Friday, 28 January 2011

What do rejection letters really mean

I’m quite an expert in this field. I used to keep all my rejection letters until I could no longer climb over them all to get to my desk. The paper cuts on my knees were awful.

I had to buy a shredder because I risked dislocating my thumbs every time I ripped a rejected story into tiny pieces (because as we all know perfectly well if you put your rejected story in the bin whole the dustmen will find it, read it and laugh at you).

It’s the same thing that makes you put ten feet of sellotape round your envelope when you send a story in – just in case the envelope should accidentally fall open and every postman between here/there and London/Dundee will die laughing at your nerve.

Sometimes, if you’re lucky, you’ll get a comment with a rejection. What exactly do these comments mean?

First of all I’ll give you a writer’s interpretation (not all writers will agree with this, but I know some who do) and then I’ll give you the Real Meaning, the one you should take notice of.

We enjoyed reading your story, but:

It gave us all a right laugh. We were rolling round the office. We simply couldn’t believe anyone had the nerve to submit such crap.

Real meaning – they enjoyed reading your story, but it didn’t quite hit the spot.

The plot wasn’t strong enough:

It gave us all a right laugh. We were rolling round the office. We simply couldn’t believe anyone had the nerve to submit such crap.

Real meaning – you hadn’t written a strong enough plot.

The characters were too unbelievable:

It gave us all a right laugh. We were rolling round the office. We simply couldn’t believe anyone had the nerve to submit such crap.

Real meaning – you hadn’t made your characters believable.

We found the main character too unsympathetic:

It gave us all a right laugh. We were rolling round the office. We simply couldn’t believe anyone had the nerve to submit such crap.

Real meaning – they didn’t like your main character. The readers wouldn’t be able to empathise with them.

It was too predictable:

It gave us etc etc (oh you know the chorus by now).

Real meaning – they knew what was going to happen. Saw it coming a mile off and the reader would too. We all know the disappointment of getting a couple of paragraphs into a story and knowing how it will end and editors do not want disappointed readers.

So what should you take home from these comments? If they enjoyed reading your story, but it wasn’t quite right then at least you know you’re on the right track. Maybe they’ve simply had too many with the same theme lately, or bought one with a similar plot.

As far as the other comments go, you can look at your story and see how you could improve it. Could you make the plot stronger? Can you pep up your characters and make them real? Can you do something to that bad-tempered old main character to make them likeable? Or at least give them a damn good reason for being bad-tempered/bitchy/bitter? Could you change the ending to surprise the reader?

And what about that gem - We look forward to seeing more of your work:

Yeah, when hell freezes over (they hate me!) OR Please send us everything and anything you’ve got – now and do it fast because we are waiting… (bored fiction editor drumming fingers on empty desk, chin resting in hand waiting impatiently for your next submission).

Real meaning – they would like to see more of your work. When you next have a story you think would suit them and it has pressed all the necessary buttons on their guidelines, send it in!

Giving you a reason for rejection isn’t an invitation to revise a story and send it back. If they want you to revise it and resubmit it, they will ask you to do so. But there is nothing to stop you taking their comments on board, improving your story and sending it elsewhere.

Given the volume of stories that editors receive, the fact that they give you a reason at all is hopeful. It shows they read your story and if it’s been gone a while before it comes back, it almost certainly means that it has gone to the second readers.

Of course it may have been lost down the back of the radiator or used to mop up spilled coffee or to line the cage of the office hamster, but in most cases you will hear something.

Not all editors give a reason. You are not the only one getting standard rejection letters. Whether you’ve been writing for them for 30 years or 30 minutes if it is usual to send out a standard rejection letter, that is what you will get.

As for rejection letters with encouraging comments – I kept/keep mine. My knees are in no danger from those, but I treasure them.

Sunday, 23 January 2011

That's the way to do it!

Before I say another word, if you’re looking for magazine guidelines and latest news, then you need look no further than Womag’s excellent blog here.

