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Further to the Hating

So. Reading through the colorful replies to Jim’s post “Hate on me, Haters” post has been humbling, eye opening and sometimes funny; it’s clear that this is a maddening business for all concerned. In fact, my unscientific guess is that if some intrepid positive psychologists were to study the relative happiness of those involved in the writing world, they would find high levels of frustration, envy, disappointment, and anger.  Plenty of it justified. There are lots of flaws in the way publishing operates. Is the discontent more pervasive than in other lines of work? Hard to say.  Fortunately, it’s rare that anyone’s life hangs in balance. When my closest friend and I trade tales of job-related angst, her noncompliant patient suffering from chronic disease (she’s a doctor) usually trumps my short-sighted publisher. Usually.

Perspective aside, if we could somehow ameliorate one of the worst bits of a rough process, namely the rejection, what would you want to see in a rejection letter? (Aside from a detailed critique, which is just not practical.) More candor? Folks are right that agents and houses lean heavily on certain empty-seeming phrases: “did not fall in love,” “could not get excited,” “don’t know how to sell.” My revised one-size-fits-most form letter would read something like this.

Thanks for your query. This is pretty good. But some combination of your writing skills, my interest in the subject matter, and my assessment of the commercial potential of this project means that I’m just not that interested in pursuing it any further.  Another agent may disagree, land you a significant deal and make this a best-seller, but as bad as I will feel about having passed, you will feel infinitely better for having been right all along. Good luck.  Try not to let form letters get you down.

Anyone want to write the rejection that they’d want to receive?

21 Responses to Further to the Hating

  1. Steven Davis says:

    Ah, the perfect rejection letter. It deserves its own post!

  2. How about “It’s not you, it’s me.” :-)

    Actually, a friend and I have a running joke about translating writing rejection emails into dating rejections. With very few word changes, you can create what would be (in the dating world) a very cutting rejection. For example:

    “Unfortunately, I’m sorry to tell you this, but I’m very selective, and I only date the most exceptional and talented of people. While you clearly have some skill, I just didn’t fall in love with you, and I really need to love someone to champion them in the relationship arena.”

    So, basically, the more explanation, especially when it involves comparisons to superior writers, the worse. There are probably no magic words to take away the sting of any rejection, but brief is fine, and I think an invitation to submit future projects is a nice touch. Literary journals do this, but agents don’t seem to.

  3. Jessica: it’s very nice of you to want input on how rejection letters may be helpful to writers. I think that while it would be wonderful to have agents try to do that, I do think it may prove impossible. All I need, I know I speak only for myself, is a definitive no within a reasonable time.

  4. michael says:

    There is no perfect form rejection letter. Because what every writer wants to know is he or she is special, that his or her’s story is unique from all the rest.

    All I ever wanted from a rejection letter was the reason why. To reject my work with such generalities that it could apply to countless other’s work does not make me a better writer. Instead such letters doom me to continue to repeat the same flaw over and over.

    I have been a submission editor (webcomics site long gone), so I understand the reluctance to hurt others feelings. However, saying no all ready has stomped on the writer’s dream, you might as well make the pain constructive.

  5. Heh. As I re-read my comment, I noticed it sounds as if I want every agent to give me a definitive “no” as quickly as possible!

    Obviously I’d like to find someone who loves my work. It’s when they don’t that I’d like to know for sure. I look at my spreadsheet of queries and requests, I don’t know what to do with the empty “date replied” fields. Assume it’s a “no”? assume it’s been lost?

    Anyway, thanks again for the post.

  6. Christi Goddard says:

    I think it should read like a multiple choice questionnaire.

    Thank you for your query.

    1. Unfortunately, your query lacked ______.

    a. Voice
    b. Grammar
    c. Plot
    d. ***None of the above.***

    2. I suggest you review and try again when _________.

    a. ***The market is less flooded with something similar***
    b. You’ve written something else
    c. You’ve had some grammar lessons
    d. I’ve retired and/or stabbed out my own eyes

    3. I wish you luck finding an agent who might ________.

    a. See something I don’t
    b. ***Fall in love with it the way you deserve***
    c. Ruin their own careers taking you on
    d. Enjoy taking on nearly impossible tasks

    See? Keep it as a draft and just highlight the three responses that apply. That way we would know for sure if it IS our poor skills or the market.

    (I’m only being half facetious.)

    • Teri Carter says:

      I love this Christi. A rejection with a sense of humor.

      This sounds callous, but I’d rather hear, “Thanks for your query, but I’m declining. Best of luck to you.” Or something that simple. Anything less (like No Response) seems unprofessional; anything more is really just b.s. isn’t it?

      This way nobody — not the agent, not the writer — has to cringe. It’s clean. And I often hear writers dwelling on very generic comments that defeat them for months, or even worse, they try to read way too much into what each word in the rejection means. Less is definitely more.

  7. Kerry Gans says:

    Aside from the totally unrealistic “here’s specifics why I didn’t go with your project”, I think I would like to know very simply: Was it the query that was bad, or the idea itself that didn’t grab you?

    Because without knowing if it was the query or the idea, you really don’t know what you need to improve!

    Mandy Hubbard did a post on the topic of why agents can’t give feedback on queries this week, too. http://letthewordsflow.wordpress.com/2011/07/29/why-an-agent-cant-give-you-feedback-at-the-query-stage/

    Must be something in the air!

    Kerry

  8. Melissa says:

    I’m not so needy. A simple red stamp that reads: ‘NOT GOOD ENOUGH!” will do.

