« Bad Car-ma | Main | Books That Changed Our Lives »

June 30, 2005

Why I Got Rejected

You may have noticed I am stuck in Wait and See mode—hanging around while my agent and editor decide my fate.  The other Book Tarts have contracts, deadlines and actual pages produced, while I listen for the phone.  Today I tried to focus on wallpaper for a bathroom to stop myself from writing, my compulsion.

Nail biting is part of the writer’s life.  I imagine all manner of rejection.

I wish I could say I’ve been plenty rejected just to make aspiring writers feel as though they’re not alone in the struggle, but I haven’t.  Sure, I’ve been given a few passes. I did not weep.  Did not go running off to self-publish because I felt I had Something Important To Say. Nor did I delude myself that my golden words deserved to be published. I didn’t keep sending the same material to a zillion other editors because, honestly, in this day of conglomerates, a handful of publishing professionals pretty much speak for the rest and don’t bother telling me about some now famous writer who was rejected 100 times and finally triumphed on the bestseller lists.  The odds are not in favor of that happening often. So I re-write or put the offending pages in a drawer, and I move on.

I am driven to write (not wallpaper) but I must sell, too . . . or start looking for a job where the voices in my head are forced to behave themselves.

Maybe I’m different from most writers, but I’ve learned to be heartless about rejection. After 25 years, I’d be a mess if I didn’t find it . . . educational. I believe rejection makes me stronger.  It certainly makes me smarter. And anyway, it’s not me who’s getting rejected, it’s only some work I produced that should have been better. Each book is harder to write than the last one—I must analyze that statement sometime, I suppose—but when I fail, I want to learn from my mistakes.  I want to hear what’s wrong so I can be a better writer.

I once heard Nora Roberts talk about Author Paranoia.  She advocated embracing the constant, nagging feeling of inadequacy we writers endure, because such self-flagellation makes us work all the harder--to re-write and polish until someone tears the manuscript from our hands. I like that kind of thinking.  My neurosis controls my destiny.

Here are some reasons I’ve been rejected over the years. Maybe some of this stuff will ring your doorbell, too:

  1. My story wasn’t new or interesting or “fresh.” Heart-breaking, but true:  Trends come and go in commercial fiction.  If it takes ten years to write your first book, the ship has probably sailed by the time you submit it. So? Write faster. Or put the first manuscript in a drawer and write the second, more creative one in nine months. Not “fresh” enough? That’s publishing speak for out-dated, unmarketable, or not a sufficiently unique slant on a classic form. “Not right for us at this time” means the same thing. Your reader found it old hat.  It wasn’t good enough.

  1. My writing was boring.  A distinctive storytelling voice is probably the single most important quality editors are looking for right now. Everybody who’s ever written a letter home from summer camp thinks they can write, but it ain’t necessarily so. Good wordsmithing is still essential for success. The goal is to build your facility with language until you can evoke emotion in a reader.

  1. I thought I could break into another genre because it looked easy and I didn’t bother to read extensively or learn what the conventions of that genre were, so I ended up creating a string of clichés that deserved to be tossed out a window in confetti form.  This happens a lot in the romance genre, which looks simple to the uneducated and the overly confident. Fifteen years ago I figured I could write a time-travel, outer space horse opera.  How hard could it be? I’d seen Star Wars and read Lonesome Dove, right? And I was highly entertained by what I wrote.  But then I picked up a few books and realized I had assembled a string of ideas that had been done more times than the kid next door has seen the Sith movie—which is almost uncountable.  Fortunately, I never showed it to my agent.  Whew. 

  1. My query letter was lackluster.  Now, really.  Shouldn’t your query letter be the best damn writing you’ve ever produced? Smart? Engaging? With a great writerly voice? Funny if the book is supposed to be funny? Clear about the basic premise? Specific about the plot? It took a while, but I finally realized:  It’s advertising, Stupid! Some writers dash off their query letter when the envelope is already addressed and the manuscript stuffed inside. C’mon, that’s just begging for rejection. And here’s one of my career epiphanies: Assembling my query letter is often the time when I realize there’s a major story element missing in my book.  (It’s usually The Ticking Clock.)  Which is why I now write my query letters early---when I’ve got, say, 100 pages written in the usual tumult of first draft excitement and there’s still plenty of time to re-work the whole damn thing. At this stage, I hone my story idea down to a Hollywood-style log line.  Once I’ve got my premise expressed in simplest terms, it’s a lot easier to make sure the manuscript delivers.

  1. I sent to the wrong person.  Going down the alphabetical list in Writer’s Digest is absolutely the dumbest way to find an agent.  (Ever meet Dominick Abel?  Considering he’s the first choice for a million wannabes every year, I can understand why he’s such a grouch.)  Ye gods, do some research!  Attend some conferences! Subscribe to PubLunch.  Network with authors.  If you suddenly decided you wanted to become a brain surgeon you wouldn’t just wander into a hospital and ask for a scalpel, would you? You’d get yourself educated first.

  1. I chose Dullsville for my setting.  Or didn’t fully utilize my setting.  Or it wasn’t a viable marketing element.  If you’re getting rejected, ask yourself why you chose the location for your story.  Yeah, everybody says write about your own backyard, but if you can’t make it exotic to someone who lives on the Upper West Side, you should do some research and chose another locale.  Make the “world” of your story vivid and integral to the story. In some genres, this dynamically depicted world is more important than the plot.

