My fiction gets rejected a lot. Almost all of the time, in fact. I’ve been submitting short stories to literary magazines this year as a sideshow to editing two novels, and none of them have been accepted. I’ve no idea how many I’ve sent. Ten, maybe? I’m still waiting on some, but, statistically speaking, they’ll be negatives. I have submissions to several competitions outstanding, too. The chances of them returning anything positive are close to zero. I’m a hard sell. All writing’s a hard sell.
And that’s fine.
I actually enjoy receiving rejections. Each shaky-head email means I’ve successfully completed and submitted copy, and I certainly prefer someone turning me down to never responding at all. Fiction writing’s a grind slow and grueling enough to shame even the most repetitive MMOs, and it’s something you have to accept if you have serious designs on achieving any kind of recognition. It’s part of the job, an indelible aspect of writing life.
Fortunately, being rejected becomes easier the more frequently it occurs. Every kindly declination is an arrow in the eye when you first start subbing, but the disappointment deadens as they pile up. Years ago, when I was sending my first novel to agencies (on paper!) and the dreaded self-addressed envelopes started hitting the mat months later, each syllable was torturous, the destruction of a dream. Hope elsewhere. Thank you allowing. Doesn’t mean.
Now, though, I just shrug. I can tell what it is without even opening the mail. Only curiosity forces me to read them before releasing them to trash, just to see how that specific publication or agency frames their let-downs. They’re usually nigh on identical, for the record. The last one I received (yesterday) started with the words, “Thank you for giving us”. That only ever means one thing.
Frequency certainly does soften the blows of rejection, but I’m also lucky enough to run an editorial business and have experienced the other side. I’ve personally rejected many hopeful game writers. I understand why I have to do so, and therefore have at least some insight as to why the editors and agents who keep knocking me back have to do the same. These are pragmatic business decisions, and I’ve learned to see them as such.
There are three main reasons I reject a pitch. VG247, my day job, is a games site specializing in news, news-related features and guides. The queries we receive are usually instantly dismissible (“Do yu hove any psitions writing news? I’d be really good it!”), but some are great. We reject almost everything. Here’s why.
- It’s the “wrong” content. This is the primary reason we reject writers. The pitch may be strong, and we have faith in the writer to produce good copy (even if we don’t, we can always edit), but we just don’t care about the content. Will it bring us traffic, revenue or acclaim? No? Then we can’t buy it.
- It’s a base we’ve already covered. We get this regularly, especially from established journalists working for smaller sites. “Do you need anything on Game du Jour?” We do, but it’s in hand. Thanks, but no.
- The writing sucks ass. Any long-term editor (any decent one, anyway) can tell immediately if someone can write. By “write,” I don’t mean “win a Pulitzer”. I’m talking about relatively accomplished grammar, punctuation and sentence construction. Creative flair is a secondary consideration. I know grown adults in the games media still incapable of using capital letters correctly, and don’t get me started on commas. Video game journalism is generally bad, but we do try to keep the bar as high as possible on slim resources. You have to be able to write decent English to interest us.
I’ve never been involved in the selection process for a literary magazine or agency, but, based on the endless notes I’ve read from agents on submissions and why they reject, it seems the reasoning behind saying no (and yes) is similar. There’s little personal about it, at least in the realm of the debut author. People either want the words or they don’t, and they hardly ever want the words.
That’s just the way it is. No piece I write is a waste. Every rejection is increased experience, because I had to create something to receive it. As long as I’m writing, published or otherwise, I’m taking another tiny step on the ridiculous road to publication. Someone, somewhere. is reading the words, even if they only make it through the first few sentences before engaging their stock rejection machine. It doesn’t matter. I wrote and someone read. You made it to the end of this, right? Thank you. I’d call that a win, however small. And sometimes that’s acceptance enough.
It’s normal for writers to succumb to the style of the books they read. Logically, most (all?) readers and writers will have “road to Damascus” moments as they work the way through the early part of their reading careers, whereby certain books will become life-changing events. The novels I read in my early twenties were especially influential to my formative writing, almost to the point of claustrophobia. Certain authors trapped me, jailed me. So authoritative were they in relation to my lack of experience and education, and so enamoured was I with their work, that avoiding them in my own writing was impossible. They were in control. I had no choice.
The drawling vocabulary and laconicness of Queer, Junkie and other early Burroughs novels, for instance, left such an impression on me that my fiction would be forever marked, not specifically by content, but by the emotional impact and thrill of passages about a gay heroin addict spending his days staring at the tip of his shoe, or by the baffling construction of Interzone. I couldn’t believe these books even existed. The excitement of discovering Jack Kerouac left me similarly breathless, as it did with Brett Easton Ellis, Irvine Welsh, Tom Wolfe, Patrick McCabe, Cormac McCarthy and the predictable rest. These authors, with their violence, ambiguous sexuality and relentless maleness, kept me locked in a cell for years. Being a twenty-something man trying to write in the face of something like Naked Lunch is a humbling experience.
