**NB: This blog post originally appeared on the OCA website, March 2016, inspired by the news that J.K.Rowling had published two rejection letters. **
For an aspiring writer with a few rejections under their belt, the name J.K. Rowling is either an inspiration or a curse. The fact that the impossibly successful Harry Potter books were initially turned down by almost every UK publisher is something that can keep the weary author’s chin up. On the other hand, it’s what well-meaning friends always trot out when they’re trying to raise the spirits after another ‘no’ from an agent or publisher. Before my own children’s novel found a publishing home, I remember thinking that if anyone else mentioned Rowling’s name to me, I might just scream.
decided to make some of her more recent rejection letters, sent to her
pseudonym Robert Galbraith, public on twitter – the names of the foolish decision makers redacted. One of them simply said their
list was full, which I don’t think counts as a rejection letter, to be honest.
But the other said that The Cuckoo’s
Calling was unlikely to be a commercial success. (That verdict was actually
correct – right up until the point when someone leaked the author’s real
identity and the reading world went silly again).
The point of the exercise, claimed Rowling, was to give aspiring writers hope. ‘Even she’ can still be turned down. I’m going to put aside all my issues about whether Rowling can write well and stick to the point here: rejections. All writers get them.
We know this when we set out in the hope of being published, because everything we read warns us to develop a Teflon skin. What no one prepares us for is that rejection will come in many forms, some baffling, others maddening.
There’s the standard rejection slip/e-mail. This often comes quite quickly and it consists of a couple of sentences saying the book is not for that particular publisher/agent, but wishing you well with it. I’m afraid it means exactly what you suspect: they haven’t read the whole of the manuscript. They’ve got so far and realised that the novel or the writing style is not good enough or it’s simply not what that agent/publisher wants. End of, I’m afraid. Walk away and don’t look back.
If a reader in an agency or publishing house gets to the end of the manuscript, they usually do say a little more than the above, along with the dreaded ‘No’. It may be a line or two of feedback, such as that the subject matter has been done before or that the ending didn’t quite live up to the promise of the beginning. This feedback, whether you agree with it or not, is often valuable. Make a note of it.
Some rejections are full of praise. I have had these and they’re infuriating. They laud the humour and the quality of the writing and aspects of the plot. Then they say no, because of a small-ish point that you would have been quite happy to change, if asked. Several fellow authors agree with me that ‘the nice ones are the worst’ – probably because it feels like you were just a squeak away from a ‘yes’. It’s the same psychology that says it’s harder to cope if you come second in a contest than if you didn’t even make the finals.
I’m going to share a line that I’ve had twice before, though and I found it one of the most unhelpful kinds of feedback ever. It’s that the writing was great, but that the agent/editor ‘just didn’t quite care enough’ about the main character. This is useless to an author, because it’s an entirely personal thing on the part of the reader. All it means is, ‘This isn’t for me – meh! Dunno why.’ It doesn’t offer any crumb of information to help with improvement, so it leaves an author grinding their teeth with frustration. What to do with this one? Place it at the bottom of a litter tray and let Kitty give it what it deserves.
And what to do when the pile of rejection letters is almost as thick as your manuscript? I have some ideas. Look out for Part Two.