REJECTION CAN BE FUN!*
Sensitivity training for publishers and literary agents
by Kevin Dawson
Perhaps you remember the “Peanuts” comic in which writer Snoopy’s sidekick Woodstock made him a quilt of his rejection slips (this was the 1970s, children, before email). Even older, of course, is the classic advice Write What You Know. Well, having my writing rejected is what I know. If I had saved all my rejection notices, printing out the ones received electronically (often for good and sufficient reason, since some of the things I’d submitted really weren’t very good), Woodstock could have made me something that would make the AIDS Quilt look like a tea towel.
The most striking of many common threads of the form rejection are the misguided, often clumsy attempts at soothing the sting of rejection. Most of these are about as conciliatory as an upraised middle finger.
The first error is sending the rejection too promptly. When the Submission Guidelines warn not to expect a response for weeks or even months (if at all), it’s a little disconcerting to receive the rejection notice the next day—as in the line from "My Sister Eileen," referring to the heroine’s rejected manuscripts: “Unless I take the subway, they beat me home.” As everybody who ever applied to college knows, the earlier the response, the worse the news. (Submission Guidelines have their own little snafus, but we’ll leave those for another day.) Waiting a respectable length of time before responding creates the illusion that the submission has indeed received due consideration, even if it got deleted, or filed in the paper shredder, almost immediately upon receipt.
You also may remember Holden Caulfield’s aversion to the phrase “Good luck!” (Maybe “Write what you know” should be followed by “but go easy on the pop culture references.”) He never explained exactly what the problem is, so I will: the unexpressed, possibly unintended “You’ll need it” hangs in the air like a bad smell. After all, you never say “Good luck!” to someone who just won the lottery, or took gold in the Olympics; it’s generally said to someone perceived as being in a dilemma requiring intervention beyond the person’s meager abilities to overcome. Though no such occurrence is recorded in Scripture, I strongly suspect that just before Judas Iscariot planted that big wet one on Jesus’ cheek, he whispered “Good luck!” in His ear.
There it is on most rejection forms, and even the “We received your query” forms which technically are not rejections (but come on, who’s kidding whom?): “We wish you the best of luck in your future endeavors.” The rejectee, feeling bruised, may interpret the message as “You poor sad, untalented loser,” even if such an unworthy thought is the farthest thing from the sender’s mind. The other problem with “Good luck!” is that it reinforces the frustrating fact that so much in life is a matter of chance. Upgrading the sentiment to “the best of luck,” sometimes expressed semi-illiterately—from people whose job it is to judge and evaluate good writing, mind you--as “the best of success,” may make the writer feel that plain good luck isn’t enough to raise him from the mire of his own inadequacy. As for success, I don’t know about you, but I’ll settle for generic.
Just as we all want to believe that good is always rewarded, evil always punished, talent always recognized, and hard work and perseverance always pay off, experience and observation teach us otherwise. To be sure, the best and brightest, people of such extraordinary skill that their prevalence is as inevitable as the dawn, are destined to triumph, and this is as it should be. Then there is the legion of mediocrities whose success baffles the unlucky rest of us who wonder what we’re doing wrong, and the answer may be Nothing. In the writing realm, you can offer an impeccable query, a flawless proposal, and get no further than if you’d sent in PLEESE PUBLISH MY BOOK, OK? in crayon on lined paper. (The How-to guides are no help. Editors weren’t born yesterday, and can spot a by-the-numbers job a mile off.) Oh, publishers and agents claim they’re seeking the absolute best (“We’re very picky about what we accept,” a haughty statement which more often than not will not be backed up by their book lists), but are at a loss to explain how so much ill-written crap actually makes it onto the bookshelves. Fickle fate seems the only answer.
Getting back to solace for the also-rans, a big part of it is not to provide too much. Falling over one’s self to offer consolation tends to make it about one’s self, not the person one’s ostensibly trying to console. “Please understand that we receive thousands of submissions, and that we can’t possibly…” begins the consolatory paragraph of the rejection notice, which seems to infer that the sender is the one ironically in need of sympathy. (The solution for submission overload, a quota system, is so obvious that it barely warrants parenthetical mention. Otherwise, it’s like the millionaire who gives 100,000,000 people a penny each and wonders why they’re not more grateful; after all, he gave away a million dollars!) Complaining of the hardships of being so much in demand is best left to popular high school students.
