On Rejection Letters & Generous Editors

No matter how you look at it, rejection sucks. It’s not pleasant in business and downright painful in love, and it’s particularly unsavoury in artistic endeavours. Its awfulness is directly proportional to the amount of yourself that you’ve invested in the project, which is precisely why rejection stinks in romance. And in writing.

Both pursuits require an abandonment of inhibition, a laying bare of the soul. “Here’s my naked heart; trample upon it!” There’s not much on this planet that’s as vulnerable and pathetic as an insecure lover or a hopeful poet. Except maybe a sopping kitten or an oozing egret after an oil spill.

Rejection Letters

Like most writers, I’ve received more rejection letters than any other kind. Actually, I choose to live in hope that there is another kind… There’s no shame in this. It’s part of the character-building exercise that writing is. JK herself is said to have received a bundle, so I count myself in good company. I see them as proof that I’m doing it. Sort of the way a speeding ticket proves you can drive.

I have heard of writers who’ve papered the walls of their powder room with rejection letters. I really admire those guys–not because of their cheek; I envy their sheer abundance of replies!

It seems that replying to writers is a thing of the past. Many send off materials and hear not a peep, which, in a lot of ways, is worse than getting a flat rejection. Dead silence is torture: The anguished brain is left to concoct a thousand possible ways the query or manuscript was delayed or derailed from its destination. Here are few of my recurring scenarios:

  • The attachment got sucked into a throbbing black hole in cyberspace.
  • On the way back from the PO Box, the editor’s PA was struck by a speeding Vespa, sending her bag and all the mail down the gutter. My manuscript is currently being chewed into bedding by a family of NYC’s finest sewer rats.
  • A tiny typo in the email address sent my novel to a Nigerian king who needed a loan. Instantly recognising the brilliance of the piece, he submitted it and was offered a six-figure advance.

Maybe I should turn these moments of insecurity into writing prompts…

The vast majority of letters I’ve received have started, “Dear Sir/Madam, Thank you for your entry/submission. Unfortunately…” Form letters are cold and impersonal, and I’ve seen a few. My powder room remains unadorned–I’m going paperless these days.

I have been blessed: the Chief Editor in the Sky smiles down on me once or twice a year and sends a tiny win my way. An article published here, a competition won there–some small victory to bolster my faltering confidence and keep me keen.

Generous Editors

I’m happy to say, after a number of years of slogging away, the rejection letters are slowly changing. In among the form letters are ones addressed to me. Even better, in the past two weeks I have been fortunate to receive two rejection letters from editors that have been encouraging. (I know–Surreal! I never realised that a bad news letter could be good for me.)

The would-be sucky rejection part was mitigated by the hopeful feedback part. Just the fact that they took time to write a couple of paragraphs about what’s looking good and what’s not working in my prose gave me a boost. “A jolt” more like it. Wait–I re-read the letter to take it in: there were parts they liked. (My impromptu happy-dance around the kitchen was not well received. Cringing teenage daughters backed out of the room.) As for the parts they didn’t like, I was stoked to have them pointed out. I can work on them! I can improve and grow as a writer! What a gift.

These two editors explained how my manuscript didn’t fit their catalogue. Yes, they rejected my work, but they generously (wittingly or not) extended hope. Last week’s letter offered to reconsider my manuscript if I cared to make changes. In today’s, the editor said he’d like to read my next work. For real.

Receiving constructive, balanced feedback from a professional is like finally reaching the crest of a mountain and seeing a vast panorama unfold. Higher, tougher mountains lie ahead for sure, but what a view! My inner Maria wants to twirl around and break into song, “The hills are alive…”

I pray the Chief Editor in the Sky gives both of those editors big fat raises, quick parking at critical moments, a PA who’s sure-footed enough to avoid speeding Vespas, and at least one manuscript in their careers as lucrative and magical as HP.

There’s a change in the wind; I feel it in my bones. My breakthrough is coming. Becoming an author is a long, heart-rending journey, and Doubt has been my grating companion. Rejection letters of old fueled his complaints, but now, it’s nice to have a reason to tell him to put a sock in it and leave me alone.

I’m writing…

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