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The Writer Rejection Scam

Stephen King signature.

Image via Wikipedia

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, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Penguin UK Accepts Unagented Manuscripts

Heard it on Behind the Grammar (a blog and podcast with which I have fallen instantly in love) and confirmed via Google: Penguin usually requires you to have representation to submit. Until October, they’re opening up to unagented manuscripts!

If you’ve got a manuscript in a drawer, you have less than a month to blow the dust off it and get it over there.

3…2…1.. Go!

Filed under: publishing, web reviews, writing tips, , , ,

Issues in Titling & Marketing a Manuscript

Romeo + Juliet (soundtrack)

Image via Wikipedia


I’m editing Romeo, Juliet & Jerome, my novel about a ADD-addled young man who dreams of becoming a movie star. He needs an acting credit and figures Romeo will be his ticket. When the dude who plays Mercutio overdoses and dies, the school shuts down the play and so, our hero’s dreams. He has to battle the school and stage the play himself, but now someone blames him for the drug death and wants to kill him with a hammer. Complications ensue. Also, Juliet’s a hottie so there’s young love. Will Romeo escape from New York to Hollywood‘s bright lights?  

It’s a hip coming of age story with dark humor, a gay subplot and lots of drugs and indie rock that tops out at about 80,000 words. It’s written. I’m just tinkering with the edit. 

Here’s the thing: Lots of books have incorporated Romeo and Juliet into their plots (and even more have used Shakespeare of all kinds. If you missed it, find Ten Things I Hate about You for a really funny modern take on Taming of the Shrew.) Today, while cruising Twitter I found that someone has written a book called Romeo and Juliet and Vampires. (There are similar videos, too. I had no idea.) Several books published in the last couple of years have joined classic tales and horror elements. I haven’t read them, but I think that horror subgenre has  taken off; the cover art is hilarious. Abraham Lincoln with a bloody axe. Queen Anne, also with an axe. Lots of zombie-axing action. 

The question is: will that book affect my book? 

The answer is: No, but for marketing purposes, it could change my title. I’m sure the premises are totally different so in terms of story, it’s a non-issue. However, when I pitch it to publishers, Shakespeare is familiar enough. I will not want them to think I’m trying to capitalize on someone else’s idea (who isn’t the long dead father of the English theater, anyway.) I’m not trying to catch up with a trend that will probably be dead by the time of actual publication. Story titles can sound familiar, but not too similar to something that has been published in the last couple years (unless it’s part of a series by the same author, of course. The Dexter book titles run together in my mind now, so even that may not be desirable.) 

I’ve said it before: Ideas are cheap. Your execution of an idea and mine will be very different. No matter how many people you stuff in a room, from a single idea, their plots will spin out in all directions. Don’t sweat that your idea sounds something like another idea. It’s all been done. There are no new stories, but there are infinite permutations and combinations. The trick is to make the familiar taste new and fresh again for jaded palates. 

Filed under: agents, My fiction, publishing, What about Chazz?, writing tips, , , , , ,

How Editing Works

Many publishing companies (as recently discussed) are suffering from a shortage of editing. The vast majority of Print on Demand (POD) books just look awful. It matters. If a book looks bad, you won’t be taken seriously.

I once met an enterprising author selling his books at the mall. He had the right idea in many ways, but as I scanned the page, things went off the rails. The layout was crammed. The print job was spotty. The cover was sub-par. He had become his own publisher, but the product looked shabby. He needed an advisor and an editor to bring the manuscript up past the status of “hobby.”

Manuscripts are full of mistakes. You’re human. It’s normal. When you send your manuscript to a professional editor, there are things we look for. Grammar and spelling? Sure. But it goes beyond spellcheck. What about pacing? Are you writing too little here? Are you overwriting there? Are you explaining too much? Does the sequence of events make sense to anyone but you? Do you have three characters who could be one? Sometimes dialogue needs to be punched up and bad habits of passive voice identified. Niggles emerge through the editing process that need solving.

So what does this mean to you, the writer? Perhaps, most important, know that your best writing is your rewriting. When you type “The End” on your first draft, go ahead and pop your champagne cork. Then get back to work and look for problems. Revise. Get it as clean as you can.

Consider sending it to a professional editor first. It’s hard enough getting your work published. Give your manuscript its best chance.

Next: nope! You’re not done. Your editor will give you a lot of suggestions. You may or may not take all the suggestions, but you will have to go through them. Now you rewrite, correct, juggle, stomp your feet and revise some more.

Done? Not yet. Now you share the manuscript with your chosen readers. I’d suggest three to five proofreaders to catch the last of the typos. You don’t want haters. You want someone who knows that this street doesn’t hook up with that street. You want someone who reads slowly and notices things, like your heroine started out three inches shorter or the villain’s eye color changed to blue and then back to brown. You want helpful, book-loving people.

Get their comments and corrections. Do your final polish as quickly as you can because you’re aging and this process takes a long time. You’ve got to ship it out there in the world.  Submit, get rejected and resubmit. Submit simultaneously, five manuscripts at a time at least.

Then, if you’re very lucky, an agent or editor will pick it up and be captivated by your story. If you’re very lucky indeed, they’ll make you an offer for publication* and you’ll get to go through the editing process again (though we hope it will be far less traumatic this time!)


Don’t get too excited about your advance. For a first novel, the advance is best described as “piddling.”

That cash should all go to the promotion of your book, anyway.

Filed under: Editors, writing tips, , ,

Bestseller with over 1,000 reviews!
Winner of the North Street Book Prize, Reader's Favorite, the
Literary Titan Award, the Hollywood Book Festival, and the
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Winner of Writer's Digest's 2014 Honorable Mention in Self-published Ebook Awards in Genre

The first 81 lessons to get your Buffy on

More lessons to help you survive Armageddon

"You will laugh your ass off!" ~ Maxwell Cynn, author of Cybergrrl

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An autistic boy versus our world in free fall

Suspense to melt your face and play with your brain.

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Jesus: Sexier and even more addicted to love.

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