Friday, August 3, 2007

This Manuscript Has Been Rejected Because

I have a question for you and your readers, do you think that the rejection process for unsolicited manuscripts could be standardised? I guess I am thinking about some sort of standard questionnaire form that is filled out and returned to the budding author. It may help to clear up some of the mystery with things like; am I being rejected because of the material or because I am a terrible writer - would they be interested in seeing the same story if I changed it a bit? and so on.If writers and publishers put their heads together then I'm sure they could come up with a sensible set of items that would satisfy both parties, it could be boiled down to just ticking a handful of boxes. Or am I missing something?

Well... it's never tough to let people know that you're open to a revision if they change the manuscript as suggested. And then there's the problem that there are a lot of different problems.

If there were to be a checklist... what would the choices be?
  • this is not a story; it's an anecdote.
  • this is not a story, it's a photo album of your stuffed animals. They seem to get out more than you do.
  • this subject material is inappropriate for the age group.
  • this subject material is inappropriate for children.
  • this subject material is inappropriate for farm animals.
  • a spoonful of sugar does not help nuclear winter go down.
  • your main character's reaction to the prostitute was interesting. I've passed your submission to another 'editor' at the FBI.
  • this is gobbledygook. I didn't understand a word.
  • god, how I wish I hadn't understood a word.
  • this has no hook.
  • this has no voice.
  • this has no grammar, and it's a blessing that punctuation has no feelings.
  • there are several books on this already, and you're not doing a better job.
  • there are no books on this, and they're all doing a better job.

Anyone else have suggestions?

21 comments:

literaticat said...

lol @ nuclear winter

* Though English may be your mother tongue, you don't write it fluently.

* PETA might protest your treatment of these poor farm animals.

* Dinosaurs are not mythological.

* You have taken all the words out of Yertle the Turtle with a razor blade and replaced them with what appears to be an excerpt from Mein Kampf. Sadly, there isn't really a market for this, and Mrs. Geisel is bound to object.

* This is less a book than a screed.

* I am afraid of you.

ae said...

Regarding Little Fois Gras:
I think little children might be scared of the image of a pipe down the neck of a goose. No,the word gaggle is not derived from the word gag.
You might consider sending this ms and your illustrations to a cookbook publisher. But before you do so,find out their stance on animal rights.

Froggy Lost His Legs has a nice ribbit to it. BUT HE HAS NO LEGS. This makes real pacing problems. And he did not find them by the end of the book. I wonder if little children would worry about Froggy's hopless fate. There is definitely a problem here but the plot cannot bounce along to a satisfying conclusion. By satisfying,I mean Froggy's legs shouldn't turn up in a biology lab or a French recipe book. Unfortunately,the rubber ones you glued to the last page made me drop the ms.

Jan said...

__ If you write in rhyme, you must have a regular meter -- if you're not sure what that is, stop writing in rhyme.
__ Your kid is not a good judge of your writing -- neither are any other relatives or any captive audience you've gathered lately to impress me.
__ Plot is more than stuff happening -- it's purposeful stuff happening.
__ Parents get to nag their kids, books don't.
__ Stop. Go read 200 picture books. Then read yours. See the difference?
__ Stop. Go read 100 middle grade novels. Then read yours. See the difference?
__ Stop. Go read a young adult novel published within the last year -- do you see why they're called young ADULTS?
__ Stop, just stop. Please.

Anonymous said...

* Your ESL may be competent otherwise, but it's too stilted/formal for commercial writing.

* A commercial nonfiction book and a Master's thesis are not the same thing.

* There are holes/inaccuracies in your research.

* Being a classroom teacher does NOT qualify you as a writer. Not, not, not! Especially when your entire ms. has NO paragraphs.

* You're literarily tone-deaf.

* I can see you've studied POV, plot, character and description, but you simply have no way with words.

* It's okay in all respects. Just okay.

* My job is to acquire professional writing for my employer, not polish your diamond-in-the-rough.

* Are you one of those would-be "writers" who says, "I've got great ideas but my weakness is grammar"? Go back to school. Learn grammar. It kind of has a lot to do with writing. Start over.

Anonymous said...

_ You shot yourself in the foot when you said you're the next Seuss, Rowling, RL Stine.

_ When you said you're a grandma writing for the grandkids.

_ When you said I'd have to read to the end to find out what happens.

_ When you sent your sister-in-law's artwork along.

_ When you said, "I know you've put a moratorium on talking squirrels, but I'm sure you'll agree my story is too cute to pass up."

Sean McManus said...

These are all funny ideas, but there probably is a case for responses that indicate whether there's a problem with the story, writing, or timing (or several of those). That way writers will know whether to try a different story, improve their writing or submit elsewhere. And publishers will maybe be spared from receiving stuff that other publishers have already rejected for poor writing or lack of plot.

