One of the basic, primal experiences for anyone who writes is the rejection letter. If you don’t receive rejections, you probably aren’t trying very hard, no matter how talented you might be at stringing words together into clever stories. But think about it from the point of view of the rejectors — why don’t they like your work? What is their rationale for the rejection that caused you to sit under the sink moping for 3 1/2 hours while eating M&Ms by the handful?
Neil Gaiman, one of the best sci-fi/fantasy/YA/graphic novel writers of the past two decades directs us to this blog post, which has a wonderful list describing how editors/agents/interns categorize submissions:
- Author is functionally illiterate.
- Author has submitted some variety of literature we don’t publish: poetry, religious revelation, political rant, illustrated fanfic, etc.
- Author has a serious neurochemical disorder, puts all important words into capital letters, and would type out to the margins if MSWord would let him.
- Author is on bad terms with the Muse of Language. Parts of speech are not what they should be. Confusion-of-motion problems inadvertently generate hideous images. Words are supplanted by their similar-sounding cousins: towed the line, deep-seeded, dire straights, nearly penultimate, incentiary, reeking havoc, hare’s breath escape, plaintiff melody, viscous/vicious, causal/casual, clamoured to her feet, a shutter went through her body, his body went ridged, empirical storm troopers, ex-patriot Englishmen, et cetera.
- Author can write basic sentences, but not string them together in any way that adds up to paragraphs.
- Author has a moderate neurochemical disorder and can’t tell when he or she has changed the subject. This greatly facilitates composition, but is hard on comprehension.
- Author can write passable paragraphs, and has a sufficiently functional plot that readers would notice if you shuffled the chapters into a different order. However, the story and the manner of its telling are alike hackneyed, dull, and pointless.
(At this point, you have eliminated 60-75% of your submissions. Almost all the reading-and-thinking time will be spent on the remaining fraction.)
- It’s nice that the author is working on his/her problems, but the process would be better served by seeing a shrink than by writing novels.
- Nobody but the author is ever going to care about this dull, flaccid, underperforming book.
- The book has an engaging plot. Trouble is, it’s not the author’s, and everybody’s already seen that movie/read that book/collected that comic.
(You have now eliminated 95-99% of the submissions.)
- Someone could publish this book, but we don’t see why it should be us.
- Author is talented, but has written the wrong book.
- It’s a good book, but the house isn’t going to get behind it, so if you buy it, it’ll just get lost in the shuffle.
- Buy this book.
So think about it: Forget about whether your book is good or bad. Forget about the relative merits of your prose style. 95% of the things that agent, editor or intern reviewed all day were so bad that phrases like “neurochemical disorder” seemed appropriate to describe them. How exhuasted must they be? How cynical?
A few years back, I had an agent for an earlier version of the book that is the subject of this site. An editor at Dial Books for Young Readers really liked the book, and it went up to a mysterious committee. After an interminable wait, I received a bizarre rejection letter. It began with “I was at the edge of my seat the whole time I was reading it” and ended with “best luck finding it the right home.” It was a long letter, filled with details that could only come from a deep review of the material. I was devastated.
But then I began thinking about her comments, and I realized that she was kind of right to reject the book. Her comments about the plot holes were dead on, and her suggestions for changes were great. After all of the crap she had to read every day, my book was good enough that it merited a long, detailed analysis. I shouldn’t be mad, I should be thankful. It might not be the right book for her imprint, but she saw something there and wanted to tell me about it.
That letter was on May 18, 2007. I spent the next four years writing and re-writing that book. It is, without question, a far better book, and will now be available for all of you to read later this year. Would I have been happy if she had published the book all those years ago? Of course. Would the book have disappointed me today? Definitely.
Rejection can be your best friend, as long as you understand what to take from it. Oh, and as long as you don’t give up.