An Earthquake This Morning

I was reading a BBC article about a writer’s photography prize when the sharp rattle of an earthquake interrupted my morning cup of tea today. Oh, not a bad earthquake, but unexpected and one that jolted my mind with a practical application to writing thrillers. Every thriller needs ‘earthquakes’—writing that jolts the readers; an unexpected twist or turn. Let the tension build and then … kapok! I have to be careful not to have too many of these in my writing. If I do, the reader will expect them. The earthquake this morning reminded me to identify these sudden plot and character changes and, if possible, amplify them. Now, back to my cup of tea.

The Proof is in the Proofing

When is your manuscript ready for submitting to a literary agent. The truth is, never. But, as I have discovered the hard way, it has to be 99% ready first. This involved some key steps, including:

  • Read your manuscript out loud, or have it read aloud loud to you. Use the text-to-speech function in MSWord (Review–>Read Aloud). When you hear your book read to you, you get a different perspective and flaws show up immediately.
  • Work on your proofreading project early in the morning or when your brain and your eyes are the freshest. I like working through a chapter at a time.
  • When you are happy with the final draft, have a few of your trusted readers review it and give honest feedback. This might include a writers’ circle, book club, etc.
  • Complete a separate, second pass of proofreading of your manuscript once you have done a thorough editing. Use a professional editor to review your book. If this is too expensive, ask them to review your synopsis, first few chapters, and your query letter. Check out this video:

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.

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

Editing 101

This may, or may not, help budding writers: What is the best way to edit your manuscript? Here’s my take, based on the experience of two novels:

Step 1: Finish your Manuscript, then throw it aside for a few weeks. Return to it and read it through, noting obvious errors. Each time you step away from your manuscript you come back to it from a fresh perspective. Note: your first draft is always (yes, always) inadequate.

Step 2: Use an Online Editor. I like using prowritingaid or, more recently, grammarly. Both of these help identify issues such as repeated phrases, over-use of adverbs, sentence lengths, etc. I don’t recommend paying a subscription service, unless for a short period (e.g. a month) in order to check your entire manuscript. A feature I liked as the one where (in prowritingaid) where you can compare your style to another author. You may not be a Hemingway fan, but I like the simplicity of checking chapters in the Hemingway app. Here’s an example from my new novel (with the Hemingway result alongside);

Nikolai had a glass in hand and a faraway look. The lighting cast deep shadows in the folds of his face. He seemed angry, or drunk, or both.
“Wow, that’s a stunning photo of the old man and the sea; a perfect Hemingway moment.”
“I read a Hemingway book at school.”
“Which one? He wrote many.”
“The one about an old man and the sea.”
“About catching a big fish?”
“You remember. Yes, a poor fisherman in Cuba had caught nothing for eighty-four days.”
“It’s been that long since I had a boyfriend. How do you know this detail from the novel?”
“Because it was the same number of days as the title of another book I read, called Nineteen Eight Four.”
“Oh, I see what you mean. “Did you like the story about the old man and his fishing?”
“I loved it because it was the shortest novel we had in our English course. I had to learn some quotes for the final exam, such as, ‘Why do old men wake so early? Is it to have one longer day?'”
“I bet the old man we just saw woke up early.”
“And now, he’s fortified for a long day.” They giggled.
“How old do you think he was?”
“Seventy? Eighty? It was difficult to tell.”
“Where did he go?”
“No idea. I looked at my phone for a bit and missed his exit.”
“You’re always on your phone. If you weren’t married to it you might find a boyfriend.”
“Did you ever have the hots for Hemingway?”
“Course not, I just loved his writing; short, intense, and so easy to read.”
“But you must have lusted after his type; a rugged outdoor man with a bushy beard and all that?”
“No, silly. Even if I had fallen for him, it would be short-lived.”
“He had four wives. His longest marriage was to his writing, and even that had a sad ending.”
“Why sad?”
“He wrote the last chapter of his life. Like his relationships, it was brief.”

Step 3: Join a Writing Circle. This is, I’m my humble opinion, the MOST important step. Get a writing-circle to review your work. This circle should consist of other writers or readers in your genre who will give constructive advice and not hold back on any criticism. For example, one of my fellow writers gave such good feedback that I rearranged my chapter order, changed the ending, and built a more authentic and powerful plot. And I was able to reciprocate and also offer him advice on his new book.

Step 4: Find a Professional Editor. There are many people who have experience in the publishing trade who are happy to review your work. I used one to check my submission trio – the Query Letter, Synopsis, and first three chapters. Their fixes and recommendations were so good that I asked them to check over other key chapters in my novel. What I especially liked was an experienced editor’s positive encouragement with, “I have a good feeling about this book.” Now, I just need a literary agent to agree.

Final Note: Don’t let any of the above steps change your own writing style. Stay true to who you are as a writer and use the steps to improve your style, rather than force it into someone else’s.

The Hardest Part of Being a Writer

Kristan Hoffman writes: “Some days the font is all wrong. Some days your wrists hurt. Or your back hurts. Or both. Some days your dog won’t stop barking, and there are three loads of laundry to fold. Some days you can’t fall asleep because you’ve got a million ideas for your story. Some days you can’t remember a single one.

Some days the words just flow. Hundreds, maybe thousands of them in a rush. Some days you feel so high. Some days you laugh at your own funny parts, and cry at the sad ones. Some days you know that this book is The One.

Then some days you read about that 7-figure, 3-book deal and you just want to scream. Some days you think it’s never going to be you. Some days you wonder why you even bother.

And some days you read a great book, and you think, This is why. I can do this. I will do this. I am doing this.”

I love this advice and it reiterates what many great writers have said. For example, George Orwell notes that, “Writing a book is a long, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness.” Even the Everest of a writer, F. Scott Fitzgerald, admitted, “All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.”

As I struggle to re-write portions of my next thriller, it is helpful to have these thoughts to ponder and ease the burden. Sometimes, putting the computer down and losing myself in my plot or character gives me the space to find new ideas and better ways to write about them. I wonder if giving my thoughts more space allows new ones the room to come in?

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