When I think of the majority of the rejection letters I’ve received, I’m reminded of an incident that occurred back when dinosaurs walked the earth—back when I was in high school. It was somewhat less sensational than Columbine or 9/11, but it struck me nevertheless.
One of my best friends was 17 at the time and had quite the crush on one of the popular girls, who in return had given him cause to believe that she was not entirely indifferent to him. After hearing about this for three weeks, which then seemed like a lifetime, I told him to grow a pair and ask her out. (I can tell this story now because he’s getting married this week.)
So he bravely sallied forth across yonder campus to obtain the favor of his lady fair. His knight errantry lasted about ten minutes. Upon his speedy return, we expected tears. Rage. Jealousy. Some kind of consternation for the population at our designated location, which was a stone’s throw from the pizza line and just to the east of the amphitheater.
Instead, his face was so screwed up in confusion that it begged a response.
“So, what did she say?” I hazarded to ask.
“She told me,” he started, and everyone leaned in close to hear, “that I was too cute to go out with.”
“Too cute to go out with? What the $%&^ does that even mean?”
“Cute like a monkey?”
“Cute like a little brother?”
“Cute like the flag girls thinking that they’re cheerleaders?”
“Dude,” someone chimed in, “she just wants to keep you around in case her prom date falls through. Welcome to the friend zone.”
13 years later, my buddy is out of the friend zone. I, on the other hand, have been subjected to it ever since—in the field of publishing.
This first rejection letter—my favorite, in fact—came from one of the big New York houses after a submission period that lasted no less than 5 YEARS of my life.
Before we go there, allow me to explain how something like that can even happen. (I’m positive it had to do with my story causing the fatal heart attack that felled the founder of said press and a pioneer in Science Fiction and Fantasy publishing, but I have no definitive evidence that my book is a killer.)
When I completed my first draft of The Wolf of Descarta, I immediately sent it off to what was at the time the only press accepting electronic submissions from un-agented writers. I fully expected to wait the 12 months that were outlined in the publisher’s submission guidelines, but I was okay with this because said publisher allowed for simultaneous submissions.
This, I learned, means nothing if the other presses (or agents, for that matter) demand exclusivity.
My initial wait time was more like two years. I’d be lying if I didn’t say I sent the MSS out to a few other places, but nothing serious. I’d heard that axiom “no news is good news”, and I was determined that my story was going somewhere. This was fine until I hooked an agent who—joy of joys—did not accept unsolicited submissions.
So I went to the publisher’s website to get their contact information, and it turned out the CEO had just dropped dead. Certain my story must have already been rejected or lost in the confusion, I sent along the following e-mail:
My condolences on the passing of Mr. REDACTED and the turmoil you must all be facing right now. I was one of the many writers who had a manuscript under review just before this tragedy, and I’m writing to verify that it was either rejected or is no longer being considered. I only ask because I’ve recently contacted a literary agent there in New York. She has expressed an interest in reading my novel, but she does not accept simultaneous submissions. I need to be upfront with her about who is reading this manuscript and who isn’t, so any news you could offer on the matter would be greatly appreciated.
You have my deepest apologies for asking you to dig this up.
Author of The Wolf of Descarta
To my surprise, I received this response:
Your manuscript is in my “Must read the whole thing” pile, which is good–the alternative being, “send therejection letter”. However, my backlogs and backlogged, and the senior editor’s inboxes are even worse. You’d be lucky to hear from us in less than a year.
I’ll drop it from consideration, so you’re free to talk to the agent, but keep it on my list so I can pick it up from there if the agent turns you down.
EDITOR WHO REALLY DID TRY TO HELP
To which I replied:
Dear EDITOR WHO REALLY DID TRY TO HELP:
I am utterly amazed at your willingness to help a new writer.
To be honest, I hadn’t expected any sort of success with the draft you have now. It’s nearly two years old, and I have since had two professors at ASU help me to revise it. That being said, the plot, pacing, and characters have not changed in the rewrite. I’ve simply plugged holes, edited for clarity, and updated the style to ensure cohesion throughout the work.
Now, this agent I’m dealing with took more than a year just to respond to a query letter, and afterwards asked me to re-query within a time frame that she explained would be convenient for her. While this seemed like a simple formality, she has not yet contacted me to request the manuscript. As a new writer, the last thing in the world that I want is to give up an opportunity to be published by a company like REDACTED. Please, allow me to propose an alternative suggestion:
Let me send you the updated draft, which I believe you will find to be far more ready for publication than the first. It can sit the original’s place in your slush pile for a year if it has to. I know it will stand a better chance at being accepted and developing a readership. (If you are unable to do this, then please let the old draft sit in the pile with the knowledge that a revision is out there.)
