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For the morale of aspiring authors
REJECTION CAN BE FUN!
Sensitivity training for agents and publishers
by Kevin Dawson
Perhaps you remember the “Peanuts” comic in which writer Snoopy’s sidekick/secretary 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, 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 is the misguided, often clumsy attempt to soothe the sting of rejection. Using terms that could be construed either as condescension or sarcasm, 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 reply for weeks or even months, if at all, it’s a little disconcerting to receive the rejection notice the next day. (As Ruth Sherwood said in My Sister Eileen about her rejected manuscripts, “Unless I take the subway, they beat me home.”) Like jokes about the recently deceased, it’s too soon. Everybody who has ever applied to college knows that the earlier the response, the worse the news. Waiting a tactful 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. (A book guru, whose name I won’t drop since that would be name-dropping, once countered this with something like “First you complain of getting no response, then you complain about getting a response too soon. You can’t have it both ways.” Nor do I need it both ways; it simply makes things easier for all
concerned when people stay true to their word. I will concede, however, that a too-early reply is preferable to none at all. Okay, Mr. M?)
Delving further into pop culture, you also may recall Holden Caulfield’s aversion to the phrase “Good luck!” 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. Like funerals, “Good luck” seems designed more for the benefit of the mourner than the corpse. People like to say “Good luck”; it makes them feel good, dispensing good fortune—or a wish for it--to the needy. Though no such occurrence is recorded in Scripture, I strongly suspect that just before Judas Iscariot planted that big wet one on Jesus’ cheek while turning Him in, he whispered “Good luck!” into His ear.
There it is on most standard rejection forms: “We wish you the best of luck in your future endeavors.” The recipient, feeling bruised, may interpret or misinterpret the message as “You poor sad, untalented loser.” 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 professional 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, or even the second best of it.
Just as we all want to believe that we live in a fair, orderly world where good is always rewarded, evil always punished, talent always recognized, and hard work always pay off, experience and observation teach us otherwise. Doing everything right sometimes gets you absolutely nowhere. In the writing wrealm, you can offer an impeccable query, a flawless proposal, and achieve no more than if you’d sent PLEESE PUBLISH MY BOOK, OK? in crayon on lined paper. 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 dreck 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 avoiding sounding like the one in need of sympathy. “Please understand that we receive thousands of submissions…” begins the consolatory paragraph of the rejection notice, inferring that the sender is the true victim of the situation. Complaining of the hardships of being so much in demand is best left to popular high school students.
(The solution for submission overload, a quota system, is so obvious that it barely warrants parenthetical mention. The agent/publisher is in absolute control of how many submissions he or she may reasonably be expected to accept, regardless of the presumed multitudes battering down the door, and has every right—the responsibility, in fact--to set parameters which will automatically eliminate most of them. No unsolicited submissions. No unagented submissions. No submissions except by referral. No submissions in August. Or just plain Closed to submissions until further notice. No exceptions. There, isn’t that simple? Otherwise, it’s like the philanthropist 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! Or the homeowner who has termites but does nothing about them. Any writer with an IQ in the plus column will realize that these limits, however vexing at first, actually work in the writer’s favor in the long run: it’s much better, and saves time all around, to submit to someone amenable to receiving your work than to be [sigh], submission 16,837; oh, God, when will it end?)
The best rejection form, like the best query, gets to the point. No flowery rhetoric which sounds 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 rude “I think we’ll pass,” no supercilious “not a good fit” (the current rejection du jour, as if the writer was a pair of jeans), no nonsense. Something along the lines of: “Thank you for your submission, but your material doesn’t grab us.”
Certainly there should be no apology for the self-evident necessity of the correspondence 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 no-no 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. (Besides, you may be surprised how many times I’ve seen “teh” for “the” in agent/publisher websites.) The phrase “doesn’t grab us,” while on the casual side, and which went out with pukka beads, at least acknowledges that the decision to pass is based as much on individual tastes as any possible deficiency on the writer’s part.
Undoubtedly there are people on the other side of the publishing fence inclined to dismiss all this as sour-grapes rationalization from a disappointed wannabe. And you know something? They wouldn’t be entirely wrong. But that isn’t the whole story by a long shot. 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. Aside from 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 has crossed publishers’ desks since the invention of the printing press. It 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) must choose between two suitors: 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 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.
Of course it’s true that if you don’t pass the query stage, nothing else matters much anyway. Agents and publishers probably could keep you up all night with Great Query-Lousy Manuscript stories. Many of them now have their own submission forms on their websites, or channel submissions through the Submittables app. This makes excellent sense, for it eliminates game playing and double-guessing.
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: i.e., submitting an erotic LGBT 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 want…” 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 guides contain so much contradictory information that the writer cannot be faulted too severely for being confused. (It’s rather amusing to read agents complaining of editors and publishers not responding in a timely manner, only to turn around and admonish the writers “You’re lucky to hear back from us at all.”) Come to think of it, the author-editor-agent-publisher hierarchy is very much child-teacher-principal-parent. The relationship of the author to the others is rife with You behave or else; my house, my rules. It’s tough being a grownup, but it’s tougher being a child who is scolded and punished for breaking rules which haven’t been specified or clearly articulated.
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 applying for one job at a time and waiting however long it takes to find out no-go before applying for another.
The primary danger to mass submissions is, of course, mass rejections. One bee sting is painful but bearable if it doesn’t happen too often; a swarm can be fatal. The guidebooks never tell you what you’re supposed to do after you’ve gone up and down the list of prospects, tailoring your query to each individual recipient while still meticulously following the supplied templates, with no results. Simply giving up never is offered as an option, as they continue to push Patience and Persistence. Everyone loves the clown who keeps getting clobbered but comes back for more; people who give up are Losers, are Failures, are Bad. Or maybe they’re people who decided it was no longer worth it and that their time would be better spent elsewhere.
What’s needed from all parties in the publishing process 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. But 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. He is, however, an actual published author: his book [i]Bedtime Stories For Insomniacs was published by Tenth Street Press in 2013.[/i]