Monday, May 4, 2015
Tuesday, April 28, 2015
REJECTION CAN BE FUN!*
Sensitivity training for publishers and literary agents
by Kevin Dawson
Perhaps you remember the “Peanuts” comic in which writer Snoopy’s sidekick Woodstock made him a quilt of his rejection slips (this was the 1970s, children, before email). Even older, of course, is the classic advice Write What You Know. Well, having my writing rejected is what I know. If I had saved all my rejection notices, printing out the ones received electronically (often for good and sufficient reason, since some of the things I’d submitted really weren’t very good), Woodstock could have made me something that would make the AIDS Quilt look like a tea towel.
The most striking of many common threads of the form rejection are the misguided, often clumsy attempts at soothing the sting of rejection. Most of these are about as conciliatory as an upraised middle finger.
The first error is sending the rejection too promptly. When the Submission Guidelines warn not to expect a response for weeks or even months (if at all), it’s a little disconcerting to receive the rejection notice the next day—as in the line from "My Sister Eileen," referring to the heroine’s rejected manuscripts: “Unless I take the subway, they beat me home.” As everybody who ever applied to college knows, the earlier the response, the worse the news. (Submission Guidelines have their own little snafus, but we’ll leave those for another day.) Waiting a respectable length of time before responding creates the illusion that the submission has indeed received due consideration, even if it got deleted, or filed in the paper shredder, almost immediately upon receipt.
You also may remember Holden Caulfield’s aversion to the phrase “Good luck!” (Maybe “Write what you know” should be followed by “but go easy on the pop culture references.”) He never explained exactly what the problem is, so I will: the unexpressed, possibly unintended “You’ll need it” hangs in the air like a bad smell. After all, you never say “Good luck!” to someone who just won the lottery, or took gold in the Olympics; it’s generally said to someone perceived as being in a dilemma requiring intervention beyond the person’s meager abilities to overcome. Though no such occurrence is recorded in Scripture, I strongly suspect that just before Judas Iscariot planted that big wet one on Jesus’ cheek, he whispered “Good luck!” in His ear.
There it is on most rejection forms, and even the “We received your query” forms which technically are not rejections (but come on, who’s kidding whom?): “We wish you the best of luck in your future endeavors.” The rejectee, feeling bruised, may interpret the message as “You poor sad, untalented loser,” even if such an unworthy thought is the farthest thing from the sender’s mind. The other problem with “Good luck!” is that it reinforces the frustrating fact that so much in life is a matter of chance. Upgrading the sentiment to “the best of luck,” sometimes expressed semi-illiterately—from people whose job it is to judge and evaluate good writing, mind you--as “the best of success,” may make the writer feel that plain good luck isn’t enough to raise him from the mire of his own inadequacy. As for success, I don’t know about you, but I’ll settle for generic.
Just as we all want to believe that good is always rewarded, evil always punished, talent always recognized, and hard work and perseverance always pay off, experience and observation teach us otherwise. To be sure, the best and brightest, people of such extraordinary skill that their prevalence is as inevitable as the dawn, are destined to triumph, and this is as it should be. Then there is the legion of mediocrities whose success baffles the unlucky rest of us who wonder what we’re doing wrong, and the answer may be Nothing. In the writing realm, you can offer an impeccable query, a flawless proposal, and get no further than if you’d sent in PLEESE PUBLISH MY BOOK, OK? in crayon on lined paper. (The How-to guides are no help. Editors weren’t born yesterday, and can spot a by-the-numbers job a mile off.) Oh, publishers and agents claim they’re seeking the absolute best (“We’re very picky about what we accept,” a haughty statement which more often than not will not be backed up by their book lists), but are at a loss to explain how so much ill-written crap actually makes it onto the bookshelves. Fickle fate seems the only answer.
Getting back to solace for the also-rans, a big part of it is not to provide too much. Falling over one’s self to offer consolation tends to make it about one’s self, not the person one’s ostensibly trying to console. “Please understand that we receive thousands of submissions, and that we can’t possibly…” begins the consolatory paragraph of the rejection notice, which seems to infer that the sender is the one ironically in need of sympathy. (The solution for submission overload, a quota system, is so obvious that it barely warrants parenthetical mention. Otherwise, it’s like the millionaire who gives 100,000,000 people a penny each and wonders why they’re not more grateful; after all, he gave away a million dollars!) Complaining of the hardships of being so much in demand is best left to popular high school students.
The best rejection form gets to the point. No flowery phrases which sound insincere anyway, no chin-chucking pep talk (do not add “Keep trying!” unless you actually want the writer to continue sending you submissions, two or three a week, until you finally cave in and accept one), no vague “does not suit our present needs” (which are?), no nonsense. Something along the lines of: “Thank you for your submission, but your material doesn’t grab us.”
