Friday, December 4, 2009

In our writing group, we share both our successes and setbacks, and that includes rejection letters. A few years back, we had accumulated quite a nasty little pile of these, so we decided that we’d meet for dinner and go over them in detail. Maybe, if we looked hard enough, compared the various comments, we find some little nuggets of advice—anything to help us get the letter that said “yes, we love it and we’ll publish it.”
We had rejections from some of the best agents and editors in publishing. They were so pleased/honored/happy that we’d chosen to send them our manuscript entitled fill-in-the-blank. After considerable consideration/careful reading /a lot of deliberation around the office, they’d decided that fill-in the-blank, just wasn’t right for them at this time. In our little letter sample, there were a variety of reasons for the rejection: we have too many first novels in house right now, your novel is too literary, your novel is too commercial (same novel, of course), there isn’t enough/there is too much action in your novel, your novel is set in the seventies/sixties, your novel just didn’t grab me/compel me/hit me where I live, and (my personal favorite) your novel was just too close to my own experience and I can’t relive this time in my life.
After several glasses of wine and some very tasty steak, it occurred to us: this was not some great literature we were reading here. These were the hurried missives of agents and editors, and let’s face it, their interns. They were doing a job--simply trying to get through a stack of manuscripts. Most anything they wrote other than “thanks, but no thanks,” was really out of kindness. So, parsing this language, searching the text for wisdom, attending to word choice and detail—all of this was completely futile. Here’s what we decided: ignore the actual words and look at the length of the rejection letter. The longer the letter, the more attention your manuscript has received. Anything over six lines means you’re making progress. Twelve lines and you’re in the ballpark.
We also decided that the size of our rejection stack—that was our badge of courage. Publishing is an endurance sport. Once you know you have a novel that is essentially publishable (which is a topic for another whole blog), then what you need next is volume volume volume. Every rejection letter stings (or worse), but this is what you’ve got to risk to find that single, fabulous agent or editor who has the good sense and good taste to say yes.
Eventually, all three of the manuscripts so rejected on that evening found publishers. This did not happen because we were so good at reading the tea leaves of rejection but because we listened carefully to each other. We reflected on the advice of our group’s careful readers. We revised and revised, and then, we sent out books back out.

Lynn York is the author of The Piano Teacher (2004) and The Sweet Life (2007). She lives in Chapel Hill, NC. Her website is

1 comment:

darnellarnoult said...

Great blog, Lynn. You are so right. It's all about endurance and carefully crafting what's in front of you.