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

Image: Pixabay

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.


How I’ve earned my writers’ stripes


No thanks

Image: Pixabay

I’ve talked about that old writers’ nemesis, rejection several times on this blog. 

Well, when I say ‘several’, what I really mean is ‘many’ (here, here, here – okay, you get the picture).

You see, the problem is, that rejection for a writer is about as easy to avoid as raindrops in a thunderstorm. You can run as fast as you like, but baby, you’re gonna get wet.

I’ve had a fair few rejections – many of the short stories I’ve submitted to competitions and magazines have been rejected. But let’s face it, you should (theoretically) only be spending a handful of hours on a short story, so yes, you work hard on it, you love it, you nurture it, but your whole personality isn’t invested in it in a big way.

You’ve not lived with it for months – years – drafting and redrafting, sculpting and resculpting, deciding it needs completely taking apart and rebuilding all over again because if its findamental flaws. And knowing that decision will take you months to achieve.

Because that’s what you do with a novel.

You get to know the characters so well that if you’ve set it in your own city, in buildings you know, you’ll find your eyes drifting there every time you go past, wondering if those people are actually inside, what they’re doing, who they’re hanging out with.

You’ve lived with them so long, there’s actually a small part of you that believes if you went inside and wandered the corridors, knocked on a few doors, you’d find them and finally be able to say hi face to face.

It’s okay, it really is a very small part of me that thinks that – well pretty small anyway.

Now, I don’t know how many of you are hoping to publish a novel the traditional route, but if you’re not a potential novelist you may not be aware that trying to get direct access to a publisher these days is tougher than getting an audience with the Pope.

Most of them don’t take unsolicited submissions and if they do, the manuscripts run the risk of sitting in the attractively named ‘slush pile’ for a year before being scanned by the intern. Just occasionally, the publishers usually closed to manuscripts will have ‘open submissions’ where unagented authors can try their hand.

I’ve sent manuscripts to three such open subs – one too, too early on in the process, a second just a few weeks ago, both resulting in rejection. Neither was pleasant, but neither was it devastating.

The third was different.

I submitted last August and waited.

And waited … and waited.

In October some people had rejections, but I dodged that bullet.

I waited.

I waited.

At Christmas I still hadn’t had a decision.

Finally, in the New Year, an update was posted saying that anyone who hadn’t yet heard had made it to ‘second reads’, the next level of the filtration process. That was pretty exciting in itself.

Two more months go by.

By this time, I was haunting a couple of forums, waiting to see if any of the members had rejections, reading their chatter, their encouragement to fallen peers.

I started to hope,

to imagine,

to daydream.

Than finally, after waiting 7 months, I had my email.

I’m sorry to say we will not be moving forward …

Was I disappointed? Hell yes.

Is there a tiny part of me wondering if I’ve wasted years of my life writing a book no one will want to publish? Err, yeah. But, weirdly, only a small part.

You see, I’ve got something now no one can take away – I’ve earned my stripes, man. I’ve ridden the rejection rollercoaster that every great (and yes, not so great) writer has ridden. I’m a passenger on the same train and I actually feel I’ve drawn a tiny bit closer to my writing heroes, shared a character shaping experience they’ve all been through.

I’m one step closer to being a published author.

And weirdly, after a serious postal delay, my Children’s Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook came today. If you’ve never heard of it, it’s the UK’s bible when it comes to professional  and legal advice …

and contact lists for literary agents.

I’m ready for my next step.


Wednesday word tangle: why you should take drugs before opening that email

Image: Pixabay

Image: Pixabay

I’ve had two instances where I’ve received two rejections on the same day.

I don’t mean romantic rejections. For me, overtures towards the opposite sex have gone the way of the long player (ask your parents), Sunday closing and wearing leggings. Maybe they were part of my life once, but now they’re merely distant memories that I may have dreamt once, when I was young, single and slim.

No, I mean literary rejections. Now, I’ve written about rejections before here and here. It may seem a bit of a theme on this blog – along with snarky comments and grabbing the reader by the hand, dragging them down the litter strewn back streets of my brain and screaming ‘Look at that!’ at the randomness that lays therein.

But rejection is part of writing – it’s certainly been part of MY writing – and writers are made better by it.

When you start to write, you’ll be lucky not to have more pieces rejected than accepted. It’s just the way of things. You wouldn’t expect to be a world class unicyclist without spending at least a few hours in A & E – so it is for aspiring writers. Don’t expect not to be rejected, because you damn well will be – you’re just not good enough yet.

But …

You mustn’t let that dishearten you, because you know, the very best are rejected dozens of times. And each letter which says ‘thanks but this isn’t quite right for us’, each email that says ‘the standard was very high’ – each blank space (because the majority of competitions will not contact you at all if you’re unsuccessful) – is a battle scar you should wear proudly.

Hey, man, see this here? (Rolls up metaphorical sleeve). This was my fifth manuscript refusal. And this? (Rips open metaphorical shirt) A serial rejection from Woman’s Weekly. It’s tough out there, man. Now … .Let me look at yours.

