I CAN’T BEGIN TO SPECULATE HOW MANY REJECTIONS I’VE RECEIVED OVER THE COURSE OF MY CAREER. At one point, before I had any book manuscripts accepted, it was 2 1/2 Xerox boxes full–some form, some good (meaning the editor wrote something personal and encouraging). There was one that said simply, “This really stinks.” (Seriously, it happened. Admittedly, that one stung.) While the form rejections don’t teach you much, sometimes the “good rejections” are worth studying. The editor may tell you that the characters are too thinly drawn or that the plot needs more complications or that your story just won’t work on their list. Those are things to consider–consider, not necessarily to act on. I did ask an editor once what she meant by edgy, a term she used in her rejection, and she admitted she didn’t know, but “I know it when I see it and like it.” I have been skeptical of the term ever since. I recall one nonfiction rejection I received where the editor said, “Why would I publish this? Nobody has even heard of that person.” The same manuscript received another rejection from another editor that said, “The topic is too narrow.” I read the manuscript again, decided these two editors didn’t know what they were talking about (or at least they weren’t the right editors for the project), and submitted it to another editor. The book went on to win starred reviews and major awards when it was published.
When I was doing a lot of school visits, I used to ask for a book’s ephemera (“dead matter” in publishing parlance) to be sent to me so I could share it with children. One editor accidentally sent along with it her note to the editorial director: “Here’s another one from your boy, Larry Dane Brimner. Do you think we should take a chance on it?” (Explanation: When you have been writing as long as I, you sometimes have more than one contact at a publisher and, in this case, I did.) Well, it wasn’t a rejection, because they accepted the book and it went on to sell 75,000+ copies, but still…..I’m sure the editor would cringe if she knew she’d sent it, and I was a bit taken aback when I read it. (On the other hand, when a publisher sent me another writer’s royalty statement I found that intriguing!) Just proves we all make mistakes.
As writers, we deal with rejection all the time (at least most of us), and it is important to figure out what, if anything, we can learn about our writing when an editor takes the time to include a brief note. Sometimes we learn it’s not the right house or not an editor with the same creative vision (or even any vision). Sometimes we realize we need to sharpen our skills or focus on characterization or intensify the plot or recast the story structure. When we can learn something from editorial comments, we should learn. But realize that as writers, we are creators and sometimes it takes a turn or two around the block before our creative vision finds its editorial audience. (Or as somebody once said to me, “I wish you could illustrate because it’s as plain as day what you’re doing here, and I don’t see why they’re [the editors who were rejecting it] not getting it.” I sometimes wonder if Uri Shulevitz, the master of picture books, would ever have gotten anything published had he not also been an illustrator. )