Tuesday, November 4, 2008

And You Get Up Again

Okay, I'm going to come right out and say it. This week, I cheated. I have a stack of rejection letters. Lots. So I have plenty to say on this topic. BUT rather than try to reinvent the wheel, I'm giving you an article I wrote with Bronwyn Green after a long discussion with a friend of ours who was formerly an editor with one of the New York publishing houses.

Rejections and How to Use Them to You Advantage

Nobody likes rejection. Not even masochists. And yet, as writers, we invite rejection, time and time again by submitting our material for consideration. It’s the nature of the publishing beast.

Every writer has been rejected at one time or another – from Edgar Allan Poe to Steven King to Nora Roberts. Okay, maybe not Nora Roberts, but I’m secretly convinced she’s a robot, so that doesn’t count. Actually, I bet back in the beginning of her career she racked up plenty of rejections. Just like the rest of us mere mortals.

Why was my story rejected, you might ask. What could I have done differently? What does “This story does not fit our needs,” mean? Manuscripts are rejected for myriad reasons, many not having to do with the quality of the writing at all. Let’s look at these reasons before moving on to the writing quality issue.

Here are some of the top reasons perfectly good manuscripts get rejected, from the mouth of a former editor who has agreed to speak anonymously.

***The editors or agents in question have seen too many manuscripts with the storyline in question. It’s simply too similar to novels either on the market or currently in production.

***Your manuscript hits the editor’s desk during a turnover period. I used to be the running joke at my RWA chapter. "Whatever you do DO NOT submit to the person Brynn submitted to." Every time I submitted, the manuscript was returned because the editor had either left the company or switched departments or got promoted or got sent to another country or got pregnant. I'm telling you. I couldn't win. I learned through discussion that, when this happens, the replacement editor is supposed to give all of the previously requested material a fair shot. Due to the nature of the business, this rarely happens. Either the editor who is leaving, the editor who is taking over or an assistant who is helping out in the interim sends out blanket form letter rejections. The manuscripts might be given a cursory glance, but if their interest isn’t caught instantaneously, they won’t read on. The replacement editor already has so many inherited authors to deal with that acquiring new ones at that very moment isn’t a priority.

***You’ve sent your manuscript to a senior editor. All editors are overworked, most with an author load they can barely handle. Senior editors typically have many other duties within the company as well as a large number of authors with no room for more. So, unless a manuscript is positively perfect and brilliant, it’s more likely to get rejected than passed on to an associate or assistant editor. It’s even more unlikely that the senior editor would pick it up herself. When you have a choice of editors to submit to within a certain line or company, always submit to the assistants and associates. They usually have a decent-sized load of authors, but they’re also hungry to acquire. Acquiring new authors is very important for their company status. Therefore, an editor with a slightly smaller workload will have more time to spend on an author who’s “not quite there, yet, but very close.”

***You didn’t do your homework. Know the lines/houses you’re submitting to. Know what elements are “allowed.” Know which authors they currently publish. Know what sub-genres they are currently seeking. For example, submitting a category romance to Dorchester’s Lovespell line would be result in a big fat rejection letter. Despite the amount of homework you’ve done, your manuscript really might not fit their needs. It might not resonate with a particular editor and is rejected because of that.

***Your manuscript arrived during a “housecleaning” period. Now, most publishing houses will tell you there’s no such thing as a housecleaning period. I’m here to tell you, there is. The month before the RWA National Convention and the period of time between Thanksgiving and the New Year are traditionally bad times to submit. During these times, editors are desperately trying to clear out their slush pile in order to prepare for the deluge of manuscripts following the National Convention and to have a clean slate at the start of the New Year.

On to the writing related reasons your manuscript might have been rejected.

***The plotline might not be tight enough. It might wander or drag in places. You definitely want to avoid this, especially during the proposal stage.

***Your characters may lack depth. If your characters don’t come across as three dimensional as your family members, friends and co-workers, you might want to work on them a bit more before submitting.

***There may be glaring spelling and grammar errors.

***The plot was hackneyed.

***The synopsis fell flat.

I could go on and on and on. The point is you must be sure your story is as good as you can possibly make it before submitting. Get feedback from writing friends or contests. Look at it as objectively as you can and polish, polish, polish.

The type of rejection letters people receive vary – from the dreaded form letter to the personalized letter. Generally, unless you’re being invited to revise and resubmit your story or to submit other work, you’re most likely to receive a form letter.

Unfortunately, there is no real way to tell why your story was rejected from reading said form letter. They’re written to be purposely vague to save the editor or agent from having to write out a personal response. There are several reasons for the existence of the form letter.

Time. Thousands upon thousands of manuscripts are submitted to publishing houses and literary agencies every year. If an editor or agent took time to write a personalized rejection letter for every single manuscript, the process would take even longer than it does now.

Suggestions are often taken in the wrong spirit. When an editor or an agent takes the time to give you suggestions for improving your manuscript, the proper response is, “Thank you for your time and consideration.” Even if you vehemently disagree with every last word the editor or agent had to say, the appropriate response is still, “Thank you for your time and consideration.”

I was amazed to discover that many writers write back with a rebuttal to their rejection letters. In fact, I thought the editor I was speaking with was joking, but she explained that it happens all of the time. They receive lengthy missives about why the publishing house is making a big mistake because their book is the best thing that’s ever been written, to personal attacks on their professionalism, intelligence and integrity to threats. Yes, I said threats. Essentially, there are a handful of writers out there who lessen every other struggling writer’s chances of getting decent feedback. Please, don’t be one of those writers.

When you receive a personalized rejection letter, remember this is actually a good thing. The editor or agent thought enough of your work to take the time to write to you. If you receive a request for revisions, celebrate heartily. This is the very best kind of rejection letter. If you receive an invitation to submit other material, do it! Submit more of your work. Not everyone gets that offer.

When you get a form letter, it’s okay to be sad, but remember, this isn’t a personal reflection on you. It’s not necessarily a reflection on your writing. I have a friend who advocates a 24-hour mourning period. When she receives a rejection letter, she allows herself a good cry, commiseration with writing friends, as much chocolate or ice cream as she feels like eating and a bit of moping. After the 24-hour period is up, she rereads her letter and decides where she’d like to submit her story next.

I think this is a healthy response. It’s natural to feel let down, but it’s also important to keep trying. Remember, above all else, publishing is subjective. What one editor may dislike, another may love. It happens all of the time. Don’t give up. Keep polishing your craft and submitting your stories.


  1. Like you, I was floored when I heard about authors actually responding angrily to rejections! That thought never entered my mind, and I've seen a LOT of rejection letters!

    The nicest ones I've ever gotten were the personal ones, the ones giving me advice on what was wrong and how to fix it. Another one very kindly pointed out I had the genre wrong. It's always helpful to submit the right genre to a publisher,lol:)

  2. Excellent article. Very informative.


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