What those rejection letters really mean

I’ve been trying to find an agent for Honeysuckle Rage and the Everlasting Tree for nearly two years now. In that time, I’ve become utterly convinced that my bright, shining, lovely novel that I thought everyone would like was a piece of trash. But reading this blog by Grant P. Hudson has made me rethink my despondency. Are agents rejecting my work because they think the story is BAD or do they just not LIKE it? Because the difference is huge. What worries me is that agents/publishers/editors only look for work that they like: they’re not judging the stories on their actual merit.

This doesn’t really change anything in the long run – I have to keep approaching agents until one of them either LIKES my work or is able to judge its merit with a cool head and decide that it’ll make mega-bucks (which is ultimately all that counts in the long run.)

But at the very least, it’s more comforting to think that my work DOES have merit that hasn’t been recognised yet than go about convinced that everything I write is rubbish.

https://www.clarendonhousebooks.com/post/why-you-should-avoid-opinionated-editors

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How to keep going when you want to lie down and die

I approached an agent in the US recently, the first time I’ve ever done this.  Perhaps, I thought wildly, my contemporary/portal fantasy novel will have greater appeal to the American public.  As I’m not very good at pretending to be English and feel like a fraud setting my novel in a “quirky village in England” (you can’t believe the research I had to do to get a feel for non-clichéd village life), I thought perhaps my “quirkiness” would be entertaining rather than, well, researched.

The rejection arrived less than a week later. 

I have approached a total twelve literary agents this year.  In the previous two years, I approached 21 (just for this novel, you understand).  Of the 33 total, only 18 bothered to reply, all with bog-standard rejections, their emails almost identical (do they learn how to write these at Literary Agent School?)  I’ve run out of agents in the UK who don’t sneer at fantasy.  Sadly, my novel (or proposed series of novels) isn’t really Big Fantasy, which makes it even harder.  It’s set in the modern world.  The magical realm is separate and reached by what is traditionally called a portal (like Narnia).  There’s a bit of magic in our world but not much.  It’s very character-driven and heavy on relationship building.  There are a large number of strong female characters.

Is this all so unappealing?

It’s been over two and a half years since I approached the first agent.  I’ve already written the second in the series, though haven’t edited it yet.  I had hoped to write the third this year but it has begun to dawn on me that I probably won’t get to it.  A year that I had greatly looked forward to, filled with exciting projects, has been crushed by so many outside factors that I can barely get up in the morning.  I hardly need mention the pandemic.  Then there’s the realisation that I no longer feel able to work in my Real World job.  And on top of that, I’ve just been told I may have to have an eye operation for a possible torn retina.

I mean, fuck.  How do I respond to this?  I don’t know how to keep going.  The two efforts I’ve made this year at actual writing have produced absolute rubbish.  The immense amount of editing I have to do (which I usually enjoy) has been left to gather dust because I haven’t got the energy, crushed as I am by the events of 2020, not just globally but in my life.  I may have felt a smidgen of hope recently, when I got into gear and approached the US agent and did a whole bunch of other “writing career” stuff but the eye operation threat has destroyed it all.  There I was, trying to remain positive, trying to stay busy and productive, making an effort, DOING something, when I got steamrollered.  And it was a big steamroller. 

I recently tweeted:

I’m not sure I can do this writing thing anymore. I’ve been trying to find an agent for over thirty years now. I’ve been trying to get people to read my books for a decade. Nothing I do works. I am a droplet lost in a tidal wave.

I didn’t expect much of a response, the word “droplet” being the clue.  But someone replied with this:

I think your years of experience show a resilience and strength that the rest of us aspire to! I was feeling this way for the last couple of weeks… And reading your post makes me feel like such a lightweight. You are truly badass!

Me?  A badass?  According to Google, this means:

A tough, uncompromising, or intimidating person.

I was quite touched to be viewed this way!

While “perseverance” may be my middle name, the other side of the coin is, I’m afraid to say, total despair.  And as for the answer to the question I posed in the title of this blog, I don’t have one.  People may admire me for persisting and persevering on a difficult path, but for me, that path just looks like the ashes of my life, with all hope lost, a road that goes forever on and on in a talentless void.  And I only keep on walking because I haven’t spotted a turn-off.

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The past is hysterically funny

I’ve been regaling my daughter with tales from The Olden Days, in other words, the eighties and nineties.  And a bit of the seventies.

First memory of a computer:  my mother’s boyfriend’s twin brother worked with computers (I think) and I seem to recall visiting his office one Sunday and the computers were HUGE.  I must have been about ten, which means that, yes, there were computers in the 1970’s, just not in everyone’s home.  I had my daughter in hysterics as I described the dot matrix printer.
Drrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr (ten seconds one way)
Drrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr (ten seconds the other way).
Yep.  They were that slow.