Me-tooism is hardly restricted to writing, of course, but the form of a young writer’s first books and stories will likely be moulded by the media they consume. It’s hardly surprising that so many novice authors attempt to write “the next Harry Potter,” or have aspirations to “be” another Stephen King.
But not me. I don’t feel trapped anymore. Over the last three years I’ve written a large body of fiction (relative to my own previous output, of course), and the amount I read continues to balloon. I now submit copy very regularly, whether it be short stories or novels, and I probably read more widely than ever before in terms of genre (or lack of it). I’m reading J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace at the moment, and while I’m enjoying it more than most books I’ve read in the last year (it’s as amazing as it’s supposed to be: read it if you haven’t), I have no desire at all, subconsciously or otherwise, to attempt to follow its path. There are no feelings of awe or jealousy or fear as I read, as there were with American Psycho and On the Road twenty years ago, and any negativity has been replaced with a glow of pleasure, of having the wherewithal to be able to consume, and ruminate on, a genuine work of art. Stepping into the dungeon of another writer’s experience now comes without the dread of the slamming door. The exit is open. I love the book, but it isn’t me, and that’s partly the reason I’m able to enjoy it so much. I’m free, in a way.
The quality of the literature I’m consuming hasn’t changed, even if the quantity has; I feel differently towards the book, not the opposite. Years of focus on expanding my knowledge of books and writing has put me in a different place to the young man, freezing in a bedsit, being blown away by the Beats. I have no problem admitting I have influences, but the novel I’m now editing and the stories I’ve been submitting this year feel different. This is my work, not something created in a damp corner of solitary confinement under the gaze of twentieth century jailers.
I didn’t even realise the prison’s gates had locked behind me. And now there’s sun on my face. It’s an unexpected turn, but it feels like progress.
Good news (for me, at least). The Baby Shoes flash fiction anthology has achieved its crowd-funding goal, meaning my next short story, titled CALL THEM, is confirmed for release. Four days remain on the Kickstarter, so you can still secure a discount copy at $5. It’ll cost $10 if you wait for launch.
CALL THEM is painful for me to read, as it focuses on financial instability and resultant family pressure. While compact, it does raise some of themes running through my current novel work, which is becoming less opaque in its blurring of fiction, memoir and potential near-future extrapolations. If you want to get an idea of what to expect from my longer pieces when (if) they appear, this would give a decent hint.
CALL THEM will be my second published piece of fiction. My third, a horror-action story based on the Achtung! Cthulhu universe, will be made available in the coming months.
This guest post was written by author and journalist Dave Owen. His debut novel, PANTHER, releases later this year. If you’re a fiction writer, aspiring or otherwise, and you’d like to contribute to Misery Guts with an entry about writing, the writing process, agents, publishers or whatever else, drop me a line.
The hardest thing about being a writer is feeling like a fraud at every turn. Whether you’re hammering out your finest words in the suspiciously damp corner of your bedroom or reading from your published novel to a room full of people, it’s rarely possible to silence that nagging whisper insisting that you, in fact, suck.
Although I had been carelessly stringing words together for many years, my writing career began in earnest when I started a Bachelor’s degree in Creative Writing at The University of Winchester. This largely entailed sharing my writing with twenty other people day-in-day-out, sometimes work that was improvised on the spot, incredibly rough, or woefully ill-advised.
That’s when the whisper started. You suck, it said with the malicious glee of a Disney villain. Everyone can tell.
It taunted me as I progressed into the second and third years of the degree, even as my grades got steadily better, as tutors singled me out for praise, as I began to wonder if I could make a real go of this writing thing. The whisper was always there. You suck.
I decided to stay on at Winchester to take a Master’s in Writing for Children, despite having to work 50 hours a week in a pet shop to finance it. In the two years it took me to complete the MA I saw my writing objectively improve. I attracted kind words – though nothing more – from some agents. Still I wondered daily if pursuing writing had been a spectacularly poor decision.
I kept working. I kept reading. I kept writing. You suck, said the whisper. But I refused to let it stop me.
Toward the end of the MA I was asked to help out with teaching first year students on the same BA I myself had taken. At first this was as assistant to the main tutor, but eventually I was given a few classes of my own.
There is little more effective way to make you feel a fraud than standing in front of a room full of teenagers and presuming to tell them how to write.
I saw nothing but disdain in their eyes as I delivered my supposed wisdom. I imagined them meeting in huddles outside of class, cursing my name, bemoaning my lack of talent and knowledge, wondering how in heck they had been saddled with such a hack for a tutor.
In front of 30 students, the whisper found my ear. You suck.
