Category Archives: How Not To Write

What It's Like to be Rejected by Charles Dickens

While looking through the collected letters of Charles Dickens, I came across a rejection letter Mr. Dickens wrote to an anonymous author.

The letter came as a result of this author’s submission to “All the Year Round”, a weekly published by Mr. Dickens for a great many years until he handed over the enterprise to his son (Charles Jr.). During it’s publication run, the magazine distributed the works of a great many authors in serial form. No doubt this anonymous scrivener sought to join their storied ranks by sending along his three-part manuscript.

I really wish the author had been identified in the book. I’m sort of dying to see how their fortunes turned upon receiving this letter from Mr. Dickens.

In any case, I’ve kept you waiting long enough already. So, without further ado:

Office of “All the Year Round,” Tuesday, Feb. 5th, 1867.

Dear Sir,

I have looked at the larger half of the first volume of your novel, and have pursued the more difficult points of the story through the other two volumes.

You will, of course, receive my opinion as that of an individual writer and student of art, who by no means claims to be infallible.

I think you are too ambitious, and that you have not sufficient knowledge of life or character to venture on so comprehensive an attempt. Evidences of inexperience in every way, and of your power being far below the situations that you imagine, present themselves to me in almost every page I have read. It would greatly surprise me if you found a publisher for this story, on trying your fortune in that line, or derived anything from it but weariness and bitterness of spirit.

On the evidence thus put before me, I cannot even entirely satisfy myself that you have the faculty of authorship latent within you. If you have not, and yet pursue a vocation towards which you have no call, you cannot choose but be a wretched man. Let me counsel you to have the patience to form yourself carefully, and the courage to renounce the endeavor if you cannot establish your case on a very much smaller scale. You see around you every day, how many outlets there are for short pieces of fiction in all kinds. Try if you can achieve any success within these modest limits (I have practised in my time what I preach to you), and in the meantime put your three volumes away.

Faithfully yours.

P.S.—Your MS. will be returned separately from this office.

I have to say that I’ve received a great many rejection letters in my time, some from famously blunt editors. Never have I received anything quite like this… But I wish I had.

A letter like this leaves no room for interpretation. The author has utterly failed in every sense of the word. Not only is the work, as submitted, below even an unsatisfactory grade it leaves the impression that there may be no hope at all of redemption. However, Mr. Dickens does not simply allow his dismissal of the work to shuffle the author off the stage. He goes on to question the author’s heart and commitment to the craft itself, leaving scarce hope that the author may be redeemed (though there is a faint chance).

A letter of this sort is bound to cause one of two reactions: utter despair culminating in abandonment of the craft, or a redoubling of efforts resulting in a breakthrough. For me, I think it is the latter though the former is certainly the first reaction I had.

Nearly 150 years after the fact, I can’t help but hear the words of Mr. Dickens directed at my own works. I cannot help but feel I am playing the role of the wretched man to which he alludes.

Assuming they are honest, what writer could say they feel otherwise? We’ve all been there. We’ve all worked hard to create something we felt was perfect and beautiful only to see it later, though the eyes of another, as a catalyst for weariness and bitterness of spirit (to borrow a phrase).

Still, there is a hope. There is the faithful closure to the letter and the brutal honesty in which to seek comfort. There is a sense that if one begins by aiming lower, one might acquire the skills to dare for something more grand.

This is really what writing comes down to. It’s a battle in the trenches, a successive piling on of failures, until at some point there is a breakthrough or better yet a real understanding of what one is trying to achieve and sense of how to reach that destination.

Keep writing.

A Writer Must Feel

I know it is July because the sun rises in the alley.

It is possible to write anywhere but it is easier in the places you’ve worn smooth, where you know most intimately the colors of buildings, the procession of faces, the shapes of conversations. It is easier to write where you know the smells.

Last night it finally rained, so the air smells a little fresh, but here are the cafe nothing ever smells completely fresh. I smell the aftershave of the men walking into the cafe and the cigarettes they’ve recently smoked. I catch the scent of the barber’s cigar two doors down. The exhaust of a passing fire truck. I can smell the trees hanging in the humid air. Yesterday’s heat still lingers deep within the concrete sidewalk. I smell the dust in the street.

I definitely smell the cumin that inexplicably made its way so deep into my pumpernickel bagel.

Yesterday, I was having coffee here with my wife. We were both very tired, so we took a few minutes to ourselves to enjoy a coffee and a little breakfast at the cafe. We weren’t saying much and then suddenly we started talking about being tired (which is tiring in and of itself).

“What would you like to do today?” she asked.
I considered her tone, and I realized that if vacation only reminds you of how tired you are, it’s because your vacation isn’t long enough.

I took a deep breath and said, “I want to finish my coffee and then walk down to my studio and work all day on something important.”

She smiled. “At least you’re honest,” she said.

Of course, I no longer have the studio. I gave it up four years ago, nearly to the day.

