Nathan Bransford, Author

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Thanksgiving Leftovers: The Art of Reading Rejection Letters

In honor of Thanksgiving week I'm joining the television networks and offering up some re-runs. Gobble gobble!

Aside from making great wallpaper, kindling, and kitty litter, believe it or not rejection letters do serve a purpose. You can make yourself a better and more successful writer if you analyze them properly. But here's the problem with rejection letters -- it's practically impossible to make sense of a form letter that maybe includes one little teensy tiny bit of individualized advice. Plus, they can be completely contradictory -- one rejection letter could say "needs more monkeys" (mine) and the other letter could say "too many monkeys" (some lesser agent). What's a writer to do??

Here's the secret to understanding these maddening missives: rejection letters are pretty much worthless by themselves. Unless a rejection letter happens to be incredibly detailed and specific and you completely trust the person's reaction (sort of like the holy grail of rejections), you're really not going to learn too much. And you're going to learn even less if you analyze a rejection letter for hidden meaning (you're also going to rack up the psychiatry bills). One letter by itself isn't much help. BUT. When you start accumulating rejections you can start to make more sense of them by analyzing the trends.

So let's say you received twenty-five rejections from agents on the query to your new novel. If you didn't get any requests for partials at all, and you only got form letters in return (i.e. a rejection that didn't specifically mention an aspect of your work), something's wrong. It could be that your project isn't marketable, your query letter wasn't good, you queried the wrong agents... something that is preventing you from getting in the door. It doesn't necessarily mean you're a bad writer, it just means that you're in for a reevaluation of your project and your approach.

If, however, you're getting requests for partials (hooray for you!) and fulls (even better!), but you're not getting an agent to bite, it may mean that you're close but that something isn't quite right, and maybe you can make some changes that will make your project better. This is where an accumulation of a some non-form rejection letters can actually be helpful.

Spread those bad boys out on the table. Avoid the temptation to set fire to said table. And start to analyze the common threads. Don't go nuts with this, you aren't looking to crack the Da Vinci code here (holding them up to mirrors will not be helpful, trust me), just see if there are a few common things that you can pick out. Maybe a few people said that your project isn't marketable. Or maybe a few had similar problems with characters or plot lines.

Here's the next most important step: if you are hearing the same thing again and again, listen. Don't say, "Oh, well, my work is what it is, they're just STUPID." We're not stupid. Most of the time. Make that change. Try again. And keep changing until something works.

Lastly, when you receive a rejection, avoid the temptation of sending back an aggressive missive that questions an agent's intelligence/savvy/heart in order to exact one small bitter piece of revenge. This is a small industry. You may need to query me again down the line. I really don't like receiving these types of letters, and my memory is as long as the day... uh, is long.

And tomorrow... in an all new This Week in Publishing. Secrets will be revealed! "Damnit Kate run!" Lives will be changed. "Where is Meredith?" And stay tuned for a shocking escalation in The Great Scrotum Debate*. Tomorrow... in This Week in Publishing.

UPDATE 11/20/07: The reference to The Great Scrotum Debate sounds extremely strange out of context, but if you'd like to learn more about it, click here. (I promise the link is not X rated).


Linda said...

Yum, the leftovers were tasty... thanks. And what do you do when the agents say the project doesn't seem marketable? Shelve your baby for a few years until trends have changed? or is this, in part, possibly a query letter issue?

Heather B. Moore said...

Love it! Great advice and thanks for the pep talk :)

Church Lady said...

Re the scrotum debate--why oh why?!

Do people honestly believe that boys don't notice it's there? (sorry, *they're* there).

I liked Higher Power. I didn't think it was Newbery calibre, but I still enjoyed it.

Can't wait to hear the update.

Jason said...

What if you can't tell what the heck the letter is trying to say? I got one last weekend that said in part:

While the story has a very intriguing premise, at this time, this work is just not ready for submission to a publisher. I found the screenplay direction style of writing for the prologue to be very distracting(1) and then have the novel jump into first person immediately was jarring to me as a reader(2). There were also a number of grammar issues that also kept me from being pulled into the story(3).

It's (1) I don't get. Prologue is almost all dialog. I don't understand "stage direction". Fortunately I've gotten a few rejections now, and that's not one I've heard before.

Point (2) strikes me as a reader's preference, so I intend to ignore it for now.

Point (3) could be realistic ... I've just read the thing so many times now that I can't see the trees. Seeking help.

Melanie Avila said...

Thanks for putting a pile of rejection letters into a more positive light - I'll be sure to remember this when my time comes. And I promise I'll put away my mirror.

Happy holidays!

Jennifer L. Griffith said...

Hey Nathan, re-runs are for writers on strike!! Are you on strike??

I still like you post anyway!

Happy Thanksgiving.

julief said...

I got a personalized rejection the other day and got so excited--you would have thought it was an acceptance. In the world of form letters, just getting "Dear Julie" instead of "Dear Author" can be cause for celebration.

Happy Thanksgiving, Nathan--and I'm enjoying the leftovers.


Subjectiveness (that's not a word is it?) can be confusing though. One agent said my main character wasn't well rounded enough, another said she loved my main character, but certain plot elements weren't fully developed. Another thought I had too many characters. Ho-hum. I suppose it's back to your point about picking out Common Threads. I couldn't find one in the end, so started re-writing the blooming thing.
Great advice on an earlier post, about characters having proper choices to make - that helped me a lot actually.

Sam Hranac said...

Plenty of good common sense in this one, Nathan, which is hard to remember when you see someone cutting slices out of your baby. Thanks for that.

Joni said...

Jason, not to answer for Nathan, but... I will. All the rejections I've ever seen (when I knew the work, too) that said, "not ready for submission" meant that the writing was quite a bit too unpolished yet. The grammar issues comment backs up my hunch, although "not ready for submission" usually also means bigger issues with characterization, dialogue, or plot, not just typos.

Are you in a critique group (with someone who can copyedit correctly?) That'd be my top recommendation, if not. If so, maybe find a few readers who will be tougher and push you harder. Good luck!

Lisa A. said...

Hey, Nathan! You rejected me, but no hard feelings. I love your blog. I'm feeling okay about my rejections. Many, many partials, a few fulls with a number of requests still out there. No one's hinted I can't write, but one common issue is tthe concern that I have two alternating first person POV's. I've seen this so many times before, I wonder if there is something else they don't like and that's just a cop out. Or is it a matter of taste? So I'm not changing anything unless I get a specific request to revise.

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