Writing: A Journey, Not a Destination (Part 2)

Last time I wrote about writing infancy, which you can read here if you missed it.

Stage 2: Adolescence.

Your narrative voice starts to crack about the time you realize you’re pretty good at this writing thing. Our literary puberty could start in a number of ways. Maybe like me, you find your peers and teachers reacting well to things you’ve written. Maybe you win some contests, or have an article published in the local paper. However it happens, it’s most likely positive reinforcement that causes you to start to change.

Writing teenagers, like most teenagers, know well, like, everything. Duh. They understand what truly brilliant and magnificent writers they are. After all, so many people have told them they should be writers. How many? Well, um, like, a bunch! Their paths are clear; the entire literary world is eagerly awaiting their arrival. They alone have the comfort of knowing that anyone who criticizes them, is totally clueless, and just doesn’t get it.

Lest you think I’m letting myself off the hook, I remember very clearly the first writing course I took in college. I’d received some negative feedback on my writing up to that point, but it was really more neutral than outright negative. I was working on my novel Taleth-Sidhe, and all my friends loved it! So, I knew it had to be awesome; after all, my friends wouldn’t lie to me. So, I took the first couple chapters and turned them in for the writing exercise. I listened to the amateurs in the class read their examples, and offered them my expert feedback. Then it was my turn to read. I’d been writing poetry for many years before this (during the coffeehouse and poetry reading height of the late 90s). Those readings, combined with my experience as an actor, meant I knew how to tell a story (one of the few things I was right about at that stage). I read the first two chapters, then sat back and waited for the praise to come rolling in. I wouldn’t have been surprised if the whole class had lifted me on their shoulders and named me their king. Okay, I would’ve been a little surprised.

To put it mildly, that didn’t happen. To put it accurately; I was eviscerated. Granted, I’d written a fantasy story and not everyone in the class was a fan of that genre, but all the notes and feedback made my pages looked like someone had sacrificed a chicken on them. Actually, more like an entire flock. I was beyond confused, but like all good teenagers, I eventually got over it and realized those people just didn’t know what they were talking about. Clearly my writing was just over their heads.

Now, it’s true some in their writing teens might be open to learning, or hearing less than glowing feedback. But, those are generally the writing equivalent to teenagers who fit in better with adults than peers. In short, they’re mature for their age. The vast majority of teenagers are, well, not. It’s not that they’re immature, just correctly mature for their age; they believe they know everything, and aren’t inclined to listen to others’ opinions People in their writing teens are often the same way.

To be continued next week with adulthood.

Writing: A Journey, Not a Destination (Part 1)

Writing: A Journey, Not a Destination.

Like so much in life, and like life itself, we often hear, “it’s a journey, not a destination.” But what does that mean? It means that your focus is not on trying to get somewhere, it’s on how you’ll always be working at a task or experience. Now, you might be someone who’s written a book and once it’s published you’ll never write anything else. I’ve heard people say they had only that one book inside them. These people are rare, though. Most of us who call ourselves writers plan to keep writing for as long as we can. Part of this means that, like it or not, we’ll grow and change as we hone our writing craft. Like in life, we’ll learn and have our notions shaped by positive and negative experiences. And also like in life, we all grow and mature at different rates.

Much like doctors “practice” medicine, I like to think writers “practice” writing. So here are my thoughts on the various stages of being a writer that we all go through. You could easily apply these thoughts to just about anything, but I’m going to stick to writing since that’s sort of “my thing” on this blog.

Stage 1: Infancy.

Like in life, we all start here in our writing. Odds are that your writing journey began not long after you learned to read and write in general. Like an infant, we stumble around trying to figure out how language works. We have to learn that while more than one dog are dogs, more than one mouse are mice, and more than one fish are, well, still fish. And let’s not even talk about more than one octopus being octopuses or octopi. Yes, technically both are correct.

As with all good infants, we learn by observing as well as by trial and error. Most of us are still in this writing stage long after we leave our actual infancy behind. It’s really no wonder because the early years of school are when we learn all the technical rules of writing: nouns, verbs, clauses, punctuation, etc. Separately though, we might be maturing as storytellers, which means later on, we’ll need to bring stories and grammar together.

Writing infants will generally compose thinly veiled rewrites of stories they’ve heard/seen/read: a princess with four mean step-sisters, for example. No, it isn’t always quite THAT thinly veiled, but you get the idea. This is where we start to learn what kind of stories and characters resonate with others, as well as with us.

Depending on when you actually begin writing seriously, writing infancy can last well into adulthood or even old age. There are plenty of people who aren’t serious about writing until they’re well into their adult lives or even retirement. I want to make this clear. There is no “normal” about when people move from one stage to the next. It doesn’t matter if you started writing when you were 7 or 70. If it’s something you love, I say well done you for starting!

To be continued next week with adolescence.

