We’ve most likely all heard stories of the famous writer who papered her loo with the one thousand rejection slips she received before getting a publishing deal. Tales of that nature are legion.
Unpublished writers are encouraged to view rejection slips as stepping stones toward publication, to shrug off feelings of disappointment and frustration, and to continue writing and submitting work undaunted. This is good advice. But I think it’s possible to use rejections far more creatively. Your rejections can tell you a great deal about where you are on your writing journey and which direction you should head in next.
I’d like to explain what I mean by this, with examples from my own collection of rejections from literary agents and publishers, in the hope that the idea will prove useful to you.
All rejections fall into one of two broad categories. There are “form rejections” and “personal rejections.” The former are standardized notes, a printed slip in the old days and more typically an email nowadays. The latter are rejections which contain some degree of personal comment from the agent or editor concerned. Personal rejections can take the form of a scrawled addition to a form rejection, perhaps stating little more than that the editor would be pleased for you to submit other work in the future, to a full letter with a detailed critique of the work and an explanation of why it was rejected.
Here’s how I think you can use your rejections (once you’ve accumulated a sufficient number) as a barometric measure of your developing writing skills.
barometer definition. An instrument that measures atmospheric pressure. Note: In general, when the barometer falls in response to a drop in pressure, bad weather is approaching; when the barometer rises because of an increase in pressure, good weather will follow
When I first started sending work out ~ well over twenty years ago and hardly in anything like the systematic and business-minded manner that I have more recently adopted ~ my short stories and the first three novels (non of which were very good) were roundly and soundly rebuffed with nothing more than a printed chit, if they received any response at all.
There followed a period in which I was disheartened and stopped making any approaches. I practically stopped writing ~ although I would occasionally scribble down ideas, beginnings with no endings and several endings with no beginnings. I dedicated myself to oral storytelling, theater and TV work. I did quite well with that, working with exciting theater companies in Europe, getting paid silly money for being silly on TV, and fulfilling a childhood dream with a residency at The Little Angel in Islington, London.
But I couldn’t let it go. The writing bug had its tenacious little mandibles firmly squished into my soul.
With time and experience, coupled with a lot more reading and reflection, I came back to writing. By then I’d learned a few things:
- I was not a genius
- I was ready to write badly
- I was ready to rewrite as much as required to write well
- I was ready to work on pushing my productivity towards the prolific
- I was ready to die in the attempt
The short stories I wrote in that period were diabolical, derivative and unpublishable. But they got a bit better as time went on. I was learning my craft and, above all, learning to persevere against the odds. To become a writer really is an act of astonishing heroism.
I wrote three novels in that period and didn’t send them anywhere. They were pretty much plagiarized from my favourite writers of the time (Alan Garner, Joan Aiken, H.G. Wells, Lindsay Clarke). I think I perhaps didn’t send them out because I knew it would have been a waste of time. The odd thing is, that I still wondered why I was not yet published. How strange is the fog of the human mind!
But still, by unconsciously copying the themes and style of other writers I was learning what it felt like to write, how to construct stories on the page, how to handle dialogue and character development. I still am learning all of that. But it began with those three unpublishable and unpublished novels.
Then I learned something that was holding me back.
Forget about writing what you know, forget about writing what you think is trending right now: write what you love. Write a story that thrills you, that makes you cry, or laugh or whatever it is. That realization resulted in a book that wasn’t plagiarized. It was all my own work and I thought it had some merit. I sent it out to around thirty or so agents and publishers. These are a few representative responses I received:
We have read this with great interest. We are however sorry to say that after careful consideration we are not able to offer you representation for your work.
Thank you very much for sending me your book. I’m afraid it didn’t stand out quite enough for me to want to take things any further. I’m sorry to give you this disappointing reply, and wish you all the very best with your writing.
Thank you for letting us see a sample of your work. We are taking very little at present and I’m afraid this is not for us.
Thank you for sending us your work, which we have read with interest. Although we did enjoy looking at your material, in the end we felt it wasn’t quite right for XXXXXXXXXX. We have to feel absolutely passionate about a new project before taking it on and we didn’t feel strongly enough in this case.
Thank you for your submission, which we have read with interest. Unfortunately we did not feel enthusiastic enough about it to offer to take it further.
Thank you for approaching us regarding representation and for your patience in waiting to hear back from us. We’ve now had a chance to consider your submission and I’m afraid we don’t feel that we are the right agency to represent it.
Thank you so much for sending me your work. However, having considered it, I’m afraid that I don’t feel it’s right for my list.
There was much about this submission that we liked but in the end we didn’t feel strongly enough about it to offer you representation.
