Friday, December 4, 2009

The Subtle Art of Form Rejections

I've been struggling to get work published for a year now. Patience is not my strongest attribute, but this process has me improving radically. I feel blessed to have gotten two short stories published this year. I often ask myself, if I'd not gotten a single acceptance this year, would I have had the heart to continue trying? It is the acceptances and the rejections with personal comments that keep me going. I get those on my short stories, but not so much from my agent queries.
For my novella I have gotten fifteen some odd form rejections from literary agents. I'm not sure whether to count the one-liners ("Not for me, thanks") as form or as personal, but either way they are not helpful to me. My question is, how does an author figure out if rejections are due to: agent not interested in novellas (word count), weak query, manuscript has a weak opening, weak writing, silly premise, etc, or that the project is altogether unsellable?
"Not for me, thanks."
This rejection is usually an indication that the query was typed on the wrong kind of paper or using the wrong typeface. Possibly you put a staple in one of the forbidden zones, or, if it was an email, the agent could tell you would have put a staple in it if you could have. Resubmit without using any kind of paper, typefaces, or staples (hypothetical or otherwise). And don't use those stupid shaped paperclips; I hate them.

"Not for me, thanks"

Notice the absence of a period. This rejection, slightly abbreviated, means your word count was between 1 to 2,000 words too short. If the final 's' had been left off, it would mean your work was up to 100,000 words too short. This word shortfall should be made up mostly in adjectives and adverbs, and in changing all active verbs to passive voice. Then resubmit.

"Not for, me thanks."
Misplaced comma: This means punctuation and/or grammatical problems. The agent wants you to see a freelance editor and then resubmit. If the comma is placed between 'not' and 'for', it means the agent wants you to resubmit on perfumed paper.

"Thanks, not for me."
The transposition of clauses is a sure sign that the agent thinks you're approaching your story from the wrong POV or even the wrong sequence of events. Try rewriting your story backwards, from the point of view of the main character's toaster. Then resubmit.

"not for me thanks."
Lack of capitalization is a subtle and often-missed hint that your concept/premise is lacking in marketability, or alternatively that you have no platform. The agent wants you to revise your manuscript to include more dinosaurs, sparkles, or crime, or alternatively to commit a high-profile crime involving sparkly dinosaurs.

"Not for me, thnaks."
Word is misspelled: This rejection was typed with the agent's nose as she beat her head against her keyboard.


I know how desperately authors want to know what it is they need to fix. But no matter how you parse it, a form rejection will not tell you: the answer is not there.
Agents are under no obligation (professional, social, or otherwise) to tell you why they're saying no, and if they don't tell you, you can't use rejection ouija to figure it out.

Take a deep breath. Keep writing, reading, attending conferences, and visiting critique groups. Keep trying. And when you get a form rejection, remember that this is a sign that you should lift your shoulders and then drop them again in what is known as a 'shrug'. Then move on.

51 comments:

Anonymous said...

Rejection ouiji! I knew I should have been using a Ouiji board this whole time!

LOL. Funny post. Thanks!

Adam Heine said...

Nice. It took me 20-30 rejections to realize that form rejections -- even supposedly nice ones ("While the work has merit...") -- don't mean anything. Not in the sense of, "How do I make it better?"

Useful feedback is always explicit. If you want to know why you're getting form rejections, find a critique group, get your work critiqued online, or pray for a for-real personalized rejection. If the most specific thing in the rejection is your title, it's a form letter.

Livia said...

HAHAHAHAHAHA

Wendy Sparrow said...

I knew I needed more sparkly dinosaurs. I just knew it. If only I'd been reading the subtle hints.

:) Loved this post.

sylvia said...

I think I love you.

Anonymous said...

I'm just wondering if a novella should be submitted to agents at all. I mean, do novellas get published in book forms? If not, I wouldn't think agents would deal with them.

Merry Monteleone said...

That's what I need - a rejection ouiji!!!! Awesome post, EA.

Tahereh said...

s;krghjs;iofghdfjkg;reiugegnd;fbn'dg

that was me banging my head against the keyboard because i couldn't laugh as hard sitting straight up.

that was evil. and so so necessary.

thanks.