And for writing competition news, pop over to Sally’s Writing Calendar
here and Patsy’s blog here.

I get about a bit, sat here on my not inconsiderable bum and I’ve noticed a few recurring questions popping up and I thought I’d tackle a few of them.

But be warned. This is going to be Daily Eekish – you know, you get all excited when you read, “Earth to have two suns next year” and when you read the article you find out we might have two suns sometime in the next million years - perhaps.

I’m going to tell you what I know and what I do, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that what I do is right, okay? That I believe is what is known as a disclaimer. So when you see my headline up there “That’s the way to do it” – it might not be. With me?

I can’t tell you how to write a story, but I can tell you how to present it – at least for magazines.

First of all I’ll cover what I know and I’d call these the golden rules. A4 paper, clear print Times New Roman 12 on one side of the paper only, wide margins, double spacing and right hand margin never justified.

So set up your story like that and you won’t be giving fiction editors headaches and that is always a good start. Make your work easy on the eye, easy to read and you’re over the first hurdle.

This is where the uncertainty creeps in. Do you indent paragraphs? Not if you’re writing for My Weekly you don’t. But if you write for them, you’ll know that anyway.

I always indent. I can’t help it. I think it looks better and I can read it back easier, but that little Format facility up there on your top bar means you can do it however you like and change it when you’ve finished. Just remove the tabs.

Speech marks. Double or single? I’ve always used double for speech, single for thought or speech within speech. But Take a Break and Fiction Feast do it the other way round. I don’t think they like indents either. Rather than chopping and changing how I do things, I do it my way then Edit Replace and Format Tabs.

So you’ve submitted a story with the wrong speech marks. Should you panic? No (but you probably will because that seems to be the nature of most writers - we're all Corporal Jones at heart). Most magazines, once a story is accepted, will ask for an electronic copy and if your set up is wrong, they’ll ask you to change it.

However, if the magazine in question has produced guidelines which specifically state how they like a story to be presented and you do it differently – ssseeeess (sucking breath through teeth – ouch, shouldn’t have done that) – you are in effect saying you haven’t read their guidelines.

Title page? Should you or shouldn’t you? I know some very successful writers that don’t and some that do. I’ve always done a title page when submitting hard copy. On it I put the title, my by-line and my name, address and the word count.

If you don’t do a title page, then you need to put that information on the story itself. Adding your email address is a good idea too.

At the end of my story I put the word count again and the copyright sign © I don’t know if it’s necessary to do the ©, but I do. From the first time I sent something off that little © made it real for me.

Covering letter? Again that seems to be a matter of choice. I know writers that don't and writers that do. I do. I doubt there is a fiction editor out there who will say "I'm not reading that story - they did/didn't send a covering letter, pah!"

But what about the little details? One space after a full stop or two? Well I always used to put two, but these days I just use one. And if it’s a problem, as I said before – edit, replace – well it works if you’re changing two spaces to one, but perhaps not so well the other way round.

And to show something in italics do you underline it or actually use italics? That is a difficult one. Usually it is clear which words need to be italicised without doing anything, but I tend towards using italics if I feel it needs to be shown.

Do you need a row of *** between scenes? Sometimes. I know that’s not an answer, but it’s the best one I can give you. I think if you are jumping through time, the *** or whatever you choose to use, can be useful. Generally I leave an extra double space.

I was once told off by a fiction editor because of my over use of exclamation marks. She said she was sure fiction editors in the UK would thank her for pointing out to me the error of my ways. Was I miffed? Yes I blinking well was. Did I stop using so many exclamation marks? Yes I blinking well did.

What you do need to be is consistent in your use of speech marks, spaces, font etc. You don’t want to do anything that will distract an editor from your story by annoying them with sloppy presentation.