And on and on in a very similar vein. Those are, just in case you are uncertain, all examples of the ‘form rejection.’ Don’t ~ if you’ve stockpiled hundreds of these as I have ~ imagine that ‘we read with interest’ and ‘we enjoyed reading your work but…’ and so on are anything other than stock phrases agents use to soften the blow.
I stopped sending the work out pretty much when I ran out of agents. I stepped back. I considered. And yes, I may have wept a little, maybe drunk too much one evening and added a few more grey hairs to my beard.
But I pulled myself together. I did some more research. I re-read the book. I realized that there were several very good reasons why this book was getting nothing but form rejections. I forced myself to take it all to pieces and slowly I discovered the numerous problems with the structure, language, character arcs and so on. And I set about fixing them.
I also changed my tactics. Rather than just sending out submission packages to any and every agent under the sun, I started to research agents more carefully. I Googled them, I found out who else they’d signed, I followed them on Twitter and got to know a bit about what made them tick. In the end, I was looking for agents that I felt I personally liked and respected as people, who I thought it would be possible to have a long term, happy and creative professional relationship with, and who were exemplary in their field.
This way, I came up with a shortlist. And it’s a very short list. But the quality is high. As these agents have been kind enough to give me direct permission to quote their letters, I’m happy to list them here:
- Stephanie Thwaites, Curtis Brown.
- Julia Churchill, A.M. Heath.
- Joanna Swainson, Hardmann & Swainson.
And there was also
- Juliet Mushens, The Agency Group.
And that was my very short list. I wrote a personal submission package for each and sent the work exclusively to each in turn, one at a time. Apart from Juliet. In the end I didn’t submit to her, but I’ll explain why shortly.
This time I had something that was a lot better and more carefully targeted. Remember, this is the same book, the same plot, the same theme, the same characters. The difference this time round was that I had tidied it up and fixed some clunkier parts, and I had carefully selected agents I really liked, both in terms of their work and as people (as far as one can tell à la distance) . And so then I sent it off. These are the responses I received, in reverse order:
I’ve thought hard about this one. I’m drawn to the ideas and I found your writing characterful and vivid. At the same time, I had reservations in my mind that it would inevitably draw comparisons with, say, Philip Reeve, and that it wasn’t quite strong enough to stand up to comparison to him. Steampunk has been around for a while and I think it would really have to have that extra something to stand out and get the editors’ attention. So reluctantly I’m going to say no this time. We just have to feel so strongly about the things we take on in today’s very tough and competitive market. But it’s a very subjective business, so I hope you fare better with another agent. If you don’t get picked up with this, however, I would be interested in reading your next thing.
~ Joanna Swainson, Hardman & Swainson.
Thank you for giving me a shot with this. I’m sorry but I’m going to pass. This has some lovely points, but I’m not feeling that pull that I need to offer to represent. Of course it’s a wildly subjective business and another agent may well love.
~ Julia Churchill, A.M. Heath.
This was a difficult decision as I was really impressed with your submission.
The writing is engaging, the idea is appealing and you write with real energy and imagination. However, while there was a lot I enjoyed about your submission, ultimately, I did not feel convinced I could find a publisher for it and therefore I don’t feel able to offer you representation for this project.
I am sorry not to be writing with better news. If you don’t place this manuscript with a publisher, I would be keen to read anything you write in the future.
~ Stephanie Thwaites, Curtis Brown.
See the difference? That rewrite, coupled with careful research, shifted the barometer needle toward fairer weather. I’d received personal rejections, full of praise for my writing and two direct requests to look at my future work. I can’t tell you how positive I felt about these rejections! My interpretation was (and is) Austin, ol’ chap, this is validation that you can write well, that you can tell a good story and that you can reasonably expect to compete in the market place eventually.
If I had any doubts, when I mentioned these to my dear friend, the writer and editor Terri Windling, she wrote back to say:
First of all, it’s a very positive sign when someone from a very good literary agency (they’re one of the best) takes the time to write you a personal rejection letter. No one — believe me, no one — would say such nice things about your writing and ask to see future work if they didn’t absolutely 100% mean it. As an agent or editor, you’re too inundated with submissions to simply be nice about such things, and if you don’t think someone has genuine potential, the last thing in the world that you want is future submissions from them.
