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Rejection Reality
By Rebecca Forster
December, 2006, 14:50

Unlike this sign, rejection does not signal a dead end for your manuscript.
It is said that bad things come in threes Ė except when youíre talking about book rejection. They come in batches. One after another, the slim envelopes arrive bearing the same message: Your manuscript doesnít meet our editorial needs. Good luck placing it elsewhere.

Tough to take? Yep.
Make you want to quit writing? Yep.
Will you quit writing? Nope.
Why not? Because there is opportunity in a rejection.

Before we examine the lessons to be learned, letís consider the person with the power Ė the editor.

Every time an editor picks up a manuscript, she sincerely hopes that she will discover the next Da Vinci Code. The reason for this is two fold. Editors truly love their work and that means they live and breathe books. Second, editors want to be stars, too. The only thing more exciting than being discovered is being the discoverer. Itís just good business.

Rule #1: Editors are pulling for you.

Editors have limited time to make a decision regarding your manuscript. I have often heard writerís caution that their book "really doesnít get exciting until the third chapter." Iíve been guilty of that qualification myself. In fact, that is exactly what I said about Hostile Witness. My agent agreed. Instead of passing that information along to the editor, she came back at me. Her advice was simple: start the book at chapter three. With that dramatic change, I avoided rejection and, instead, landed a two-book contract.

Rule #2: An editor doesnít have the time to coach you. A rejection is her only option if you havenít done your work.

Editors work long hours. They are responsible for reading agented manuscripts and queries, editing books already under contract, coordinating with sales and marketing, putting out fires, and, if possible, dipping into their slush pile. Their skills encompass sensitivity to trends, market fluctuations, and bottom line restrictions that keep them from buying everything that has potential. They are often toiling within a corporate vision that precludes them from contracting for a manuscript that doesnít show profit potential or meet corporate criteria. Editors simply must balance their love of creativity with the fact that publishing is a business.

Rule #3: Be as business-like as an editor is. Understand the market. Write to a specific genre. Give her a clean manuscript and you will hedge your rejection bet.

Keeping the aforementioned in mind, letís study specific types of rejection and how you can use each to your advantage.

The Postcard Or Standard Letter: These rejections can mean a couple of things. One possibility is that the publisher is inundated with manuscripts and honestly cannot assess unsolicited work in a timely manner. The other is that your manuscript needs so much work the editor does not have the time to walk you through all the necessary changes. Remember, an editor is not a teacher. This is key.

When I receive this kind of rejection, I usually put the manuscript aside for a few months. Upon revisiting the work, I often find that I have been sloppy. The story was not well thought out or was heavy handed, characters were two-dimensional, or my execution or format was amateurish. No wonder an editor couldnít think of an encouraging word.

The Short Personalized Letter: Treasure this letter. This rejection comes from an editor who saw merit in your work and has taken the time to encourage you. It may be as simple as a line that states, "This author has an interesting style but I didnít find the characters believable."

Here's an opportunity to reassess the manuscript and focus on characterization. The author can feel confident that her style is compelling, but the characters need to engage the reader more fully. With a letter like this, an author may not have a complete roadmap to success but she does have a solid guidepost.

The Detailed Rejection: These are the most difficult rejections. I once received a rejection that read: "While I loved this book, I couldnít convince the editorial committee to give the green light."

The editor was telling me that I had a champion in her, but the rest of the jury wasnít convinced. Usually, an editor will be explicit about why the book just didnít make the cut. If they are, then you will have a complete map: which roads you went down that made sense and which are detours. Take this information seriously. Do not second-guess it. Apply it, rewriting the manuscript in question before you send it out again or start on a new project.

There are many valid reasons besides your writing that may have influenced this type of rejection, too. They could include: the publishing house just purchased something similar; the book does not meet overall publishing objectives; the book will appeal to too narrow an audience; or there is just something that doesnít feel right about it.

In my case, the book revolved around the murder of children. This had been a real life incident, but that didnít change the fact that the publishing house found it too over the top. I put that manuscript away for years, because I didnít want to let go of my vision of the story. I pulled it out recently and realized there were other ways to approach the book, better, more appropriate ways for a broader market.

I am currently revising the manuscript. While I write, I have the original rejection letter by my computer to remind me about the strengths Ė and the weaknesses Ė of the story.

So, when you get a rejection, go ahead and feel bad. When you've done that, take the rejection, analyze the information, and apply what youíve learned to your manuscript. The next thing you know, you might be getting a contract in the mail instead of a rejection.
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Rebecca Forster, a USA Today bestseller, began writing on a crazy dare. Upwards of 22 books later, she concentrates on legal thrillers. Currently on the stand are Privileged Witness (Signet, 2006), Silent Witness (Signet, 2005) and Hostile Witness (Signet, 2004). She is married to a Superior Court judge and has two sons.

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