Tuesday, May 8, 2012

A Tip: Rejection Is...Good

Okay, so maybe it's not good. I mean, no one likes rejection. Why, just the other day I was informed that my lemon meringue was "dry and unpleasant, with the taste of a dirty sock and a texture not unlike the gravel one might find on one of West Virginia's more hazardous roadways." To which I responded by crying "Rapscallion!" and challenging my great-aunt to a duel.

But I digress.

My point is that rejection in the publishing industry, while it might not feel good, is by no means bad. In fact, it's often a blessing in disguise.

You see, the fact of the matter is that most people just don't know how to write saleable books. This has nothing to do with talent. One of the sadder truths of publishing is that the most gifted writers are often the least likely to see their work come to light. That largely derives from the fact that the publishing industry is in essence part of the entertainment industry and, as anyone who's ever seen the Grammys can tell you, the entertainment industry is not a talent competition.

Take Kesha. Oh, sorry, Ke$ha.

You see, this is what you want to be. Sparkly, gauche, a little bit sticky, and likely of questionable personal hygiene. Well, at least in spirit. Can the young woman before you dance? No. Can she sing? Hell no. But she knows the formula, and as a result she's sold 3 million records.

So it is in the publishing industry.

You may be the most talented writer ever, but if you don't use that talent to write about something people want to read about, and in a way that makes it easy for them to do so, you're not likely to meet with success.  I know from personal experience. As a writer myself I made the mistake countless times (and have the rejection letters to prove it) and as an agent-in-waiting I can recognize it in others (my newer work, as you can imagine, is much different than what I was writing two or three years ago).

Now, granted, the whole music-industry analogy is limited; you can become a pop star without being able to sing, but if you can't string a coherent sentence together there's no way you're going to get published no matter how great your premise is. Still, the conceit has its merits. There are certain conventions within publishing that, when honored, make the likelihood of success substantially higher.

In YA, for instance, relatability is key. Your protagonist should speak in a straightforward, distinctive voice that teenagers will find easy to empathize with. Humor in the narrative voice is a big plus, also; I've read manuscripts that hooked me on their wry, zany observational tone alone.

Genres and sub-genres aside, there are some rules that apply across the industry. Be concise. Get to the point. Keep the plot moving so the reader doesn't lose interest. Accessibility is essential and wordiness is accessibility's arch-nemesis, so cut down on the adverbs and never use a ten-dollar word where a five-cent one would suffice.

And be thankful for your rejection letters.

One of the common misconceptions about literary agents, and one I had as an aspiring writer, is that they sit around all day cackling maniacally as they use writers' submissions for kindling. It's not the case. Very few literary agents take any joy in sending out rejections--though there are some choice superstars--and for most the process is difficult, not just because they're delivering a blow but because often they know a project is viable.

Why would an agent reject a viable project?

Because there are only so many hours in the day. That's really what it boils down to. Any agent worth his salt devotes a tremendous amount of time and energy to manuscripts he takes on, and given the level of commitment required it's impossible to manage more than a handful at once without doing a disservice to the client. Most of the stories I've rejected (and there have been hundreds of them) haven't been clearly unfit; most are good, very good even, but not as good as the best thing I've gotten, and that best thing must take priority.

So take heart. A rejection letter does not make you a bad writer or even make your project a bad project, and oftentimes a manuscript that doesn't work for one agent will work for another. Plus a rejection, if it comes with feedback, can be one of your greatest tools in your development as a writer. Keep those chins up.

And for goodness' sakes be gracious.

The publishing industry is small--my literary agent supervisor had the daring to call it "incestuous"--and nothing rankles its members quite so much as the author who pours venom back at an agent. Trust me, you don't want that reputation.

Speaking of letters, both of rejection and acceptance, I'm close to choosing my May 2012 Author of the Month! Thanks to everyone who submitted and wish me luck for an awesome read to come!


  1. Every writer has had numerous rejections. There are as many horror stories out there as there are writers. I like your take on the subject. I'll try to remember it. Good luck with your next read!

  2. I love this post. You're exactly right, talent is only a small portion of the battle. Ergh!!! >.< Frustrating, but necessary. Thanks for this post...way to be encouraging while being honest :)