Monday 23 February 2009

Personalised Rejections

Very few editors or agents personalise all of the rejections they send out: most rejections are made by a form letter, with no detail or comment.

When work shows particular promise but still isn't quite right, then sometimes an agent or editor concerned will write a little note explaining exactly why it has been rejected. Perhaps it's too similar to another book that’s just been signed; perhaps it's an unfamiliar genre; or perhaps it's not quite good enough for publication yet, and needs further work to get it there. But why don't agents and editors do this for every rejection? A couple of lines don't take up too much time; surely it's not too much to ask? (If you think that last is true, then read Emma Darwin's comments here for some new insight on the practicalities involved.)

Editors and agents earn their living from the books that are published, not from the books that they reject; and the ever-replenishing vastness of the slush pile means that if they did personalise every rejection they sent they’d never get anything else done and would be out of business before the month was up.

Assuming, however, that our agent or editor has time available for these things, could anything they have to say be useful to those rejected writers? The majority of the books in the slush pile are so bad that it would be impossible to know quite where to start in order to explain why they were rejected. If an agent were to write, "I've rejected your book because it is dreadful in every way," would that be of any more help to the writer on the receiving end than a form rejection? The writers who are likely to receive such rejections are also unlikely to believe them: what good would it do?

Some writers see any personalisation as an invitation to develop a deeper relationship with the person who rejected their work: they’ll argue that their work has been misunderstood, or that more of it needs to be read in order to fully appreciate its many finer points. Or they might write back just to insult the person who rejected the work (I wonder what writers think will be gained by this behaviour: do they hope to change someone’s mind just by insulting them?). But there’s a more worrying side to this, and it’s one I have first-had experience of. A writer I once sent a personalised rejection to ended up stalking me. He sent me more and more submissions; phoned me every hour; and ended up sending in photos of me arriving at work in the mornings, going out for lunch, and taking the bus home. Now, that was scary stuff and I know of a couple of other editors have faced this too. Like me, they switched to form rejections for just about everything as a result.


Nik Perring said...

Great post - and a stalker? Yikes, that is scary.


Tania Hershman said...

Very very scary! Thanks, Jane, this is a great and clear explanation of the publishing business. I hope the stalker guy is safely restrained.

Daniel Blythe said...

Having done MS critiques for unpublished writers I see the problem. Often you get something which really is a case of "I just wouldn't start from here."

A detailed critique picking over each and every typo, voice slippage and grammatical infelicity (I love that word) can often do them no favours - they just think those are the "only" things which are "wrong" with the text, and that if they go away and "fix" those it will get better.

So in a similar way, if an editor sends a rejection with "This was OK but you need to work on your characters a bit" on it, this is seen as an invitation to do a bit of tinkering and re-submit, whereas actually the MS may need re-thinking on a deeper level.

I remember a writing magazine I used to subscribe to (oh, the shame) printing a letter which suggested that cards with tick-boxes should become the norm with every rejection. Misunderstands the process, really. Another suggested that all new writers should send in just one page (!) and that this should form the basis of a personalised rejection.

Erastes said...

most rejections are made by a form letter, with no detail or comment.

Correction:Most rejections are made by not replying at all.**

**In my experience.

writtenwyrdd said...

A stalker? How frightful! As one of the sane ones out there, if you for some reason decided to write a personalized rejection, I'd recognize the thoughtful effort it was and go on from there without making a pest of myself.

But I'd never expect a personalized rejection because doing any form of critique takes a lot of thought and time.

Karen said...

Blimey, that is scary.

I've been lucky enough to have received a couple of personalised rejections in the past, both of which boosted my confidence no end and enabled me (I hope) to improve my writing. I wouldn't have dreamt of responding to them in any way, having read enough to know that such responses are as rare as hen's teeth, but can see how it might 'encourage' unsociable behaviour. Shame though.

Jane Smith said...