Too Much Information! Knowing What to Reveal and When

You’ve got a story set in a fascinating world loaded with intriguing characters. Naturally, you want readers to get as much out of the story as possible. That means you need to give them context. Determining how much to share and when to share it is a balancing act. George Lucas can get away with an information dump at the beginning of his stories (Star Wars, for the non-geek among you). You can do that too, when you’ve reached his level, but until you have an empire built around your brand, your audience isn’t likely to be as forgiving. Of course, it doesn’t help any of us that George practically trademarked this technique, so any attempt to copy it, even subtly, will swiftly be called out. Now, I could be bias as a writer of fantasy and science fiction, mostly fantasy, but I think avoiding that is harder for those genres. Especially if, like me, you’re trying to make your story approachable and enjoyable to those who don’t normally read that genre. You have to give them enough context to understand how the story’s world works, but you can’t stop the story to do it. So, how do you walk the line between offering dissertations with every scene, and leaving your reader completely lost? The key is to remember to reveal only what is absolutely necessary at that very moment. This seems obvious, but it’s harder than it sounds. Here are a few things I’ve learned that you might find useful.

  • Always ask if the reader REALLY needs to know this now.

In my story The Stolen Child, one of the main characters is Caitlin Brady, a single mother of a young girl, Fiona. In my early drafts, readers learned rather early in the story about Caitlin’s family history and Fiona’s father. This slowed down the story, so I spread out the information. You don’t need to know right away that Caitlin’s parents both died when she was young and that she was raised by her grandparents, who died shortly before Fiona was born. All the reader needed to know was: Caitlin’s a mother, Fiona’s father is absent, and she never mentions any family. Learning about her family history does become important when readers start to see how obsessed Caitlin is with keeping Fiona safe; the history provides context. So when you find yourself giving backstory, or information that serves for context (not moving the story forward), always ask yourself, “Does the reader need to know this right now?” and if so, “How much do they need to know right this very moment?” Like so much in life, timing is everything!

  • Show, don’t tell.

I know, as writers we’ve all had this phrase drilled into our heads, but there’s a reason for it. Do you prefer to watch a movie, or have someone tell you about it? It’s the same with stories. Readers much prefer to “watch” your book’s story than have you tell them what happens. Suppose, for instance, an antagonist in your story is a multi-national, faceless corporation. They’re hording information vital to the public solely to increase profits. You could give a lengthy history of the company’s misdeeds, or you could do something like this:

Joseph went over his gear, then looked up at the monolith of glass and steel that was the headquarters of Eviltech Inc. He couldn’t help but think how fitting it was. The sanitized, faceless façade fit perfectly with the philosophy of the company that made everything from baby food to cruise missiles. Its only overriding interest was its share prices. He pulled on his mask and smiled. It was time for the shares to take a big hit.

Of course I could’ve also just said it was a multi-national, faceless corporation that was hording information vital to the public in order to increase profits, but that would’ve been dry and boring. Instead of describing a painting to the reader, I showed them a piece of the actual painting. I gave them just enough to give them needed information, establish some biases, and start asking questions. . The reader doesn’t need to know right now why our character is outside, or even that our character is a good or bad guy. We’ve clearly labeled the company as a bad entity, but we don’t know yet if the character’s motives make him any better. That uncertainty is what keeps readers turning pages.

Now, obviously there’ll be times when your readers just needs to know something and there’s no other way to get it across but to tell them. Again, in fantasy and science fiction you’ll need to get the rules of your world across at some point. While you can demonstrate those rules in well written scenes, sometimes that can be a bigger obstruction to the flow of the story than just telling them and some things just don’t make sense without explanation. In those cases, I give the reader a surrogate; a character who’s in the same situation as the reader (totally clueless about the world). I can reveal the information to the character, as part of normal story development, and as a consequence, the reader learns the same thing.

Again, using The Stolen Child as an example, Caitlin fills this role. That story takes place in a world exactly like ours, except that faeries are real. They exist just below the surface of the world we know. Caitlin is a normal person who doesn’t have any idea they exist, so when the reader needs to know something, she does too. I also have options with her. I can have her ask the question the reader is asking, and have another character answer. Or, I can put her in a situation where she comes to a conclusion herself that answers the question.

  • Trust in your reader, but more importantly, trust in yourself.

I explained in “Your Baby is Ugly,” that one of the editors I’ve worked with kept telling me not to beat my readers over the head. He was implying that by doing so, I was assuming my readers weren’t smart enough to “get it.” It took me some time to realize that it wasn’t that I didn’t trust the reader. I didn’t trust myself. I didn’t have enough confidence in my writing ability to believe I could adequately get my thoughts and intentions across with just subtext and subtly. Sure, I’d use subtext, but then I’d also explain it. You have to trust in yourself to get your idea across. Say you’re writing a science fiction story and the faster-than-light drive on your ship fails. When the crew can’t figure out the problem, but your character steps forward and explains it in a way most don’t understand, and those who do refuse to believe it, you’ve just shown us that character is a genius in that field. We get it. You don’t need to then also tell us he’s a genius.

Will there be times when you’re too subtle? Absolutely. That’s when you need someone to look it over who’ll give you real feedback, not just say “it was good.” If you’re worried, ask about a specific section. Did they understand what you were trying to convey? If they did, great! If not, make some adjustments so it’s a little more obvious. Fight the urge to go too far the other way and insert an information dump. Hopefully, said reader (or even better, an editor if you can afford one), will point out if you need to back off and make it more subtle. Give your readers license to fill in some blanks for themselves. Part of the fun of a story is painting the picture in our mind.