And as for fanzines:  I actually CREATED one in the early 1980’s.  There were two of us and I did all the typing on a manual typewriter.  The headings and stuff were done with LETRASET!  I included a short story called The Abominable Snowman which was about, well, a snowman, except he was tall and thin and had lost his head and instead of a head, he had the glittering lights of a city.  Yes.  Well.  It’s possible my writing was even more surreal and incomprehensible then than it is now.  I also drew (while chained to my civil service job) a comic strip called Deartha’s Double Breast.  She went out at night and FLASHED people with her DOUBLE BREAST.  It was SHOCKING.  Well.  It made my daughter laugh.  The fanzine was called King Ink because the other creator and I were huge Nick Cave fans.  I really wanted to review The Cure’s Pornography but was told by the other creator (okay, okay, he was my bloody boyfriend) that it was old hat.  I eventually came to England with that boyfriend, who then proceeded to coercively control me.  It took me eighteen months to escape him.  Arsehole.

Without thinking, I said to my daughter that we had “printed out” the fanzine.  Well, of course we didn’t PRINT OUT the fanzine!  There was nothing to print it out from!  We photocopied it! 
“You had photocopiers back then?”  my daughter asked me.
Yes.  And televisions, telephones and fridges.  We were really advanced, you know.  (This was the point that I told her about the computers of the 1970’s, the ones as big as a cupboard).

I also told her about the old branch of Forbidden Planet before it moved from New Oxford Street to its current location, about finding it for the first time, going into a room the size of my kitchen and going, “wow, look at all the Star Trek shit!”  Around the back of Forbidden Planet was a shop that sold ONLY fan magazines.  I realise, now, that this was what we had before websites.  There was a magazine for every single TV show that ever existed.  And pictures.  You could buy glossy pictures of your heroes.  You don’t want to know who I smothered my walls with (blush).  Needless to say, he had a lot of muscles.  I seem to be quite partial to those.

How did we ever live without the internet?  Was life any better?  Could we have stayed sane throughout the pandemic without online contact?  The past is hysterically funny.  I hope one day we can laugh about the present.  I can imagine my daughter telling future generations how we used to TYPE onto tiny screens to people we’d never met and those future generations falling about with hysterical laughter.  Because you know what, it’s bloody nuts.

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My Coronavirus Diary – June: COVID-19 Test

In which I test for coronavirus.  No, I don’t have symptoms!  I was asked to take part in a survey which I agreed to because I just love the idea of sticking a swab down my throat until I gag and then shoving it up my nostrils til they bleed.  The things you do for science….

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Carlos Ruiz Zafón

I was devastated to hear this morning of the death of Carlos Ruiz Zafón.  He was my favourite author, someone whom I aspired to in my own writing.  I wanted to spend the rest of my life reading his books.  I wanted to grow old with him.  He was my age so it could have been.

But it wasn’t to be.

I first discovered his work, like most people, when I read The Shadow of the Wind.  I have no idea how I came to own this book.  I was tidying my bookshelf one day and there it was.  The fact that this book, a brand new hardback in perfect condition, turned up so mysteriously is almost part of the story of the wonderful Cemetery of Forgotten Books.  There is no other place on earth where I would like more to get lost, that labyrinthine library of obscure titles and forgotten authors.  I felt as if I was one of them myself.  The book thus appealed to me on two levels:  as a writer as well as an avid reader and lover of books.

When I told my daughter this morning of the death of Carlos Ruiz Zafón, I was in a flood of tears and anguish.  You hear of celebrities dying every week.  It was Bilbo’s turn the other day.  But Ian Holm lived to 88.  He’d had good innings, as they say.  Although The Shadow of the Wind was an instant classic, I felt that Carlos still had more stories in him that would blow me away.  I was blown away by Shadow and blown away by its non-sequel sequel, The Angel’s Game.  I’ve since read all four novels in the Cemetery of Lost Books sequence, finishing the last one only earlier this year, just before lockdown. 

“What is it about?”  my daughter asked me when I told her to read The Shadow of the Wind. 

“It’s about books.  A bookshop.  A labyrinthine library of books.  It’s set in Barcelona.  The people are fascinating.”

I’m not sure if I did the book justice. 

I learnt more from Carlos Ruiz Zafón than I have from any other writer.  In The Labyrinth of Spirits, some advice is given to a young writer, something I understood instantly: 

To write is to rewrite.  One writes for oneself, and one rewrites for others.

