Being surprised by the action of a character or an event in a story is fun to read when that trait or incident falls within the logical world of the story. When these things are sprung upon us with no preparation they seem like they are occurring in a different tale entirely.
Many authors bleed in information that give clues to readers about what might happen so that the possibilities are in the backs of their minds. This is referred to as foreshadowing. When that thing occurs we believe it. Suspense is created by carefully revealing information as the story progresses.
Some writers withhold information that they only reveal at the very end of a story thinking this creates suspense. It doesn’t. It can frustrate readers who are following a story step by step and are suddenly thrown a curve ball out of the blue that ties everything up. This is referred to as Deus ex machina, the machine of god, where the plot is wrapped by an outside force at the last minute.
Authors can string events and characterizations anyway they want, left, right, center, counterclockwise, to reveal Ah Ha moments of surprise. When readers are prepared they feel satisfied and say to themselves, “I didn’t expect that and it’s the only way the story could have ended.” When the material shows up with no connection to what’s been happening or characters do things that contradicts their nature without explanation, it can come off as unbelievable and even ridiculous.
To get that satisfying result, it is necessary to prepare readers for possibilities with foreshadowing. It’s a subtle device. Too much information given away in a blatant manner can destroy any surprise. This is referred to as telegraphing. If clues are given in too elusive a manner, readers may not notice or remember them. These clues leave small doubts and suggestions in the back of the mind. Not every clue needs to lead to a conclusion. Incidents and objects can be inserted into a story that are intended to throw readers offtrack and distract them from the real clues. Director Alfred Hitchcock (Psycho, The Birds, The Man Who Knew Too Much) referred to these types of clues as MacGuffins.
To use foreshadowing effectively, information must be revealed as if it means nothing at the time or is a minor part of a larger plot device. When the final incident is revealed, readers will recall it and accept the ending because they have been prepared with the suggestion that something like that could occur or that the character might act in a certain manner.
In a novel, incidents of foreshadowing can be inserted throughout the story. They build up in the background of the world and are often unnoticed until the big event is sprung. Foreshadowing can be used to prepare readers for several incidents, not only the end of the book, and produce satisfying of course moments throughout.
Let’s assume that we are writing a novel about a successful career woman named Jane. At the end of the book she turns down a big promotion to leave and open her own antique shop. This is a major decision. For the ending to be satisfying we must demonstrate Jane’s thinking process and detail incidents in her life that lead her to this action.
At the beginning of a book, we can have Jane toying with the idea of opening such a shop but considering it impossible because she has few savings and has always just scraped by in life. She finds her current job deeply satisfying. The idea of an antique shop remains in the back of her mind as unattainable. A promotion would pay enough to save the money required but that would take years and seems far off. She feels she can’t leave to start a full time business and she would be too tired to do something part time if she got a promotion.
If we only see her at work and the rejection of the promotion is just dropped on readers at the end, they will find it unbelievable because it would seem completely out of character. Fictional character in a novel can swing wildly from one state to another, however, they must act within a range of internal logic.
If Jane constantly makes rash decisions, flies of the handle all the time or shows other traits of instability, readers might accept her turning down the promotion but it will just be another of her antics and have no real significance. To make her leaving important, it needs to be an act that seems out of character but has been eluded so when it happens we see growth in Jane. An outside force can be introduced at the end that forces her to take this action but that is Deus ex machine and is generally unsatisfying.
Showing growth in Jane requires the creation of moments where she confronts impediments and questions her life. These can be small incidents. Perhaps she makes toast one morning and her old toaster burns the bread. She can show exasperation and even admonish herself for not replacing the toaster when there was a sale the week before. This has nothing to do with her turning down the promotion yet signals that not everything in Jane’s life is satisfying.
There is an old saying, “The boulders I can walk over but the pebbles get in my shoes.” Putting enough pebbles in a character’s shoes over time builds tension as small irritants add up. That, however, is not enough. There has to be an inner motive and desire hidden within the character that, at the beginning, feels unimportant, seems unattainable or is one that the character is not consciously aware of.
We could give her an opportunity, say a local antique dealer wants to retire and will allow Jane to buy the business in low, installment payments with nothing down. Such a device might seem to be foreshadowing but it could ruin the story by both giving too much information of a future event and invoking the machine of god by presenting an opportunity that she has not worked for or expected. As a general rule in drama, it is best for unexpected incidents to hinder characters who must draw on their inner strength to overcome the obstacle, thus allowing them to grow.
If going to antique shops is an enjoyable pastime, even though she can’t afford to buy anything, readers will be subconsciously prepared for Jane to try and open one herself. Other clues need to be inserted. For instance, a friend can be with Jane while visiting a shop and tell her that she has a real eye for antiques and would be a great dealer. Jane can then say, “I’ve thought about it but I like my job. Besides, where can I get the money?” We can then have her look longingly at the items in the shop before moving quickly to something else, say a traffic accident occurs and the two women run outside. This action scene will pull readers away from Jane’s yearning look in the shop but the suggestion will stay.
Simply giving Jane the desire to run an antique shop does not mean she is capable of doing so. Another incident might be introduced. She could become friends with the owner of a shop who has to leave one weekend to visit a sick relative and asks her to step in and watch the store. Jane can make the biggest sale the shop has ever had and the owner can tell her that she should open her own shop. Jane rejects this idea. Besides the money required, she thinks about how much she loves her job and career. In addition, she feels frightened of taking such a risk and decides stability is better than reaching for a dream. Even though she rejects the idea, it is still present. Having Jane return to work and showing her immersed in her career while dong an excellent job hides the idea of owning a shop but the big sale she made and her competency in business demonstrates that she has the savvy to do so.
