The Aha! Moment
by Michael Knost
Stop thinking you have the rejection letter market cornered. No author—despite popularity—has boasted immunity from these painful notes. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. After all, a rejection letter can serve the author just as much as it serves the publisher or editor. I’m not just talking about handwritten notes or suggestions from the editor; impersonal form responses can also make you a better writer.
I invited a close friend to submit something for one of the anthologies I was working on a few years ago and was excited when her story showed up in my mailbox. She is a fantastic writer, but I found myself unmoved by her tale. So, I had to send her a rejection letter, something I hated doing. She was very cordial, moving on to her next project, which was nominated for a Bram Stoker Award, I might add.
About three months later, the author sent an email, thanking me for the rejection letter, stating that after working on other projects, she’d reread the story and was mortified at what she had submitted. She was grateful that I did not publish the piece in question, as she feared it could have destroyed her budding career. Now this author was not writing from a beginning level, mind you, she admitted working under a number of deadlines and rushed the story in question. Something I wager she’ll never do again.
However, beginning writers will obviously produce vastly inferior works in comparison with those they produce after years of honing the craft. Just as the hideous ashtray a world-renowned sculptor might have produced as a child is far inferior to the works of art he or she now has displayed in prestigious galleries and museums. We mature and develop as we identify our mistakes, making the most of them. That’s why rejection letters, although painful, are very important.
In his book On Writing, Stephen King offers a rare glimpse behind the Wizard of Oz’s curtain, revealing the painful scars of a young man with aspirations of a publishing career:
By the time I was fourteen . . . the nail in my wall would no longer support the weight of the rejection slips impaled upon it. I replaced the nail with a spike and kept on writing.
In a recent interview, Ray Bradbury spoke about his early struggles for a successful writing career:
It was a long, slow process with a thousand rejections. I’m still getting rejected this late in time. The important thing is to continue writing and continue being in love with books, authors, and libraries.
It’s hard to fathom Ray Bradbury struggling with rejection letters, isn’t it? But, if he’s still receiving these tortuous slips, what makes you and I think we deserve better? And what can we learn from this?
Keep writing. Even if you have wallpapered your writing room with rejection letters, keep writing. That’s certainly good advice, but perseverance will only prolong the agony unless you improve your craft. So, how does one do that? Well, you have to be able to distinguish good writing from the bad.
My wife worked as a bank teller a number of years ago and related the process used for identifying counterfeit currency. “You can’t spot a fake unless you can identify the genuine article,” she’d said. “We study real money, immersing ourselves in it to the point that anything counterfeit sticks out like a sore thumb.”
That’s why we as authors should read as much of the good stuff as possible. If we study the good stories, immersing ourselves in them, we’ll be able to identify the bad aspects of writing and avoid them. And every now and then, we will make a discovery that changes how we think and write forever after.
Some call it intuitive perception, some call it an epiphany, and some call it self-enlightenment. I call it the Aha! Moment.
You know what I’m talking about; it’s that crucial moment where the light bulb comes on over your head, leading to a verbal confirmation such as, “Aha!”
Most of us have experienced many of these moments in our writing, but there is always one or two that stick out as the turning point in our career.
I asked ten writers who are just breaking into the publishing markets what their Aha! Moments were in hopes that we could gain some insight on what made their work move from rejection to acceptance. The responses are as diverse as the writing styles these talented individuals employ. I’m hoping these answers lead you to your own epiphany moments, and to fewer rejection letters.
Nate Kenyon found his Aha! Moment in self-editing:
I’d sent the first few chapters of Bloodstone off to Five Star and I got an email asking to see the rest. I knew from previous editors’ feedback that Bloodstone was too long and had too many characters for a first novel. I’d tried to edit it before, but I’d been unable, or unwilling, to cut it down enough to make it work, and I’d always received the same reasons for rejection.
This time I decided to ruthlessly chop away as if I were editing someone else’s manuscript rather than my own. I even made up a fake author’s name to put on the cover page: Tyson Soule. I worked all night and by the next morning I’d cut over forty thousand words. I sliced whole characters out and streamlined the entire plot. I sent the revised novel in, and had a contract offer a short time later.