As for the agent in question, I will not contact you about her again unless she follows through and actually requests the manuscript. I have been playing the submission game for a few years now, and in my estimation it’s much better to have an editor move you up the ranks than to sport with a vaguely interested agent, especially one who has been in the business for twenty years and is used to making six-figure commissions. (I, on the other hand, am looking to start a career, not win the lottery.)
I know that you are very busy, and I apologize for the length of this e-mail. Please let me know what you decide at your earliest convenience.
The response I received was thus:
Because of the existing backlog, I won’t be sending anything on to the Senior Editors until October. Why don’t you email me in mid October. Either send me the latest draft and I’ll read it then, or let me know that you are with the agent. A good agent will get your manuscript straight to the Senior Editor’s desk, and is worth pursuing.
I’m always happy to be putting off reading another book (two years ago I’d have laughed if anyone said I’d come to this!) for a couple of months. I’m also open to helping promising writers make it over the hump from good to published.
I really felt like I was getting somewhere with this editor, but I took her advice and went with the agent (one of those biggies mentioned in my Manifesto query), who seemed nice enough at first. Then, said agent forwarded my MSS to a recently hired flunky, who lost it. While I was waiting on this fledgling agent who lived in Jersey and spent more time blogging about her boyfriend than reading submissions, the distance grew between EDITOR WHO REALLY DID TRY TO HELP and me. I finally confronted this agent after three months, who admitted she had lost the story and had her boss forward it on to her. She received and rejected it while on the phone with me, claiming it didn’t fit into her five year plan.
Four months later, after she was fired, this shrew had the audacity to e-mail me and ask me for more work because she was planning on founding her own agency. I took the high road and didn’t reply.
The worst thing about this was that I now had to go back to EDITOR WHO REALLY DID TRY TO HELP and admit that I was rejected by this no-account agent. (This, of course, happens all the time, but I was green and afraid that she would now think my story was crap.) So I lied. I’m not proud of it, but hey, even Sir Gawain lied to try and save his life.
Dear EDITOR WHO REALLY DID TRY TO HELP:
Hi, this is Daniel Pike, the author of The Wolf of Descarta. We corresponded back in September regarding my novel. You were kind enough to pull the manuscript because I had an interested agent, but I never did hear back from her.
I’ve decided that I can’t afford to wait on this issue any longer. I’m truly sorry to make you read another novel this month. Believe me, I honestly understand your volume issues. It’s a fast-paced novel with lots of characters, so it should be a quick read. I’ve attached the new draft in .rtf format.
I’ve recently begun a career as a ghostwriter, so I’m excited to be dealing with REDACTED. You seem to produce quite a few collaborative works each year. If you like the book, I think we might have a good fit.
EDITOR WHO REALLY DID TRY TO HELP replied and said she would read it that month. She did. After corresponding with me for another month or so, she green lighted the project, and it went all the way up to what this particular publisher refers to as “the top 1%”. Strangely, after waiting another six months or so, I received this rejection letter from a random editor:
Thank you for showing us your novel, The Wolf of Descarta. Unfortunately it does not seem right for us.
Reader comment: Occasional weird word choice. Some confusing mechanics about the ship-to-station tube airing. Sounded
like you were pumping air into a vacuum. Not necessary. Missing scene? I don’t recall any actual sex in the bathroom of the transit car. Think about the ending. It wasn’t terribly satisfying. Some hint as to what Jaren is going to try to do would be useful, some of the new information about some of the characters is not useful, added at the last minute. Your epilogue was more to announce a sequel than to wrap up the story. Probably not the best idea for a first sale. You want the reader walking away happy, and looking forward to another book, not irritated at being left hanging.
While due to the volume of submissions and the press of business it is impossible for us comment in greater depth, please do not take this rejection as being necessarily a reflection on your work; we can accept fewer than one percent of the manuscripts submitted to us.
Best of luck in another market.
I was crushed. What was more, it felt like I could have fixed these issues (other than the ending) in about 15 minutes. So I did. The new ending took me two weeks to figure out, and I let it sit for a week before editing it. I couldn’t help asking myself why the press hadn’t just sent me a contract with the changes that they wanted.
I next took a shot at an agency because PROFESSOR OF GREAT RENOWN recommended me to them. Hence the rejection letter at the beginning of this blog post. Not only did the agents retire rather than representing me, they also dropped my professor, who was one of their clients, on his venerable ass.
After all this, PROFESSOR OF GREAT RENOWN said simply, “Don’t give up. Keep fighting like your heroes.”