To reinforce the possibility that she might open a shop even though she feels satisfied in her career, tension must be introduced at the workplace. She can spend all night preparing a presentation and learn the next morning that the project was canceled the day before and her boss didn’t tell her. A supervisor can take credit for her work and Jane has no way to prove otherwise. She can’t tell herself, “One of these days I’m just going to walk out and open an antique shop if I don’t start getting some respect.” That is too blatant and is a device called telegraphing. All surprise is removed from her final actions.
Instead, she can feel disappointed, even angry, and remember how much fun it was making the big antique sale and how satisfied she felt because she knew the worth and history of the piece. Then, she reminds herself that she is good at her job and likes it, even with the irritations. Both possibilities now hold equal weigh.
This needs to be followed by victories at work to keep the idea alive that she might stay in her career. Things go very good for her and readers will question if she will open a shop.
We’re at the end of the novel. The pieces now have to come together. Jane must examine herself and make a choice. In doing so, she considers her dreams and her fears and the choice she makes reveals her true nature.
The job she has is all she’s ever worked at. It’s familiar. She knows what to expect, both good and bad. She might become a manger. The money could be great.
Yet, the passion of her dream floods her mind and won’t leave her. As authors, we need to reach deep into Jane’s character and have her confront her wants and fears. Is she really looking for money? Is she trapped in a cycle that will lead nowhere? What are the risks of leaving? What are the risks of staying? What scars will inflict her soul if she takes the easy path?
We have shown Jane to be a smart and competent person. To have her turn down the promotion and open the shop she has to be shown to truly want that and device a plan to make it a reality. She has to make sacrifices. This is where we really have to work and earn out keep as authors. Does she have an old family heirloom that she promised here dying mother she would never sell? Will she give up a luxury apartment that her friends are so impressed with to live in a hovel or the back of the store? Will she have to walk away from friends who are immersed in the business and will no longer want to associate with her? Is she willing to fail and lose everything to live in poverty? Whatever it is, it has to be foreshadowed earlier to prepare the reader. The decision can’t be easy and Jane must both embrace her passion and devise a way to make it work if she is going to open a shop.
If we have prepared readers for that possibility by demonstrating her passion for antiques, her competency in the field and her ability to manage a business, they will accept the conclusion of the book and be satisfied.
This, by the way, is the end of the story, the fact that she has chosen to take a leap of faith. Adding scenes where she buys a shop and struggles to make a go at it would be anti-climactic. This is the story of a woman overcoming her self-doubts and standing up for what she wants. She may succeed or she may fail. That’s not the point. It is the fact that we see her inner strength come out and her willingness to do what she loves that makes the story complete. Of course, we could have her accept the promotion and give up her dreams to live a predictable life. That would be a completely different story and would still reveal Jane’s true inner self.
I may never write this story. I made it up on the fly as an example of how foreshadowing can work. I do, however, use these and other similar techniques in my writing.
David A. Wimsett is the author of several books that examine characters who reveal their inner selves through their choices in life. These include Beyond the Shallow Bank in which a woman searches fr who she is and what she truly wants as well as The Carandir Saga, an epic fantasy series set in a multicultural world of gender equality.
People get up in the morning, eat food, do things and go to sleep. This all happens in our physical world. What does that world look like? It might be assumed that a story set in Cape Town or New Your or Beijing of today requires little or no detailed descriptions. Writers can draw on actual buildings, customs and politics. Yet, all stories benefit from descriptions of the world where they occur. Some readers may have never been to Beijing and others might remember or imagine it in a far different way than the author intended. Novels that take place in worlds that readers can envision engage readers better and make the stories memorable.
When authors set their tales in a world of fantasy and magic, the details must be created. This is world building. The story might be set in contemporary times, such as J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Yet, the elements of magic and the settings of Hogwarts are all creations of the author. There is no actual school of magic and wizardry, nor are there dragons and unicorns. The books draw on many established concepts such as castles and fantastic beasts, yet the details had to be shaped by the author to engage readers.
Fantasy stories can be set in completely different worlds that never existed. There were no hobbits until J.R.R. Tolkien put them in Middle Earth, which itself does not exist. The world of his imagination draws from earlier tales from largely European cultures and, as with Harry Potter, it is fashioned in a uniquely detailed way.
A clearly defined world in a fantasy story is vital in maintaining the suspension of belief required for readers to become absorbed in them, be they sword & sorcery adventures of epic tomes.
Fantasy stories are really historical fictions set in non-existent worlds. As such, they have all the elements of the normal world; cultures, politics, literature, customs and beliefs. Societies can cooperate or make war on each other. People have hopes, aspirations, fears, successes and failures. The difference between the real and fantasy world is in how the details of everyday life in these fictional worlds are connected and how they are influenced by additional factors such as magic and fantastic creatures.
Fantasy worlds are governed by their own internal logic that must be consistent throughout the story in the same way as technology in the real world behaves dependably (except for computers which are the devil’s plating and intended to torment us). If a certain type of spell is invoked one way in a scene, it must be invoked the same way in every scene. The details can be as imaginative as the author wishes as long as they are built in a way as to appear organic to the world. Readers will be distracted if a wizard draws a circle in the air to conjure wine and food in one chapter and claps hands together to create the same thing in another chapter. The one thing you do not need to do is explain or justify how magic works. It is just a given as long as the reader sees that it functions the same in every instance. In science fiction, writers often provide details about technologies in order to validate events in the plot. This is not required in Fantasy. Magic is just a part of each world’s fabric like the wind and rain. It occurs and readers will accept that. You should, however, show magic being used in scenes rather than just telling about it in exposition.
