The Odds Game

Part 2 of the series, “Been Rejected? Join the Club!

In professional writing, rejection is an unfortunate part of the business. As you learn ways to cope with rejection, here is the second truth to keep in mind: It’s an odds game, so keep producing new work and get as much in the mail as possible.

Nothing ever sold by being left on a computer, never having been submitted. If something is rejected, odds are that one of your other fifteen pieces will get accepted. If something is accepted, you won’t get a big head because odds are one of your other fifteen pieces will get rejected.

But don’t dwell on rejection. Go back to your writing. Revise and resubmit. Try a different market. Be persistent. Be glad sometimes that material does get rejected if it turns out you were in too much of a hurry to have done a quality job.

Next week: “Fixing the Problem”

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Dennis E. Hensley, PhD, is director of the professional writing department at Taylor University in Upland, IN. He serves as a judge annually for the Evangelical Press Association Awards, the Christy Fiction Awards, and the Christian Writers Guild “First Novel Contest.” His latest book is Jesus in the 9 to 5 (AMG Publishers). © 2014 by Dennis E. Hensley. All rights reserved.

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Understanding What Rejection Is

Part 1 of the series, “Been Rejected? Join the Club!

My most recently published book is selling very well. But it was rejected by nine publishers before my agent placed it with a major publishing house. Coping with rejection is an unfortunate part of the business of professional writing. However, there are ways of making it less painful. In this series, we’ll look at several.

First, begin by understanding what rejection is. It is one editor rejecting one manuscript on one day. It is not a ruling that you have no talent. Maybe the editor was wrong and just didn’t realize how good your manuscript was. Maybe she had a fight with her spouse that morning and was in such a foul mood, she rejected everything. Maybe something in your manuscript was potentially offensive to one of the publication’s advertisers, or the publication put a freeze on new purchases because of cash flow problems, or the editor recently received a story or article covering your topic.

Keep in mind that, although writing involves an extension of the self, you were not rejected, your manuscript was, and it’s not always about a lack of talent.

Next week: “The Odds Game”

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Dennis E. Hensley, PhD, is director of the professional writing department at Taylor University in Upland, IN. He serves as a judge annually for the Evangelical Press Association Awards, the Christy Fiction Awards, and the Christian Writers Guild “First Novel Contest.” His latest book is Jesus in the 9 to 5 (AMG Publishers). © 2014 by Dennis E. Hensley. All rights reserved.

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Enlarge the Dynamics

Conclusion of the series, “When to Make Fictional Characters Versions of You—And When Not To

One thing that helped me give more breadth and depth to the characters in four of my novels was working with a coauthor. Holly G. Miller and I wrote three mystery-romances under our pen name of Leslie Holden and one medical thriller under our real names. I created many of the characters for these novels, but Holly altered their personalities, appearances, attitudes, and behavior patterns to fit the needs of our plot. Thus, even if certain characters may have started off looking like clones of me, they didn’t stay that way for long. Similarly, I am now coauthoring a new novel with a different female writer, and she, too, is morphing the characters I created so they can better accommodate our goals for the plot. Thus, consider working with a coauthor if your characters continually come out as reflections of yourself.

Investigative research can also help you make your characters unique. If you decide to make a character someone radically different from you, find a real-life person like that and shadow him or her for a few days. Take notes about body language, key vocabulary words and phrases, manner of dress, highs and lows of the job, stressors, work hours, colleague relationships, and work environments. Filter this factual material into the life and career of your character, and it will make that person unique, not just a watered-down version of you.

Additionally, allow your character to go where you fear to go, to do what you are scared to do, to explore what you dread to examine. It’s safe to push yourself out of your comfort zone if you allow your avatar or renegade twin to do the dangerous stuff while you sit back and observe.

Fiction, by necessity, must be larger than life. It is the extraordinary that fascinates us. As such, your daily regimen won’t qualify as much of a plot. Instead, create someone unlike you through whom you can have challenges, ordeals, and quests that exceed your scope.

Who knows? The person you create may be able to experience the life you’ve always dreamed of. Okay…sell it.

