Best writing advice from a rejection letter

Last night I found some excellent writing advice and tips for writers from author Rowena Wiseman. Her post was not only helpful in a practical sense, but provided a kind of a pick-me-up, a pep talk in the locker room if you will, so I wanted to share her words in the hope that others might find it as useful as I have. Check out the original post and Rowena’s blog here.

“The best piece of writing advice I received was in a rejection letter from a publisher seven years ago. The unnamed reader said: ‘There seems to be an over reliance on repetition of words and phrases. Examine these words and dig deep to explore how you could use another word to say it better, differently, and inventively … when you rely on cliché you miss an opportunity to craft a sentence that develops a style and voice that no other author has.’ After I picked my self-confidence up off the floor and swept away my ego I realised it was true. My writing was commonplace, ordinary, boring and full of needless repetition. It was a harsh piece of criticism, but I’ve been grateful for it ever since.

We don’t want to listen to the same notes played the same way by musicians, or look at a landscape painted the exact same way by different artists, so why would we want to hear the same phrases used over and over again by writers? That one piece of feedback led me to the realisation that if something has been said a billion times before, find a different way to say it.

It’s hard to come up with an alternative to a cliché. You have to give your imagination wings, let go of realism and invite surrealism into your writing brain. Avoid those boring phrases you’ve heard so many times: my heart fluttered, a cold shiver ran up my spine, he took my breath away.

Here’s a few ways I’ve tried to say things differently in my YA novel Silver:

The days fold into each other, like origami, biting at me, holding me hostage … Drops of black ink bleed into my world, changing the colour of everything to monotone.
= I’m sad, depressed, miserable

His words are like roadkill, flat and bloody, I can almost smell the stench of them. He’s still talking, but all I can visualise is an effigy of my heart, burning on a stake, turning to charcoal, ash discolouring the air around me.
= I’m heartbroken

Hours melt through our hands and dissolve like sugar with every touch and kiss.
= we’re getting it on!

Have the confidence to be abstract with your use of language. Evoke a feeling without being explicit. Tickle a heart with a peacock feather, sprinkle golden dust on some lovers, lay an egg of anxiety in someone’s soul. Read poetry to see how poets experiment with words. Think a Picasso portrait as opposed to a Renaissance portrait.

Boring writing tells us about something the way it is. Good writing moves people and leaves an impression. We read to escape reality, so just as we want our characters to do unusual and exciting things, so too should our choice of words be interesting and unusual.

Use your intuition about when to be more creative with your writing. You don’t have to write your whole book in the same style, but little moments of escape in the text are welcome. Also, try to be self-aware when a passage of experimental writing isn’t working. You need to know when you’ve overdone something and it’s not making sense. Be abstract without being confusing. Readers don’t want to feel as though they’re trying to solve a puzzle.”


On Failing (And Rejuvenating) In Ireland

Ireland: Great for views, bad for focus.
Ireland: Great for views, bad for focus.

So I’m halfway through my self imposed writing retreat in Ireland and it’s been both a positive and negative experience. The plan was to come here and finish The Book, also known as the Great Big Albatross Around My Neck. The plan, hastily scribbled in the back of a notebook, was to ‘finish 1st edit of Book’ from April through to May, then work on project B, a zom-com screenplay I’ve had in the works. When that was done, whip up yet another screenplay and settle comfortably back into my fifth module, patting myself on the back for achieving so much by October. Bish bash bosh and the work is done.

Problem was, when I sat down to read the printout version of The Book, it was a lot messier, terrible and what-was-I-thinking? to read than I thought it’d be. I decided to come at it from a different angle. “Let’s make the whole tone a bit more depressing,” I said. “Let’s write it in 1st person because I feel more confident with it and it’ll all go smoothly.”

I wrote a few pages like that, began with a near suicide, tried to make it oh so droll and darkly funny. Gave those pages to my sister (also known as the Great Beta Reader). She killed it. Via Facebook:

“Maybe it’s because it’s unedited but it just wasn’t strong writing. It was a bit cliche. Soz bro, still prefer the original prologue soooo much more.”

So I was stumped. She was right though, I hadn’t even really, if I’m completely honest, enjoyed those pages myself. It had lost the spark and the dry but fun humour I was going for. So I sulked about it for a few days, ate a lot of cake, drank a lot of milk, smoke a lot of cigarettes. Then I realised what to do. I was going to leave it alone. I’d not been able to read the thing before I came because of hundreds of other loose ends that needed to be sorted. And so I had no idea how much work it was going to be. I became disheartened and tried to go off piste without really having the proper materials or experience to back me up and support me. I wasn’t having fun, and that’s a very important part for me.

After taking a step back and telling myself that it was okay to not have a shiny, readable manuscript for people to road test when I got home, I relaxed again. I started working on other stuff on the list, short stories, assignments etc. In between, I hunted down and printed off some worksheets online and went meticulously through The Book’s plot. Now I have a document that can act as a signpost for when I go back home and tackle it. It won’t be perfect, but that’s okay too. It’s all good practise, and I’ve had fun.

On the positive side, Ireland has proved very inspirational and it’s been great just sitting and being. The sun’s even come

Catch my dystopian sci-fi short 'Babymaker' this May!
Catch my dystopian sci-fi short ‘Babymaker’ this May!

out on several occasions, and if you’ve ever visited the Emerald Isle, you’ll know just how rare that is. Good news on the published work side of things: the book GIVE: An Anthology of Anatomical Entries (with my short story Babymaker inside) from When The Dead Books is due for release in May and I’m really looking forward to getting my hands on a copy and sending the spare out to Nanaimo, Canada, where my lovely ex-pat friend now calls home.

Interestingly, the very first night I arrived I received a rejection from a pretty big British literary magazine telling me they liked and enjoyed my story but it just wasn’t long enough, along with an invitation to expand on the piece and resubmit. The story is set in West Ireland and I’ve since then managed to piece together an extra 800 words of material by just being here, listening, paying attention to things and stories around me. It still needs a little work, but Great Beta Reader said she enjoyed it a lot, and it’s now her second favourite story (the top spot still being filled by The Club, which was bought by Eldritch Press for their Our World of Horror anthology, release date tbc). The sunshine and flora and fauna have also inspired some back-to-nature type poems too, something I never thought I’d be writing in a million years.

So I’m still here, haven’t gone insane, haven’t turned into the female version of Jack Torrence, despite a number of Shining jokes coming my way. I’ve managed to balance work and play, got some great material and am generally having a grand old time. And that’s the Tesco delivery man knocking on my door, God bless you Tesco man, from all us non-driving hungry people in the world. I salute you.

6 Simple Ways To Get Writing Again

Yeah, yeah, it’s mid-February now and Christmas was a century ago, I get it. But the holidays happened to all of us and, with regards to my writing, I’m only just getting back into the swing of things. If your Christmas was anything like mine, the holidays were a time of freedom, cocktails and experimental platters. With the addition of several new ‘gentlemen tumbler’ glasses in the house, Jack Daniels became my new best friend and I was eating whole plates of leftover meat for breakfast. My God, it was beautiful – I can’t wait to do it all again next year.

But my writing suffered, and not only because I was wandering around the house half cut at two in the afternoon. My submissions count was lower than it has probably ever been, old projects and assignments lay forgotten in cyberspace and I didn’t communicate with anyone who didn’t already live in the same house as me. This breezy attitude towards work carried on into January (New Years Eve & Day; my birthday) and I vaguely recall panicking about how I was going to press the reset button and start again. Then, February came around and I caught myself running up the stairs to grab an old writing magazine from the bathroom, because it contained poetry advice, something I tend to skip. I reflected on this change with one of the sisters and wondered how I’d managed to convert myself from the Bourbon swilling, meat scoffing non-person into present me. The one who’s marking deadlines on calendars, juggling multiple projects and firing important emails out into the world. That me.

I hadn’t just magically transformed from sofa fodder to plate spinner, so I looked back over the last month and a half and realised that I’d actually tricked myself into working. I gathered up all the activities I’d enjoyed so far in my head and made a list. Then I thought “This could make an interesting blog post” and so my to-do list expanded by one and I just had to turn it into what will probably amount to my longest post yet. It’s sort of advice, it’s also sort of a very long memo to myself when I inevitably fall off the wagon next year.

