C h a z z W r i t e s . c o m

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The Writer Rejection Scam

Stephen King signature.

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Sometimes I hear writers take pride in the number of rejections in their file cabinets. The idea is that they compete with writer friends to pile up the rejection slips. The person with the most number of rejections by a certain date…er…”wins.” Riiiight. I don’t know how this myth got started but it’s a popular one.

It’s not that this is a totally useless strategy (and I’ll review the advantages in a moment) but first, let’s burst the rejection scam bubble:

If you are writing fast without second drafts or third or umpteenth drafts in order to pump up your submission rate, you’re losing. More rejection slips? That’s no measure of how close you are to publication. If that were true, the worst writers in the world submitting the most illiterate crap across the planet are all just on the cusp of bestsellerdom.

If you get a lot of rejection slips that don’t actually include personal notes on how the writing didn’t work for the reviewer, you’re losing.

It’s also very hard to get any personal notes on your work, by the way. Many agents and editors don’t believe in detailing the reasons for rejection. There are so many variables to evaluate writing that are idiosyncratic and peculiar to the editor, it doesn’t profit you to hear they rejected you for subjective reasons.

Neither does it profit them to take the time to give you a heads up that you were a near miss. Many editors have so many submissions on their desk that they really don’t want to encourage more people to resubmit. The mailbox will be full tomorrow regardless and your persistence is expected without free coaching and hand holding. (And just because you submitted a manuscript, no editor owes you free manuscript evaluations, feedback or reasons for rejection.)

If you’re clearing an alley of bad guys, use the twelve gauge with the .00 load. With manuscript submission, however, scatter shot is less effective than picking and aiming at your targets.

Submit everywhere without careful thought on how to target your market? Then you’re losing. It’s time you’re losing primarily, though the loss of confidence and self-esteem can’t be glossed over. It takes a lot of ego to put yourself out there, so choose carefully how you put yourself out there. Artists need all the narcissistic hope and unreasonable aspirations of a lottery player.

If you’re submitting everywhere in the slim hope that an agent or editor will take the time to take you under their wing, build you a nest and show you where you went wrong with your flightless novel, you’re losing. When dealing with mass submissions, editors and agents get impatient with bad writing, or even writing that isn’t bad but doesn’t suit them. I’ve seen it personally. Behind closed doors there’s even a lot of laughter at published writers’ work that’s bound for publication. (Oh, yeah, that’s right! I said it! I’ve seen it and endured it!)

If it’s feedback you’re after, alpha readers, beta readers, hired editors, writing and critique groups will get you more feedback than can be fit on a tiny rejection slip. Plus, you’ll be getting much more careful evaluation.

People going through a slush pile aren’t there to help the writer. They are there to evaluate whether your manuscript is a good bet for a business deal that suits their purposes and interests.

Much is made of Stephen King‘s pile of rejection slips. I think too much has been made of the rejection slips impaled on that spike in King’s attic. It’s not that some magic kicks in once you hit a special number of slips. It is, instead, what the rejection slips symbolize: sweat equity and time invested in improving craft. I’m not suggesting you submit fewer manuscripts per se. I’m saying, offer your work wisely.

A higher number of rejection slips is not an achievement to be celebrated any more than failing to complete every race you enter makes you a better runner. It might make you a noble aspirant. Or maybe you’re too bull-headed to train properly and learn. Either possibility has validity.

It was all the writing and reading King did while the slips piled up that mattered

It was the feedback he got from a newspaper editor that mattered

That editor sat down with King and went over a story about a high school basketball game. He showed King how to tighten his writing. A little mark up, some rearranging and red pen work et voilà!: The magic of editing improved the writer’s craft. (If you haven’t read Stephen King’s On Writing yet…well, just go do that and thank me later.) 

What are the advantages of piling up rejection slips? If you need to compete with a friend to get you to write, I don’t see anything wrong with that. Everybody needs some gentle  motivation (or a kick in the bum) sometimes. (Okay, maybe you don’t ever need a writing crutch, but that makes you an inhuman freak, Trollope!)

If you get personal feedback and encouragement from editors and agents, that’s a good sign you’re on the right track. If you just get a note or two though, that doesn’t constitute a trend you should necessarily heed. Editors and agents have their own agendas that may reflect very little on your writing and you’ll never know what’s in their minds.

Don’t rush to produce writing at the expense of quality. As Truman Capote said of Jack Kerouac‘s On the Road, “That’s not writing. That’s typing!”  (Granted, Capote could be a bitch and lots of people like On the Road.)

Still, getting a big pile of rejection slips is not the end game. Writing extensively (and well), reading broadly (and well) and getting righteous feedback will get you where you want to go.

Yes, I know: Rejection is part of the process. But neither should rejection be fetishized and assumed useful. Some lucky few writers are a hit right out of the gate. Are they still bad writers because they haven’t “paid their dues” and “jumped through hoops”?

That thick skin some say you’re supposed to develop through rejection would be used more effectively if you  got a manuscript evaluation or joined a critique group. (And thick skin is another thing that’s overrated and fetishized. Thick skin helps you take writing advice, yes. But when the reviews come in and someone writes something nasty in a comment about your book —your baby!—on Amazon, veteran author or newbie, you’ll be just as pissed.

Now, how do you target your submissions to likely editors and agents? 

Well, that’s a post for another day. Another day that will come soon.

Stay tuned. 

Filed under: Books, manuscript evaluation, publishing, Writers, writing tips, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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