to take the time to give some advice is a rare thing in publishing. I take encouragement from it. Of course, that doesn’t mean I’ll get an agent through this book but I feel confident enough to keep trying. Thank you for the kind comment on my writing too – it means a great deal

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      1. You really are one of the best writers I know — at least in the short forms that I’ve seen so far. I do a lot of critiquing, so I’ve seen a ton of writers’ unpublished works, and I would definitely put your chances at getting an agent on the higher end of that scale. But you have to keep trying ad nauseum to find the right person, which isn’t at all the fun part, is it? Hang in there, and best of luck!

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  12. Take heart, Lynn. Five rejections is nothing (trust me!) and getting an encouraging personal response on one of them is excellent. Rebranding your story as a contemporary fantasy is smart. But don’t write for the market. Write what you’re passionate about. Says the woman finishing unpublished novel #5…. 😉

    I think of you keep at it, Caro and Neil will find a home!

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  13. Way to go, Lynn. You’ve started the next phase of your journey. I have zero experience in this so all I can say is don’t quit sending it out there. It may take many more attempts to get it out there.
    How frustrating that one has to assign a genre, putting a story within a definitive box. I suppose they need to, to a certain extent to attract a type of reader.

    Best of luck and keep at it!

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