It’s Just Business: Why Rejection of Your Art Feels So Personal

You cancelled social plans, sacrificed other potential income streams, and lost sleep to finish your short story, manuscript, or screenplay…only to be told that you’re “not a good fit.” And you’re not supposed to take this rejection personally?

The upside to writing, be it a story, script, or poem, is that you get to create in a vacuum. While the actual work is squeezed into the hours outside your day job(s), school, and other responsibilities, that time and space to create is wholly yours, and so is anything that emerges from that space.

The downside to writing, be it a story, script, or poem, is that you get to create in a vacuum. Because when you’re finally ready to submit this work to other people, then any kind of rejection can feel very personal. You spent all this time blocking out the nagging voice that you’re not good enough, only for that voice to come out of someone else’s mouth.

The problem with writing in a vacuum is that it’s difficult to notice that businesses—like the publisher who buys books, or the studio that buys scripts—are also creating within their own vacuum, one where impersonal commercial concerns often dictate decisions. Where those two vacuum bubbles intersect is where creativity meets commerce, and it’s how your work will ultimately find its audience. So why does that intersection feel so personal even though it’s “just business”?

Melissa Ann Singer, Senior Editor at Tor/Forge Books, has been posting “rejection roundups” since at least 2014 in order to give a clearer picture of the intersection between creativity and commerce that occurs at a book publishing company. The above tweets are a preface from a roundup she posted on February 3. The roundup itself includes plenty of objective reasons for the rejection of a manuscript, as well as reasons that, although motivated by business concerns, still feel a lot more personal.

Structural Reasons to Reject a Manuscript

These are the kinds of issues with story construction that tend to hold stories back—not personal criticisms, but universal standards.

Too Slow

“Very slow.” Singer doesn’t need to expand on her tweet, because it’s self-explanatory. Anyone picking up a book gives that author just a few moments to engage the reader—not unlike online media, from snappy tweets to articles that readers will click out of if their interest isn’t captured immediately. The average reader has a shorter attention span thanks to wading through emails and experiencing social media in bite-sized updates. Similarly, an editor doesn’t have the luxury of time to get past your slow beginning into the action you’ve embedded in Chapter 3. As Singer points out in a blog post about making editors and agents “happy” with the work you submit:

Ease and speed are important when you remember that most editors, and likely many agents, are reading your manuscript under less-than-optimal conditions. At the beginning or the end of the day, during our commute, on a tablet/reader/mini-computer, squeezed in around taking care of our children, interacting with our partners, playing with our pets, and living our lives. In other words, we’re reading your book under the same circumstances as most readers.

Kick things off before you give your reader a chance to get bored and put it down.

Story Begins in Wrong Place

“First several chapters unnecessary,” Singer writes. “Gave up before real plot began.” This sounds like an example of exploratory writing, i.e. the kind of writing-in-place that happens when a writer is trying to figure out where the plot goes next. Lots of folks tend to leave this kind of writing—which is often substantial—in their submitted work, and it can delay the story without the author realizing that’s what’s happening.

A difficult lesson for writers to wrap their heads around (I still struggle with it) is the notion that much of what you write won’t actually wind up in the final product. That doesn’t mean it was a waste of time; in many cases, writing whole chapters’ worth of material solidifies your worldbuilding, plot, and characters. But you have to be willing to excise those chapters if they don’t grab a reader, and to take a different approach to making the stakes much clearer from the get-go.

Uneven Writing: Too Intense/Flat/Casual

I’d hazard a guess that this is one of the most pressing issues for novice writers who may be trying to communicate too much at once. In one case, Singer writes, the manuscript “begins so intensely that when the author pulls back, the story feels flat.” Even the most action-packed or chilling sequences will lose their punch when they’re contrasted with other scenes that help neither the plot nor the characters. You’ve got to give readers someone and something to care about! Other times, opening an action scene without any context means that the reader won’t actually care about the character in jeopardy.