However, there is one caveat to the above:

  • Never assume your reader knows something you do.

If you haven’t told, showed, or implied it, your reader doesn’t know it. Assuming it’s vital to the story, you’ll need to tell them somehow. Perhaps your main character has a crippling fear of open water because he/she almost drowned as a child. If it’s relevant to the story—it’s set on the coast, for example—your readers will eventually need to learn why your character goes into a fetal ball when he/she steps foot on the beach. The keyword being “eventually.” Again, timing is everything, but if they feel for the character, the reader will want to know at some point.

That being said…

  • Never assume the reader has to know everything.

Don’t look at me that way. I know what I just told you. Take the character above, but move the story to the Midwest. Now the fear of open water takes a much less significant role. Sure, it adds depth to the character, but it might not be relevant to the story. Or if you’re writing a series, maybe it isn’t relevant to this particular story. This goes back to letting your reader fill in the blanks. The best example of how readers fill in blanks is in character descriptions. Ask most people what the character Harry Potter looks like and odds are you’ll get a description of Daniel Radcliffe. If you had asked those same people before the first movie was released, you’d get a VERY wide range of different ideas. When you introduce your character, and it should be only when you introduce him/her, don’t give your readers a police sketch. Just hit the important parts. Now you can have revelations later, but you should avoid them unless they serves the story. Here are two examples, you decided which is better.

Joseph walked into the room. He’s six feet tall with shaggy brown hair that covers his left eye. As a dedicated body builder, his massive biceps stretch the sleeves of his green T-shirt with the faded logo of the Blind Melon’s self-titled album on it. His brown eyes, flecked with gold, scanned the room. His face was unshaven with three days of growth on his angular jaw and dimpled chin. He didn’t see Diane anywhere. He was sure she’d stood him up again. She’d already done it twice. She always had a good reason, but he couldn’t help but wonder if she actually had any interest in him at all.

Now let’s try that again.

A man stepped into the room and glanced around. He was a little above average height, but he was covered in slabs of muscle that stretched his green T-shirt. He ran his fingers through his shaggy brown hair. Where was she? He was certain she’d stood him up again.

“Joseph!” a woman called out.

He turned and he smiled to see Diane waving at him.

Which do you think works better? I’m sure that like me, you have a clear vision in your head what your characters look like. Don’t force that on your reader. You should let them cast the role themselves. Give them some guidelines, but then let it go.

As with all my suggestions, there are oodles of books available about this topic. Ultimately, though, I think most of us will learn best by doing. It might take a while, and you might have to break into the same evil corporate headquarters a few times, but, when you finally get the story where you want it, and you see the high sheen coming from the polish you’ve given it (yes, I know I’m mixing metaphors), you’ll know it was a labor of love.

Interview with a Villain

Every book has one, in one form or another. No, I don’t mean a villain like from a James Bond film who lives on an island shaped like a skull. Your book might not even have a true villain per se, but you do have an antagonist. If you want your story to be compelling and interesting, you need to spend at least as much time on your “bad guy” as you do on your “good guy.” It might not even be a person, but if it is, here are some things I’ve learned about making a good counter to your protagonist (main character):

Goals – “What’s my motivation in this scene?”

Every antagonist has one, and no, “because they’re evil” isn’t good enough. Don’t be mistaken, the motive doesn’t have to fit with societal mores, but it does need to be believable. It has to make sense for that character. So ask yourself, or better yet, ask your character what he or she wants, and more importantly, why. You can actually get quite a lot from this if you paint the full picture. Imagine the scene where you’re meeting your villain. What is the character wearing? Is she waiting for you, or are you waiting for her? If he is waiting for you, does he stand when you arrive? Who chose the venue? Are other people staring? If so, how does the character react? The more detailed your imagining, the fuller the character will be to you, and thus to your readers. For example, let’s take a villain from a story just about everyone has either read or knows about: Lord Voldemort from the Harry Potter series. Apologies to Ms. Rowling for the butchering that follows. I hope you have a good sense of humor.

Voldemort met me at a popular London café overlooking the Thames River. His pale skin, serpent like nose, and trademark flowing, black robes made him easy to spot. He was sitting at a table with a view of the bustling river traffic, a cup of tea in hand, pinky extended. His now-famous wand sat on the table next to some kind of Asian inspired salad. I think he smiled when he saw me, it was hard to tell, and invited me to join him. A cup of tea was waiting for me, but the wait staff was nowhere to be seen, so he poured the tea himself. I didn’t drink it.

Bishop: Thank you for meeting with me, Voldemort.

Voldemort: Certainly. I hope you don’t mind that I didn’t wait for you. They have the most exquisite quinoa salad here.

B: Not at all.

V: I’d ask if you want anything, but the wait staff is, well, indisposed at the moment.

B: I’m fine, thank you. Let’s get to it, shall we? Voldemort, tell me, what do you want?

V: I want to kill Harry Potter, of course.

B: Okay, I got that. But that’s really the short term goal, isn’t it? I mean, what do you really want?

V: Ah. Well, I’m so very glad you asked. I know it’s terribly cliché, but I want to rule the world. My personal twist is that I also want to be the most powerful wizard ever. Harry Potter is just the one who can best deny me those things.

