Tuesday, January 5, 2010

What I Really Think About... Rejection Letters

Getting a rejection letter feels the same as being told you’re ugly, you’re stupid, you’re failing the class or someone’s breaking up with you for no good reason.

First there’s that cold feeling in your stomach akin to shock. This is easily dealt with by acting like you don’t care. However, the chill spreads from your stomach and clutches your heart so you have to do something. You start picking on the rejecter.

A friend of mine doesn’t believe that I have an entire file of rejection letters. Either this is because she thinks I exaggerate (which I NEVER do) or because she thinks no one would ever reject my work. I kind of suspect it is the first and the plain truth is that I do have a pretty fat folder of rejection letters.

I have a slimmer one with acceptance letters but this post is all about whining, so…

And because I just got one and because I’m in the-criticize-the-rejecter stage, I’m going to tell you what I really think.

There are infuriating rejection letters and then there are really infuriating ones.

I sent my novel manuscript to a publishing house that had requested to see it. Weeks past the time they said it would take for them to respond, I called. No one could find my manuscript. A few days later, I received a letter saying that they not only did not read unsolicited manuscripts, but in fact they destroyed them.

Okay, remember, they asked to see it. That means it was not unsolicited, but solicited. Second… they destroy them? They shredded it or burned it or what? Infuriating.

For years, though, I’ve received baffling letters and equally baffling treatment from people in the literary profession.

One agent who wrote a glowing letter urging me to send samples of my writing “immediately,” then disappeared. She had to be tracked down by her licensing agency. I had been trying to contact her for a year— phone calls, letters, a friend even went by her office! When confronted by this licensing agency, she sent me a note saying she wasn’t “really enthusiastic about working with me.” Really?

In one of my desperate phases, I sent a short story about the drama in the lives of some high school varsity basketball players. They were boys and yes, there’s always drama murkily visible during the game. I sent it to the fiction editor at a well-known magazine. At the time they were publishing introspective, good fiction. I had sent stuff there before and had been blankly rejected. This time, I thought the story was good and had a chance, so I decided to give it a little “push.” The push was that I— (VERY WRONGLY) —wrote the cover letter as if I were a sixty-year-old male, basketball coach. I thought (might I add wrongly) that this would give the fiction some credibility. I signed it L.C.Nebbia thinking Laurence Clarence or something like that.

I know this was wrong.

So months went by, more months went by and I wrote again, giving a synopsis of the superb story and asking what had become of it, hoping for the best. Don’t you know? They lost it! But they wrote Mr. L.C. Nebbia the nicest letter saying they were most interested based on my synopsis of the story and please send it again.

Which brings me to my next point—all the books, magazine articles, printed or posted tips for sending queries to magazines, agents and publishers, all the publishers’ websites with information on submitting manuscripts say that authors should understand how busy and overworked the editors are.

I’ve even had actual editors say this to me. Don't ask a busy editor to read more than a sentence...!

Or what? They might lose the manuscript? They might destroy it? Reading is what they DO.

Okay, I’m sure they’re busy. But how busy? Could they possibly be even ¼ as busy as teachers, for instance?

Editors have an office with a door that shuts and a desk and a chair and something a teacher does not have… quiet. This should make them able to read manuscripts. Which is their job. Sure there’s probably the occasional meeting where they decide what their publishing plan is for the decade so they can tell writers, “sorry this doesn’t fit into our publishing plan,” which means it is not like everything else out there and therefore is risky. But back to the editor’s terribly busy schedule. I would imagine they don’t even have to answer their phones or make their own coffee. Their job is to read and reject manuscripts. That’s what they do all day.

That doesn’t sound busy to me.

Busy is a teacher’s life, not even having quiet during their 20 minute lunch period when there are sometimes 60 (not exaggerating here) teenagers crammed into your classroom throwing food. Though this is another story which I promise to tell, I managed to get reading/grading done in this environment. Can you imagine what my students would have said if I had taken three months to grade a paper? I’d challenge any editor to trade with a teacher for a week and then we’ll decide who is busy and what defines busy. That would make a great reality show… Editors In The Classroom…or wait!... Editors in the Working World. The publishing world would be revolutionized for the better.

One year I graded and commented extensively on about one hundred term papers in one quarter the time than it took these editors to glance at my mss' cover page and send it back. So that makes it difficult when editors with desks and offices and quiet say they’re too busy to keep track of short stories or a novel synopsis and send them back in a reasonable time.

I wrote a romance novel once and months and months after it was due back to me with the rejection letter, it finally arrived. The verdict? The hero was too complex. “Sigh.” I think that editor must have been one of the really busy ones.

However, the most confusing rejection letter I’ve ever received was also the kindest. This magazine kept one of my Christmas stories for a long time (eight months) and when they sent it back they had commented extensively on how they thought I could improve my voice. They found inconsistencies and they were right. I appreciated the feedback and learned from it.

like the books pictured above, these books also have coincidences in them
But that’s not why they rejected the story. They didn’t like the plot because it had a coincidence in it.