In making up geographies, cities, customs, religions, festivals and so forth, the sky is the limit. Writers can create floating towns, navigable rivers of lava, flies the size of boulders, portals between worlds and anything else they can dream up. Actual landscapes and settlements can serve as models to inspire the descriptions. Particular settings can influence the people who live there in customs and beliefs as is true in the real world. In Frank Herbert’s novel Dune, which is as much mythology as science fiction, the desert planet of Arrakis shaped the Fremen and influenced their culture, rituals and values.
When creating cultures, writers will often be influenced consciously or subconsciously by existing ones here on Earth whether contemporary or historical. Is a nation in a fantasy book similar to ones found in Europe, Africa or Asia? Do customs in the story resemble those from ancient Persia, European mythology or North American indigenous oral traditions? Does everyone in a world hold the same cultural values and have the same skin of color or are there peoples of multiple races and ethnic backgrounds? A danger writers can face is grabbing elements of different cultures or religions without understanding or respecting them. A created culture in a book can draw elements from many real world ones. Picking rituals and tales from cultures without understanding their importance to the original societies can lead to prose that are insulting and hurtful to a group of people. It can also lead to low book sales among large numbers of the readers.
The process authors use to build worlds varies. Some write out details before starting a book that establish magic, magical creatures, character traits, civilizations, lands, maps and the like. From this, an author can gain a grounding for the setting and people of the book. As with research for historical novels, much more detail will be created than ever winds up in the story. Some authors may be tempted to add all the made up research, as some authors want to do with their reteach for historical fiction. This should be avoided. The point of research, either in the real world or a fantasy setting, is to immerse authors in the world to such a degree that they fully understand their creations. From this, they can select key items that demonstrate those worlds and societies to readers.
I think about world building before I start a new book but I don’t spend a lot of time making up details about the world and characters before writing the story. I do make notes as I write to mull over choices about how magic works, the attributers of different characters or what kinds of terrain the novel takes place. I mostly create the details as I write in an organic process where the act of writing a set of sentences suggests how characters will react in the future and what physical attributes exist. To do this, I have to keep a sense of the plot and the characters in my head as I write, even for novels that exceed three-hundred pages. This allows my mind to roam and be unfettered with too many preconceived notions so that the story and the actions of the characters can flow and change as real life does while we encounter the unexpected, no matter how well we plan.
Not all world building occurs on paper or a computer screen. Sometimes, I will be about to fall off to sleep when an idea or the solution to a plot problem pops into my head. Then, I write it down on a notepad that I always keep close by.
Because of this, the first drafts are filled with inconsistences and dead ends that have to be altered and removed in the second, third and fourth drafts. This is not an impediment to me nor does it slow me down. I, and many other writers, use the first draft just to get ideas out so they can be crafted in subsequent drafts. As such, my first drafts are somewhat like highly detailed outlines but far more flexible to allow the story and characters to evolve. I don’t actually know what the book is about until I finish the first draft, and even then, things will change in subsequent drafts
All the magical spells, mountains and cultural aspects will become more consistent as I comb the work until I feel I have accomplished what I really want to say and established a world that, hopefully, readers feel they can walk into.
David A. Wimsett worked in the computer industry for over four decades and ran his own consulting firm before retiring from it to devote all his time to writing and publishing. His works include the Carandir Saga that takes place in a multicultural world of gender equality and includes Dragons Unremembered and Half Awakened Dreams. Covenant With the Dragons, the third and final book in the series, will be released in 2022.
It’s important to clearly identify who is speaking in a story. The most common way to do this is to use the word “said” before of after the dialogue, as in “She said” or “He said.” This little word has almost magical qualities. Not only does it indicate who is speaking, it actually disappears in the minds of readers so that they are only conscience of the dialogue itself.
Mary said, “I want to get to the theater half an hour before the show.”
Tom said, “We should leave by 6:00. That will give a safe buffer.”
Sometimes, writers want to indicate the emotional state of a character who is speaking. Authors may substitute descriptive verbs and adjectives in place of the word said in an attempt to indicate the mood of the speaker. If authors want to show happiness between two people, they might write:
Mary chuckled, “I want to get to the theater half an hour before the show.”
Tom responded jovially, “We should leave by 6:00. That will give a safe buffer.”
Alternatively, if authors want to indicate irritation, they might write:
Mary chided, “I want to get to the theater half an hour before the show.”
Tom retorted haltingly, “We should leave by 6:00. That will give a safe buffer.”
Both of these examples have problems. The verbs and adjectives slow the story because readers must stop and process them. They also become tiresome to read when used repeatedly. A better way to indicate the emotional state of a speaker is to give them an action or describe a physical response.
Mary thrust her hand into the glove. She said, “I want to get to the theater half an hour before the show.”
Tom cringed. He said, “We should leave by 6:00. That will give a safe buffer.”
Here we see Mary’s anger and Tom’s reaction. Because we are describing action, we can delete the word said and just write:
Mary thrust her hand into the glove. “I want to get to the theater half an hour before the show.”
Tom cringed. “We should leave by 6:00. That will give a safe buffer.”
Because the dialogue immediately follows the action of each character, readers will know that the character involved in the action is the one who is speaking. This puts the action and physical response within the flow of the prose and propels the story forward without interruption.
External events, such as the state of objects or the weather, can also provide clues to a character’s emotional state while indicating who is speaking.
Lightning scratched across the horizon, silhouetting Mary against the darkening twilight. “I want to get to the theater half an hour before the show.”
