Building The Writing “Habit” (October Blog Hop)

One thing I always hear other writers complain about is the fact that they say they “can’t” write at a certain time; they lack motivation, they lack inspiration, they lack the right environment. While its true that all of these things can cause you to slow down and become stuck in a rut, I really don’t believe the should cause you to come to a complete halt.

There are some things we can do in order to minimise the effect of these various lacks and issues. The most effective, in my experience, is to get into the habit of writing regularly when you’re riding high on motivation, inspiration, and free time; while forming a habit might not help you to avoid losing motivation or hitting a writing wall, but it will enable you to begin pushing through such times in your writing career.

 

The Writing Habit

Habit – a recurrent, often unconscious, pattern of behaviour which is acquired through frequent repetition. 

There is a common myth that it takes 21 days to form a new habit, for example drinking a glass of water every morning when you wake up, but this, as it turns out, is very much not true.

According to various studies (one summed up succinctly in this site) learning a new habit can take a minimum of 21 days with many people taking closer to 3 months to form a concrete habit. This might sound less than comforting, but don’t stress too much; studies also show that if you miss a day here and there it won’t ruin everything. As long as you get right back on the horse you will be able to form the habit without having to restart the process all over again.

 

Laying The Foundation

So, while you’ll need longer to build the habit of writing than you may have anticipated the first two weeks can easily be classed as critical; these are the foundation for going forward.

If you want to give yourself the best chance of laying a strong foundation you need to be consistent and reasonable in your goals. Trying to write five thousand words each and every day will most likely be unattainable unless you have the time and means to make writing a full-time job. Try to set a routine that is:

  • Manageable
  • Reasonable
  • Intuitive

If you are a night owl, for example, and try to force yourself to get up early to write you’ll find that you become exhausted and fed up very quickly. When trying to build a new habit do so one at a time. At first, work with your body and mind in ways that they are used to.

For example, set yourself the goal of writing a single page first thing in the morning or last thing at night for the first two weeks. For the first two weeks do this every single day, including weekends.

 

Capitalising On It

Once the first two weeks are over you should begin to work into the grooves you have already laid out for yourself, so to speak. At this point, you should start treating your writing habit like a day job; five on, two off.

I can hear you screeching to a half – “what? Deliberately skip days?” I hear you ask… well, no, because you’re not skipping days as much as you are building a working routine that allows for decompression. The best way to fail to build a habit, or to build a habit that breaks you down, is to set a routine that does not allow for rest and recuperation.

When you’re hitting your single page goal each working day you can begin to up your quota; try going for a page and a half for a week, and then two pages per day for a week. Adjust your daily goal until you find a level that is engaging, but comfortable. This will depend on your personal situation; if you’re writing full time this could be three or four pages per day or more. If you have only an hour or two a day jump back down to one page.

The key is consistency.

 

Moving Forward

Once you have a good habit behind you, you can start to think about technique and style. Considering how to world build, how to develop ideas, and how to build characters.

The important thing is that you first get into a habit of consistent productivity and that you allow for your own nature; you will miss your goal now and then, but that should never dissuade you from trying the next day.

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Genres In Fiction

Genre (Zähn-rə) 

  • A type or class.
  • A category of artistic composition.

 

If there is one thing which universally stymies new writers and authors, and even some experienced ones, it is the definition and borders of the genres into which works of fiction are classified.

Literary fiction, interestingly, is classed as being separate from “genre” fiction. There are some key differences between genre and literary fiction, of course, but this is all about genre fiction! There are many genres and sub-genres these days, but to save time we’ll cover the main ones. These are, broadly speaking;

  • Horror
  • Fantasy
  • Science Fiction
  • Romance
  • Comedy

 

Genre Breakdowns

Of course, every single genre has a set of characteristics, subgenres, tropes, and boundaries which bear consideration when you are writing and, especially, when you are pitching your novel to agents and publishers.

 

Horror

Fiction designed to frighten, shock, repel, and invoke a sense of dread. Common themes are supernatural creatures, biblical horrors, human horrors (think serial killers etc), and psychological horrors.

Horror can overlap with science fiction and fantasy, any other genre at all really, but in order for it to be a horror the key motivator must be the “fear factor”.

Popular horror novels are; Bram Stokers Dracula, Stephen Kings It, Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, and Clive Barkers The Damnation Game. 

