Mark Terry

Monday, April 09, 2007

Dealing With Rejection

April 9, 2007
I got slapped down a little bit by the moderator of the eMWA listserv yesterday. There had been a number of posts complaining about Poison Pen Press's slow response (it is very, very slow). I agree that PPP is slow, but if you send stuff to them, it's to be expected. My response was to someone complaining that after waiting over a year to be rejected, there were no comments. (Been there). I wrote:

For the person who complained that PPP didn't give you comments.

Uh, get over it. I'm sorry, but editors may or may not comment, but even when they do, so what? Rarely-if ever--is it useful. My agent and I laugh about editor comments because they're rarely useful. "Doesn't meet my needs." "Didn't think the character was strong enough." "Just didn't grip me." "Loved the pace, but wanted more character development." "Loved the character, didn't like the pace." Blah, blah, blah.

Look, all a rejection typically means is that on this particular day, this particular editor didn't respond to your work. Period. It's possible you're just not writing well enough yet, but it's also possible that, well, what I just said. An editor/agent reads hundreds of manuscripts a week and they're looking for something that grabs them, for whatever reason. They're programmed to turn you down. What one editor will respond to another one won't; what one editor won't respond to on Thursday, might respond to it on Tuesday, or when the moon is full, or when they didn't have a hangover from the office party the night before, or they're going through a divorce, or their dog barfed on the carpet, or their boss chewed them out, or they missed their subway stop, or their allergies/hemorrhoids/herpes is flaring up.

This is just the business. You can either live with it and keep at it, or live without it. And if you throw up your hands and say, "Screw it, this is just wrong," well, I can guarantee you the publishing industry won't miss you. I see no worldwide shortage of reading material anytime in the near future.

A little tough love from Mark on Easter Sunday.

Well, not terribly diplomatic. Still, was there, in anything I said, a lie? No, I don't think so. I was just declining to be the guy to hold your hand and pat you on the back and send out words of encouragement. I was just the guy saying, Yeah, it sucks, but it's part of the business, so get used to it.

Do you ever get past the rejection thing?

If you visit bestselling author John Sandford's website, there is a section where he writes comments about each books. Here's a slightly edited version from his comments about his last novel, DEAD WATCH.

I was about 75,000 - 80,000 words, and sent what I'd written off to my editor at Putnam's. He came back with what I consider to be a classic editor's line: "I didn't like it nearly as much as I hoped I would."

Translated into English, that means, "Your book sucks, pal."

Part of the problem can be seen above, in the 'detour'. I was trying to write a political thriller, but I kept having to stop to explain some fairly complex political thoughts. In other words, I was killing the thriller aspect of the book, and in the opinion of my editor, who shall go unnamed, but whose name is Neil Nyren, neither did it work as a more literary adventure. I was sort of stuck in a bog in the middle.

After a fairly agonizing week of review, I decided that I had two choices: pass on a book for this year (the original really didn't work that well) or rework what I had into a thriller. I decided to go for the thriller and started ripping things up.

There are 2 things I find most interesting about this. One is, even at Sandford's level, his editor told him he didn't like the book. That's gotta be tough to do, because Sandford brings in boodles of bucks to the publisher and who wants to insult the cash cow? And two, Sandford didn't go all prima donna and insist on its publication. He rethought things and went to work. Sandford's a pro, through and through, and although I imagine he wasn't happy about this, he did it.

And if you go through Sandford's comments for other books, this was not the first time. He did this for his second Lucas Davenport novel as well. The editor said it was okay, but Sandford didn't want to settle for "okay," so he reworked it.

So, how do we deal with rejection? Hey, it sucks. Grow a thick skin. Stay busy, so you don't think too much about it. Try to learn from it, if at all possible. Don't take it personal. And trust me, eventual acceptance makes dealing with rejection easier.

Mark Terry


Anonymous Eric Mayer said...

I can't imagine why you would have been "slapped down" even a little bit for that comment. Mary had already passed it along to me and I'd said, "Hey, that's practically what I say!" To be precise, what I say, is that an editor's comments about "why" a book was rejected are usually useless, and probably nonesense, and generally a waste of everyone's time.

One's reaction to a book is mostly subjective. Usually books are rejected simply because the editor didn't, personally, like it enough to buy it. Period. But I think, sometimes, editors feel like they should give a reason and so they grope around and try to figure out why they didn't like it enough and usually come up with some of the usual suspects. But the next editor is liable to see things differently.

And, as you say, the editor's reaction might merely be due to the editor's mood, because "their allergies/hemorrhoids/herpes is flaring up." Exactly. (I tend to think it's the herpes actually...)

Sometimes writers seem to forget that writing a book and submitting it for publication isn't a school project. Editors are not teachers. They are not there to build up our self esteem or grade us. In fact, if editors were grading books on various aspects of writing one might grade, a lot of rejected books would be getting A's I'm sure.

Now if an editor who has purchased a book wants changes, that's something else. Mary and I are working on revising our seventh right now. There are always suggestions. An editor will almost invariably see something a writer didn't. But that's different since the editor has already made it clear that he or she basically likes the book or your work.

8:36 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Yeah, that covers it. I'm getting a number of e-mails from people saying they agree with me.

I like what you say about the "school project" aspect, too.

I've had the opportunity this year to read 5 or 6 manuscripts by unpublished writers. Only one of them was bad, although on a line-by-line basis there wasn't anything particularly wrong. But it was obvious he was new to writing and had a ways to go.

