Saturday, October 21, 2006

Responding to Rejections

I think I'll speak for many writers. YES, we DO want to know if it sucked. We DO want to know what's wrong. We DON'T want to be treated nicely. If you told us the truth, we'd re-write, get into crit groups, work on it. With this type of reply, all we can think is that you're not the right agent and we keep sending out the same schlock.

Please tell us when it's crap.

So, I've decided that either you are the most thick-skinned writer in the history of literature or you have not actually sent any of your stuff out yet.

Everybody says they can take it. I say I can, that it's not personal, but really, I'm crushed by their nice reply. G-d forbid they would have actually told me I was terrible writer the first time I tried to submit to publishing companies, when I was 14. I was a terrible writer, but at least they didn't say that, and I kept writing.

Writers DO take it personally. I know this because we occasionally receive an angry reply to our rejection, or a phone call, which is why we don't pick up the phone a lot unless we recognize the number.

Oh, and then there's Rejection Collection, a bastion of maturity and sense. Actually it's people venting their frustration, and there's nothing wrong with that, but usually they're complaining about the wording of the form letter without realizing it's just a form letter. IT'S A FORM LETTER. It just means "no." Don't try and analyze it.

Plus, I got in a lot of trouble for making a comment once to that effect, like serious trouble. The guy called the AAR and reported my boss as having bad business practices. She had to counter it. It was a mess. So forget it. I'm keeping my job, thank you very much.

34 comments:

Nick said...

I would honestly like to know what could be done and exactly what parts of my book sucked enough to merit a rejection, but quite frankly I think you guys are busy enough working on projects that actually make you money.

I think I'm going to find this web log very informative.

-Nick

j h woodyatt said...

I don't care why a literary agent chooses to reject my query. They have all kinds of reasons that I don't care about, and I don't want to know. I couldn't care less what particular thing about my letter got up the nose of the assistant who opened it.

All I want to know is that you're done considering my query— unless you'd like to see more from me at some point in the future. If not, then just send me the form letter. Hell, I'd be happy just to get a single 4.25x5.5 sheet of sloppily chopped scratch paper with the word "NO" printed in 24 point Times Roman in the center.

I do not need to wade through a hundred words of boilerplate puffery to know you're done considering my query. I understand why you have to buff most writers up with that kind of noise, but it just feels like an insulting waste of my time. I'd rather pass.

Getting "helpful" criticism from an agent with no intention of taking me as a client will just piss me off.

Dave said...

I write mostly short stories and when the story gets rejected and I get the chance, I ask the editor why they didn't like the story. I've had a couple of excellent replies.

I usually start out that e-mail saying I respect the editor's judgement but would appreciate a sentence or two about why they didn't like the story. Most reply. Sometimes the reply helps, other times, it doesn't.

After that, my next contact would be another submission.

I wouldn't do this with an agent.

Kimber An said...

Can we just state once and for all that giving critiques is not an agents' job? Get thee to a good writers' group! Real life or on-line, your writing will improve dramatically and you'll have people to encourage and kick you in the pants on a regular basis too. My favorite on-line one is www.critiquecircle.com

Linda said...

Why should the agent critique query letters for authors they have no interest in representing? A lot of writers seem to expect the agents to do something they wouldn't even do themselves. I don't think anyone walks into a store to buy something and stops to explain to the sales clerk why they don't buy things they weren't interested in.

If you think there's a problem with your query, head for a critique group. They'll be happy to give you a fresh view.

whitemouse said...

Plus, I got in a lot of trouble for making a comment once to that effect, like serious trouble. The guy called the AAR and reported my boss as having bad business practices. She had to counter it. It was a mess.

WHOA! Talk about anger management issues; I'll bet that guy has heat shimmers radiating from his head due to all the barely-suppressed rage.

Makes ya wanna slap him and tell him to grow up - except that you'd likely die of the shrapnel injuries when he exploded.

Kanani said...

