86. Rejection is your friend

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Rejection can be hurtful. But all writers have to learn to accept it. It seems like someone is telling you that your writing is no good. But there’s a huge amount of subjectivity in the decision-making process, which a writer doesn’t normally glimpse.

I just had a story rejected by Every Day Fiction with enough feedback to illuminate the process of decision-making. There are several reasons why a story might get turned down:

  • The writing is no good
  • The writing is good, but the story doesn’t work
  • The writing is good and the story works, but it’s not what the editors are looking for

The first two reasons are objective, the third is subjective. But, of course, the first and second reasons also involve judgements by people and can also be subjective. You rarely discover what has led to a rejection.

In this case, the magazine sent me the reports by the four readers. They had to score the submission between 1 and 5, and their scores varied between 1 and 4: a 4, a 3, a 2 and 1. If scoring were purely objective, this would not be possible.

The reader who scored me 1 said “This is an interesting beginning to a story but not a complete short tale as yet”. So that was a rejection reason two.

The reader who scored me 4 said “I love it when a story takes me by surprise, as yours did. Usually I find the ‘it was a dream’ motif a pretty hard sell. But here, the dream (or initiation) was an integral part of the narrative. Also, you capture quite a story in very few words. Nice. Your prose is gorgeous, too. I was taken in by its imagery and sound quality”. So that was an acceptance.

The remaining two readers also offered variants of rejection reason two. “The ending was a let-down” said one, who also commented “very strong writing”. They offered me the opportunity to rewrite and resubmit. Confident that the writing was good, I looked again at the structure.

I know enough about reactions to my endings to understand I have a problem here. I like open-endings. Readers, by and large, don’t.  I’m working on beefing up the ending now.

Rejection, as Sylvia Plath once wrote, shows that you’re trying. Make rejection your friend. It can help you try better. And editors who tell you the reasons for the rejection are priceless.

Friday Fictioneers – The Atelier

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PHOTO PROMPT © Magaly Guerrero

Sophia already had everything. The only possible gift was sensation.

“How about saudade?” The little man peered over half-moon glasses. “A Portuguese emotion – the pleasure of feeling sad. Very popular. There’s even a music that goes with it: Fado

“No,” I said. “Too much like wistfulness. Besides, I want something nobody has ever experienced before.”

The wrinkled rapturesmith retired to the dark back-shop. “I think this might suit, Sir.”

He proffered a small leather box.

Chocfulness,” he said. “The pleasure of finishing something you really enjoyed but probably shouldn’t have done, like eating a whole box of chocolates.”

 

Friday fictioneers is a weekly challenge set by Rochelle Wisoff Fields to write a 100-word story in response to a photo prompt. You can find other stories here

Fancy sharpening your skill with writing exercises? The Scrivener’s Forge offers a new exercise every month to hone one aspect of your craft. Take a look at this month’s exercise on character and likeability

 

Friday Fictioneers – Still Life

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PHOTO PROMPT © Dale Rogerson

“This is me?” I asked.

He smiled and nodded.

“Two-thirds of a pizza, a half-drunk glass of wine, my watch and some condiments?”

Again, that smile.

Tom told me once he picked through the rubble of the bombed village for an hour, arranging the detritus to compose his photograph. A frayed teddy bear from one house and, from another, a tin plate with a bullet hole.

“Wasn’t that lying?” I’d asked.

He replied it was revealing the truth.

“And the truth about me is?”

Tom hugged me and whispered “Maybe that you’re alone. Or maybe you changed plans.”

 

Friday fictioneers is a weekly challenge set by Rochelle Wisoff Fields to write a 100-word story in response to a photo prompt. You can find other stories here.

Fancy sharpening your skill with writing exercises? The Scrivener’s Forge offers a new exercise every month to hone one aspect of your craft. Take a look at this month’s exercise on character and likeability

Friday Fictioneers – Writing on the Wall

 

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PHOTO PROMPT © Jellico’s Stationhouse

When I wake, there is writing on the wall – “my thoughts abandon me with every word”. Had I written that? The script is elegant and flowing, unlike my scrawl.

Writing should be confined to notebooks – on walls it’s a transgression. At the age of eight I was punished for writing on the lounge wall, sent to bed without supper. Even after two coats of paint, the message still seeped through.

I envy those who can write on walls without guilt, but the infestation of words troubles me. I wonder how it would feel to write on human skin.

 

Friday fictioneers is a weekly challenge set by Rochelle Wisoff Fields  to write a 100-word story in response to a photo prompt. You can find other stories here.

