Reject those Rejection Thoughts!

Jennieke Cohen (Dangerous Alliance) makes a worthy statement:

It’s so simple to let rejections take their toll, but we have to keep dusting ourselves off. After all, if you keep your work to yourself, your chance of anyone liking it is nil, whereas submitting could lead to something great. I’ll take slim odds over none any day of the week. And if you are professional and send your materials to enough people, hopefully you’ll be lucky enough to find the person who loves your work as much as you do!”

In essence, reject those rejection thoughts and believe in your story and those beta readers who love it too. Don’t keep a great story to yourself. Keep up the worth challenge to impress a literary agent with the best manuscript that time and energy can polish until it shines bright enough to catch their eye (and their heart).

The ART of Surprise

In my last post I outlined the need for surprise in a novel. let me elaborate. An accomplished thriller writer draws you into their story by establishing characters and setting. You need to get comfortable as you read; settle into a false sense of place. Then, POW, you are woken out of your expectations to confront a dramatic shift in character (known as a character arc) or a sudden change of events that take the story in a new direction. In my last novel, this happened quite by chance. I was doing some substitute teaching and had a spare hour. During this time, I began writing and the change in events just “happened.” What happened? Aha, should I be giving that away? Let’s just say it surprised me and my readers more so when the book was released. Oh, I love surprises, but they must be believable and not too far-fetched; a device to keep you reading, keep you guessing and to keep the plot flowing and not stagnating.

The water in a flowing river ripples over rocks and this keeps it fresh. I hope my stories work like that—like a flowing stream that has a few eddies and a few quiet ponds, but then races downhill over rapids to arrive full of oxygen and life. Ask yourself this question as a writer; does my writing suck oxygen from the reader or pump oxygen into them? I have had the privilege of taking high school students down New Zealand’s Whanganui River. By the end of the trip they were all looking forward to more rapids and became exited when they could hear the roar of water ahead of them. Stories can be like that too.

The Element of Surprise

What makes a good read? Surprises and lots of them. OK, what do I mean by “surprises?” Surprises are out-of-the-blue moments that interrupt the flow of the novel and take it, or a character, in a different direction. Too many surprises and they are not surprises anymore. That’s why I only use a few, and only as necessary to enhance the plot. In my novel, the end chapters reference the kind of surprises that we enjoyed as children at Christmas time. Something like this;

[“Thank you,” says Rian. “I have another surprise for you too.”


“Please close your eyes.”

My senses peak. I hear the slap, slap of halyards against the yacht mast and I’m reminded of the tap, tap of Sweetman’s cane at The Rock Hotel, though that was a lifetime ago.

Seagulls squawk. I’m getting hot and the anticipation is killing me. Then, high heels come clacking across the sandstone terrace, getting louder. A shadow darkens my eyes and a tender arm wraps around my neck. The kiss is sweet and soft and the air wafts with perfume; a sexy mix of jasmine and vanilla. My mind is alive with intrigue.

“Who?” I ask.

“It’s been a while,” she replies. The voice is lilting and familiar, yet I can’t place it. I dive inside my memory banks, but they are empty except for the hint of a French accent. Was she in Paris? Damn, I used to recall names with ease and am about to ask for a clue when she says, “You can open your eyes now.”

I look up. Golden hair cascades in the sun and her face is shadowed under an old straw hat, its tattered red ribbon fluttering in the breeze. My eyes adjust and my mind catches up.

“Claudine, what a surprise and, I must say, a pleasure too.”

“My name is now Chloé Dupont,” she laughs.

“It’s been a long time. You’ve changed,” I add.

She smiles and wags a finger asking, “How have I changed?”

“You look more beautiful than ever, and happier too.” She giggles and kisses me again.

“Another glass please, Rian,” I say. “Let’s celebrate Watershed with our new guest, the lovely Chloé Dupont.” The day seems brighter. She rests her glass, tosses her hair and hands me a parcel.

“A small gift for you,” she chuckles.

“You shouldn’t have,” I protest.

Her reply puts me in my place when she says, “It’s better to give than receive.” I like that and must remember it.

The Christmas wrapping is enticing and topped with a large, yellow bow.

“I wonder what this could be?” I reply, shaking it in the way I did as an excited young boy on Christmas Eve. I loved to see the present wrapped and stacked beneath the family tree, and try to guess the contents of each one—perhaps a toy rifle for me to fight off the enemy, or a sword to cut off their heads? Better still, the whole outfit—a Lone Ranger suit, complete with mask and pistols? I made several attempts to discover the wrapped secrets. My parents never approved, but Chloé encourages me.

She laughs, “Can you guess what it is?”

“It feels solid,” I say. “A strange shape, rounded at each end.”

“Just a small keepsake,” she adds.]

