Hello, everybody! I’m so excited to be back in Seekerville, one of my favoritest places in the cyber world! Today I thought it would be fun to talk about the joy of rejection. (Okay, that’s a bit of false advertising but I had to get your attention somehow.)
Now that you’re all here and enjoying Helen’s coffee, I can tell you that nobody really feels great when they get rejected. Rejection stinks. Rejection is the armpit of the writing life. I could be perfectly happy not ever getting rejected again. But life doesn’t work that way so let’s try to see if we can turn it into something useful. Not that any of you excellent writers have any experience with rejection, of course. So, we’ll talk about MY experiences with rejection and you can just nod along.
(Before we begin, I want to say all pictures are of my kitchen fails. I thought they would be a fun illustration to our topic.)
REVIEWS Or “Free Writing Advice”
Some writers say not to read reviews, while others read all their reviews. Some don’t respond to reviews, while others respond to every one. Some writers don’t even write reviews for fear of a conflict of interest. But let’s pretend you’re like myself and you like to go on Amazon to read through the reviews. Even though I don’t always like what I read, the really specific negative reviews can change my writing for the better, and I’ll explain why.
First, we’re not talking about those one stars that we can disregard out of hand. You know the ones. “This is the world’s worst book and the writer must not have graduated from second grade. I bet she/he has a unibrow, types with her elbows and eats with her hands.” (All misspelled, of course.) And I don’t mean the two stars that say how the book had a great plot and good characters but the reader just didn’t connect with any of it. Neither of those reviews will help us, really, unless we haven’t had our “one star party” in which case, break out the cake!
A great negative review will be specific in what the reader didn’t like, and why. Try to take a step back emotionally and see if their rejection can help you be a better writer. For example, let’s use a few things reviewers have said about my books.
"The bad guys never got what was coming to them. I loved the ending, but I needed some kind of closure.” Ahhhh, I thought it was clear what had happened to the antagonist, but maybe it wasn’t. I filed this comment away, but two weeks later there was a similar review.
“I loved the proposal and the happy ever after, but I wanted (the thief) to get arrested and go to jail!” Uh-oh. That’s two unrelated reviewers who didn’t get satisfaction from the ending. I was so focused on the happy ever after, that I dropped the ball on being VERY clear about what was done to get justice for the heroine.
I was gearing up to revise this portion of Emma, Mr. Knightley and Chili-Slaw Dogs when Beth Adams from Howard Books contacted me about selling the rights to the series. So when the time came to revise, I made sure that justice was served, along with a few other things readers had mentioned, like the ending feeling too rushed. (Funny, one reviewer said, “It’s like the author was on a deadline”. Nope. I made that mess all by myself, but I made sure to rewrite and revise the ending in a way that responded to those negative reviews.)
“I loved the hero, but I don’t think the heroine compromised enough at the end. It takes two to make a happy marriage.” Usually I’d brush off this type of comment because women are traditionally the ones who give up a full time job to raise kids, give up promotions to move with their husbands, leave their long-term employment to care for the family, and generally defer their dreams in favor of everyone else in the vicinity and most readers are expecting the heroine to conform. But I glanced back through the book and realized there was a scene where the heroine doesn’t verbally acknowledge the hero’s sacrifice. That was really an oversight on my part and because of the review, I read it in a whole new way. I went back and tweaked the scene, uploading the new version in a few minutes. (That, my friends, is one of the beauties of self publishing. When I see typos in my traditionally published books, it’s too bad, so sad. Nothing I can do. But if you have access to the digital files and CreateSpace files, these issues can be fixed in minutes.)
Also, if you’re planning on writing more than one book, you can look for themes in negative reviews. Knowing what readers really don’t like can help make your next book a better experience for them. Or, if you’re completely sure about how you wrote it, a theme in negative reviews might point you in the direction of a branding problem or something else that has led the readers to expect something other than your book.
“Why does everyone have to start out hating each other in every romance I read?” This was a comment in a review for Leaving Liberty. The first time I read it, I shook my head. OF COURSE, all romances don’t start that way. But the more I looked, the more I saw, especially in my own books. There’s a difference between creating conflict, and making the main characters dislike each other so intensely you can’t see how they’ll ever get together. Coincidentally, it was super fun to write Emma, Mr. Knightley and Chili-Slaw Dogs because the main characters are best friends. I had to write a believable conflict that didn’t involve personality clashes, because they got along just fine. In subsequent books, I’ve kept this comment in mind, making sure the hero/heroine don’t hate each other on sight. I think it makes for a more believable romance and certainly makes me work harder as a writer.