Fancy sharpening your skill with writing exercises? The Scrivener’s Forge offers a new exercise every month to hone one aspect of your craft. Take a look at this month’s exercise on character and likeability

 

Noble Lies – Scrivener’s Forge 4 exercise

This is my response to the third Scrivener’s Forge exercise on Character and Likeability. Click on the link to see the exercise details

 

It would be a delightfully simple world if telling the truth was always right and lying was always wrong. But it is not so. I work undercover, and I’ve had to become a practitioner of the Noble Lie. Such lies are told for reasons of the greater good, often to maintain law, order and safety. Though they may told with love, they corrupt other loves.

I spent a year and a half getting close to Ayesha’s brothers, but never did discover what they were up to. I went out with them on marches and protests, handed out leaflets, buttonholed worshippers after Friday prayers about sharia and the true meaning of Islam. But they never took me with them on their frequent weekends away. I was denied entry to the inner circle. The locations of their trips were revealing though – Hampshire, Surrey and Kent. I knew for certain they visited Aldershot, Deepcut. Chatham, Sandhurst and Worthy Down. All of those places have military bases. It looked, as they say, suspicious.

Then Ayesha said she had something to tell me. Her sloe eyes were bright, her breathing was fast and shallow. ‘I’m pregnant,’ she said.

I said the usual silly things men say – What? How? Why? Are you sure?

‘It will be all right, won’t it?’ she asked. ‘You must marry me.’

‘Your brothers will never allow it,’ I temporised.

‘My brothers and father will kill me if I have a baby and I am unmarried.’

The moment of betrayal is always agonising. You recite for yourself all the reasons that make it right. There’s duty. There’s the uncomfortable truth that you already have a wife and two vaguely C of E kids. And those are good justifications. But you can only betray what you first love.

I walked away, looked back once, and shed a tear.

The Scrivener’s Forge 4 – Character and Likeability

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Medoc

A new writing exercise every month. When you focus on one aspect of writing at a time, you can concentrate on making it the best you can possibly create. That way you can reach a professional level that may be harder with longer works. We’ll explore one aspect of the craft each month.

If you comment on other writers’ efforts, they’ll usually comment on yours. So you get lots of critiques, advice, and encouragement.

Please don’t post your entry in comments here. Create your entry on your own blog, and then click the little blue frog to join the link-up and read other people’s work.

Character and Likeability

A main character doesn’t have to be likeable, but they do have to be interesting. Any believable hero or heroine must have flaws (just as every satisfying villain must have good qualities). They may even be overwhelmed by their flaws. Flawed heroines are given a much harder time by readers than flawed heroes.

Exercise:

Write a scene with an unlikeable main character that you think will engage the reader’s interest. You might want to try changing their gender and writing it again. If you do this, consider what you learned from the comparison.

Friday Fictioneers – Waterfront

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PHOTO PROMPT © Fatima Fakier Deria

The cloud ruffled the top of Table Mountain, tendrils fraying down towards the city.

“They call that effect the tablecloth,” Thandie said.

Sitting under the shade umbrella, I sipped my mojito and gazed across the harbour. We were in her country, her city, but I felt a disconcerting familiarity. Africa should be more alien.

She seemed to read my mind. “You expected mud huts, didn’t you? Lions? Tribal dances?”

All I could do was laugh and reach across the café table to squeeze her hand.  “You’re dark and exotic enough for me. And there’s still your father’s kraal to come.”

Friday fictioneers is a weekly challenge set by Rochelle Wisoff Fields to write a 100-word story in response to a photo prompt. You can find other stories here.

Fancy sharpening your skill with writing exercises? The Scrivener’s Forge offers a new exercise every month to hone one aspect of your craft. Take a look at this month’s exercise on character, desire, and suspense here

85. Writing Gracefully

I have a new goal as an author – writing gracefully. This goal arrived by accident. I came across the magazine Metaphorosis (“intelligent, beautifully written stories for adults”), whose editor has posted a helpful description on their website of what they’re looking for. He writes of quality prose “it’s not a question of adornment, but of grace”, and cautions against going overboard with images and metaphors. I wonder if I might be in danger of writing without grace.

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My journey as a writer

First successes as a writer came in 2015. My initial publication was a short sci-fi story about time travel and the grandfather paradox. Two other stories were accepted that year.

In the years before my breakthrough, I had submitted eight stories. But, though I didn’t know it at the time, the magazines I contacted accept on average only 0.82% of what they received. Well beyond my ability level

The big change from previous years was (a) my writing was improving, and (b) I was more targeted about where I sent my stories.  .