Readers will associate the spoke words with Mary because she is the object of the sentence preceding it, so there is no need to insert, “She said” before the dialogue. Using a word suggesting a violent act. such as scratched as opposed to flashed, adds tension and communicates anger. Placing Mary against the darkening twilight accentuates her dissatisfaction with the situation.
Still, if these or any other techniques are repeatedly used in close proximity in a story, the pacing can become bland.
Building a mood within a scene and exposing the character’s intuitive realizations can make it clear who is speaking, express the emotional state of the speakers and demonstrate the fortitude of their characters more effectively than giving physical descriptions of action alone. Here is the opening from my novel Beyond the Shallow Bank.
The oil lamp on the bedside table was turned down such that it cast more shadow than light. Margaret Talbot lay for an instant and panted as she stared up at the ceiling. Then the pain returned, like dozens of razors ripping through her. Margaret arched her back and muffled a scream.
The midwife leaned down and wiped sweat from Margaret’s forehead before standing to make the sign of the cross. Margaret cried out, “John.”
The door opened and her husband ran in to kneel at her bedside. His moustache was untrimmed and his hair was tousled. He took her hand in his and held it against his cheek. “I’ve hailed a carriage. We’ll be at the hospital in a few minutes.”
He kissed her hand gently. “The doctor said labor could be hard with a first child.”
“Not like this. Something’s wrong. I can feel it.”
The lamp that sheds more shadow than light sets a mood of danger and impending trouble. When Margaret pants while lying on her back, we feel her tension and experience her fear that something bad is about to happen. When the pain comes, the sensation is that of ripping razors, an act of violence. Margaret’s fortitude is demonstrated when she muffles a scream, even though the pain is excruciating. When the midwife makes the sign of the cross, the possibility of death is suggested. When John kneels at Margaret’s bedside, his disheveled look shows his concern and his fear for Margaret’s safety that overrides all thoughts of himself. When he tries to reassure Margaret, her intuition warns her, beyond the reasoning of any doctors’ words, of the peril she is in.
Placing characters into a scene and carefully choosing words to describe the setting and action clarifies the emotions of the characters while clearly identifying each speaker.
Crafting a novel takes place through the process of rewriting the book. The first draft is only a framework of the story you want to tell. Some beginning writers run their first draft through spell check and send out the manuscript, thinking they are finished. This is a mistake.
Even this article has gone through eight rewrites. After putting down ideas I wanted to discuss, I reread and edited the first draft, changing words here, taking some things out there and adding new material where it was needed. This was followed by a second edited draft with more changes as I looked for the exact words to use while making certain that the points I wanted to express were clear. After the eighth draft, I posted the article.
Of course, you also need to check for misspellings, typographical errors, missing words and other grammatical problems. I’m always shocked by how many times I can reread a manuscript I’ve written and come across a sentence such as, “They walked into building” when I intended to write “They walked into the building.” My mind subconsciously added the word the each time I read the piece. Sometimes these things go undetected until after the manuscript goes to my editor.
This is one of the reasons why anyone who intends to write professionally must hire a professional editor and not just have a friend or relative look over the work. Your friends and relatives may not be trained and experienced in editing manuscripts and they will usually tell you that the writing is wonderful because they don’t want to hurt your feelings. Worse yet, some writers send out manuscripts without having anyone else look at them.
Those who want to write on a professional level must invest time in rewriting. Mark Twain said, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”
There are many things to consider when rewriting. In the end, the writing itself must disappear to reveal only the story and the characters. A book can present themes and ideas, but without a story that involves readers in the characters, the book becomes a lecture and not a novel.
When readers pause to say, “Wasn’t that a clever turn of phrase”, they are taken out of the story and slammed back into their ordinary lives, dispelling the suspension of disbelief that is essential in storytelling, which must immerse readers beyond distraction.
Here is a good rule of thumb. If, in rereading your work, you come across something that stands out and causes you to become conscious of the writing itself, remove that word, phrase, description, piece of dialogue or characterization. If you noticed it, so will your readers. The story will stumble and any points you wanted to make will be interrupted.
Professional writing is not an academic excursive in showing off how much you know about writing craft, it is using the craft of writing to reveal the material with such impact that the physical presentation becomes invisible. Mark Childress, author of Crazy in Alabama, says to “Kill your darlings.”
Writers may believe that they can’t remove material because they might not be able to think of something else. In truth, writers have an inexhaustible source of material within themselves and their imaginations to create new prose that describes characters and situations. Others hope to impress readers by demonstrating a command of language. This is like drawing a set of gorgeous drapes across a picture window and blocking the view from outside.
You are the first editor in a rewrite, and you must be ruthless with yourself. Fight your ego if it tells you to keep material that does not serve the telling the story or the revelation of the characters.
David A. Wimsett is the author of Beyond the Shallow, a novel of a woman overcoming prejudice and searching for herself amidst rumors of the selkies from Celtic mythology, and Dragons Unremembered: Volume I of the Carandir Saga, a fantasy epic set in a world of gender equality where women and men have the same rights, opportunities and authority. The second volume of the saga, Half Awakened Dreams, will be released on September 21, 2020. He is a member of the Writers' Union of Canada and the Canadian Freelance Guild.
People write for many reasons. Some want to publish their work professionally. Some want to share their stories with family and friends. Others want to leave a personal legacy as a history or memoir.
In non-fiction, your work can be entertaining and fun while discussing music, art, movies, vacation spots and other subjects. It can teach people important skills such as how to find a job, cook or garden. It can examine history to better understand where we came from and draw lessons for today’s world. It can document current events either in a journalistic manner or with your own opinions.
