How to avoid rejection (some of the time)

By Roz DeKett

Note that I haven’t titled this ‘How to have your stories accepted’ – if only I had that formula. However, in the past couple of years (between working on a novel) I’ve written three short stories and a short memoir piece, and all four have found their way to publication via contests or literary journals. I’ve also had a novel shortlisted in a competition.

Four pieces published isn’t many, but nonetheless I see a pattern or two along the path to them being accepted. These things might or might not work for you, but I think they helped me.

Here’s what I’ve learned.

Keep submitting, but use an editor’s eye
It goes without saying that you have to not worry about rejection and keep submitting.

(Track your submissions; I use a spreadsheet that records the title, the date sent, where sent, and when a response is expected.)256px-Lewis_Hine,_Boy_studying,_ca._1924

The first of the four I wrote was a short memoir piece, specifically to submit to a contest in 2016. It was the first time I’d tried anything like that and it didn’t make even the longlist. Well, I thought: I’ve written it. I should keep sending it out. So I tried a literary journal, but they rejected it too.

By then it was a few months since I’d finished working on it (with much re-editing and polishing; I’m not a fan of sending anything out until I’ve inspected each word as though it’s a bug under a rock) and I decided to edit it again. The first paragraph was nice enough but I struck it, wove the main image from it in further down, and cut a few other words and sentences. I tried another literary journal and boom: accepted.

I also did this with the first short story I wrote, though I left it a little longer before editing again. Five rejections in, I tackled it again, not structurally but by interrogating each word. If a word couldn’t put up a defence I removed or changed it. I was submitting this story to contests; after the edits I sent it out again; it was selected for publication, placing third.

What I learned: Don’t be resistant to running a newly critical eye over your story, especially if you haven’t looked at it for a while and it’s been rejected a few times. A final tweak might be all it needs and the fix might now be quick and obvious.

Consider doubling up on contest entries
Two of my short stories were very different from each other in style. One was a more traditional literary approach, the other more experimental. I submitted the second, more experimental one to a contest. Then I studied the judge and thought maybe the other story would appeal more, so at the last minute I sent it in too. And that was the one selected for publication.

Old_Books_01I then submitted the rejected story from that contest to another as an afterthought, as I’d already entered my third short story, which once again I’d spent months writing and thought was my best so far. The “afterthought” story (which I’d re-edited as it had been rejected several times by then) was the one that made it; this was the one that took the aforementioned third prize.

What I learned: It’s very hard to predict what contest judges are going to like. If you have two very different stories (assuming both meet the contest rules) and you can afford the contest fees, it may be worth throwing both in the ring. For journals, this probably isn’t a good tactic as they have a different agenda.

Follow the rules
Whether it’s a journal or a contest, read and follow the rules. They might call them ‘guidelines’ but guidelines they are not: they’re rules. Break even one and your story will not be considered.

It’s not just the rules; it’s what competitions and journals tell you they want to see. Matching this as closely as possible can only be helpful.

Libri_books2Left with my third short story, I debated what to do. I’d already entered it in several contests (and as we know, that is not cheap) and it had failed to make it. I still thought it was my best story; I’d spent months writing and rewriting it.

Once again I cast a critical eye over it. And once again, I removed the first paragraph (I’m starting to think I should do this as a standard practice!) and wove an image from the opening into the narrative later. This time I did restructure it slightly as I saw a better dramatic flow. I also changed the title: it took me two days to come up with something I thought captured the essence better than the old title.

Then I found a journal that was extremely specific about the type of fiction they wanted and I thought, that sounds like this story. I submitted … and it was accepted.

What I learned: Don’t give up. And edit. And be very specific in your choices of where to send your work. And … don’t give up.


Good luck with your submissions, and happy writing!

Photos from Wikimedia Commons; the first one is ‘Boy Studying’ by Lewis Hines, 1924.

Follow me on Twitter @rozdekett

© 2018 Roz DeKett


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How to keep readers reading: Kurt Vonnegut

October 19 2015

How my home office looks

Here’s another great set of writing tips, this time from the incomparable Kurt Vonnegut. Even if you’ve come across these before, they’re worth the read as a refresher.

And it has a link at the end to the great video clip of him talking about the shapes of stories.

Kurt Vonnegut’s greatest writing advice is here.

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From war to poetry: Patrick Howse

Guest post from Patrick Howse

Patrick HowsePatrick Howse began writing the poems in his collection, Shadow Cast By Mountains, while covering the Iraq War for the BBC.

War plays a central part in the book, but he is reluctant to describe himself as a “war poet”, and the poems are not restricted to descriptions of the conflict in Iraq.

“I regard the book as a single, extended narrative which tells the story of the world I was born into, my war experiences, how they changed me, and the world that emerged from the wreckage,” he says.