If you want a small sampler for how to write horror, start here.

 

Fantasy 

When you say fantasy, most people think of High Fantasy fiction such as the kind written by J. R. R. Tolkien which involves elves, dwarves, and epic heroism. But, in truth, fantasy is simply speculative fiction which contains a plot that could not happen in the world as we know it today. It is most common for fantasy to take place in worlds which resemble Medieval Europe in technological level and society, but this is a trope, not a boundary.

Famous fantasy novels (other than The Lord of the Rings) include Robin Hobbs The Liveship Traders, Joe Abercrombies The Blade Itself, and Lewis Carrolls Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. 

You can find tips for writing in the fantasy genre right here.

 

 

Science Fiction

Science Fiction, much like Fantasy, is speculative in nature but differs in that its basis is most often in the future or an alternative history where technological advances make the impossible possible.

Common themes are space travel, genetic modification, and artificial intelligence. The focus is very often on how these advances alienate people, cause the creation of new moral problems, or on colonial themes.

Famous Science Fiction books include Michael Crichtons Jurassic Park, Ernest Clines Ready Player One, and H.G. Wells The War of the Worlds. You can find a few tips on writing Science Fiction right here.

 

Romance

Romance novels can come in many forms but revolve around the development and obstacles faced by a romantic relationship. Romantic novels can be supernatural, historical, or erotic, but no matter what their underlying themes the main focus is upon the relationship in question.

Good examples of romance novels are; Jane Austins Pride and Prejudice, Emily Brontes Wuthering Heights, Jojo Moyes Me Before You, and Jenny Hans To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before. 

A short breakdown of writing Romance can be found here

Comedy

Comedy may well be the most subtle and diverse of all genres, and while you may well have guessed that the aim of the game here is to amuse, many people find it hard to understand the lay of the land beyond that point.

Comedy writing may be dark, it may be satirical, political, vulgar, or even slapstick, but it is also most often a genre used to make some kind of commentary. Comedy does not always have a happy end, but more often than not is optimistic.

Good examples of comedy novels are; Terry Pratchett, Wyrd Sisters (anything by Pratchett actually),  Douglas Adams Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy, Anne Donovans Buddha Da, and Oscar Wildes The Importance Of Being Earnest.

You can find a crash course on comedy writing right here.

 

When it comes down to choosing an agent, creating a query,  and writing your synopsis you should have your genre firmly in mind.

 

 

 

30 Story Starters To Beat Writers Block

C/n= insert character name        H/c= insert hair colour       E/c = insert eye colour

  1. trail of blue-black blood led down the gloomy hallway, up the back wall, and into an air-con vent….
  2. If he/she could just stretch a little farther, the world would be theirs to command…
  3. “You can’t be serious,” he/she said, e/c eyes wide and wet…
  4. The tallow candle threw long dancing shadows…
  5. His/her fingers brushed the edge of the gun…
  6. Her h/c hair was whipped from side to side by the vicious wind…
  7. No two were the same, but still c/n couldn’t see the differences between…
  8. If only there was a way to know what c/n was doing….
  9. If c/n knew one thing, it was that no mortal man could…
  10. Her/his hands were chafed and hardened by years of hard work, but they could still…
  11. The biting cold had seeped into the very stones of the building…
  12. The flags whipped and snapped as a war horn blared in the distance…
  13. Through long years of study he/she had come to understand…
  14. The bright lights of the station were blinding…
  15. “If you take another step, I swear I’ll kill you!”
  16. The ship slowed on approached…
  17. The braying hounds were getting closer, but c/n knew the river was close…
  18. Every bone in her/his body seemed to grind together as he/she stood, but the crowd paid no mind to his/her grimace of pain…
  19. C/N bared his/her teeth and lunged forward, knife glinting in the half-light…
  20. “It was you all along,” he/she said with tears in his/her eyes…
  21. The city sprawled from the shores of the lake like a drunk, but in the madness there was beauty…
  22. The h/c haired woman/man sped through the grey streets like a shadow, but his/her pursuers were always just a step behind…
  23. The package was filthy, torn, and worth four times its weight in gold…
  24. C/N licked his/her lips as the stage lights dimmed; he/she was going to puke…
  25. The circle wasn’t drawn in blood, but it might as well have been…
  26. She moved like water on the stage; so controlled, so gracefully, so beautiful…
  27. The court glittered as it never had before, but the champagne tasted like dirt in C/Ns mouth…
  28. C/N took the first punch on the jaw and staggered back as the second…
  29. The holoscreen flickered and jumped, so she/he knew that it was working and yet what he/she was seeing didn’t make sense…
  30. The hounds were braying as if the devil himself was before them, but C/N saw only a child…

