Rule 12. Don’t Look Back

You’ve just finished the first chapter of your latest Greatest Novel Ever Written. Let’s call it GNER, with a silent G. You’ve poured your heart and soul into Chapter 1 of GNER. Rightfully proud of your accomplishment, you settle back with a favorite beverage and reread the beginning of your magnum opus.

Hmm. Spelling mistake in the first sentence.

Easily corrected. There. Reading on.

Oh, oh. Another spelling mistake. And an incomplete sentence. Oh, this characterization is all wrong. Why do I need all these sentences? I must edit this chapter! Now!

A month later you finally finish GNER chapter 1 and, if you are not dejected, disillusioned or haven’t given up altogether, you move on to chapter 2.

And do it all over again.

When you write, don’t look back. If you’re returning to your WIP after a break in writing it’s fine to reread a couple sentences or a paragraph to get your mind focused on the direction you wanted the story to go, but that’s it. There is a reason why a first draft is called a FIRST DRAFT. It is meant to be the bare bones of your story. It is meant to get all those ideas floating around in your brain onto the page. It is meant to get the damn story written.

It is not meant to be the finished product. That’s what the 2nd and all subsequent drafts are for.

Naturally as you write you’re going to come up with little plot points or descriptions that need to be retroed into your story. Just make a note of it and move on. The only time I do go to the beginning of anything I write it’s to make a quick note that this or that needs to be added. Then I continue from where I left off.

If you bog yourself down with perfecting every chapter, every sentence, you may never finish. Worse, that first chapter you worked on so hard, spent over a month making just perfect…well, by chapter 20 you’ve realized all of it is superfluous and needs to be cut. That’s right. Gone. All that time wasted.

So, don’t look back until you’ve reached The End. (see what I did there?)


Rule 11. Not everything you write is gold. Sometimes it’s crap. Unless you’re Midas, then even your crap is gold, but only if you touch it. Stop touching your crap. That’s weird.

So, you’ve just finished a work in progress. You think it’s the best thing you’ve ever written. You send it out and it comes back rejected. Okay, fine. You send it out again. And again. And again.

What’s going on? Why isn’t the best thing you’ve ever written selling? Well, there could be a number of reasons like not following standard manuscript format, sending it to the wrong market or… it really isn’t the best thing you’ve ever written.

It happens. When we finish a story, it’s our baby. Everyone loves their children. Well, most everyone. My father… he never… he was… oh, never mind. The point is it’s hard to be objective about your own work.

Not everything you write is going to be golden.

There are ways to get around this. Join a critique group, or at the least have some first readers who don’t care about hurting your feelings. They’ll let you know if your gold is really pyrite.

Despite all this, your story still might not sell. It might be time to trunk your story and move on. This might be the hardest thing to accept. Your Precious is not the One Ring to rule them all. But take heart. Having written something that doesn’t sell isn’t a wasted effort. Every time you write you learn, you hone your skills, and improve your craft. Every time you write you grow as a writer.

And that is golden.


Rule 10. Rejection is now your life. Get used to it.

I like to think I have a sense of humour. Some people have even asked me why I didn’t become a stand-up comic. I tell them I couldn’t deal with all that rejection…so I became a writer instead.

<cue laugh track>

The fact is if you want to be a writer you’re going to get rejections. That masterpiece you’ve been slaving over draft after draft likely won’t sell on the first submission. Maybe not even the second submission, or the third.

Or ever.

It’s even harder to sell a story that has been rejected for a themed anthology. Not because it’s bad, but because there may be at least a hundred other stories rejected by that anthology floating around, glutting the market.

It’s a part of this business. But what can you do? If the story sits, it doesn’t get published. Like the lottery, you can’t win if you don’t play.

So, you send the story out, again. And it comes back rejected, again. Send it out again. It comes back again like a boomerang. It’s frustrating and demoralizing–and it’s something you have to accept.

You will get rejected.

Don’t see rejections as an attack you, the author. It’s not an indictment on your character. In most cases it’s not even a criticism of your story. Editors of anthologies tend to have a certain vision of what they want, and your story just didn’t fit that vision. Magazines have limited funds and space. They also get A LOT of submissions and for whatever reason your story just didn’t grab them…alas. As for book publishers…I’ll let you know when I figure that one out.