For a while many years ago (pre-computer) after my ex-office golfball (oh how I loved my golfball) typewriter went to god, I used a cheap portable typewriter. I couldn’t afford a new ribbon for it and I was sending off appalling copy. I’m pretty sure some words were topless. But some of those stories were taken.

I’m not saying that if you send in rubbish copy now you’ll get published, but what I am saying is that if you have written a good story that a fiction editor and the second readers like, the fact that you’ve used the wrong kind of speech marks or too many spaces after your full stops isn’t going to stop them buying it.

I’d be interested to know how you do things.

Tuesday, 18 January 2011


I’ve been consumed. Consumed I have been. Not as you might think by a gigantic fire-breathing dragon which later spat me out, nor indeed by a ravenous whale, but by a magazine.

So what is this magazine of which I speak? The My Weekly Celebration Special. It was My Weekly’s 100th birthday last year and to mark the occasion they brought out the special.

I didn’t see it in the shops so hadn’t bought it, but I went on a trip to the D C Thomson online shop and struck gold.

I’d already bought myself The Very Best of Black Bob. I'd also treated myself to the Bunty for Girls Classic Annual (now reduced to £3.99) – I even remembered a couple of the stories in there from the first time round. And if you are a Bunty fan you’ll enjoy
Lynette’s post about it.

Annuals were always a big part of Christmas when I was a child. I loved them with a passion. But as always, I digress.

After Christmas I revisited the D C Thomson shop and saw that they were selling the Celebration Special. So I popped one in my basket, as you do and yesterday it arrived along with the rest of my order.

The Celebration Special is packed with fascinating snippets about all sorts from fashion to film stars. And pictures of the likes of – drool – my three favourite Davids, Essex, Bowie and Cassidy.

There are eleven stories in there and I feel really privileged that one of mine is among them. The writers were asked to name their “inspirational woman” and mine, you won’t be surprised, was Claire Rayner.

The special originally sold for £4.99 but is now on sale for £2.49 (£4.99 outside the UK). There are loads of other bargains to be had whether you’re looking for a bit of nostalgia or a calendar or just something to read.

Find the sale
here, but they also sell all manner of gifts from Dennis the Menace T shirts to Desperate Dan mugs.

Thursday, 13 January 2011

Road - Hah!

I’ve been off on adventures this week. Unintentionally. It was Billy Connolly’s fault. His is the current voice of the Sat Nav.

Now I know the man is a comedian, but did he really have to lead us down a road – hah! Road? I’ve seen public footpaths more roadworthy - a road that led nowhere?

Instinct told us it would be daft to go down there. The sat nav told us it would take us to our destination.

It was narrow. It was muddy. It was full of holes. There weren’t any passing places so if we’d met something coming the other way we’d have been stuffed.

As we bumped along, I wished we had one of those 4x4 things suited to driving through fields or even a tractor. There was an ominous twangggg from the bottom of the car. It kept going though.

Eventually we reached a crossroads with footpaths going off in the other three directions and a sign saying “Road ahead unsuitable for motor vehicles.” You don’t say?!

Luckily the road (and I use the term loosely) widened slightly and there was a small pond in the middle, or perhaps it was a large puddle, but whatever the body of water was, my beloved turned the car round in it and we didn’t sink without trace.

I was in the back of the car with a very car sick little girl! Poor little thing. It was no wonder the way we were bouncing along.

After a while back on a proper road with tarmac and road markings and everything, we were told to turn down yet another dodgy looking road. But there were houses and cars and it all looked fine until it told us to turn left.

Where the left turn should have been was a sign “Road Closed” and yet another so-called road which looked more like a track across a field.

Thanks to the sat nav, it took us an hour to drive 12 miles. And when it said we had reached our destination, we were halfway up a hill on a dual carriageway in the middle of town with high concrete walls on both sides.

Yeah, thanks a lot, Billy!

The sat nav has got us out of a lot of tricky situations over the years, but yesterday we learned that you can’t trust it 100% and it’s always handy to have a map book in the car!