Ready, Set, NaNo

November is peak season for writers; when NaNoWriMo rolls around we’re all ready to power through novels that we’ve pushed back and back and back all year long. Every year the story is the same for thousands of people:

You start well, you beat your targets for the first few days, and then… something goes wrong. Somewhere down the line you lose motivation or you meet a blockage that you just can’t work around.

You fall further and further behind, and sure maybe you write until the last day, but you never meet the target. You never finish it.

 

Or maybe you just give up altogether.

 

I’d love to be your hero (baby) and take away the pain…

 

But I can’t… All I can do is help you to prepare for NaNoWriMo so that you can up your chances of success. Here are some things to keep in mind as we go on:

1) It’s a marathon, not a sprint;

Yes there are some truly terrifying individuals who can crank out ten thousand words (or more) in the first day, but I’d bet you that many of them burn out somewhere in the second week.

Nano is a test of endurance, planning, and determination. In essence it’s a microcosm for the experience of a writing career – it teaches you skill you should apply to every day life if you want to take this on full time.

2) Failure is an option, but it doesn’t define you;

You can do it all right and still not finish. You can finish and dislike the product. Hell, you can finish and like your book and still not get published; this is not a reflection on your potential, but on THIS project and your CURRENT skill.

Learn how to say “I’m not ready YET”.

3) This is not an excuse to neglect your body and life

I’ll say it again, NaNoWriMo is an intense and limited example of what it means to take on a writing career; you should be continuing your life as usual, but finding time to write. This may mean sacrificing small pleasures such as an extra hour in bed or gaming time – what it DOESN’T mean is not washing, sleeping, eating, or socialising and skipping school or work.

If you take the time to learn how to juggle you will build good habits that will increase your productivity in the long run. This is a worthy goal, even if you fail the word count goal first time round.

 

Preparing For NaNoWriMo

Your preparation doesn’t need to begin now, but I would recommend that you start it soon. There are three steps to preparing for Nano, and depending on what book you want to write you may already have completed the first two.

1) Idea and Plot Development:

If you want to make your life as easy as possible during Nano it’s advisable to develop your idea and basic plot before you start to write; this will minimise the likelihood of severe writers block.

Idea development is a topic I have discussed before in detail, so if you’re unsure about it check out the link provided. If you’re having trouble getting an idea at all, however, checkout some prompts and methods. 

Once you have your idea it’s time to make a basic plot and some characters. This booklet might be of use to you*. When you have a an idea, plot, and main character(s) you’ll find you can get off to a flying start.

 

2) Research and Pre-Writing

Once you have the basic outline of a story and your characters, you need to flesh out their world and experiences. This is the time to gather knowledge and understanding of any topics on which you’re unversed.

Worldbuilding might be on the agenda; if you find it hard to flesh out the tricky details consider these world-building questions to help you get the gears turning. If you’re working with in the ‘real’ world, but in a historic setting you should brush up on your historical research skills to make the most of what you read. Most of all remember that when you research for fiction you are focussing on the major events of the time, and the minutia of life for your characters.

i.e. in a story surrounding a weavers daughter there is very little reason why the reader needs to know about the intricacies of courtly life, even in the country in which the book is set, unless she must become immersed in them herself!

Pre-writing, if you’re unfamiliar with the term, is the process of writing what I would call the “scaffolding” which will prop up your first draft. Think family trees, histories of towns and conflicts, personal histories, relationship development plans, and political information for your characters and your world. Your reader will probably never see any of this, but it will help you immensely (trust me!).

 

3) Real World Preparations

Ultimately this is the part that will make or break your attempt; you need to make time in your life for NaNoWriMo.

