Tuesday, April 06, 2010

The No-Thanks That Helps

One of my annual spring rituals is to clean out my office filing cabinet, which I've been doing this past week. While disposing of what I no longer needed to save, I came across an old reduant copy file of rejection letters for proposals I sent out back in the 90's. About five hundred of them; looks like everyone in New York rejected me at least three times. Now I can chuckle over some of the scathing comments -- like one editor who said I'd never get my vampire fiction published -- but back then these were very tough to read.

Not all the bounces were bad, though. In the file I found a copy of my favorite rejection letter of all time from Natashya Wilson at Harlequin American. Natashya was the first editor to give me feedback that was actually useful, and also the first editor I ever pitched in person (a couple years later we met at a regional writer's conference. Still didn't sell her anything, but I made a point to thank her for her advice.)

As busy as editors are these days, they probably don't send out many personalized rejection letters anymore. If you receive one with comments, it's almost a given that the editor thought enough of your work to offer an opinion. In Natashya's case, she actually helped the most by referring me to another division of Harlequin for whom the book might work better. As editorial feedback goes, this is pure gold.

Some writers are simply not good matches for certain publishers, and what one editor dislikes another might love. Generally you can tell a rejection is based on preference or suitability when the editor makes comments like "I didn't care for [story element]" or "At this time we're not acquiring novels in [genre]." In my rejection letter from Natashya, she specifically mentioned the hero, how he didn't work for her, and how he wasn't appropriate for her line.

Other helpful feedback is when the editor comments on the marketability of some aspect of the novel. Although I didn't know it at the time, environmental issue plots were not popular with romance publishers; Natashya pointed that out and actually saved me a lot of time; after pitching the book to Harlequin Presents (who also rejected it, btw) I shelved the manuscript and moved on.

The comments you really need to pay attention to from any editor are those made about the quality of the work. Natashya emphasized that my hero was over-the-top, especially in the beginning of the novel, which was right on the money. When editors tell you that there's a problem with the writing itself, it's definitely worth looking at closely. Look for comments like "I don't feel this was written at a professional level" or "The pacing of the story felt uneven" or "The characterizations seemed two-dimensional."

Rejections can also help you decide whether to pursue or abandon a project. Last year when my agent was shopping around a new three-book proposal for me, she was getting nothing but blanket rejections for it (yes, I still submit and I still get rejected. Bestsellerdom does not = automatic acceptance.) All the editors kept saying was that they'd already acquired something similar or they didn't have room for it in their line (the heartbreakers were the editors who said "I wished I'd seen this a year ago." Got a couple of those.)

Because my timing seemed to be off, I was considering pulling the proposal and moving on to the next idea. Then one editor sent a comment about how she would have bought it except that she felt it would be too much competition for one of their established authors. That was exactly the feedback I needed to hear to keep pursuing publication. A few weeks later I received an offer from another publisher for the proposal (my new editor later told me it was exactly what he'd been looking for) and they bought all three books.

Now some questions for you guys: what do you find most helpful in the rejections you receive? Any editors out there you think are particularly helpful or generous with feedback? Let us know in comments.


  1. Thanks for sharing this--it does me a lot of good to see how quickly you went from rejections to sales.

    I'm still at the stage where personal rejections that say something nice are gold to me. I don't know that I've changed anything because of a rejection yet, but just to know that I made it out of a slush pile, that I came close, means the world. I guess I need validation as much as advice right now.

  2. I think the universe is speaking to me. This is the second blog post in about..oh, five minutes, to address the dreaded rejection slip and how to move past it.

    Last week I got a rejection on a full manuscript request. The agent was very kind and told me that while I "have a very nice writing style", she couldn't connect to the characters the way she needs to in order to "get behind a project".

    As this is the second full manuscript rejection on this project, I must admit I'm beginning to doubt the book's saleability. I've thought of pursuing other options - perhaps printing it for friends and family only through Lulu or the like.

    This post and the other one I just read feel like the universe is telling me to suck it up and keep sending it out, though, that perhaps it just hasn't fallen on the right desk at right time.

  3. Thanks for this post, I really enjoyed it. I haven't sent any of my work to editors yet, but rejections in general towards my writing (whether it be from a teacher, parent, or student) are difficult for me. It's nice realizing that there's something valuable that can be taken from each rejection to improve in the future. :)

  4. Thanks for posting that rejection letter, Lynn. It helped me to see that agents & editors really do "talk" differently than the rest of us mortals.

    My most recent (and first) rejection letter left me confused. I don't know if she (the agent) was "just trying to be nice" or if she really meant the positive words she wrote. In any other world (like Corporate America) her words would be viewed as empty stroking. But, if there is one thing I've learned it’s that the Publishing World operates like none other that I’ve seen.

  5. Oh Krista, you're wrong. If you're getting requests for the full, you're *very* close, and you shouldn't give up on that book yet. How many agents have you submitted to so far? My wife queried a *lot* of agents before one said yes. I think sometimes writers in that situation don't realize that getting requests for the full is *not* the norm, and they don't see how well they're really doing.

  6. Wow, that is a lovely rejection letter.

  7. Anonymous3:09 PM

    I had one for a short story a couple of months ago which was incredibly positive about the characterisation of the protagonist, just didn't feel the setting was a good fit for the magazine... characterisation is what I see as my biggest weakness - I mean, improvement point :) - so it was almost as encouraging as actually getting an acceptance! Although I do say almost :P

  8. my rejections used to be form letters, but lately I've been getting some useful feedback, which helps. It's still a rejection, but it doesn't feel as bad.

  9. I think I've sent out five or six queries, to test the water. Three asked for partials, one was a flat out no and one was a full.

    On the three plus one, I got wonderful letters really. Encouraging, specific in what did and didn't work for them and it's helped me to take a better look at my areas that I need to work on, and how to improve them.

    I have to admit, personal rejections are always nicer than the flat out form rejections though ;op

  10. My favorite to date is 'didn't fall in love with the execution' the letter started with praise for my writing and my voice and then that. At least a R is better than being out there in no response land =)

  11. I've been querying a sci fi romance to agents lately, and getting a lot of form rejections. But I did get actual feedback from one web 'contest' where I submitted the first couple of pages and a 1-paragraph blurb. I was told that the writing was solid (yay!) but that aliens were a tough sell (hmm...maybe I can do a find-and-replace to swap "alien" for "vampire", or is it "fallen angel"....).

    The real heartbreaker is when I saw a blog post this week by one of the agents who form-rejected me saying that she's actively looking for "Earth-based sci fi". Apparently, she's not looking for my Earth-based sci fi.

    I've also entered this in a couple of the RWA contests and I usually get one or two judges who score it almost perfect, and one or two who can't find a single thing to like about it. I've decided to take that as a compliment :)

    But still, the one agent said I had solid writing. So maybe its not me, its them...


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