Sounds like an oxymoron, right? I know, it’s hard to see the good side when you get your query letter or full manuscript returned with a polite “thanks but no thanks”. But believe me, there is a good side.
Let me tell you what a rejection letter isn’t. It isn’t confirmation that your writing sucks. It doesn’t mean you should stop writing and take up knitting/origami/brain surgery. It doesn’t even mean that this editor hates you and has blacklisted any future submissions to XYZ Publishers because your writing is so bad.
So what does a rejection mean? In my experience, a rejection letter falls into three categories: Form Letter; Helpful; and what I call the Claytons (you know, the Rejection You Get When You’re Not Really Getting A Rejection). For a more definitive answer, I’ve given some examples and their interpretation below.
The Form Letter (Part 1)
“Thank you for submitting your manuscript to XYZ Publishers. Unfortunately, this does not meet our requirements at this time…”
This is the most ambiguous (not to mention frustrating!) letter. It could mean (but obviously not limited to):
- This particular mss does not hit the right tone or requirements they’re looking for. This can cover a whole multitude of problems: weak conflict and/or characters, bad or unclear motivation, trite plot. The first two can be strengthened with in depth analyses of character GMC, the latter with a study of what’s on the market already. Maybe you sent a super-sexy story to a conservative publisher? Or a sweet one with no love scene to Harlequin Desire? Or even a Regency novel to a contemporary-only publisher? Robyn Grady (Harlequin and young adult author) received this response from one publisher. “Your writing is smooth, polished and involving, but I regret to advise you that your submission will not be suitable for inclusion in the Heartline schedules, due to the number of minor characters and elements of intrigue you have included…” The bottom line was that this story was not what this publisher was looking for. Did it upset Robyn? No. Did it deter her from writing. Hell, no. In fact she said while it was “disappointing, it still made me glow.”
- They have enough of this particular type of story coming out. Aggravating but true. If you’ve written about a royal hero who’s searching for his amnesiac fiancee, and XYZ already have three of this type scheduled, you can either try another publisher or resubmit later down the track.
- Your writing skills are not up to scratch. See also explanation above. “Not the right requirements” is a polite way of saying your writing needs help. Read your synopsis aloud (preferably alone or to someone who understands the genre, not your partner or mother-in-law who thinks anything you write is wonderful and “why aren’t you published yet?” thereby perpetuating two popular writing misconceptions: “I can’t write for peanuts” or “What do editors know anyway?”). Bear in mind that your synopsis is a summary of your book, and must tell the basic plot, reveal the characters, their goal/s, motivation and conflict (both internal and external) their attraction, and all the sensuality/humour/pace appropriate to your targeted publisher.
Other ways to improve your writing skills are:
- reading how-tos – (be careful, you could become a readaholic and not get any writing done at all. There’s also some bad how-tos out there). Ask around for the best ones or get your local library to order them in before you shell out money. Amazon have a ‘try before you buy’ option called ‘Look Inside’ which lets you read the first 10 pages free of some books;
- having an honest critique partner or group, with the emphasis on “honest”. An informal group that chats about books and writing in general may work well for some, but others require a more disciplined approach. A critique partner who loves everything you write and cannot suggest any ways of improvement or provide different ideas of thinking will get you nowhere. On the other hand, a constantly critical nit-picking partner is the pits too. It’s up to you to lay some ground rules and find the right balance you can both work with;
- attending workshops and/or conferences, submit to contests. RWA has a national conference every year that alternates between Australiac cities. RWNZ holds theirs in Auckland. And if you’re feeling adventurous, RWAmerica caters to 2,000 attendees. There are also numerous local workshops in Perth, South Australia and NSW. Just talking with writers and getting anonymous feedback via contests can expand your knowledge.
The Form Letter (Part 2)
“Read our already published books to see what we are looking for.”
This is a big one. Many writers believe their category ms can be submitted to single title publishers just by throwing in more description, introspection and adverbs. Others think their steamy ms will suit category lines M&B Presents, Desire and Blaze. Not so.
Single title is more than just a longer word count: style, tone, subplots, secondary characters and targeted audience all play a part. With category, you may submit to M&B Sexy and strike a chord with their editors. But you may not. Actually finding your category niche is a combination of luck, skill, research and submitting, submitting, submitting. The line you think suits your writing may not actually be the one that does. There are differences, both obvious (word count, setting) and subtle (motivations, characters, plot devices). Read, read and read some more. And the current titles, not just the backlist. Yes, the backlist is fun and entertaining but you need to read what is being published now if you want to get your foot in the door.
These letters often end in “good luck with placing your manuscript elsewhere” which means they don’t want to see this particular mss again.
Helpful Rejection (Part 1)
“… heroes or heroines who have careers in the arts or show business do not rate well with our readers.”
” …we are currently accepting only historicals set prior to the 1900s.”
So you’ve got a little bit of feedback from a busy editor. Yes, you may have a terrific idea for a gorgeous rock star and a beautiful painter heroine, but this publisher is telling you they will not buy your story with these elements. When author Barbara Hannay submitted her first novel Outback Wife and Mother, her heroine was originally a ballet dancer. She was asked to change her occupation and with that change, Barbara’s writing career was well on its way.
Ah yes, you’re going to say “but Nora Roberts does it.” That’s right. But Nora Roberts also has over 200 novels under her belt. For a first time author, it’s best to make sure your novel won’t be rejected for the things you can change (and keep that rockstar/painter novel for when you’ve got a proven readership).
Helpful Rejection (Part 2)
“Your characters are well-rounded with good internal conflict…”
” Your plot is intriguing…”
” Your external conflict is strong and believable…”
When an editor pays you a compliment, it means you’ve got potential, however raw.