I’ve been much better since at taking off my writer’s cap when the first draft is done, and putting on the editor’s cap to make the tough decisions. For his part, Tyson isn’t talking. I just hope he doesn’t take it personally.
Sarah Langan’s Aha! Moment came about five years into attempting to sell a few short fiction pieces and her first novel. She related her work as being a square peg that didn’t fit into the conventional round holes of literary magazines like Glimmer Train, the now defunct Story, and Zoetrope:
I realized that so long as I wrote about ghosts and dead people, no matter how literate, big publishing would not accept me.
In the late 90s, genre was verboten. Single girl, Candace Bushnell crap was all over the bestseller lists, and the literary world was obsessed with loading their first author picks with recipes. Weird but true. So I expanded my search, and for the first time since I was a teen, started reading horror and science fiction.
I subscribed to Cemetery Dance, poured over Datlow’s Fantasy and Science Fiction, and went online, and found the HWA, too. I spent another year or so learning from what I read, and figuring out what my fiction needed to work as genre, then submitted a few stories to Chizine. Trish Macomber, who was the fiction editor there at the time, accepted a story called “Taut Red Ribbon.” It was the first story I’d written without an internal sensor, and on that day, I think I found my true voice. Things got a lot easier after that, not because the doors of publishing opened or anything, but because after that, I always wrote exactly what I wanted, instead of the literary crap that bored me to tears.
John R. Little experienced his Aha! Moment while attending the inaugural Borderlands Bootcamp:
Tom Monteleone was critiquing a story of mine and he said something to the effect that I was great at coming up with wonderful concepts and ideas, but I always forgot to include a story. Great concepts and interesting characters were fine, but I didn’t take the time to be sure there was a rocketing plot in it. From that point, I always made sure the story was never lost, and my sales started taking off immediately.
Bev Vincent suffered the exact opposite. He didn’t have a plot or story problem, he says his earliest works of fiction were built around plot ideas and populated by characters that served it:
My characters didn’t have much personality, and their motives were never explored or particularly obvious to anyone, including me.
In 2000, I wrote a story about a man suffering from an OCD disorder that made him constantly sure he’d just hit someone with his car. This is a plot idea, but what elevated the story, in my opinion, was that it wasn’t really about his perilous drive to a convenience store on Halloween night, when the streets were alive with potential hit-and-run victims. The story got inside his head and showed readers what it was like to be him. What were his challenges and trials and tribulations? What did he want? In a way, it inverted my approach—the plot became of service to the character, instead of the other way around.
“Harming Obsession” resonated with readers, more than anything else I’d written to that point. I realized that I had to stop treating my characters like pawns on a chessboard. I used to begin new stories as soon as I had an idea. Now I wait until I have an idea and a sense of who the major players are and what motivates them. I described this revelation in an essay, saying: “Story is what characters do when presented with a situation.” It shifted my focus away from events and onto the characters.
Mary SanGiovanni found her Aha! Moment during her studies at Seton Hill University’s Master’s of Popular Fiction program:
I had read a story I wrote for the workshop, which was comprised of romance writers, SF writers, and YA writers. I had anticipated, I admit with some degree of shame, harsh critiques because of the genre writers in the group; I didn’t expect them to understand horror, or what I was going for, or any of the supernatural elements and their place in the story. But when I was done reading a beginning portion of the story, we began to discuss it.
The romance folks gave opinions and insight into the effectiveness of the character’s interpersonal relationships, and the young adult folks offered suggestions on clarity for the supernatural elements. It affected one critiquer enough to make her cry, and she had to leave the room. There was a long, deep silence after that, in which one of the romance writers said (and I’m paraphrasing here), “Well, at least you know you wrote something that touched someone.”
That was the moment, I think, that I realized several things. One, I realized that you can learn about writing in your genre by reading and listening and understanding the strengths of writing outside your genre. A great story is a great story, regardless of genre, and the best work utilizes the skill sets and strengths of many genres.
I also learned that, particularly in horror, which is a genre whose very foundation is pure emotion, gore for gore’s sake, say, or an awesome, scary monster, or cool and creepy vignettes are all meaningless if, as a writer, you don’t reach that core part of a reader where the emotions lay.
