Aim for over 100 Rejection Letters

This intriguing article floated into my reading space and collided with another one detailing the main reason for manuscript rejections in the present writing landscape. Let me elaborate.

Even seasoned writers get rejections and, with more writers pitching these days, there is an increase in an agent’s slush pile. Given that fewer agents are at their game (blame covid, war, inflation and anything else you like), there is less space for your manuscript to get accepted. If it does, it it pitched to fewer publishers. Therefore, the chance of success is heavily diminished and you could well brace yourself for over 100 rejection letters. Back to the headline:

1. Rejections are not failures

Yes, getting rejections sucks. I’m not here to tell you to suck it up. Getting any sort of literary rejection letter hurts. I know. I’ve been there, literally hundreds of times. (It does get easier. Mostly.)

But here’s the thing: getting rejected means you put your writing out there.

It means you tried.

It means you’ve kept trying.

And it means you’re getting better at writing because you’re spending enough time with it that you’re finishing projects. You are in a position for feedback and critique.

Putting your writing out there tacks guts,

Getting rejected is a sign of bravery and resilience.

It is not a sign of failure, it is a sign of accomplishment.

2. Odds are you’ll get more acceptances

There’s one simple reason to collect rejections like they’re going out of style:

Trying for that many rejections means there are bound to be some acceptances in there, too.

It’s really that simple. Odds are, if you aim for a hundred rejections, you’ll end up with way more acceptances than you would’ve otherwise.

The first year I tried for a hundred rejections, I didn’t make my goal. Why? I ended up with over twenty acceptances. Compared to previous years, I’d quadrupled my acceptance rate. Quadrupled!

I would have never, never hit that many acceptances if I hadn’t had my rejection goal. My goal of rejections made me set aside time each week to look for publications and submit to them. Every single week. It made me commit to prioritizing my writing, and then inevitably increased the odds for some acceptance letters along with the rejections.

I have no control over what an editor likes. I do have control over how many editors see my stories.

And odds are, the more eyes on my work, the more stories I’ll have published.

3. Rejections are motivation

Don’t get mad; get writing.

Stephen King talks about keeping his rejection slips in his book on the writing craft, On Writing. He had a nail in his room and every time he got a rejection letter, he skewered it on the nail. The rejections piling up were a constant motivation to keep writing and to keep submitting.

While collecting literary rejection letters/emails doesn’t sound like a beloved keepsake, that stack of letters will be the day you’re accepted.

The only way to get an acceptance letter is to keep writing—and submitting your work. When rejection is used as motivation instead of discouragement, you start to grow as a writer instead of leaning towards giving up on your dreams of getting published.

Become the former. Set yourself a goal of one hundred literary rejection letters in 2021.

4. Rejections improve your writing

Yep, there is improvement to be had here. Any feedback from an agent or editor is a huge win, since it means they see potential in your story, even if it’s not quite in a place where they’re ready to accept it.

By sending you a personal note, editors and agents not only took the time to help you out, but they also gave you a hint as to how you can be published with them later.

However, more often than not, you will get a form rejection letter. And that’s fine!

Editors and agents receive a ton of slush. They just don’t have enough time to answer everyone, so do your best not to take a literary rejection letter personally. Instead, in this instance, take a look at the types of stories that are getting attention from editors or accepted. What do they have in common?

What do the stories that keep getting rejected over and over again have in common? Studying the difference and tweaking your work so it’s in the acceptance group is a healthy part of the revision process.

That’s how you improve your writing.

5. Having a rejection goal helps your mindset

When you have a goal, you expect to achieve that goal, right? Otherwise setting it is kind of stupid.

Having a goal of one hundred literary rejection letters helps you take the icky blow for each individual rejection easier.

I’ll let you in on a secret. I’d known rejection was part of the writing game when I started writing. I was prepared when I got my first one. I did not cry or react negatively in any way. I’d expected it, after all. (Though I do still remember the publication and the name of the editor.)

I cried when I got my third rejection. There are still some rejections that I take hard. Mostly when it’s a prestigious publication or I’ve made the shortlist only to be ultimately turned down.