“The poems in the collection are almost all coloured by Iraq and other conflicts, and in that respect Edward Thomas has been a huge influence on me.”

Thomas was killed fighting in the First World War, but wrote only one poem that described events in the conflict.

“I would say that most of my poems are not ‘about’ the Iraq War,” Patrick says. “I’m not trying to be a war poet like Wilfred Owen, much as I admire him. I’m much more interested in the impacts of war on me and on the world around me than in just writing descriptions of the action.”

He also says the book can be read as a love story.shadow jacket

“It charts how I came to terms with my experiences, and how – when I was at my lowest point – I found a soulmate who helped me save myself.”

The collection is illustrated with Patrick’s own field sketches as well as 17 original paintings by his partner, the German artist Inge Schlaile, who paints under the work-name Schlinge.

John Simpson, the BBC’s World Affairs Editor, has written a foreword for the book.

“This kind of work in places like Baghdad takes its toll,” he says. “Patrick has found an elegant way of coping with the strain: he has turned it into poetry”.

Shadow Cast By Mountains is published by Hayloft, and can be ordered here

About the author
Patrick Howse worked for the BBC for 25 years and began his career in Manchester. He then moved to London before covering conflicts in Northern Ireland and the Middle East. Between 2004 and 2009 he was bureau chief for the BBC in Baghdad. He now works as a writer, and trains conflict journalists from major international news organisations in Kent. You can see samples of his poetry here.

About the publisher
hayloft logoHayloft is a small independent company and publishes books on a range of subjects, including history, mountaineering, poetry, humour, rural life, novels and memoirs. The company has won seven awards at the UK’s Lakeland Book of the Year competition. You can view their website here.

Hayloft logo used with permission.

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For writers: great tips on submitting

cropped-header.jpgHere’s a link to good piece from an editor on what editors are looking for and why they handle submissions the way they do. I hope you find it useful.

Ten Things I Look For When Selecting Submissions: Kara Cochran


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Every novel feels like the first: Hazel Gaynor on writing

Guest post by Hazel Gaynor

On writing … and writing, and writing, and writing


On April 1st, 2014, my debut novel. The Girl Who Came Home was published. I remember the day so clearly: the sense of excitement, the disbelief that it had finally happened, the inevitable anxiety that comes when any creative work becomes public. Three years and four months on I’m feeling precisely the same emotions about the publication of my fourth novel, The Cottingley Secret. I’m just as excited, just as surprised it ever got written, and just as nervous, because although I’ve learned a lot over the course of writing four books, I have never taken any of them for granted.

Having worked quietly on a novel for a number of years – the words only ever read by a few very close friends and family, agents and editors – it is a very strange and lovely thing to know that those precious words are now accessible to anyone, anywhere. Will people like the book is the ultimate question for every writer, and one that is impossible to answer until readers start reading. Publication day is the point where the book stops belonging to the author, and starts to belong to the reader. We can only hope that the words connect, and that the reading experience is as magical and meaningful as the writing

Friends often ask if writing a book gets easier each time. In some ways it does, because I know what to expect. In other ways, each book feels like my debut. It takes the same amount of dedication and self-belief to write it, and it leaves my hands filled with just as much passion and hope. To do this for a fourth time is both a privilege and a pleasure, and I can’t wait to start writing the fifth.

About the author

Hazel Gaynor 3, copyright Deasy Photographic

Hazel Gaynor (c) Deasy Photographic

Hazel Gaynor is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of THE GIRL WHO CAME HOME (for which she received the 2015 RNA Historical Novel of the Year award) and A MEMORY OF VIOLETS. Her third novel THE GIRL FROM THE SAVOY was an Irish Times and Globe & Mail Canada bestseller and was shortlisted for the 2016 Irish Book Awards. Hazel’s books have been translated into a number of foreign languages. In addition to THE COTTINGLEY SECRET, Hazel will also release LAST CHRISTMAS IN PARIS in October 2017, co-written with Heather Webb. Hazel lives in Ireland with her husband and two children. She is represented by Michelle Brower of Aevitas Creative, New York. For more information, visit

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Focusing on unique perspectives: Gina Mulligan

By Roz DeKett


Gina Mulligan

Gina Mulligan’s novel Remember the Ladies is about Amelia Cook, a congressional lobbyist … in 1877.

“I was researching for another project when I ran across the fact that there were women who were lobbyists in that era,” Gina says. “And I did not know that.”

In the novel, Amelia is hired to lobby on behalf of a proposed 16th Amendment to grant voting rights for women.

And while Gina places her fictional characters in history, the history itself is fact: Senator Aaron Sargent of California introduced the proposed 16th Amendment for woman’s suffrage, also known as the Susan B. Anthony Amendment.

