On September 18, 2010, F wrote, Could you share a couple of rejection letters that you received for Ella Enchanted? It would be great to see, and serve as great encouragement, too.
And on the same day Andi wrote, I second F's idea with the rejection letters. Or perhaps just a blog post on how to deal with getting them/how to fix the problems in queries?
I can’t answer the query question because mostly I sent out entire manuscripts - this was long ago, and you still could. I did send queries for Ella Enchanted, but in my recollection they were very basic, not much more than “Here are x number (I don’t remember how many) of chapters of my fantasy novel. Please let me know if you’d like to see the whole book.”
Ella Enchanted was rejected only once, and I’m not sure there was a letter. I think the rejecting editor just called my agent and passed on the book. However, as many of you know, before Ella Enchanted there were nine years of rejection.
The worst rejection letter I ever got was for a picture book called Sweet Fanopps, a fantasy about a land that forgot how to sleep and when they rediscovered sleep they had no word for it or for dreaming or any sleep-related terms, hence the title. The rejection letter said that my plot wasn’t interesting, my characters not engaging, and the story lacking emotional charge. The editor doubted that a child would be drawn in enough to sit through a reading. In her last sentence she misspelled the title of my story.
Ouch! I was weeks getting over that one.
But possibly worse were the scores of form rejection letters. They were awful because they were opaque. I had no clue about what the reader didn’t like or what I could do to improve - if he thought my manuscript was the worst junk he’d ever read or if he liked it but just not enough. Years ago my husband found the perfect cartoon. The image is of a sad-looking dinosaur holding a letter. Under the picture are words something like: “Thank you for your submission. Unfortunately it doesn’t meet the needs of our list. Good luck placing the book elsewhere.” As I recall, above the picture it says, "Why the dinosaur perished."
That cartoon was such a comfort! It acknowledged my pain and recognized that rejection was serious - serious enough to cause the extinction of an entire class of creatures!
There were other frustrations around trying to get published. I went to conferences and met editors. If one was interested in seeing my work, I’d send something. Six months later I’d follow up and be told that the manuscript had been lost. Or, based an encouraging response to a manuscript, I’d revise and resend, and then my second submission would be lost or I’d get a form rejection.
But my experience wasn’t all bad. A particular editor kept sending me encouraging rejections and wrote to me out of the blue when she left her job to say that she’d told her successor to watch for my submissions. Another editor asked me to expand my picture book called Dave at Night into a chapter book, which he later rejected. However, I’m still grateful because I owe him the discovery that I’m mostly a novelist.
Still, nine years add up to a lot of discouragement. I’m not sure how much longer I would have kept going. Near the end it dawned on me that if I’d set out to become a brain surgeon I would already have been cutting into gray matter.
From what I hear it’s even harder now. I understand that few publishers accept unagented submissions. You can still meet an editor at a conference and be asked to submit directly, but that’s about it.
Prospects of publication aside, the really really really bad part of rejection is that it can damage your self-confidence. When a manuscript came back it wouldn’t look as pretty and shiny as when I sent it out, full of promise, into the world. I might love it again after a few days or weeks, but my immediate reaction would be, Maybe it’s not worthy.
And yet. The nine years of rejection were among the happiest in my life - because of steps I took, which you can take too, some or all of them. I signed up for classes in writing for children in the Adult Ed departments of colleges in New York City. There may be classes near you in whatever genre interests you, or there will at least be general fiction-writing classes.
So I had the joy of becoming a better writer through practice and expert criticism. There was an added benefit, too: while the negative rejection messages were dripping into one ear, the encouragement of my teachers was pouring into the other.
I joined the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). I attended conferences and meetings of my local chapter, which taught me approaches that might lead to publication. With classmates and with the help of SCBWI I joined or formed critique groups. Again, the criticism made me a better writer. Equally wonderful, I became part of a community of struggling writers. We cheered each other on and commiserated over every rejection. I remember riding the train home after a class or a critique-group meeting and feeling so happy.
I heard of a writing group that gave an annual award to the member who’d gotten the highest number of rejections in the previous year. The purpose wasn’t to encourage bad writing. The group had discovered that the writer with the most rejections would eventually be the writer with the most acceptances. She was putting her stories out there. She wasn’t letting the rejections get her down.