PUBLISHER/AGENT REJECTION Or “Know Your Genre”
Now, most agent and publisher rejections I’ve received had no information whatsoever past the “no thanks” sort of thing. If they knew what was wrong with the book (besides just not being right for them), they didn’t have time to explain. But every now and then, someone would scribble a little note on the form letter.
In 2010, I sent an early draft of Pride, Prejudice and Cheese Grits to a small publisher. They specialized in Southern literature, so I thought we might be a good fit. The manuscript had won two contests and finaled in two more (under a different title) so I knew it had potential. The rejection I received said something like “fun, but too wordy”.
I was aghast. Too wordy? How could a book be too wordy? What did that even mean? I chewed on that for several weeks, going over and over the chapters I’d sent. After a while, I realized that it really could be trimmed a bit, especially since the genre (contemporary romance) wasn’t known for long stretches of prose. I had read craft books that preached the need to “murder your darlings” but it wasn’t until that off-hand rejection note that I realized that my writing had to match the genre. If I wanted to write literary fiction a la Neil Gaiman, I could ramble on for pages without action, but that wasn’t going to work with this book. (I’m not saying there isn’t any room for prose or that I skip all description whatsoever. It just needs to fit the type of book. And this book didn’t get 500 pages to lay out the scene.)
In my latest Mary Jane Hathaway book (The Pepper in the Gumbo), I experimented with the possibility of being wordy AND writing a romance. I knew it would be a bigger book. I aimed for about 220 pages, as usual, but didn’t edit until I looked back from the very end, which came in at over 370 pages. It was a really fun exercise in “being wordy”. I still had to cut lots of words and scenes, but it was great to see how my writing style changed (and I hope, matured). I used my freedom to write longer , more complete scenes. I’ve never been good at writing short, so this was a wonderful way to stretch out and really put the story on the page the way I wanted it. I may not always write 370 page books, but I felt good while working on it, as if being “too wordy” might just be my natural style. That’s a big issue if I’m thinking of writing a book every two months. My timelines for book releases and my work schedule changed a bit after this book. I had more fun writing a longer book, which may mean fewer books, but more enjoyment for me (and the reader, I hope).
So, in this case, that rejection from 5 years ago also led to an experiment that taught me more about my personal writing “comfort zone”, and how it shaped my plans for this coming year.
"What kind of book would YOU say this is?” Before I contracted with an agent, I had a phone conversation with a very nice agent who gave me lots of advice. She never offered representation (probably because I really had no idea what I needed or wanted or where I was going with this writing thing) but she gave me something invaluable: an epiphany. See, I had written this book that I loved, but I didn’t really know how to describe it. Sure, I could give the elevator pitch and the plot and the tag line. But I didn’t know who might publish it or how they would market it. I didn’t know that was part of my job. (Oh, stop laughing. I was just a baby writer!)
I thought over her question for a long time and realized that the only place Pride, Prejudice and Cheese Grits would fit was in the romance genre. I was shocked and a little bit horrified. I had considered myself more of a literary fiction person. There was something faintly embarrassing about being a “romance author”. By this point I had written two other books and when I looked at them with a clear eye, I realized… YUP, these were romances. They weren’t the classic set up, but the story hinged on the romance in every one. I had to come to terms with the ugly truth. I WAS A ROMANCE AUTHOR. Scary stuff, my friends.
When I wrote Persuasion, Captain Wentworth and Cracklin’ Cornbread (releasing November 11th! )I tackled a very serious subject (racism in the American South, on both sides) but I made sure to check in every few scenes. Is the romance front and center? I get more than 300 pages, but the side plots and supporting characters can only add to the romance, or it will be more literary fiction. I knew it was going to be heavily branded as a romance, so it was important to keep the emotions of the hero and heroine front and center while writing.
