Literary Corner Cafe

Monday, November 15, 2010

The Writing Life - Learning to Live With Rejection

The thing writers worry about most is rejection, and if you’re going to be a writer, you’re going to have to learn how to deal with rejection because rejection is a normal part of any writer’s life.

I think it helps writers to deal with rejection when they know why their work was rejected. However, more often than not, rejection is handed out to writers coldly, usually in a standard form letter.

You might love your work, your family might love your work, and all your friends might love your work. That doesn’t mean agents and editors are going to love your work as well. Your family and friends love you, or at least they like you very much. When they compliment your work, they’re seeing, not only your work, but you as well. Most, if not all of them are going to have problems being objective about what you’ve written, especially when what you’ve written means so very much to you.

Agents and editors, however, don’t know you. They aren’t, for the most part, uncaring people, but they are looking at your work from a different angle – that of marketability. The job of agents and editors is to sell your work. Why should they bother with your work if they don’t believe they can sell it? For them, that would be an exercise in futility.

While you might love something you’ve written, if you’re trying to sell your work, you should have developed enough objectivity to tell if it’s truly good yourself. If you haven’t, you might not be ready to sell. Even if you have written something spectacular, it might still be rejected, and it might be rejected with little to no feedback from an agent or editor. So, what are the most common reasons that agents and editors reject manuscripts?

One of the biggest is that your work, while well written, just didn’t resonate with that particular editor. This is subjective, but it’s something you’ll run into all the time and it’s also something you can’t control. All any writer can do is get used to it and move on.

Even if your manuscript resonated with an editor, it still might be rejected. Why? For several reasons, including, but not limited to:

The fact that the editor recently acquired something similar to yours or that the publishing house has already agreed to publish a book similar to yours. Let’s say I’m a new author with a terrific manuscript about the relationship between the black housekeepers/nannies of the Deep South of the 1960s and the women they work for. And let’s say I submit my manuscript to Amy Eichorn Books. Well, Kathryn Stockett already did that with The Help. No matter how well my fictional manuscript might be written, it’s not going to be published. Not by Amy Eichorn Books and most likely not by any other publisher. It’s been done. Someone beat me to the punch. Or, let’s say I’ve written a fictionalization of the true story of the murder trial of one of the Ward brothers in upstate New York. This isn’t going to be published, either. Had I written a book like that, Jon Clinch would have already beaten me to the punch with his magnificent Kings of the Earth.

Your idea might be one that’s overpublished at the moment as well. The market might be saturated, at least for the time being. The spate of teenage vampire books is one case in point. While popular, the world simply doesn’t need another “Twilight” series or even another “Harry Potter.” Not yet. (Yes, I know Harry was a wizard, not a vampire.)

An editor might love your manuscript and really want to acquire it, but you might have simply had the misfortune of submitting it at the wrong time. Right now, publishers are cutting back on their lists, so only the most outstanding or most marketable of new writers are going to have manuscripts accepted for publication. A little luck really does go a long way.

If you haven’t done your homework thoroughly, you might be querying the wrong agent or editor. An editor whose list is composed of genre romances isn’t going to be interested in acquiring your thriller. And an editor who loves literary novels isn’t going to want to read your horror manuscript no matter how well it’s written. There’s really no excuse for querying the wrong agent or editor. Agents and editors have their specialties listed in books like Writers Market. Get a copy. Use it. Query the right people.

And speaking of queries, if your query is unprofessional (and you might be surprised at how many are) or if you don’t meet the query guidelines, you’re doomed before you even begin. Make sure your query is as professional as possible and send the agent or editor only what he or she wants. For example, some agents and editors want to see a synopsis, others want to see a synopsis and an outline, while others want a synopsis and the first three chapters, etc. Everyone wants something a little different, so make sure you fulfill those different needs.

If you’re trying to sell a non-fiction book proposal or manuscript, and you don’t have the proper credentials to write the book you have in mind, know that you will definitely be turned down. If you want to write a book on copywriting, for instance, but you’ve never worked as a copywriter, you’re probably not going to get a book deal. If you want to write a book on healthy eating, but lack knowledge of nutrition and have no cooking skills, then you’d better try another subject, instead, one in which you have more knowledge and experience.