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Dennis E. Hensley, PhD, is on the board of directors of Christian Writers Guild and the Midwest Writers Workshop and he directs the professional writing department at Taylor University in Upland, IN. His latest book is Jesus in the 9 to 5 (AMG Publishers). © 2014 by Dennis E. Hensley. All rights reserved.

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No Alter Egos, Please

Part 2 of the series, “When to Make Fictional Characters Versions of You—And When Not To

How do you create fictional characters who are definitely not a mirror image of yourself? To begin with, purposely give birth to a character who is your opposite. Change the skin color, hairstyle, sex, ethnicity, age, educational background, social environment, hobbies, world travels, life goals, and family ties. Put all the characteristics down on paper, examine them, and then see how such a character can be involved in a plot of mystery, romance, or adventure.

Next, do a bit of psychological introspection, asking yourself how you handle jealousy, envy, fear, anger, surprise, and shock. How can you make your fictional character respond differently? Why would he or she respond differently due to personal experiences, training, and/or outlook on life?

Move next to activities and backstory. If you were in the Air Force, have your character be in the Marines. If you were in marching band in school, let your character be in the chess club. If you are now working as an insurance agent, let your character be a librarian or police officer or computer geek.

Finally, give your character some life experiences different from yours. Perhaps your character will have gone through a divorce or will have lost a leg in a car accident or will have won five million dollars in a lottery or will have kicked a game-winning field goal that is still talked about years later. Make the incident significant.

Next week, “Enlarge the Dynamics”

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Dennis E. Hensley, PhD, is on the board of directors of Christian Writers Guild and the Midwest Writers Workshop and he directs the professional writing department at Taylor University in Upland, IN. His latest book is Jesus in the 9 to 5 (AMG Publishers). © 2014 by Dennis E. Hensley. All rights reserved.

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Lessons from London and Maugham

Part 1 of the series, “When to Make Fictional Characters Versions of You—And When Not To

When W. Somerset Maugham wrote Of Human Bondage and Jack London wrote Martin Eden, by design their main male characters were based on their own lives. Like Maugham, fictional Philip Carey is a medical doctor, an avid reader, and a person who has a physical malady. (Carey has a club foot; Maugham had a terrible stutter he was never able to correct.) Similarly, like London, Martin Eden is a sailor, a self-taught author, and a person obsessed with becoming famous and wealthy.

In each of these books the central character is also unlike its creator. Philip Carey spends years studying painting in Paris, and he loses all his investments in mine stocks, neither of which was true of Maugham. Martin Eden never marries (London married twice) and eventually commits suicide (not true of London, though his alcoholism did lead to a premature death).

Usually when a writer less skilled than Maugham or London tries to write the roman à clef, or autobiographical novel, it comes off as mundane or self-aggrandizing. Both are boring. However, many beginning writers tell me, “But I know myself best, so why not start there?” And the answer is, “Because unlike Jack London, you have not hunted seals on the high seas, ventured into Alaska in search of gold, built your own ranch in Southern California, written twenty-seven successful novels and 190 published short stories, been a war correspondent in Mexico, Korea, Japan, and Russia, and built your own yacht and sailed it halfway around the world. In short, you don’t have enough exciting personal material to draw from.”

Next week, “No Alter Egos, Please”

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Dennis E. Hensley, PhD, is on the board of directors of Christian Writers Guild and the Midwest Writers Workshop and he directs the professional writing department at Taylor University in Upland, IN. His latest book is Jesus in the 9 to 5 (AMG Publishers). © 2014 by Dennis E. Hensley. All rights reserved.

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Create the Physical Scene First

Conclusion of the series, “Writing Jumpstarts I Learned Accidentally at Writers Conferences

On opening night at a writers conference in Houston, the director created an icebreaker exercise to get everyone in the mood for fun. She passed out pieces of candy to everyone. She gave flashlights to ten people. She handed a long, thin sheet of aluminum to two men, and stationed one man at each end. She set up three large fans and assigned control of the switches to three people. Then, like an orchestra conductor, she said, “Let’s create a cliché, folks. It was a dark and stormy night!”