Let’s skip ahead for the sake of brevity. I stopped teaching, but I kept writing. I got an agent. My writing was sent out, rejected (you suck), torn apart, edited, rejected again (you suck), started afresh, until eventually I found myself with a book deal. My debut novel, Panther, will be published on May 7th.
Last week I returned to The University of Winchester to give a talk to the current MA crop, and some members of the public, about getting my book published. I was ecstatic to see a bunch of familiar faces, students I had taught in their first year who had decided to take their studies further. I hadn’t sucked badly enough to put them off writing forever.
I talked about my book. I read a chapter aloud to people for the first time. Nobody fell asleep or hurled faeces. There was even a smattering of appreciative nodding.
I sat in the same place where I had been an undergraduate, a postgraduate, and a teacher, convinced of my own fraudulence at every step, and read from my published novel. This time there was no whisper.
After the reading a young lady approached me. ‘Your writing made me feel sick,’ she said. ‘In a good way.’
And for the first time I felt like a real writer.
This year marks the release of my second short story, a horror piece appearing in Achtung! Cthulhu: Dark Tales from the Secret War in the coming months.
Modiphius arranged a panel to promote the book at Dragonmeet in London just before Christmas. I was unable to attend, unfortunately, but fellow authors David J Rodger, Jonnie Bryant, Paul Cunliffe, Martin Korda, Jake Webb and John Houlihan all read from their stories and answered audience questions. You can, and should, listen to the entire thing below.
We should have some pre-order information for you soon.
00:00 – Introduction: John Houlihan
02.08 – David J Rodger: Shadow of the Black Sun
09:00 – Jonnie Bryant: Der Alptraum
14:32 – Paul Cunliffe: Hess, Mr Buckle and the Book
21:00 – Martin Korda: Terror of Tribec
25:34 – Jake Webb: The Curse of Cthulhu
31:05 – John Houlihan: Servant of the Dark
36:03 – Roundtable discussion and Q&A
If you’re in London this weekend, you should go along to the Achtung! Cthulhu: Dark Tales from the Secret War panel at Dragonmeet on Saturday. It starts at midday. Dark Tales from the Secret War is an anthology of short stories – including one of mine – based on P&P RPG Achtung! Cthulhu.
Everyone in the audience gets a free gift, immediately making attendance mandatory. You won’t get the free stuff if you don’t go.
I’m incredibly pissed off at not being able to attend (living in France is sometimes a barrier), but fellow authors John Houlihan, David J Rodger, Martin Korda, Paul Cunliffe, Jake Webb and Jonnie Bryant will all be on hand for readings, chat and questions.
Dark Tales from the Secret War will release in early 2015. We don’t have pre-order information as yet, but we’ll know more in the New Year. This is only my second piece of published fiction, and I’m excited and proud to be working with such a talented group.
So go along. You’ll enjoy it. Make up the shortfall caused by my ridiculous absence.
I haven’t updated this for a while, but things are happening. Should blog more regularly, I guess.
I’m now working on the second draft of my next book. The novel I completed in January is currently at agents. I’m sending it to the “everyone” list as my first choices all came back with rejections. I’ve been encouraged by several people to self-publish, but I’m undecided. I know it’s the twenty-first century, but I can’t help feel there’s still a stigma attached to going it alone. An agent would pick it up if it were good (commercial) enough, right?
After several conversations with published authors, the advice seems to be that the book’s probably in my “old voice” (there’s some truth to this) and could therefore be self-published without fear of ruining any future aspirations. That’s logical, but it’s no easy decision. The novel’s content, in my opinion, is going to make it difficult for any agent to say yes, but that doesn’t mean one won’t. Even though it’s about as noncommercial as burning a bin-full of money, it could still get picked up by a rogue agent (amazing) or a (very) small press.
I did get a personal note from one agent with her rejection, saying she didn’t believe she was “brave” enough to take it on. Fairly sure that’s a polite way of saying, “Both you and your book are completely mental,” but that’s certainly better than, “You’re a talentless cretin.” It may well mean it’s terrible, but it could mean anything. It may mean what it says, which is probably what it means. I should just let it go.
I’m going to keep pitching and getting rejected, and that’s fine. It’s supposed to be this way. I’m wary of self-pub. Certainly doesn’t feel like something I should be rushing at.
The new novel’s more lucid than the current pitch, so maybe it’ll be an easier sell. I actually doubt it, but I write what I write. Pointless pretending otherwise.
I’ve only just started working on the new book again after completing the first draft in the spring. I wrote it immediately after editing the previous one, which itself ran to eight drafts, and that came after binning The Ooning following a total rewrite and months of editing. All this is a side project to my VG247 job, and when I came to the end of the latest draft I was quite ill. This book is the longest I’ve written at 72,000 words (the novel I’m currently pitching is 57,000 and The Ooning was just over 50,000). I had to stop awhile. I took the entire summer away from books (I stopped reading, also), but I’ve worked through the opening pages this week and I’m feeling confident about entering the editing process proper.