The stalker got tired of me eventually, and it was a while ago: I was pregnant at the time and that particular son of mine is now at secondary school! There wasn't the same legal recognition of stalking all those years ago, and so I struggled to get anything official done: in the end he just disappeared. I hope he didn't find a new target.

Meanwhile, Dan, you're right about that. I was talking to a friend about exactly that elsewhere--the frustrations of suggesting a major rehaul to a book only to have the writer come back having changed her main character's eye colour, leaving the plot-holes to gape as widely as ever before.

Unknown said...

Great post. I've been priviledged to have some fantastic rejections. So I taken heart and felt I've moved up to the next notch :-)

Anonymous said...

I've critiqued a lot of unpublished novels and the quality of the writing has ranged from excellent to poor, and the one I'm reading now is not good.

It's difficult to explain to someone just why their writing isn't up to scratch and never more so than when the writer appears highly qualified to write!
I've appraised several novels by writers who have MAs in Creative Writing and you can usually spot them a mile off - overblown descriptions, using ten words where one would be more than sufficient and often selfconscious use of imagery. (Not just my own opinion, I've heard editors sounding off on this topic too!)

I know, because I have friends who have CW MAs, that there are some excellent courses around but it seems obvious to a layman that if you aspire to writing fiction you should choose a course that is taught by published novelists. A lot of courses however, seem to be run by academics who have no experience of writing publishable commercial fiction and my goodness, it shows.

The novel I'm currently reading is badly-written, there's no other way to describe it. In a novice it would be just about excusable but this writer has a Creative Writing MA. It seems unlikely that his/her writing has changed drastically in the years since taking the course, so what were his/her tutors thinking of?

My brief is to try to show what is wrong with the writing and how to improve it and the short answer is: cut the flannel (I put 'flannel' but I meant another word!) Because of this writer's training and qualifications you can bet your bottom dollar that he/she won't take my advice though!


Anonymous said...

The majority of the books in the slush pile are so bad that it would be impossible to know quite where to start in order to explain why they were rejected.

Spot on, as usual, Jane. Back in the early days, I used to labor over how to gently reject the author in a personalized manner, no matter how awful the submission. It took more time to think of a way to say, "This is bloody terrible" than to simply whack out a form rejection letter.

Yes, it's sad to think one's writing is so bad that you can't even critique it, but that's hardly my fault. Sounds harsh, I know, but these are often the folks who, as you mentioned, feel this personalization opens the door to a relationship. And this is where the trouble can start:

"Can you tell me how to get better?"
"Can I call you to discuss my character development?"
"Can I take you to lunch so we can discuss my plot?"

Argh. Shoot me now.

Daniel Blythe said...

"Is it my plot or my characters which need work?" is one question a fellow Doctor Who novelist was asked. She's of the opinion that, if you have to ask, it's probably both - and more. And if you have to ask, you're not ready to be published yet.

The latter is a concept which a lot of people just don't seem to get - they understand that, to be a professional musician or artist, you need a bit more than Grade 4 Piano or GCSE Art. But they'll happily send their MS in to a professional publisher when they have been writing for just a couple of years.

Amber's comments on CW MAs are right, but depressing. They *should* be staffed by experienced, published writers but they often are not - they're more likely to be staffed by academics with some publishing experience, rather than writers with some teaching experience, because academics love people who have come through the academic route.

CW MAs also come under the English department and they are instinctively suspicious of anyone who doesn't have a trad academic background, particularly if your first degree was not in English. I also feel they like to "look after their own" and give teaching to former students. There's also pressure on them to display publishing credentials for their Research Assessment Exercise, but it has to be the "right kind" of publishing - so if the MA is one with a "bit of a bob on itself" as they say round here (naming no institutions by name, ahem) they spurn people with great track records in, say commercial fiction or popular non-fiction. To their own detriment. They also have an obsession with "creative non-fiction", which is not really a term you hear much outside academic circles...

K M Kelly said...

I find that editors in the short fiction markets are generally much more likely to give feedback as to why they have rejected a story, which can be very helpful, especially if they all reject it for the same reason.