I guess you want to know what the surprise is? Aha, wait for the book 🙂

While You Wait

Waiting is a difficult game and not many of us are built to handle it well. “Waiting for what?” you might ask. It could be waiting for your next plot idea, next book concept, or waiting for a literary agent to get back to you after a full manuscript request. So, to ease the pain, here are a few suggestions:

  1. Relax. Take time to review you plot outline. Go back over your character arcs too. Like a good meal, add some spice and “kick it up a notch” where you feel best to do so.
  2. Start another book. That is, look forward. Never look back too far and keep on being creative because that’s where the juices flow best. Begin to outline some ideas for your next novel. Will it be the same genre or a new venture – perhaps a YA or even a children’s book?
  3. Take stock of major events; events in your own life or current events. Read the news and sniff out another story. You might find an article that brings a great perspective. Has something unusual happened that might bring freshness to you story? Ah, the inspiration for a book surrounds us all. In 3 WISE MEN, I was ruminating and came up with a great new chapter to slot into a rather pedestrian section. It worked so well that I reprinted the book. Finally,
  4. Get out of your head and take a walk around your world. Listen to conversations, sit at a coffee shop and observe. Volunteer and learn.

The Pitch

The one sentence pitch is the essence or heart of a book, the line that tells people about your book and makes it sound awesome.

Example: a one sentence pitch for Eat Pray Love, might be:

“A recently divorced woman (OPENING CONFLICT) travels to Italy (QUEST) for pleasure, India for spirituality, and Bali for balance (INNER OBSTACLES), but she finds love instead. (FLAVOR)”

For my new novel, my one sentence pitch boils down to:

When an MI6 spy is assigned to unravel the largest bank robbery in history, he discovers that it is not about the money.


Huff and Puff, then Write

Our final year in Senior English was led by a stern teacher. He had us run across the field and back again, then said, “Now, write about your experience—how you feel.” Between short breaths we did. And, I learned an important lesson—you can’t beat experience. Good writers have lived the moment and mature writers have lived more. Hemingway is a good example and there are many others. Like many writers, Robin Palmer’s first novel was autobiographical. Also like many writers, her first novel was not published. Since that first manuscript, she’s published 10 books. Yet it wasn’t until her forthcoming novel The Corner of Bitter and Sweet—the story of a sixteen-year-old girl dealing with her mother’s alcoholism and subsequent recovery—that she decided to dip back into my own experience. Determined not to repeat the same mistakes, she made certain to keep four tips in mind. Here are the three I relate to:

1. Don’t use your work as a weapon to settle scores and get back at people.

2. Put distance between you and the experience so that you can be objective.

3. Be an advocate for your characters – even the so-called villains.

Side Note: The Fabelmans is based on the true story of Steven Spielberg’s childhood, growing up as an aspiring filmmaker. Spielberg, in addition to directing, co-wrote the screenplay with Tony Kushner. Spielberg based the character of Sammy Fabelman (played by Gabriel LaBelle) on himself.

The End from the Beginning

There’s one thing every writer needs to master, and that is how to leave a lasting impression on readers—how to end their story. Should it be unresolved or ambiguous; unexpected or dramatic? As writers, we have plenty of options. So, you might ask, what worked for me in my latest novel? More on this to come, suffice to say that I changed the ending a few times, more or less in keeping with my editing and having more time to review it. In the end (pun intended), I changed the ending to tie up a loose end near the beginning. I could tell you more, but that would be giving the plot away. OK, here’s a glimpse of the beginning of the final chapter:

Chapter 86

“It’s a perfect evening,” I exclaim, easing the genoa. A puff of wind fills the sail and it swings out to leeward, clipping the waves. As we heel, the view of Dubrovnik widens. The walls are bathed in orange and the sea is dotted with boats making their way home. Our bow rises with the breeze, slicing through the swells. Beside me, Rian is a seasoned sailor behind the wheel—happy, tanned and in control, and Chloé sits opposite with her hand in the foam. Like her hair, the moment is golden.

“Does this yacht have a name?” She asks Rian.

He pulls the tiller to bear away into the harbor and replies, “Serendip.”

I smile. It’s the old Persian name for Sri Lanka. My mind races back to the tea estate in Kandy and I see Ravi again, serving us high tea on the manicured lawn in colonial fashion while the sun fades behind Adam’s Peak at the end of a day just like this. My memory is on fire as the sun punches into the ocean.

“Can you tie the bow line please, Chris?” Rian asks as we drop sail and motor past St. John Fort.

“Roger that.” I leap ashore, securing fore and aft ropes, and follow Rian along the boardwalk. He winds his way between a crowd, their faces washed in red as they enjoy the sunset. Girls pose for their lovers and lonely hearts watch their fishing lines bob above the tide. The fish aren’t biting, but tourists are as they flock to a choice of restaurants.

Dialogue Tips, Now You’re Talking.

Here is a dialogue extract from my new novel. But, does it pass the acid test? Does it move the plot along and does it create interest? You can decide.

“Have you seen this?” he asks, pointing above to a square containing sixteen smaller ones, each carved with a number. They gather close and focus on the strange pattern.

Ted is intrigued, “I love these puzzles, but what does it mean?”

“I was never good with numbers,” adds Claudine. “I preferred Music and the Arts.”

