Deep breath for this blog for I am dealing with the Elephant In the Room. Shhh. Whisper. REJECTION.
Oh dear. A big fat Nellie lurking in the corner for me at the moment as I have a novel on submission with my agent so even mentioning the topic ever so quietly feels a wee bit like tempting fate. But hey – you can’t write a blog for writers without a wink to the occasional elephant.
So, then. Rejection? A little caveat first with some touching of wood and giving of thanks – for what point whingeing? What do I, after all, have to moan about? As a journalist and short story writer, I’ve made a very good living from writing for more than 25 years and every single day I ask - who else gets paid to do what they love, Teresa? To work from home? OK, so I get the occasional rejection for a story or feature pitch but for the most part I sell pretty much everything I write in these areas( she touches wood again vay vay fast) …
No. For me the open sore that is (lowering of tone ) rejection only truly began when in a fit of insanity I threw my hat in the ring to write novels.
What you have to understand here is that I don’t mind rejection, per se. Not at all. It is not that I have some big ego; that I think there aren’t enough authors out there already. It is just that I am worried about the environment. Cross my heart. It’s the storage space, you see. The novel currently on submission via my agent is actually (no surprise) not my first. I like to keep hard copies of all my old manuscripts so the husband is a little worried that if I do not get myself a book deal very soon, the whole family is going to disappear under a mountain of paper never to be seen or heard from again. It will be on the news. “Family rescued after 21 days trapped under folios of A4…”
I promise you that I have tried, in the interests of saving the environment, to give up writing novels but it is a bit like trying to give up breathing. I even went through a spell of pretending not to write any more books but it was like an alcoholic trying to hide the bottles.
“Have you started another book, Teresa?”
“No, of course not. I’d have to be mad. Don’t be ridiculous. What kind of idiot do you take me for? Another book? Moi? No. Absolutely, definitely not…”
It would, of course, probably be easier if publishers would stop being so darn encouraging. Near misses?
Let's just say I've had a few.
I was discussing this with a fellow writer at a Society of Authors lunch (I’m a member via the short story career) and she laughed. "Dahling - I had to write six books before I got a deal…”
Six? I didn’t know whether to be encouraged or appalled.
I think the truth is, no matter how many times you read all the hilarious rejection quotes for classic and best-selling novels, you probably only get to truly smile at your own rejection slips once they are a part of your past. Once you actually have the book deal. Until then you just have to take a deep breath, lower the voice and try not to catch the elephant’s eye.
Though Nellie, please feel free to watch this space (storage included).
Not so much a blog today as a quick sigh of relief.
I have just received in the post a preview copy of my latest short story for Woman’s Weekly. It’s called Stalking Giraffes – out in Nov 27th issue – and the lovely layout has lifted my spirits no end.
Trust me – they need lifting just now as this week I am liaising with my agent over the first rejection to the novel I have on submission. Oh gawd. It's early days but any rejection is so horrible, isn’t it? Methinks this will be the subject of a full post very soon!
Meantime, for those who fancy checking out Stalking Giraffes, I hope you enjoy it. It was a story which I loved writing as the inspiration came from a really touching moment. I was watching a man carrying a sleeping child. And then I watched another woman …watching the man carrying the sleeping child.
And before I knew it Stalking Giraffes kind of wrote itself.
Good things, I learn, really do come to those who wait…
A very long time ago I made a promise to myself to revisit Brighton with enough time to enjoy it. At the time I was a researcher at Thames Television News and knew Brighton only through the crazy lens of the party political conference season.
I was working alongside our political editor with a slot to fill for the evening news each night. It was fun - yes – but in the frantic, workaday, please-don’t-mess-this-up-Teresa sense.
Forget seeing the sights, my time was spent chasing MPs for sound bites and scrolling through hours of tapes in the media centre to source clips to send “down the line” to the Thames newsroom.
The pier was not so much a place for a stroll as a backdrop for filming – which is why I made the promise to return, never imagining that it would take me quite so long.
Let’s just say that life got even busier.
I moved to gorgeous Devon, took on the hectic job as anchor of a nightly TV news programme and then took on motherhood . Each role joyous in their own ways - but forget trips away. Brighton went on a wish list which somehow grew longer with every passing year. (And when you live in the beautiful South West, it is very difficult to find excuses to leave it.)
And then suddenly all these decades later, I turn around to find my beautiful boys are grown and my husband ( also a journalist) comes home to share the news that he has been invited to Brighton to write a travel feature and is wondering if I would like to go with him?
Trust me - you have never seen anyone pack so fast.
Boutique all the way - dahlings. Boutique hotel. (The Neo B&B – very stylish and responsible for hugely calorific but wonderful intake at breakfast . Yum) Also Boutique exhibition (the history of Biba which I highly recommend – on at Brighton museum. If you remember the long coat and felt hat look of the early 70s, you will adore it).
At last I got to wander around the maze that is the Brighton Lanes for some Christmas shopping, to stroll up and down the Pier (with not an MP in sight) and to visit the Royal Pavilion.
OMG. What to say about the Royal Pavilion? Best, I think, to say nothing. Believe me: you just have to see it for yourself.
And it is there, in shock and awe at the Pavilion, that I suddenly get the idea for a new short story which I am just itching to write now.
Which is how I bring this whole episode back to the joy and the madness that is this writing life. Promise me that if you’re ever feeling in just a little bit of a rut, ideas wise I mean, then do borrow the leaf. Think of somewhere ( ahem, affordable – listing “The Maldives” is cheating) that you have always meant to visit – or return to and if there is any way you can find the time and the money then grab your writer’s journal and go, go, go.
I was so completely astonished and wowed by the Royal Pavilion at Brighton that I am kicking myself now for leaving it so long to retrace my steps.
