Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Deborah Swift: A Hard Time Creating Believable Characters


Writers face all sorts of rejection and criticism.  Some of it is helpful.  Some of it arbitrary.  Some it is just plain contradictory.  Historical fiction novelist Deborah Swift knows how hard hard this, especially the more vulnerable and honest your writing is.  She faced scathing rejections on the path to publishing her first novel, The Lady's Slipper, and then scathing criticism after.  But criticism doesn't mean a book is a failure.

And she's going to give away a wonderful reminder of that to someone, too!

A writer has to have a thick skin, which is a big ask precisely because we spend so much time battling to expose our sensitivities in our work.

When I first wrote my historical novel, The Lady’s Slipper I wrote it for enjoyment. Some friends read it, liked it a lot, said it was really gripping and encouraged me to send it to an agent. I chose from the Writer’s Yearbook an agency who represented authors I enjoy reading. The agent took me on. I was completely bowled over by her response, as it is one thing friends liking it, and quite another (so I thought) to convince a professional. My agent said she would start sending it out to publishers straight away, and they’d love it. I naively thought that everything would be plain sailing from then on.

Rejection after rejection poured in. The novel was “overwhelmed with period detail,” the novel was “thin on period detail”. The main character was “unlikeable”, the main character was “sympathetic” but the plot needed work. The plot was “engaging, but it wasn’t for us.” In other words twelve differing opinions, but all were clear on one thing – they weren’t going to publish. The agent was fantastically supportive, but suggested that as she’d run out of publishers I should shelve it and start a second. I wondered what the point would be if nobody was going to read them.  But I was hooked on writing, so I did begin another novel, and began to regain my love of the process of storytelling.

At the same time I went back and edited The Lady’s Slipper again, scrutinising it and trying to bear in mind all the radically different opinions, but more to the point paying attention to my own inner compass.
A few months later I sent it to a mainstream publisher that takes unsolicited submissions. To my delight they decided to publish. The publishing house was one that had already rejected the manuscript when it landed on a different editor’s desk.

This is when I first began to realise that even within the publishing world, readers are readers and all have very different tastes, and that includes editors. An editor is going to spend hours and hours poring over your book, fighting for the right cover, wrangling with you over edits, talking to the marketing department. Who can blame them if they say they have to completely love a book before they will take it on.

Since the The Lady’s Slipper has been published, the discrepancy in readers’ opinions, particularly “professional” reviewers has been astonishing. Imagine my horror at this; “Swift has a hard time creating believable characters” a review which is now plastered all over Amazon. Even though there are several underneath it saying such things as “Her characters are so real that they linger in the mind long after the book is back on the shelf” - to a writer the bad reviews hurt. Even if it is only one reviewer in the whole world that feels that way, the review is out there putting people off before readers even give the book a chance. You need to have a thick skin to take this sort of criticism and not hang up your pen. You can read the full dire review here.

So my message to writers is this – there is probably at least one reader out there who will enjoy your book, so be as authentic about your own story as you can. (I rejected the advice from one publisher that The Lady’s Slipper would stand more of a chance if I re-wrote it as, god forbid, a Regency novel) If you are lucky, that one enthusiastic reader will also be an editor, a publisher or a professional reviewer.

And develop that thick skin.

I have an autographed copy of The Lady’s Slipper to give away to a writer whose novel or story has been rejected, to remind them that the end might only be the beginning and to keep writing.(open worldwide) Reply to this post to be entered in the draw.

Deborah Swift

Deborah Swift writes character-rich historical fiction with a touch of intrigue.  Her first novel, The Lady's Slipper, is available in both the UK and the US.  Her second novel, The Gilded Lily will be available from Pan Macmillan and St. Martin's press.



  1. That was very edifying, thanks for posting it :)

  2. What a great post!

    Critique may be helpful for a writer, but scathing critique says more about the sender than the receiver in my humble opinion.

    And thank you for this gentle nudge; I won´t give up selling that novel.

    NB: the grey letters in this post are much better for the eyes!

  3. C.N. I'm so glad you are keeping to these writers, it gives me faith honestly. I have many rejections, but Deborah's words are inspiring as well as brutally honest. Thick skin is a must as a writer, specially if a person is serious about writing.

    Thanks so much Deborah for giving us a look at your experience.

  4. Deborah, thanks so much for putting this together. It's important and inspiring. And I need to move to the UK so I can attend your Tai Chi classes, I think.

    @Bridget - So glad you liked it!

    @Dorte - Awesome! I'm very excited that Deborah's message is going to help you keep your chin up and keep on that novel of yours! :-D

    (Also glad the post is easier to read.)

    @Summer - It makes me unbelievably happy to know that you're sticking with this series. I think all of us writers need these reminders. It's good to have the reality check that things aren't simple and nice out there, but then a second reality check that we don't need to give up or despair.

    I have several authors queued up and am in touch with more! :-D

  5. The rejections you received mirror mine, Deborah. It is so frustrating when even "those in the know" contradict each other. The reward for your persistence is obvious.

    Liking the new look, Nevets.

  6. My grandmother always says that submitting something you have written is like opening your rib cage to make stabbing easier.

    I feel like that too, sometimes, but I'm trying to get over it before I start querying.

    Love the new look, btw.

  7. This is a great post. Thank you for sharing your story, Deborah!

    (I like the new blog look.)

  8. @Michael - That contradiction is the thing that both rattles me and gives me confidence. It means that any rejection could have an opposing acceptance out there on the very same grounds.

    @Misha - That somehow seems very South African. I love it. :)

    @G'Eagle - Glad you liked the post!

    Thanks, too, everyone for your comments about the new scheme. I'm not 100% settled with it yet, but I'm happy to know I'm generating fewer migraines.

  9. Really interesting, Deborah. And having checked out That Review, it wasn't so bad, and there were some lovely ones as well. Isn't it odd that it's always the bad ones that stick in the mind!

  10. A wonderful reminder that there are as many different tastes as there are people, and no novel will be loved by every reader! Thank you!

  11. @Frances - Human nature is a pain like that, isn't it? I think I would have rebelled at a few of the key words in that negative one myself, but you're right that on balance there were many more favorable comments.

    @Roberta - So true! I appreciate Deborah's willingness to use your own experience as an honest model for us.

  12. Hello everyone, thanks for commenting. Hope you are all writing like crazy. I'll make the draw for the book on Monday morning UK time using

  13. First of all, let me say how much better your blog looks. I can actually read without effort. Thank you!

    Second, what if you want four readers and not just one to like your book? I think you're right, you need to remain true to yourself. Unless you're happy writing what others want to read.

  14. "A writer has to have a thick skin, which is a big ask precisely because we spend so much time battling to expose our sensitivities in our work."

    She writes with so much insight and eloquence all over this post but I really identified with this. I can't imagine what it's like to go through the process of rejection and publishing but she definitely gave me a slice of what worked for her. You can't ask for more than that.

  15. @Deborah - Thanks again for taking the time to put this excellent piece together for us!

    @Clarissa - I'm very glad the blog is easier for you to read! I'm sincerely sorry for all the eye discomfort I've caused!

    And you do make a good point: there's nothing that says you have to write stuff that other people don't like. I think about the audience more than most of my betters would recommend, in fact, and I'll have a post about that pretty soon.

    @Shopgirl - I'm glad you appreciated that as much as I did. It's bad enough to take the wounds, and another step to show your wounds to the world so that they can learn from them.


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