Rejection letters decoded: a query's tale. Writing is tough and trying to decode the underlying meaning of rejection letters you might get from editors/agents is tough too, so here's a tale of learning through defeat and some common phrases deciphered.
Let us start with the formation of an affinity. The slings and arrows of rejection penetrated the paper skin that once wrapped around my writer’s soul. It started with poetry rejection letters that came quickly and without remorse. The foul projectiles punctured my frail soul, propelled me against the creative wall, and after stumbling to my feet I ran back into the breach. Then, with novels and short stories, the arrows of rejection became sharper and dripped with a poison I unknowingly dipped them in. FYI, I’ve written more than a few novels that will never see the light of day. Years of work. Years of work. Years of hope impaled with diligent pikes called “Not for me” replies.
And this continued while some of my work was published. The difference between me a decade ago and now is that the delusions of grandeur were popped by the volleys of rejection. Not event the shield of my ego that was emblazoned with the words “They just don’t understand my greatness” could deflect the reality of rejection. So, I realized a few things. First, I was not as good as I thought (the hardest to come to terms with). Second, trying to retreat into the style and forms of the writers of the past I found to be masterful doesn’t always equate with the editor/agent’s notion of contemporary writing. Third, PUBLISHING IS A BUSINESS. Writing is an art. Sometimes the paths cross but it is not necessity. Lastly, chance. There are many reasons for rejection that aren’t directly related to competence of the composition: an agent might have a client who wrote something similar or has too many projects on hand to give a manuscript consideration it deserves, or someone just spilled coffee on them in the elevator and a dreadful mood makes them want to clear away anything that is a risk. And I would be remiss, if I didn’t mention bias. That is a force that blinds and is ever-present in all human activities, which is why we must be aware of them so to overcome them.
And yes, there are many stories of writers who went on to become major names after being rejected a multitude of times. So, there is hope. Also, PUBLISHING IS A BUSINESS made up of humans who make mistakes and who are averse to risk. That is what writers are in the beginning of their careers, a risk.
Okay, I’ll tell you a quick story of a rejection. This one hurt and changed the course of my development, which in turn has me now on the other side of the battle.
The first novel I tried to publish was about a young man who suffered from an undiagnosed mental illness. He went off to college unprepared for life by a dysfunctional family, even if they were well-to-do. His illness, which he had no idea was burgeoning, was the filter of his erratic perception and he gets caught up in alcohol and drug abuse at a small southern college. He meets a girl and pursues her but she does not feel the same for him. There is an experience with hallucinogenic drugs that alters his perception of reality and afflicts him with flashback hallucinations (all a part of the symbolic themes of course). He loses control of mind, body and choice. Then, a murder/suicide on the campus sends the protagonist into further turmoil but he manages to reclaim a semblance of control and makes a fateful decision.
So you know, the story takes place in 1993, it’s a Generation X tale, and the time I sent it out on submission was around 1999. All but four agents I queried took a look at a partial. All came back with a similar comment of “This representation of college life is unrealistic and the main character is hard to relate with because of his unstable moods.”
Well, that was the point of the character's creation. I wanted to let readers into the mind of a young man who was suffering from Bipolar hypomania so they could get a better understanding. Also, I thought that literary fiction was about difficult and layered characters. Why write a protagonist who was easy to identify with? It was counter to my vision. And likability never came into the picture. To the second point, I honestly depicted events of excess and absurdity I witnessed in college so to show the inherent instability and danger of college campuses for those with mental illness. As I said, this was early 1999. Pre-VA Tech. And right before Columbine.
I understood the agents were people who most likely came through an educational and family system that was more advantageous than adversarial, and that mental illness was something from which they probably did not suffer so comprehending the protagonist would be a challenge for them. Naively, I thought such challenges were welcomed and surmised they just didn’t get the importance of my work, but I sojourned on. I happened to become friends with a man who worked at what is now called the Hachette Book Group. He told me to pitch editors directly. This was something I thought was against the "NO Solicitations" protocol but he said it’s fine with many editors. Letters weren't manuscripts to which the prohibition was referring. He then told me I should look in Farrar, Straus and Giroux. (BTW, my friend left publishing a couple years ago but that's a story I'm not allowed to divulge.)
I pitched an editor at that esteemed publishing house and to my surprise a wonderful young editor asked to read the manuscript. A few weeks later, she said she was passing it along to her boss. Then I waited. Waited. Waited….
On one unseasonably cold afternoon, a thick envelop came with the publishing house’s name on it. Anxiety shredded all notions of calm. Fear paralysis gripped my hands. The wisps of gray clouds stretched across the thin atmosphere above and I opened it. The first three sentences were complimentary. Quite in fact.
Then I read the rest. Breath sunk. My heart paused. I looked at the ground and could not lift my gaze for days. The letter reflected what the agents said. The representation of college life was alien to them, and even though he liked the voice, he didn’t think it suited their line at the time. I surmised they had been so far out of college that they were out of touch. This was in a manner true. After a couple weeks, I tried querying again. And again. And again, I was rationalizing away the slings and arrows that assailed me.
This was the first time that happened to me but it wasn’t the last. But, because of this initial experience, I went forth to learn and expand my writing so it wasn’t a failure. It was just the part of the process I needed to see clearly. So, I can relate to rejection and it still happens and always will but not with everything. The only real failure some say is quitting though coming to understand one’s talent and skills is important so you don’t get caught in the Sunk Cost fallacy. However, the only thing a writer can do is keep trying and hope that chance, timing and mastery opens another door.