  1. My protagonist was a bore.  Or too passive.  To get published in genre fiction today, you must create a compelling, active person with a genuine problem, a distinctive voice, a clear motivation, and a full life populated by friends and family who also have lives and don’t just exist to serve the plot. When my protagonist is the least interesting character in the story—which can happen when you’re happily creating quirky suspects in a mystery--I know I’ve got a problem.

  1. Nothing happened.  Rule of thumb:  New writers should probably throw out the first three chapters of a pop fiction manuscript.  Those pages are usually backstory that is important to you, but not the reader. Get to the action.  Engage and surprise your reader as soon as possible.

  1. No drama.  A simple telling of events isn’t a story.  Good books take the reader on an emotional Jack Rabbit (the roller coaster http://www.kennywood.com/    you sex-crazed maniac, not the sex toy!)—culminating in that much-discussed satisfying ending.  (I’m not going to dignify the RWA edict about what makes an ending satisfying. For gawdsake, how juvenile is—okay, okay, nevermind.)  You decide what’s the best payoff for your reader, then set it up and deliver. Likewise, learn to dramatize the small moments, too.  Michael Chabon is a god at this.  Read his work to see how he crafts each dramatic beat.

  1. My story lacked ideas.  Sure, you can write about a woman who’s trying to rescue her kidnapped kid (just don’t expect me to read it!) but unless the book is about something else, too, it’s one-dimensional.  Can you write about substance abuse? Infertility? Something that will help snag reader interest, sell your book and appeal to reviewers? I know, this sounds like plot-by-numbers, but layers will lift you out of the slush pile.

  1. I didn’t entertain.  My first goal is to surprise and delight my reader. On every page. When my manuscript is “finished,” I go back and ask myself what exactly is on each 81/2x11 sheet to entertain my reader.  If there’s nothing there, I re-write.

  1.   I didn’t have an X-factor.  The X-factor is some unique element that makes your work outstanding.  And it takes outstanding to be published these days. 

Here’s my thinking:  Everybody who wants to publish commercial fiction must come to terms with rejection.  I choose to intellectualize it, I guess. When my work is turned down, I evaluate what I’ve learned from the experience and write something new. Something better.  That’s harsh to hear if you’ve still got the tender heart of a newbie or were never cut from your little league team, yes, but nobody ever promised publishing would be easy.  I aspire to the big leagues.  Which means I let stories unravel from that strange place inside that won’t let me be happy doing anything else.--But I must always dispassionately examine the results and make improvements wherever possible.

Except right now I’m waiting for the phone to ring.  So I’m trying to think about wallpaper.



I can commisserate. Waiting sucks!!! My agent says not to expect any word until after the holiday weekend. I have my "every three week nail appointment" tomorrow and I'm going to get a severe scolding when my manicurist sees the shape my nails are in. I'm keeping busy cleaning my house, battling the school district yet again on behalf of my children, and working on book 2.

Well, whatever you do, don't hang the wallpaper yourself. That involves razor blades. Not a good thing to have around at this point in time...

Writing the query first is an excellent idea, kinda like writing the inside jacket flap. It forces you to "bumper sticker" what your book is about. If you can't, then you may have a problem. (I say may because how would you bumper stick a book like "Midnight In the Garden Of Good and Evil"?)

No more waiting. Tomorrow, hop on the R-5 to Suburban Station, and let the mess of Live 8 wash over you. I'll be looking for you climbing on "The Thinker" on the news.

No more waiting. Tomorrow, hop on the R-5 to Suburban Station, and let the mess of Live 8 wash over you. I'll be looking for you climbing on "The Thinker" on the news.

I totally agree. I spent years writing advertising copy for department stores, then technical writing. Developed a very thick skin for rejection.
As for the wallpaper, having scraped it off a bathroom, I'd suggest paint instead.
I'm waiting for an agent response and hoping to hear something next week. Actually, I'm hoping to hear something POSITIVE next week.
Liz Wolfe

Love your blog today. You certainly give me and my writing group something to think about (and work on)! Thanks, and keep it coming.

I think we need some kind of prayer circle-like anti-rejection ritual, don't we? (Without razor blades, Bob. LOL!) And don't we hate these long holiday weekends? We imagine all the publishing people lolling around the Hamptons doing everything but reading our stuff!

Nancy: This was a brave blog entry...a really instructive, insightful one. I have referred many novice writers to your "Why I Got Rejected" entry so they can read your advice.

First of all - I had that same phone. Loved it.

Second of all - bravo to you for being so candid. I cannot BELIEVE they won't want more Blackbirds - hell, I'd settle for just Mick. Love him and am hoping he keeps his fine ass out of jail.

Third - wallpapering a bathroom is torture. You think it will be easy because it's small. No. You have to deal with pipes and other stuff in the way and there's no room for the ladder. Plus, how much time do you really want to spend on the bathroom floor? Get some college kid home for the summer to do it. Many will work for reduced wages if there is beer. Hold the beer until the end of the day, though.

Finally, I think we both know that the real way to waste time is to meet for chocolate bread pudding and crack eachother up.


I've had this view of publishing as a club, and once you learn the secret handshake, you're a permanent member. Your books keep getting published and you live happily ever after. Thank you, Nancy, for sharing the reality. Writing is damn hard, whether you're shopping around your first novel, or waiting for your editor to bless your third or thirteenth. Best of luck. I adore your series.

The comments to this entry are closed.

The Breast Cancer Site