Rejections lead to improvement? I doubt it.

I’ve just replied to a thread on the DOROTHY-L mystery readers and writers mailing list. I thought some other like-minded sorts might be interested in reading this.

At 05:52 PM 5/20/2003 -0400, Gar Anthony Haywood wrote:
>Once upon a time, if a host of agents and publishers kept kicking your manuscript
>back to your mailbox, it was probably due in no small part to some lack of literary
>merit. So you had good reason to connect those rejections to flaws in your
>manuscript, and rewrote accordingly.

Those were the good old days, I agree. But nowadays, you don’t get any indication of what’s wrong. They’ll simply say, “Not right for us at this time.” I’ve even had writers bring in their own cover letters or first pages that have been scribbled on with “Sorry–not for us” or “NO!!” (in one case), without even the bare courtesy of one of those quarter-page photocopied rejection slips. It’s pretty brutal out there now.

(I know writers have said this forever. But even the pro markets are saying it now.)

Agreed, the writers in question were not ready for prime time, and they were in the groups I led in order to improve. Still, they weren’t getting any direction from rejections. What they did get some direction from was the critique group(s) they were in and the groups such as I led (directed writing exercises, discussion, then critique of one or more chapters from a participant’s manuscript we’d taken home to mark up.)

I was there partly to keep them from misleading the writer (by claiming that semicolons no longer exist–I’ve actually battled that one more than once–or by claiming that one must NEVER use any form of BE, because it was ALWAYS an indicator of the forbidden passive voice. Of course, they’re wrong, or else “the tire was flat” would be in passive voice, when it’s in active voice, and also there’s a time for passive voice, such as when the actor is unknown or unimportant and the emphasis should be on the action.) It’s a “common wisdom” now that you must go through crit partners/groups and outside feedback or editing in order to get direction. And even then, your work may be deemed not right for a particular line.

If you get a lot of rejections, it could be your work isn’t targeted to some particular line.

Kathleen added:
>There would be more value in rejections if acceptance actually signified quality.

This speaks for itself, doesn’t it? “Accepted” books aren’t always worth reading, are they? (And I mean not for anybody, not just for people not Into That Kind Of Thing.)

Every publishing house is now out for best-sellers. They don’t want to serve the midlist. Even though you make the same money when you do eight books that earn, say, 250K, as when you do one that earns two million–and it’s far tougher to find the $2mil one and make the public gobble it up–they want to save themselves the extra work and just do the biggies. This is a disservice to the reading public, because one size doesn’t fit all, but they’re in the business to make money, not to serve art or humanity, after all. Maxwell Perkins is dead, and so is his legacy, it appears.

Literary agents don’t want to even talk to you if your “blurb” doesn’t make them think the book will go to auction. They have treated me rather shabbily, which is, I think, unbusinesslike (sure, when I work at day jobs, I get harried, but I don’t take it out on poor little hopefuls.) Exactly ONE agent has told me what she really finds lacking in the manuscripts she hasn’t taken on. I’m not even a client of hers. She must just be a Good Person. But what *she* said has actually been helpful. It isn’t at all typical. (She told me that cozies had to be 80K words or fewer, and thus that my two cozies wouldn’t fit the market; she read my fantasy and said it was too young adult for the SF markets, and she doesn’t handle YA or children’s books; she saw my other mystery and said she’d like to see me explain why Ariadne doesn’t suspect that Eddie is up to something and just ask him about it–which was a quite useful observation, because it made me realize that the reader doesn’t “get” their relationship and how she’s always been very hands-off with him, and I need to insert something subtle a couple of places earlier to let the reader catch on that she handles him with kid gloves for fear of his walking out.)

Someone else chimed in:
>I couldn’t agree more with Gar and Gene. To put it simply: rejection improves a

Which is a generalization. What you really mean, I suppose, is that *if* the rejection is actually based in reality rather than just market considerations only–and I’ll get more into that in a moment–and *if* there is a well-articulated reason given in the rejection, then perhaps the writer can recognize what’s really wrong and can figure out how to fix it without breaking something else. (Sometimes three people will tell you something’s wrong, and they’ll all tell you different things that are wrong, and it won’t be any of those things but actually a fourth problem that you need to correct. Such as, you haven’t set up something properly, and so they’re expecting something else. They demand description of some place when they should just “default to” a normal drugstore, for example. It means you have led them to believe it’ll be different, and your emphasis is messed up. And so forth.)