In fiction, writers can tell a rollicking tale of action or comedy, or place characters in tough situations where the way they react to pressure reveals their true nature and makes a comment on the human condition. Stories can be contemporary, historical, take place in the future or in a fantasy land.
In the same manner that an artist will use brushes to create a painting, writers use grammar to produce books and articles. It is the tool with which stories are built. You can learn grammar in high school and college courses. Another resource is to read and read and read anything you can get your hands on. Study each book. Ask yourself how the writer used words and constructed sentences. Note what you enjoyed and what fell flat.
A good book to consult for English grammar is The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White. This hundred page volume teaches grammar in a clear and understandable manner. It covers subjects such as punctuation, tense, brevity, misused words, clarity and more. The Elements of Style provides writers with both instruction and reference.
Yet, writing is more than an academic exercise in grammar. There is a second set of tools called craft. This involves skills such as developing characters, pacing the story, writing dialogue and moving the plot forward. College course on writing and journalism can teach these things. You can also find many fine books on the craft of writing. One standard for novels and short stories is The Art of Fiction by John Gardner. Another resource is Dare to be a Great Writer by my first mentor, Leonard Bishop.
Knowing the kind of writing you want to produce along with the audience you want to reach and a basic understanding of the building blocks of grammar and craft will get you ready to begin, whether you want to write something light and fun or a work that delves into the core of humanity.
Whatever you learn from classes or books, know that there are many opinions about how to write. Some of them are quite contradictory. Evaluate the advice with an open mind and apply it as you learn to write, but do not take any of it as gospel.
In the beginning, you will tend to emulate the works of writers you have read and the instructions of teachers in the classroom and from books. Over time, you will develop a sense of perspective and will accept, modify and reject some of what you have learned. You will also learn new things in the process of writing. Out of this, your own style and voice will emerge. As time passes, you may see both your style and voice change as you experience new events. Learning how to write is a lifelong endeavor. I learn something new every day.
David A. Wimsett is the author of Beyond the Shallow, a novel of a woman overcoming prejudice and searching for herself amidst rumors of the selkies from Celtic mythology, and Dragons Unremembered: Volume I of the Carandir Saga, a fantasy epic set in a gender balanced world where women and men have the same rights, opportunities and authority. The second volume of the saga, Half Awakened Dreams, will be released on September 21, 2020. He is a member of the Writers' Union of Canada and the Canadian Freelance Guild.
No one likes to be rejected.
It has a string. People are social and want to be accepted, yet in relationships, business and school, everyone has experienced rejection. It can feel like a personal attack on ourselves and our values.
But, artists, writers, film makers, composers, actors, musicians and others who create and present works to the public must break past this concept and recognize that a rejection or criticism by an individual is just that, one person’s opinion.
For writers, they may feel that rejections by agents, editors, publishers or magazines are a comment on their character. This is not the case. The people you send your queries to are publishing professionals. Though they love books, they are running businesses whose existence and viability are the mechanism by which books reach the reading public. If a publishing house or magazine prints too many stories that don’t sell, they could go out of business and the authors they represent would be left with no distribution. These companies must select material that is not only the best writing, it has to sell and satisfy readers.
There are many reasons a book, short story, poem or article might be rejected. It may not fit the style of a particular magazine or publishing house. Many agents, editors and magazines work in specific areas. A great book about winter vacation spots in the Caribbean will not be picked up by an agent or editor specializing in children’s stories. That’s why it’s so important to research the kinds of work each magazine and publisher accepts.
Another reason is that they may already have too many similar works at the time or they may have a backlog of stories and are not looking for more.
It may also not be that your submission is not written at a professional level. In this case, the rejection is for the work, not you as person. The story or article may need to be improved or you may need to enhance your writing skills.
Most rejections tell you little or nothing as to why the work was not accepted. You will see phrases like, “this does not fit our current needs.” You will often be wished good luck in placing your story somewhere else. Neither of these things do you much good. Sometimes, however, you will get feedback. This can be a gift, and you should consider it carefully.
When I began writing, I was not producing award winning material. Very few beginners do. Writing involves craft that has to be learned and practiced constantly, often over many years.
One agent did me the biggest favor ever when he rejected my submission. He said that I included too many step-by-step descriptions of action that did not move the plot forward.
For instance, I might have once written something like, “George received his bank statement and saw that the service charge was double what it had been the month before. He walked out of his house, got in his car, and drove downtown. After parking his vehicle, he got out and walked into the bank with the statement in his hands to confront the bank manager.”
The only point of this little scene is for George to see his bank statement and to then go to the bank to discuss it.
Today, I would write, “George received his bank statement and saw that the service charge was double what it had been the month before. He went to the bank, statement in hand, to confront the bank manager.”
That agent told me something about my writing that I did not realize. This allowed me to examine my own skills and improve them. Some people would be angry that they were rejected. I can never thank this agent enough for his rejection because it allowed me to become a professional writer and author.
I have had writers say to me that their material was “Their baby” or “Their blood upon the page.” It is neither. What you write is just a piece of work and it either communicated your ideas effectively of it didn’t. If it didn’t, it needs to be fixed. Still, writers can expose themselves in their work. Even if a piece of writing is not autobiographical, the emotional reactions of the characters are often drawn from the writer’s own life experiences. Still, it is the presentation of the art that has been rejected, not the artist.
Don’t think of rejections as an attack on you. Try to learn from them. However, don’t make changes to a manuscript based on every rejection or comment. Examine each and determine if they expose a problem in your writing or if they are just personal opinions based on someone’s taste.
