Four things to try when your creative nonfiction story gets rejected
No one likes getting their story rejected from a literary magazine, but it can be difficult to know what to change and revise in the hopes of getting it published.
Most often, because of the number of stories they receive, literary magazines will send a brief rejection with the explanation that the story “wasn’t the right fit”. You’re left wondering where your story went wrong and what to do about it.
In her Masterclass, author Joyce Carol Oates says that failing to publish a piece is an opportunity to rework the story and make it better. It’s important to look at it with “colder and cooler eyes and see that maybe it wasn’t that great, and I can rewrite it.” She even goes on to talk about how she now feels lucky that she received rejections on some of her stories so that she was able to revise and rewrite them.
Receiving a rejection is a time to look your story over and see not where you went wrong, but where you can get it right this time. But where should you start with your story? Below are a few general ideas that can benefit any writer and help you get your piece published.
Replace adverbs with better verbs
Ah, the adverb. One of my favorite quotes concerning writing is from Stephen King, “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” Adverbs are one of the more widely misused elements in writing that signifies “lazy writing” to a reader. Why is it considered a sign of laziness? Because you’re letting the word do the work for you. Instead of showing the reader the man was angry—
I saw his neck veins bulge, his shoulders grew broader, his chest swelled. His pointed finger dug into my chest as he spit out words through gritted teeth. “Stay away from her.”
With the adverb, what we get is—
“Stay away from her,” he said angrily.
Here’s another way to look at it. What’s angry to me, might be a different kind of anger to someone else. My anger looks hot and impassioned, for others it might be cold and calculating. Slamming doors versus the silent treatment. If it helps, imagine every time you use an adverb, you’re losing control over your own story.
If you want me to see what you mean, to see the world you’re creating with words, then you’re going to have to care enough to show me. Otherwise, you’re asking too much of the reader. If we don’t care about the scene we’re writing enough to show it in the details, then our reader won’t either.
On the topic of verbs, let’s talk about the uninspired ones. The ones that we plop into a sentence without much thought about whether they are the best word for the job. As writers, we want to make sure we help the reader visualize the image we are creating with words. If you have a character where you want to show their nonchalance in a situation, why say “walked” when you can say “strolled.” That gives the reader a much clearer image in their mind. Or better yet, what if they oscillated down the sidewalk.
This suggestion comes with a caveat. I don’t mean for you to take apart every sentence you write, plucking out your thesaurus and inserting unusual and uncommon verbs everywhere like a literary game of Mad Libs, (although no shame in that tactic every now and then).
I want to stress not overdoing this idea with every sentence. Some sentences are there to shine, and some need to do the heavy lifting of moving the story forward. It’s important to give the reader a place to rest . Searching our minds for the definitions of words we don’t use or see every day is taxing.
If every verb gets swapped out for something special and unique it can provide for tedious reading. As writers we need to take into consideration what the reading experience is like.
As Nathanial Hawthorne said, “Easy reading is damn hard writing.”
Instead of synonym-swapping, try mixing in an unexpected verb for those sentences or scenes that you really want the reader to visualize clearly.
Unexpected could also mean using word pairings that create new meanings for the action. Natalie Goldberg, in her book Writing Down the Bones, suggests an exercise to help with this. On one side of a piece of paper write down a list of nouns. These can be anything, cat, beard, arms, tulips, piano, skeleton, extension cord, bowl, fork.
Then fold the paper in half lengthwise and write on the blank side a list of verbs. Goldberg suggests picking an occupation and thinking of words that someone would do at this job. The example she gives is a Chef. Chop, mince, slice, cut, heat, etc.
Now open the page to view your two lists and begin pairing them together in sentences. The cat chopped through the grass searching for its next victim. His beard minced my cheeks when we kissed. Her arms sliced through the air as she ran, propelling her further to win the race. Not all of these are going to work, but sometimes you might stumble onto something fresh that creates a strong image in the reader’s mind, something that makes them want to keep reading for more.
These words are still simple words— we aren’t reaching for the thesaurus for the fanciest, longest, most complex word. You’re using simple words in new ways. That’s what will excite your reader, much more so than, “The twosome tramped on in stony quietude, both forswearing to fracture it.”
Write a sensory immersive scene
This exercise is a good one to try, not only for your finished pieces, but it’s also a great warmup exercise. Just like an athlete needs to warmup first, writers can benefit from warm up routines before digging into their short stories, creative nonfiction pieces, novels, and memoirs.
This exercise involves choosing a scene from your memory or a scene from your story that you’re hoping to improve. It could be anything from a time when you were a kid playing tag with the neighbors just after the streetlights came on, to just yesterday when you were standing in line at the grocery store with cat food on the conveyer belt.
Close your eyes and visualize the scene.
Recall something from it that touches every sense. What were you looking at, what were you hearing, smelling, touching, and tasting. Get every detail down and don’t edit anything, just write. Write for five or ten minutes, then read over what you sensed during that scene.
Maybe there’s the start of a story there. Maybe there’s just one sentence, or nothing at all. Including sensory writing into your stories will help it feel more relatable and real. It connects the reader to something visceral. Every reader really wants to see themselves in a writer’s words. We are always looking for that connection. Placing that reader in the scene with senses is one way to get there.
Read other books about writing outside of your genre
When asked, most authors will tell you there are essentially two things a writer needs to do to get better at writing. Write a lot and read a lot.
It’s important to read in the genre that you write in. If you’re writing creative nonfiction, then it’s good to read other creative nonfiction stories. You can read our new collection of stories here.
Reading published stories from other authors is one way to learn about what a well-crafted story looks like. Read with the intention of learning. Look at the pacing, at the structure, at the ways they include dialogue, and scenes. When you start to read with these in mind, you’ll start to notice the structure of good storytelling.
It’s also important to read outside of the genre that you write in. Gather inspiration and ideas from classic literature, a psychological thriller, travel stories, science fiction. Even a cookbook could offer ideas. Reading all these different kinds of books can help keep your writing from getting stale, from sounding too much like everything else. It can offer new solutions to old problems in your writing.
In this same vein, I would recommend reading books about writing in other forms. Books on writing better fiction short stories, or books on writing better poetry, screenwriting, playwriting, or music lyrics. You never know where inspiration will come from or what ideas you can reinterpret for your own creative nonfiction writing.
It’s important to read other works that are getting published, but the point is not to copy them or change your writing style to sound exactly like what’s out there. Please don’t lose what makes your writing your writing. Reading other published works can help elevate your own and help you look for what your story is missing.
I offer these suggestions because I know what it’s like to have the goal of getting published. I know how it feels to get a rejection for a story you worked on for months, a story you thought you had given everything to. These are some things that have helped me and other published writers that I know.
Using the rejection as fuel to get better, to look for resources and things I could improve on, helped me keep going. But I also want to share that if writing to get published is your main pursuit, then you are missing the most beautiful aspects of what it is to write.
Striving to become a better writer, if that is your goal, is tough, yet incredibly rewarding. You will never reach the end, there is no finish line. You can always improve your writing. For some, that may seem daunting and disheartening, but for others, it may provide a sense of freedom.
These were just some general tips to help give you a direction to get started. If you’re looking for a personalized approach, we do offer services to help with your writing. You can find more out about that here and we look forward to reading your stories.