The others--they were good writers. Sometimes really, really good writers. And in two of their cases--Ron, Greg, you know who you are--I pretty much said, Yes, these are publishable. Will they be published? Hell if I know.

I try to imagine that I'm an editor, my job depends on picking a successful book, I'm getting hundreds of manuscripts a month to read, I've got writers in my stable that are doing okay and I need to read and improve their stuff and shepherd them through the publishing process, and I read manuscript after manuscript (often on my lunch hour, in the evenings, on the subway, on vacation, etc) and what the hell am I looking for?

And I think this is where even published authors have a blindspot, and unpublished writers really have a problem. The editor wants a book that will blow them away. They're not looking for publishable--if they're being sent through agents, in theory they're all publishable. But if they've only fot 4 or 5 open slots, or even 10 or 12 open slots, they're really going to be looking for something that doesn't resemble the other books they represent, but stuff that makes them sit up and take notice. And man, that's hard to do from a writer's perspective and must be hard to find from an editor's.

8:50 AM  
Blogger Ron Estrada said...

Heartless bastard. We'll just start calling you "Simon."

9:24 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Yeah, yeah, Ron; and some people call me bad names. :)

10:19 AM  
Blogger Joe Moore said...

I read you post and then went back through my files to take a look at my stack of rejection letters (which I’ll match with anyone out there). The oldest one dates back to 1991. There’s everything from a scribbled “didn’t grab me” to a 2-page typed letter telling me how much everyone at the agency loved my manuscript . . . but.

I’m proud to say I’ve been rejected by some of the biggest names in the publishing industry including Ballantine, Avon, Tambourine, Knopf, William Morrow, Berkley, Putnam, William Morris, Harper Collins, Random House, Delacorte, St. Martins, Carol Publishing, Simon & Schuster, Pocket Books, Zebra, Penguin, Doubleday, Bantam, and an equal number of agencies. I was even rejected by my current agent in 1992. She later became my co-writer’s agent, so I inherited her 12 years later. Bottom line: it took me 14 years of rejections to get my first book published.

Rejection is as much a part of publishing as death is a part of the life insurance industry. It has to be factored into the business plan. Catch an agent or editor on the right day, hour, minute, second, and something about your manuscript might “grab” them. Or not.

But the ultimate rejection does not come from a publisher or agent, or even a book reviewer. It’s from the total stranger who picks up your book from the new fiction table at B&N or Borders, looks at the cover, reads the back blurb, then sets it down and moves with as little thought as rejecting a cucumber in the supermarket produce section. That rejection hurts the most.

10:46 AM  
Anonymous Robert Kuntz said...

A thick skin is good; a clear eye for perspective helps too.

As I recently told Mark, I received an e-mail rejection to an e-mail query within TWO minutes of having sent the query. Leastwise that's what the time stamp says. So "within" in this case actually ends up being "less than."

Now, my query letter is a thing of compact literary beauty, but Evelyn Wood herself (or was Wood a man with an uncomfortably feminine first name?) could not have read the thing in less than a minute. The rejection was about a paragraph long, but even a cut-and-paste reply would have had to take a few seconds

So I figure the agent has some sort of computerized query-reading algorithm worked out, and human eyes never actually see the thing at all -- which would explain why only e-mail queries are accepted.

Who knows? But to take that sort thing personally would make about as much sense as tying one's self-esteem to the random changes of a traffic signal.

When I'm sitting under a palm tree, sipping rum while reading the galleys of the latest in my long strong of best sellers, my stack of rejection letters will just make me seem more human and approachable to all those poor unpublished wretches who seek my favor.

Yeah, that's it.

11:16 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

I'm sure our rejection letter pile is similar. I stopped collecting them somewhere along the line and just started pitching them.

And yes, nothing stings quite so much as someone just saying, "Not my kind of book," or, (gulp) "I didn't like it."

Yeah, that's some sort of record.

12:59 PM  
Blogger spyscribbler said...

I'm with you, Mark. Frankly, I'm surprised how often this subject comes up. It's not the "I'm bummed about my rejection" posts that bother me (we all need a boost now and then--who better to ask than our writing friends?!), it's the posts over-analyzing the no or expecting more than "no."

It always feels like dating again, when my girlfriends and I would get together, drink, and pick apart every last thing and every little nuance our boyfriends said and did.

I figure boys and agents work pretty much the same way. They pretty much say what they mean. If it's a no, then it's a no. Period, LOL.

6:17 PM  
Blogger Rob Gregory Browne said...

I once incorrectly read an email in which I thought a proposal of mine had been unceremoniously rejected. I went into deep crisis mode. What do I do now? Very, very bad feeling that was.

Then I realized I had read the email wrong. I've never been so relieved in my life.

What a bonehead.

7:19 PM  
Blogger Aimless Writer said...

I thought your advice was good. Agents/editors owe us NOTHING. We should be grateful they took the moment to look at our work. And yes we are up against the editor's bad hair day, barfing dog and lousy love life, but thats life. I would love the editor to completely edit my book, point out its faults and tell me where to improve but hey, he doesn't get paid to do that. He gets paid to find good work and publish it.
Ahhhh rejection! I know it well. Its my best buddy and walks with me every day. But I know rejection is also my teacher and someday he'll take me where I want to get to. He's just another notch in my writer's belt.

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