A Writer Must Feel

I share this jagged bit of memory and prose not because I want to feel nostalgic or to mourn a lost opportunity. Whether in misery or magnificence, the past is always perfect in memory. No, I share this because I want to understand a feeling I’ve had a dozen of times and a writer does not understand a feeling fully until they spend time with their finger in the gears, exploring the sights and the smells and the memories in both the harsh light of realism and the soft focus of idealism and sandwiching it within run on sentences and fragmentary clauses (and parenthetical asides).

To be serious though, it is your duty as a writer to embrace those nostalgic moments and to find out how they work. You need to break down the magic so that you can reproduce the trick. The side effect is that you may develop a habit of destroying memories others may cherish. You may even rid yourself of the capacity for joy. This is something to guard against because you must feel joy just as you must feel anger and fear and love and hate and longing and excitement. You must feel and you must remember, but you must also understand how these things work for in the balance between memory and understanding is your art.

As for myself, yes, I am a very different writer today, but I am always in the process of being a different writer. I am always feeling. I am always writing.

A Polite Conversation Between Writers

Today, I’m at the cafe. Storms have passed through the area the last few days and so the air is clear and everything smells fresh. I see familiar faces, hear familiar conversations.

Earlier, I ran into a writer I know who is working on a murder mystery. When last I ran into our plucky heroine, she had finished up her first draft and made contact with a local mystery writer’s group. It’s been about a year since I’ve had an update from her but I was not surprised when she said that she was still plugging away on her third draft.

“What’s holding you up?” I asked.
“I’m striving for perfection,” she said with a dramatic shrug.
“Fuck that,” I replied. “Finish that sucker and get it out there. More importantly, get on to the next book.”
Her face lit up and she smiled from ear to ear.
“You know, I have been thinking about another book.”
“Then tie up the lose ends on the first one and get cracking!” I told her. “Take it from me, editing a book is like petting a kitten. It’s fun because the kitten purrs, but eventually wear all the fur off and then no one will want to play with it.”

Having whittled several novels down to stubby nubs, I have a pretty good sense of over-editing, but there is a bigger truth to be found in moving on: a writer is more likely to reach “perfection” by writing their next novel than they are are in fiddling with one they’ve already finished.

I also think that perfection is basically impossible. A writer writes. Craft improves over time. The books get better. They may even become great.

However, because books take a long time to write and life does not move at a novel-making pace, a writer is subject to many forces and experiences which can change the shape of the work. Even if one sits at the same table every day and writes during the same appointed hours, there are variables in flux. The writer changes and so the work also changes.

For example, if you write every day for three months, you will improve as a writer. As a result, you will likely find flaws in what you wrote three months before. You may be embarrassed by it. You may even hate it. This is natural, but if you are to make any forward progress in writing you must accept the fact that the work will always look incomplete because you are never going to be complete as a writer.

Your role is to shape the story for consistency and then let it go. After all, you have more books to write. Speaking of which…

“Are you writing?” she asked.
“No, I’m not,” I said.
“Well, you are so busy I can see why.”

It’s a courteous reply, but we both know this is a lie. We also know that the claim of not writing is in fact a lie as well.

It’s true that I’ve been busy, but this has never stopped me from writing before. In fact, I’ve often been more productive as a writer when I’m busy because I don’t have time for navel-gazing. There is 30 minutes here or 60 minutes there. There is butt-in-chair-fingers-on-keys-now-go!

Yet even without the writing, there is no escaping the stories. There is no end of first lines. The walls of the mind are paper-thin and I can hear the dialogue going on in other rooms. I can’t help wondering how people came to be in the places they are or about the history of the places themselves.

When you are a writer, there is no way you cannot be writing. You are always writing.

And so I must be writing… Perhaps it’s about time I stopped fiddling with this part of the story and get on to writing the next.

You Must Write

I’ve spent many years dissecting the practice of writing. I know the mechanics behind the process at a psychological level. I know the many of the methods we use to achieve various effects. I know about the role of writing in our society and the inner-workings of the complex dialogue that occurs between writers both living and dead.

In short, I know why we write. I can also tell you that the reasons do not matter.

If I were to list all the reasons why we write, lay out my case, explain in detail all that makes a writer, it would not make you a better writer. It would paralyze you. It would make you seem very ordinary.

Of course, this is the challenge of writing itself, isn’t it? To make the ordinary seem extraordinary. To make the mundane worth of thousands of words. And yet, the paradox is that by explaining the deep and complex rules around writing, I would unravel the magic. I would soften the bonds of magic that hold you to the task. I would make writing seem simple, easy, and worse – unnecessary.

But today writing is more important than ever because we are in the process of giving up our humanity and to save it you must write.

Notice above that I said we are “giving up” our humanity. I didn’t say we were losing it or that it was being taken away. I said we were giving it up. It’s happening slowly, over a period of decades (if not centuries), but it is a willful process and it is accelerating.

In recent years, we have developed complex systems for encoding our behavior and preferences into the machinery of the world. We’ve enhanced this process by uploading art and supposedly random scenes from our lives. In response, powerful collections of data harnessed by truly unimaginable processing power are honing the world to individual specifications. Slowly but surely we are being fitted with gloves designed to ease our path in the world and by extension make us into highly efficient collections of data interfacing with other collections of data in predictable (and profitable) ways. Slowly but surely we are becoming less human.