Of course there are reasons that are your fault, most notably not following the publication’s guidelines. READ THE GUIDELINES! Don’t send a fantasy story to a magazine that only prints hard science fiction. Don’t send erotica to a magazine that caters to children. Don’t send your fan fiction anywhere.

If you act professional, you will be treated as a professional.

So, what to do with those rejections? In most cases you’ll just get form letters. Editors are busy people and have many stories to read. For most editors it’s not like the Golden Age. They aren’t sitting in a grubby office in some ancient building on 5th Avenue. They’re probably at home, having just finished a full day at a real job, trying to squeeze in an hour or two between cooking dinner and spending quality time with the wife and kids. The last thing they have time for is composing an in-depth rejection letter.

That’s not to say it doesn’t happen. When you do get them, take the comments to heart, especially if they’re words of encouragement or suggestions for improvement. That editor felt you have skills, and wants you to keep writing. Do it.

Rarely you get the discouraging letter. Unless you submitted something so incredibly ghastly and heinous, broken every rule in the book and even invented new rules to break, submitted a 3,000 page manuscript in crayon, with each letter and punctuation mark in its own unique colour created by a crayon creator, unless you included a severed body part, you can pretty much ignore these kinds of rejections. Whatever the reason that editor chose to write such a response, it is unprofessional.

Severed body parts, however, will likely get you a visit from local law enforcement.

Some people save their rejections as kind of trophies. Me? I simply make note of the publication so I don’t accidentally send the story twice. Then I destroy/delete the rejection. Why keep the losing lottery tickets?

I do, however, keep acceptance letters. Yeah. They are nice to re-read on cold rainy days.


Rule 9. Always carry a knife…for editing.

As I mentioned when I began my rules, I based them on the rules created by the main character of the TV show NCIS. Among the more infamous rules is Rule 9: Always carry a knife. For federal investigators, having a good knife makes sense. Besides the obvious self-defense factor, a good knife makes a useful makeshift tool.

Mostly it’s great for cutting.

The knife I have in mind is more mental, the ability to view your completed work with a critical eye and, as a friend of mine is fond of saying, “kill your darlings.”

If you want to get published you need to make your stories tight. The right word, the right phrase can reduce and entire multi-sentence paragraph and have more impact. Most importantly, it gets that word count down.

When a publication guideline reads: Max. 5000 Words, that means 5000 words is as long as they want the story. What it really means is they would be happier with something shorter, but 5K is as high as they’ll go. In fact, the closer to the max you get the harder a sell it’s going to be. Get that word count down.

For many that’s difficult. Some writers I know need paragraphs just for a character to say, “Hello.” Many just can’t see that their story actually starts on the second page and the first 500 words are superfluous. Some, like me, just love every damn written word.

Cut them.

Get that knife out and slash and hack. Be a serial killer of words. If you run across a particularly nice phrase that just doesn’t quite fit, save it to a special file for such things—every diamond needs the right setting—just cut it out of that story. Make that story tight. Keep the readers interest throughout, because once it wavers, you’re toast.


Rule 8. Write where you are most comfortable being weird.

In the movie, The Whole Wide World, Vincent D’Onofrio portrays Robert E. Howard, creator of Conan the Barbarian.

One scene that struck me was of Howard at his typewriter screaming out prose as he typed. I don’t know if that was true of Howard, but I do understand it. I have my own quirks when I write. You probably won’t see them because I do most of my writing alone.

That is where I am most comfortable.

That’s me. If you’re one of those people who need a crowd, or like to sit in a coffee shop and write, that’s great. But if you find that you really aren’t being productive, consider it might not be the environment distracting you.

It might be performance anxiety. You might want to cut loose with a string of choice four-letter words, laugh out loud, thump on the table in frustration, but you don’t because you are in a public place. To so would make you, and likely those around you, uncomfortable.

I feel comfortable writing by myself. There is no competition with other writers who type faster than me, no idle chatter to draw my attention, no pastries that I really don’t need but will likely buy. Just me, my keyboard, and my imagination.

And the internet. You know, for research and stuff.