She directed us to remove the crinkly wrappers from our pieces of hard candy and then squeeze and roll the cellophane with our fingers. All eighty-five people doing that produced the sound of rain. Then she signaled for one of the fans to start. This was followed by having people with flashlights turn them on and off at four-second intervals. Next, she had the men whip the piece of aluminum, and it sounded like thunder. Finally, she cued the other two fans to kick in. She told us all to keep doing our parts, but to close our eyes. I swear, it actually did sound and feel like a dark and stormy night, yet we were all indoors at a motel conference room.

In creating scenes for my short stories, stage plays, or novels, I have used this mood-enhancing trick. For example, when I was getting ready to write a scene for one of my novels that was to take place in the Smoky Mountains, I started playing a tape of woodland sounds, I sprayed my office with pine scented air freshener, and I rubbed some tree bark between my hands. I closed my eyes, and I was there. The scene was vivid to me; thus, I was able to make it vivid to my readers.

So, take my advice. The next time you are at a writers conference and the director wants to play a silly game or engage in some role playing, be willing to engage. You might accidentally learn something of value.

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Dennis E. Hensley, PhD, is director of the professional writing department at Taylor University in Upland, IN. His latest book is Jesus in the 9 to 5 (AMG Publishers). © 2014 by Dennis E. Hensley. All rights reserved.

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Put Your Characters into Improv

Part 3 in the series, “Writing Jumpstarts I Learned Accidentally at Writers Conferences

I once spoke at a writers conference that featured an entertainment night. A segment of the festivities involved pulling audience members up on stage and dropping them into an improvisation scene. I got recruited. I was handed a note card that said, “You are selling magazine subscriptions door to door. Try to close a sale.” I was not allowed to explain to anyone else on stage what my note card said. I just had to start acting my part. The other four character-assignments were a cop on a beat, a senile old lady who’d lost her way, a dogcatcher in search of a stray mutt, and a robot.

The five of us were videotaped. Viewing the tape later, I was amazed at how smoothly all of us eased into our roles, created humor by way of pratfalls and jokes and adlibs and funny faces, and actually pulled together a silly yet somewhat feasible storyline.

Subsequently, I would often begin writing my novels by jotting short descriptions of six or eight characters on note cards and then jumbling the cards together, forcing myself to find out what these people would do if they were put “on stage” together. Invariably, it led to some clever plot concepts.

Next week, “Create the Physical Scene First”

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Dennis E. Hensley, PhD, is director of the professional writing department at Taylor University in Upland, IN. His latest book is Jesus in the 9 to 5 (AMG Publishers). © 2014 by Dennis E. Hensley. All rights reserved.

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Imagining Dialogue

Part 2 in the series, “Writing Jumpstarts I Learned Accidentally at Writers Conferences

One time I was teaching at a four-day conference in Montreal, Quebec. Due to an electrical storm, several American television networks were temporarily knocked out. Most of what was left to watch at nights was a series of programs in which everyone spoke French. I don’t speak French except for marquee, rèsumè, and oo-la-la.

For fun, I started adlibbing the shows, pretending I was a translator but making up my own dialogue based on the characters’ behavior, expressions, clothing, props, and emotions. Crazy as it may sound, I started coming up with some incredibly good storylines. As to whether they had anything to do with what was actually being played out on the TV show, I still have no clue. It didn’t matter. I had stumbled on an atypical writing exercise in which to generate original storylines.

Next week, “Put Your Characters into Improv”

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Dennis E. Hensley, PhD, is director of the professional writing department at Taylor University in Upland, IN. His latest book is Jesus in the 9 to 5 (AMG Publishers). © 2014 by Dennis E. Hensley. All rights reserved. [1.31.14]

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Uniting Right- and Left-Brain Functions When Writing

Part 1 in the series, “Writing Jumpstarts I Learned Accidentally at Writers Conferences

If you teach at as many writers conferences as I do, you learn a few things by osmosis. In this series, I’ll share some examples with you. The first one has to do with using both hemispheres of our brain to boost creativity.