B: Now we’re getting somewhere. Why do you want to rule the world?

V: Well, everybody everyone wants to rule the world.

B: I had no idea you were a Tears for Fears fan.

V: Two of my favorite things. Seriously, though, I suppose I could say it’s the power I want, but that’s so simplistic. Really, I’m a good old fashioned racist.

B: You’re a racist?

V: I know, I know, that word has such a negative connotation. But you see, my racism isn’t as simple as skin color or religion. You muggles, quite frankly, are inferior to us wizards.

B: Could you explain?

V: Happily. As wizards, we wield truly immense power. We can violate your pathetic laws of physics. We have flying cars, for crying out loud! Your scientists have been promising those to you since the 1950s, yet the only ones I see are magical. Mud-Bloods, those wizards born from the horrible mixing of a wizard and a muggle, are just a sad half breed. While it elevates the muggle half, it pollutes the wizard blood beyond repair. Muggle-born wizards are just freaks of nature. No, it’s pure-blood wizards who can, and should, be the ones to rule. We’ve had magic in our families for countless centuries, and I know it’s overplayed, but might really does make right.

B: It is a bit cliché.

V: For good reason. With rare exceptions, the one with the bigger club, and the ability to use it, wins.

B: Okay, so you’re saying wizards—

V: Pure-blood wizards.

B: Sorry, pure-blood wizards should rule the world, and you being the most powerful, should rule them?

V: Exactly. You muggles, are an inferior species of the human race, like the Neanderthals—

B: Actually, I think it’s pronounced Neander-tal


And….scene. Obviously I had fun with this, partly because parody covers me from a lawsuit, but also because it kept you reading. Regardless, you see that he wanted more than to kill the kid with the lightning bolt on his face. You need to understand not just your villains’ immediate goals, but their long term motivations. When you go to the store, it’s not just to buy food. It’s because you have to eat to live, and odds are you don’t or can’t raise enough food on your own to sustain yourself. The disparity isn’t terribly complicated, but it has a big impact on your story. It doesn’t matter if your antagonist is a normal everyday person, or a scary, murderous monster. In fact, if you want your villain to be a monster, having a good motive is key. Which is more frightening: A raving lunatic walking the street hunting people (insert generic horror movie monster here), or a true sociopath who is well organized, has a goal (however twisted), a detailed plan to achieve it, and goes about executing said plan in a cold, ruthless manner (Hannibal Lecter-esque)? Odds are you picked the latter. At least according to movie ticket sales, book sales, and cultural impact.

Tom Hiddleston, probably best known in the U.S. for his role as Loki in The Avengers and Thor movies, said, “Every villain is a hero in his own mind.” Hearing that quote for the first time was an aha moment for me. It made sense. Villains never think they’re the villain. Oh, they might recognize that society will see them that way, but THEY know the truth. I won’t take up your time by making a list, but I will suggest you make one. Look at your favorite book, movie, TV show, what have you, and think of the antagonist in it. I’d be willing to bet (but please don’t email me offering a bet because you found an exception to this) that they’re doing what they felt had to be done. It might be their own ideals, looking for vengeance (justice in their mind), because their dog told them, or anything else. Regardless, they have their reasons.

No, your villains don’t have to be likeable. But, if you make them understandable, and there is a difference, you’ll make your reader really love to hate them.

Simple Fixes—Contractions

No, I do not mean the kind for which Lamaze classes are taught. We all know what contractions are: the combining of two words to form a single word. I know what you are thinking; what kind of tip is this? Well, one of the things most of us are not aware of is that we tend to write much more formally than we speak, and thus avoid contractions. We do not even think about it. For example, did you notice there were no contractions in the previous sentences? Maybe you picked up on “do not,” but did you spot “you are” instead of “you’re”? What about “are not” instead of “aren’t”? There are exceptions, but generally speaking you do it without even realizing. I’ve written three full length books, and I still struggle with this.

Look over your writing, any kind of writing. I think you’ll be surprised how many instances you see where you probably should use a contraction and aren’t, though it might take some effort to see them. A good way of doing this, and one I use, is to read the paragraph backwards. Not the sentence, just the paragraph. Read the last sentence forwards, then read the one before it, and so on until you reach the start. This confuses your brain, since you’re not relying on the previous sentence(s) to continue the flow of ideas, and you’ll more easily see each line on its own. I find that reading the line aloud helps too. While there’s nothing grammatically incorrect in not using contractions, but you want your writing, especially your dialogue, to sound authentic. For example: in Star Trek: The Next Generation there was a character named Data. He was an android, and a flaw in his programming (Trekkers, no emails please) prevented him from using contractions. For those unfamiliar with the show, it sounds like a very minor thing, but you’d be surprised how unnatural it sounds.

Of course there are times when not using a contraction is completely proper and even helpful. If you’re writing something set in an earlier time period, for example, not using them will sound more authentic. I don’t know if people really didn’t use contractions as much in earlier centuries, but it sounds more formal, and we think of historical eras as having more formal speech patterns. Perhaps the most common instance in which you’ll choose to skip using a contraction, though, is for emphasis.