I’m sure you all know which genre your book is (unless it’s under that giant umbrella of general fiction) but if not, now is the time to narrow it down. If you’re going to sell your book to a traditional publisher, you’ll need to know which editor might enjoy working on your project. If you’re self publishing, you’ll need to know which types of readers to target when you market it. You have a little more room if you write YA because you can write a mystery/romance/sci fi/ whatever under that genre, but otherwise be very clear about where you’ll find your readers.
I would never tell anyone to change their book to fit a genre, but if your book would fit perfectly in the thriller genre if you cut out that pretty description of a sunset every chapter, you might think about it. If it would be a solid romance without that minor murder plot that starts in chapter ten and ends in chapter fourteen, you might consider it. Then again, it maybe be absolutely perfect, just the way it is, genre mash up and all. Just consider the idea.
BETA READERS/ CRITIQUE GROUPS or “Give Your Readers a Map”
We’ve all heard about constructive criticism. When we give our writing to a critique group or beta reader, we hope that what we get back is something we can use. Even if they hate the entire shebang, we hope there’s something in all the “ugh, burn it” commentary that will help us move forward and make it better.
“I wasn’t sure why her brother was so against her plan.” Or “It seemed like the villain came out of nowhere.” Or “Why is the boss against her?” This isn’t technically a rejection, but when you’re really hoping someone understands your book and they say it doesn’t make sense, it can feel pretty close. But this kind of comment is a great time to make sure every character’s actions have a clear motivation- especially the ones who are working contrary to your character’s goals. In my historical Purple Like the West, the heroine’s father was clearly the villain. The more I thought about the beta reader’s comments, the more I realized I had dropped the ball. We’re told to keep backstory to a minimum, but without any, the reader doesn’t understand why the whole world is against our delightful, honorable heroine!
“Why didn’t he just tell her (big secret)?” or “This wasn’t really believable.” Ooooh, this is a killer. When you’ve written an edge-of-your-seat scene, you hope the readers are swept up in the tension and the drama. You really, really don’t want them to be shaking their heads and wishing someone would just “talk it out”. As much as it hurts, this comment can bring us back to motivation. There has to be a reason the characters can’t say what they want or do what they want. No matter how emotionally powerful the scene is, it won’t hold up without a water-tight excuse for not clearing the air. In my first historical, All The Blue of Heaven, the heroine holds a secret close about what happened during the Great Quake, and how she came to be injured. After a beta reader mentioned that the hero and heroine seemed to confide all sorts of things in each other EXCEPT that, I decided to move that scene closer to the middle and carry the story past her revelation. That off-hand criticism made the book much stronger in the end.
So, these are just a few areas a writer can be rejected. If we have to deal with rejections, why not turn it into a positive experience? (Beside the “one star” cake parties, which are hugely fun, but can add serious inches to the writerly bottom.)
If you’re brave enough, I’d love to hear how a rejection hit you hard… and how you grabbed it by the lapels and gave it your best Clint Eastwood impression. Or how you folded that rejection letter into a nifty pencil holder for your desk. Or how you took ALL your rejection letters and crumpled them up and put them in the attic, whereby cutting your heating costs 37%.
Or, if you haven’t had any rejections, feel free to share your most encouraging quote like:
“A lot of people ask me, 'How did you have the courage to walk up to record labels when you were 12 or 13 and jump right into the music industry?' It's because I knew I could never feel the kind of rejection that I felt in middle school. Because in the music industry, if they're gonna say no to you, at least they're gonna be polite about it.” Taylor Swift
Or “Nobody told me how hard it was going to be to get published. I wrote four novels that nobody wanted, sent them out all over, collected hundreds and hundreds of rejection slips.” Jerry Spinelli, who won the Newbery Medal for Maniac Magee, one of his fifteen acclaimed children’s books.
Virginia Carmichael is an award-nominated writer of Christian fiction and a home schooling mom of six young children who rarely wear shoes. She holds degrees in Linguistics and Religious Studies from the University of Oregon and lives with her habanero-eating husband, Crusberto, who is her polar opposite in all things except faith. They've learned to speak in short-hand code and look forward to the day they can actually finish a sentence. In the meantime, Virginia thanks God for the laughter and abundance of hugs that fill her day as she plots her next book. She also writes under the pen name of Mary Jane Hathaway and loves to meet readers on her facebook page of Pride, Prejudice and Cheese Grits.