Larry said...

I am the person who emailed EA with this question - so pleased it has been answered! I'm new to this game, I had a few good picture book ideas and thought they would be of interest to publishers but have quickly realised that they won't touch it with a barge pole until it looks like you've thought about how an idea will fit into a book. I'm now reworking my ideas.

Having had a few unhelpful rejection letters (e.g. "Your story is not right for our list") I just thought that an additional standardised rejection feedback form (rff) would be useful.

Imagine if there were only two items on the rff, let's say these were the publishers rating out of 5 for your writing ability and rating out of 5 for your idea. Writers could print out the rff and include it in their submission so that it is returned along with any response from the publisher.

Now imagine receiving a load of rejections (quite easy for me) and mainly getting the following scores for ability/idea:

1/1 then I'd get the message and start concentrating more on playing piano.
1/5 then I'd refine my fantastic idea and try again
5/1 then I'd try to tailor my next idea more to those publishers that thought I had ability.
5/5 would be odd but would definitely mean that I "was not right for their list".

I think that's pretty useful stuff and that's with only two items on the rff. How many people (possibly myself included) are out there filling up the slush pile, wasting their own time and publishers time and getting in the way of better authors because they have no idea where they are going wrong (or right)? All of us are good writers in our own mind but imagine getting useful feedback like this - I think it would help everybody.

Some of the suggestions so far have been quite helpful (worried that a few apply to me) but has aybody got any less specific suggestions :-)

LindaBudz said...

I'm guessing the "Just not right for me" box would still be the most frequently marked. Because as long as the writing is good and the book makes sense, who's to say whether another editor won't love it? So an editor might be doing a disservice to the author by suggesting changes.

And if the writing's bad or the book doesn't make sense, you're probably dealing with an "amateur" who won't take your criticism well anyway.

Deirdre Mundy said...

Nuclear winter? Nuclear Winter?!?!?!? That is Soooooo 1980s.... kids today worry about "global warming meltdown" or something like that! =)

(Though I must admit... I used to eat up those MG nuclear holocaust stories... especially "Children of the Dust".... of course, I also lived close to DC and developed a paralyzing fear of fallout, but what are you going to do? =) )

Larry said...

LindaBudz, but that's the point, I don't think there should just be a "Just not right for me" box. If the writing is good then what is the harm of a publisher letting a writer know by giving them a good score on an ability scale (for example)?

Oh and you wouldn't have to just take the advice of one editor. Having a standardised form would allow you to compare the responses from a number of different editors without having to decipher them first.

Anonymous said...

I know quite a few editors, and not a one of them has time to tell every submitter to the slush exactly--or even approximately--why they're being rejected. My advice: take a class, or join a critique group.

Larry, your idea and your writing ability are but two of many, many facets that make your book publishable. I have gotten the equivalent of 5/5 rejections, and they didn't mean "perfect but not right for my list"; they meant "good idea and good prose style, but the book isn't finished." My writing group helped me figure out how I could more effectively structure the story, develop the characters, etc.

Plus, a 1/1 might just mean you submitted way, way too early a draft. A class or critique group may or may not help you figure out whether you should concentrate on the piano.

--K

Larry said...

anon, I agree with what you are saying, taking a class or joining a critique group is a great way to improve and to find out just how good (or bad) you are.

I'm sure your point about editors not having time to explain why they are rejecting a book is accurate but one of my arguments is that better feedback may give them more time? One of the questions I asked EA was "do you think that soft rejection letters add to the size of the slush pile?"

You mention that 5/5 and 1/1 scores would not be clear cut but remember that the rff would have more than two items on it. Of course you cannot cover every aspect of a ms but I believe that you could produce something short enough to not be a burden on an editor and detailed enough to be of use to a writer.

Just thinking out loud now, even if there wasn't a standardised rff, how would an editor react to being sent one as part of a submission? :-)

Editorial Anonymous said...

Ok, all kidding aside, this isn't such a bad idea. There are people in every publishing company, however, who would feel such a response card would not project the professional quality the company likes to think of itself as having.

Also, publishing companies are very bad at cooperating at anything for which they do not see a direct benefit to themselves. You hypothesize that this system would help cut and better direct submissions, but if only a handful
of publishers adopted this system, are you sure they wouldn't suddenly be much more popular with submitters? The chance to get actual feedback, if only on a preprinted card, would be a powerful attractant to many people. And as you've clearly realized, we're not looking for *more* slush.

To the other editors reading this blog: can you picture such a step working at your house?

ae said...

Foie gras...my bad.