“Don’t open the door.”

Most of us reading that will do so without much emphasis It’s a simple request, maybe said during a meeting someone wants to keep private. Obviously you can use an exclamation point, but whenever I see those, I think of the line being shouted.

“Don’t open the door!”

See what I mean? Okay, now try this one:

“Do not open the door.”

See the difference? Sounds more forceful, doesn’t it? Foreboding, or perhaps even a little threatening?

Like everything else in writing, contractions are a tool, and like all tools, contractions work best when used for what they’re designed. A crescent wrench might make a perfectly functional hammer, but is it really as good as an actual hammer? No. So, just use the hammer.

Why am I telling you this? Well, I’ve heard from agents and editors that not using contractions is a common and simple tell that they’re reading the work of a first-time writer. While that isn’t an instant red flag, it does make those reading your work do so in a different light. Wouldn’t you rather be seen as a serious writer rather than a first-timer writer?

In the Face of Adversity—Dealing with Rejection

It’s unavoidable; if you want to become a traditionally published writer, you’re going to be rejected. Probably a lot. No, it isn’t fun, or pleasant. Well, it might be in you’re into that, but this isn’t that kind of blog. Now anyone can take being rejected once, twice, or even half a dozen times. You might need a little time to get past the disappointment, but you’ll pick yourself up and move on. What about twenty-five rejections? What about a hundred? Well, as first time writers, that’s the level we need to prepare ourselves for. Getting published for the first time has never been easy, but it’s become truly agonizing recently. Books, simply put, don’t sell like they used to. Publishers, regardless of how much they might love the literary world, are still a business. When it comes to investing your money, you want to get some return on it, or at the very least break even. So if you’re a publisher, you’re more likely to spend your money on something you know will sell: Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, James Patterson, John Grisham, etc. But the fact remains that new authors ARE published every year. I can’t tell you how to ensure you’ll be one of them, but I can tell you that if you give up, you never will be one of them. All that said, keep in mind there are different kinds of rejection. Sure, none of them make you feel all warm and fuzzy, but some sure sting a lot less.

  1. No Comment / Neutral Rejections

These are by far the majority of responses I’ve received. They’re either no reply whatsoever, which can be unnerving because you’re left wondering if they ever received the query, or if they’re actually not interested. Generally, it’s better to assume the latter. If you do get a reply, odds are good it’ll be a form letter that says something to the effect of, “Thank you for your interest but we don’t think your work is right for us at this time.” Don’t take rejection personal, ever, but especially not with this. Most agencies and publishers get more queries than we can imagine, and the bigger the name, the larger the number.

What do I do with these “no comment” responses? I note the rejection and move on. There’s really nothing else you can do, except give up, and that isn’t an option for me.

  1. Gentle / Positive Rejections

I’ve received more than a few of these, and honestly, there are times they’ll keep you going. These almost always come after your manuscript, or a sample, has been reviewed. Generally the message goes something like: “I really liked X, Y, and Z, but I just didn’t love it enough.” If you’re lucky, they might actually tell you the things that kept them from “not loving it enough,” assuming they can even put it into words. I know this doesn’t sound positive, but it really is. Someone spent the time to actually give you a reply, not just hit send on the form rejection. You should take these as “near successes.” Hey, sometimes victories are won an inch at a time. You should also keep in mind, with agents anyway, that their ability to earn a living comes from them being able to sell your story to someone. It’s a tough job and I can’t imagine being able to do it without being really passionate about the manuscript.

What do I do with these? Well, that depends.

  • They just say they liked it but didn’t love it enough.

I write it off as someone preferring one flavor of ice cream when I’m selling another.

  • They provide feedback.

Okay, this is where you have a decision to make. While it’s never good to write to the current market; first, by the time you get your story out, the market has likely moved on to something else. Second and most important, if you’re not excited about what you’re writing, it’ll show. That being said, this is someone who, hopefully, has some understanding of what makes a saleable book. It’s always a good idea to consider what they’ve told you and the feedback they’ve given you. Sure, the industry is made of up individuals with their own tastes and opinions, but it’s never bad to get a sense of what someone on the inside thinks.

So really, you have two options. You can look at your story and consider some changes. Or you can just write it off as someone not interested and move on. Ultimately, it’s up to you. If they mentioned in the reply, or hinted at, that you should feel free to resubmit after you’ve addressed the points they’ve made, that is something to really consider. I rewrote the opening scene to Stolen Child after getting a couple of comments that it didn’t have enough tension. Obviously it wasn’t accepted for representation by those agents, but I do think it improved the story.

  1. Negative Rejections

I’ve had, thankfully, only one very brutal rejection. I’m not sure why the agent in question spent so much time on something they disliked so much, but they did.

What did I do with this one? It fueled my spite and made me even more determined to succeed. After all, why am I going to let someone like that dictate my success or failure? Now, I won’t go as far as E.E. Cummings did. He was rejected by 15 publishers and eventually self-published. He dedicated his first book to the publishers who rejected him. I won’t say that idea doesn’t appeal to me, but I’m spiteful, not petty. And yes, there’s a difference.