Now onto the second part. The deciphering of rejection letters. This is by no mean all-encompassing but these are some common phrases a writer might get along with some minor remedies.
Most writers or comic book artists get pretty vague comments on their work in a rejection letter. I have been on that side of the mirror, so let’s see if clarity can be conjured from some basic phrases from “we’re going to pass” letters.
- “It is an ambitious story and we wish you the best of luck placing it but we don’t see a fit for our line at this time”. This means you confused me. There we’re glints of promise, but overall, its structure is not organized enough to compel the reader. Basically, they are saying you had a good idea but didn’t pull it off because it was unfocused.
Good news on this one, you can revise and streamline the story. Sometimes we must simplify before layering complexity of language and theme. Cut it down to the bare bones and begin building the body again. Also, using a simple three act structure can help. Plan the plot points and move the characters along through adversity/obstacles of both internal and external conflict, raise stakes, and let the characters learn from their mistakes but not enough to solve the story problem until the end. Then, at the end, get out as quickly as possible.
- “The pacing did not move me along as a reader”. This could mean a few things. One, the story problem and inciting incident didn’t occur early enough to hook the reader and allow for ebb and flow of the narrative to take effect (AKA boring). Two, and most likely, there is too much exposition, detail, and certain plot points weren’t reached within the given attention span set aside for commercial prose. Or, it could also mean, there is an imbalance of character development over plot.
The simplest solution is to use the old “Rollercoaster/Sine Wave” pacing form. It’s easy if you break up a dramatic unit into two parts: the active and the reflective. The active is when a protagonist has a goal, actively makes strides to accomplish it but is met by an obstacle, usually the antagonist, which creates conflict that sets the protagonist back. Remember conflict doesn’t mean confrontation. The reflective is after the protagonist fails to accomplish the goal and is set back. Now, the characters can ruminate over what occurred and make a choice that leads to the next goal. During this section, a writer can add more world building details and delve into the characters’ thoughts and self-concepts that filter their perceptions. Want things to go fast, then write more of the active process and then to slow it down, write the reflective. You can vary the pitch and frequency of the curve that the pace follows. Doesn’t need to be uniform, you can begin with the reflective, but if you don’t start a story In Medias Res nowadays, don’t expect editors to read very far.
- “The dialogue was stilted”. Well, this one is a pickle, a sour one at that but obvious.
It can include but is not limited to a few observations. First, it might mean that all the interlocutors sound the same. Every character must vary in the usage of favored words, length of reply, preoccupation (i.e. doctors see things everywhere through a medial perspective or a religious person sees god elements), and degree of complexity. Also, it might mean that the dialogue is expository when it not need be. The plot events should explain the situations and not the dialogue for the most part. Dialogue should, to paraphrase Vonnegut about sentences, move the plot along or reveal the character and ideally do both. Finally, and this is the one I loathed to discover, the dialogue might be too truthful to the character. Meaning, people rarely tell the whole truth and often obscure it when speaking in reality. Easy example is when you feel down and someone asks you “How are you?” and you reply “Fine” even though you aren’t. There are situations of full revelation that are relevant but it must be in accordance with the plot development. Also, large monologues to start off stories aren’t the best idea for those without a preexisting fan base where as writer you have the leverage to do what you want. That goes for everything. These are just suggestions and all contemporary rules can and are broken.
- “The characters are two-dimensional”. It means your characters were robots, predictable or cliches. Basically, they lacked depth and are more filler than substance.
This tends to happen when your characters are just reactive instead of proactive without a fully developed sense of self-concept. To eliminate such, you can do character profiles before you even start writing, or once the first draft is done. Figure out: who they think they are, their preoccupation filter, their goals, what they are willing to sacrifice for the goal, a psychological profile (are they sociopaths or introvert…etc), what hurts them, what do they love, what scares them and much more. Most of the list won’t make its way into the story, but it will allow you to know the character better and allow for a fuller development, which can change the plot, so understand this could be a great undertaking. Basically, a character needs to have more going on in their head than just their primary story goal and situational want/desire. Sure, the protagonist might be facing down an existential or worldly crisis, but he can still be worried about his cats. Most importantly, stories are about characters, the rest follows, even plot. I also recommend looking up hamartia, anagnorisis and peripeteia.
Remember, you will find exceptions to so-called writing rules of contemporary publishing by major writers. But, if this is the onset of your journey sometimes concession must be made to get to the point where you can test the waters of experimentation and innovation unless you come with literary credentials so to speak. Just for fun, I recommend reading Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style (though primarily for non-fiction) and then Blake Synder’s Save the Cat (though for screenplays but holds true for major plot points and dialogue) just to see the contrasting of points-of-view regarding structure and style.
- Oh, almost forgot. The old "I just didn't love it enough to pursue..."
This basically all of the above. Meaning, the manuscript needs another revision/draft. But that is hopeful. Remember, writing is rewriting and you can always improve. Well, not everyone but I'm sure you can.
If you happen to want to read the novel mentioned above, though a completed revised version than was sent out years ago, you can get a free ebook of The Excess Road on this site. Just click this link: http://waywardraven.com/free-stuff/
Best of luck,
Joshua Lee Andrew Jones
Here are some links to writers I respect about writing: