by John Yeoman, @Yeomanis
You don’t. You can't. Agents can't, either. We drop off our favourite child at their office, with love in our hearts, and wait for the compliments. When they don’t arrive, we cry: “But every limb is perfect! Count the fingers. And oh, that cute little dimple at both ends!”
Still, no sale.
Every new writer goes through that period of outrage. “He spat on my baby!” Agents know it. It’s why the better ones phrase their rejection slips with care: “It doesn’t suit our needs. But do pass it around. Someone else is sure to love it!” Nice agents scribble a personal footnote: “Don’t lose heart. Remember, Gone With the Wind was rejected 38 times.” Bad ones don’t reply at all.
None of it helps, does it? We inspect our ms, lying forlorn in its bassinet. We count its fingers. All there! We dress it up in a pretty new blurb. And we send it out again.
Same result. How can we ever tell ourselves: “There’s something wrong with my baby?” But we must.
The day we do it is the day we turn professional.
Here are three tested steps to becoming a pro author:
1. Get an independent critique.
Sure, the nice opinions of our friends and writing group can keep us motivated. A thoughtful buddy can also spot our most embarrassing mistakes. “Why is your character called Jim in chapter one and Jed in chapter two?”
But friends give dangerous advice at the editing stage because they don’t know what to look for. “I don’t like your hero.” “Why?” “He reminds me of my uncle Bill.” It doesn’t help...
Have your ms professionally copy edited!
It will cost around $8 (£5) per thousand words and, if you choose an experienced editor, it’s an investment. Your ms will be fine-tuned or, better still, mangled. Perversely, that’s good news.
Otherwise, how would you have known that your opening passage, the one you laboured on for weeks, has all the appeal of a stagnant ditch? Or that your protagonist (modelled on yourself) is as lovable as the south end of a pig?
It’s better to hear the cruel truth “your story sucks, it needs a total rewrite” than to waste more time and heartache sending it out again. That said, copy editors are not ghost writers. They’ll only rarely give you creative solutions. A rewrite is your problem.
2. Cut your losses.
If you hear “the story is 90% okay, just do these things”, do them. And resubmit your ms. If any agent was courteous enough to make comments on your first draft, send that good person your new draft saying “Thank you! I have totally reworked the ms in line with your suggestions.” Conscience alone should induce them to read it.
But if you’re faced with a total rewrite, ask yourself: “Am I really in love with this story? So much so that I’ll devote another year to it? And another?” A novel is not a marriage. If it’s not working, dump it. Start the next one. It will be a lot better. You’ve learned the errors to avoid, and acquired a whole new mindset of craft skills unconsciously, while editing your last novel.
3. Smack yourself on the side of the head.
Walk away from the past. Abandon your favourite plot themes, the characters you fell in love with, the settings you know too well. Haul them back into your new novel and you’ll just be stomping over the same territory. It didn’t work the first time. Why should it now?
Smack yourself on the side of the head.
Find an outrageously new theme, fresh characters, a different place and time. Of course, you can stay with the same genre if you’re truly in love with chick lit, sci-fi, historical romance, or whatever. Just approach it from a radically different angle.
And why not experiment with a hybrid genre?
If you’re familiar with the tricks of the noir detective novel they’ll work well in a sci-fi story. (See the fascinating result in China Mieville’s The City & The City.) A chick-lit story set in ancient Rome might work well too, and never mind the anachronisms. (Marilyn Todd did that with her brilliant I, Claudia novels.)
Give your new craft skills a fresh landscape to play in.
That 3-step plan should get you through the slump of rejection. Every author has been there and some mid-list authors still succumb to it, when they fail to earn out their advance. Yet the successful ones have picked themselves up and gone that route above, time and again, to the best seller lists. Just remember, Gone With the Wind really was rejected 38 times...
Dr John Yeoman, PhD Creative Writing, judges the Writers’ Village story competition and is a tutor in creative writing at a UK university. He has been a successful commercial author for 42 years. A wealth of further ideas for writing fiction that sells can be found in his free 14-part story course at:
Dr John Yeoman has 42 years experience as a commercial author, newspaper editor and one-time chairman of a major PR consultancy. He has published eight books of humour, some of them intended to be humorous.
Blog image: Jon McGovern, Flickr