Anonymous said...

Hilarious. And, oh, how I've been there, dear questioner (I feel your pain), but EA is so right. You have to be able to shrug and move on. The same pages that get you a form rejection can get you a request for a full. But, I read somewhere that if you get nothing but rejections (form or not), then it's time to shrug and really really move on (like put that book away and start a new one or do as Adam Heine suggested: get in a critique group and find out why).

SJDuvall said...

You amuse me to no end. :)

Journaling Woman said...

Oh.

Anonymous said...

It's true that we can't read the agents' minds, and we haven't read your writing, but the following statements are generally true:

2 publications your first year out is very good.

Novellas are a small, tough market.

Michael Reynolds said...

This is a funny and ultimately rather sweet post. You should think about switching sides and joining the writers' team.

Tina Lynn said...

*wipes Dr. Pepper off monitor*

Thanks, I've been needing a reason to buy a new PC. Thanks for the laugh.

Cam Snow said...

That was hilarious!

All joking aside though, I think that if you get several (50+?) rejections without a request for a partial I would go back and really scrub the heck out of your query, sit on it for 6-12 months and try again.
Another option would be to fatten up that novella into a novel and then resubmit and see if you get any biters.

Best of luck!

Kate said...

I wonder if authors could be saved some pain if form rejection read like this:

Dear Author,

I am a form rejection letter. The agent you've submitted to you is declining to represent your work at this time. She didn't tell me why. She sends me approximately 500 times per week and never tells me why. Better luck next time.

Sincerely,
Form Rejection Letter

Chris Eldin said...

ahahahahahah!!
:-)

Thanks for the morning laugh!!

The Rejectionist said...

!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

ae said...

I am forever guilty of the "thnaks" in my workplace. Never was good at typing and my kdis tele me thsi all the tmie.

But that is not what causes form rejections...

karencollum said...

Oh, this is a goodie :) I needed a good laugh. Thanks! (Or should that be, 'Thanks, I needed a good laugh'?)

Mark Herr said...

And here I thought the no caps and no punctuation meant I was not in touch enough with the youth market. I've been reading the signs all wrong!!!

But seriously, it took me 15 years of trying to get my first short story published. Some might have thought I would have gotten the hint to give up, but I have never been good at understanding signals. Just ask my wife.

quillfeather said...

Great post! Thoroughly entertaining and informative.

Enjoyed my visit very much :)

Janet Reid said...

The only thing I adore more than your blog is your slush monster.

thomreese said...

Hmmmm, yes, but what if it says, "Closed to submissions" Note, there was no period. Does that mean, maybe they're not completely closed, that I should send another 300 thousand word manuscript next day air and make them sign for it. Maybe, maybe...

thomreese said...

Hmmmm, yes, but what if it says, "Closed to submissions" Note, there was no period. Does that mean, maybe they're not completely closed, that I should send another 300 thousand word manuscript next day air and make them sign for it. Maybe, maybe...

magolla said...

*snork*

Bethany Grace said...

I need to admit that for the first couple of those, I was thinking, "really? I had no idea...", then I picked up on the insanely heavy sarcasm. yep.

Helen J Beal said...

Brilliant.

Josin L. McQuein said...

This rejection was typed with the agent's nose as she beat her head against her keyboard.

Like many agent blog posts, I imagine.

I think you're onto something with the rejection Ouija boards. If they're anything like the regular ones, they don't have a "no" option, so maybe that's what tripping people up. :-P

Marsha Sigman said...

This was hysterically good.

I think I need more perfumed paper. Can you ever have too much of that?

fionaskye said...

Brilliant post. Thanks so much for helping us to weed through the bajillions of rejections. It's all so clear now!

Jessica H said...

This post was great! I think we've all felt like this at some point in our writing careers. Though I think the query process is a challenge all writers should experience. It pushes you and forces you to be persistent. Those that don't give up, prove they are serious about their careers :)

Beth Terrell said...

Kate, I love the idea of getting a rejection letter FROM the rejection letter.

ae said...

EA, you are hysterical!

Kate said...

