Saturday, December 01, 2012

How to write rejection letters

A Silverfish author who was in the shop the other day, spoke of a mutual friend who wanted to submit a manuscript, but was afraid of rejection. Apparently, we have a reputation. Yes, it’s hard to live down a reputation of eating babies at breakfast, but this other person was someone we knew quite well, who had even asked if he could send us his work.

“Sure, send it to us. We’ll have a look at it,” we said. Obviously, that was not good enough. I suppose we could have said, “Yes, certainly, we’d love to publish 10,000 copies your work without even looking at it.”

Rejection is a deep-rooted primal fear. It’s like waiting for exam results, or college application, or driver’s license, only worse. When taking exams, one is either confident and well prepared, or nervous as hell. In the first case, anything less than a full-house ‘A’ will be failure, and in the second, anything better but a full-house ‘F’ would be a reason to celebrate.

But, in writing, something else seems to be at work. In our experience, a person who is nervous like hell, before submitting a manuscript, is probably someone who takes his/her work very seriously, and the chances are it will be quite good.  On the other hand, we have consistently found that the work of people who swagger in with their million-sellers are anything but.

Not good enough for Silverfish, it it?!  All my friends like it. It’s something we hear often, whenever we tell them that more work would be required for their book to work. In writing, it seems the sense of entitlement is inversely proportional to effort. (Move over, Isaac Newton.)

There are exceptions. There’s one Silverfish author who’d produce lovely pieces in relatively short bursts of energy, and be flabbergasted why the ones that took so much longer to write (up to 3 years) were rejected. Interestingly, the writer, although initially disappointed, re-read the pieces a few years later, and realised what was wrong with them, and was suitably embarrassed. What was I thinking?!

Time’s normally a good judge of writing. If one still likes what one wrote six months, or a year, or two years ago, it’s probably good, but if one hates it, that’s clear too. However, there is also the major problem of maya, of illusion; in which case nothing can be done, and publishers who dare reject manuscripts of those afflicted with maya will be called names and flamed on social media. It’s a though life.

Still, the rejection letter is a necessary evil of the profession. Here are some tips for writing them for new publishers.

RL1. “Thank you for your submission. Unfortunately, we find your novel unsuitable for our lists.”  This type of letter is the most common and the safest. It could mean anything or nothing. It could mean it’s the wrong genre, or the wrong sub-genre, the wrong sub-sub genre, the subject is too risqué, too political, too erotic, too gay, too straight, too long, too short, too good, too not-good-enough, too anything the writer wants to think and tell friends. Frankly, you don’t care, and you’re good. Follow-up questions for this type of RL are rare.

Be very careful with the second type of the RL. RL2. “Interesting, but we’re unable to publish it in it’s current form.” This is dangerous, and can be construed as acceptance, so use it judiciously. What one is saying is that rejection is not forever, and that the writer should try harder. Unfortunately, that’s not the message the writer receives. “Yippee, I’ve made it!” But use your discretion, a little encouragement is often helpful. If the second draft is a big improvement on the first, that’s good; you have judged him/her correctly. However, if it’s still not going anywhere, “Cut!” But on the other had, if it turns out to be a gem, you’ll be happy your in this business.

RL3. “Thank you for your submission. Unfortunately we do not publish [this genre]. Perhaps another publisher will be more helpful.” This is a (relatively) safe, until they find out that you have published similar works before, in which case talk fast. You'll have to lie, lie, lie, without telling him/her that he/she is not Pablo Neruda.

RL4. “Thank you for your submission. Unfortunately, we think its bad and you shouldn’t write anymore. Please stop. Also we think you’re ugly and so is your mother, and your baby, and all your children. In fact, from your writing, we think your entire family is ugly and dumb, not clever at all. So, stop, stop, stop! And save the world. My cat write’s better.”

No matter which RL you send, they will all sound like this to the recipient. As a publisher, you have no chance in hell.