But since I have my rejection goal, ninety-nine percent of the time I simply mark it down and send the story out again. Since my actual goal isn’t X number of publications or awards, the rejections don’t seem as important.

And as for the particular publication I mentioned above, the publication and editor only opens for submissions once a year. I submit, and am rejected, every year. I will get published with them someday, though. See my previous points about how more rejection letters equals acceptance letters, as well as using literary rejection letters for motivation. Take the negative word of “rejection” and turn it on its head. Make it something positive!

Let’s do this together.

One hundred rejections, here we come! [article source]

Power of the Pen

On July 20, 1969, Following their famous moonwalk, Armstrong and Aldrin discovered that a one-inch engine arm circuit breaker switch had broken off an instrument panel. This breaker was needed to send electrical power to the ascent engine that would lift the two off the moon. The broken switch was reported to Mission Control, but its experts had not identified a solution by the next morning. Without a fix, the two men would have been stranded on the moon.

Aldrin thought a felt-tipped pen in the shoulder pocket of his suit might replace the broken switch. He wrote later: “Sure enough, the circuit breaker held. We were going to get off the moon, after all. To this day I still have the broken circuit breaker switch and the felt-tipped pen I used to ignite our engines.” That, dear readers, is the power of the pen. And, as you lift your pen or hit your keyboard today, let it break any circuit-breaker in your writing and inspire the next paragraph, the next chapter, and the next book to take off.

You Don’t Have to Write Every Day

Clark Cook writes, “Writing is exhilarating. For me, if that wasn’t there, I’d go play with the dogs or go see a movie or. . whatever…I sometimes go for days, occasionally weeks, without writing a word. Then I’ll write for 16 hours with bathroom breaks only, sleep for 4 hours, then do it again. For ten days. I start a poem, story, or novel with (sometimes) next-to-no direction or sense of purpose. Keith Jarrett’s Koln Concert (Longest jazz piano solo on record) is a model for me: he begins playing with the keys. Here a trill, there a chord or two, all over the place, gradually the rhythm emerges and then. . .it’s FOUND! The remainder of the piece is a joyous celebration, with deep explorations, of that central chord. If I have any kind of ‘method’, that’s it. When it’s done, I write the first sentence.”

I was thinking about the adage that, as a writer, you must write every day, even to the detriment of family life. Who was it that dedicated their book to their family, noting ‘without them, I would have finished this book ten years earlier.’ Clark Cook counters this idea and I tend to agree. During the first Covid lockdown I was convinced that I could use the time to finish my novel. But, the time was eaten up with listening to the silence and enjoying time with my wife as we got busy and repainted the outside of our home (in her wisdom she had bought plenty of paint the day before lockdown). I can’t write under stress and I can’t write when I’m tired. I need space for my thoughts and energy for my ideas. I write better in the morning or late at night.

However, whatever circumstances I find myself in, I have my writing antennae ready to pick up a comment or gesture; a news item or statement, or any snippet that will be useful in my book. For example, my wife and I were on a train in the south of France. I looked over the isle and saw someone who fitted a character I was writing about. Their hair, their shoes, and their facial expression quickly joined the description I needed.

I collect ideas like gathering sea shells, and love spending time making them into a piece of literature.

Little Gray Matter in The Gray Man

One review of The Gray Man says, “The Gray Man is a story about assassins who are, we’re told, the very best in the world. And yet over and over again, they are shown to be shitty at their jobs. They incite international incidents. They wage small wars in town squares. And they have a very hard time holding a small girl hostage.” The reviewer, Joshua Rivera, notes that the plot for The Gray Man is tried and trite; of a protagonist who’s boss seeks their demise, as in The Bourne series. It is so easy to fall into a plot like this and (shh, just our secret) I almost did this the other day too. I prefer simple plots with complex endings that surprise the reader, but would never want you to know this. [Postscript: This movie is full of action—so much so, that one popular review says, “Sometimes it seems like everybody in hollywod (sic) has forgotten that things don’t have to happen on a massive scale to be interesting.”]

Fact or Fiction?

