Archive for the ‘Honing the Craft’ Category

By Jd5466 (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia CommonsI’m working with another extension writing class at school, an older group of Grade Six students this time, and I can’t help thinking that I’m learning more from the experience than they are.  Teaching kids in a formal setting (as opposed to teaching my own kids something at home, or delivering the curriculum that the teachers have set for me) makes me nervous, for several reasons; except for some units of early childhood education that I completed in my Playcentre days in New Zealand, I have no formal teacher training.  I’ve learned a few things, both formally and informally, over the years about writing, but I’m never sure at what level to pitch my lessons to the students.    On the days I run the class, the kids can’t get out of the classroom and into our little learning space fast enough, which should be (and is) gratifying to me.  But that leads me to another worry; what if the class I run is altogether too much fun, and they’re not learning anything from me at all?

On the other hand…what if they are learning things, but they’re the wrong things?  One thing I have learned is that almost

Ivan Aivazovsky [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

It was a dark and stormy night…

every ‘rule’ of writing can be broken, and with great effect, if you know what you are doing.  What if I tell them a rule, and they stick to it slavishly, only to have it stifle their writing careers in adulthood because they’ve trained themselves to write only in a certain way?  For example, can they never, EVER start a story with a description of the weather?  What if the weather is really, really important to the plot?  Writers’ blogs abound with examples of classic novels breaking this rule, George Orwell’s “1984” being an oft-cited example.

Or maybe I just worry too much.

It’s not all stress and worry and second-guessing myself, though; there are moments of magic too.  Hearing one student explain perfectly a new concept to another student who’d missed that particular mini-lesson.  Having one student approach me with a book in hand, point to a spot on the page, and say, “This word here – I like this word.  I want to use it in my story.  Is this the right way to do that?”  Giving them, not strictures on their use of language, but license to use it with constructive creativity, and seeing their look of surprise: “You can do that?”  Some days I think I should be paying the school for the privilege.

Just don’t tell the principal…


Recently I was asked to present a half hour workshop to secondary students at a local school on developing speculative fiction themes in writing.  As is my way, I said “Yes” first and worried about how I was going to do that later.

Our bunyip went shopping at the local plaza for Levis and an iPhone.

And I worried a lot.  Half an hour? To cover ALL of specfic? Give me half a year, maybe, and I might be able to come close to covering the subject.  And why me?  Where were my credentials? One creative writing diploma, one four year old national award and zero formal teaching qualifications do not an expert make.  I kept waiting for Neil Gaiman’s Fraud Police to burst through the door.

Once I’d drafted my presentation, I tried it out on a couple of my own kids.  The first fifteen minutes were taken up with my talking, and in the second fifteen minutes we tried our hand at brainstorming a speculative fiction story or two.  Dragons, bunyips and Vikings were mentioned.  Environmental and social themes were explored.  Declan pronounced the session “awesome”.  I took that as a win; at not-quite-fourteen, he is well past the stage when he thinks his mother’s every word is golden, so I was fairly confident he wasn’t just sucking up. It was a much better reaction than the last time I showed him a WIP, when he said, “What the hell is wrong with you?” (Although given my favourite genre, that too could be counted as a win).

Another thing I’d said “yes” to was running an extension writing group at the primary school at which I work (Hello? Fraud Police? Yes, they’re actually paying her to do it!). Bring on the next set of guinea pigs.

Evil megalomaniac penguin? Oh, wait…

I tried to impress on these young minds the desirability of original thought.  Don’t just write down the first thing that comes to mind, I counseled, because the first thing is likely to be something you’ve seen a million times before in books and movies.  This led to such gorgeously outrageous oddities as chocolate-breathing dragons and evil megalomaniac penguins toting machine guns that shoot marshmallows (‘cos chocolate-breathing dragons are allergic to marshmallows, dontcha know).  I had my frowny face on when they suggested in the next brainstorm a school camp, a lake to which all children were forbidden to go, a disobedient child who goes down to the lake and is never seen again…wasn’t this the plot of every second Goosebumps book ever written?  But then they busted out the giant fluffy bunny.  Mr Bunny offered to help search for the missing child, but it turned out – shock, horror! – that he was the villain all along.  Way to subvert expectations, Grade Sixes!