This is what critique groups are for, as well as workshops.
And note: your friends and family are usually not very good judges of your writing. Best to find a group of 3 -4 people who will meet consistently for a very long time, and help one another to make each other's writing stronger.

JimFreedan said...

I disagree with j h woodyatt.

I find it extremely useful when someone bothers to tell me what they think is wrong, but only if they are SPECIFIC.

Vague, confusing comments like "Nice idea but not for me" irritate the bloody hell out of me. If you honestly thought it was a nice idea you'd of accepted it.

The same goes for "I really enjoyed reading the chapters but this is not for me." Well it's one or the other buddy, it can't be both. Please, just say what you mean-- you think it's unpublishable and you didn't enjoy the chapters at all.

I guess I just hate fakeness. If you're going to send me back some kind of personal note, all I wish is that this note would have something I can use to edit with. Otherwise, please just send me a form.

The forms do not bother me as much as the vague notes do. The agent may think they are letting me down easy but the truth is they are LIEING to me, and I do not appreciate being lied to by anyone.

Linda said...

The "Not for Me" isn't a lie--it's actually something that's true. An agent can enjoy reading someone's chapters, but if it's not quite fit in with what he represents, then he's rejecting it because he's not the best choice to sell it. It's awfully hard for an agent to sell a book if he isn't excited about it and eager to support it 110%. It just won't come across as sincere or his best effort--and once it's been pitched to the publisher and turned down, the publisher probably isn't going to want to see it again. That's why it's important to find an agent who is excited about the project, not just liked it.

Jan said...

When I had an agent, I once got a rejection letter where the editor waxed poetic about how much he hated my story. He hated everything about it but he especially hated the parts that I liked (and my agent liked.) It was fascinating actually and taught me amazing things about how subjective this business is. Of course, he never once said I was a lousy writer but he surely did think my story stunk.

The Unpretentious Writer said...

I think I'm more crushed by peer critique than by the nice form letter. If the agent didn't say why they said 'no', I'm going to assume the best.

When I post a snippet on a blog and a zillion folks are like, "This sux because I'm having a bad day and hate fantasy...", then I feel like sipping bleach.

MDS said...

It's becoming more a reality that if you want professional feedback you're going to have to pay for it. While it would be nice for editors or agents to give more details but fact is they don’t have time and probably 95 percent of what they receive isn’t close to being publishable anyway.

I reached the conclusion that publishing is pretty much a pay to play enterprise these days. It’s a rare writer who gets published without ever going to a conference or contacting an independent editor I spent a significant sum to attend an intensive workshop by Donald Maass and totally felt it was worth it.

Anonymous said...

I do take it personally sometimes (though logic tells me not to), and I don't always agree with comments when I get them, but I'm also obsessed with making stories better (and I know to keep my mouth shut if for no other reason than sheer professionalism).

I may fume for a few moments if I get a scathing rejection letter, but I'd rather have that than a form letter; scathing rejections have led to changes that led to sales.

--Danny Adams
madwriter.livejournal.com

Kimber An said...

Is it me or do some agents/editers seem to take time to do things they swear they don't have time for? Jan actually had an editer wax poetic about how he disliked her story? This makes me think he enjoys doing such things, since he doesn't have the time for it and he isn't making any money off it. What's up with that?

Dan Lewis said...

Read the Slushkiller. It's about Rejection Collection and the taxonomy of rejections, and everything else.

Talia Mana, Centre for Emotional Well-Being said...

It would be wonderful if agents could provide feedback on the book or the market for that book, but let's face it they have to earn a living. Why should they waste their time giving detailed comments when they have books they can be selling for their clients?

Besides if you really want to know what's wrong with your book you can join a critique group or pay for a critique etc etc. Put it on crapometer blog if you feel you really can take it when people criticise your work and pick holes in sentence construction!

Thanks for the informative blog. I'm loving the common sense advice and "inside" info

Anonymous said...

