Writing Advice


[Originally published in the magazine Romance Writers Report, October 2012.]

Reading the Tea Leaves

Tell me if this sounds familiar:  You send off your brilliant query or synopsis or full manuscript.  You cross your fingers, hold your breath, and wait for a response from the agent or editor of your dreams.  After your fingers have frozen into permanent claws and your lips have turned blue, you get back a reply – a rejection letter.

As you tumble down the rocky path to the Pit of Despair, you try to find meaning in the rejection.  You study every single word, ferreting out the agent or editor’s secret message encoded in the letter.  You even struggle to find meaning in the format of the response – an email, a printed page (whole sheet, half sheet, what does that mean?), a rare and treasured phone call.

Rejectomancy.  From “rejection” and the Ancient Greek manteia, meaning “divination”:  Reading meaning into rejection letters.  Every writer who has ever hoped for professional publication has tried rejectomancy.  Most of us have failed utterly.

No Means No

It’s a sad fact of the writing business – most authors who try to achieve traditional publication are rejected along the way.  And the sad truth is that agents and editors who provide those rejections rarely take the time to give specific, concrete feedback, the type of personalized advice that many of us have come to expect from critique partners and beta readers.

Even in the era of modern publishing, where many notable agents have closed up shop, where publishers combine and re-combine on an unnervingly frequent basis, we authors manage to find multiple places to submit our work.  Alas, that means that we find multiple sources for rejection letters.  With particularly challenging manuscripts, the flood of rejection letters can be numbing.  Matt Buchman, author of I Own the Dawn, reflects the experience of many writers:  “I finally sent and received so many that [rejection letters] were diluted past caring.”

Many authors choose not to interpret their rejection letters.  They believe that, at heart, the rejection letter is a simple statement of lack of interest.  There isn’t any reason to push for more communication, to try to find deeper meaning.  Candis Terry (Somebody Like You) summarizes this school of thought: “[T]he only thing I allowed myself to decipher was a ‘Yes’ or a “No’.  Because all that in-between stuff really didn’t matter.  They either wanted it or they didn’t want it.  End of story.  Time to move on to someone else who might want it.”

Similarly, Miranda Neville, author of Confessions from an Arranged Marriage, echoes the belief of many writers when she says, “I gave up trying to find meaning in rejection letters, having decided that the agents pretty much selected at random from their stock of rejection responses.”  Like many authors surveyed for this article, Neville never received a rejection letter that was detailed enough to help diagnose specific problems in her writing.

A Glimmer of Meaning

Some authors, though, do receive that sort of correspondence.  Janet Fox (Sirens) manages to set aside her immediate protestations, investing time and energy into interpreting her rejection letters:  “The editor doesn’t ‘get’ what you’re trying to say.  Maybe you haven’t been clear.  The editor doesn’t find your character interesting?  Maybe you haven’t dug deep.  The editor says that the plot falters?  Maybe you have built tension on every page.”  Thus, Fox uses her rejection letters as signposts for finding ways to improve her work.

That dispassionate analysis, though, comes hard to many writers who have invested months or years in completing their manuscripts.  Matt Buchman weighs each rejection letter he receives, asking himself a series of questions:

1)  “If I were ever asked to revise this book for a contract, would I want to include these changes or remarks?”, and

2)  “Do I think my time is better spent trying to include these remarks in a redraft, or in writing the next book (and including these remarks if I ever sell the first manuscript)?”

Buchman now routinely moves on to writing the next book, rather than editing the first according to rejection letters.  That decision, though, only came after accumulating many rejection letters.

Most agents and editors I contacted for this article declined to provide any sort of “dictionary”, “translation table”, or “guide”, any means of transposing the language of their rejection letters into useful writer-guiding English.  Perusing online archives, though, provided one glimpse into an editor’s mindset.  Gordon Van Gelder, editor and publisher of the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction explained his rejection letters in some detail.  He states:

“Didn’t grab me” typically means the opening of the story didn’t grab me.

“Didn’t hold me” typically means that the story initially engaged my interest, but then it lost me somewhere in the middle of the story.

“Didn’t work for me” usually means I finished the story but felt that it came up short of the mark.

I’m not 100% consistent in using those phrases, but that’s generally what I mean to say when I use them.[1]

Those guidelines are valuable; however, they only apply to a single editor, with regard to a single publication.  Of course, other editors are by no means bound to follow Mr. Van Gelder’s formulation.

So, where does that leave us, as we try to gain guidance from the rejection letters that fill our mailboxes?