In 2015, I was much more realistic, submitting 23 stories to journals which had an average acceptance rate of 16.99%. The publication I was most proud of was a slipstream story, Zhuang Zhu’s Dream, published in Gold Dust, which then accepted 6.67% of the material sent to it. Last year, my greatest achievement was the story Interstices, published in Structo, which then accepted 3.85% of submissions. You can read both stories by clicking on the links on the sidebar. Two other pieces were also accepted in 2016.

This year, I’ve been more adventurous. So far, I’ve submitted 14 stories to magazines which have an average acceptance rate of 3.15%. I’ve had one story accepted since January. And yet I wondered if my writing had really improved enough to merit targeting more difficult publications.

 

Starting simple

When I look back at what I was writing before I got published, I can certainly see a change. As a teenager I wrote stories. One was even submitted to a magazine and rejected. I wish I still had that rejection slip – it would have been revealing. Hazily I remember it as saying something like “nice idea but needs more work”.

In 2011, I joined a local writers’ group, a diverse bunch of novelists, poets, and authors of short-stories. Later I also linked up with an online writing community.  My apprenticeship to fiction began. Both groups were really helpful in critiquing and improving my work. I learned and practised many of the basic craft skills of structure, character, point of view, and, of course, grammar. I discovered that I already had a natural facility with wordcraft, perhaps based on an adolescent foundation of intense poetry scribbling.

The stories I was writing then are much simpler than my current stuff. They are generally built around a single idea, written with beginning, middle and end. The end is often a twist. Here’s one from that period:

For the first time ever, the August temperature hit 42 degrees. John Campell leaned his head against the aircon-cooled window of the Maglev shuttle as it ran parallel with the freeway and looked at the empty cracking asphalt. It was cars he missed most.  At 21, so many years ago, that metallic blue Tigra had been his power and his freedom. His grandchildren didn’t miss cars at all. As the elevated track crossed the causeway over tidally sodden land he looked down at the empty places where he used to walk, go to school, and play. And soon the city came into view, its silver SmartPaint dazzling in the 42-degree late afternoon sun.

How he wished it hadn’t been him; that he hadn’t been born, when he was, in 1990. Born to pass through what the media now dubbed “the bottleneck”, when everything changed. How he wished it wasn’t his generation that was paying the price for mending the planet. After the It had taken a tough alliance between the Moralez administration in the US and the Fanoniste governments abroad to create a blueprint a frightened and reluctant world would follow.

Still there was money to be made out of saving the planet. And GaeiaTek was making its share. He transferred from the shuttle to a company bike and made his way to the conference room. As he pedalled, he rehearsed his presentation on algal seeding for carbon sequestration off the Ecuador coast

.Was this simplicity the essence of grace?

 

Experimentation and growth

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Around 2014 I began to experiment. In one story, for example, I tried to describe the same event from the point of view of two different protagonists. I also explored more complex, and not necessarily likeable, characters, and to read more adventurously. My first whimsical experiments with what you might call fabulism and slipstream originate from this period.

Slipstream is a kind of non-realistic fiction that crosses conventional genre boundaries between science fiction, fantasy, and literary fiction.

Fabulism is the intrusion of fantastical and mythological elements into a realistic setting.

The slipstream probably originates from a childhood fed by science fiction. The fabulism derives from my lifelong fascination with myth. There’s a particular sensation I have when I write this kind of story – I can feel the air blowing free and wild, and writing it is a guilty pleasure. It always feels like something I’m doing just for fun. And I never think they’re really “serious” until I’ve put them away in my bottom drawer and let them germinate. The tale I published in this genre, Interstices, was first drafted in 2014. Oddly, my science fiction and fabulist stories have been the most successful. Four of my seven publications are in those categories. Yet it’s my socially-grounded writing that I consider more important, though only one of them has so far been published.

The next big change, in 2015, the year I got published, was triggered by joining the University of Iowa Writers Programme MOOC (Massive Open Online Course). I’ve already blogged about what I learned from this so I won’t cover it again.  I was resistant to this change at first because it was a turn to more complex literary writing. Literary fiction had always seemed rarefied and elitist. And yet I’m drawn to complexity, to layers in stories, and to motifs that repeat. The earlier work travelled in too much of a straight line from start to end.  This made the tales “flat”.

I discovered the writer can forge a sense of deeper meaning and immersion through the artifice of repetition and by having different characters, situations and timelines echo and resonate with each other. Chains of words can create the illusion of causal connection or bridges between elements that are, in the prosaic world, distinct and incommensurable.

