Monday, June 8, 2009

For Any Writer Who's Been Rejected

For seven years while I worked for an LDS publisher, I sent out rejection letters. I also sent out a variety of other letters, and have sent out rejection letters for other organizations, but most of my experience with fiction came from these seven years.

Because of my background in teaching (which means giving feedback in writing) and also my background as a writing student (which means getting feedback), I often offered suggestions to writers. I knew at the time that it was more time-consuming and that my employer probably would not appreciate me throwing away my time on books that weren't going to make a profit for the company but...the instinct was too ingrained. Now I hear almost universally that editors should not give any suggestions for rewriting. First, there's always the danger that a writer will rewrite and "fix" whatever's lacking so now the book should be acceptable. And second, another editor may like the manuscript as it is or want other changes. Some writers tell of resubmitting their manuscripts without making any suggested revisions and getting published, and many successful writers describe their experiences getting rejected 10, 20, 30 times before their book was finally accepted. John Grisham's first book, A Time to Kill, was rejected by 28 publishers. When it was finally accepted, it sold through its printing of 5,000 very, very slowly. His second novel was facing a similar list of rejections but fate intervened when some early copies ended up in Hollywood. Some movie producers were excited, Paramount paid $600,000 for it and not surprisingly publishers started begging for the chance to publish The Firm. And most people know that Dr. Seuss's first children's book was rejected by 27 publishers as being silly and nonsensical and "too different from other juveniles on the market to warrant its selling." (That was And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street.)

The stories could go on and on. I could list several examples in LDS publishing but I haven't asked permission so I think I'll just let the authors tell their own stories. I'll just say I know two lovely women whose first books I rejected (and I say "I" but in many cases books go through readers/evaluators and even committee meetings before a decision is made to accept or reject). Nonetheless, I penned the letters (it just doesn't work to say I computered or I keyed the letters and the day may come when no one knows what "penned" means, alas).

Both of these women have written 10 or 12 books now and have many, many devoted readers. I know of other authors who already received rejection letters (from yours truly) but who went on to publish several books and also have devoted readerships.

And just for variety, here's a story about a writer I worked with who had published one book and after very carefully evaluating the next four from this author, I had to reject all of them. It was a hard situation for both of us, possibly harder of the author but I was frustrated too. I wanted to accept a novel from the author. After some discussion, an idea came up, the author wrote a sequel and it was accepted easily as were the next several books.

A few more words on rejection. Agatha Christie's first book was rejected as "not suitable for our list." Mary Higgins Clark's first book "Journey back. to Love" was rejected as "light, slight, and trite." Ann Frank's diary was felt not to have "a special perception or feeling which would lift that book above the "curiosity" level. The Time Machine was considered "not interesting enough." Irving Stone's Lust for Life was felt to be "a long, dull novel about an artist." Chaim Potok's The Chosen was "too long, too static, too repetitious, too ponders and a long list of other negative 'toos'...It is solidly, monumentally boring." Potok himself was felt to have "no novelistic sense whatever."Charles Dickens' Tale of Two Cities was considered "a sheer dead pull from start to finish." Jasper Fforde, author of The Eyre Affair, wrote four novels before getting published and got 76 rejections. And James Patterson, best-selling crime/mystery writer, also received many, many rejections, but check his book on Amazon and you'll see that that didn't stop him. And then there's Tony Hillerman, who was told his first book wouldn't be bad if he'd "get rid of all that Indian stuff."

So the moral of these stories is this: if someone rejects your manuscript, you're in good company.

If you want more stories, try Pushcart's Complete Rotten Reviews & Rejections. Many of these examples were taken from it.


Annette Lyon said...

Count me on the list of authors you had to reject multiple times--but you encouraged me to keep going. I did, and finally made it shortly after you left the company. Six books under my belt with a seventh and eighth due next year!


Jennie said...

There are a lot of good manuscripts that are rejected, some are rejected for reasons other than quality of writing, some deserve to be rejected, but what I've never quite figured out is why some really awful books get published and some of them even hit high sales numbers. Taste accounts for some of that, but not all.

Nancy Campbell Allen said...

We (several authors)just discussed this with the kids at THE Teen Writers Conference on Saturday, and many of us shared stories of being in the right place, at the right time, and having a book that crossed the right editor's desk at the right time of day when the moon was full and Haley's comet was approximately so many miles from the sun...

Much of publishing is timing and luck. Talent usually floats around in there somewhere, too. ;-)

Michele Ashman Bell said...

I've got a scrapbook filled with ten years worth of rejections and I'm very proud of it!

Great post, Val! Glad there's not a letter from you in there with all those posts. You were "THE" one who finally ended all of that for me.

Cheri J. Crane said...

I have collected quite a few impressive autographs through the years, compliments of rejection letters. ;) They'll be worth a mint someday. =D

Great post, Val.

Gale Sears said...

Thanks, Val. I have read your post over several times. It is very appropriate at the moment.

Anna Buttimore said...

Val, I'm one of those who owes you so much because, in rejecting my first manuscript (which was pretty dreadful, I admit), you gave me some pointers which led to my finally getting Haven published. Your post was excellent, thanks so much.

Anonymous said...

I needed to hear this tonight as my manuscript was rejected today. And this wasn't my first rejection but the first rejection of this particular essay.I don't want to self publish (fine for others) but, for me I want my manuscript to be accepted by some major publishing house)
I am using the letter to mop up my tears. Thanks for what appeared as just the perfect antidote to rejection!