Another manuscript suffering from a similar issue couldn’t quite nail the correct tone for certain situations: “Scenes that should have been tense were too casual, though characters were nicely done,” Singer notes. “Maybe a touch too funny for the plot.” The good news is, the best solution for these narrative missteps is a (mostly) fun one: Read more! Both within your desired genre(s) and outside of them. The more you read, the better context you’ll build for yourself as you absorb more examples of even, compelling prose.

Tired Tropes

In our current age of self-aware fiction looking to subvert tired stereotypes, archetypes, and tropes, here’s a common bungling: “Uses a common trope without enough new [or] different about it.” It’s not enough to say I’m going to throw these archetypes into this typical plot setting. Take Naomi Novik’s much-adored Uprooted: It’s built on the trope of sacrificing a maiden to a dragon, except that (a) the Dragon is a title used for a powerful magician and (b) instead of taking the brave, beautiful girl away from her village, he is compelled to pick her homely, pragmatic, hopelessly clumsy best friend Agniezska. On top of that, the actual villain is the Woods, possessed with a dark magic that multiplies as fast as its sinister undergrowth. And Novik drew from Polish fairy tales to inspire the plot and details of the novel’s world, going well beyond a typical “dragon snatches girl” story.

So that’s a free writing intensive in a handful of tweets—logical, inarguable issues to identify and fix in your on writing. Nothing to take personally. Except that there’s a wrinkle, and it’s called social media.

Before the Internet, you submitted your manuscript to the appropriate people and began the agonizing wait for a response, knowing very little about the people to whom your work had been delivered, and vice versa. While the submission process is still much the same today, the difference is that many of those faceless figures have become vivid avatars. Social media platforms—Twitter in particular—offer access to writers, like a giant networking party that you can join by following the right hashtags. At the same time, it blurs the lines between writers, agents, and editors, as their interactions become a blend of personal and professional.

Writers can do exhaustive research on particular editors and agents simply by scrolling through their Twitter feeds. By looking at which hashtag conversations they join or the publishing memes they retweet, applicants may feel that they “know” this person better. In some cases, that means having a clearer idea of how this person will respond to their work. Many agents lean into this, using their Twitter profiles as platforms to advertise calls for new clients and give writers a clear place to pitch themselves. Twitter hashtags such as #MSWL (Manuscript Wish List, also with its own website), #pitmad (Pitch Madness), and #DVpit (a pitch event for marginalized voices and diverse books) provide structure both for authors to pitch their books in 140 characters, and for agents to lay out the genres and topics they’re interested (and not interested) in. Rather than a cut-and-dried rundown of which agents take which genres, you get more personal introductions, like these two recent takes on romance:

Veronica Park (Corvisiero Agency): Veronica is feeling nostalgic with the upcoming holiday, so her #MSWL for this month will include romance where the heroine saves herself (bonus if she saves the hero while she’s at it) in any category or genre. The real trick for her is if you can take the romantic relationship out of the story and it still makes sense she doesn’t consider it a romance. (Just a story with romantic elements.) Also, she’d like to see narrative nonfiction centering on current events and/or women’s issues. Girl power, activate!

Eric Smith (PS Literary): With [New Adult], send me your awkward romances and your bold new ideas. It’s a growing genre, I’d love to find something that surprises me and makes me swoon. Steamy kissing scenes are awesome… but I’d love to see some NA jump into new genres. Are those kissing scenes in… oh, I don’t know, SPACE? Would it make Kirk and Uhura blush? Awesome. Send it to me.

These filters also ensure that the material being submitted is a more appropriate match to its recipient than a blind submission would be. But that’s just one hurdle.

Personal Reasons to Reject a Manuscript

There’s no getting around it: Some of the reasons your manuscript gets rejected will be subjective. Editors and agents have certain tastes, which dictate their decisions. Alternately, some reasons may lean more toward objective but still offend you as the writer because of your own personal investment in your characters. Singer outlines a few examples in her tweets:

Unpleasant Main Character

“MCs don’t need to be nice or likeable,” Singer writes, “but they must be sympathetic, someone I’m willing to read thousands of words about.” Sherlock Holmes regularly provides withering commentary on people he believes lack the capacity to keep up with his elementary deductions, yet we eagerly follow every one of his cases. Part of Katniss Everdeen’s appeal is in her utter failure to make nice and play along with the Capitol’s preening and mindgames in order to elevate her standing in the Hunger Games, but she nonetheless becomes a symbol of the resistance. Tor Books’ own Baru Cormorant is shrewd, alienating, obsessed with the big picture—but it’s these flaws that keep readers wanting to see her get toppled.