“There are two sides to every story”
“You can’t tell fact from fiction these days”
“All news is fake news”
Ah, the wonderful freedom a fiction writer has. With the lines blurred between real news and fake news – between fact and fiction – there is plenty of scope for a writer to flip between the two and build an authentic world for the reader. For example, a thriller may have elements of the real world, such as places, times and cultural events, and weave in among these a believable plot. I love thrillers that have ‘proof of life.’ That is, they lack extreme coincidences. I am not going to point any finger at a specific writer, but do remember reading a book that was full of impossibilities (two scientists are abandoned in a remote location and just happen to be rescued – you get the idea). It was a thriller by a well-known author, but the lack of authenticity prevented me from being immersed in the story. For other readers, it might have been fine (insert smiley face).

Back to the two sides to a story. When a plot juxtaposes truth and lies, it creates tension and ignites the plot. A reader can take one side, then have it destroyed when the lies become fact. You see this in TV dramas when the obvious killer is, in fact, innocent. This formula is all too clear for most of us and how disappointing it is to have someone next to you say, “I know who did it.”

For me, the challenge is to make the twist NOT obvious at all. And, I hope I achieved this in my new book. Oh dear, I don’t want to give too much away!

Revise, Revise, or be Reviled

Maggie Shipstead (left) writes, “John Gardner famously wrote that fiction should be a “vivid, continuous dream,” but some readers’ willingness to dream is more robust than others. Some people will shut a book forever at the first sign of an error, their trust in the writer and their suspension of disbelief irrevocably lost. Others will happily read along through almost anything, swallowing the most preposterous plot points, the most egregious anachronisms, and the most glaring inconsistencies…But I think sloppiness is worth trying to avoid, both out of pure principle (why get something wrong when you could get it right?) and because mistakes can be indicative of an author not pressing hard enough on the world she’s building, not making it sturdy enough, settling for a facade.” In her article, Maggie mentions good, or ill-meaning, folks who delighted in pointing out errors in her published work. I had a textbook that was in its 3rd reprint when along came a young student (aka smarty pants) who wrote to my publisher to point out an error, and it was an obvious one—one that escaped the keen eye of editor, writer, proof-reader, etc. How could this happen? In my first novel, the errors kept creeping out of the pages; proof that I was a lousy writer? No matter how hard I tried, the errors were there and my flame-thrower spell checker never seemed to pick them up. When all seemed well, my American spelling lapsed into English spelling; a tense changed within a paragraph, etc. Why all these mistakes? Because, writers, like other humans, are fallible. We get tired. We get over our draft revisions and we long to be rid of the manuscript. My advice to those who find errors? Tell us, but then hide under the bed-covers before we find you and hit you over the head with our revised edition :-).

Author or Writer?

“I have a charming relative who is an angry young littérateur of renown. He is maddened by the fact that more people read my books than his. Not long ago we had semi-friendly words on the subject and I tried to cool his boiling ego by saying that his artistic purpose was far, far higher than mine. He was engaged in “The Shakespeare Stakes.” The target of his books was the head and, to some extent at least, the heart. The target of my books, I said, lay somewhere between the solar plexus and, well, the upper thigh. These self-deprecatory remarks did nothing to mollify him and finally, with some impatience and perhaps with something of an ironical glint in my eye, I asked him how he described himself on his passport. “I bet you call yourself an Author,” I said. He agreed, with a shade of reluctance, perhaps because he scented sarcasm on the way. “Just so,” I said. “Well, I describe myself as a Writer. There are authors and artists, and then again there are writers and painters.”

This rather spiteful jibe, which forced him, most unwillingly, into the ranks of the Establishment, whilst stealing for myself the halo of a simple craftsman of the people, made the angry young man angrier than ever and I don’t now see him as often as I used to. But the point I wish to make is that if you decide to become a professional writer, you must, broadly speaking, decide whether you wish to write for fame, for pleasure or for money. I write, unashamedly, for pleasure and money.” by Ian Fleming

If a character is no longer required…

An author’s dilemma – what to do about a character who makes a cameo appearance. Should they leave the plot in a dramatic way? On revisiting a character, I discovered a minor character had made a ghost exit and thought it would be more powerful for the plot if they made a sudden one. So…they were, in thriller-speak, simply eliminated. Oh dear, such is the power of writing. At least one person was left happier with this—me. The abrupt end to their minor part had two advantages. First, it added drama to the plot and second, it put more pressure on the protagonist. The end result is a greater incentive for the reader to turn the page and find out what happens next. Guess which chapter cried out for this re-write? Yes, Chapter One.