The workshop with the high school students was a different kind of fun.  The teacher had booked two speakers for the same day, and the kids had to choose between mine and a presentation on writing your first novel.  One young woman asked, “Which one has the violence?”

I raised my hand. “That would be me.”

Sure enough, when it came time to commence brainstorming, she started the ball rolling.  “Someone should die at the beginning.  And someone should die at the end.”

“Method of death?” I asked.

“Half-eaten,” she promptly replied.

“Well, in that case…” I started a list down the side of the whiteboard of what would be forbidden from our brainstorm.  No werewolves. No zombies. No vampires. No fanfic. And because we introduced unicorns to the plot, no rainbow jumping.

Although it went against a 21st century author ‘s every instinct, I had to advise the kids NOT to buy my book.

“Not unless you’re over 16,” I said.

“Not unless you’re over 18,” amended the teacher.

“Oh, but I’m going to read ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’, so I can’t imagine this book could be any worse than that,” said Little “Miss Everyone Must Die” (I’m pretty sure she only said that so she could have the sadistic pleasure of seeing her teacher cover her ears with her hands in despair).

It turned out that I had pitched the workshop too low for this articulate, deep-thinking group of kids.  There I was blathering on about characters, setting and conflict, and there they were chipping in on the theme.  With a post-apocalyptic fantasy setting, two deceased young princesses and a murderous unicorn (we never did nail down whether it was a rabid unicorn, were-unicorn or a unicorn under the sway of mind control courtesy of a secret third sister), they quickly identified the theme as the loss of innocence.

By the end of the session, we had everything sketched out except for the middle part of the plot. “That’s the part I always have trouble with,” one girl said sadly.  “I can work out the beginning, the end, I’m all over the themes, but I just don’t know how to progress the plot.”

I felt sad too.  I needed more than five minutes or half an hour to work through that problem, and even then I don’t know if I could have helped.

I have no idea if they enjoyed or benefited from the workshop or not.  They’re teenagers, so who could say? I know I had fun.  And they ‘paid’ me at the end in chocolate.

I’ve been asked a few times recently to give advice to aspiring young writers. Anyone asking me this question does so at

Stephen King – nearly let rejection beat him when he threw the manuscript for “Carrie” into the trash.

their peril, because I have a lot to say about commencing one’s writing career, and I will elaborate at length given the chance. And the lesson of today, younglings? Handling rejection. No doubt you’ll have seen the list going around on Facebook of the number of times Stephen King, J.K. Rowling and other mega-superstars of literature were rejected before achieving mega-superstardom, but I think that it never hurts to hear the message repeated from someone a little closer (OK, a lot closer) to the ground.

The topic came up in one of my crit groups, when we found ourselves engaging in a somewhat counter-productive competition to see who had amassed the most rejections for a single story before ultimately placing it for publication.  I think I won with 25.

Not all rejection letters are created equal.  Most are form rejections – a variation on “thanks, but no thanks”.  Some rejections are merely implied; for whatever reason, the publication to which you’ve submitted never responds. Some – arguably, the most frustrating type of rejection of all – are the almost-made-it type e.g.“I really liked it, but I liked some other stories even more, and I couldn’t fit them all in.” Or, “I really liked it, but it didn’t quite fit with the theme I was looking for.”

Some rejection letters will forever stick in my head. One was a line edit of the entire piece, mostly highlighting the editor’s aversion to hyphens and concluding with “I wouldn’t buy it anyway, because it has a swear word in it.” One rejected me because I misspelled one word.  I argued back that it was not a misspelling, but the difference between American English and New Zealand English (a tip to newbies – never, EVER argue with an editor over a rejection letter). They say that the best revenge is success, so I take some comfort in the fact that I’m still writing, but neither of those magazines are still in publication.