But what repeated, anonymous rejection generally does to those with an artistic temperament is . . . it throws them into a depression and makes them think their work is worthless, and sometimes that they’re worthless. It doesn’t “improve the work.” The only thing that improves the work is constructive feedback the likes of which editors don’t have TIME any more to articulate, let alone type out and send to you. Also, *you* have to just *know* the craft. You’ll type a million wasted words while you’re learning, just the way that potters throw a bunch of worthless pots and carpenters build some iffy structures while they’re apprentices and journeymen. Once you have done this for a while, you’ll be able to improve your own work by just letting the draft rest for a month or two, then coming back to it. Also, a trusted reader or crit partner can be invaluable, as long as they’re not dimbulbs and they don’t take you down the primrose path to ruin.

On the other hand, there are too many writers already. So the industry prolly figures that anything they can do to discourage some of them is good. Thus, abrupt and non-informative rejection.

*Now.* That said, I suspect this thread was actually a veiled attempt to ask whether the people who do POD books and self-publish are aware that their books aren’t good enough for prime time. The answer is that usually, they DO know this, but they want them in print anyway. After all, ugly women get married and have careers, too!! Not everyone can be the shining example of perfection, 110 lbs and blue eyes, etc. And not everyone has the same standard of beauty as promulgated on MTV. Readers aren’t, in general, as discriminating as critics and writers and editors, and they’ll devour just about any book and deem many of them good enough, even if there are flaws. (Witness the popular books that should have been rejected, but were published by large houses.)

I’m tarring every POD writer (including myself) with the same brush when I say this, but it’s true–most of what’s out there as e-books or POD or whatever is self-indulgent or flawed or not well written or, um, trash that needs a couple more passes through the typer (as Heinlein would say); however, this doesn’t mean that EVERYTHING that’s out there as POD is in that condition. Some books just don’t fit any pigeonholes, are perfectly fine books as they stand, and thus won’t be picked up by New York unless you self-pub, go out and promote, and then get noticed and picked up after you’ve taken the risk and proven them popular.

Sure, we could spend our entire lives revising and polishing the SAME book forever, but is that really useful? We want to go on and write another book that will be better and different, but maybe this book is not without value, even though New York doesn’t feel it can make money off of the book. There’s a point at which you have to say, “This is the book I had in mind, or as close as I can get it, and it represents the artistic intent and the story I wanted to tell. Any further changes–such as wholesale deletion of chapters and subplots or what-have-you–would make it not my story, and thus aren’t proper to do.” You have to be able to say, “I wrote something that is unlike what sells well today, and I still believe it’s worth reading, though it has a readership smaller than the pop best-sellers.” (There are fads, you know; now you aren’t allowed to use adverbs as dialogue tags and you’re supposed to SHOW what is meant, but in the past, those adverbs were shorthand used by everyone from Louisa May Alcott on down, and there was less ambiguity. If I show that someone scratches his head and twitches his eyebrows, does that mean he’s nervous, or that a fly is dive-bombing him, or that he’s lying? It’s less clear when you have to show and not tell. But that’s the way it is NOW, and that’s how we have to write. It has not always been so. The pendulum could swing back, or it could, as I suspect, change even further so that everything’s a transcript of a movie with no internal monologue in novels at all. But I digress. If you haven’t noticed already.) There are several examples of good books–even Pulitzer Prize-winning novels–that were published posthumously, after the writer killed himself or herself because he couldn’t write something that could get published. (_Confederacy of Dunces_ is the famous example. I believe there are others.) So just because you’re rejected doesn’t mean you’re BAAAAAD.