Tell it so they won’t want to leave

James Patterson is one of the world’s most successful authors, having sold roughly 450 million books – thrillers, non-fiction and romance novels. He was the best-selling author of adult fiction in the UK in 2020, according to Nielsen Book Research, and was recently announced as the most-borrowed author from British libraries for the 14th year in a row [source: BBC].

In a recent interview on Late Night with Seth Meyers, James Patterson says, “I always imagine someone’s sitting across from me. I’m telling them a story and I don’t want them to get up until I’m finished.” Great advice from the master and I hope each chapter I write keeps my imaginary reader in their seat.

5 Key Elements for a Thriller

While hosting workshops in the USA I found that the most popular ones were those with a catchy title, such as “10 Top Tips for Technology Teachers.” Hence the title for this post. Catchy, huh? Well, almost. The danger is that my top 5 tips might not be your ones. The following are from an article in masterclass.com and I will personalise a few to give my perspective. Let’s get into this:

  1. Make your main character compelling. In the thriller genre—just like in real life—a conflict is rarely as simple as “good guy vs. bad guy.” Good thrillers often feature protagonists that are flawed and complex…Readers relate to imperfect heroes, and having a main character with flaws will increase the tension and stakes of your story. Having a deep, three-dimensional main character is an essential ingredient of a successful thriller. [I totally agree. Of most importance is to allow the flaws in your main character to enable them to change/flip 180 degrees/grow into the villas. Mine did this by mistake. He started out as an ageing spy, but…oops, can’t give it away that easily!] Can you find the main character here below? Yes, of course you can, but is he/she compelling enough to stand out among the others?
    More about character flaws can be found here.
  2. The opening scene has plenty of action. Readers MUST be on the edge of their seats from the very first page. The opening scene of a thriller novel should introduce the crime, conflict, or stakes as quickly as possible. The best thrillers hook their readers with instant action, then fill in the necessary character and storyline information later. [Comment: avoid fluff at the start. Action, action, action. Some suggest that a thriller should start at the point of most conflict, then unpack it in the following chapters.]
  3. Create an interesting villain. Even your antagonist is unforgivable, their motivations should be rooted in a relatable desire or emotion. In other words, they should be motivated by their own twisted, internal logic (e.g. The Silence of the Lambs its subsequent sequels, readers learn through flashbacks that Dr. Hannibal Lecter witnessed the murder of his sister when he was young. Therefore, Dr. Lecter is more than just a psychopathic serial killer—he is a person whose evil actions stem from a heartbreaking trauma). Readers are more likely to be engaged in your villain’s story and character development if they can recognize seeds of themselves in your antagonist.
  4. Build obstacles for your protagonist. If there’s one thing that all bestselling authors of thrillers are good at, it’s putting their protagonist in harm’s way. Your main character should experience heartbreak, trauma, and anxiety throughout the book. Sometimes, the most effective obstacle is a ticking clock or strict time limit to complete their task. Obstacles will also increase the narrative satisfaction of the end of the book, when your protagonist finally overcomes the hurdles and triumphs over adversity. [Yes, have a chase that is race against time.]
  5. Add plenty of plot twists and turning points. More so than any other genre, thriller novel writing requires the story to contain an abundance of plot twists, turning points, and cliffhangers. If you’re experiencing writer’s block when writing a scene, ask yourself what a reader might expect to happen next. How can you subvert those expectations? If a scene feels uneventful, think about what plot element or character you can introduce to raise the stakes or create a dilemma for your protagonist. Plot twists will ensure that your thriller is a page-turner and make it impossible for your reader to put it down. [Right on! In my last thriller I was writing a new chapter when it suddenly took a turn that I never expected.]
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