This can be done in a number of ways:

  1. Tell your friends and family you will be participating so that they can give you space and support.
  2. Create a workspace for yourself somewhere quiet and relatively undisturbed.
  3. Figure out the best time for you to write e.g. mornings, evenings etc.
  4. Begin building habits, e.g. if mornings are your time begin the process of gradually waking up earlier than usual. Set an alarm half and hour earlier than usual for one week, for example, and then move it back another half hour after you are used to this.
  5. Set a routine; start sitting down to write, plan, or pre-write once or twice a week. Try to have a set time, and ensure that people know to leave you be (unless it’s an emergency) in that hour or two. Setting this habit early will help greatly when November bares its teeth.

 

Once you’ve done all of this you’ll be ready to give NaNoWriMo hell!

 

 

 

 

 

*This booklet is entirely free, but if you want to enable me to keep updating it (as well as producing more articles and resources) you could consider supporting me through Kofi.

 

 

Beating Burnout – A Writers Guide

Burnout isn’t pretty, it isn’t fun, and it really isn’t necessary. There are ways to avoid becoming burned out, but on the assumption that those have failed let’s talk about how to get over it.

In fact, let’s talk about a real life case-study; me.

 

As I write this, I’m sitting in my pyjamas with a cup of Pukka detox tea, which by the way is amazing (sorry shameless plug, but it smells like heaven), and I am very slowly easing back into a normal working schedule.

Two weeks ago I burned out completely, and I’ve only just recovered; that’s right, burnout takes a long time to recover from. Why? Well, because it’s a build up of stress and exhaustion caused by a long period of neglect and poor self-care.

Two weeks ago, when I realised I was entirely burnt-out I took a picture which I had intended to share with you, but here’s the truth; my vanity wouldn’t let me keep it. It was just that bad; despite being freshly showered, cleansed, moisturised and blow dried I looked haggard. My face was grey, I was bloated, I had a major break out, my hair was lifeless and somehow still greasy looking, and I had bags the size of China under my eyes.

I looked ill, and that’s because I actually was. In fact, I looked like this;

But with terrible, terrible skin (and an extra twenty pounds… ok thirty, damn Kayleigh Cuoco for being perfect).

Burnout might not be a medical term, but it is actually a mild form of what might be called Fatigue, or medical exhaustion. In essence, when you burnout it’s because you have taken your mind and body for granted; when a heavy workload and depression combine the resulting burnout can be crippling, as I just experienced.

 

That night I finished all the work I could handle, because when you’re freelance you have to work even when exhausted, I took a hot shower, I exfoliated, I cleansed, I shaved, I conditioned, and cleaned every inch of myself. I brushed my teeth with charcoal to remove stains and then I brushed them with enamel repair toothpaste. Then I drank a cup of hot water, took multivitamins and I did the hardest thing in the world for the average freelance writer; I cleared my schedule for the next day.

In layman’s terms? I booked myself a day off.

I slept for fourteen hours straight and when I woke up… well, I still looked and felt like shit because burnout doesn’t go away over night. You have to work at getting rid of it.

 

What Causes Burnout

If you’ve reached that breaking point I can give you hope, but first I need to give you a wake-up call; burnout is caused by excessive mental or physical stress, poor diet, poor hydration, and sleep deprivation. Don’t get me wrong, eating well and drinking water wont save you if you work 16 hours a day and never sleep, but a healthy lifestyle can help you fend off burnout and fatigue for longer, and will probably make the experience more bearable.

The health implications, however, last longer than the symptoms and negative fallout:

Sleep Debt, or sleep deficit, is the cumulative result of restricted sleep, or sleep deprivation, over longer periods of time. Now, we all know that regular sleep loss, or poor sleep, puts you at risk of heart disease, obesity, and other health problems, but sleep debt is particularly pernicious; you will be more prone to depression, fits of rage, comfort eating, a lower libido, and you could be at increased risk of diabetes if it happens regularly. Furthermore, sleep debt doesn’t go away just because you’ve slept in for one or two days – it is cumulative and is suspected to shorten your life.

Poor Diet and Dehydration rarely cause burnout on their own, but when they combine with poor sleeping patterns they make it devastating. Of course, the real concern here is the damage you (and I) will do to your body because of these bad habits….

Ok, lecture over,

 

Beating Burnout

Deep breaths – don’t worry; I know you feel shit right now, but the good news is that you’ll start to feel better pretty quickly.

