There is a middle ground, when it comes to letters from a publisher regarding your latest manuscript. (If you are an old writing hand, skip on down to the *** bit.)
One end of the spectrum is “hello, we would like to buy your story.” That doesn’t mean you’re done. That means you’ve got a couple rounds of edits, cover consultations, and six months minimum before you have a book in your hands or in your digital reader.
The other end of the spectrum is “thank you for sending us your manuscript but it doesn’t meet our needs at this time.” It might not be that exact phrase, but it’s polite, short, and unambiguous. That’s a rejection.
One step up from there is the rejection letter, along with a line of personal feedback. This is a great sign. You can write well enough that someone working a fifteen hour day took some time to say something you can use.
Two steps up from there is the rejection letter with a ton of specific feedback. The editor does not want to see this story again, but you could use that feedback to rewrite and possibly sell that story somewhere else. And this editor really liked you/your voice/your story. Send her your next manuscript with a nice note thanking her for all that great feedback last time.
Three steps up (or more cheerfully phrased, one step down from acceptance) is the revise and resubmit letter. Tons of specific feedback, along with a disclaimer that reads “making these changes doesn’t means we’re going to buy it, but we’d like to see this story again if you decide to try.”
I got one of those last week. It’s funny, but at first I was more bummed by it than I’d been by a flat rejection. It was like missing a potential home run by an inch, or missing the qualifying time by a millisecond. So close, and yet so far. I’m rational enough to know it’s a good sign (and that I have friends who would kill for this, and kill me for whining), so I just put the email down, thanked the editor, and noodled for a couple days.
Three of the suggested changes were cosmetic, trifling things. The other items were all deeper, and it is my private belief that I’ve spotted the difference between “acceptance, now here are your developmental edits” and “revise and resubmit.” My first novella is almost through her editing process, and all the suggested changes were things that tightened the story. The suggested changes on my R&R are things that will change the story. There are ripple effects from these suggestions that run through the entire manuscript. It’s a lot more of a challenge than throwing in a few lines of description or giving the lead a bit of interior monologue. I don’t have a track record as a fiction writer yet, and no one knows if I can pull off this kind of challenge.
*I* wasn’t sure I could pull off this kind of challenge.
Something broke loose like a boulder in a flooded river. Yesterday I sat down and poured 4K new words into the manuscript. Seriously, I could have written all night. I DID write all night, I kept waking up and writing notes for more stuff on the pad I keep by the bed. I couldn’t turn on the light without waking my mate, so let me tell you how thrilled I am that I can read my own notes this morning. See, yesterday, while I was cleaning up dog poop, I thought of a single solution that will solve all of the plot and motivation problems at once. It means changing about a third of the manuscript and adding at least two more chapters, but it works, I really think it works.
It’s a little scary because one of the things I get most often about my work is that my stories are well-paced. Adding so much material can be risky, but I think this is going to be so worth it. Someday, I hope to write a blog entry on what I did wrong, and how I saved it. But first I’ve got to save it!
Within two minutes, I got a rejection letter, and a contract.
Just goes to show, it’s not the writer being rejected, it’s the writing.
In case the brilliant Slushkiller post I linked to awhile back wasn’t specific enough, the editor at Carina posted actual excerpts from her editors’ “first feedback” notes. This is raw stuff, from the first impressions of the people who are deciding whether our work will be contracted, and therefore more valuable than gold.
Note: Do you see anything about formatting? The synopsis? A weak blurb? An awkward cover letter? No. It’s all about the story. We owe it to ourselves to make our submission packages as good as possible, of course. Never give ‘em a reason to put our package down. But at the end of the day, it seems like all that stuff matters a lot less than we build it up to in our heads.
I have a few hilarious stories about screwups I have made in the submission package department, and by “hilarious” I mean “deeply humiliating.” I can see the humor in my errors. As soon as I can laugh about them, I’ll probably post them
The Making Light blog is one of my all time favorites – written by some of the best editors in publishing, lurked at by some of the finest minds in reading, it’s one of the few blogs that always delivers.
I found it by accident. Six years ago, I was procrastinating instead of writing query letters for a travel article. I was reading posts at Rejection Collection (no longer seems to exist – it was a site devoted to publishing rejection letters), and the site host posted a link to Making Light. One of the Making Light owners had also been reading posts at Rejection, and posted a response.
That response ranks up there as the most brilliant, succinct, life changing deconstructions of the publishing process I’ve ever read. The most important thing it did, of course, was give me perspective.
When you read it, especially if you’ve been writing for any length of time, you will either slap your forehead and cry “My god, it’s so obvious, why didn’t I think of that?” (or you’ll want to reach out and slap my forehead and say “My god, it’s so obvious, why didn’t you think of that?”).
If you read nothing else today, scroll down to #3: The Context of Rejection. That list is gold. I do freelance editing, and to this day, I mentally assign a number from that list to the manuscripts that cross my desk.
And if you have a few more minutes, read #5 and keep it in mind when you think of the people in charge of rejecting us.
I got a rejection letter this morning, and I can’t keep the stupid grin off my face.
Actually, I got two from the same editor. The first was waiting for me when I got up. It looked like a form rejection at first, but it didn’t feel like one. It felt… encouraging. As if I’d just barely missed.
So I thanked her for the good wishes and her time, and went back to working on the next story. (I didn’t immediately repackage the submission for the next publisher on the list – more on that tomorrow – because I do those tasks in broad daylight when it’s harder for me to be creative.)
Then my email binged. It was from the editor, thanking me for being courteous… and repaying my courtesy with feedback.
My jaw dropped. My hands dropped. The goldfish crackers I was eating dropped. The dogs reposing at my feet are on a strict diet, because they’re old and if they eat anything but kibble they hork up neon yellow goo that leaves permanent stains on this horrible carpet. And I don’t CARE. Hork away, dogs. Enjoy those fallen fishies, while I feast on this meaty feedback.
I don’t reprint emails without specific permission, and I won’t name the editor lest she be criticized for not responding to ALL her thank you letters this way.
But the short version is that her initial rejection felt encouraging (squee) because she wanted it to feel that way (SQUEE). She spoke very well of my ability (SQUEE), and said I had a lot of potential in the genre (faints dead away).
The problems with the story were partially due to bad targeting on my part. I submitted the story to a particular line based on the level of eroticism and the word count. But what I’d missed during my market research (i.e., reading the stuff already published) is that stories in that line were two person stories, so that all of the limited word count could be focused on the hero/heroine relationship. Simply put, my story was almost fine, just a bad fit with her editorial needs.
Almost fine, but not quite – she pointed out some structural weaknesses I honestly hadn’t seen, although I knew something wasn’t right.
This is why, no matter how super duper awesome you think you are, you really need a professional editor to get your work from submission ready to print ready.
And this is why I love rejections with feedback.
This editor went way above the call of duty to be nice to me. I hope someone repays her for it.