Every writer dreads the letter or email that begins with the usual “We enjoyed reading . . . but . . .” At that moment we die, or at least I do. I can feel myself sinking into the mud of disappointment, where I shall remain until I can find something cheerful to pull me out of my misery.
Rejection is part of the writing life. John Creasey received 743 rejection slips before he sold his first mystery. He set the standard of perseverance for the rest of us. One editor considered A Study in Scarlet by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle “neither long enough for a serial nor short enough for a single story.”
The writer who has never received a rejection of her ms has never sent one out. Everyone gets rejected at some point, usually in the beginning, but sometimes repeatedly over the years. It’s part of trying new things, taking risks as a writer, and reaching out to unknown editors. We never know as writers who will like our work and who will not see anything good in it. Over the years, however, I have learned that the rejection letter sometimes isn’t a rejection letter. It’s a delicate prod for the writer to make certain changes either in the ms or the publishers being approached.
I remember one letter (and it was a letter, arriving in a stamped envelope, before everything was done by email) in which the editor complained the submitted novel had no “pizzazz.” I’ve never forgotten that word. I didn’t write the novel to have pizzazz. Scribner eventually published it as Murder in Mellingham.
A colleague received a rejection, she thought, from a publisher who, I felt confident, would take the book. She was so disappointed until I read the email and saw the error in her thinking. They liked the ms, but it was too long. She set about trimming, resubmitted, and the novel was accepted and published.
A publisher rejected one of my titles in the Anita Ray series, and the rejection left me surprised as well as sad. I reread the email several times, particularly the paragraph complimenting me on my wonderful writing. I reread the ms, found the passages where I’d fallen asleep at my desk, resubmitted, and the ms was accepted.
Over the years I’ve learned to read rejection letters with my own personal dictionary at hand—the one that offers several definitions of the word no and its relatives. I also turn to the gem of a book Rotten Rejections, and comfort myself with the observation that other writers better than I have had it worse.
Most editors are polite today, even if they dislike something. Right now I’m glancing at one editor’s comment on John le Carre’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. “You’re welcome to le Carre—he hasn’t got any future.” This is to remind us all that editors may be the gatekeepers, but they can be—and often are—wrong.