I just really don't understand this sense of entitlement that some writers seem to have about an agent or editor owing them a critique, a personalized letter, or even the truth. Just because you sent them something in the mail doesn't mean they are now obligated to spend their time (and money, as time is money) giving you a detailed critique of why they don't like it. When I open my mailbox and get a flyer from a gardening service, I throw it away. I don't write back to the gardening service informing them of why I selected another service or opted out of service altogether. If that flyer came with an SASE and it was customary for me to give some kind of response, you'd better believe it would be a form letter saying, "thanks but I've decided to go with someone else." Why should we expect any different from agents or editors?

Also, jimfreedan, if you want the specific truth, if your query letters look like your comment does, one problem you may be having is an improper use of the English language. It's "you'd have accepted it," not, "you'd of accepted it." Also, it's "lying," not "lieing." Nothing turns an agent off faster than someone who doesn't spell or use contractions correctly.

Fuchsia Groan said...

I just reviewed a good book that makes similar points to this post, Toxic Feedback by Joni Cole. (The title makes it sound like it's all about plumping up writers' egos, but that's not the case-- it's about how writers need to learn to process feedback better.)

I think that, if you have been writing in isolation for a long while, you may overinterpret any feedback an agent gives you. I spent weeks mulling over a long e-mail rejection I received from an agent to whom I'd been referred. Her message was filled with positive comments, and it sounded like she'd really tried hard to give my book a fair shake, but ultimately it didn't work for her. I proceeded to obsess about whether the agent was just saying all that stuff because she didn't want to offend the friend who referred me. I wondered if she'd found my ms. utterly incoherent and was gritting her teeth as she slogged (or skimmed) through it.

I knew it was stupid to obsess, but I did anyway, because she was the first unbiased reader I'd managed to find. When you find them, they are priceless... but you can't expect that from an agent who doesn't want to represent you.

Fuchsia Groan said...

I just reviewed a good book that makes similar points to this post, Toxic Feedback by Joni Cole. (The title makes it sound like it's all about plumping up writers' egos, but that's not the case-- it's about how writers need to learn to process feedback better.)

I think that, if you have been writing in isolation for a long while, you may overinterpret any feedback an agent gives you. I spent weeks mulling over a long e-mail rejection I received from an agent to whom I'd been referred. Her message was filled with positive comments, and it sounded like she'd really tried hard to give my book a fair shake, but ultimately it didn't work for her. I proceeded to obsess about whether the agent was just saying all that stuff because she didn't want to offend the friend who referred me. I wondered if she'd found my ms. utterly incoherent and was gritting her teeth as she slogged (or skimmed) through it.

I knew it was stupid to obsess, but I did anyway, because she was the first unbiased reader I'd managed to find. When you find them, they are priceless... but you can't expect that from an agent who doesn't want to represent you.

Dragonet2 said...

I may be weird or something.

If I write someting that I've honed and polished, and it gets rejected, I just go "eh, it ain't their cup of tea" and send it on. If it keeps getting rejected, I'll take another look at it.

But I went to J school AND took creative writing from Jim Gunn, and getting upset about being criticized for what you write is just a fact of life. I'm just happy I don't have to have someone yelling at me about it.

And if I sell a story, it's gone as far as I'm concerned, I just don't bother it anymore (one of my sold stories got 'edited' by an art director. Not going to way where or who, don't want that tsurris. BUT it looks like I was writing and smoking crack at the same time. Whole chunks of action were removed willy-nilly.)

J.B. said...

Criticism can take many forms, but it's non-constructive criticism that gets under my skin because there's nothing I can do about it. I've learned to not have most friends read my work, because hearing "I dunno... something about the protagonist... he just seemed weird and I dunno, but I guess the story was good..." just serves to frustrate. While it can be said that many writers are thin-skinned when it comes to taking criticism, most people are never taught how to give truly constructive criticism. Hearing vague comments or even valid statements without advice on potential ways to improve on a story can _feel_ like an attack. If someone said, "Hey, your face, um, there's something weird about it," and someone else said, "Hey pizza-face, don't drip any grease on me," they might be basing their comments on something real but come across as jerks. The person who is actually heard says, "Your hair looks good, but that's a nasty breakout. Clearasil is on sale this week, and let me also give you my dermatologist's number."