Whenever I get a personal from an Agent though I feel honoured :-)

Anonymous said...

Daniel, thank you for confirming that I'm not simply being a bitch! The writer I'm currently dealing with is going to hate me for my comments because he/she has been awarded an MA in Creative Writing so therefore HAS to be a brilliant writer. Your comments re academics ring horribly true.

One would have hoped (silly, old-fashioned me) that a knowledge of basic English might be a requirement when signing up to an MA course; also that the first, last and most important instruction would be to Read, Read, Read material from any publisher you intend to target. And then read some more. Lots of it.

If I were dealing with a novice I would be kind and constructive and encourage him/her to READ. And then READ a lot more. (as above). I'll be offering the same advice but will have to restrain myself from administering a sharp slap at the same time.

And just in case anyone wants to whine: When I say this is bad writing I do not mean he/she is dyslexic. I do not mean he/she is not a mother-tongue-English-speaker. I mean that he/she (how discreet I am!) has no understanding of how the English language works, cannot spell, does not understand metaphors or similes, has presumably never been taught how to use an apostrophe - in short, he/she cannot write for toffee.
(But he/she has an MA in Creative Writing to prove otherwise.)

All I can say is: Bah Humbug!


R.R.Jones said...

I had a very nice personalised rejection from an agent in London.
He has his own online forum and is ever so helpful and nice, and this was reflected in the mail he sent me.
It was so charming that it inspired me to rewrite the whole MS again. Not that there was any improvement of course, but it's the inspiration he induced in me that I'm trying to convey here, not my sudden rise to literal beautification.
The thing is though, I really did have to resist the urge to correspond with him on the issue. He rejected my work, albeit very nicely, and that should have been the end of the matter. But I had this insane itch to write to him about how I was going to change it all and that he'll like it when it's finished.
Sad that, innit?
I didn't, thank the heavens, but the question is why couldn't I let it drop like all the other brush offs I'd received? Am I a "Wanna be" stalker, a stalker in waiting?
No, I'm not, (hopefully).
It's just that one personal email in a sea of anonymous dismissals seems like a beacon of hope to the floundering and helplessly ignorant, (such as myself). The people at the top of the literary food chain move in a different world to us plankton at the other end, and if one "seems" to take an interest, then we grasp onto it like an insecure limpet.
It may sound callous, but I think there's nothing for it but to be faceless and cold when rejecting work, because it could give out the wrong signals to anybody who isn't as cool and great as I am... just joshing there.
Reg :-)

Anonymous said...

Um... *blush*... DanielB, please will you tell me what creative non-fiction is?

My imagination is telling me it's what happens with certain newspapers when they're short of facts; invent some, and waffle. But I expect that's way off the mark. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

My jaw dropped at the part about the stalker. Seriously scary.

I've noticed on other blogs that some agents are now moving away from the standard rejection altogether, and are now being forced to say if a reply isn't received within 60 days, then no reply will be forthcoming at all. It does appear this is the new way forward for dealing with the overwhelming slush pile.

Jane Smith said...

Creative non-fiction (sorry for typos, I'm trying to type with two cats on my lap and it's not the easiest thing to do) is an odd term, isn't it? It's the literary equivalent of a drama-documentary: a dramatised account of something that really happened. So, a retelling of an historical event with dialogue added that the writer couldn't possibly have known; or an autobiography where things are recounted not quite as they happened, but with the edges rounded a little to make everything fit into a better story-form.

Picture a book about the Romans with a whole load of Centurians standing around discussing who makes the best honeyed doormice; or a memoir that's been featured on the Oprah Winfrey show. It's something like that.

Jane Smith said...

Oh, and Reg: I know that feeling. It doesn't ever quite go away.

I still always want people to tell me that my writing is the best thing in the world and that no matter who they are they're going to be my Very Best Friend because of it: but perhaps the biggest lesson I've learned over the years is to sit myself very firmly in the corner when I'm consumed by the feeling to respond inappropriately (eg, to drive to their offices and KISS them hard) to a crit. It's what makes me the slick professional I am today. That, and the medication.