What makes horror memorable, marketable, and enjoyable over multiple readings is the reader-to-character recognition of and relation to basic emotions. I have miles to go before succeeding on a level I’d like, but I think that learning those things changed my writing—not just in quality or marketability, but in the overall enjoyment of writing it.
Mark Justice says his Aha! Moment came while voicing an audio version of one of his stories:
I don’t know about other writers, but I have an enormous blind spot when it comes to typos. I would pour over my manuscripts, dutifully fixing all mistakes. Later, when one of my first readers would check the manuscript, another dozen or more typos would rear their ugly heads.
My brain, it seems, sees what it wants to see, glossing over the missing or transposed letters and substituting the right word at the right spot.
It wasn’t until I was invited to produce an audio version of one of my stories for a website that I made a breakthrough. This was a story that had gone through several revisions, one that I had read at least 10 times or more. It was, I thought, as good as I could make it.
And when I read it out loud I was mortified. I found new typos, clumsy phrasing and questionable grammar. I did a rewrite on the spot, ending up with a better story.
Now I read everything out loud before I submit. It’s made a difference in the quality of my work and in the number of acceptances.
The embarrassing part is that a guy who has worked in radio for over 30 years should have figured this out quicker.
Maurice Brauddus had a few Aha! Moments hit him at the same time:
I’ve been blessed to have a good set of mentors at every step of my career. My first one, Wayne Allen Sallee, always believed that when you were ready, a mentor would show up. He was the one who introduced me to the convention scene (literally: he convinced me to attend the World Horror Convention in 2002 and introduced me around). So lesson one came with learning to build the business side of writing by developing contacts and meeting my peers (who would become invaluable over the years).
The second came from a workshop I attended at that same con, taught by Uncle Mort (Mort Castle). I’m a pretty good natural storyteller, but that’s a far cry from (or at least only the first step in) being a good storywriter. So we were doing a writing exercise with him where he had us tell either a funny or sad story from our childhood. I wrote how I always wrote and turned in five pages. He looked it over and said, “You realize your story doesn’t begin until page three.” In one simple sentence, he diagnosed the major stumbling block to my storytelling. I needed to start the story where the story begins.
The next year I won the short story contest at the World Horror Convention.
Nate Southard is another author who found his Aha! Moment while attending the Borderlands Boot Camp:
I learned so much during that weekend, and it really made my writing stronger and cleaner. If I had to pick a bit of advice as the best, I’d say it was the instructors’ suggestion to submit my work to top markets and trickle down, rather than try to work my way up from the bottom. I’ve found that communicating with these markets has done more for my career and recognition level than just about anything else I’ve done, and the feedback I’ve received from the editors of these markets has helped my writing improve by leaps and bounds. In the past few years I’ve seen plenty of talented writers slog through because of some outdated notion of starting at the bottom and clawing your way up. It really doesn’t need to be that way.
Bob Freeman found his Aha! Moment the first time he typed the words The End after completing his novel Shadows Over Somerset:
Here’s how I see it… How many times have we been at a dinner party or the local watering hole and you’re chatting someone up and the question gets asked, “So, what do you do?” Invariably, as soon as you say writer, your conversational foil will respond with, “You know, I’ve always thought about writing a book.” How often do you think biochemists or brain surgeons hear that? The short answer is none, and it’s because most people think writing is easy, until that is, they sit down to actually do the work.
I fell into that category, thinking of myself as a writer long before I had actually paid my dues, staring down the demon that is the blank page, and seeing the battle through to the bitter end. Oh, I’d started dozens upon dozens of novels, none of them getting past the first paragraph or so. Writing is hard work. You spill your guts with every keystroke and the ink as it strikes the paper is drawn from your own sweat and blood. Did I just show my age? I think you catch my meaning just the same.
So, yes, my first and most important battle in my quest toward becoming an author was, in my opinion, the most crucial for each and every one of us who have chosen this path. I sat myself down in a chair and I wrote the damn thing. And you know what, I’ve never looked back. Each successive novel has come easier. Of course new challenges arise, but that’s okay…such is the nature of the beast.