OK, so my sore feet retracing those steps reminded me that I am no longer young. But thank you Brighton for reminding me ….that I was once.
WORKSHOP PS I am in the process of putting together some writers’ workshop for fellow enthusiasts in Devon. More news after Christmas. If you’re interested, drop me a note with your details via the contact link. Happy scribbling.
One of my most heartening moments as a writer in recent weeks was watching Ian Rankin on TV’s Imagine programme as he read feedback from his editor.
Ian, of course, is well past the traumatic stage of handling true rejection. But even with his block-busting track record, I still noted a familiar, slightly haunted look in his eyes when his editor told him ( evidently with some frankness ) that she didn’t like the way he had handled one of his characters in an early draft of his new book.
Oh, but it really hurts, doesn’t it? Whether you are just starting out, longing for that first deal, or a superstar on the bestseller lists it is difficult but yes, also heartening, to know that all writers suffer an attack of the doubts and the angst when the criticism rolls in. The big issue – and this I see more and more as the crucial bit - is what you decide to do next.
Ian – ever the pro – did absolutely the right thing. He allowed himself just a little bit of hurt and then he got back to work. He made changes. He took the criticism on the chin and eventually worked out what to do about it.
Not all criticism is going to be right, of course. There is, after all, so much that is subjective in literature. But when someone with long experience and good intentions gives advice, I firmly believe that writers, whatever the stage of their career, should think long and hard before they reject it.
Some writers tell me they worry that making too many changes in response to feedback means losing ownership of their work. For myself I disagree. Many years as a journalist has taught me that editorial discussion is nearly always fruitful. You do not have to accept all input, but it is both necessary and professional to at least weigh it all up. Editors and agents only advise, after all; they do not do the re-writes. We do. So of course the work is still ours.
I am lucky to have a very supportive agent - also I have worked with the editor of a major publisher who has been kind enough to guide and, dare I say, champion my “apprenticeship” in fiction. But for all that I respect them, very often I do not like their feedback on early drafts of my work. It can wound to know we have not got it right. But for myself, I have learned how best to handle this first response of both panic and hurt.
What I always do now is go for a long walk. The fresh air and the time allows me to move on from the panic to the next, more crucial stage of figuring out how the hell I am going to fix things.
My long-suffering husband has learned to watch this transition with a wry smile. It is not at all unusual for me to declare “the book just isn’t working” and “that’s it; I’ve had enough” as I set off on in a huff, only to return later all fired up with enthusiasm and new ideas about the changes I am going to make.
So my thanks to Ian Rankin and the Imagine team for reassuring all writers that no one is immune to this process of doubt and re-evaluation.
(And herograms to all the loved-ones whose lot it is to live with all the highs and the lows!)
So I wake up one morning and the elder son has transformed into a faun. Mr Tumnus to be precise.
I kid you not – he is sipping tea in the kitchen, bare-chested bar the red scarf with furry legs and the most extraordinary hair and ears.
In a household with two teenage boys, I should be used to these fanciful (for which read “fancy dress”) transformations yet they still take me unawares; picture, if you will, the same son as an inflatable turkey last Christmas.
It is not in the genes. Call me a spoil sport but for myself I am not so very keen on dressing up. During my first year as a presenter with the BBC I was kitted out in an outfit the weight of a small carpet to “play” Elizabeth 1 for Children in Need. This seemed all well and good and I was tickled pink when the rather grand costume arrived from BBC HQ with the name tag “Glenda Jackson” stitched inside suggesting she had worn it too – but the logistics proved more challenging than I had anticipated.
It poured with rain the night of the fundraiser (why is CIN not held in the summer?) and the dress took on a lot of water while I was being filmed outside. By the time I sat back down inside alongside a roaring fire, clouds of steam filled the set. The floor manager, bless him, thought it was dry ice. It wasn’t. It was the water from my dress evaporating …
But back to Mr Tumnus. The mother in me is worried on two fronts – first he is moulting faux fur everywhere and second I am concerned he will catch cold but I bite my tongue for on reflection if he has the confidence to go topless on the school bus at this time of year, who am I to spoil his fun?
All of which sets me thinking, as I return to my desk, about characterisation. What is it that brings our characters to life for our readers? Do they really need furry legs? Weird ears? Funny mannerisms?
If I have learnt anything from years of experimenting , it is that effective charactisation is all about all the C’s. The C-hallenge for me - to make my C-haracters – C-onvincing,C-ompelling…and to make the readers C-are.
Whether that requires the extremity of a bare chest and furry legs is at the author’s discretion. For myself I would quite simply recommend thieving.
Oh yes I know there are plenty of wonderful tips suggesting lists and detailed character portraits before you start writing. It’s good advice - but that’s not how I work.
After so many years in television, I tend to take quite a filmic approach to writing. Probably weird to others – but my characters simply come calling and I just live with them in my head for a while - then watch and wait.
The stealing is not something I do deliberately, of course. But I spend a lot of time people-watching and interesting things that I spot while I am out and about just tend to turn up in my characters down the line. I might watch a woman at the bus stop fidgeting with one of those shopping trolleys – rocking it to and fro. Annoying. And then some weeks or months later one of my characters will do the same thing.
I don’t steal whole people, of course. That would be actionable and wouldn’t be fiction but all observations go quite subconsciously into the big melting pot and I never know what is going to come out.
By the time I have come to know my characters well and placed them in a story, it genuinely feels as they are leading the way; as if I am reporting something real - something that has actually happened rather than something I have created.
Which, on reflection, I perhaps should not be owning up to... because it sounds just a little bit odd.
Though certainly no more odd than a faun, setting out bare-chested in this terrible cold, moulting fur all over my carpet.
Teresa Driscoll - journalist, author, mother of two and lover of great coffee.