Certainly, there are individuals who make personal attacks on creators. The best thing to do in those cases is to ignore the comments. The same thing applies to people who criticize your themes and ideas that they don’t agree with. Those themes and ideas belong to you and you have to accept that anything you write can create controversy. Never reply to a negative comment on social media or elsewhere and never respond to anyone in defense of your writing. It can only start a war. Just let people say what they say and go on working. However, in instances of slander and liable, you may want to seek legal advice.
A very good book for writers is Rotten Reviews
by Bill Henderson. This little collection of negative reviews covers works by authors such as Leo Tolstoy, Jonathan Swift, Virginia Wolf, F. Scott Fitzgerald and others. The book is not only amusing, it is an assurance to writers that not every opinion or rejection is well placed.
David A. Wimsett is the author of Beyond the Shallow, a novel of a woman searching for herself amidst rumors of the selkies from Celtic mythology, and Dragons Unremembered: Volume I of the Carandir Saga, a fantasy epic set in a gender balanced world where women and men have the same rights, opportunities and authority. Half Awakened Dreams: Volume II of the Carandir Sage will be released at the end of Summer, 2020.
I just finished a personal branding workshop by Jeniffer Thompson from Monkey C Media (https://jenifferthompson.com/) that was presented through the Independent Book Publishers’ Association. The seminar consisted of six, one hour sessions plus homework to hone in on each student’s strengths, weaknesses, audience and underlying goals in being authors. She stressed the importance of establishing a personal image and presence on the web. One of her suggestions was to establish a unique author’s website in addition to social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and Amazon author’s pages.
All of her advice was excellent. Up until now, I have pointed readers to my publisher’s website to see my books. I now have my own author’s site where I not only showcase my works with details and links as to where they can be purchased, I get to speak directly to readers about who I am as a writer, my own values and why I want to write. You can see what I put together at http://www.davidawimsett.com.
I was lucky enough to get a web address that matched my name. I also purchased the address davidwimsett.com without the middle initial and linked it to the main site. This increases the chance that people will be able to find me. If you are an author, I encourage you to claim your own personal brand by putting up a website just for you.
There are a wide variety of processes that different authors use to create their books. I can’t say that any one is better than another. Everyone has to choose the way they work best. Here is a little insight as to how I create stories.
One thing is universal. Writing any fiction, especially a novel, requires dedication, time and perseverance. Most successful authors will advise that you write every day, even if you only produce a paragraph. If you write a page a day, in a year you have the first draft of a novel. You are also intimately immersed in your story and charters. This allows you see the relationships of story and people clearly so that the work remains consistent.
Writing every day is good advice, and it is best to strive for as a goal. Of course, very few writers work every single day. We take vacations, enjoy holidays and spend time with our friends and family. I do take breaks. We all need them. Still, I work almost every day on articles, blogs and books. I take a paper notebook and a pen with me everywhere I go and write when I am waiting for a plane, a bus or a meeting. I began my fantasy novel Half Awakened Dreams: Volume II of the Carandir Saga on a spiral notebook in a restaurant when I was having dinner after a pod cast conference.
Some authors outline their stories in generalities or details. This can be especially helpful when writing mysteries or thrillers because these kinds of stories contain puzzles and the author has to organize all the pieces.
I have never worked from an outline. An outline can be used to assemble thoughts and elements, but it can also be restrictive. My preference is to start with an idea and perhaps a vague sense of where I’m heading, though none of my novels have actually opened the way I initially conceived them or finished the way I envisioned.
I allow the plot and the characters to grow organically. As I write, the process of creating the plot and characters suggest things to me that I had not thought of when I began. A plot can take off in an entirely unexpected way. As I become more familiar with the material, characters can expose aspects in my mind that were not thought of before. I usually have no idea of what will happen until I come to that part of the book. It’s like I’m watching a movie in my head and am constantly surprised by turns of events. If I had started with an outline, I would either be restricted in letting my imagination expand so that I would be forced to follow the outline or I would have had to constantly adjust the outline which would be double the work. I’m a little lazy, so I just write it once.
There is a symbiotic relationship between plots and characters. Plot places characters in situations where they must make decisions that expose their essence and the changed character’s subsequent actions alter the plot. For instance, say a character is planning to paint the kitchen on a Saturday. A call comes from a long lost relative. This causes the character to realize the lack of time spent with an aging parent. The character abandons the idea of painting the kitchen and pays a visit on that parent, an action that can bring about more character revelations and plot elements.
Now, I just created that on the fly. I knew I wanted to demonstrate the relationship between characters and plots, but I didn’t know how I was going to do it. I started with a character planning to do something, then the notion of an interruption by a forgotten relative came to mind, followed by the idea that this causes an emotional dilemma in the character who reflects on a neglected parent and that causes the character to abandon the original plan. In other words, I just made it up as I went. It was an exercise in discovery. If this story were to continue, it could offer the ability to explore any of the characters and dig deeper into their thoughts and emotions. The plot would unfold as the characters interacted. Poof. You have the beginnings of a novel. If anyone wants to take this idea and run with it, please feel free to do so.
Some writers work in chronological order starting at the beginning of the story and continuing until they reach the end. I initially start my books this way, but as soon as I have a foothold, I often realize that there are scenes I will need, though I may not know where they will be put. Instead of continuing ahead, I will stop from time to time and create those scenes out of the chronological timeframe.
They may be small, standalone plots that I will insert in whole someplace during the first draft or even in subsequent drafts. They may also be entire subplots that take place over an extended period of time. I might insert these in full or break it up and place the pieces in different spots as they are needed to move the plot forward or give insight to characters and their motivations. As I move through discovering the story, I will see where a previously written piece should fit in. Not all of this material will be used. Nothing can go into the finished book that does not move the story forward and enhance the characters. No matter how well written something is, if it does not contribute to the book it has to be left out. Be prepared to rewrite your novel in multiple drafts and allow yourself to change anything during the process.
