Thursday, April 29, 2010

On Rejection

I'm good with rejection. Really, I am. The requests for partials and fulls are far better, but I'm cool with the fact that not everyone I send my queries to will respond favorably.

I admit when I see a response in my inbox, I get a rather unpleasant twinge in my gut. I hesitate for a moment, savoring the terror/anticipation of whether it will be a request or rejection, before I take that deep breath and click.

At the query stage, I like rejections that are obvious form letters. The more impersonal the better. Anything beyond "no" is open to far too much unwarranted speculation. Tell me up front you're sorry to be sending a form letter so I know that's exactly what it is. A form rejection at the query letter stage is as quick and easy to disposition for me as it was for the agent to send. After the obligatory deep sigh and shoulder slump, I can go about the business of filing the mail and recording it to my spreadsheet, acts that in themselves help bring closure.

The polite form letters where the sender includes something positive and seemingly personal about the work feel like a cheat: "interesting idea," "much to like about the writing," "nice description", etc. I crave validation that my work doesn't suck, but I much prefer a cold "I'm going to take a pass" to false praise, especially when I can't tell for sure whether the praise is actually being offered in response to my work or is there because the sender is a sensitive soul and wants to soften the blow. For me, these types of letters have the opposite effect; instead of being able to file them away immediately and move on, I now agonize over figuring out what note goes in the spreadsheet: "form rejection" or "personal response - yadda yadda". It's kind of like when you break up with someone in a public restaurant then have to go back to their place to get your things.

Personal rejections at the partial and full stages are pure gold, right? "Just give me a reason why you don't like me -- er, the work," we beg. "If I know what's wrong, I can work on changing it," especially when more than one rejector gives the same reasons. Personal observations give us a chance to examine our work more closely or to validate that the one rejecting it wasn't the right agent or editor for us anyway, since they so obviously didn't "get" our work because they, of course, are wrong and we are right.

Sometimes, though, personal rejections are the curse in "be careful what you ask for."

Recently I received a most lovely, wonderful, validating rejection for a full that left me feeling like my heart had been ripped out and run over by a semi. It was from a savvy, successful agency -- one I'm quite sure many of you know -- who has expressed interest in adding more SF to their list. The rejection was gracious and encouraging, nothing less than what I would expect from this fabulous agency. The full was read by two agents, and they agreed that my "writing is very strong and the story is compelling and unique" and believe I "will have good luck finding an agent". The work for them, though, was too plot-driven and reminded them more of "Stephen King-like books" rather than SF. Their final analysis: "There's really nothing I would change about the work itself, it's just too much like horror or like THE STAND for me."

Sometimes the chemistry just isn't there. And because there's nothing you can really do to change "chemistry", the most heartbreaking words when being rejected have to be the very sincere "it isn't you, it's me."

Still, the agent used the name of my book, Stephen King, and THE STAND in the same paragraph. Even though the agent wasn't comparing my work directly to that of King, the mere juxtaposition did make my heart dance just a little, right there under the wheels of the artery-crushing semi.

Sometimes, I guess, you can have it both ways.


Matthew said...

Have you submitted to agents that like Kingish thrillers (I believe they call it general or commercial fiction)?

I always thought of your book as a thriller and not Sci-fi anyway. Granted I haven't read the MS.

Anonymous said...

Well at least you got that far. My fantasy hasn't progressed past the form letter rejection stage. My query must be awful. Look for it to be ripped apart by EE next week. Gasp, it is second on his list at the moment.

Robin S. said...

This is so frustrating for you. It's gotta be. But reading The Stand and your book in the same breath does sound wonderful - hope you can somehow use this!

I can't wait to see your book published!

Phoenix said...

Hi Matthew:
So far I'm submitting to agents who rep thrillers, SF and horror. King and Crichton do generally get shelved with commercial fiction, so that will be my next round of submissions. In my head, I see Sector C as more Crichton-esque -- a cross between Jurassic Park and Andromeda Strain. John Scalzi recently had reason to make the argument that near-future work like that of Crichton would actually be considered SF. But it's a toss-up. I've pitched it as thriller and SF and am currently calling it a science thriller to distinguish it from other types of thrillers. Not sure yet what I'll pitch it as when I start submitting to the commercial fiction agent list...

Hi Michelle:
I'm looking forward to seeing your query! I threw a few queries into the world many years ago -- before I understood what a query was -- that were pretty awful. There's a learning curve. EE and the minions are the best, though. If your query does get ripped apart, it's only to help you build it back even stronger. Good luck! I know that butterfly feeling well ;o)

Stephen Prosapio said...

I relate. You want a painful rejection? Try this one on. This from the publisher I really really wanted!

I see what you like about this -- Stephen Prosapio is a good commercial writer, with a light, page-turning style; and I like the fact that his protagonist is a man (so many urban fantasies/paranormals are centered are tough young women! It was nice to see a change.). And I love the concept -- the asylum itself is attention-getting and appropriately creepy, and the TV angle ties in with a lot of stuff that's working right now on TV (Supernatural, Ghost Hunters, Paranormal State).
But I just didn't love the novel as a whole the way you have to, especially for debut fiction. It's funny -- I can see, in my head, all the reasons this book should and does work, but I just didn't make the connection with it on the page.

Phoenix said...

Oh, Stephen - Just. Gah.

I think I'd rather be a total idiot when it comes to writing than to be hovering on the brink like we are. Luck and timing and that visceral connection isn't something we have any control over. We've done our part - what more CAN we do?

Stephen Prosapio said...

Drink. A lot.


Sigh. Tear.

sylvia said...

Wow, what a wonderful rejection, although I know that doesn't help.

The polite form letters where the sender includes something positive and seemingly personal about the work feel like a cheat

These really bug me. I've had two where I've searched on the web, unsure whether the comments were personal. One was a form letter sent as standard - it felt condescending, to be honest. The other I'm not sure about - it is a form letter but only used for some rejections. So I guess, someone ticked a box to say "Use letter #3" or something? I dunno. It's hard not to think about it.