“Oh, this is very much Art,” Michael replies. “It’s the Art of Numbers.” He points, “If you add up the numbers in the first row, what is the total?”

“33,” says Ted, without hesitating.

“Very good,” says Michael. “What about the total in each of the other rows?”

“They add up to 33 too.”

“Well done. Do you notice any other patterns?”

Suzie was first to guess, “Why, each column makes a total of 33 as well.”

“Aha, very good indeed. What about the diagonals?”

“33 for both of them. That’s amazing.”

“Bravo, but what is significant about the number 33?”

“I have it,” Claudine finally announces.

“Really?” asks Michael. “I thought you hated numbers.”

All dialogue should pass the following criteria:

  • It must move the story forward. After each conversation or exchange, the reader should be one step closer to either the climax or the conclusion of your story.
  • It should reveal relevant information about the character. The right dialogue will give the reader insight into how the character feels, and what motivates him or her to act.
  • It must help the reader understand the relationship between the characters.
    If your dialogue doesn’t accomplish all of the above, it is a waste of words.

    The best dialogue is brief

    It’s a slice and not the whole pizza. You don’t need to go into lengthy exchanges to reveal an important truth about the characters, their motivations, and how they view the world. Plus, dialogue that goes on for too long can start to feel like a tennis match with the reader switching back and forth between characters. Lengthy dialogue can be exhausting for the reader. Pair the dialogue down to the minimum that you need for the characters to say to each other.

    Avoid small talk

    In your novel, never ever waste your dialogue with small talk.

    In the real world, small talk fills in the awkward silence, but in the world of your novel, the only dialogue to include is the kind that reveals something necessary about the character and/or plot. How’s the weather? doesn’t move the plot.

    Don’t info dump

    While you can certainly use dialogue to learn more about your characters, you shouldn’t use it to dump a whole lot of information on the reader.

    It’s cringeworthy to read a dialogue exchange that starts with:

    “As you know…”

    If the character already knows, then why is the other character repeating it?

    Be consistent

    Remember to be consistent with your characters. Someone who speaks in a self-depreciating and shy demeanor won’t automatically become bold and acerbic.

    When your characters speak, they should stay true to who they are. Even without character tags, the reader should be able to figure out who’s talking.

    Create suspense

    Use dialogue to increase the suspense between characters.

    Minimize identifying tags

    “He said, she said” gets boring after a while. And the answer isn’t to switch out those “said” tags with other words like “enthused” or “shouted”. (By the way, when it doubt, “said” wins out.)

    Not only is it boring for the reader to constantly see “he said” or “said she”, it’s also disruptive. Identifiers take the reader out of the immersive world of your story and reminds them that you, the author, are relaying a story. That can be pretty jarring, and it can happen if you use identifiers too often.

    Of course, you can’t not use identifiers. They’re vital for establishing who’s speaking, but can be minimized by doing the following:

    • Creating a unique pattern of speech, as we discussed above.
    • Using descriptive follow ups. (i.e. “That’s not what I said.” Vincent reached for the rock.)

    Read it aloud

    During the editing process, you should always read your manuscript aloud, but do pay special attention to your dialogue.

    If the dialogue doesn’t seem to flow, or you’re tripping over your words, it’s not going to sound right to the reader.

    [Read more here from the NY Book Editors. Meanwhile, how did I score?]

The Creative Slump

Henri Matisse, one of the giants of 20th-Century art, found himself in a discouraging creative slump in 1930. At the age of 60, the painter had been living in Nice, France, for 13 years, after spending years in Paris as an enfant terrible of the city’s avant garde art world. Isolated from the buzz of the Paris painting scene, Matisse focused on depicting alluring female models in interior studio setups, using vivid patterns and sparkling colours lit by the Mediterranean light. As he fell into a stylistic repetition, some critics, along with Matisse himself, wondered if the once-radical artist had lost his edge. “I have sat down several times to do some [painting],” he wrote to his daughter, Marguerite, in 1929. “But in front of the canvas, I am at a loss for ideas.”

A recent Americans for the Arts study found that 64% of 20,000 artists surveyed said they experienced a decrease in their creative productivity during the pandemic. More than half said their decline was due to stress, anxiety and depression about the state of the world. Matisse’s creative painting output fell during the start of a world-wide economic depression, the rise of fascism in Europe and, more immediately, a personal sense that his approach to easel painting was in crisis. [source: BBC]

This creative slump during the pandemic or other stressful times may well explain why I was unable to finish my manuscript between 2020 and late 2021. Of more significance, I have discovered that I am most creative when relaxed, with time to think and ponder. Travel helps too.

The US abstract installation artist Judy Pfaff, who was heavily influenced by Matisse when she started painting in the 1970s, says travel helps many artists like herself to reinvigorate creativity when feeling stuck. “Travel has kept me moving forward,” the MacArthur Foundation Award-winner tells BBC Culture.

I like Judy’s comment and it resonates with me. I wrote both my novels as a result of travel. Visiting new spaces inspired me and, along with my photography, became foundational for ideas for a novel.

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