My writing, Publishing and Self Publishing, Writing

They Loved My Writing – But Turned it Down. When Constructive Criticism is More Valuable Than Publication

I’m not going to list out all the famous authors who had to persist through dozens of rejections until their magnum opus was snapped up. And I’m not going to name that Decca manager who rejected the Beatles as a passé guitar group on their way out. I’m not even going to dwell on Stephen King’s much-quoted wall spike; the spike that replaced the nail on which he hung his initial rejection slips. All of the above finally triumphed; their talent shone through and was acclaimed by all. I’m not there yet!

I recently wrote a short story, about 6,500 words, and I think it’s great. I put my heart, soul, and lots of editing and revisions into the story and was really pleased with the result. Imagine my excitement when I received an email from the editor of the respected publication to which I submitted, who agreed with my humble self-assessment!

There in the email were words that sang to me:

This story was magnificent…
The plot and language were incredible and I really enjoyed reading it…
This was one of the most enjoyable stories I’ve read this period thus far…

High praise! But I’m telling you the story the wrong way round. This was the PS to the main body of the email, which briefly started with the dreaded words; my story was up against stiff competition, there was an amazing response, hundreds of great entries, and mine didn’t quite make it this time etc., etc.

Of course, I was crushed, and had to work through the feelings you must come to terms with as a writer; the sting of rejection, the rush of anger that your creation has been judged wanting. I didn’t even properly read the email at first, just skimmed the first couple of sentences, then left it be to lick my wounds for a day or so and gain some distance. I was that certain my story was really good, you see!

This would have been my longest short story published to date, in a genre I both love as a reader and enjoy writing in. I saw it as a foot in the door of audiences that would be interested in the Sci-Fi novel I’m writing. So I wallowed in hopelessness for a day or so.

Then I sat down to read the response properly. I realised that this wasn’t an outright rejection, and more importantly, it held both the awesome praise I’ve quoted above, plus, most importantly, some SOLID AND JUSTIFIED EDITORIAL SUGGESTIONS AND ENCOURAGEMENT.

I lapped up the words of praise, but STILL didn’t fully take in the suggestions and feedback. It was great news that this editor encouraged me to make a few tweaks and resubmit the story, it truly was. Yet I was internally nodding along, thinking, “Ok, if that’s what you want me to do to publish my story, I agree, they’re not major changes, I can live with them etc.”

I still hadn’t really absorbed the wisdom of the feedback, but I got there in the end! Here’s the thing – if my story had been published as it was, it wouldn’t have been the absolute best I could do – I saw that the improvements suggested by the editor were valid, and I quickly jotted down some ideas to make it a tighter, more focused story, a better read and a better piece of writing.

The suggestions improved the pace of my story,  which would also be stronger if I didn’t switch POV towards the end. This editor, bless them, had taken precious time out from judging hundreds of 5K plus short stories to write me an invaluable paragraph, and also left the door open, no, encouraged me to resubmit, and to submit more work!

I wrote back, thanking that editor, promising to make some tweaks and resubmit. I’m very grateful for their time and experience, and for the reminder that the real common denominators amongst successful artists, including the ones I mentioned at the start of the post, are persistence, refinement, and continuous improvement.

In Danse Macabre, Stephen King refers to the “dull knife” of talent – we all need to whet our “talent knife” continuously, honing it with persistence,  sharpening its dull edge with practice and feedback. We are all born with a knife, it’s down to us to make it sharp and useable for our art.  Very few of us are born with their artistic knife pre-sharpened, King tells us,  “..although a few are handed almighty big ones; the name we give to the artist with the big knife is “genius.

So, I’m sharpening that knife and rewriting my short story this weekend. Watch out for the sparks from the whetstone!

And The Buntings Flew, My writing, The Battle of Watling Street, The Bondage of The Soil, Writing

June Roundup: flash fiction published and revisiting the draft of my first novel: it does get better!

