I’ve been thinking about rejection, lately, which is a constant in most writers’ lives. The following is an adaptation of a piece I wrote for the Authors Guild Bulletin some years back.
I’m 168 in writer years and I feel my age. I have been writing and submitting since typewriters were in use, and for everything I’ve published, there have been more rejected. I used to keep the rejections in an old trunk in my work room. It sat there, oozing negativity from every seam, until one day it exploded, sending scraps of bad karma all over the room. After I peeled it off the walls, I decided to keep only the noteworthy rejections. Not too many, these days. Rejections used to have splash and passion; now they are about as exciting as bottled water.
Of course, the bedrock of rejections has always been generic forms. But they were worded carefully, and you could make yourself believe the editors had tailored them to you: some were collegial, like the editors and you were all in this together. I would read the few lines closely, many times, and in between them, too. Was there something really regretful between regret we cannot publish and thank you for thinking of us? I hated the the ones that took on themselves the heavy burden of their vetoes: Dear Writer (though we don’t really think you are one), We are grateful to see this( piece of crap) and although it is not right for us (or anyone else), we wish you luck placing it elsewhere (yeah, lots and lotsa luck) . Sincerely yours, The Editor
Sometimes a generic came with an afterthought of handwritten encouragement: Nice, but not for us or Thanks, anyway, Love to see more, or Try us again, which would to stuff my sinuses with such emotion that I could hardly breathe for half a day.
Occasionally, some editor would write a personal letter, rejecting me in the most accepting of terms. I had a long correspondence with one fiction editor at The New Yorker Magazine (which is the white whale to many fiction writers). Sweet agony. Over several years (during which I wrote and published my first novel), I had many near-misses, the worst/ best of which was a story which, this editor said, was just a hair from…well, they all loved it but…would I consider changing the ending? Consider it? Boy, did I! I pumped it up, toned it down, installed a detonator in the last sentence, rubbed it down with great slathers of Art. Of course, the harder I tried, the worse it got. And each rejection was gentler and more regretful. By the time I gave up, it was barely a story, and I have never put it back together, or tried it anywhere else. Now that is rejection at work.
I like rejections that show that a reader was affected by my work, and the best of these was that same editor, who turned down my story about a dying woman, but at the bottom, handwrote a concerned P.S., hoping the dying woman wasn’t me. And my hands-down favorite rejection, from the now-defunct glossy magazine LEAR’S was when my short story came back torn in half and across the title someone had scrawled “THIS IS SHIT” in brown marker.
Nowadays, rejections don’t show that kind of enthusiasm or interest. They are lazy and, well…sloppy, without a sense of self, no pride. Once, I got a raggedly torn half of 8-1//2 X11 page with not my cup of tea. And once, I got a short story back from a magazine a year after I sent it, and by then I had completely forgotten I sent it, so the rejection came unhitched from my hopes. It felt more like losing the Publishers Clearing House Sweepstakes than anything else.
If you have an agent, book rejections are almost always polite, since editors and agents have to get along. But that means you have to translate sentences, addressed to your agent, like: I can see why you are so enthusiastic about this, but it is not right for our list, (which roughly means Ugh, you idiot, where is your taste?) Occasionally, a rejection will offer insight; one such led to a complete revision of a book.
Mostly, editors are readers like anyone else, and they react first with their gut, and then justify their gut with publishing jargon because that’s their job. After all, there really is no reason to analyze and explain why they aren’t going to buy something any more than you would have to explain to the fruit man why you passed on those green bananas. An editor has to fall in love with your work, and if she doesn’t, she puts her lack of love into terms like the narrative is weak, or the protagonist is problematic, after the fact. Publishers like a sure thing, so “will it sell?” is important, too. Before I sold my book about Alzheimer’s, most rejections talked about it being too difficult a subject to tackle, but the editor who loved it saw the potential more clearly than the difficulty.
What I have learned from rejections is that good work is subject to them, and there is very little I can do about some editors’ personal taste or a publishing program which does not include my type of work. The only things I can do are to make sure that there are no soft spots in the work, and know my market before it goes out. Because I will only get one chance. That editor whose helpful comment led to my revision did not want another look.
I knew a guy who had had a huge success with his first book, and then went on to write nine unpublished novels. When I met him he was working on his tenth. Yes, he was a little crazed, and I remember thinking what a nightmare and wondering what kept him going. I don’t wonder anymore. Sometimes rejections make me want to stop submitting material, and sometimes I do stop, for a while. But they never make me want to stop writing. If I have an urgency to say something, if the answer to the question “would you write it even if no one would publish it?” is “yes,” then I write it and don’t worry about it being rejected. And it helps that I can see that some rejections that are just not good enough for me, and I reject them.