For most people, there comes a point at which they have to stop sending a piece of work out and give up completely, though this time will vary for every writer. If you know you’ve written something very good and you’ve put a lot of time and effort into it (and you should put a lot of effort into everything you write), then don’t give up too easily. Remember that J.K. Rowling received more than two hundred rejections slips before the Harry Potter books were published. Kathryn Stockett freely admits that it took her years to get an agent to represent The Help, then it took even more years for that agent to sell the book. But look what happened when it was finally sold. It’s been on the bestseller list since its publication and shows no signs of slowing down.

You do need to examine your rejection letters for patterns so you can learn what’s working with the manuscript and what’s not. Don’t get discouraged. This will help you to improve your writing and learn about publishing market demands.

Ultimately, though, some manuscripts, even some very good manuscripts, will have to be abandoned. Sometimes there’s just no market for the work. I encountered this with my first manuscript, which was a comedy crime caper. Unless one already has a “big name” in the publishing industry, no one currently wants a comedy crime caper. (Stephen King could publish one, of course.) This was okay with me. I loved writing the book and it was a terrific learning experience for me. I wouldn’t change a thing. And be aware that most authors don’t sell their first manuscript. Most sell their second or even their third. Some have to write many more before that first wonderful sale happens, but when it does, all the work will have been worth it.

It’s extremely important to make sure you submit only your finest, most polished work to an agent or editor. Don’t count on them sending the manuscript back to you with suggestions to make it better and more marketable. Usually, you only get one shot with any particular agent or editor, so make sure you take your best aim. If an agent or editor says “no” to your full manuscript – not your query or partial, but your full manuscript – then, without an invitation to resubmit (and this will almost never happen), you’ve pretty much killed your chances with that particular person on that particular project. Sending a revision is only going to result in another rejection and will probably make the agent or editor angry with you as well and far less open to anything new you might submit in the future.

Rejection phrases can be very generic. One of the most common complaints I hear from beginning authors is that they can’t understand why their manuscript was rejected. Here are some of the most common rejection phrases used in publishing and what they usually mean.

“Your manuscript doesn’t fit our needs at this time.” This is a tough one to interpret because it’s rather all-purpose and can really mean anything the editor wants it to mean. It could mean that your writing just wasn’t up to snuff and professional enough. It might mean that the editor just doesn’t think the manuscript possesses any marketability. Or it could mean the editor simply didn’t like it. It’s a more or less stock phrase that you really shouldn’t bother trying to figure out. Just accept it and move on.

“Your manuscript doesn’t have the necessary market appeal.” This one means exactly what it says. They might like your manuscript very much, but it might be too “different” for them, i.e., I would imagine a lot of publishers passed on Geek Love, but it’s extremely well written, so it eventually found a home. Conversely, your manuscript might be too generic and the editor might be afraid it will fail to stand out from the crowd.

“I don’t like the writing style.” Some agents and editors will just tell you that while they may like your story well enough, they don’t like your writing style, so don’t think they could place your book/don’t think it would sell well. If your writing style is fine, it might just be the particular agent or editor’s personal taste and there’s nothing you can do about personal taste, however, if three or more people tell you they don’t like your writing style, you’ve probably got some work to do to perfect it. You do need sophistication and a unique voice.

“I just couldn’t get excited about your story.” This is usually a bad one. It almost always means you story is weak and not emotionally engaging, your characters are weak, and you have little or no compelling conflict. The agent or editor failed to be emotionally engaged and couldn’t find any reason to keep turning pages. Don’t take this personally, but take it seriously. Figure out what’s wrong and fix it.

“Your material isn’t fresh enough.” This, too, means exactly what it says. Your story, characters, or plot line is cliché and just not different and compelling enough for publication. It’s a story we’ve all heard many times before, told in the same way it’s been told before.

Rejection is difficult for any of us, but you can learn to live with it and you can learn to make it work for you rather than against you. In fact, if you want to be a writer, making rejection work for you is something you’re going to have to do.