Rest in peace Carlos Ruiz Zafón.  You were taken from us too soon but you left us the most wonderful books to read, a window into a labyrinthine imagination.  One day I hope you have the chance to create again.

I reviewed The Angel’s Game here

I wrote about being inspired by his writing here

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Writing Tip #1

First in a series of writing tips!  These are things I have learnt after many years of hard work.  With any luck, others will find some inspiration!

Photo by Min An from Pexels
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Hunting down that elusive ending to your story

If you can’t find an ending to your WIP, there is only ever one reason for it:  something hasn’t worked earlier on.

I’ve reached the end of novels, novellas and short stories in a variety of different ways:

  1. I knew the ending first and have been leading up to it confidently from the beginning
  2. I had a vague idea of what should happen but had to work on it once I got there
  3. I knew what was supposed to happen but couldn’t figure out how to get there
  4. I had no idea where the story was going
  5. I had no idea how to end once I ran out of story

Every story is different.  No one way of writing is better than another.  For all my novels, I plan my endings to avoid waffling on endlessly.  I want to lead the reader confidently towards an ending that will either surprise them, please them, or leave them thoughtful (better still – wanting to read more if it’s a series).  This is something that works for me.  I like to know where I’m going.  I want to know what’s going to happen to my characters.  This way I can work on nuances and hints and ironies while I write.  Sometimes the ending can go flat when I get there, having held it in my head for so long, but a bit of rewriting, rethinking and reworking soon rekindles the original fire.

My short story writing is more experimental so I’m ready to expect the unexpected.  There can also be something quite delightful about not knowing the ending to a story.  It’s like embarking on an adventure and discovering things as you go along.  Not knowing your ending doesn’t mean you’re going to get stuck.  In a wild creative urge (and your muse on top form), a brilliant ending can occur to you just when you need it. 

While I’m definitely NOT going to advocate that you MUST know your ending before you start, there are going to be times when you just can’t find an ending – even if you planned one!  It’s awful if a planned ending doesn’t work but it’s worse if you just can’t think of a way to end a piece.  I don’t suffer from writer’s block but I come close to it when I hit a total blank at what I realise must be the end of the story.  How do you even know if you’ve reached the end of the story?  Has the plot run out?  Are all the characters dead?!  Or are you just sick of it? 

Whatever the problem, my Big Writing Tip should work.  Before I get to it, let me take you through some writing experiences I’ve had:

Knowing the ending

All my novels were carefully constructed.  I didn’t necessarily know them scene-by-scene and interesting things often occurred along the way, with some characters proving more alive than others, but I knew where I was going.  My Fleet Quintet novels were immensely complex with a plot that spanned hundreds of years (actually millions!) and some wild leaps in time.  I carried the plot of five novels around in my head for years and it was a great relief when I finally finished the fourth one.  The fifth novel in the Quintet is yet to be written but I have all the notes:  I know exactly what it is going to happen because I know exactly where all the plot holes are that need to be filled, the dangling threads that need to be tied up, the mysteries yet to be solved.  This is all planned!

Finding the ending years later

This has happened to me several times.  My short story, The Evolving, which I wrote in my early twenties, was rewritten decades later with an altered ending that actually made sense.  Another short story, Walked (which had a different title), was written in the late nineties but the ending was deeply unsatisfactory.  I knew the MC had to get to the desert in a plane, but what did she find there?  Over ten years later, the story became part of The Exodus Sequence and the ending resolved perfectly.  It was as if the story had to wait for the right ending to coming along!  Another Exodus Sequence story, Crashed, had a very weak ending that I couldn’t resolve.  By applying my Big Writing Tip, I finally found the perfect ending years later.  But I had to really work for it!

Not knowing the ending

My short story, Diamonds on the Moon, is a relatively unstructured piece which I didn’t plan at all.  I started with a dragon waking up on the moon, trapped in a crater, wondering what his purpose in life was.  I had NO idea where this was going.  I certainly hadn’t planned for Neil Armstrong to turn up in it!  I really just wanted to write about beauty and joy and friendship and I think I succeeded with that.  The final sentences of the story capture a theme that is prevalent throughout my writing (which means the ending worked for me, though I can’t be sure it works for anyone else!)  I planned nothing, yet the story is definitely finished and finished on a high note too, despite the sadness.