After I was through sobbing like a school girl with a skinned knee (this took a couple weeks), I sent REDACTED Books my new-and-improved draft, customized to their specifications.
It went all the way up to the top 1% again. (This took almost two years.) Then, as if daring me to make an issue of it, the EVIL CEO decided to sit on the book for an additional 18 months. I wrote two e-mails to my initial contact that went unanswered. It seemed like the publisher was keeping EDITOR WHO REALLY DID TRY TO HELP off the project and out of contact with me. I e-mailed EVIL CEO directly, and she flat out ignored me. Finally, after sending an e-mail through the customer service address, I received this response from some weirdo calling himself “the Slushmaster General”:
Good evening, Mr. Pike,
I heard back from EVIL CEO this afternoon and unfortunately, we are going to pass on your novel. You may already know that we accept fewer than one percent of the manuscripts submitted to us; in fact, only about the top one percent ever make it to EVIL CEO’s attention. Given the length of time you have waited for a response, that is probably cold comfort, and I’m sorry I have no other comfort to give.
In the course of contacting EVIL CEO, I took a look at your manuscript myself. I confess that I did not read much of it, because I am not in the target audience for your story: cyberpunk as a sub-genre does not appeal to me. Rarely can I suspend my disbelief enough to attach heavy significance to events that take place largely in and around simulations. That being said, your writing on a sentence-by-sentence level is quite good, aside from the occasional obscure term (e.g., “vambrace” where “bracer” would do), and some parts of the narrative thread described in your synopsis seemed interesting.
Please accept my thanks for your patience and my apology for the delay and inconvenience. I wish you the best of luck in finding a publisher and suitable audience for your story.
Is it just me, or did SLUSHMASTER WEIRDO, who by his own admission dislikes cyberpunk but likes my writing, just tell me that I’m too cute to go out with? Because that’s what I heard. The parade goes on:
Title: Daniel Pike
Author: Machine Knight
Thank you for the opportunity to consider your manuscript for publication by REDACTED Publications. We enjoyed reading your novel, but, after careful consideration, and some discussion, we regretfully advise that we are unable to accept it for publication.
I think you have a great idea of the clash between the old world and the new or science and the ways before. However, I found the vision almost too dichotomous with Xander in a tunic waiting for a lift, calligraphy pens and war machines that melt things to glass, fighters with warhammeresque uber weapons and a baron stupid enough to stand there with a rapier and get away with it. I think the pastoral to the high wizardry science/nano can work but needs a bit more tinkering. In a way the chapter on Neeyla was the most intriguing yet the most confusing. EDITOR felt you had too much telling in parts and suggested you watch the use of catchphrase “fantasy” words.
I hope these comments are helpful. Although we will not be taking this manuscript I think you have a good story that you can place elsewhere. You are welcome to send us other work in the future. Your interest in our press is genuinely appreciated, and we wish you the best for your ongoing writing endeavours.
EDITOR WHO AT LEAST CARED
(Dear EDITOR WHO AT LEAST CARED—your comments were helpful in attaining Dave Wolverton’s autograph. I greatly appreciate this.)
From a small press that I would query again:
Thank you very much for your query, and for your patience in waiting for a response. Your idea seems interesting, and I have no doubt there are readers for it out there. However, REDACTED Press is a boutique publishing house, and its list is shaped entirely by the publisher’s personal tastes and preferences. I’m afraid Manifesto is not what we’re looking for at the moment. But that’s just us: it’s in no way a comment on your talent or the potential of your work.
If I may make a suggestion, this is an excellent, free resource for fiction writers in search of a publisher: http://www.duotrope.com. Some authors have also gotten lucky with this site, maintained by HarperCollins: http://authonomy.com/. In any case, I do wish you the best of luck in finding your readers and connecting with them.
(Dear EDITORIAL DIRECTOR—thanks for the links. Maybe I’ll put them up on a writer’s blog some day.)
From a major publisher with whom I am stuck in the friend zone:
Dear Mr. Pike,
Thanks so much for submitting to REDACTED.com, and for your extreme patience while we evaluated your story. Unfortunately, I’m afraid that though we held it longer for second consideration, “Machine Knight” isn’t quite right for us. I wish you the best of luck placing it elsewhere.
Please send us more of your stories in the future. We’ve recently restructured, and if all goes as planned, we will soon have much better response times!
REDACTED.com Submissions Staff
(Dear REDACTED.com Submissions Staff—I don’t wanna be friends. I wanna Bad Romance. Ra-ra-ah-ah-ah…yeah whatever.)