Felixstowe beach
Felixstowe Beach

May and June have been busy, momentous even, and I’ve struggled to find time to write and update the blog. I did, however, snatch the time for a quick trip to the seaside; we are pretty much in the centre of the landmass of England, and the coast is a long drive in every direction, but we managed to get over to Felixstowe on the East coast during that blink-and-you-missed-it heat wave we had a few weekends ago.

I’ve also had a couple of pieces of flash fiction published recently; Uncle Clifford at Fifty Word Stories and Conditional at 101 Fiction. As usual, both are inspired by real life events, although “Conditional” has a nasty whiff of wish-fulfilment!  If you have the time, please grab a moment to visit these great flash fiction sites; I’m often inspired by the quality of the stories they feature.

I’ve also taken time, now a couple of months have gone by since its publication, to revisit The Battle of Watling Street, specifically to review how it reads to me, four or five months after I completed the last edits. I’m pleased with the result; the text is nice and tight, and I haven’t found any glaring historical anachronisms! I enjoy the characters and their voices, and I might be tempted to catch up with Dedo and Cata and follow their adventures after their escape from the destruction of Boudicca’s forces.

I’m currently working on the modern-day sequel to  Street, but emboldened, I revisited my first novel-in-progress, And The Buntings Flew which is around 50% through; I’ve parked it for now so I can finish my Sci-Fi novella, but it means the most to me, and I wanted to have a read through to refresh my memory ready for me picking it up again towards the autumn.

It was a revelation – the story is still great, the characters and descriptions still grip, but I was so long-winded in writing the action and “doing” scenes; just moving characters around in their world would take pages, and it made a really tense story with high stakes drag at times.

Anecdote time; when I was first asked to take minutes in a meeting, many years ago, I captured pretty much every word uttered, and turned in a whopping ten-pager instead of the usual one or two sides of notes and actions – the writing in my draft for Buntings, particularly where characters are acting, going about their business and driving the plot, has similar style faults. My writing inexperience shines through.

I shouldn’t have been surprised – the experience of completing my first novella really helped in tightening up dialogue, action scenes and just getting characters from A to B, and the whole process has come under some scrutiny from beta readers for Watling Street, and the results are there to be read. I’m writing more tightly, and coming to the point – my words have lost their flab and have muscle, exactly the result you expect from training and lots of practice. The good news is that I can sweep through the slow sections in “Buntings” and trim them considerably with relatively little pain; the total word count will take a hit though!

Have you had a similar experience when revisiting your earlier writing, maybe an unfinished draft you’ve picked up again recently?

My writing, Reading and Books, The Battle of Watling Street, Writing

Successful Historical Fiction – Interview with M.K.Tod

The themes and tropes that interest, inspire or worry us are timeless”

At her historical fiction blog, A Writer of History, author and blogger M.K.Tod (Mary) recently posed a series of questions to readers, and bloggers on the subject of what constitutes successful historical fiction.

The questions posed by Mary were:

  • What’s your definition of successful historical fiction?
  • What attributes are most important to you when designating a novel ‘successful historical fiction’.
  • Which authors do you think create the most successful historical fiction? (please restrict yourself to a small number of authors!)
  • What makes these particular authors stand out?
  • In your opinion, what aspects prevent a novel from being designated successful historical fiction?
  • Are famous people essential to successful historical fiction?
  • Does successful historical fiction have to say something relevant to today’s conditions?
  • What role does research play in successful historical fiction?
  • In your opinion, how are these elements critical to successful historical fiction? Characters. Setting. Plot. Conflict. Dialogue. World building. Themes.
  • Do you judge historical fiction differently from contemporary fiction?

I took up the challenge, and you can read my interview here.

If historical fiction is your thing, it’s fascinating to read the other responses to Mary’s questions, from a range of historical fiction authors. Such a seemingly simple question as “How do you define historical fiction?” is so difficult to pin down; my answer boils down to, “it depends!”

Mary has promised to pull together some insights from her series of interviews, which I look forward to reading and will post a link to here.