On Rejection and Courage in Writing

I don’t think I have many stories rejected anymore because of the writing per se. (Although I am capable of  writing the occasional sentence that makes the reader stop and say, “Wha?”)  No, I think the reasons I get rejected now is due to length: too short oYou want to write? You must have the courage to fail.r too long, the editor having a bad day, the editor having my story and another equally good from a well-known writer and picks the other guy (well, I would too, writing is a business) and a hundred other little things out of my control.

In a way it is like trying to catch lightning in a bottle.  It’s not my skill level as much as it’s timing, space left over in a magazine, and a host of other little problems I cannot remove.  That’s okay. I can actually work with that.

Meanwhile, I do what I can to keep those road bumps down to a minimum.  I feel rather good overall about my ability to write.

If writing is all I want to do. But even when you accomplish that, there is one more barrier you have to overcome.

You see, I know a lot of writers.   All the successful writers I know have one thing in common.

They all have the courage to fail. 

They know to attain success you must 1.) submit your work 2.) believe in your work (and yourself) and 3.) possess enough courage to be willing to fail, and fail repeatedly, until you are published.

I also know a lot of people who want to be writers.  Some of them are pretty damn good. The only thing holding them back, as far as I can tell, is finding that inner courage and preparation to confront failure. .

It’s a difficult concept to accept.  I’m not saying it’s an easy philosophy to live by.  But if you want to be successful in anything you do, you must have the courage to try and never quit until you reach your goal.  This lack of courage is, I believe,  one reason I see so many  otherwise decent writers give up before they’ve ever truly begun.

Writing is not easy. I have no patience for anyone who thinks this profession is easy.  In fact it can be downright soul-smashing.   But remember when you get rejected it’s not personal.  It’s never personal.  The editors aren’t rejecting you, they’re rejecting your work, and no, even if you want to believe otherwise, they are not the same thing.

So find the courage inside yourself  and start submitting. I think you will be pleasantly surprised at the results. 🙂



My 10 Favorite Opening Lines for Fiction

Here are my top first lines from books I’ve read.  These books have had an impact on my maturity and growth as a writer.  But they aren’t arranged in any particular order.  I’ve tried to include  lines that weren’t selected a while back by American Book Review, though there are one or two I couldn’t help but pick. There are also lines I’ve liked over the years but didn’t include them because I don’t have the book here with me and I can’t remember the line exactly. One is the opening from Of Mice and Men which reads something like “A few miles south of Soledad they threw me off the truck.”  But since I don’t have the actual quote, I didn’t include it in this current list.  It’s a great first line, though, especially when you know “Soledad” means loneliness in Spanish.

An other fun first line that got some play in the SF community a while back is from John Varley’s novel Steel Beach, which reads something like “In twenty years the male penis will be extinct.”  Funny and novel, worth a grin and definitely memorable, but pretty shallow otherwise. I include mention of it only if you run across the book so you can look up the line as it was actually written.

So here are some of my personal favorites:

1. Call me Ishmael.    –Herman Melville, Moby Dick

It’s really hard to ignore this opening line. Aside from the fact it’s world famous, I argue the line itself, from a lot of different perspectives, is not only well written, it’s a super grab-you line. Three words, but weighty with significance before and after you read the novel.  Absolutely perfect in every sense of the word.

2.  You don’t know me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but that ain’t no matter.  –Mark Twain,  Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Another perfect first line. Evokes character, gives setting and hooks you hard all because of the dialect and the tease “You don’t know me….”  A great first line from one of the greatest books ever written.

3. They’re out there.  –Ken Kesey, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

I like this a lot. Total paranoia that hits you between the eyes like a two-by-four.  At first blush you might think it’s a short and pithy line. Look deeper.

4. It was eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills.  –Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep

I think this is a great first line. Gives place, some depth of characterization and emotional content. You can’t wait to see what is going to happen next….

5.  It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.  –George Orwell, 1984

Wow. There’s a lot going on in this first line, isn’t there? Where to begin? You know you’re in a very different world after you read this line, and you can’t wait to find out what it’s like. Also, you know it’s not a world you would probably want to live in…if this society has clocks that strike thirteen….

6. The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning.  –Ian Fleming, Casino Royale

I love this line. I think it’s great. It gives you everything and is a strong hook for the reader. A great first line. Fleming had many of these; he was good at first lines.

7. He lay flat on the brown, pine-needled floor of the forest, his chin on his folded arms, and high overhead the wind blew in the tops of the pine trees.   –Ernest Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls

I really like this one. You can feel the pine needles and hear the wind blowing through the tops of the trees. You know right away this is a character and a scene worth reading about.  Really well done…but then again we’re talking about Hemingway. Sadly, as good as the book is, it doesn’t live up to this opening line. However, this is what we writers call a circular line because the book ends with him lying on the pine needles, his heart thumping….so this first line provides an entrance to the book and also closure.