Lessons Learned

Several authors use rejection letters as a sort of “literary bootstrapping”, applying lessons learned from one agent or editor’s reading to better a manuscript for submission to another agent or editor.  Janet Fox recounts:  “The most ‘productive’ rejection I ever received was from an agent who wrote me a lovely detailed letter suggesting improvements.  She didn’t ask me to resubmit, but I took her advice and rewrote like crazy.”  Four months later, Janet signed with another agent, sold her debut young adult novel, Faithful, and wrote a thank you note to the first agent.  She concludes:  “[This] shows the importance of being nice all around, since you never know when a rejection becomes something big.”

Meg Bellamy, author of TV Bride:  TV Love, tells a similar story about a rejection letter that inspired her – but her tale has a twist.  An agent passed on her project by writing a “lovely, supportive, encouraging rejection letter” – a letter so positive that Bellamy posted it on her bulletin board as she wrote her next book.  Alas, Bellamy pitched her next book to the agent who had been so inspiring, only to be kindly, politely rejected.  Bellamy chalked up the experience to a valuable lesson:  “Rejection may come wrapped in pretty words, but it is still rejection.  Courtesy and kindness are lovely qualities, but their presence in a communication should not be interpreted as encouragement, support, or interest.”

Of course, it goes without saying (doesn’t it?) that authors should never respond to agents or editors with anger, disappointment, or sarcasm.  People who send rejection letters are professionals in the publishing world; they aren’t likely to change their minds when confronted by an author’s rage or sorrow.

But if that’s the case, then how should we recover from the most stinging rejections?

What’s Next?

Rejection letters seem to fund a major industry in comfort food and drink.  When asked her favorite method for recovering from “Rejection Blues”, Barbara White Daille, author of Honorable Rancher, answered for many of us:  “Chocolate, chocolate, and more chocolate!”  In fact, virtually every author surveyed for this article mentioned drowning sorrows in some form of fat-laden (and, often, alcohol-laden) treat.

Several writers also stated that they give themselves a time limit to dwell on their disappointment – a day or week to mourn the reaction before setting aside their emotions.  A few authors also mentioned getting physical exercise, as a way of resetting their disappointed brains.

Even on this topic, though, authors aren’t completely in agreement.  Miranda Neville actually says – somewhat counter-intuitively – that she prefers receiving multiple rejection letters in one day.  Her logic?  “I found that it took about twenty-four hours to recover from a rejection.  But if I received two or more rejections in a single day, I still only had twenty-four hours of depression.  So a multiple rejection day was actually a good day because it streamlined the misery.”

After the emergency treatments of authorial misery, what’s a writer to do?  Zenobia Renquist, (Caveat Emptor 7:  Eternal Lovers) has a carefully honed strategy for dealing with rejections.  She says, “My favorite way of recovering from Rejection Blues is having a submissions plan.  I don’t hang all my hopes on one editor or agent.  I make a list of publishers and agencies that will fit the book, start at the top and work my way down.  If I get a rejection, I pout for a few minutes, and then fire off the next submissions packet that same day.”

Laura Florand, author of The Chocolate Thief, echoes that advice, reminding fellow writers to get to work on their next projects as soon as they submit a completed work.  After all, she writes, “[D]idn’t you start writing because you loved to write, not because you loved to sit on tenterhooks waiting for someone else’s reaction?”

After all, success stories ultimately follow on the heels of all those rejection letters.  Candis Terry summarizes the process:  “I faced rejections for 22 years before I approached a publisher with the right story at the right time.  And they said yes.  All those rejections taught me a lot about perseverance and the power of believing in myself.”

In fact, some authors are creating new paths to move past rejection letters in the contemporary world of publishing.  Cara Marsi (Storm of Desire) lays the groundwork for rejectomancy in our “brave new world”:  “A couple of glasses of red wine and a bag of potato chips helps me get over the pain of rejection.  I allow myself to wallow in self-pity for a few days, then pick myself up, put away the wine and chips, and keep writing.  However, I’m indie publishing now and loving it, so I no longer worry about rejection letters.”

So?  What are you waiting for?  Stop investing your time and energy into deciphering generalized rejection letters.  Instead, examine those letters to see if there’s any specific advice you can apply to make your work better.  Decide if it’s worth your time and effort to harness that advice.  Get back to work, creating your next romance.  And cross your fingers, hold your breath, and hope that this is manuscript one that gets you past the time-honored pursuit of rejectomancy.

[1] http://www.sfsite.com/fsf/blog/forum/topic.php?id=808, last viewed August 8, 2012.


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