No ending at all

A recently completed Exodus Sequence story (which will appear in a collection of short stories as well as the second Exodus volume) (eventually) began very strongly indeed.  With characters that leapt off the page and felt very alive, it was great fun to write.  But once they reached their goal, knocking on the front door of a forest cabin they were trying to find and conversing with the inhabitant within – what then?  I had no idea!  Where was the story going?  What were they trying to do?  Why was this person in a cabin important?  I couldn’t answer any of these questions and was clueless as to how I was going to end the story.  I continued on boldly until finally I ran out of steam.  I’d rather hoped something would occur to me before I reached the ending, but it didn’t.  So I abandoned it for a while, then applied my Tip, and ended up with something more brilliant than I could ever have hoped for.  It moved the whole Exodus Sequence forward, rather than reaching the dead end of plot stagnation which is where I’d left it.

Having an ending come to me out of the blue

This is utterly brilliant when it happens.  It’s what you dream of as a writer.  It’s creation at it’s most excellent.  It also hardly ever happens.  I wrote Experienced pretty much “off the cuff” as it were.  There was no planning.  I launched into it wildly, then had to stop and restart the whole thing because I needed to change it into first-person-weird.  If you read it, you’ll know what I mean by “weird” because it’s a very dense story and takes a while for the confusing claustrophobic drug comedown to wear off and the plot to emerge.  The reader is basically walking in the MCs exactly footsteps – there’s no space from him.  You’re so far inside his head that you couldn’t escape if you wanted to.  For me, the revelation came during the fight at the end.  I knew what the MC had to do during the fight.  I just didn’t expect him to end up on real-world Io (that weeny volcanic moon that spins around Jupiter), nor did I expect that very last scene.  It absolutely tears me apart!

BIG WRITING TIP

If you can’t find an ending to your WIP, there is only ever one reason for it:  something hasn’t worked earlier on.

Oh, wait, didn’t I already say this at the beginning of this article?  Well, yes.  Because my Big Writing Tip isn’t more complicated than that.  It’s not some big secret thing.  It has nothing to do with inspiration, creative ability or your muse.  I’m quite sure there are a zillion other articles out there with advice.  Perhaps I’m saying exactly the same thing.  Perhaps I’ve come up with something genius.  But honestly, this is just what I’ve done and it’s worked for me.  Hopefully it’ll work for you.

If you’re stuck and in despair, the first thing you need to do is walk away from it for a bit.  It doesn’t matter how long.  If you can’t stand the story anymore, then make it quite a long bit.  You may just need a cup of tea or you may need to abandon it for years.  But if you don’t want to do the latter, try this:

  1. Read the story from the beginning and make notes.  It doesn’t matter where or how:  I like using plain text documents.  But I’ve also been known to handwrite notes in vast volumes.
  2. Ask painful questions while you read:  Does the plot make sense?  Do you know your characters well?  Do they remain “in-character” as it were?  Do you know what they want?  Do you even LIKE the story and where it’s going?  Is there an earlier scene that suggests a way out for the character and an ending to the story?
  3. If you’ve had ideas while writing of earlier events that need changing, then change them now.  Sometimes if you spot a plot flaw, you’re not going to be able to think clearly until that flaw is cleared up. 
  4. During this particular edit (it may be the first time the story is edited), you will almost certainly find things that don’t work.  Plot flaws, character errors, missing elements, maybe even a lack of structure.  You may find your tense is wrong or it should be in a different voice (first person rather than third).  You may even find the style is all wrong for the story and that it needs to be hard ass noir rather than wishy-washy fantasy (that would be quite an extreme change, but you get the idea!)
  5. By now you’ve done a huge edit on your story, you’ve rewritten it, you’ve changed it, you found a new character or deleted one, your MC has expanded a bit and you know them inside out, you know their goals and dreams and past mistakes, you KNOW your story.  Has an ending miraculously suggested itself to you yet?  If it hasn’t, then there is still something missing from the story – and it’s not the ending that’s missing, it’s something earlier!  Find it and add it and connect it to the end.  There’s your story.

I’m currently working on a new short story for the Exodus Sequence about an MC from a previous short story, Woken.  His name also crops up in various other stories, so I thought I knew him quite well.  In this new story, he’s found dead on a beach in ancient Greece by a hermit – except that he isn’t dead and he has a huge story to tell.  The purpose of this story is to tell the truth about Atlantis (at least, the truth according to my Exodus Sequence universe!).  I launched in with no plot, no particular idea of which characters were going to do what.  I had some scenes in my head that I wanted to have play out.  And I knew that at the end, the hermit leaves his tiny Greek island and goes off to find some big name, like, I don’t know, how about Plato, to tell his story to, which is how Plato found the idea for his Atlantis.  That ending is all well and good, but what about the ending of the story that the MC relates?  That is the ending that is eluding me completely.