There must be something magnetic about these characters, some reason that we’re compelled to follow along with their journey. And that doesn’t always have to be the main character; Singer points out that a sympathetic secondary character with a major role in the novel will keep her reading. For instance, readers who were exasperated by The Magicians’ protagonist Quentin Coldwater’s oblivious disregard for other people might find a more sympathetic entry into the story through his Brakebills classmate Alice, or even his estranged friend (and unorthodox magic user) Julia.

But what happens when you didn’t expect to get the note that your main character is unlikeable? Or, worse yet, when you base him/her on yourself? To be fair, we all insert at least a bit of ourselves into our characters—it’s a way into the story as a writer, even if it’s just a small quirk or a certain worldview—but there are those writers who will basically transplant themselves into the narrative. To be told by an editor that “you” are unlikeable is a blow, both on a writing-skill level and on a personal level.

Not Believable

It’s not just about making your protagonist compelling; the supporting cast must, well, support. If your main character is superbly drawn but everyone surrounding them is two-dimensional, or may as well just be window dressing, you’ve got a problem. These characters need to have their own (albeit smaller) dramas and wants and needs that dictate how they interact with the main character. Singer cites cases in which these ancillary characters may have a great relationship with the main character but their conversations still lack authenticity. Sometimes it’s the micro things, like a particular scene or exchange, that really go the long way toward winning over a reader.

Again, if these are relationships you’ve based on real life, or even conversations you’ve lifted verbatim, it may be difficult to take criticism that it’s not believable enough. It’s real, isn’t it? you may be tempted to argue. The thing is, just because something actually happened doesn’t mean it would be dramatically interesting in another context.

Mismatch

“Competently written, amusing, decent plot and characterization… but I just didn’t catch fire when reading it,” Singer says. “Very regretful pass, that one. Deserves to be published, though not by me.”

This is likely the most trying situation in which to respond professionally. Here you’ve been cultivating your online persona, joining editors and agents in silly literary hashtags like #FailedChildrensBookTitles, retweeting the same Kickstarter campaigns—all things that breed a false familiarity. You know (or think you know) an editor’s personality via his/her tweets; better yet, you’ve read his/her #MSWL. You think you’ve found the right person to champion your work… then s/he passes on it.

It’s one thing to have your work turned down by a faceless editor; it’s a greater disappointment after you felt that you submitted your work to the exact perfect person who really should get what you’re going for. This false familiarity and access to editors and agents may also erode some of the professional barriers between both parties, tempting writers to directly ask an editor why they rejected their work, write a scathing subtweet, or (most dramatically) attack said editor, forgetting that they’re doing so in a public forum. However, those cases are hopefully exceptions, because confronting a publishing professional over social media is about the most unprofessional thing you can do.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t talk about rejection, though. Just as social media can put you in digital conversation with the publishing professionals you’d like to impress, it also connects you to your fellow aspiring writers. Twitter becomes a space to commiserate over rejections and fears of work never being recognized. With over 16,000 followers, @LitRejections posts daily inspirational tweets and reminders of famous authors who met plenty of rejection on the way to recognition:

Social media leads to transparency, which gives writers solidarity and which leads to editors like Singer sharing some #realtalk about where art meets business—the best resource for aspiring authors. You should go into the submission process knowing that a fair amount of it will be subjective, that your work may be rejected due to an editor’s personal tastes. But in the end, you want that subjective reaction, because agents and editors are the people who are going to champion your art through the business of publishing the book. Just as there is subjective rejection, there’s subjective acceptance—the editor who sparks to your characters, your plot, your manuscript because of their personal experiences—and you want someone who understands your story to be the champion it needs.

Natalie Zutter found researching and writing this article very therapeutic as she stumbles through what all the playwrights call Rejection Season. You can read more of her work on Twitter and elsewhere.

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