The key is to treat burnout much like you would treat the Flu – rest, eat well, stay hydrated, and seek appropriate medical advice if you need to. Now, in all honesty, you shouldn’t need a doctor for burnout, unless you’ve really went hell for leather.

Instead you should be writing yourself a short shopping list; now this method works for me, but you don’t have to follow it to the letter. Just remember that the key here is to show your body a bit of extra love to make up for the damage you’ve caused.

Finally, nothing on this list is needlessly expensive; there are no status items here – this is about care not cost.

You Will Need:

  • Water – as a Scottish citizen I’m lucky; our tap water is excellent, but for others bottled water may be needed. Don’t freak out and get super expensive “sports” waters or “smart” waters; amazon pantry sells 12x 500ml bottles of Highland Spring for £2.80 and 6x 1.5l bottles of Buxton for £2.50. If you’re tap waters no good just opt for something cheap and cheerful.
  • Multivitamins – once again, don’t go overboard and stress yourself by buying out-with your budget. These soluble Vitamin C tablets and these multi vitamins work as well as any others.
  • Good Food – cut out junk food as much as possible. Raw fruit is your friend here, and things like apples and bananas are not overly expensive. More important, however, is ensuring you eat lots of green vegetables like broccoli, cabbage, and runner beans. Also look for protein and mineral sources such as spinach and chicken. Vegans and vegetarians should focus on beans, pulses, and nuts in order to get the right mix of nutrients (but then you already knew that).
  • Time – in the end there is no substitute for time. It took you time to burn out, and it will take time to recover. For at least the next week go to bed early and avoid setting alarm whenever you can; even if you cant sleep quiet meditation in a dark room will ease stress and tension, and hopefully help you to sleep later on. Nap during the day if you need to at first, but don’t get into a habit of it if it disrupts your sleeping routine overall.

 

Optional but helpful

  • Coconut water – the wonders of coconut water are crowed by every beauty blogger and nutritionist alive, and for good reason. I won’t bore you with the stats, therefore, as you probably already know them (if not, here they are). What I will say is that when I do burn out I drink about 500mls of coconut water just before bed for the first week while recovering, and I have personally noticed that it speeds my return to full functionality by a few days. Its not as cheap as bottled water, but you can get a pack of 20 OKF Pure Coconut Water for £20 online. However, if you live near a Lidl, Aldi, or Home Bargains/ B&M you can probably get 3 or 4 6 packs for much less.
  • Facemasks and Skincare – once again this is a personal ritual – I break out when I burn out, and I find that facemasks make me feel good as well as benefitting my skin and returning balance. I use one of these once every week anyway, and up their usage to twice a week if I’ve let myself burn out.
  • Cocoa Butter – if your skin has become really quite dry and started to become tight, painful, and/or cracked on your feet, hands, and elbows etc you could consider Palmers Cocoa Butter which is a miracle and every day staple anyway (in my opinion). Once again, though, this is just what I do to make myself feel better and speed the repair of damage that I notice after a burnout.

 

The most important thing is that you try to carry forward these actions and form good habits to reduce the risk of future burnouts. In all honesty, if you’re a student, or you work for yourself, it’s going to be impossible to never burn out ever again, but you can make it less common, less likely, and less severe if you just take care of yourself!

 

Remember, writers need love too! Show yourself some love.

Three Simple Ways To Level Up Your Prose

Once you’ve written a short story or novel, it’s tempting to start sending it out right away. Of course, writers with sense know that you need to edit and polish any work before you consider sending it away.

Once you have edited, dealt with any structural issue or plot holes, and otherwise refined the story, there’s still the matter of technique, or style as Strunk and White would call it.

It takes a lifetime to really master writing technique, if anyone can actually do it, but there are a few simple changes you can make to instantly level up your prose!

1) “Omit Needless Words”

Brevity and clarity are things every writer should aspire to. Words are precious; say what you need to as efficiently as possible by never repeating yourself.

Don’t get me wrong, you don’t need to make all sentences short. Just make sure that every word progresses the story. Here are some examples of words and phrases that are “needless”:

With regard to

In the event that

In a hasty manner

The reason why is

These can be replaced, in order, by:

Regarding

If

Hastily

Because

There will be times when you want to affect an archaic and formal writing style; when this is the case, you could consider reversing this process for a stiffer, less flowing style.