Simply put, you have to believe in yourself, and you have to do it in the face of potentially monumental adversity. You might have people close to you telling you to give up, and a stack of rejection letters taller than you, but if you really want to succeed, you have to push on. Yes, those people sending you rejection letters, or nothing at all, are denying you success, but the only person who can say you’ve failed is you. This is a rare kind of game. It’s only over when you throw in the towel. Each rejection makes me more determined to succeed. And isn’t something all the better when you’ve worked for

it? Are there writers who, for lack of a better term, stroll into an offer with an agent and then a publishing deal? Sure, it happens. People also win the lottery and are struck by lightning.

Of course, despite my determination, I’m human and I falter sometimes. I’ve had some rejections that were harder for me to take than others. In those situations, I call on my friends for moral support. I also find it useful to keep in mind what other authors, incredibly successful ones, went through before getting published. Since it might help you too, here are some I find useful:

  • Chicken Soup for the Soul – Rejected 140 times (currently there are over 100,000,000 copies in print in 54 languages).
  • The Dubliners – Rejected 22 times, and in its first year sold only 379 copies, 120 of which James Joyce bought himself.
  • Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance – Rejected 121 times (more than any other bestseller, it’s in the Guinness Book of Records).
  • Gone With the Wind – Rejected 38 times.
  • A Wrinkle in Time – Rejected by 26 publishers.
  • The Help – Rejected 60 times.
  • Dune – Rejected 23 times.
  • Louis L’Amour – 200 rejections.
  • Agatha Christy – 5 years of continual rejections.
  • Judy Bloom – 2 years of rejections.

And my personal favorite.

  • Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s/Sorcerer’s Stone – Rejected by 12 publishers. It was eventually picked up by Bloomsbury, a small London publisher, because the CEO’s eight-year-old daughter begged her father to print the book.

One last story to keep you smiling when you get your next rejection letter:

To show how hard it was for new writers to break into the literary world, Jerzy Kosinksi used a pen name and submitted his bestselling novel Steps to 13 literary agents and 14 publishers, all of whom reject it. Including Random House, who’d published it in the first place.

Do I think I’m on par with the names on that list? No, but if James Joyce was rejected 22 times, me being rejected 100 times doesn’t sound so hard to take anymore. It comes down to this; if I’m never published, it will not be because I stopped trying.

What about you?

It’s Not You, It’s Me. Okay, It’s You.

You’ve written a book! Actually finished one! You’re no longer the person who’s working on a novel, you’ve written a novel. Truly, this is something to be proud of. The determination and dedication required to sit and write 80,000+ words (or there about) is not insignificant. As it turns out, though, that determination and dedication will serve you even better on the road ahead. Assuming of course you’re unpublished. After you’ve had your work edited, or at least read over by someone who will give you honest, helpful comments, your next step will be to find an agent, or a publisher who accepts submissions from unagented authors. As you begin your search, here are a few simple tips to keep your book from immediately going into the trash can, or slush pile, as it’s called in industry speak. While these tips are geared towards fiction, they are also helpful for nonfiction, but be aware the process is different.

Do your research!

You want to be a professional writer (be paid for your writing)? Well, now is the time to act like it. To be treated like a professional, you need to behave like one. This means spending a little time learning about the industry and how it works, including how to submit your work and what documents you need to write in addition to your manuscript.

  • A Query Letter (also called a cover letter)

You should know what this is, and what one should look like. There are thousands of resources available to guide you. A quick Google search (0.30 seconds) turned up 22,300,000 results. Others might disagree, but once I had a good query letter written, I used it as a template for all the letters I sent out; key word being template.

  • A Synopsis

To me, this is much harder to write than the book itself. Come on, boiling down your entire novel to a few pages is no small feat. Opinions vary on the correct length, but from what I’ve seen, three pages is generally a good goal.

My “aha moment” came when I started to think of my synopsis as the movie trailer for my book, though synopses also include the ending. I imagine a theater full of people about to see a movie, and the preview for my book comes up. For some reason, it’s always Don LaFontaine doing the voice over, but that’s just me. Start by writing it out just get it on the page and don’t worry about the length. Once you have it, then you can focus on whittling it down to reach your page limit.

  • Format

Take a few minutes and learn what the generally accepted format is for your manuscript, query letter, and synopsis. By this I mean the font style (Times New Roman, Courier, etc), font size (point), margin size, line spacing, and page numbering. Again, this won’t take long and is something you should know. Though it varies from place to place, your name and manuscript title should go on every page. Though most agents and publishers work electronically, they might print out your manuscript, or a portion of it, and do you really want to be rejected because someone dropped the papers and wasn’t able to put them back in order?

Okay, so you’ve got your synopsis and query letter, and your manuscript is properly formatted. Now, you need an agent, right? Well, no, you don’t need an agent to publish your book, but having an agent does open up doors that otherwise are closed to you. Ultimately, it’s up to you to decide if you need or want one. If you do, there are some things you need to look for.

Finding a reputable agent.

This can’t be stressed enough. There are countless people out there who are ready and willing to take from you every dime they can. Luckily, there are some common red flags to look for when screening agents. If you find these, does it mean they’re trying to scam you? Not necessarily, but you’re so much better safe than sorry.