Brian J. Hatcher’s Aha! Moment came while working with a deadline:
Framed and hanging on the wall of my home office, I have a dollar bill commemorating my first professional sale and a letter from Governor Joe Manchin III of West Virginia complimenting me on a story I’d written. Both these mementos on my wall I have because of “The Hungry Earth,” a short story published in the anthology Legends of the Mountain State. This was the story that almost didn’t happen.
Two weeks before the anthology’s deadline, I realized I was in trouble. Editing wasn’t going well; the problems with the story were plentiful and egregious. The characters didn’t ring true, the middle collapsed like a sand castle against the coming tide, and the ending was trite and unrewarding. I came to the painful realization that the story might not be salvageable. I had another story idea, but I wasn’t sure if two weeks would be enough time to get it into shape; but either I had to try or give up entirely.
The next two weeks became my Writer’s Hell. I wrote, edited, wrote more, went back to the first story to see if maybe I could somehow come up with a way to fix it, found it to be as bad as I remembered, then wrote still more. With only one day left before the deadline, I had the new story completed.
However, I wasn’t satisfied with it.
It seemed rushed, and of course it was. I felt I needed more time, but there was none left. I considered sending Michael Knost—the editor of the anthology—an e-mail telling him I wouldn’t be able to send him a story. I wanted to give up, and I almost did. Finally, I decided to send the story and hope for the best. It still took me ten minutes to assemble the courage to click the send button on the e-mail.
Michael accepted the story, and the boost it gave my career and the praise I garnered for it is, as the saying goes, is history.
It would seem the moral of this story is that I published because I finally overcame my insecurity and hypercritical nature. But that isn’t true. If I would have had the confidence and courage, I’d have sent the first story; and instead of framed mementos on a wall, I would have another rejection letter, well earned.
When I began my writing career, I had big dreams of making it. Writing would be easy, publishing even easier, and laurels would be gratuitously heaped upon me. “The Hungry Earth” helped me put away such foolish, meaningless dreams. Writing will never be easy; and for that, I am grateful. Every story I write is harder than the last. Every sentence, every word, takes an ever-growing effort. I struggle, even with these few words I write now. I get frustrated, I even consider quitting, yet I keep writing. I believe this utter inability to be satisfied is the flamma magna, the alchemical flame that transforms art into something greater than the artist. The fire will guide me and help me grow, as long as I don’t let it burn me down. I learn more, I see more, and I want so much more from my work. Let others dream of making it. May I never be fulfilled. May I never look upon my work and say, “I am content.” I would rather go to my page and say, “Let’s see if I can do better.”
Michael West found his Aha! Moment after finding first readers outside the genre:
I had experienced great success in the “for the love” markets—magazines that paid very little or nothing but contributors copies, and I just could not understand why the professional (and even semi-professional) markets kept passing on my work. Then, I made the decision to open up my circle of readers. Up to this point, I’d only shown my work to people who read or watched nothing but horror. These readers were true fans of the genre, and they knew its various conventions. They were forgiving of certain aspects of my plots and characterizations, because this was the way people in a horror story act, and these were things people in horror stories do.
However, when I started to show my fiction to readers who, in some cases, did not even like horror, these “outsiders” did not look the other way on these issues. They helped me make my characters more believable, their motivations much clearer, and they allowed me to finally find my true voice. When I began to write tales about real people, with real problems, who just happened to find themselves in terrifying, unbelievable situations…I began to sell.”
As a maturing writer, you should always be on the lookout for Aha! Moments. They come unexpectedly, and they almost always make such an impact that you’ll see results almost immediately.
So, don’t let the rejection letters discourage you. Keep writing, and pay attention to the things that will improve your craft. Your turning point could be one Aha! Moment away.
MICHAEL KNOST is an author, editor, and columnist of horror, dark fiction, and supernatural thrillers. His most recent work is Writers Workshop of Horror, a collection of articles/interviews by/with some of the biggest names writing dark fiction today. Mike has written many books in various genres, edited anthologies such as the Legends of the Mountain State series, Spooky Tales from Mountain State Writers, Appalachian Winter Hauntings (with Mark Justice). He has also served as ghostwriter for several projects, including associations with the Discovery Channel and Lionsgate Media. To the Place I Belong will be published in 2010, a supernatural novel based on a Southern West Virginia coalmine. To find out more, visit www.MichaelKnost.com.