This can be difficult for many beginning writers. They see the time and care they took and are afraid that if they discard any material they will not have enough to fill up their novel. Everyone who wants to write on a professional level must realize that all authors have an inexhaustible source of material within them. Their imaginations can manufacture new plot devices and new character interactions with just a little concentration. At 320 pages, Dragons Unremembered: Volume I of the Carandir Saga is 100,000 words in length. I threw out over 700,000 words of material. Entire plot lines, lands, peoples, legends and more sit in file folders that no one will ever see. Some of the material was just plain bad and had to go. Some of it bordered too closely on Tolkien’s elves and dwarves. I wanted original material without either. Other scenes were very well written but did not fit into the story.
Mark Childress, author or Crazy in Alabama, says to, “Kill your darlings.” If it stands out, if it draws attention to itself and takes attention away from the plot and character, get rid of it, no matter how much you love it. Remember, there’s always more where that came from.
For several decades, writers producing technical and nonfiction material have struggled with how to compose gender neutral prose. Before the 1970s the word “Man” was often used to mean all people, male and female. Likewise, the word “He” was used to mean a specific person who was either female or male. Instructions in manuals would read, “When the operator sees the red light flash they must press the blue button.” This created a fender imbalance in the language and implied that women were merely extensions of men.
Since then, society has looked for ways to be gender inclusive in writing. The first attempt was to write, “he or she.” Alternatives have been “she or he” – “he/she” – “she/he” and “s/he.” These were often rotated so that each gender reference alternately appeared first in sentences .
Not only are these phrases awkward, they persist in pointing out gender inequality by making a distinction. In addition, there is the question of who goes first, the male or the female reference.
Some people have suggested introducing new pronouns that are gender natural. None have been adopted. Even though the English language is very malleable and changes occur frequently, there are some words that are highly resistant to change. Those words include pronouns.
Others have suggested that the plural pronoun “they” be use in a singular sentence, such as, “When the operator sees the red light flash they must press the blue button.” This is simply not grammatically correct. Mixing singular with plural in a sentence sounds and reads wrong.
So, what is the solution? I have wrestled with this for years in writing articles, business documents and technical manuals. I suggest that writers always make their sentences plural unless they are speaking about a particular person, as in, “When operators see the red light flash, they must press the blue button.” There is no need for the ungainly “he or she” or to break grammar rules by combining plural and singular in a sentence. This is simple, flows seamlessly and does not bring up images of gender imbalance because there is no gender reference when writing in general terms.
If writers speak of a particular person, they may use "he" for males and "she" for females, as in, “Mary drove her car to work” or “Tom picked up his dry cleaning.”
There can be cases where a specific person being described does not want to be associated with a gender at all. A sentence could read, ”Feglarglata got into the car and drove to the store.” A problem arises if you want to say that a specific person drove to the store in a car owned by that individual.
This is simple when writing in first person. “I got into my car and drove to the store.” Pronounce such as ‘I’, ‘me’, ‘you’, ‘us’ and ‘them’ are gender neutral.
In the third person you might say, “Feglarglata got into the car owned by Feglarglata and drove to the store.” Repeating the individual’s name avoids any gender specific pronouns, but it is a little long winded and a bit awkward.
The sentence could also be written, ”Feglarglata got into its car and drove to the store.” This works, but addressing a person as ‘it’ sounds harsh and impersonal.
It is possible to write a complete story without any reference to gender and not get bogged down. Consider this tale.
Feglarglata owned a car and drove it to the store. It was a short trip and the scenery was pleasant. After finding a parking space near the front door, it was a quick walk into the store to buy some bread and vegetables for the party that evening. Feglarglata was looking forward to seeing new and old friends alike. There would certainly be an enjoyable game of charades.
The trip home passed the old city hall that had been converted into a community center. Childhood memories surfaced of days spent playing softball and making crafts.
At home, the groceries were put away. A quick inspection of the kitchen and living room showed that everything was ready for the party.
The doorbell rang and Grylke walked into the living room sporting a wide smile. The old friend said, “I have been looking forward to this. I saw the others at launch and they are all coming”.
The two of them shook hands. Feglarglata said, “Can you help me bring some chairs in from the kitchen. We should be able to finish before anyone else arrives.” As soon as they were done, the doorbell sounded again.
Historical fiction requires the same command of writing craft as is found in any genre. In addition, writers of historical fiction must conduct intense research into the people, objects and locations of the time being written about. Authors must become immersed in the subject while building stories and characters that create unique books.
Research can take many forms; books, newspapers and magazines from the period, lectures, museums, videos, archival films, interviews, search engines and physical journeys to the places where the book takes place. I used all of these in researching a historical novel. Traveling to the actual location and visiting museums gave me the feel of the place and provided context to period exhibits. Travelogue lectures and videos were like guided tours. Archival films documented specifics about clothing, transportation and current affairs. The Internet gave me details about temperature, population, landscape, customs and festivals. Original and microfilmed copies of period magazines and newspapers filed in gaps concerning everyday life, anxieties and hopes. The advertisements were very interesting because they highlighted desires and morals of the time.
If done thoroughly, research will produce volumes of notes. Yet, authors will only want to use a fraction of the facts they gather. Some might question this after making such an investment in research and think that they need to include everything they have discovered because it is so interesting. This is a mistake. A historical novel is not a text book. It must contain just enough details to set the novel in the time period without overwhelming the reader. Too many facts distract the reader from the plot and character development. It’s important to reach a balance.