Boyd's Mills does this with their Authorgram. Still it is on a basic level.

For writing picture books I would say that a lot of what I see or have critiqued is a) not visual enough in writing or content b) too formal in voice or old in voice
c) too thick d) the end rhyme seems to be the focus at the expense of plot e)lack of plot f) use of language is flat and boring or not creative g) the author doesn't know where he/she is going and finally h) for some pbs that demand it, there is no problem/arc/conflict resolution

cynjay said...

It seems that what you are really looking for is a critique rather than a reason for rejection.

If you haven't already done so, get into a good critique group either in person or online that works in your genre. Another good option is to attend a conference where they are offering professional critiques. There is usually a small fee, but very worth it.

Standardizing rejection forms are a lot like the Bush Admin. sending a letter to everyone in the US outlining a standardized way of disciplining our kids. Wouldn't work in MY house either. Plus, it's so fun when one house sends you a form reject on the very same MS that is loved and purchased by the next house. Different strokes...

Anonymous said...

I just learned a stunning piece of writing trivia -- PD James has never received a rejection!

What writers tell me, is that critique groups are the first place they go to learn how to develop that first rough draft, and they having or hiring a reader, that you trust, that knows the genre you write in, that is how you revise your work to the final level. (All the while watching and learning so you become more independent.)

And, once the manuscript is right -- well, most likely some are going to reject it, some may not. If you've done due diligence to finish it and you are happy with it you can't change it with each rejection. The book I recently sold was rejected by some for weak writing, and strong writing but not for the list, until it found an editor who thought it was strong writing and right for her list.

That's the way writing goes. In my opinion, if you want to respond to each rejection with revision the manuscript hasn't reached it's final stage because it isn't even passing your gut check.

And lastly, there is this system already in place where personal rejections tell you that your ms or you have potential. The personalized rejection is full of helpful information -- the form rejection is telling you it didn't do much for the editor.

And, actually this is lastly, because we are talking about that mountain of slush, we have to remember that many editors may not read beyond the cover letter, or the first page, or the first paragraph...

Deirdre Mundy said...

Many magazines DO have form rejection checklists. And they're sedom helpful --- Most rejections are "not suited to our present needs"

Though the options do leave them nice ways of saying "do your research and learn to write."

Though I often wonder if the editor ever has an occasion to check the "Our magazine does not publish stories about decapitating puppies" option, and if they did, who submitted the offending manuscript......

But even with checklists, in my experience the "not suited to our present needs" box is usually checked, with an occasional "we've recently purchased a manuscript on a similiar topic."

However, in my experience magazines are also more likely to give personal feedback -- so if you're hoping for professional critiques on your writing and can't pay for ICL and workshops and the like, trying for the magazine market is not a bad way to go......

Anonymous said...

Even with a checklist, there's no guarantee that the item being checked is all that's wrong with the piece. Highlights, for example, frequently checks "insufficient bibliography" on their checklist. Does that mean NOTHING is wrong with the piece except you didn't consult enough sources? No. That's simply the most glaring or specific issue.

If they check "we don't publish violence in any form" or however they word it, does that mean decapitating puppies is your story's only sin? No. It's just the one that overwhelms the rest and allows them to say something specific.

Helpful? Yes. Complete? You can't assume so.

We really can't rely on editors to diagnose our faults for us. It's up to us, a writing teacher, a conference critiquer, or a critique group.

Anonymous said...

"this subject material is inappropriate for children."
This reminded me of a writing student who wrote a story in which a kid whose bike was stolen went home and got his dad's gun, in order to get the bike back. I couldn't argue that it was possible, but I could see editors running for the hills!

MollyMom103 said...

Picture books are generally less than 100000 words.

Sally Cotter and the Witches' Rock seems derivative. Another editor might disagree.

You seem to care very deeply about this, but your personal life story would not lend itself to a wide audience.

Murder and drunk driving are not typical picture book topics.

A bound copy of your picture book illustrated by your four-year-old is best submitted to Grandma.

Petrichor said...

As some others have said here, the kind of advice you're looking for, however minimal, is the kind of advice that would come from a critique group. An editor is not YOUR editor until he or she acquires your manuscript, and thus has no responsibility to respond in any detail about the quality of the manuscript. Your cover letter may be asking "what do you think of my manuscript?" but ultimately what you want to know is "will you publish my manuscript?"--and the rejection letter is answering that question.
Yes, it would be nice of us to tell every submitter what we think of their particular manuscript, even if it's just a checklist, but it would take too long. Time is a precious, precious editorial commodity. Take the thirty seconds it would consume to think about and answer the questions on a checklist, then multiply those thirty seconds by thousands of manucripts. That's why this suggestion is time-consuming.