I don't think an agent's job is to give critiques, but they'd probably get a lot less flack _and_ better submissions if they mailed out suggested reading lists with rejections instead of generic yet comlimentary form letters. Personally, until I joined www.critters.org, I hadn't seen a crit group that was a good fit. For those of you who do sci-fi, fantasy, or horror, I strongly suggest checking out the website.

MY beef is with agents and editors who don't reply. What -- are they hoarding SASE postage? Are they so delicate that dropping a pre-stamped envelope in the mail might bring on the vapors? Sheesh. Anyone with advice on that, please reply.

writtenwyrdd said...

My job is to write and write well. If I expect you to hand hold me through the revision process (which is what having a personalized rejection amounts to, really) then I am not a writer but a therapy patient seeking a therapist.

Great post again, by the way.

Michele said...

It IS personal. And I mean from the agents' and editors' end.

Look, writers have put their hearts and souls into these manuscripts for good or bad--you've said as much yourself, Rejecter. So when you're reading a proposal you're looking into someone's soul and passing judgement. What could be more personal than that? Just because you can't see their face it makes it impersonal? Bull! A lame excuse.

The way an agency/publisher handles rejection says a lot about it's internal culture.

Anonymous said...

You can still have a form letter, but give the writer a bit of why. A magazine publisher sends out a form, but it has a checklist at the bottom with 16 reasons. They check the reason(s) why the story was rejected. It's nice to know if it's because _ It lacks and strong plot or _ We have a similar story already or _ The writing is weak, etc.

Easy to do and gives the submitter a hint of what's wrong. I don't think a critique is in order, but you should be able to name one reason why the book isn't for you.

archer said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
archer said...

That's not the way life works in general. If a woman turns you down for a date, you don't ask why. You especially don't say, "You owe me an answer. My efforts to mend my shortcomings will improve the available dating pool, thereby benefiting the receptionist, who I intend to ask out next." Though I suppose there are men who would say that. It takes all kinds.

JimFreedan said...

"The "Not for Me" isn't a lie--it's actually something that's true. An agent can enjoy reading someone's chapters, but if it's not quite fit in with what he represents, then he's rejecting it because he's not the best choice to sell it."

That might be true if the agent's do not sell those kinds of stories.

But these are agents who cover fantasy and YA according to their own websites. My book is a YA fantasy. Logic would say they didn't like the story, not that it didn't fit in with what they represent.

JimFreedan said...

"That's not the way life works in general. If a woman turns you down for a date, you don't ask why. You especially don't say, "You owe me an answer. My efforts to mend my shortcomings will improve the available dating pool, thereby benefiting the receptionist, who I intend to ask out next." Though I suppose there are men who would say that. It takes all kinds."

I've heard that analogy before.
It's a terrible one.

We're not asking an agent out on a date.

We're asking them if they will work for us. It's a business situation. Very different motivations, very different kind of relationship.

Besides, I have been able to get a date from a woman who said no to me the first time only because I had the courage to ask "Why not?". There is some amount of salesmanship involved in dating too.

Actually, it is probably easier to talk someone into dating you than it is to get an agent.

JimFreedan said...

"Also, jimfreedan, if you want the specific truth, if your query letters look like your comment does, one problem you may be having is an improper use of the English language. It's "you'd have accepted it," not, "you'd of accepted it." Also, it's "lying," not "lieing." Nothing turns an agent off faster than someone who doesn't spell or use contractions correctly."

Sorry, I usually type up a BLOG COMMENT within a minute or two. I don't usually run them through spell check as I would a query.

archer said...

It's a business situation. Very different motivations, very different kind of relationship.

Well, it's just a comparison. Forming a business relationship is very much like dating, with money analogous to sex. Does the prospect arouse your appetite? Does the prospect arouse your appetite and give you the impression that your appetite might be satisfied not just once, but maybe many many times, even for life? In the heat of transaction does the prospect suddenly say "I know this is part of God's plan" and start trying to give you tracts from Chick Publications?