  1. No agent should ever charge you anything up front. They make money when you do, hence their interest in your success.
  2. No agent should recommend an editing service, or insist on you using a particular service as part of representing you. This is a blatant conflict of interest. They might provide you with a list of editors or companies, but never push one above another. However, your work should’ve been edited before you got to this point.

There are several sites that will give you a much more extensive list of things to be on the lookout for. A few I’ve used are:

Preditors and Editors

Absolute Write (Keep in mind this is a forum where people post their experiences, so you might get a wide range of opinions. Use your own judgment, but remember it’s always, always better safe than sorry.)

SFWA Writers Beware (Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, but even if you’re not writing in that genre, the advice is still sound.)

Association of Author’s Representatives (As you visit agents’ individual websites, you’ll probably see some who say they’re a member, or hold to their canon of ethics.)

Once you’ve identified a list of reputable agents, you’re ready to start sending out query letters, right? Wrong! Sit back down at the computer! You’re not done working yet, buddy. Yep, still more research.

Understand to whom you’re submitting. That’s right, whom!

Do you like spam? If you answered yes, well, you have bigger issues than I can address. If you are among the 99.9999 percent of the rest of us who hate it, guess what? Agents and publishers hate it too. Don’t let your submission be thought of as spam. Remember, these people are professionals in the industry you want to enter. Show some respect for that. What does that mean? I’m glad you asked.

  • Make sure the recipient of your query might actually be interested.

What are the odds the agent who deals in romance novels really wants to read your horror story? No, I don’t care how amazing it is. Most agencies, agents, and publishers have websites. This will tell you what genre(s) they work with and are looking for. Some agencies have multiple agents, with each agent interested in different genres. Read up and find out who would be most interested in your query. Using the person’s name in the query letter should be obvious. “To Whom it May Concern” may not land you directly in the bin, but it’s not a good start.

  • Read the submission guidelines.

This will tell you what format they want you to use for your documents, and what you should send. Some will just want a query letter, others will ask for a sample, a synopsis, or a combination of all three. Once you know what they want, send them what they ask for, nothing more, nothing less. Also, make sure to send it how they want it. In these days of email submissions, you should know if they want the documents embedded into the email (the text copied and pasted in), or if they prefer the items as attachments. If it’s the latter, which more places are steering away from because of viruses and the like, make sure you know if they want separate documents for each item, or if they want everything in one document. Also, make sure you know what kind of file to send (.doc, .rtf, .txt, etc). Some agencies and publishers also have online submission “portals.” These will be pages where you’ll type in, or copy, the relevant text from your query letter and either upload, or paste in, the additional materials they want.

Of course, some places still want you to send it via regular (snail) mail. In this case, it’s REALLY important to send them only what they ask for. Don’t send your manuscript to someone who just wants a query letter. I know, I know, this should be obvious, but I’ve heard of people who’ve done just that. I’ve also heard in one instance of someone sending a handwritten manuscript to an agent who works solely via electronic submissions (and clearly states that on their website). The topper: it was the only copy. Yeah, take a minute to let that one sink in.

Will doing all this guarantee you’ll land an agent or publisher? Seriously? You’re not seriously asking that, are you?

No, of course it won’t. But what this will do is show the person to whom you’re submitting that you take this seriously. You understand that you’re not doing them some immense favor by gracing them with the chance to represent your masterpiece. You didn’t write up a generic query letter and sent it out (spam like) to everyone you could find. There’s no need to genuflect and kiss the ring, but at least recognize that this agent is reading your letter and giving you a fair chance to get them interested. Odds are they have clients, clients who either do, or they expect soon will, provide them with their income. You’re not doing them a favor, they’re doing you one. A simple equivalent to “please” and “thank you” isn’t really too much to ask in return. In short, think of it like a job interview, because in a very real sense, it is.

Remember, all I’m offering here are some things I’ve learned in my pursuit of publication that will help you put your best foot forward. Beyond that, it’s all up to you. Odds are good that you’re going to be rejected. But I hope all these things will at least make that rejection closer to, “it’s not you, it’s me,” than “no, it’s you.”

Your Baby is Ugly.

We’re all familiar with the term; someone tells you something you love, and probably put a lot of work into, is wretched and worthy only of contempt, and thus, you’re a complete failure. Well, at least that’s what most of us hear, and hopefully for only the first few minutes. But what we should be hearing is that something we love, and probably put a lot of work into, is not the greatest creation of the human animal. That’s good news, stay with me here, because it means there’s room for improvement and a chance to hone our craft. If you’re like me, you might’ve had some similar experiences. I’ve been a storyteller for as long as I can remember. In first grade I started writing short stories, which the teacher would read to the class at story time. This provided my first taste of adulation. It also provided my first taste of how far some people will go to express their dissatisfaction with the quality of your work. Was the lost lunch money worth the praise? Well, I’m still writing, so there’s your answer. I’ve been writing, or making up stories in one form or another, since I was a kid. Learning of the long and proud history the Irish have with storytelling brought me a lot of satisfaction. I’m exceedingly proud of my heritage and storytelling is another way I bond with it. I did some stage acting for a while, which to me is another form of storytelling. In fact, being a performer was once a key part of storytelling. In time, I grew used to people telling me I was good at telling stories and should pursue it. What I didn’t know was that storytelling and writing are two completely distinct things.