Of course, I was keen to try and understand better why the book had been rejected despite all this positivity and praise. Joanna had told me in a fairly straightforward way ~ she’d compared it to Philip Reeve and felt that it didn’t stand up and perhaps she had a feeling that steampunk is now a bit old hat (hold that thought, we’ll come back to it later.) So we focused on Stephanie’s rejection. Here are some possibilities we came up with:
- It’s simply a market problem, no-one she knows is buying in this genre/age group just now
- Maybe it doesn’t quite fit its genre requirements
- Maybe it falls between age groups
- Maybe there’s something in the story
Without a lot more information we’ll never know. However, spurred on by this shift in barometric pressure, I set myself the task of trying to figure it all out. What followed was a lot of reading ~ about story structure, genre requirements, the difference between YA and MG, the market and on and on. Many nights and several bottles of excellent Barolo later (one of the small advantages of the dull copy writing day job is that I can afford decent wine), I thought I had a pretty good idea of what the problems might be.
And the answer I came up with was that, to some extent, it was all of the things listed in the bullet points above. Let’s take them one at a time:
- The market: well, clearly the mainstream YA market at that time was dominated by dystopian fantasy and sexy vampires. Whilst arguably a bit dystopian (an industrial society riddled with moral ambiguities) my book focuses on quite positive values of friendship, courage and the triumph of love. Bit old fashioned!
- Genre requirements: absolutely a problem this one. Totally. Is it a coming-of-age story? Is it a thriller? Is it an Adventure yarn? All of those and yet not quite any of them. I needed to choose a major external genre and rework things to it if it was going to become a ‘market fit.’
- Age groups: I identified this as the core problem with the book. Its themes (about discovering who you are and wanting to find a place where you belong) are very much MG themes, whilst some aspects of the treatment (the violence and the bleak existential crisis stuff, coupled with a heroine who wants to make her mark on the world) clearly resonate more with YA. This book fell almost exactly between the two camps. I would have to choose which side of the fence it was going to go.
- Story: Despite the earlier rewrites and editing, yes, on further reflection, there were still certain problems with the story structure itself (and that might well be one of the reasons why, positive praise notwithstanding, no-one has yet requested a full read.)
So there I was with all my work ahead of me.
But thanks to these rejections, and my positive view on using them creatively, I have made huge leaps forward in my understanding of the writing business, in my mastery of the craft and further, I’ve begun to bring this manuscript seriously up to scratch.
If I hadn’t already exhausted the opportunity to send it out to all the agents (apart from Juliet, which decision I’ll explain in a minute) I thought it was worth sending it out to, I’d have sent it out again. Actually, I did send it out a few more times but it was still being rebuffed.
!Just a quick bit of additional information: most of the agents I ever sent it to, despite me meticulously following their individual submission guidelines, were not sufficiently courteous even to acknowledge receipt or respond ever, at all.
The traditional publishing industry can seem cruel and pompous and as if it regards writers merely as content producing machines. I already know what that’s like, because that is my current day job. I know they’re busy, these people, but we’re all busy: many of us not being paid to find time to write 120,000 word novels by losing sleep, with kids and the day job and ye gods knows what else to manage, too. So I don’t buy the ‘agents are too busy’ to be minimally courteous line. I believe courtesy matters. These good, human agents may be few and far between, the exception rather than the rule. Be warned.
Now why didn’t I submit to the undoubtedly marvelous and talented Juliet Mushens? Well, because despite realizing that if Juliet was to represent my books we’d smash the world into a thousand glittering pieces with them (maybe), I discovered that she just doesn’t do MG. And in the end (remember the bullet points above?) I decided that was the direction, rather than YA, that best suited the treatment. In the future, I might send her the adult (as in grown up not as in erotic) Victorian Ghost Story thing. I think she’ll love that.
I said we’d come back to Joanna’s comment about steampunk. Yes, steampunk has been around a while. But stories of any kind have been around a while. Steampunk is a pretty narrow niche, she’s right, and so for a mainstream publisher to think of it, it would have to be spectacularly innovative and have a broad appeal outside the steampunk subculture. So yes, think Philips Reeve and Pullman for that.
But I suspect the only reason for such a perspective is because a Big Five publisher has to make a big return on its investment (5,000 readers just doesn’t cut it) and the poor author in a traditional deal gets less than 20% of net sales, minus the agent’s 15% of that. So agents are, understandably, only interested in something that might be big. And they and the publishers both are not much better at judging that than you or I. Most books by debut authors never outsell their advances and end up being returned and pulped.
But to wind this up: don’t be downhearted. Keep writing, keep learning and developing your craft. It can take a heck of a long time. And keep your rejections. Paper the loo with them if you must. Use them to inspire you, to motivate you, to push on and become a better writer. Little by little, you’ll see the barometer needle shift towards fairer weather.
Which almost brings me on to another thing. But that other thing will be next week’s post. In the next post, I’ll explain why I’ve decided to grab my manuscripts and jump off the edge of a metaphorical cliff ~ and why I’m confident I won’t fall, but fly.
UPDATE: the first two books in the trilogy are now published!
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