Sunday, March 28, 2010

How to say no

I'm back at the computer after a solid week and a half of work judging a fiction contest. It's great to be able to give people the good news that they have won something (though in this case it won't be me doing that). But as always when I do this kind of thing I think a lot about the people who will come away empty-handed. We have all been those people, of course--we are those people every day. Any serious writer learns quickly to accept rejection, and stops taking it personally. But it certainly helps to be rejected respectfully, and you'd be surprised how few times this has happened to me.

I'm not talking about litmag rejections, which are, by their very nature, rather impersonal--I'm talking about rejections by people you know and have worked with--people with whom you have developed a professional relationship. It's a mistake to assume these people will publish you just because they like you and you like them, and the best relationships contain a strong element of critical give-and-take. But I think it's reasonable to expect to be turned down bravely, directly, and straightforwardly.

Of the book editors I've worked with, only one cut me loose like a pro--he called and apologized for not being able to accept the book (that book was Mailman, and it was the marketing department who said no--presciently, it turned out!), and I still respect him for it. One editor at a national magazine whom I have worked with has occasion to reject me now and then, and always does so gracefully, in a way that makes me like her all the more. Another favorite magazine editor, now at a book publisher, always used to bypass my agent, emailing me directly with his reasons for not saying yes.

But when I'm in a foul mood, I still gnash my teeth over the shitty dumpings of my literary life. Most of them consist of long relationships terminated through a proxy, with nary an email of explanation and no further contact after. There was one contact who spent an entire day talking me into not dumping her, only to send an email dumping me first thing the next morning. And there are editors who ran me through several rounds of on-spec revising before deciding the work was not for them. One editor called me a creep and a hanger-on for wanting an answer on the book I'd sent him, exclusively, nine months before.

I understand where these people were coming from--nobody likes saying no, especially to a friend. But I don't think most people realize that it actually feels good to be rejected like a pro--not as good as getting accepted, of course, but pretty good nonetheless. "I take you seriously," these rejections are saying. "Which is why I want better things from you." A good rejection flatters the writer's sense of himself--it is a validation of his ambition.

Of course it isn't easy being a literary gatekeeper, especially in this publishing climate. And most editors have to do a lot of rejecting, often of things they really like and wish they could publish. But a word of advice: treat the talent with care. We are easily wounded.

12 comments:

zoe said...

Timely and heartening.

jrlennon said...

Why timely? Did you get a mean rejection?

zoe said...

More rejection as a part of the writing life generally. I've actually had a couple of very decent, helpful rejections from an agent and a publisher recently.

Heartening because it isn't just new writers that have a hard road to travel.

seanpbizner said...

I had a rejection come to me once in the form of the first page of my manuscript torn in half, no note. I actually got a laugh out of that one (solitary Schadenfreude I guess).

Sung said...

I recently wrote to another writer friend regarding the policy of the New York Times in one of their columns, where they tell you that if you don't hear back within a month, consider that to be a rejection:

Is there any other business where you can do that and get away with it? Can you imagine if Amazon said, "Sung, please send us your cash, and if you don't hear back from us, that means we never received your payment. Otherwise, you'll get what you bought. Thank you and come again!"

I know the analogy isn't quite right, since I'm the customer in the Amazon scenario, but sometimes this business can be awfully frigid. I know, it's the economics, not enough readers, not enough reporters, etc. But still.

- Sung

rmellis said...

Have you noticed the flurry of people leaving editing to be writers? Thinking of the article in the Times Mag, but there are others.

Who's gonna publish 'em??

Hope said...

My last rejection letter said my writing wasn't up to their standards, and they were absolutely right. It wasn't even up to my standards (my bad) but they still loved my idea. That's the kind of rejection that makes you want to work harder.

jrlennon said...

That's a nice one, Hope!

Hope said...

Yeah, it was from David Godine, and it was that darn novel I'll be working on this summer.

jrlennon said...

Well, if you end up in my class, I'll look forward to criticizing you some more... ;-)

Patrick said...

The only thing that really makes me insane is the "mysterious rejection"...the kind of thing where you know that somewhere behind the scenes, there's a conversation going on, and it has different facets to it, but all you ever end up hearing is a (weirdly late) sorry, can't do it. I know there are reasons for not sharing the whole conversation with the author--probably good ones, yes--but it's amazing how the experience of getting rejected changes and becomes far more manageable when it doesn't feel like there's a locked, secret roomful of people laughing at you.

jrlennon said...

Agreed, that is very frustrating...