Before you conclude that I’m going on an anti-technology rant, let me say that is definitely not the case. I love technology. I enjoy using it and I enjoy making it. No, I have no beef with technology.

In addition, the problem is not new. As I said before, we’ve been working on this for decades. Database marketing and direct mail have been around for years. Intelligence gathering goes back much, much further. We’ve spent a long time learning to slice and dice ourselves, but things are reaching a tipping point and Story is more important than ever.

So what does this have to do with writing? And why must you write?

One of the fundamental principles of humanity is that enlightenment happens at an individual level, and history shows that this transformation is most often achieved through the power of Story. In fact, Story is perhaps the most powerful of all human gifts. Without Story, Religion would have no staying power. Without Story, there would be little to motivate the human race of strive for anything beyond basic existence.

Story is our irrational advantage in the universe, and keeping it alive is a sacred duty.

As writers, we have a duty to tell stories. We have a duty to make our stories compelling, to impart wisdom, and yes to entertain. We are the stewards of humanity and the enlightenment or destruction of our species hangs in the balance.

This is why you must write.

This may be a heady thing to consider if you are writing stories about robots or bodice-ripping romance. It may very well make you cringe, but don’t despair. I’m not saying, “Nobel-level writing or GTFO”. In fact, it’s best if it’s not because most people have no patience for that sort of thing and your goal is to be read.

For example, John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row is one of my favorite books of all time. It’s simple. It’s human. It was decried by many critics as being twaddle, but they overlooked the power of Story and what it means to reach a wide audience with a simple message of the human spirit.1

So, it is enough that you write and that you continue to write. It is enough that you work hard to tell your stories to the best of your ability. It is enough that you try to get your word out to as many people as possible.

The beauty and comedy of our present moment is that while we are close to willfully destroying our humanity through our own technology that same technology can also be used to unlock the enlightenment of humanity. Today, you are reading my words because of this technology. I am likely to be many miles from you, perhaps even many years from you (depending on when today actually falls from the publication of this post). Yet here you are reading my words, and hopefully finding inspiration to get back to writing your stories.

Humanity needs your work and this is why you must write. It’s really that simple. Without your very best stories, we will have a future which does not inspire. Without your stories, we will have a future that does not make us laugh. Without your stories, we will have a future that does not include you or the worlds to which you have born witness. Without your stories, we lose another piece of humanity and somewhere an individual loses out on a chance for enlightenment.


1. I also tend to think critics didn’t like Cannery Row because the book makes you feel all warm inside instead of grasping for the nothingness of an existentialist view of the universe. There’s a place for nothingness too, but that is a subject for another time.

The List: Stories You Haven't Written

At some point, every writer makes The List.

The List is comprised of all the stories that you haven’t quite gotten around to writing. Entires may also include stories half written, sketched, completed but not “edited”, and “completed” but not sent. A writer may also choose to include appendices for concepts or fragments, lists of character names and/or places of interest, plot schemes, and bit of clever dialogue. Letters declaring grand plans are allowed but only when accompanied by their companion letters of dejected resignation to the hellfire of eternal procrastination.

We’ve all done it. Many have done it several times. Most have made the mistake of sending The List to other writerly friends who in turn respond with their own lists, which sometimes turns into a competition known as the Demolition Derby of Dead Tales.

After writing a list like this, you may feel elated. You may feel that you’re making progress as a writer because you have The List. Then, after careful consideration, you’ll probably feel like crap and come to the conclusion that you are a talentless hack without the magic dust that other writers have come to possess through fantastic and no doubt scandalous ways.

At this point, you will:

A. Fling yourself face first into a series of daring affairs with ice creams of all flavors.

B. Investigate the potential of attracting a supernatural muse, and failing that conjuring demons and/or contacting a race of extra-dimensional literary scribes whose sole desire is to help writers in this dimension actually finish their work and become stars of their respective genres.

C. Stare at the screen and ask yourself what’s next.

Of the three, A and B probably have the greatest potential as actual pathways to writing stories. B probably more than A, especially if you happen to have a particle accelerator at your disposal. C, on the other hand, is where you probably began the exercise anyway which means you’ve undoubtedly realized that you’ve once more come full circle and failed to write anything at all.

In any case, there’s no doubt you will find the whole process rather frustrating. Yet, rather than bind your soul in contract with an obliging entity, I have a better suggestion…

Take the list firmly in hand and tape it to the wall. Put it somewhere where you’ll be sure to see it. Even better if it’s somewhere near your favorite writing spot.

If you feel ashamed, use those feelings as fuel to write something better. If you feel intimidated, remember that you’re the one who wrote all that stuff in the first place. If you feel a sense of self-loathing (how can you not?), know that there is only one way to quell the rage: writing.

Ultimately, the list is a source of power. To be more specific, the list is your power. You are a writer and the list is the permanent reminder of this fact.

Oh, and if you’re heading to the store, please pick up a pint of Mint Chocolate Chip. It’s my favorite.