From a publisher notorious for demanding snail mail submissions of the entire manuscript (and on the third attempt!):
Dear Mr. Pike,
Sorry, we never got either. Please send them again, along with a postcard for us to return when it’s logged in.
(Dear LYING SACK–Then why does my delivery confirmation say you received it 6 months ago? What if I said to my students, “Sorry, I never received that paper it cost you twenty dollars to print three times, but if you send it in again with a postcard…”?)
From a major AAR agency in New York:
Thank you for contacting The REDACTED Agency and please accept our deepest apologies for the untimely delay in our reply. We just discovered an issue with one of our folders hiding some of our incoming emails.
While you may have already found a home for MANIFESTO, please know that we’d love to take a look at your work should it still be available. Please feel free to submit the first three chapters of your work as a Word attachment to this email address. And please include this email trail so we are sure to have all of your information. Again, please accept our apologies on not getting back to you sooner.
BITING OFF MORE THAN SHE CAN CHEW
To which I replied:
Dear BITING OFF MORE THAN SHE CAN CHEW:
I’m pleased to inform you that even with your e-mail filters running haywire, The REDACTED Agency still boasts one of the quickest response times among the major agencies. No worries. I actually find it somewhat fitting that Manifesto was discovered lurking in a hidden folder.
Thanks for your interest in my novel. I’ve attached the first three chapters for your review, and I’m always open to feedback/suggestions.
Yeah, this sounded promising, but I’ve had lots of these e-mails now regarding Manifesto. Here’s where it always goes:
Thank you so much for the opportunity to read your chaptes. I admit I didn’t know what to expect when I started MANIFESTO though I certainly found your writing quite engaging. You were pithy, relevant and intriguing. But overall, I know I’m not the right agent for this book. It’s just beyond my area of expertise and I don’t have the connections to take this further. I’m sorry we weren’t a match and I wish you all the best.
BITING OFF MORE THAN SHE CAN CHEW
(Dear BITING OFF MORE THAN SHE CAN CHEW—isn’t having those connections your job? Seriously, like the only part of the publication process that is actually your job? Why should I give you 15%? Imagine if I, as a teacher, said to a parent: “I’m sorry, but I’m just not good enough at my job to teach your ingenious offspring! Best of luck!”)
In another instance, after nine months (the official response time is four months), I sent a message to a Canadian publisher that had allegedly forwarded The Wolf of Descarta on for review. I received this in response:
Our records show that on June 13, 2011 we sent you an email regarding your story, “The Wolf of Descarta”. Unfortunately this manuscript is not quite what we are looking for at this time.
Thank you for your interest in REDACTED as a publishing house and we wish you much success in the publication of your work.
COVERING HER ASS
The e-mail to which she referred said precisely this:
>I am writing to clarify my message below. We have written to let you know that your initial sample chapters are being forwarded on for review, we are not requesting subsequent chapters at this time. Please do not send any more chapters until asked for. >
> I will keep you posted as soon as I have an update for you. >
(Dear COVERING HER ASS—did my MSS get trampled by rabid reindeer en route to your review team and you’re too embarrassed to admit it? Weren’t the sleigh bells a dead giveaway? Where were the Mounties?)
From a major publisher that I respect after sending a partial and then being invited to send a full MSS:
Thank you for giving us the opportunity to read your submission. We are sorry to say that it is not right for us at this time. Your manuscript shows promise, however, and we wish you the best of luck. You have a very interesting concept and have set up a compelling world that is simultaneously familiar and foreign. The character Renton Hayes was particularly interesting – perhaps a little more interesting, in fact, than your protagonist. Should you continue to work on this manuscript, one suggestion we have would be to rework your female characters, specifically Brea and Petra, as they currently read as a little one-dimensional. Also, since the VGS plays such an important role in your story, it would be a good idea to spend more time there, particularly in Bladescape, earlier on in the narrative, and to really make that environment rich and alluring so that the reader can truly understand its appeal to your characters. Right now Bladescape seems very similar to World of Warcraft, and while that is not inherently a bad thing, it might be valuable to think of some key ways in which it is different and unique, and to really try to play those elements up.
Thank you again for thinking of REDACTED.
WE WON’T TAKE IT UNTIL IT’S PERFECT
(Dear WE WON’T TAKE IT UNTIL IT’S PERFECT—I made your changes in about three weeks’ time, and while licking my wounds, I learned that I can enter some professional contests because the novel I published as a teenager [Repressed Memories] doesn’t necessarily count. So I did that, and now The Wolf of Descarta is finally going to see the light of day. My new publisher and I truly appreciate your feedback.
(Maybe the next time I send something your way, I won’t be “too cute to go out with”.)