The best thing about rejections is learning from them. Okay, you may spend the first few hours after receiving one cursing, kicking the dog, outraged at the sheer stupidity of the editor in question. But that’s just the first stage of grief. And it’s no good wallowing in the belief that you’re just not good enough and why are you bothering when you could stick with what you know you can do easily – like reading Heat magazine or descaling the kettle.

STOP RIGHT THERE. Maybe your prose isn’t polished enough yet, maybe you use too many adjectives and adverbs and your work is riddled with enough cliches to sink a battleship (Haha!). But you can do something about all that. It takes time and practice, but you can do it.

At least our scars don’t cause us actual harm. Or do they?

They’ve done research (who the hell are ‘they’? I don’t know, but they’re always very busy) that claims when we’re rejected, the same part of the brain is stimulated as the one that registers physical pain. Possibly something to do with a primeval need to be accepted by our social group.

I guess if caveman Ugg felt physical pain at the thought of being outcast from the mammoth hunt, he’d be less inclined to bash Nogg on the head with his club – no matter how hilarious he found it. 

‘They’ also found that because of this link, painkillers lessen feelings of rejection. 

What can a writer take from this?

Well, firstly, we all want our own version of mammoth steaks – publication, acceptance by our readership.

And secondly. When you see the email in your inbox from that magazine competition, go take a fistful of painkillers.

Just in case

Today’s Wednesday Word Tangle was brought to you by the word


and the number 7 … For no particular reason.

Many thanks to Kat for W4W and for being so fantastic 🙂

How to kick rejection in the backside

Image Pixabay

Image Pixabay

In many ways I’m a sad, tragic, some would say pathetic character.

You see, I’ve just written tomorrow’s blog post – another instalment in the sensible-people-never-miss-this-thread-and-it’s-about-to-go-viral-just-you-wait-and-see Wednesday Word Tangle. I won’t tell you what it’s about as that would spoil the surprise, but it may be stuffed full of murder, BDSM, goat sacrifice and sizzling gypsies with heaving bosoms – it may not, but the only way you’ll find out is if you tune in this time tomorrow.

Thing is, do you know what I was doing whilst I was supposed to be focussed on gypsy busts, slaughtering domesticated ruminants and whatever else it was I pretended the next post is about? I was keeping an eye on my gmail inbox. Type a few words – click on gmail. Research how to slit a goat’s throat without it kicking you into next week – refresh, refresh, refresh. I’m doing it now. No, right now.

You see, today is the last chance saloon, the last day to hear if I’ve won a short story competition.

I’ve entered comps before, of course. I enter stuff regularly, because how else am I going to be plucked from the salty ocean of the blogisphere and raised up to join the pantheon of that most mythical of creatures ‘THE PUBLISHED AUTHOR’.

Oh, I’ve had short stories published before. I’ve won the odd comp, but this was one was a big one and quite honestly and not to blow my own darn trumpet … this story was good.

I’ve sent stories off before and later been embarrassed by the very act of sending. How could I have thought that drivel could stand a chance of winning? What parasitic worm invaded my brain, making me believe that literary dung scraping wouldn’t be instantly thrown onto the manure heap where it belonged?

But this one. It flowed. It had a proper beginning, middle, end. It returned to the beginning at the end (something short story judges love). The character’s voice was strong. We plunged straight into the action without the usual shilly-shallying I can be guilty of. It was satisfying – a jolly good read.

But. Still no lovely email beginning, ‘Congratulations…’

It hasn’t won. It hasn’t even sneaked second place and there’s a tiny bit of me that’s crumbling under the weight of that. There’s also a tiny bit thinking ‘You stupid bastards – you’ve made a massive mistake!’ But the crumbling is just about winning for now.

So, what do I do? Do I curl up into a tiny, defeated ball, crying into a tin of chocolate digestives about the fact that no one recognises my genius? Do I pin old copies of the publication in question on the wall and throw darts at it until it resembles one of those snowflake doilies we used to make at primary school? Maybe for a while.

But after I’ve licked my imaginary wounds I’ll move on. Because, you know, I have other submissions awaiting judgement – maybe one of them will be successful. And it is a good story and they are many, many other competitions and publications out there I can send it to.

And one day I’m not just going to score a little hit with my writing. I’m going to score a big one. And on the day I do, I’ll take all the rejection letters, print out all the ‘Sorry, not this time’ emails and I’ll pile up the lot in the garden and light the biggest bonfire Bristol’s ever seen.

I’ll make the air crisp with the heat and woodlice and beetles will scurry into the safety of neighbouring gardens and in the years to come they will tell their scaly grandchildren of the Day the World Burned.

And maybe I’ll dance around that fire like the busty gypsy that’s inside me fighting to get out. Maybe I’ll even treat myself to a bit of goat slaughtering. Maybe not.

One day.

And until then? Well, there’s an interesting short story competition coming up and I’ve had a really great idea …

How do you handle rejection? Any advice for those of us who find it damn hard?