“Amelia’s biggest opponent is Senator Edward Stillman, who’s kind of your quintessential politician,” Gina says.

“Very charismatic, very greedy, very political and ambitious, and he really wants to crush the woman’s vote for his own personal agenda.

“Also a part of that is that Amelia and Stillman, ten years earlier, had a brief liaison and it ended very badly, so he’s very bitter about that and he wants to crush Amelia personally.

“It’s a political chess game as to how to get that vote passed or not passed.”BookCover4

But Gina, who was an established writer of short stories and articles, didn’t set out to write historical fiction.

“It’s funny, I was not a huge historical fiction reader before this project,” she says.

“I find the golden age fascinating. There’s such so much fodder for a writer. There are so many interesting characters, and greed and corruption and bribery and all these great story lines, so I think it just really got my attention.

“I try to focus on unique perspectives in that era without judgment.”

For Gina, writing the novel was a way to explore the question of what gives a woman power or a voice in the world. Then or now, she believes, it’s the same. She wanted to ask the question because, she notes, it took 130 years for women to get the vote and 100 years more for a woman to be running for president.

“I’ve since read more historical fiction,” she says.

“I think there’s a sense as I’m getting older of wanting to remember our past, and seeing how much of today is really in the history.

“As you get a little older, you start to realize a lot of things that happened then are happening now.”

Wanting people to remember
Gina doesn’t have children of her own, but she has six nieces in their teens and early twenties.

“They have this sense that they’re the first generation of powerful young women,” she says. “And I just laugh at them, I say, ‘Hey you guys, really? There are so many women before you who are powerful.’”

So for Gina, part of the reason for her stories is the continuity of history. Even the novel’s title, Remember the Ladies, comes from a letter that Abigail Adams wrote to her husband John, then a future President of the United States, on March 31, 1776.

In the letter, Abigail urged him not to forget about the nation’s women during the fight for American independence from Great Britain.


Abigail Adams

“I long to hear that you have declared an independency,” Abigail wrote. “And, by the way, in the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors.”

Connecting her nieces to history is one reason Gina writes the novels she does.

“I want people to remember,” she says.

“I tell my nieces all the time that, ‘I want you to remember the women of our history and what they did and the accomplishments and then go out and become the next generation of women to remember.’

The importance of letters
However, Gina isn’t just trying to inspire others. She is a doer herself.

Her second novel will be out in October. It’s also historical fiction, and is inspired by personal experience leading to a charity that Gina founded, called Girls Love Mail.

“We collect handwritten letters of encouragement for women going through breast cancer treatment,” Gina says. “I’m a survivor myself, 2009.

“I was researching the second book with letters and writing historical fiction letters and reading them when I got diagnosed, and I received over two hundred letters myself in the mail that came from people I didn’t know.

“It was very strange and they were so healing. And I started this charity of getting letters to other people.”

So Gina’s second book, also historical fiction, is an epistolary novel.

“It’s set in the same era,” she says.

“It’s about a young writer who falls in love with the daughter of a railroad tycoon, and it explores the business aspects in the railroad industry and how corrupt it was in that era.

“It was all told through letters, which is really challenging!” She laughs. “I don’t want to do that again.”

But whether it’s her writing or her work with Girls Love Mail, for which she was recognized on The Steve Harvey Show, it seems to Gina it’s all connected.

“I want the next generation to be the doers of the world,” she says. “So that’s part of the charity, and obviously I write about strong women for strong women.

“Part of my passion is to inspire people to go do other things.”

© Roz DeKett

You can follow Roz on Twitter here and on Facebook here.

About the author
Gina L. Mulligan began her writing career over twenty years ago as a freelance journalist for national magazines. Her short stories have appeared in Star 82 Review and Storyacious, were performed at Stories on Stage Sacramento, and were included in the anthologies Tudor Close: A Collection of Mystery Stories and Not Your Mother’s Book …on Dogs. She’s won awards from the Abilene Writers Guild, San Francisco LitQuake, and the Soul-Making Keats Literary Competition.

After her own diagnosis, Gina founded Girls Love Mail, a charity that collects handwritten letters of encouragement for women newly diagnosed with breast cancer. She was honored for her charitable work on the nationally syndicated talk show The Steve Harvey Show.

Remember the Ladies was published in May 2016 by Five Star Publishing.

You can learn more about Gina Mulligan on her web site here.

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Something exciting and engaging: Dharma Kelleher

By Roz DeKett


Dharma Kelleher. Photo copyright the author.

A quote from the great American novelist Toni Morrison circulates often on the internet, at least among writers: “If there’s a book you really want to read but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”

And writing the book she wanted to read is how Dharma Kelleher achieved her first published novel, Iron Goddess.

