Reflections On Writing

I. Playing With Words

Classic Children's Books

Classic Children’s Books

Many of the best books for children and teens—those that become classics—often possess the same appeal for adults as they do for younger readers. The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien, and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series have maintained their popularity over years, and even decades. I suspect the number of readers worldwide who first discovered these tales as adults, would rival the accumulated numbers of children and young people who came to them during their preteen and teen years. I remember reading such titles as David Copperfield, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, The Arabian Nights, and even Agatha Christie mysteries when I was around the age of ten or eleven. No one ever told me that one or more of them might be inappropriate for me or beyond my reading level. If I didn’t understand a word right away, I would soon pick up the meaning from the context, as most children will do over time. (I might have had fewer nightmares, though, if I’d stuck with the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys series!)

Playing With Words

Playing With Words

But I digress from the real topic of this post. I would have to say that the phrase “playing with words” has nothing to do with the targeted age of the reader, and everything to do with freeing the creative mind. The makers of magnetic words that can be arranged into a poem on the side of a fridge understood that concept perfectly—and made money from it at the same time.


Years ago, at the first meeting of Inklinks–a writers’ group of which I was once a member–someone mentioned having read a book entitled The Empty Box. She described it as a collection of short stories written by well-known published authors, all of whom had been invited to write on the same subject. It sounded like an intriguing idea for us to adopt, and so we borrowed that title to use as our own personal writing prompt in preparation for getting together again two weeks later.

As any writer will tell you, it’s almost impossible to fall asleep at night after your creative impulse has been sparked in such a way. While lying awake, my thoughts ricocheted from one idea to another: The “empty box” became an “empty shoe box” in my mind, which made me wonder what kind of shoes might have been stored in it. (I immediately visualized a pair of glass slippers, suppressing a giggle so as not to wake my husband.) Glass slippers, of course, led me to think of a “prince” and the possibility of “wedding gifts” in his future, which looped back to not just one empty box, but lots and lots of them! Why were they all empty? I knew I had to get out of bed and jot down an answer before I could get any rest, and so I did. The next day my original fairy tale practically wrote itself. Years later, when I entered it in a national contest, it was long-listed from among close to nine-hundred entries.

This box is too small. But it is perfect for the little crane you taught me how to fold. May I keep it, anyway?

Similarly, our group left another meeting with a “prompt” that consisted of the following ten words that we were to use in a writing exercise: kit, bodega, penny whistle, witless, tuatara, quarter notes, retainer, culinary, cottage pudding, and cilantro–all seemingly unrelated. True, but not for long! I lay awake “mulling” them over until they swam into place for me like synchronized swimmers who knew exactly where they belonged before the performance started, before it—the story—was even choreographed, or written down, as the case may be. As with my first example of wordplay, I ended up with another quirky tale that seemed to flow from my pen without any effort when I sat at my desk to write it the next morning.  Maybe you should give those words a try yourself–have fun!  (You don’t have to come up with a children’s story; they’ll work just in well in adult stories or poetry.)

As many of you know, creative writing can be both exhilarating and painstakingly hard work at the same time. As long as “playing with words” is something that both children and adults enjoy in the process of freeing their imaginations, I believe it’s the perfect heading for this page. Words should leap, tumble, flow, rain down, plod, scatter, tremble or whatever else you would have them do on a page; most of all, they should come alive for your readers and be shared. Click on Print Resources for Writers page on my menu tab above for book recommendations that may serve to inspire your writing. Two of them provide excerpts from well-known and respected writers–both living and deceased–to illustrate each author’s unique approach to his subject.

II: On Rejection

Learning about the process of creative writing is a life-long adventure, for there will always be elements of the craft that I, for one, will need to be reminded of from time to time, whether through my personal choice of reading, or the workshops and courses I choose to attend.

If you are here on this page, perhaps you already belong to one or more writers’ groups–safe havens where members share the same or similar goals as they seek to improve their writing skills.  Part of this sharing may involve laughter or tears, for manuscript rejections from agents and editors are far more common than are acceptances. Even our published friends will tell us that having a best-selling book does not always guarantee that future manuscripts will find a home.  So let’s get the topic of rejection out of the way by dealing with it first…

The Truth Be Told:

“Most manuscripts are rejected because they’re just plain bad.  The stories are trite, the characters wooden, the endings predictable.  The plots may smack of didacticism or patronize the young reader…. One more point: General fiction is the most competitive genre in any age group of children’s books. It’s also the most subjective, meaning your manuscript has to appeal to exactly the right editor.”–Laura Backes, founder and editor of “The Children’s Book Insider“.