A coincidence? What’s that about? What story doesn’t have a coincidence in it? It’s a coincidence that Sydney Carton and Charles Darnay in Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities look like twins? Not only is this unlikely coincidence never explained, but it is the reason that the plot can end it the amazing, poignant, redemptive way it does! Coincidence is often what makes plots cool or sets plots in motion. So, I don’t understand and that’s the real problem with most rejection letters. You don’t really know why.

These books have not ONE coincidence in them -- any of them. Note that some of them are quite dull.

One final anecdote about my novel and then I’ll quit whining. After that first rejection I sent my novel to another major publishing house that did not require that the author (me) have an agent because I don’t have one. I had high hopes! I had a few questions about format and presentation and called the place and they were so nice and so friendly! I sent it on ahead. Weeks past the time I was supposed to have heard from them, I called. No one knew anything about it. Someone had logged it in as having been received, but after searching (I can picture this) determined it was lost. “We have a bad mail system here. They just throw stuff in this huge bin. They encouraged me to send another.

So I did.

Weeks after I was supposed to have heard, I called. Again, no one knew anything. I swore them off. A month or two later I opened a rejection letter from them. My manuscript arrived a day or two after that, obviously utterly undisturbed in the box I’d packed it in let me emphasize—untouched, unlooked at, unread!

A year later, when I attended a bookseller’s convention I thought I’d wander by this publisher’s booth to see what they had selected to publish. They were promoting primarily one novel at the convention and the salesman at the booth said they were giving free copies to those attending.

He put one in my hands.

Tears welled up in my eyes, thinking that Solomon’s Puzzle might have been in this place. I looked at the back cover and quickly read. I read the first page or two. The action of the book began with a series of gruesome murders suspected to be linked to ancient Mormon codes causing one character to question the verity of her Mormon upbringing. It was probably supposed to compete with Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, but it seemed like propaganda thinly disguised as bad fiction. After so many people objected to the way that the DaVinci Code misrepresented their faith (I read several excellent student term papers on this subject so I know about the outcry against the DaVinci Code). Why would this same population choose to take Brown's formula and use it to discredit other people's beliefs?

“You can have that book, it’s free,” the salesman said.

“No thanks,” said I and placed it on the very top of the precarious stack that stood at his booth’s empty corner. Sometimes it’s better to be rejected after all.


  1. You are a treasure. But that's why I love blogging. Because of the web...we get to read your lovely and poetic words without the crappy publishers getting in the way.

  2. I fear this stage of my life, when I actually have time to turn the gigs of stories and documents I have into something (hopefully publishable)I hate failing... Hate it. I don't roll well with those sorts of things.

  3. Reading this blog post has given me a heavy heart. I'm so sorry you've had this experience.

    Having been on both sides of the editorial fence, I have a deep understanding of how hard this is for you. As an editor, I can tell you that I have a very hard time sending rejections (And I've sent more than I want to think about!) — my writer self knows how deeply those words will strike. I know I take much longer to send the rejections than I do the acceptances, despite the fact that I know delaying will only make it harder. Perhaps, subconsciously, I'm giving the writers reason to be angry with me rather than taking the words of rejection to heart.

    Also, there are many reasons for sending a rejection. It might be that the writing is just bad (absolutely not the case for your writing!), or I've received several similar pieces and another is a better fit with the other pieces I'm publishing, or I've recently published one or a number of pieces on the same subject.

    I would recommend that you do look for an agent who is fully behind your book. You will have a much better chance of getting it in front of editors who will appreciate your "too complex" hero. I find it hard to believe an editor of quality literature would use this as a reason for rejection. You're probably better off not being published by that particular house. They wouldn't support your book in the way it should.

    Another consideration is where you are sending the ms. I'm sure you're researching what has been published by the houses you're approaching. You need to find that one editor who likes books like yours. A reputable agent will know who to approach.

    Finally, when you're packing up the ms to send out, also address another envelope — this one to the next person to whom you're going to send a query or sample chapters or a full ms. It does wonders for the self-esteem to know that even if this particular editor is not interested, another might be. You have the pity party for, at most, ten minutes, then get that next envelope into the mail.

    As for editors who return you ms unread, there's no excuse for that. I've only done that once, after repeatedly telling a poet to read my submission guidelines and to only send 3-5 poems at a time. This poet regularly sent me whole books of poetry in ms form — many, many poems that were slight variations of each other.

    When I again received what must have been everything the poet had written since the last time we corresponded I made the decision to no longer review that poet's work. It was a matter of respect rather than of the quality of the poet's work — I had previously published this poet a couple of times. Knowing that this poet was in all likelihood sending the same "submissions" to a hundred other editors told me that this poet didn't respect me or my publication, and it made me question the value of the work. The poet was not chosing the best work to send. The poet was essentially sending his work out like buckshot, hoping for a hit with little consideration for his role in the publication of good work.

    Hang in there. There is a place for your book. If you have a section that stands alone, or if you'd consider reworking a section to stand alone, I'd love it if you'd consider submitting to "Scribble." Your writing is beautiful and I'd be honored to help you get at least some of it published.

  4. The reason many publishers either return unsolicited manuscripts unread or destroy them is to avoid legal liability. In the event of a copyright dispute, the publisher can prove in court that they never even read the manuscript, let alone copied from it.