I already know there are some huge problems with the structure of the story.  It doesn’t have one!  It lurches about with info dumps and static conversations between characters.  I hate it!  Worse still, I don’t have all my facts straight.  The Exodus Sequence is a huge story with many characters, spanning millions of years.  Most of the stories are concentrated in the present or future.  Shattered takes place at the time of the Neanderthals and Woken in Arthurian times.  But this one, while set in the hermit’s time of ancient Greece at the time of Plato, also has a huge chunk set long, long, long ago, when there weren’t supposed to be any people on this planet at all.  It’s the heart of my Atlantis story, the soul of the Exodus Sequence.  The “thing” that happens here affects everyone forever more.

No pressure in getting it right, then!

What I’ve been doing is rereading ALL the stories in the Exodus Sequence and making historical notes.  I started this a few years ago and forgot about it.  Basically, I’m working on canon.  If the story has been published, which most of them are, then I can’t change the history.  And there is a lot of it!  It’s going to be very useful indeed to have all the “history” in one place with casual references to past events recorded in a linear fashion (to make my life easier.)

This is excessive when it comes to doing homework in order to find an ending to a story that has stalled, but it shows you how far I’ll go to get it right.  Hopefully, your story is just a one-off and just requires some serious editing.  By working on the Exodus universe history, or canon, I’ve already got a thousand ideas of how to fix up the story.  Better still, I’ve found the ending!  I realised my MC can’t possibly know who traps him.  THAT was the plot flaw.  It also means that in a future story, I can have a big revelation when he finds out who it is.  No writing is ever wasted!

And the sun went down. The end.
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My Coronavirus Diary – End of May: Reaching the end of my tether

In which I kill a jogger. Well. Nearly.

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Review: War of the Worlds (Fox TV Series)

You’d think that in the middle of a world pandemic, you’d want to avoid apocalyptic television!  But this was so good that despite its grim subject, I kept going to the end.

There were two things that struck me about that made it so very good:  the first occurred in the second episode, after the attack on Earth.  A main character started a journey across London on foot.  The camera tracked back and you saw all the bodies lying scattered everywhere, cars (no longer working) parked at odd angles, the world come to a dead stop.

It was a devastating scene.  Watching it just days after the lockdown came into force made it so much more terrifying.  It foreshadowed exactly those first few days of the lockdown when the streets were suddenly empty of traffic and you tried frantically to avoid anyone out for a walk in case they breathed on you.

What made it so brilliant was the unearthly silence.  And this is the second thing that struck me about this series:  the quiet.  The silence.  The muted scenes.  Unlike your usual end-of-world movie, there was no screaming, no crashing sounds of destruction, no weapons fire, no overwhelming Hans Zimmer-style soundtrack.  This alien invasion was a horrible, silent, creeping thing and this is what made this version of a very well-known tale stand way above any other production.

And there have been a few!  Wasn’t it just the other day I was watching a BBC production set when it was actually supposed to be set:  in the Edwardian era.  It seemed quite promising at first.  The female lead was set up as a strong character and the production looked good.  But it seemed to go awry somehow and I got very tired of that dusty red future we kept cutting to, particularly as there seemed to be no story.  And suddenly our heroine was almost superfluous.  The plot kind of ran out of steam and whatever it was trying to say was rather lost.

The Fox TV series has fewer pretensions.  Set in the current day in France (with subtitles!) and England (I kept trying to work out where in London they were but it was actually filmed in Bristol!), it was a world instantly recognisable, one in which the viewer could quite easily identify with and ask:  what would I do if this invasion happened to me.  There are no heroes.  The main characters are not always likeable.  The story seems to both crawl and race at the same time, and sometimes there seems to be very little story.  Tension levels are either high or very high, with no breathing space ever.  Events played out in crap hotel rooms or empty streets, or a French observatory.  The aliens look kind of stupid, to be honest, and they are actually stupid, resembling metallic dog-things that creak ominously when they walk.  And yet they proved to be really scary, particularly as they never seem to miss when they shoot.

It doesn’t sound all that promising when I tell you the characters spend quite a lot of time walking, but this is Walking While Very Tense.  The unravelling of character’s individual storylines was made more interesting by the lack of soap-style drama, into which this never descended.  Most captivating of all was the overriding mystery:  a blind girl hears a weird noise, can see again, has some kind of connection with the aliens and you know that tattoo she gets right at the beginning of the series?  HAH!

I found myself screeching and tearing my hair out when the end credits came up at the end of the last episode.  Was this the END??  But, no, there is a second series coming.  I can’t wait. 

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My Coronavirus Diary – Week 6: Communication Blips

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