A tutor in the University of Iowa MOOC told me “If we are just worried about the pieces to make the events line up for some big climactic moment, then we might not be paying attention to building a world that is primed for resonances, for moments that, when plucked, make other moments spring back to life, thereby creating vibrations across the entire narrative world.”

To illustrate what I mean about layers of complexity, this is a diagram I drew to help plan the plot threads for a story, Short Circuit, I’m currently working on:

Short Circuit

The setting is the Abbey of Lindisfarne at the time of the Viking raid in the year 793. The green line traces the life of the protagonist, a monk called Billfrith, who is illuminating a manuscript for the King of Northumbria. Woven through this life are abrupt changes, short-circuits, which have to do with a tension between construction and destruction. Billfrith associates the destruction with iron and his old life as a blacksmith’s apprentice; and the construction with the knowledge his current contemplative life in the Abbey allows him to develop. There is another text which captures his attention, describing alchemical experiments. He experiences a revelation just before the attack forces him to confront his past and drives him to desperation. Motifs of iron and fire are woven throughout the story.

So my writing has definitely changed. But is it better?

 

The challenge of grace – back to simplicity?

The post on the Metaphorosis website offers very useful detail about what an editor is looking for: a strong opening, quality prose, and a satisfying and appropriate ending. Quality prose, the editor says, often works on two levels at once.  So I’m on the right lines there. Other major reasons for rejection are:

  • Awkward backstory, info-dump
  • Grammar
  • Character not credible or distant
  • No story/resolution. “A surprising number of stories don’t have enough story to them. That is, they’re slice-of-life pieces, or vignettes, or for some other reason add up to ‘So what?’”

I’m pretty confident I’ve learned how to do all of those things. But the editor’s stricture that quality prose is “not a question of adornment, but of grace” rang a warning bell.  Was this me? An overly-literary fascination with complexity? Certainly, some of my readers have warned me against big words and subtle turns.

Yeats once expressed his aim as being to “think like a wise man but communicate in the language of the people.” I applaud that aim.  I was reminded of the subtle power of simplicity recently reading the gorgeous Palm of the Hand Stories by Yasunari Kawabate. In his 1968 Nobel Prize lecture Kawabata said, referring to Japanese art, “The heart of the ink painting is in space, abbreviation, what is left undrawn.”  His writing is as spare as a Zen drawing. For example, this description from his story Thunder in Autumn: “It was early autumn, when the young girls returned from the sea and went walking about the town like fine chestnut horses”.

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One of the forms I enjoy writing is very short 100-word flash fiction. This enforces that Zen discipline of using what’s left unsaid. I wonder if maybe I should apply the same discipline to my longer works. Deciding that the only way to test whether I write with grace was to submit something to Metaphorosis, which has a 2.4% acceptance rate, I was rejected.

Please let me know what you think.

Please let me know what you think.

Friday Fictioneers – A Bundle of Sticks

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PHOTO PROMPT © J Hardy Carrol

You prepare a bed on the drowsy veranda and carry me to it, like a bundle of sticks. With meticulous tenderness you settle my wasted limbs. But I sense you feel something missing from our love, now there’s no longer any cause for jealousy.

I was beautiful, wasn’t I? Admirers threw flowers onto the stage, and you burned in a rage of uncertainty. The doubt bound you to me. Can you cope with tranquillity? Will you stay with me to the end?

 

Friday fictioneers is a weekly challenge set by Rochelle Wisoff Fields to write a 100-word story in response to a photo prompt. You can find other stories here

Fancy sharpening your skill with writing exercises? The Scrivener’s Forge offers a new exercise every month to hone one aspect of your craft. Take a look at this month’s exercise on character, desire, and suspense here

 

Friday Fictioneers – Tourist Trap

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PHOTO PROMPT © Jennifer Pendergast

There’s whimsy and then there’s madness. In the square, the giant escapement was cute. We sat by the fountain and savoured the play of sun through the holes. Hands big as railway signals indicated the museum and the train station. Disquieting.

We chose the museum. You learn a lot about a community through its relics. The face of a Gulliver-sized fob watch was set into the cobbles of the plaza.

“What time is it?” I asked a whiskered citizen in a top hat.

He capered. “Tea time, of course. It’s always tea-time.”

The only train out was at High Noon.

 

Friday fictioneers is a weekly challenge set by Rochelle Wisoff Fields to write a 100-word story in response to a photo prompt. You can find other stories here

Fancy sharpening your skill with writing exercises? The Scrivener’s Forge offers a new exercise every month to hone one aspect of your craft. Take a look at this month’s exercise on character, desire, and suspense here