Thanks, Beth, but it occurred to me on re-reading that the original version is a bit ambiguous in the 'resubmit' department. Amended version as follows.

Dear Author,

I am a form rejection letter. The agent you've submitted to you has declined to represent that project. She didn't tell me why. She sends me approximately 500 times per week and never tells me why. Better luck elsewhere.

Sincerely,
Form Rejection Letter

Joe Iriarte said...

Glitter, Marsha. That's how you let them know how creative you are!

Miranda said...

Cool post. I've been working hard at perfecting shrugging.

Terri said...

Perfect timing, I got a rejection today. It said the editor had decided not to publish my little tale. Now, reading between the lines, I can only assume that since she decided not publish, that she was considering publishing and if I just bombard her with emails I can find out exactly why she decided not to publish and then I can fix it and resubmit it and then maybe she'll decide the other way . . .

OR

For whatever reason, she didn't like it . . .

NAH . . . . .

Lilliam Rivera said...

Very funny! I like the "shrug."

Anonymous said...

I would like to encourage the writer of that letter to yes, follow your instinct and give up after one year of trying.

Get out of my slush pile!

Anonymous said...

P.S. For the person who wondered if novellas are publishable. Yes, if they're good enough:

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/07/books/review/Doerr-t.html

We need not to get so hung up on the package. We need to get hung up on what's inside the package. These days on writer forums all over the internet, talk is all about querying, marketing and/or the "death" of publishing. There's so little talk about writing itself.

Anonymous said...

Just remember editors are interchangeable cogs in the machine that is publishing. They move from house to house always looking over their shoulders waiting for the axe to land on them. Authors are the creators and storytellers who hold the true power and allow editors to even have a job. Keep plugging away and keep your own council. Re-submit often, an editor who is here today will most likely be gone tomorrow! (PS-the editorial smugness on this site couched in humor should get a rejection letter.)

lexcade said...

that really brightened up my day. thanks :)

you're quite witty. love it!

Kelly said...

Loved reading this. Ah, yes, know that 'rejected' feeling well.

Keep on keeping on

Kelly
www.beafunmum.com

Casey Seda said...

Fantastic post. I should start using some of these forms.

Gail said...

Rejection ouija....that is a phrase I will cherish for a long time!!!

Oh to be that clever....

Plain Jane said...

My next book will be titled: I'm Ready For More Rejection!

Up til now, I've been pretty good at psyching myself out to read my inbox. When I see the most-likely-form-rejection waiting for me, I preface the opening with a more vulgar version of the feared contents, "Unfortunately, we wouldn't touch your stupid @#$% manuscript with a thirty foot pole layered with roasted marshmallows and peanuts, but as opinions vary considerably in this business, we wish you the very best of luck with your project elsewhere."
Isn't that a sweet rejection?

Thanks for the Thursday morning chuckle. I finally have a reason to stop wiping my tears on my sleeve and to throw away all of the hair I've recently lost due to distraught hairpulling.

lora96 said...

HA!

more dinosaurs, sparkles, crime! I love it and the absurdity almost made me forget the agony of my 6 months of querying, and my stack of treasured form rejections.

thanks!

Ilyria Moon said...

I found this after googling 'form rejections' (I received my fourth of 2010 a few hours ago). Thanks for making me laugh out loud!

Melissa Banigan said...

I recently received a rejection letter from a literary magazine telling me that my work was "lively and interesting." I thought this was great (even though I wondered why my story wasn't right for their publication and why feedback hadn't been provided) until I saw an almost identical rejection letter (from the same journal) on another blog.

Sigh.

A day or two later, I realized that feedback HAD been provided- I just hadn't noticed...

The letter closed by asking me to please consider sending more of my work. Sure, the content of the letter I received was clearly not unique, but my treatment of it sets me apart.

They asked for more, they'll get more, simple as that.

Thanks for the post- what a riot!

Monique said...

I am the founding editor of Perspectives Magazine (http://1perspectives.webs.com). I've had the unpleasant task of rejecting submissions for various reasons, but I always add excerpts of their story or poem to acknowledge I have read their story or poem. And if I really like what they've written, I offer revision suggestions to give the writer a chance to resubmit.