The thriller, just released by the Random House digital imprint Alibi, is set in the gritty world of outlaw biker gangs. And there’s a twist: Shea Stevens, the main character, is a lesbian.

But the point of the story is not that she’s gay; it’s simply part of who she is.

“You read a Jack Reacher novel, it’s not centered around his romances,” Dharma says, with a grin.

“I wanted something that wasn’t centered around the main character’s sexuality, something exciting and engaging, where the most interesting thing about the main character was not the fact that she was gay.”

Dharma came out of the closet many years ago and read a lot of lesbian fiction. She found it fell into just a few categories.

“So much of lesbian fiction is coming out stories, and once you’ve read a few of those you’re like okay, I’ve been there, I’ve lived it, I don’t need to go there again,” she says. “And [there are] romances, which are great; erotica; and then there’s lesbian murder mysteries.

“There wasn’t really anything beyond that in scope. Straight fiction runs the whole gamut, all kinds of different stories.

“I couldn’t find the stories I wanted to read, so I decided to write one myself.”

The result is a story with diverse characters (sexually and racially) headed by Shea Stevens, “biker royalty” with a prison record and an investigative mission that she doesn’t trust to the police.kell_IronGoddess_cvr_all_r5b1

So how did Dharma arrive here, winding her way through a succession of careers from journalism (“I hated it”) to programming to being a goldsmith to writing a thriller?

She’d always been a writer, and almost ten years ago took part in NaNoWriMo, the annual one-month national event to give writers the inspiration to finish a 50,000 word manuscript.

With that under her belt, she started to work at learning the craft of writing, and over the years she’s written a few “practice novels.”

Falling for the culture
Serendipity brought bikers into Dharma’s life.

“I discovered motorcycles about seven years ago,” she says. “My wife had motorcycles long before and for the first time in our relationship, she got a new motorcycle.

“I rode on the back a few times and after I got over the initial shock and fear, I really enjoyed it. And then I decided I wanted a bike of my own, because being on the back, the seats are uncomfortable and it’s hard to see what’s up ahead.

“So I took a class and got my certification. And I fell in love with the culture.“

Dharma mentions the darker elements, familiar to many through Kurt Sutter’s crime drama television series Sons of Anarchy.

“There’s so many different aspects of the culture that I love,” she says. “Sons of Anarchy is really popular and I think it’s really well-written. Kurt Sutter does a beautiful job bringing out the humanity of the characters even though they’re basically outlaw bikers.

“So part of it was I wanted to show the outlaw biker world from a female point of view. And not even from the point of view of what’s called an old lady, which is the partner of an outlaw biker, but someone who’s a little more removed from that.

“That was the inspiration for the main character, Shea Stevens.”

Absolutely determined
But it’s one thing to write something different from what’s already out there, and another to get it published.

Dharma began the long slog through querying agents. She estimates she contacted around ninety.

“Which sounds daunting,” she says. “Four of them asked for more. But that also means eighty-six of them said no, it’s not right for us.

“After a while, I got to a point where I was sending out one query a day. Just one a day, and not worrying about the results.

“I was just determined to get it out there. I was absolutely determined. I really believed in the story.”


Dharma Kelleher. Photo copyright the author.

Eventually Dharma landed an agent, who in turn began pitching the novel to publishers. Feedback was great—they loved the story, the characters, her understanding of the biker world.

But no bites.

“What it came down to is the characters are very diverse racially and sexually,” Dharma says. “The main character is a lesbian, there’s a lot of racial diversity, and despite the fact that publishers keep saying they want more diversity, when it comes down to it they don’t know how to market it.”

Finally, Alibi made an offer of a two-book digital deal.

“And Alibi has been absolutely wonderful,” Dharma says.

Next steps
“I still wish I had a physical book that I could go out and do signings on,” Dharma says.

“We have a really great bookstore in town called the Poisoned Pen, but I can’t go down there and do a signing because I’ve got nothing to sign.”

But print could come later, and meanwhile, she’s thrilled to be a debut author.

“I’m really excited about having the opportunity to get my story out,” she says.

Especially when you’ve written the book you really wanted to read.

© Roz DeKett

Follow Roz on Twitter here and on Facebook here.

Iron Goddess was published by Alibi on June 28, 2016, and is sold by Random House for Kindle here.

About the author
Dharma Kelleher writes gritty tales about outlaws, renegades, and misfits. A former radio news director, she now works as a freelance editor. Her hobbies include riding motorcycles, getting inked, making snarky comments on Facebook and Twitter, and shocking people with her latest haircut. She lives near Phoenix with her wife. You can learn more about Dharma and her writing here at

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