More positively, my second short story is to be published later this year by Modiphius. Old games press acquaintance John Houlihan approached me with the opportunity to contribute to an anthology based on the pen-and-paper RPG Achtung! Cthulhu, and it was great to write some straight horror again. It seems as though there’s going to be some “author” activity around the launch, which will be a first for me, and I’m excited for that. Based on the fact my short fiction appears to be gaining more traction than the books, Fiona keeps politely suggesting I should switch from modernism to genre with my novel-writing. Maybe I will in the future, but a diversion seems folly based on a few rejections. I have a vision in which I believe. Someone, somewhere will eventually get it.
I’ve been writing a lot more on VG247 recently, and I’ve also completed a new short story, titled Call Them. I put it together as an application for The Word Factory’s 2014 apprenticeship, only to get a polite return email mail pointing out that only UK residents are applicable. Well done, me. This does, however, mean I have a fresh piece to pitch. I’ll start next week.
I finished editing my novel today after completing a first draft in mid-October. This is the first time I’ve reached this point with a book. It’s final at 58,000 words. Agent queries will start in the next few weeks.
The Ooning is no more. I made the decision to stop working on it in November after some pretty desperate soul-searching. Eventually, I had to be honest: I didn’t believe in it as a piece of work representative of my ambition or ability. I completely rewrote it over two major edits in 2012 and 2013, but it was “no good.” Some of the characterisation needed serious work and, regardless, I felt uncomfortable about trying to push a story for publication. I wrote the first draft ten years ago. I’m not that person. I don’t write narrative anymore. The Ooning wasn’t something I’d ever read. Logic, therefore, dictated that I needed to move on. It was a hard decision, but I just didn’t like it and nor would I ever. I invested many hundreds of hours in that book, but I had some good advice on how to deal with it mentally; none of it was wasted in terms of experience.
While it was tough at the time, I have no regrets about concentrating on the new project. The first draft flowed out in a way I’ve never experienced before with fiction, and I never felt a strong struggle with the editing process. The work reminded me of photo processing, especially on film. Any photographer will tell you how much easier it is to post-produce a properly exposed negative. Editing rough shots can be a nightmare and the end result will nearly always be compromised. I put down 60,000 words in three months late last year and it felt like walking. Editing, similarly, was enjoyable. Working on The Ooning was arduous, and in the end I realised I just didn’t want to do it. A valuable lesson, even if learning it produced some unpleasant head-in-hands moments.
I’m very pleased. The new book, I feel, represents a significant personal milestone. I wrote it, I edited it, I completed it and I’m happy with it, and now I can move directly onto prep for the third novel. I started notes over Christmas. My ideas are continuing to coagulate but the trend’s visible and I should have no problem putting it out this year.
I will not stop.
It just sort of came out. I don’t have a name for it yet, but the first draft’s done. Finished it today. Little of the drama I experienced with The Ooning, which is a traditionally structured story; this latest is modern and abstract. Now to finish The Ooning – edits which will likely involve a name-change – before coming back to the new draft in 2014. So. I wrote another book.
It’s like this. I have two current book projects and I need to make some decisions I’ve already made them. The Ooning has been through its beta got feedback from three people and I have enough to create the final rewrite. I know what’s wrong with it now. Beta was interesting as you’re always looking for correlation there’s a wow moment (two of the testers, the two that finished the entire thing, both said “wow” at the same point), and that’s fine. There’s a part which clearly doesn’t work and there’s some serious character stuff I need to address. And I need to redraft a bunch of shit. It’s going to take months.
The second project is the first draft of the second novel I started it because I was waiting for the beta to come through and it takes a while, you know. People have to read it, think about it, write about it. Books take so long. I’m thirty kay into this and I don’t want to stop the kids have been on holiday for two months and doing anything properly constructive’s been virtually impossible Dave’s gone and got himself an external desk I may do the same the summer holidays in France can last up to nine weeks. That’s a lot of can you play with me, daddy.
I don’t want to stop the draft but I have to finish The Ooning this year. I have four months left. As I said, I’ve already decided what to do but I’m not sure actually I am sure and this is it. I’m going to power through the draft, smack it up to wordcount as quickly as possible reckon I can get it done in three weeks if I beat out fifteen thousand a week. I know what I’m doing with it and I have flow even though I haven’t put any down for about two weeks I won’t have any problem picking up all planned out can get the draft bagged by the end of September. Then back to Ooning while I let that rest read it through again match to notes and push into the final version. I’d have three months to do it, polish it and actually finish the fucking thing over October, November and December. Then return to the second book in the New Year while I query Ooning. This is what I want to do.