The best rejection form gets to the point. No flowery phrases which sound insincere anyway, no chin-chucking pep talk (do not add “Keep trying!” unless you actually want the writer to continue sending you submissions, two or three a week, until you finally cave in and accept one), no vague “does not suit our present needs” (which are?), no nonsense. Something along the lines of: “Thank you for your submission, but your material doesn’t grab us.”
What else is needed? No rude “I think we’ll pass,” no apologies for the self-evident necessity of it being a form. In any event, as noted earlier, though publishers and agents are loath to admit it, a submission’s acceptance can hinge on something as arbitrary as eeny-meeny-miney-moe; you just weren’t “moe” at the moment. Accordingly, another classic rejection goof is the phrase “at this time,” as in “Unfortunately [there’s that chance thing again], we are unable to accept your material at this time,” which naturally has the writer wondering at what future date they will be able to accept it. And however much the guides stress the importance of correct spelling, grammar, and punctuation; these seem moot considerations in this day of the quasi-hieroglyphic Tweet. The phrase “doesn’t grab us,” while on the casual side (and which went out with pukka beads; but hey, people still say “No worries,” which went out with Crocodile Dundee), at least acknowledges that the decision to pass is based as much on individual tastes as any possible deficiency on the writer’s part.
Publishers and agents might tend to dismiss this as sour-grapes rationalization. If submission success is indeed more than a roll of the dice (an appropriate metaphor, since both casino and publishing firm have the house advantage, although there are plenty of books out there—“We’re very picky”—purporting to instruct How to Win at Blackjack, etc.), the “more” is being judged solely on a first impression which can be misleading. Even more than the spelling-and-grammar business, the guides earnestly advise Make Your Query Pop! “Your query letter is your best foot forward. Make it distinct! Make it special!” The quality of the manuscript itself seems irrelevant.
This recalls a plot which used to be a staple of “women’s” magazines, and is not unknown to modern audiences: the one where young Anne (whose baked goods baron father made a mint with Li’l Annie Cupcakes--for which his adorable daughter was logo and spokesperson), never at a loss for suitors, has to choose between upright, downright, forthright, but slightly awkward and a bit dull David (who blew the Senior Prom when he emerged from the men’s room with his fly open) and the superficial charms of dashing Roderick (witty conversationalist, grace personified; and couldn’t lose a game, get a flat tire, or catch a cold if he tried). By the end, Anne invariably has come to her senses; wonders what she ever saw in shallow, smug Roderick (who, it turns out, was only after her cupcakes); and settles down happily with solid, dependable David. No such happy ending for most aspiring authors, though, as publishers continue to be seduced by the literary Rodericks.
Submitters commit their sins, too, of course. They don’t do their homework, sending their stuff to houses which don’t handle that type of material: e.g., submitting an erotic romance to the Top Publisher of Christian Children’s Books Since 1974. They don’t follow the guidelines, or pick up on subtleties: “We prefer…” really means “We only look at…” They send more, or less, than what is asked for. They pester and prod for a response. However, the listings in "Writer’s Market" and similar volumes contain so much contradictory information that the writer cannot be faulted too severely for being confused. Still, it’s important for the writer to make sure he’s navigating appropriate waters so that when the rejection form states his manuscript is “not a good fit,” he can respond “It’s not a pair of jeans, it’s a book, and in at least one of your stated areas of interest at that; so if it ‘doesn’t fit’, who got fat?”
About the only rule I’d be inclined to disobey is No Simultaneous Submissions. Are they actually going to call every other publisher and agent and ask “Have you gotten such-and-such from so-and-so lately?” Anyway, considering the exorbitant odds against the author—particularly the first-time or unknown author—making it past the query stage, it’s unfair to demand exclusivity right off the bat. Also impractical, like expecting someone to apply for one job at a time and to wait however long it takes to find out no-go before applying for another.
What’s needed from both parties is a little common sense, remembering that the recipient of the submission has the upper hand, and as such does not need to pretend to be sorrier than he or she is to reject it. All that happened is that dreams and ambitions have been crushed, the fruits of what might have taken years of creative effort and work swiftly and categorically dismissed; nobody died. It’s to unsuccessful authors’ credit that more of us don’t follow up form rejection notices with form suicide notes.
Kevin Dawson is nobody in particular.
*If you would like to submit an essay, blow off some steam, tell a rejection story, submit at writerrejected [at] aol [dot] com. Maybe Kevin Dawson is the guy who starts this LROD trend.