Daniel Blythe said...

Having said all that, there seem to be some honourable exceptions. The Fantasy course at Liverpool John Moores intrigues me, as does the course at Napier which David Bishop describes here .

Anonymous said...

Jane, re Creative Non-fiction. Thanks.

Re courses, perhaps it depends on the person attending the course and how well they apply what they have learned, as much as those teaching the course. If someone is so precious about their purple prose that they don’t listen to what is being said, no amount of teaching will turn them from an amateur into a professional. I can quite imagine someone going through a course and then reverting to old habits because, you see, they have a unique style which the tutor never really understood. (*wink*)

Anonymous said...

Scary stalker story Jane! And, yes, I've heard stories like it. A friend working for a small children's publisher carefully wrote her first rejection letter ever for a truly terrible chapter book which included the 12yr old MC having sex in graphic detail halfway through, and suddenly found the furious author in the office, dragging her to her boss's office and holding her hostage till he typed out an apology...

Some MAs are brilliant, and I'm not just saying that because I wrote The Mathematics of Love on an MPhil (which is in any case a very different degree). And some are not. And no teaching will make a terrific writer out of a very weak one. It's very true that it MUST be taught by people who are writers first and teachers second. On the other hand, having even good fiction, say, published, doesn't mean you're a good teacher, however inspiringly wonderful your own work is.

One problem is that, of Humanities subjects, CW courses are very expensive to run because the basic unit is the workshop, which can't be more than 16 people (see NAWE guidelines). The temptation is always to tack on some modules which can be lectures or something which fits in more bums on cheaper seats, and I do wonder if part of the trouble with the 'MA Novel' (as opposed to terrific novels which happen to have been written by people with MAs) is simply that the pile 'em high attitude forced on the universities by government policy means that there just isn't enough individual attention to putting individual students under the the word-by-word microscopic attention which is the front and centre of learning to write.

I think another problem is that people expect to come off an MA with a publishable novel, but it's too soon to have internalised everything you've learnt, which if the course is any good will be an almost overwhelming amount. In my experience it's often the NEXT novel which is really cracking, and has some hope of getting published.

I actually wish that MAs would stop trying to sell themselves as 'do our course and get published'. University ought to be the one milieu where a writer can forget about pleasing the market and concentrate purely on writing the absolute best they can, because it provides a readership, feedback, validation, help, criticism, which doesn't depend commercial realities. That ought to be something to celebrate, not to deplore, as long as everyone knows that's the deal. Like studying any other practice-based subject - drama, film studies - everyone ought to be told that this is where you explore your art, play with it, shape it, soak in it, worship it. THEN you go out and get a job as a runner, or go to drama school or (in the old days) weekly rep, and learn the practical stuff.

none said...

What an unpleasant experience *shudders*. Makes one of my colleagues at NFG magazine (RIP) being threatened with a fistfight seem tame in comparison!

Anonymous said...

Regarding communication with agents/editors. I agree that when you receive a rejection there's not much point in trying to force a dialogue.

On the other hand, I have had a positive experience with an agent who rejected my novel but was keen to hear about my next project.

So far our communication has been very productive and, while no handshakes have been made, I've had my confidence boosted enough to believe that I can write--and confidence is hard to maintain when the swathes of rejections coming in make me fear for the rainforests.

So, I guess the thing is don't be a stalker (hmm, I wonder how many stalkers will take this advice?) but don't be afraid of responding if the agent does show an interest in your other projects.

Anonymous said...


Very scary indeed. If insulting someone won't change their mind, stalking won't do much either -- centuries of bad boyfriends can attest.

In screenwriting, if you get any feedback on a rejection, it's really just so that the person can ask you to send whatever you work on in the future. For all the reasons you list, that particular project may not work for them, but you've shown something that makes them want to see more.

If you get no response at all, the likeliest situations are that the assistant didn't read it or they producer or agent was recently fired =)