So if she likes your writing, why doesn’t she want to buy your book? Well, odds on, she also gave you suggestions on where you could improve your story, as well as telling you where your strengths are. This means you still need to do some work with this particular mss to get it up to publication standard. One Harlequin author says this about her rejections. “In 2001 Brenda Chin said I ‘have the exact voice for Duets – the right blend of comedy and romance’ but needed to work on making my hero less ‘macho’. In 1997 Ann Leslie Tuttle said I have ‘unique, unforgettable characters and compelling situations’ but made my books too dark and edgy. These rejections really helped me to see what I was doing wrong and what I was doing right, so I could work on my weaknesses and develop my strengths.”
Helpful Rejection (Part 3)
“If you have any other projects you feel would suit XYZ, please send them direct to me.”
This means that the editor doesn’t want you to rewrite this particular mss, but she does want to see your other work. So give her something new. There’s no written rule that says the first novel you submit must be the first one you sell. The beauty about the writing process is that it’s a continuous learning experience. You could have a bigger, better story with the second, third or even fifth submission.
Alternative Helpful Rejection
“Your writing lacks emotional punch…”
” Your characters are not sufficiently motivated…”
” Your plot doesn’t carry the whole story through…”
These are comments that address specific areas in your story. If you’re at a loss as to where it applies in your writing, you’ll need to do a couple of things (or maybe all of them):
- Discuss it with other writers, your critique partner and/or writing group;
- Do some reading to see how the published authors do it (even writing a simple synopsis of these books can clarify problem areas);
- Send suggested topics to your local chapter newsletter editor;
- Log onto some chat rooms and boards to get feedback straight from the editor’s mouth, follow Twitter accounts (where many of them host their own hashtag topics) and friend them on Facebook.
The Claytons Rejection (or The Rejection-You-Get-When-You’re-Not-Really-Getting-a-Rejection)
“Your writing shows promise and should you wish to revise this manuscript, I would be happy to take another look at it.” OR “If you would like to revise your manuscript with these changes in mind, etc..”
Well, wow! How can this not be a good thing? Yet, I’ve had writers say “It’s much too hard to revise/rewrite”, “There’s no guarantee the editor will want it after I spend all that time revising”, or even incredibly, “What the hell do they know?!! It’s perfect!”
Okay, I hear you. Writing can sometimes be as difficult as pushing a sausage through the eye of a needle. Time, family and work commitments, not to mention environmental changes, can all impact on our writing. As a fitness instructor, I heard this “but” response every single day. “But I can’t find the time.” “But I love chips/chocolate/ice cream.” “But I work long hours.”
I’ll let you in on a little saying that works for me: “If you want to do something so badly, you will do it. If you don’t, you obviously didn’t want it that much.”
Catch my drift? How did you find time to write in the first place? Chances are, if you sit down with that manuscript after three months (or more!) break, you will find something you want to change. Yes, there’s no guarantee that the editor will want it after you revise. If, by changing your mss you lose sight of your story and characters, then don’t. It may just mean resubmitting your story to another publisher and/or line. Case in point: A writer friend received some great feedback from her rejection letter (regarding her Harlequin Desire-targeted ms). The editor wrote that “the senior editor prefers not to have heroes or heroines with psychic or paranormal abilities;” and “…the sensuality you have included is excellent…I think there is room for further exploration of sensual imagery and passion between the characters…”
The editor then went on to say she hoped the author would consider revising the ms. The author says if she were to resubmit this ms to Desire, it would involve “a substantial rewrite.” In this case, she would have to decide whether she’d want to take that task on board or resubmit it to, say, Intrigue, where paranormal elements have been used before.
If you do decide to rewrite, think of it as an exercise to improve your skills. Chances are, you may get more specific revisions after this submission. Editors look favourably on writers who aren’t adverse to suggestions and comments, who are willing to revise when it will make the story stronger. It shows you are a professional and as such, you will be treated as one. Ultimately though, you, as the writer, decide what you are prepared to change.
Take this New Zealand writer’s rejection: “I had a very brief ‘please rewrite and resubmit this’ letter-the ms needed more humor in the second part of the book and the editor gave a few suggestions. So I happily went off and re-wrote it, sent it and got a brutal rejection about two months later.” Then she talked to Helen Bianchin at a conference and Helen said to “always ask writers for advice with something like that.” (Which reiterates my suggestion to get yourself a critique group/partner and enter some contests).
Or author Trish Morey’s first rejection from Mills & Boon: “We enjoyed reading this manuscript and felt that there was a lot of potential in your submission. At times, your approach was exactly what we are looking for, but overall, there were some problems with the story which make it unsuitable for any of the current M&B series. We were genuinely interested in your style and would like to see more of your work. We hope it will be helpful for you if we outline more clearly the areas of both strength and weakness that are contained in this submission so that you can bear them in mind in any future submission. We are actively seeking new authors, so it is worth persevering!” And, at the end, “We would welcome the opportunity to look at any future work you produce and would hope that our guidance on this manuscript will help you in the creation of a more intense, emotional plot.” In between were four detailed paragraphs on where the ms fell down or could be tightened or what worked. Trish found this letter “kind of encouraging-if only because it was obvious they’d actually read it! It’s definitely true that the better the rejection, the more specific and encouraging the advice. I’m certainly keeping in mind what M&B said in my current WIP.”
Whichever rejection you receive, be aware that editors are very busy people with little time on their hands. If every editor gave every author an in-depth critique, they’d never get any work done. Form rejection letters are a reality of the business but there are still lessons to be found in the neatly typed sentences. (Yes, there are!) The bottom line is if you never submit, you’ll never get published. So push your baby out of the pram and toughen up your skin. The best that could happen is that an editor loves your work.