Consider a paragraph that uses extensive historical facts, such as, “Aaron opened the door of the 1962 Chevy Impala and sat in the driver’s seat. It had C pillar styling that was not offered in the 4-door hardtop. The engine was a 409 cubic-incher that only came with a standard transmission. It was a true legacy to Swiss race car driver Louis Chevrolet (1879 – 1941) and his partner William C. Durant (1861-1947) who started the Chevrolet Motor Car Company on November 3, 1911. Aaron knew this car would win the race and save the orphanage.”
All of these fact are real, and may be of interest to car enthusiasts, but it is far too much information for the majority of readers. That Aaron has found a fast car that will win a race to save the orphanage is lost in the words. It would be far better to write, “Aaron opened the door of the 1962 Chevy Impala and sat in the driver’s seat. Surly, the big 409 cubic-inch engine would win the race and save the orphanage.”
That is not to say you should leave out all the facts you discover. One of the things readers seek in historical fiction is a sense of the time and place. Descriptions of houses, rooms, clothing, transportation and implements create the feeling of a time gone by, but you should be selective in what you include. I wrote a historical novel in which I needed to get some lye that would be used in a future scene into a character’s pocket. This was both setting and foreshadowing, so it needed it to be memorable but subtle. I choose to have another character make soap while the main character helped. I researched soap making and learned many details. I used very few of those facts in the scene. The description of soap making consists of a general overview that gives the sense of making soap in the time period while leaving out detailed specifics, except for one. The character making the soap uses one type of lye over another, explaining that it makes softer soap but has a more violent reaction when exposed to water. The main character ties some left over lye in a handkerchief and puts it in a pocket. The fact that the lye was more active was very important to the plot a few chapters later.
When writing about actual historical figures, you cannot change known, historical facts. Marie Curie discovered radium and died from radiation poisoning at the age of 66, but an author can’t have her stop experimenting and live to be 100. Harriet Tubman was an abolitionist who was a former slave. She organized the underground railway to help other escaped slaves, but a historical novel cannot have her become president of the United States. Whatever documented actions a historical person took cannot be changed in a book. However, the author has complete leeway to explore the private moments in their lives when there is no known record of what they did or did not do, say or think. These unknown emotions, dreams, desires, etc. are fair game. Pablo Picasso’s painting Guernica is a passionate condemnation of the Spanish civil war. The intent and result are evident, yet, who has crawled inside the mind on Picasso to know exactly what he was feeling and thinking at the time? Authors of a historical novel can do this.
Historical fiction can be entertaining, informative and thought provoking. It can also shed light on our contemporary world by showing us what has changed and what has not, thus giving us the opportunity to grow as societies and individuals. Authors can do this by choosing the right details, creating memorable characters and telling great stories within the chosen time period. thin the chosen time period.
No matter the career path people pursue, they start off knowing next to nothing about it. Carpenters must learn how to pound nails. They may have watched every episode of a particular home improvement show, but until they gain the experience of actually doing it, they will hit the wood as much as the nails and half of those will be bent. The same is true in other professions. Initial exposure is a good grounding, but there is a difference between knowing a thing and knowing the experience of a thing.
This includes writing. It takes time to learn the nuances of the craft; language, characterization, dialog, plot, suspense, comedy, drama and so forth. We all begin by imitating the styles of writers we have read until we develop our own unique voice, much as art students copy masterpieces to get the feel of how the original artists captured light or expressed an emotion. Through this process, writers accumulate techniques they will continue to use. There are those who do pop onto the scene with works of brilliance, however, for most it can take years to master the craft.
Even after reaching that professional level, you will discover that the process of learning never ends. There are always new things to discover. This requires a willingness to continually evaluate yourself as a writer and to examine critiques. They could come from other writers, Professional or learning, or a critique group. A major difference between professionals and neophytes is the ability to override their egos and commit themselves to improvement.
A critique is an examination of how effectively themes or points was expressed. When writers examine critiques about their works, they can gain a better understanding of how to best communicate to readers.
Some new writers can be hypersensitive to accepting critiques. Suggestions may be considered attacks on their character. They may think of their stories as their babies and each word their blood on the page. I have actually heard these words used. Some writers might say that their mother liked their manuscript or their friends enjoyed it. These attitudes are a great impediment to becoming a professional writer. Mothers like everything about their children and friends may not want to point out faults. Writers must look to people involved in writing who are willing to comment on how effective their work is.
Many beginning writers fear that they will run out of material and, therefore, they must jealously guard what they have. In truth, authors have an inexhaustible source of new ideas that they can draw on by just sitting down, writing them out, seeing how they read, and following threads that are suggested by the material. I threw out five times as much text as that retained in one final manuscript. Entire characters, cultures, locations and plot lines were removed because they did not serve the book.
There is a standard answer people in the arts give when a beginner asks about how to break into the business. It goes something like, “Do your best. Send your material out, and if you don’t make it in five years move on.” This is nonsense. What of you needed five years and a month to get you book accepted by a publisher? If you have the determination to work on your material, improve yourself and learn from other writers, continue in your day job and write in the morning or evening. Tom Clancy was just a middle aged insurance salesman while he worked on Hunt for Red October. J.K. Rowling submitted Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone to over 20 publishers. What if she had stopped after 19? Keep writing and learning. What do you have to lose?
Apprentice carpenters begin in near ignorance. They get experience on the job, go to training courses and proceed through the ranks to become master carpenters. There is no shame in not knowing everything at first, but we humans are impatient, even more so in this wired world. We must all be willing to swallow our egos long enough to listen to others and profit from their views and experiences to become masters.