Career Authors

Dear Author, No Thanks

A fictitious rejection letter

Dear Ms. Calisher Hortense,

Thank you for your wildly imaginative submission, The Girl of Fisher’s Island. There are so many wonderful aspects to this exquisitely written novel, including the unnamed heroine’s oddly intimate relationship with her deaf-mute brother. However, I had no little trouble with the crudely off-putting donkey narrating the story from his barn stall. I just could not connect with “Honks,” so for now this is a pass. I would, however, be open to seeing a revised version, should you wish to address my concerns.

All best,

Cassandra Pratt-Duff, Deputy Executive Vice-President, Editor at Large

The Art of Rejection

Pratt-Duff’s rejection letter follows a classically-standard form: one or two nice things, one criticism, then Sayonara. However, the editor did leave the door cracked open. At this, an initially dejected, rejected, author can raise herself from the floor and take heart that there are elements to be fixed, fictional barn stalls to be mucked out. Pratt-Duff has provided guidance—lose the talking donkey—and, if Hortense chooses, she can polish this narrative into something better and re-submit.

Now I’ll throw a wrench into it

But now let’s imagine that if Hortense’s novel was actually much more troubled, and Pratt-Duff’s assistant actually wrote this rejection letter, soft-pedaling criticism but also—this is key—leaving out the part about a re-submission. Fledgling publishing assistants working on these letters are frequently fresh-faced Midwesterners, and their 4H training breeds excessive civility. (If they last long in New York, this will be beat out of them.) Or they might be young ladies schooled in Connecticut politeness. These assistants may offer too-nice praise, with only a bit of criticism, leaving out serious issues that troubled the editor (there wasn’t just that donkey, the fortune teller was a stock character, the raining frogs sequence didn’t work).

“What if we lose the donkey?”

After sending off the wishy-washy rejection letter, a response from the agent may be forthcoming: after much hand-wringing, the author has agreed to cut the donkey—but that’s it. A polite, time-consuming response from the editor about this doomed project becomes necessary, as this novel’s agent and author have become bothersome. Despite self-destructive tendencies, authors definitely should avoid seeming annoying to publishers. There are too many hot-blooded characters involved.

No more Mr. Nice Guy

The rejection letter misstep above was an amateur mistake: a vague positivity about an unwanted manuscript raised the heartbeats of an agent and author. This is how young editors learn it doesn’t pay to be too nice. (As above, New York changes a person.) And here follows a revelation that many a writer has long waited for. They’ve wondered why on earth their rejection letter from a high-powered, ultra-literary publishing house didn’t seem to make sense.

You can’t debate nonsense

When busy editors find their time being wasted while responding to projects they’ve already rejected, they grow steely, and determined that every future rejection will be nailed down tighter than Dracula’s coffin. This is why rejection letters from editors get vaguer: “It’s not right for our list,” or the classic, “It’s too precious.” No agent or writer can effectively respond to such language, especially when it makes little sense.

Breaking up is hard to do

“It’s not you, it’s me.” This cliché break-up line may actually be true in the case of a rejection letter that seems to make no sense to a writer. My Career Authors colleague Hank Phillippi Ryan wrote an insightful post earlier on rejecting rejection dejection. It may actually be impossible to decode a letter for an author with no idea of the complicated office situation of a frenzied acquiring editor at a publishing house. This editor might not wish to go into all the details with you but perhaps they have a mandate to acquire novels on zombies or Amish or S&M dominatrixes—or maybe some combination thereof. Your novel “The Peoria Needlepoint Squadron” doesn’t fit the bill. Or maybe they already have enough World War III dystopian novels. Who knows? The editor may be about to be fired. Internal office politics are invisible from the outside.

The Good Editor

It’s not all so dark. There are still conscientious editors who compose helpful rejection letters that make perfect sense. Indeed, you’re fortunate to receive actual constructive criticism from sincere editors who are pulling for you. Little do rejected writers appreciate this until after they take a breather. Take note if you receive careful, constructive advice that makes sense (or maybe it doesn’t at first, but think on it a bit more). Important: listen to criticism, take it in, and consider new strategies to address the book’s issues. Critics can be your friend. A good rejection letter will help you be a better writer.

Fail Upwards

“I recommend that it be buried under a stone for a thousand years.” That was a rejection for Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. It took five years for Agatha Christie to get published. The first Harry Potter novel was rejected twelve times. (Read about more fantastic writers who faced rejection.)

There are many ways to read (and misread) rejection letters, but you can boil down these tricky missives to one simple, two-lettered concept: NO.“No” is a rite of passage. Get back to work and, remember, it takes just one “Yes.”

Photo courtesy Mark Morgan