Just want to mention, although it’s off topic, that I read almost all the Newbery books in the collection at my local public library. These books gave me a standard of excellence to aim for. And I read book reviews. I kept an ear out, much more than I do now, for what was getting buzz, what was current, what was popular. I encourage you to do the same. Read widely, not just in your genre. If you’re into fantasy, read historical and contemporary fiction. Read literary fiction and mysteries. Read graphic novels. You may find a new niche or you may find approaches that you can adapt to your own uses.
You may not be able to do exactly what I did. You may be too young to join SCBWI (eighteen and up) or you may not live close to a college that offers classes in your genre. But I think you can do some of what I suggest. You can take some sort of writing class. Even if you’re just in elementary school you can whisper to your teacher, as long as he’s a sympathetic sort, that you’d like him to pay special attention to your creative writing. Tell him you’ll welcome as much feedback as he can offer. He may turn a cartwheel for joy. You can ask him to keep your arrangement secret, and you don’t have to tell your friends. You can tell your parents if you like and watch them also turn cartwheels (maybe). You can share your love of writing with your school librarian, if your school has one, and you can ask her if she’d be willing to read your stories and make suggestions. You might form a writing club with your friends if they’re interested. Put out a magazine together. If some of you like to draw, you can illustrate your stories and create cool covers.
If you’re in middle school or high school, it should be easier. You’ll be taking an English or Language Arts class, and your teacher is likely to love writing. He’ll be eager to encourage you. There may be a school newspaper or magazine, or you can start one, staffed by other writing kids.
If you’re an adult, besides writing classes, you can join a writers’ group. The members don’t have to be writing in your genre. After a few meetings you’ll see what they have to offer and whether continuing is worth your time. If not, work on forming your own group. Speak to a librarian at your public library. Put up a notice on its bulletin board. Ask your friends if they know other writers you can contact. It is so useful to be part of a writing community that I think you should go after it even if you are the shyest person on the planet.
I like to think that this blog is kind of a writing community. You may know of others online that help in lots of ways. There may be blogs that are devoted to getting published and others, like this one, that are about the writing process. I got my start in pre-internet days and I’m not knowledgeable, so please post your links.
A single prompt:
In case you’re not familiar with his story, Sisyphus is a character in Greek mythology, not a good guy. This is from Wikipedia: “As a punishment from the gods for his trickery, Sisyphus was made to roll a huge rock up a steep hill, but before he could reach the top of the hill, the rock would always roll back down, forcing him to begin again.” Sisyphus could have been a writer, struggling to finish, to revise, to be published, the task as heavy as a boulder.
This is also from Wikipedia, about interpretations of the myth: “According to the solar theory, Sisyphus is the disk of the sun that rises every day in the east and then sinks into the west... Other scholars regard him as a personification of waves rising and falling, or of the treacherous sea... The 1st-century BC Epicurean philosopher Lucretius interprets the myth of Sisyphus as personifying politicians aspiring for political office who are constantly defeated, with the quest for power, in itself an ‘empty thing’, being likened to rolling the boulder up the hill... Friedrich Welcker suggested that he symbolises the vain struggle of man in the pursuit of knowledge... Albert Camus, in his 1942 essay The Myth of Sisyphus, saw Sisyphus as personifying the absurdity of human life, but Camus concludes ‘one must imagine Sisyphus happy’ as ‘The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man's heart.’” I love Camus’ conclusion.
Invent a character to stand for Sisyphus. Your Sisyphus can be good, and can be any kind of creature. Write one to three pages (or more) at the start of his challenge. Skip to the middle, when he’s at a low ebb and write about that. Then jump to the end and write. The purpose of this prompt is more than just to write; it’s also to address the hardships of writing, so you can use it as you like. When you need your Sisyphus character to win, you can end the story with triumph. When you’re in the mood to wallow in misery, you can defeat him and make him as unhappy as can be. If you’re angry, you can give him success and his enemies defeat in the most dreadful ways you can think of. You can hold onto this exercise and rewrite the ending as many ways as you need.
Have fun and save what you write!