2) Beware The Plague Of Adverbs

Stephen King stated that adverbs are much like Dandelion; if you have just one or two in your garden they can look pretty, but when you let them run amuck they lose their charm.

This is the best explanation I’ve seen as to why you should avoid using adverbs. Notice I say avoid, not stop.

One or two well placed adjectives can add suspense, feeling, and flair to the right moments of your story. Too many shows a lack of confidence; you must be confident that the reader can understand your intent without them. If you’re not, something is wrong.

Adverbs tend to be words that end in -ly, e.g. firmly, happily, angrily, hauntingly. They modify verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs, and they are superfluous. If your sentence can’t stand without an adverb it’s a bad sentence. Start by removing them all, read through your piece, and add them in again if you feel it’s necessary.

When you do use adverbs, however, make sure you use appropriate and efficient ones. For example, tiredly is a trash-fire of a word that adds nothing to the world which wearily doesn’t do better. Think before using an adverb.

3) Don’t Qualify

Remove qualifying words and statements from your writing – be bold!

Qualifiers, much like adverbs, modify meaning. In this case the meaning of a full statement or sentence. They don’t add new meaning, however, but dilute the original statement.

Consider,

Tyrion Lannister could have been said to be the best man in his family. 

Not only is that a sentence full of needless words, it’s full of qualifiers. “could have been said to be” here means, ‘some people thought that, others didn’t, and I’m not sharing my opinion.

Consider instead:

Tyrion Lannister was the best man in his family.

Or

Tyrion Lannister was the worst of them. 

Both of these sentences are more effective than the first because they are bold, they are clear, and they are no longer than they need to be.

If you want to stand out, keep your prose lean and professional; you’ll notice a difference in no time.

If you want a more in-depth guide to an efficient writing style consider Strunk and Whites The Elements of Style. This is a seminal text and should be on every writers bedside table!

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The Three Cardinal Sins Of Writing

There are some mistakes that simply cannot be rectified no matter how skilled your editor is.

Thankfully such catastrophic writing mistakes are few, but beginner beware; should you commit one of these cardinal plotting sins your only option will be to scrap the piece and go back to the drawing board!

 

1) A Concept That Can’t Win

Some ideas are just bad.

I mean it, step away from that self-important monologue from the point of view or Johnny Rotten’s guitar. Please.

If your concept is bland, implausible, or just plain bad there is very little you can do to salvage any work that springs from it. While it’s true that a real genius, like Neil Gaiman for example, could perhaps do something with even the worst idea… saying that is, well, kind of like saying you think you’re up there. You might be, who knows? But if you have doubts about the concept just take the time to evaluate, develop, or, if needs be, abandon it rather than taking that long and difficult path.

What You Can Do

If the concept is terrible people will tell you – listen to them.

If there’s something in it that you really want to keep, the best thing you can do is strip it back to the bare bones and brainstorm a new form with someone whose judgement you really trust.

Once you have a new, ish, concept to work with try again (or just put the poor thing out of its misery).

 

2) All Premise, No Plot

You have a great concept, you’re excited by the idea, and yet your book is being rejected, with no commentary, left, right, and centre. Why?

Well, it could be that your premise has no plot backing it up. You’ll be able to tell that this is the case with a simple test; outline the major plot points on paper. If there’s less than five you’re in trouble.

A premise is what makes your intriguing, the plot is what makes it go. If you have no plot then nothing happens, no conflicts are resolved, and your characters never grow.

i.e. no plot = no story = no book = no chance.

What You Can Do

Give it a plot; if you can’t make a plot its because the story you wish to tell isn’t strong enough, or it doesn’t work with your premise.

Keep the basic premise and lose the rest; brainstorm with that seed and start again.

 

3) USP? What USP??

You’ve written a great spy-thriller with a cool premise and an action filled plot, but agents and publishers are still passing… why?

Well, if your spy John Bland is fighting Dr Death in a subterranean lair it might be the fact that you’ve written a knock-off with no USP (that is Unique Selling Point) to distinguish it from its “inspiration” source.

If there’s nothing unique about your novel agents, publishers, and consumers have no reason to buy it; you need to give them something with a hint of freshness.

What You Can Do

Be honest with yourself about the “borrowed” elements of your story and take steps to remove or alter them.