Yet don’t despair.  You may be an excellent writer with a great story, and there could be any number of reasons that it was rejected, such as the publisher has just recently published a book on the same or similar topic.  There are two types of rejection letters one may receive in response to a submission—the form letter (one signed by an administrative assistant of an editor or publisher, stuffed into a SASE—a writer’s “self-addressed, stamped envelope”—and tossed into the office “outbox”) or, a personal note (one in an editor’s handwriting giving short, but specific, feedback; or, editor typed and signed.) We often talk about the latter category as “good rejects”–an oxymoron in the view of most people–yet it’s the “good rejects” that keep many of us writing and hoping for that break-through publication. I’m thankful that many of my past replies have been personal notes, but like everyone else, I’ve had my share of form rejections, too.  Today, many editors and agents prefer to be queried by e-mail, and their guidelines may even state, “if you don’t hear from me within three months (or six or nine), I’m giving your manuscript a pass.”  Most, however, are courteous, and either send a quick reply or have an assistant let you know that your query is under consideration.

Persistence Pays Off…Sometimes: 

It’s no secret that the late Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time received twenty-six rejections before it was finally accepted for publication, or that J.K. Rowling’s first Harry Potter novel–Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone–was turned down a dozen times before it found a home with Bloomsbury Press. There are many other examples of well-known authors such as John Grisham, Stephen King, Dr. Seuss and Frank Herbert who all had to endure endless submission/rejection cycles before seeing their books in print. What each of them possessed in common with the others was first, an undying belief in the worthiness of their writing projects, and second, their ability to persist in their efforts to find a publisher in spite of repeated rejections.

Same Chapter, Three Different Opinions:

As Laura Backes suggested in the above quotation, it’s wise to remember that the evaluation of a piece of writing is often subjective on the part of the reader. For example, a literary agent noted that a particular chapter in one of my novels was “pitch-perfect”, and the agent had liked the way I’d introduced the future significance of a particular character. She suggested I rewrite the beginning chapters to be as tightly constructed as that one. A contest judge, on the other hand, who had evaluated this novel prior to my agency submission, suggested that the character I had developed further in it was unnecessary to the storyline, and that I should remove him altogether. And then a third reader–a paid freelance editor–wondered why that same chapter was even there; she thought I should cut it from the manuscript in its entirety. This difference of opinion is not unusual, and so in the end, a writer has to weigh all the praise and criticism provided by others, and then revise the manuscript according to his or her own gut feeling of what would make it stronger.

Thanks for the Compliment…Oops; I Mean Criticism:

Sometimes a reader may compare your work to that of a well-known author, but not in the way you might hope.  Here is an example of a critique provided by a contest judge: “As with some of A.A. Milne’s humour with language, young children miss the point.” How should I interpret this comment? Is this person comparing me with one of my favourite authors? Wow! I don’t remember missing the point when, as a child, I read Winnie-the-Pooh, The House at Pooh Corner or Now We Are Six. I don’t believe I did, but if a child “misses the point”, does it really matter?  Are not word play, rhythm and imagery all equally relevant to one’s learning experience and enjoyment of language?

Finally, let me add an example of positive feedback: “The ‘Silly Sea Songs’ remind me of Dennis Lee’s work for children: they are funny, playful, and ‘hang together’…” Thank you! I’ve also been told that my children’s nonsense poems remind the listener of those written by Sheree Fitch. Nice. Now, if only an editor would see them that way! The fact that I’ve submitted my collection of children’s poetry only twice–ever–may explain why I have only two rejection letters to prove my interest in finding a publisher. Sigh. It’s true that in order to publish, you must submit!!!  But you must first choose your target carefully. The standard wait time for a response is now six to nine months, so one has to wonder if writing for publication is worth the time and effort. If one is truly a writer, then one cannot help but answer “yes”.

Self-Publishing–To Do or Not to Do–That is the Question:

The authors of Chicken Soup for the Soul received 134 rejections before they decided to self-publish.  (Confession: I’ve only read the first one of their hugely popular series.)  Similarly, Beatrix Potter had so much trouble trying to get The Tale of Peter Rabbit accepted by an editor, she printed copies for her own family before it was picked up by Frederick Warne.  The publisher advised her to do her sketches in colour, rather than black and white, and obviously that was a good move! So if you’ve only approached two or three companies before giving up on the idea of seeing your name in print, keep submitting…or maybe it’s time to consider one of several options available to you today. If you do decide to self-publish, be sure you have an independent editor go through your manuscript first. To find the best resources on self-publishing and e-book publication, click on the link to Jane Friedman’s blog located on the right of the screen. She’s an expert on just about everything to do with the world of digital publishing and marketing, and often invites well-known authors, editors, agents, marketers and others to write guest posts on her blog.

March 19, 2013

ON REJECTION, Continued:

I found a number of quotations online, recently, concerning author rejection letters and well…they made me laugh. (Now you know I have a warped sense of humour!)

My favourite one was addressed to Samuel Johnson (the source didn’t know which book the editor was referring to): “Your manuscript is both good and original; but the part that is good is not original, and the part that is original is not good.”

To Stephen King, re: Carrie: “We are not interested in science fiction which deals with negative utopias. They do not sell.” [Negative utopias?!]

To F. Scott Fitzgerald, re: The Great Gatsby: “You’d have a decent book if you’d get rid of that Gatsby character.”

3 Responses to Reflections On Writing

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  2. Pingback: Life before Screens | Just one more chapter!

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