Rejection Slip Ups

I’ve been writing all my life with varying levels of productivity depending on what I’m up to otherwise in my life: school and university are high production times, the early stages of motherhood were very much less so.

I have written targeted stories, aimed at being published in specific magazines or website, and I’ve also written stories that demand to be written: occurring as an idea, but then returning persistently, slowly taking shape in my brain until I simply have to start getting them down on paper. ‘Paper’ being primarily electronic these days, I have the lucky facility of being able to type faster and more accurately than I can write with a pen these day. The only thing that I feel comes out better on physical paper is my poetry – which tends to be bad at the best of times! (I’ve also written hundreds – thousands – of internet articles, travel pieces and blogs for other people and companies, but they don’t really count as few are published under my name, and all were written purely for the money, which wasn’t much!)

All that aside, the point I wanted to make in this post was this: no matter how much you write, no matter how much polishing you do on your work and no matter how good you think it is, you can still be rejected.

Rejection slips used to be exactly that, a compliment slip with a bald sentence or two, always along the lines of, ‘Thanks for the story but it’s not quite right for us.’ If you’re lucky, you might get an additional sentence encouraging you to keep writing, or a few words of feedback that point out ways to tighten up the writing, or how to make it stronger in some way. It must be emphasised that your writing, at this point, should be the best that you can make it: correct spelling (and, yes, American English is perfectly acceptable – you must just be consistent!) and word use, good grammar or appropriate use of idiom and so on, way before you are ready to submit the piece anywhere.

These days rejections – like submissions – are more likely to be electronic, arriving in your email inbox with their deflating little stock phrases ‘Thank you, but…’ and ‘Try again soon’.

As you have probably worked out, the reason for this post now is that I’ve recently received one of these little missives. I wrote a piece for a competition – requiring that three specific words be used in a story – and sent it off, reasonably happy with what I’d done and promptly forgot about it. (I have to try and put submissions out of my mind as soon as they’re sent or else the waiting drives me mad!) Today, I saw a reply in my inbox and clicked on it.

‘Thanks for your entry! After careful consideration, we have decided that we can’t shortlist it this time. Please do try again when the next quarter’s competition is open.’ The email continued, saying that a small piece of feedback specific to my story would follow under a separate message. The feedback message duly followed. The gist of the message was that I had not written a story, I had written a ‘dramatic essay’ instead. A good ‘dramatic essay’, but a ‘dramatic essay’ never-the-less.

I usually try and ignore the sting of any criticism and take on board the constructive suggestions, but this one has me stumped! What is a ‘dramatic essay’? How can I make the narrative that I constructed fulfil ‘story’ rather than ‘essay’ criteria when I thought I was doing the former all along?

So I’ve decided to throw it open to you all! What constitutes story to you? And essay? Pop your thoughts in the comments section.

Research Lights

I’ve not posted for a while as I’ve been busy with a couple of other projects – one of which involved doing fairly intensive research.

Up till now, I’ve usually spent a bare minimum of time on research, writing my stories first, and then going back to correct any mistakes or fill in any gaps in the tale, needing only to know enough for authenticity, not needing any real kind of expertise.

The research project I undertook involved much more intensive examination and began more formally. I had to write a proposal, stating what I thought I would be writing about and how long the finished piece would be. Then I had to keep a very detailed diary, stating all my findings, the difficulties I encountered and any pieces of good luck that brought me the information I needed easily or with little effort. For example, one book that claimed to have all the information I needed was out of print and impossible to source quickly – but I found the text in pdf form online through an archive site. I then I had to read the information, having found it.

This is where having written a proposal came in tremendously handy – I discovered that every historical text that I read (I was looking at the Bell Witch of Tennessee, about real life events from 1817 – 1821) opened up new avenues to explore – as well as hundreds of even more fascinating and diversionary by-ways. Having the proposal to hand, and having committed myself to one rather narrow aspect of the story, helped to keep my research and writing in check. Without this, I would have wandered off researching the prevalence of slave ownership, the treatment by settlers of Native Americans, the amusing battle – dignified yet passionately felt – between Baptists and Methodists and any number of interesting facts and bits of trivia.

The second major realisation that intensive research inspired in me is that writers must have open minds. When I first read of the Bell Witch, I immediately assumed that there must be a logical explanation that my twentieth century mind would easily uncover and I further assumed that ‘witch’ meant ‘old woman who dared think for herself’ (my ideas on witches are heavily influenced by Terry Pratchett!) Getting to grips with the actual research did not bear out these assumptions – you know what they say about ‘assume’?! I have come to a conclusion about the guilty party, but it was not, as I first assumed, the patriarchal head of the Bell family – nor was it, in any sense of the word as understood today, any kind of an actual witch! Rather, the word ‘witch’ was used interchangeably with ‘spirit or ‘goblin’ and what was experienced by the Bell family was less a witchy curse and more of a haunting.

So to summarise: I’ve learned that research should be approached with tight reins and a wide open mind. (And also that research will never end unless you exercise the former! But that’s another story.)

I’ve popped a link to my new drabble below – my first in some time! Let me know what you think about the blog and the story in the comments below.

See you next time

Liz

PS Ooh, excitement! Patches of Light, the latest anthology from the High Sheriff’s Prize for Literature has been launched this week and I’m in it! Link also below in case you’re looking for presents for reading friends and family or even looking for a fantastic collection of stories for your own bookcase!

https://drablr.com/lizmilne/drabble/f6x-the-freckle

http://storefront.chester.ac.uk/index.php?main_page=product_info&cPath=12_13&products_id=622&zenid=tiocuj2mdsg174b1geeskdtsb3