What else is needed? No rude “I think we’ll pass,” no apologies for the self-evident necessity of it being a form. In any event, as noted earlier, though publishers and agents are loath to admit it, a submission’s acceptance can hinge on something as arbitrary as eeny-meeny-miney-moe; you just weren’t “moe” at the moment. Accordingly, another classic rejection goof is the phrase “at this time,” as in “Unfortunately [there’s that chance thing again], we are unable to accept your material at this time,” which naturally has the writer wondering at what future date they will be able to accept it. And however much the guides stress the importance of correct spelling, grammar, and punctuation; these seem moot considerations in this day of the quasi-hieroglyphic Tweet. The phrase “doesn’t grab us,” while on the casual side (and which went out with pukka beads; but hey, people still say “No worries,” which went out with Crocodile Dundee), at least acknowledges that the decision to pass is based as much on individual tastes as any possible deficiency on the writer’s part.
Publishers and agents might tend to dismiss this as sour-grapes rationalization. If submission success is indeed more than a roll of the dice (an appropriate metaphor, since both casino and publishing firm have the house advantage, although there are plenty of books out there—“We’re very picky”—purporting to instruct How to Win at Blackjack, etc.), the “more” is being judged solely on a first impression which can be misleading. Even more than the spelling-and-grammar business, the guides earnestly advise Make Your Query Pop! “Your query letter is your best foot forward. Make it distinct! Make it special!” The quality of the manuscript itself seems irrelevant.
This recalls a plot which used to be a staple of “women’s” magazines, and is not unknown to modern audiences: the one where young Anne (whose baked goods baron father made a mint with Li’l Annie Cupcakes--for which his adorable daughter was logo and spokesperson), never at a loss for suitors, has to choose between upright, downright, forthright, but slightly awkward and a bit dull David (who blew the Senior Prom when he emerged from the men’s room with his fly open) and the superficial charms of dashing Roderick (witty conversationalist, grace personified; and couldn’t lose a game, get a flat tire, or catch a cold if he tried). By the end, Anne invariably has come to her senses; wonders what she ever saw in shallow, smug Roderick (who, it turns out, was only after her cupcakes); and settles down happily with solid, dependable David. No such happy ending for most aspiring authors, though, as publishers continue to be seduced by the literary Rodericks.
Submitters commit their sins, too, of course. They don’t do their homework, sending their stuff to houses which don’t handle that type of material: e.g., submitting an erotic romance to the Top Publisher of Christian Children’s Books Since 1974. They don’t follow the guidelines, or pick up on subtleties: “We prefer…” really means “We only look at…” They send more, or less, than what is asked for. They pester and prod for a response. However, the listings in "Writer’s Market" and similar volumes contain so much contradictory information that the writer cannot be faulted too severely for being confused. Still, it’s important for the writer to make sure he’s navigating appropriate waters so that when the rejection form states his manuscript is “not a good fit,” he can respond “It’s not a pair of jeans, it’s a book, and in at least one of your stated areas of interest at that; so if it ‘doesn’t fit’, who got fat?”
About the only rule I’d be inclined to disobey is No Simultaneous Submissions. Are they actually going to call every other publisher and agent and ask “Have you gotten such-and-such from so-and-so lately?” Anyway, considering the exorbitant odds against the author—particularly the first-time or unknown author—making it past the query stage, it’s unfair to demand exclusivity right off the bat. Also impractical, like expecting someone to apply for one job at a time and to wait however long it takes to find out no-go before applying for another.
What’s needed from both parties is a little common sense, remembering that the recipient of the submission has the upper hand, and as such does not need to pretend to be sorrier than he or she is to reject it. All that happened is that dreams and ambitions have been crushed, the fruits of what might have taken years of creative effort and work swiftly and categorically dismissed; nobody died. It’s to unsuccessful authors’ credit that more of us don’t follow up form rejection notices with form suicide notes.
Kevin Dawson is nobody in particular.
*If you would like to submit an essay, blow off some steam, tell a rejection story, submit at writerrejected [at] aol [dot] com. Maybe Kevin Dawson is the guy who starts this LROD trend.
Monday, April 27, 2015
a recent post (about Francine Prose's comment to me about being nominated for a Lambda Literary Award) had this to say about the value of literary awards:
One of your first impressions about Prose's reaction to Lambda was probably the right one. Namely that she--like most artists--resents being labeled a certain variety of author, or her book being slipped into an ordained category. Award committees and the general public tend to want to categorize--and who wants that? No author does, not when you're attempting to capture life in all its dramatic fullness. "Billy Budd, Foretopman" voted best Homoerotic Historical by Lambda. Oi, Melville would say. But isn't it so much more than that?