When I entered the work force and began my adult life, my book in progress never seemed to get finished. Yes, I was “that guy” for a while, and I sincerely apologize. Most of my problem stemmed from constantly rewriting what I’d already written and making little or no progress forward. I still struggle with this a bit, but I digress. When the manuscript was finished, I felt convinced I had a good story, strong characters, and something worthy of being my introduction to the literary world. No, I didn’t expect to get a letter from the president of a major publishing house asking where I’d been and saying the world was so glad I’d finally arrived. But I thought I’d written something at least as good as what I was finding on bookshelves at the time. Many, many rejection letters later, some of which were less than gentle, I decided to try again. I wrote another book. This one practically wrote itself and I was thrilled with the outcome. I’d bought some books on dialogue, character development, and such, and thought I applied them well. Then I decided to take advantage of making a good living and hired a professional editor to look it over. I knew it wouldn’t be cheap, but I also know that reading through a full book and making notes isn’t something that can be done overnight and, as a professional in a different field, I respect the value of a professional’s time. My beloved urban fantasy was eviscerated. Or that’s how it felt. While there was some genuine praise (not that I saw much of it), it was just enough to keep me from jumping off a bridge. I started to wonder why I ever thought I could be a writer. But I’ve always been someone who doesn’t like being beaten down. In fact, I sort of thrive on spite. When someone knocks me down, I’ll get back up just to tell them they can’t keep me down. I think it’s the Irish in me. I took time, looked over the comments, and decided to apply them. I changed some of my beloved characters, which was like amputating my own leg, then removed large pieces of the story and rewrote others. Several rounds of editing later (it took several hits with the two-by-four) the book was something different. The story was still there, but now the writing didn’t get in the way. In fact, it actually improved the story. What a concept!

I learned about repetition; telling something and then saying it again. When you show people what happens, but worry the reader didn’t quite get it so you make sure, or just hammering the same point home again over and over. I will say when I saw, for the tenth time or so, my editor commenting “Repetition, don’t treat the readers like idiots.” I had a good laugh. He’s skilled at his craft, but apparently didn’t recognize, or appreciate, the poetry of that. Or perhaps he did and was laughing his ass off as he wrote it.

I also learned about having good subtext (and trusting your reader to pick it up), the concept of exposition (when to reveal something and just how much of it to reveal), and about all of the other common problems most first time writers fall into, and trust me, we do.

Mostly though, I learned you can’t write in a vacuum. You have to have someone else look at your work, and if you can afford to hire a professional, do it. When we write, most of us make all kinds of typos, miss entire words, or have sentences that start one way and finish another. We can catch some of these on our own, but we’ll read the sentence with the missing word and our brains will fill it in, so we’ll never see that it’s missing. You need someone who isn’t in the trenches, and isn’t emotionally vested in your story as it is, to look at from above and get the whole picture.

But the hardest thing I learned was when I received comments, from friends or editors, was to read the comments, and then walk away. You need to get yourself away from the story and criticism. Get angry if you want. Swear, stomp, beat on a punching bag for a while. Whatever you need. Maybe even write a scathing reply, and, this is very important, THEN DELETE IT. Once you’ve calmed down, go back and read the comments again. When you feel your emotions building up, rinse and repeat. When you can really listen to what you’re being told, consider why the person thinks that. Now, they could well be wrong. At times I just disagreed with the editor and kept things the way I wanted, or I went in a different direction entirely. If you have a friend doing this for you, be grateful, especially if he or she gives you more constructive feedback than “I liked it,” or “it’s good.” If you managed to find a good editor, and be sure to do your research, remember that this is someone who’s professional and knowledgeable; likely they have a degree, or plenty of experience, and likely both. Also remember, you’re paying for his or her advice! No point in paying if you’re going to ignore it all because the editor doesn’t suggest you’re the next J.K. Rowling or Stephen King. There should be examples in the comments of what you’re doing right. If there aren’t, don’t assume everything you’re doing is wrong, ask. But keep in mind an editor isn’t paid to blow sunshine up your backside. His or her job is to help you make your book/short story/novella/screenplay/poem/manifesto the best it can possibly be. Different editors have different opinions, so don’t be surprised if you work with two different editors and they contradict each other. The literary world is capricious at best. It’s not just enough to have a good story that’ll sell. You have to get said story in front of someone who recognizes it as such, and do it when that person is open to seeing it.

No, I’m not yet published, though I am under consideration by a publisher, and I don’t have an agent. But, I’m still at it. I’ve learned some hard lessons, some of which were costly; sometimes in ego, sometimes in cash, and sometimes both. I’ve received more rejection notices that I care to think about. My book has been reviewed by more than a couple agents, all of whom passed. But I keep writing. I write because I have to, for me. I have to tell the stories, even if they’re on a page just for me. I know one day my book(s) will sit on a shelf and I’ll make a living on my writing. I know this because I also know that you’ll never succeed if you give up. The people who succeeded say you can too, the people who gave up say you can’t. Who are you going to listen to?

Me, I’m too spiteful and stubborn to give up.