So, yes, okay, we KNOW that we could delete the first three chapters, make a car chase action scene at the climax, take out all the internal monologue, throw in a gory serial killer and his internal thoughts, add some explicit sex, and so forth, and “be more like the best-sellers,” but maybe we don’t want to. Maybe we feel that artistic integrity, being true to the initial vision of the story we wanted to tell, is more important. Maybe the tale of the Civil War kid who left home at fifteen to fight but then decides it’s morally wrong is worth reading. Maybe the tale of the man patterned after your grandfather who arrives in America with only the clothes on his back and three hungry children is worthy of our attention. And that’s perhaps the reason that POD and e-book authors are out here doing it “wrong.”

(Sorry if this sounds like an emotional diatribe. It’s actually a string of logical arguments. If you are a “thinker” instead of an “emoter,” this will come across differently. I assure you, though, that it’s not intended as an attack on Gar and the others who question whether POD authors realize they might improve their work. It’s just an explanation (in the best way I know how to make it) as to why someone might KNOW the work could be changed to be more marketable, but that there’s such a thing as taking the heart and original intent out of the story, and some authors won’t want to do that. The real “culprit” here is the market, I suppose, or maybe the bean counters who bought up all the publishing houses and then realized they didn’t make much money in the old days–and wanted them to be cash cows. The market really had little choice in the matter–and perhaps the market is interested in reading some of our POD books, after all, because they are not getting them from the large houses.)

Of course, I’m still out here beating my head against the wall, and proving they’re both equally hard. I’m working on a chick lit novel, a shorter mystery, and a fantasy/romance, all targeted at specific lines. I’m trying to rein in the word count. I’m trying to keep suspense up, and so forth. I’m going to try to sell all of them to New York houses. But I won’t be able to “write one like Stephen King/Diane Mott Davidson/Joan Hess,” simply because I’m not one of those writers. Their books are wonderful and appeal to millions, but they’re tours inside those writers’ minds.

What you get with me is, of course, a tour inside mine. And that’s going to have to be good enough, because that’s all I can offer on this side of the Great Veil.

Who knows what my destiny actually is? I can only hope it’s going to work out the way it’s supposed to.

Big best-seller or no.


Author: shalanna

Shalanna: rhymes with "Madonna" and "I wanna," and is not a soundalike with "Hosanna" or "Sha-Na-Na." Aging hippie with long hair, husband, elderly mother, and yappy Pomeranian. I've been writing since I could hold a crayon. I started with fiction, which Mama said was "lying." “Don’t tell stories,” she would admonish, in Southern vernacular. “That's all in your imagination!” When grownups said this, they were not approving. So, shamed, I stopped telling stories for a few years--rather, I stopped letting anyone read them. I'm married to a fellow computer nerd who doesn't really like hearing about writing, but who reads sf/fantasy and understands the creative drive. I'm actually a nonconformist/hippie still wearing bluejeans and drop earrings and the Alice-in-Wonderland hair with headbands and sandals. Favorite flavor is chocolate/orange, favorite color is either Dreamsicle orange (cantaloupe) or bubble-gum pink, favorite musical is either Bye Bye Birdie, Rocky Horror, or The Producers . . . wait, I also love The Music Man. Is this getting way too specific and irrelevant yet? Obvious why I don't sell a ton of flash fiction, isn't it? To define oneself, I always say, it is good to make a list. How about a booklist? Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird Frank and Ernestine Gilbreth, Cheaper by the Dozen C.S.Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (all the Narnia books) J.R.R.Tolkien,The Hobbit/LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy Gail Godwin, The Odd Woman F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby J. D. Salinger, Catcher in the Rye (before dismissing it, actually read it) George Orwell, 1984 Kurt Vonnegut, Cat's Cradle Donna Tartt, The Secret History Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn James Allen, As A Man Thinketh Mark Winegardner, Elvis Presley Boulevard James Thurber, My Life and Hard Times The Wizard of Oz, L. Frank Baum Winnie-the-Pooh/House at Pooh Corner, A. A. Milne Peter Pan, J. M. Barrie The KJV and NIV Bible (each translation has its glories)

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