  9. If it’s a form rejection, it should just say so. Even if we suspect it’s a form rejection, we still look for meaning in those few sentences to see if we can glean some kind of wisdom to help our journey. I think it would be less cruel to say: “I am rejecting this submission” and leave it at that.

  10. Donn says:

    “I’m rejecting this submission, but don’t give up.

  11. Will Overby says:

    My favorite rejection that I ever reveived was “Thanks for trying,” which was scrawled at the bottom of my query letter, presumably by a second-grader.

  12. Actually, I once read somewhere on the web The Perfect Rejection Letter and it went something like this:

    Thanks so much for your submission. Unfortunately, your prose is so spot-on, your themes so well-developed, and your story so mind-boggingly perfect that it would negate any further submissions — how could we possibly continue publishing after revealing your work to the world? Everyone would fall flat in comparison. It would be a career-ender for us.

    Or something like that. =)

  13. Hillsy says:

    Christi basically nicked my idea…..

    I’ve kinda mentioned this before, here and elsewhere I think…but something like this:
    —————————–
    Dear Author

    I’m afraid your submission was not accepted this time due to

    Reason “H”
    (please follow the link to http://www.dystel.com/rejectioncribsheet for further details)

    Thank you
    ——————————

    And then on the Website page you have some nice flowery words about subjectivity and so-on. Then a list of, say, a dozen reasonably top-level reasons for rejection. So say:

    A: Didn’t find anything sufficiently original in the query letter.
    B: Felt the query lacked clarity and the plot was difficult to discern
    C: Feel the writing lacked refinement (perhaps a simple revision would fix it)
    D: Query was fine but on viewing the sample pages was not hooked.
    E: Query was fine but felt the sample pages needed further polishing
    F: Characters in both the query and sample pages were stoo unsympathetic.
    G: Subject matter is something I personally don’t feel comfortable….

    Well, you get the gist. It’s sufficiently impersonal not to encourage a dialogue between the agent and the rejectee. It’s sufficiently shorthand that an Agent will spend perhaps an extra 3 seconds per query at most (the codes become second nature if you limit them to less than 15). Most importantly it gives enough feedback for the writer for minimal investment by the agent so they know if its the writing, plot, character, query, sample pages, genre, subject matter, etc etc and gets them to move forward. If it became industry standard, well, you’d be getting identical results if there was a clear problem (“I’ve had only type F rejections – must polish my first chapter as my query is fine”)

    Can you tell I work in data analysis???

  14. DGLM says:

    Jessica here. Good responses, all. Hillsy’s hyperlinked rejection is especially innovative. But like all multiple choice tests, I have to say that the answers are not so clear cut. But in an effort to provide some more specific feedback, if any of you are up for it, you can send along your queries marked “for the blog” and I’ll choose a few–won’t post names–and give you my feedback next Thursday. My post will be on the long side, since I’ll cut and paste your pitch as well as my reaction, but maybe you can bear with me.

    • Hillsy says:

      Yeah I agree, which is why I think you’d need to make them sufficiently nebulous so you don’t end up with 74 different rejection categories and you have to start using the Greek and Cyrillic alphabets.

      But I think even having a category for “Couldn’t find any faults with the query or the sample pages, just didn’t like it” is fine if you know there are other, more serious problems you could have been flagged up on, but didn’t. It means, as an author, you know that a little perserverence, rather than a massive overhaul of the query and book, is what you need.

  15. anonymous says:

    Honestly, I think agents worry too much about being liked. I LOVE my agent, but I had over forty rejections on previous manuscripts before I signed with an agency on a newly written book. And do you know what? I developed a thick skin (which trust me, has come in useful after being published), and I just moved on and kept trying until I had something worthy of an agent. Agents don’t have time to give critiques and encouragement. A polite letter is all that’s required. If you apply for a job and don’t get it, you’re lucky to get a phone call, let alone a letter. Writers need to toughen up because landing an agent is just the beginning. There is so much more to a career and only parts of it are fun. A lot of it is disheartening and if you intend to stick it out, you’re going to need to be able to brush things off…especially rejection.

  16. TryThis Again says:

    The ideal rejection: “This particular project doesn’t work for me. But please submit whatever else you’re working on.”

    You know, it’s a local rejection, not global :)

    Wanda B.

  17. Jenni Wiltz says:

    Like many of the other commenters, I like the idea of short and simple, ending with a form of encouragement.

    Something like: “Unfortunately, this project isn’t right for our agency. We wish you the best of luck placing it elsewhere.”

    Using the phrase “this project” reminds the author that every book or proposal is, at this stage, a work in progress, similar to a building under construction. It’s up to the author to decide where that work needs to be done, whether on the writing itself or the query letter or the selection an agency whose strengths/needs are more in line with that project.

    Ending with “placing it elsewhere” turns the writer’s thoughts to where those “elsewheres” might be, rather than a vindictive hunt for praise or condemnation hidden in the verbage. It keeps the experience positive and moves it forward, rather than sending the writer into a tailspin of grief and worry and fear and rage. (Not that I would know anything about any of these!)

  18. I wouldn’t make any change in the rejections I’ve received over the years. Long or short, handwritten “pass” on my letter, or a 9-months later rejection for a book that sold during that 9 months, I honestly wouldn’t change anything.

    Each and every rejection told me what I needed to know: 1) the project wasn’t good enough yet. (So I rewrote) and then 2) the project was pretty close (so I tweaked). During that period, I became a much much better writer.

    No editor or agent owes me anything but a professional reply. Timely would be nice, but for those who aren’t unable to timely reply, the risk they take is that salable projects go elsewhere while the query sits in in their inbox. I’m OK with that, too.

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