So there’s another writing tip for you. Even if you know where you’re going, you still have to be able to get there without coming to a dead end halfway through! So if your instinct tells you something is wrong, it might be a good idea to listen to it.

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Does it have to be perfect?

I took up knitting again just after Christmas because I find it soothing. I made a couple of mistakes in the first few rows, but decided to carry on regardless and make the hat (nice pattern from Woman’s Weekly) and hope no one else noticed.

I can hear my mum’s voice at this point when I tried on a jumper she’d just made me. “Take it off!” She’d spotted a tiny mistake in the complex pattern on the back and wanted it back. She wanted to unpick it and do the back again. The thought of undoing all that work gave me the horrors. I said it didn’t matter, I hadn’t noticed and to be honest I couldn’t see what she meant and I didn’t think anyone else would either. “But I would,” she said. And so she had it back and redid it.

The mistakes I’d made in the hat bugged me despite telling myself it gave the thing character and I knew that practice or not, I’d always hate the finished article. Then I dropped a stitch. I can’t pick up dropped stitches. I’ve never been able to. So I had no choice but to unravel the lot and start again.

Sometimes we have to do that with our writing. We know something is wrong way back at the beginning, but starting over again is such a pain and hard work. Worth it though. All that knitting I did before I had to start again was practice, getting back into the hang of it, getting the tension right.

That is why it’s good to write regularly, so you stay in the swing of it and it becomes easier to pick up and put down.

My mum was an expert knitter. She always said she wasn’t at all creative or artistic, but I would tell her what sort of jumper I wanted and she would adapt a pattern or not use one at all and produce exactly what I’d asked for. And my dad, who couldn’t read music, played the piano beautifully – with both hands I might add, something that I never managed (except for the one my dad called The Monkey’s Wedding*). The words “You hum it, son, and I’ll play it,” could have been spoken by my dad, if I’d been a son and inclined to hum.

A knitting pattern or a piece of music is like a plot isn’t it? It’s all there, the beginning, middle and end and it all hangs together nicely – as long as we put it all together properly. There should be no holes in the knitting, no missed notes in the music.

Anyway I finished the hat. I made the bobble far too big – perhaps I should have used a flattened cigarette packet like my mum used to for the pom-pom template instead of a flattened mince pie box (well to be fair I didn’t use the whole box!). I’m not happy with it. If it was a story it would have been deleted.

I’ve put it down to experience and hope that the next thing I knit will be better. Same with writing. Always strive to be better even if it means going back and starting all over again.

So does it have to be perfect? As perfect as you can make it, yes. My hat has received compliments, but that is people being polite, trying to spare my feelings. My mum would have been honest. So be careful who you ask to give an opinion on your writing. Don’t ask someone who will tell you what they think you want to hear.

Which is of course another subject altogether – showing your work to other people. I’ll shut up now.

*The Monkey’s Wedding. I have no idea what the proper name for this is and I’ve tried Googling it with no joy. I can’t even hum it to you. All I know is that it isnt the tune that goes with a song I've found on You Tube called The Monkey's Wedding. So if anyone out there knows what I’m talking about……

Monday, 3 January 2011

What Do I Do? The Uncertainty of Being a Writer

Absolute Beginners. From what I can see they fall into three main camps.

Absolute Beginner 1: The Eager Submitter

Writes a story/novel/screenplay, grabs their copy of the Writers’ and Artists’ – the ancient dog eared one the library were selling for 10p on their bargain shelf – and goes through it marking “possibles” with their highlighter pen. Sends off their first three chapters to a publisher then from the moment it drops in the postbox, waits for a phone call/letter/email begging for the rest of the manuscript. Here they divide into two subs. The one who starts writing something else and the one who stops writing and will not write until they have their contract in their hand (just in case the publisher wants them to do revisions). Both expect to hit The Big Time.