1. Writing Magazines Are Like Booster Shots
My subscription to my favourite writing mag ran out at the beginning of January but every time it slapped down onto the porch it felt like my birthday. There’s something about a glossy magazine that I’ve always loved. Flipping through well presented, colourful pages of articles, stories and helpful advice kick-started the urge to write every time. Throw in a load of inspiring submission calls and the ideas were fighting for space. The same goes for non-fiction books on the craft of writing. On Writing by Stephen King is the classic go-to guide for many writers (me included) but I’ve got a few others that I like to dip in and out of. The newest addition to the collection is Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books and How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence by Roz Morris, a mouthful to type but a great little book that I’ve been using to guide me through the hellish ordeal that is my unfinished novel.

2. Read Your Favourite Authors. Again
This is seasoned advice, trotted out by anyone who has ever put pen to paper. Whenever I find myself stuck in a rut, reading some of my favourite books makes me sit up, take note and more importantly, want to write again. There’s always a book or two on your shelf that will excite you and get the neurons firing.

3. Podcasts & YouTube Videos Are Invaluable
Podcasts and videos about writing have been around for a long time, and yet I’ve only just realised their power. There are podcasts for pretty much everything now and they’re an excellent resource. I found that I’ve gravitated towards screenwriting podcasts recently, because I’ve put several scripts to one side while I concentrate on other work. Podcasts like John August’s and Ashley Scott Meyer’s help keep me in the loop! Like reading, it’s ‘work’ without really working. I usually listen to them in bed and, whether it’s an interview, lecture or even a group discussion, it’s ideal for those crucial throwaway remarks that will stick in your head and improve your writing, marketing, sales pitch, or anything else you’re struggling with.

3. Tell A Load Of People Your Plans
Tell a bunch of people that you’re going to finish X, Y & Z by the end of the year and I can guarantee you’ll have finished X & Y and at least half of Z with two months to spare. My last blog was about what I’m going to achieve this year, and by golly I’m going to do as much as I possibly can because all my friends, family and even random strangers have seen it. It really does kick your ass into gear because if you’re asked a question like ‘How’s the writing going?’, you can never quite meet the asker’s eye when you tell them you failed epically. Of course, you could always lie and get away scot free. But you’ll know, and it will eat away at you you inside. A similar but more positive way to share your success is to tweet a brief list of your submissions, your rejections (optional) and stories finished for the last month. So what if nobody retweets it? The proof that you’ve been working hard is down on virtual paper, baby.

4. Have Something In The Works
This is pretty standard advice for all of us, I’m not the first one to say it nor will I be the last. Sprucing up a story – any story – and sending it out to an anthology or magazine gets the ball rolling again. I’ve never been fishing, but I imagine it’s like having a few lines out ready to catch something while you work on your technique back on land. Or something like that. It gives you that little push to keep going, and you never know, one of those could result in a surprise acceptance.

5. Starting A Writer’s Group Is Fun
During a birthday night out, me and a couple of writer friends drunkenly declared that we would create an informal writer’s group to share ideas, critique each other’s work and do everything else that happens at a writer’s group. One of the friends set up a Facebook event, invited his wife and there we were, sitting around a table with wine, Hula Hoops and a packet of Cashew nuts like Proper Adults, talking about the right kind of adjective, believable characters and trying not to slur our words when we read things out. As it happens we only got to read out one story because I had to crash the party by leaving, BUT it was a lot of fun and we’ve vowed to do it again soon, which means writing hats are very firmly ON.

6. If Possible, Get The Hell Out Of Dodge
Now I’m very fortunate to be able to do this and I know that not everybody will be able to do the same thing.  I blogged about this a few weeks ago talking about how I’m planning on taking myself off to Ireland for the best part of the month in April, just me, my laptop and a dressing gown to finish off the novel that’s been following me around like a hungry cat. I’m fortunate because years ago, a family member won a little holiday cottage by the sea in a raffle, and they stay in it during the summer. No frills, no madness, just a nice quiet place with a plug socket. Writer’s retreats seem (at least to me) like an extortionate amount of money. I’ve never been on one, so perhaps you do get your money’s worth when you’re there, fraternizing with other writers, lounging by log fires and breakfasting on the veranda of a quaint little chateau in southern France. But only a select few can really afford that sort of treatment. Some writer’s swear by cafes and libraries to give them that ‘home away from home’ feeling, and it really works. I once wrote the entire outline of a novel sitting in the canteen of my sister’s college, waiting for her to finish for the day.