Back when Tom Clark was editor of Writer’s Digest, he and I were on the faculty of a writers conference at the Ridgecrest Conference Center in North Carolina. The conference director had created an elaborate murder mystery as entertainment for the faculty and registrants, and she had divided us into two-person investigative units.

Tom and I were teamed as a kind of Joe-and-Frank-Dragnet partnership. Since Tom had a more extensive background in investigative journalism, we weren’t so much of a good cop/bad cop team as a good cop/dumb cop team. But I tried to hold my own.

Tom and I looked at the scene of the crime. We questioned the witnesses and the officers who were first on the scene (all played by staff personnel of the retreat center). We then questioned the next of kin, the hired help, and the victim’s coworkers. In only half an hour, Tom and I had discerned who the killer was, and why and how she had committed the murder. Most of the other teams either gave up after a couple of hours or they came to the wrong conclusions.

Interestingly enough, that game led me to an epiphany. When I thought back to how Tom and I had cracked the case, it dawned on me that we had come at it from different perspectives, but we had combined our unique insights. Tom kept hammering home pragmatic questions about details: “Where was the body found? Who were the victim’s known enemies? What sort of poison was used to kill the victim?” I, on the other hand, kept in mind that this was a game. Thus, I kept pondering such things as, “If I wanted to surprise the participants completely, how would I add a twist to what is going on here?” and “If I were writing this as a mystery, which of these so-called clues would I insert as red herrings or blind alleys or false leads?”

I think this was much like right-brain and left-brain activity. As writers, we need to be dreamers and speculators and what-if imagineers, but then we must anchor our fantasies with realistic circumstances, logical proceedings, and believable characters. (Not just the facts, ma’am, but certainly some of the facts.)

Next week, “Imagining Dialogue”

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Dennis E. Hensley, PhD, is director of the professional writing department at Taylor University in Upland, IN. His latest book is Jesus in the 9 to 5 (AMG Publishers). © 2014 by Dennis E. Hensley. All rights reserved.

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Three More Keys to Successful Discussion-Leading

Conclusion of the series, “Introverted Writers Can Be Group-Discussion Leaders

This week we look at three more conversation stimulators to help you to initiate and sustain a group discussion.

  1. Pace your questions. Never ask questions that can be responded to with yes or no or some other one-word reply. Make the questions open-ended, seeking people’s thoughts, opinions, ideas, and feelings. No one can give a one-word answer to, “How did you react to the ending of that short story?” or “What is your opinion about the use of violence in children’s literature?” Once you ask your thought-provoking question, allow sufficient wait time. Give the person (perhaps the whole group) adequate moments to weigh what has been asked and then to formulate a wise and appropriate response. Be patient. Dead air isn’t something to panic about.
  2. Involve the group in counterpoint questions. Often, as you are challenging the group with provocative questions, a participant will turn the tables and fire a question back at you, such as, “Sure, using the latest software for writing is a great suggestion, but what do I do, Terry, when my spouse doesn’t think my writing income warrants more expenditures?” Instead of getting nervous about being challenged, use this as a way of engaging the whole group. Say, “Rickie has a good point. How do some of the rest of you cope with this situation?” This not only gets more people talking, it usually provides solutions to the problem being addressed.
  3. Use questions as previews of coming sessions. If you are going to make your discussion times recurring events, such as monthly writers’ club meetings, send out an e-mail or newsletter that will assist the participants in being better prepared ahead of time to engage in the discussion. You may say, for example, that at the next meeting the topic will be time management for writers, and each person should come in with questions related to goal setting, writing-output quotas, multitasking, and balancing family and career (along with any “solutions” they might want to share). This will ease the preparation burden from you and will get the session started more quickly, since go-getters will volunteer to ask questions first.

Leading a discussion group becomes easier the more you do it. Just keep in mind that you are there to help spread group knowledge among the participants while also being willing to offer your own personal experiences. It is productive chat time if you keep it focused and moving. Try it.

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Dennis E. Hensley, PhD, is director of the professional writing department at Taylor University in Upland, IN. His latest book is Jesus in the 9 to 5 (AMG Publishers). © 2014 by Dennis E. Hensley. All rights reserved.

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