Anonymous said...

Look, writers have put their hearts and souls into these manuscripts for good or bad--you've said as much yourself, Rejecter. So when you're reading a proposal you're looking into someone's soul and passing judgement.

Writers who put their heart and soul into something probably shouldn't be submitting it because quite simply, they're not ready for rejection in the first place. If you're that involved with what you're writing that you can't accept a basic 'no thanks' from someone you've never met, then how on earth are you going to cope with 'proper' reviews or the comments of ordinary readers who bump into you in the street?

You want feedback? Join a critique group or take a writing class. Whether people like to hear this or not, the fact is that writing is a business - you should be looking to make money out of it, not a way of sharing your innermost soulfulness with the wider world.

It doesn't matter how much feedback an agent chooses to give you - a no is a no is a no. Pick yourself up and move on.

JimFreedan said...

"Writers who put their heart and soul into something probably shouldn't be submitting it because quite simply, they're not ready for rejection in the first place."

Uh, if you're not putting your soul into what you are writing then it likely sucks.

It is very hard to fake realistic characters, situations or simply fix grammar errors unless you are extremely serious about your writing.

Writing may be a business, but the person who is more dedicated to making their product the absolute best it can be is the one who is going to suceed in the market.

How many best selling books were written by someone that just churned out stories by the dozen? Not as many as those which were heavily researched. Not as many as those where the author clearly has inserted a chunk of themselves into the pages.

There is a reason books like "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, or the Narnia trilogy continue to sell 50 years after they were published while most best sellers are usually forgotten about within the year they come out. There is a reason people still read "Dracula" 109 years after it was first published. Hell, there is a reason any book lasts in the market for over a decade.

There are ideas and themes in these books that have a wide reaching appeal that can span generations.

You cannot give a book a soul of its own unless you are willing to put some of your own into it.

If someone wants to ask an agent why they rejected it, the worst the agent can do is say no again. If the agent doesn't reply, well that is just how it goes.

I don't think they need to reply but if they do you can be darn sure the opinion of an agent is worth a hell of a lot more than all the other unpublished authors who belong to most crtique groups. Sometimes it seems like the blind are leading the blind.

Anonymous said...

Uh, if you're not putting your soul into what you are writing then it likely sucks.

It is very hard to fake realistic characters, situations or simply fix grammar errors unless you are extremely serious about your writing.


It is perfectly possible to take a professional approach to writing fiction (which means writing the best piece that you possibly can) without seeing it as an extension of your persona. It's the people who fail to regard their writing as something separate to them who are the ones unlikely to accept rejection.

Writing should be what you do. It should never define you as a person.

Lewis and Tolkein were contemporaries at Oxford, belonged to the same circle of writers and critiqued each others work. Neither of them were so invested in what they produced that they couldn't take a simple 'no' as an answer.

I don't think they need to reply but if they do you can be darn sure the opinion of an agent is worth a hell of a lot more than all the other unpublished authors who belong to most crtique groups.

Yes, some critique groups suck. That's why if you join one you think is led by the clueless, you need to look around or find another until you find one you think's right for you. Alternatively, go to writers' boards, attend writing conferences, read what's been published to get an idea of what the standards are. Agents are not the only source of feedback for a writer.

An agent who told you "no" should not be revisited for a reason why. The chances are, if you sit down and actually re-read what you sent, you'll spot problems with it. That's the other benefit of having distance from your work - you're never so caught up in your soul that you can't see where something's not playing out.

Susan said...

When I solicited an agent, two accepted me and two rejected me, while giving me some excellent criticism. (I also got a couple "not our style," "not accepting work," etc.
I signed with an agent and he sent my work around. Several publishers rejected my work for EXACTLY THE SAME REASON the agents did. I re-wrote the offending part and re-submitted, and now I'm going to be published in March.
The criticism was good because the agent specified precisely why she/he would not take the book AND because the error was fixable.
It showed that the agent seriously considered the work, and would have taken it IF IF IF....