I think many women probably do resent being rewarded for being "women writers," in exactly the same way female physicians resent being lauded as "lady doctors." I love Alice Munro and Anne Beattie equally as much as I love Cheever and Nabakov. And my personal love and appreciation for the last two would be neither diminished nor expanded by their having won the "Best Anglo White Male Award" -- but for many other readers, it might. I think decent authors resent the opportunity for such narrowing and misunderstanding of their work being made possible by award committees. Such categories are fundamentally arbitrary. It's a far profounder compliment to praise an average book as good literature, than to award that same book as superb female or gay fiction. And it's easy to see why. The first is based on its merits as art. The second is sanctioned condescension. I think Prose is objecting to the implications of the award given her, and I don't think she has much choice in that. It's the principle at stake--her book and how its understood--not the award itself.Thoughts? To view my responses check out the comments section here.
Tuesday, April 21, 2015
Second of all: I saw a lot of people I know and love, both by accident and on purpose
Third of all: I really like my publishers and their authors, and it was nice to belong somewhere
Fourth of all: I would never go to one of these conference if I didn't have a book already published (too much anxiety). So I was very grateful that after 15 years, it is having its day in the sun
Fifth of all: I hung out with an old friend whose husband left at the same time that my girlfriend dumped me many years ago (they were co-workers, but did not leave us for each other). This friend is now so super famous that we couldn't even take two steps or one sip of coffee without people clamoring to speak with her, and it made me so exhausted. I think it is a very hard life to be in the 1% of recognizable, celebrity writers, and I am glad to be just plain unknown me.
Sixth of all: I spoke on the panel "Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Rejection (But Were Afraid to Ask)," and it seemed to me to be better titled "Publishers and People with Literary Power (And Why We're Never Going to Publish You)." In fact, it made me very depressed to be on that panel. There were lots of false statements made, I thought. And lots of putting a good face on publishing while telling you how "busy I am and why I'll never choose you to be my author." Ugh. And yet everyone in the audience seemed to swallow it whole and want to know more lies. It went like this:
Audience Question: "What can I do or not to do get published by you?"Seventh of all: I asked Francine Prose to sign my copy of her new novel, which is nominated for a 2015 Lambda Literary Award in the category of lesbian fiction with my novel. I mentioned this and she looked down upon me coldly and huffed. "If I win that award it's because they didn't read my novel." Which means what? Her novel about a woman-loving Nazi spy and drag car racer who dresses like a man and had her tits removed isn't lesbian fiction? Or maybe she isn't a lesbian (which she is not, if being married to a man counts). Or maybe she meant her book is so, so, so, so much more than merely about a "lesbian," and shouldn't be reduced to labels. Or maybe she is Luke's father? I'm not really sure, but I got a big chill standing there with her, and walked away as quickly as I could. The ceremony announcing winners of the Lambda Award is on June 1st. I guess Prose won't be there, eh. (If you have a kinder or even a more intelligent interpretation, please share. I'm puzzled by the whole encounter.)
Panelist Answer: "Nothing. Forget it. Or blow my socks off...but I can't say how."
UPDATE: I finished reading Prose's novel, and I suppose she meant that no one in their right mind would want to claim her lesbian character as part of their community because she is so lost and mislead, and perhaps one might say "evil," were one to believe in such a thing. I guess the question is: should the LGBT community only claim good characters as their own? Are we beyond that yet? It *is* a book about a lesbian character, after all, and we do claim her as a sister human being, even if some would say she's a monster. So, I think I'm still confused by the comment. Thoughts?
Thursday, April 9, 2015
Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Rejection (But Were Afraid To Ask). We've come a long way, babies.
David Baker was on a panel with good-old-W,R this morning. He shared this very clever rejection depicting what kind of rejection it was. Looks like someone punched him in the face, right?
Wednesday, April 8, 2015
AWP Conference, I'm speaking on a panel called "Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Rejection (But Were Afraid to Ask), Thursday, tomorrow at 10:30 a.m. I think the feral mice on this blog probably took the fear right out of asking, say 7 or 8 years ago...but, it should still be fun. Remember when rejection was our dirty little secret, and we got death threats for airing our dirty laundry in public. Ahhhh, those were they days, my little (anona)mousecycles. Also, I'll be signing my novel Thursday (tomorrow) at 2 pm at the Engine Books Publisher's table, in case you don't want to be seen with me in public. I'll let you know how it goes. Or I'll see you there.