Thursday, September 17, 2009

Positive Rejections

“Some editors are failed writers, but so are most writers.” T.S. Elliot

I know the title sounds like an oxymoron, but there are several types of rejections from agents and editors. The worst is when you never hear back. They’re either too inundated or may even have a policy of ignoring queries when they’re not interested. A little better is the form letter. Normally the letter is addressed to, “Author” and apologizes for being a form letter. Some don’t even waste a whole piece of paper to reject you – it’s one-third of a sheet that’s faded from how many generations the photocopy is from the original. Often, they include the first page of your manuscript as to be so kind as to let you know which one they’re rejecting. Others have a couple of fill-in-the-blank parts for your name and the title of your manuscript. Sometimes publishers and agents don’t want to waste their own paper, so they just return your query letter with something scribbled like, “It’s not right for our list.”

The next step up is that the letter is addressed to you and even the title of your manuscript, but the content is no better than a form letter. At most, you may get a personal note to, “Wish you the best.” One publishing company was nice enough to provide a checklist to let me know the reason(s) why they didn’t want my manuscript. While not very personal, it could be more informative if the editor hadn’t checked off, “Is not suited to our present needs.”

But the Holy Grail rejection letter actually tells you why your manuscript was not worth a contract. The best positive rejections are as specific as possible. Below are some examples.

The next three quotes were positive feedback I got for my first manuscript, which was far from ready for submission:

“There’s a distance to the writing style - it feels a bit more like a summary than a novel – it needs more immediacy and closeness to Jordan’s heart and mind.”

“I think you have a good concept, but you are telling and not showing. You will lose your reader’s attention, I’m afraid.”

“I particularly liked the idea of magic being split into the four elements – but Jordan’s internal monologue felt quite stilted and overly expositional to me.”

Ouch. But these comments gave me an idea of what I needed to fix.

This feedback came last year, and is about the manuscript I’m editing now:

“The writing relied too much on telling rather than showing, making Indigo seem to wise for her years. Her internal thoughts take over her character development, which I’d rather see developed through anecdote and circumstance…. I hope you continue to work on it.”

That last sentence is supposed to be a clue that the publisher would you to edit the piece and resubmit.

This may have been the most complimentary rejection I’ve ever received, though there was no critique:

“Thank you so much for the opportunity to review your manuscript. While there are many things to love here, I just didn't feel that 'spark' - the special connection that I need to feel in order to take on a new client. There is no doubt that you are a good writer, and I am sure that I'll be kicking myself for this when you sign that big book deal! But you deserve an agent who will feel just as passionate about your work as you do.

“Very best of luck, and I look forward to reading all about your successes.”

I wanted to respond, begging the agent to take a chance on me.

The same agent sent this one for a different manuscript via e-mail on the weekend while I was away on vacation this summer:

“I am a fan of yours, but I am just not loving this as much as I want to. You are a good writer and another agent will probably feel differently -- best of luck!”

If only this agent had been my BIGGEST fan.

Unfortunately, via e-mail or snail-mail, even a complimentary rejection is still a rejection. As I continue to write and submit, I get more positive feedback, which often fuels me to keep trying. Of course, the most positive feedback of all would be an agent offering me representation or an editor offering me a contract. Instead of a positive rejection, I’d like a positive acceptance. Wish me the best of luck.


  1. My "best" rejection included this line:

    "[O]ne of our primary editorial goals [...] is to seek work that really would have a hard time finding a home elsewhere, and I'm not sure this is the case with your book" --- she then listed three other places to submit the work. At this point it had been rejected for almost two years. I wanted to write back assuring her that, in fact, nobody wanted to publish the book. (In the end, it was accepted elsewhere and was just published a few months back.)

  2. Congratulations, Jonathan. I wish you the best of luck selling a lot of books.
    Your story gives me some inspiration that I'll find a home for one of my manuscripts.