Absolute Beginner 2: The Shrinking Violet

Writes a story/novel/screenplay and decides no one in their right mind is going to want to publish it, so they put it away in a drawer. But the Writing Bug is there, so they start writing something else telling themselves that this time, it is the one, but halfway through they lose heart. What is the point? That effort is hidden away and the next one begins because the writing itch has to be scratched and so it goes on for years, sometimes decades. Absolute Beginner 2 may never find the courage to send anything off and they won’t even let their nearest and dearest read their work. How many wonderful books, I wonder, are out there hidden away in drawers?

Absolute Beginner 3: The Eternal Planner

Buys all the books on writing, reads all the blogs, spends hours in the library/bookshop checking titles and browsing the internet visiting publishers’ websites. What is popular? What is not? Who publishes the kind of thing they want to write. They have a white board on the wall covered in plans, names and dates. There are post-it notes everywhere, folders with character sketches and pictures of people who look like their characters. With all this research and planning they don’t actually have time to write anything and by the time they get round to it, the fire has gone out and they decide to start something new and so the research begins again.

So where was I as an Absolute Beginner? Well if I’m honest I was mostly Absolute Beginner 1. Although I didn’t send off my very first efforts I did write a novel of black magic and Satanic rituals when I was 19 – I sent off my synopsis and sample chapters and Robert Hale asked to see the whole manuscript, so I sent it off.

And like Absolute Beginner 1 I waited for the acceptance. Which of course didn’t come. Lesson learned? Well almost. A whole heap of rejections later, my lesson was learned. My confidence was in shreds, but my lesson was learned.

The lesson being to always have something Out There so that when a rejection (or twelve) comes in, you still have hope. And eventually one day I did get an acceptance letter and shortly afterwards I learned lesson no. 2.

Just because you have sold 1 story, 10 stories, 100 stories, 1000 stories, you have not earned the automatic right to be published and you have not found the path to riches. You are only as good as the last story/book/screenplay you submitted.

This post is about uncertainty. Crisis of confidence. Call it what you will.

These days I sit down to write a story and halfway through a little niggling voice (the same little voice that in the beginning used to urge me to submit) starts to tell me it isn’t good enough. So I rewrite. And rewrite. And sometimes I end up scrapping it or putting it to one side because by then I have rewritten it to death. Sometimes I only write a line before deciding no one will want to read it.

And there are the novels I have planned, researched and plotted – but never really started.

I think we are all absolute beginners in a sense. Every piece of work you write is a new beginning.

There are fine lines between the eager submitter, the shrinking violet and the eternal planner. I regularly leap between them all and I’d guess quite a few of you are the same. Either brimming with confidence or drowning in doubt.

I do the same with blog posts. I write them and then delete them before they ever leave the safety of Word.

So perhaps it is time to banish uncertainty, to grasp hope and hang on to it and maybe I will start hurling posts at you willy nilly until you beg for mercy! Or perhaps I should proceed with caution and not inundate cyberspace with my ramblings. Maybe I just need to read more books on the subject…

I think really you need to be a mixture of all three, but in moderation. You have to do your research, but not to the detriment of your writing time. You have to submit, but not until your work is ready. And you have to submit full stop. Faint heart never won a box of chocolates or whatever the saying is.

If you haven’t sent anything off yet, but have been writing for a while, DO IT! There is nothing to fear. Send it off and move on. Go on. Do it now. What are you waiting for? Go on…..

Sunday, 2 January 2011

A Blue and Very Relieved Post

Noah made his entrance at 2.35 on the morning of New Year’s Day, the first baby of the year at Colchester hospital. He was 12 hours old and back at home having a cuddle with Grandad and Big Sis when I took this photo.

I could say so much more, about the severe problems facing maternity services in this country, about rediscovering the calming properties of knitting, about worry being the best diet aid there is, but I’m not going into one of my waffles.

My next post will be about writing – mwahahaha – you have been warned.