Another rejection inspired an entire blog post in which I ranted about my right to use myths and legends from my own culture in a piece of fiction.   That story, “The Touch of the Taniwha”, is now slated for publication in Dagan Books’ “Fish” anthology alongside stories from Ken Liu, Cat Rambo, Cate Gardner and others.

A hint – the title “The Oldest Profession” does not only refer to prostitution.

Yes, I keep my personal rejection emails, copy-and-pasted into one very long document.  And yes, I am a bit of a masochist in that respect (I used to keep the form rejections too, but that was just silly).  Sometimes I even rewrite stories on the strength of the feedback in my rejections, and for that I am truly grateful to the editors.  “The Oldest Profession” falls into this category – it garnered the record 25 rejections until I took on board some of the criticisms and rewrote it into a much stronger piece. Criticisms such as this – “I am, I confess, a bit of a hard sell on prostitute stories, but this one nearly won me over with its gritty, tired voice and its lack of romanticization through the middle.  In the end, though, the story just didn’t resonate as strongly as I would have liked.”

“Drive, She Said” was rejected 12 times before getting accepted by Lovecraft E-zine, and only two of those rejections were personal (“There is a lot to like here–the voice feels fresh, and the characters are intriguing. But…”). It is now on the  Horror Writer Association’s Bram Stoker Award™ 2012 Reading List.

“Ghosts Can Bleed” the collection, not the story.

“Ghosts Can Bleed” (the story, not the collection) was rejected 6 times before its first publication, and 5 times as a reprint.  I received one almost-made-it personal rejection – the editor said “The final decision is made by comparing the stories, more with an eye toward issue balance than the merits of one piece over another.  Yours is a GREAT piece, and I’m very very sorry that we can’t use it.” When this happens, it counts as a Good Rejection Day.

“Baptism”, which is currently getting rave reviews in the “Horror For Good” anthology, got three rejections and two “we can’t even be bothered responding”.  One of those rejection emails had this to say – “Unfortunately, it’s not quite right for us.  I liked the concept and the mermaids were quite vivid, but I didn’t feel as much urgency in Tomas in the opening as I wanted, as much of a deep core yearning in him to tackle the challenge of his new post and save the mermaids’ souls.”  Umm…yeah.  That’s kind of the point of the whole story.

The most eloquent rejection I ever got was for “Fairy Gothic”, which went on to be published in Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine. It went like this – “This is nice, and as far as I can tell perfectly executed for what it is.  But what it is isn’t what we need, I think: it’s a bit too soft, and extremely subtle, and you have to ease into it like slipping into a bath, and I’m not sure we have that luxury given the constraints of our medium.  But I wanted to acknowledge your success, and urge you to submit to us again.” I particularly liked this rejection because many editors, when faced with rejecting a good story that is a bad fit for their publication, will try to find a way to blame the story. This editor was able to say that the story was a well-formed square peg trying to fit into a round hole.

So what can fledging writers take from all of the above?

  1. Unless you’re a literary freak of nature, you will experience rejection.  Even if you go straight down the self-publishing route and bypass the submissions process altogether, you will still experience rejection in the form of negative reviews. You can see a bad review or a rejection email as a soul-crushing defeat, or you can view it as a badge of honour; proof that you are a real writer and not just someone tooling around on a laptop for his or her own amusement.
  2. Square pegs. Round holes. Sometimes it’s as simple as that.  Take care to research your markets and find out as much as possible what sort of stuff your prospective editor prefers, and you’ll reduce the number of this kind of rejection.
  3. Personal taste accounts for a lot, too.  One person’s “love it” is another person’s “hate it”. I’ve received countless rejections because an editor had a bias against certain subjects – “[XYZ] didn’t like it. To him, it was just “one more” doll house horror story, and apparently, he’s read a ton of them.” I know what it’s like, because I read slush for Dark Moon Digest, and there are certain plots or themes that will turn me off a story almost every time (lucky for Dark Moon Digest hopefuls, your submission will be read by at least two other people, so personal bias is unlikely to account for a rejection there).
  4. Or maybe that editor was right, and maybe your story does have a fatal flaw. You’re allowed to rewrite it and send it out again.