8.  It was a quiet morning, the town covered over with darkness and at ease in bed.  –Ray Bradbury, Dandelion Wine

Typical Bradbury, both poetic and romantic at the same time.  Maybe a funny pick, but I like this one, too. Though, I admit, the first line from Fahrenheit 451 gets more play, and perhaps deservedly so.

9. “Tonight we’re going to show you eight silent ways to kill a man.”  Joe Haldeman, The Forever War

Another winner. Gets you into the action right away and keeps you reading. Sadly, most science fiction writers don’t write great first lines. Asimov never did, Heinlein wrote a couple of memorable ones. It’s as if the focus of the genre is not on hooking the reader — SF readers don’t have to be talked into reading a novel, they’re usually happy to do it anyway, especially if they already know the writer’s work — but on the world building. But when a killer first line does come across, like this one, the book finds popularity outside the SF audience.

10. I am living at the Villa Borghese.    –Henry Miller,  Tropic of Cancer

This one is a bit of a cheat. The line itself isn’t high-powered, but that’s because it leads naturally into the next line, and that into the following. So it’s the first paragraph that is really killer. Here is the entire paragraph:

I am living at the Villa Borghese.  There is not a crumb of dirt anywhere, nor a chair misplaced. We are all alone here and we are dead.   –Henry Miller

Now that’s a great opening. You’re totally hooked. The writing is terse and novel and Miller has put words together in a new way to make you think like “crumb of dirt….” and the shock of  “we are dead” that brings the reader up short. So in that context it’s a fantastic opening line, imo.

I would be interested to see lists of your favorite opening lines if you want to share them.  🙂

Seven Deadly Qualifiers that Weaken Fiction

One thing I do when I edit or reread my story before I submit it,  is to use a search function to find and zap qualifiers in the manuscript.

Qualifiers are a pain.  They weaken sentence structure even though they are all but invisible.   Okay, sometimes I admit you need a qualifier, and having one in dialog isn’t the kiss of death.  Go ahead and listen to the way people speak.  They use LOTS of qualifiers in their speech.  But what works in real life doesn’t always work in fiction, and you have to be careful when using them in a short story.

Below is a list of qualifiers I search for when I’m finished with a manuscript:

Really (This one is truly insidious. Remove it whenever possible)

There are many others, like “Seem” which I see a lot even from professional writers. But these are the seven I always search for. You should too if you want your fiction to be taken seriously.  I really mean it! 😛

Suspension of Disbelief: Not the Rubicon You Thought It Was

The more I study opera the more I learn about suspension of disbelief at least as far as writing goes, and the human propensity for engaging in it.

Suspension of disbelief is a big thing in opera.  It’s a natural given you are to suspend a lot of disbelief so the opera can move on.  So what if the woman singing the role of a Viking is Asian?  So what if two characters meet and fall in love in five seconds to set up the tragic ending?  So what if a brother and sister, from the very same parents, are black and white?  So what if Brunnhilde’s horse, Grane, NEVER makes an appearance during Gotterdammerung, even when she sings an aria to him and leads him into the funeral pyre at the end?

It doesn’t matter.  You take it on faith Grane is there even if you don’t see him.

Now I’m not saying you can get away with this sort of blatant disregard in fiction.  You can’t.  But you can get away with a hell of a lot besides.  Fantasy is chock full of stuff like this: magic, dragons, elves, demons, etc.  SF is, too: time machines, faster-than-light spacecraft, stellar empires.  All that stuff is garbage.  The physical limitations the universe imposes upon these tropes are real and immutable.  You can’t travel faster than the speed of light because it violates causality. Period.  But we happily accept FTL spacecraft and other nonsense elements like telepathy for the sake of the story.  That’s suspension of disbelief on both the part of the writer and the reader.

And that’s what fascinates me from a human perspective.  Our willingness, or innate need, to want to believe things that are manifestly and demonstrably not true intrigues me.  Okay, you can kind of understand why someone would want to do it in order to be entertained.  They are entering a contract with the writer when they pick up a story. But you can’t cross that line in such a way the story jolts them out of that prepared place they’ve put themselves in.  Opera gets away with a hell of a lot, more than written fiction can, and I’ve yet to understand why, though I suspect it is because reading is entirely mental and opera has dependent qualities of visual and aural cues married to imagination.  But both depend on the audience willing to put aside some degree of skepticism so the story can continue in a logical way. That’s the important thing to remember.

I guess what I’m trying to say is people can be manipulated a lot easier than I originally believed.  That’s a pretty strong lesson for any writer to have learned, and I’m glad I have learned it.  Though there are still boundaries you can’t cross, suspension of disbelief is not the Rubicon I once thought it was.

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