Wednesday, February 20, 2008

When We "Hate" the Manuscript: An Editor's Response

Yesterday -- or rather, late last night, because that was the soonest I could get to the blog -- we talked about what to do when one of your critiquing partners delivers chapters that are tolerably well-written but leave you cold.

Today, I thought I'd talk a little about this issue from the acquisitions perspective. Maybe we should entitle this post:

To Form Reject, or Not to Form Reject. That Is the Question.

(So tempted to riff on "whether 'tis nobler to suffer the slings and arrow of outrageous fortune," which seems like a line custom-designed to describe this particular issue.)

Let me start by saying I hate form rejections. No. Maybe I should start by saying I love form rejections. Each statement is equally true, after all, depending on the circumstances.

I love form rejections because they create a defensive shield between me and the disappointed writer. Not all writers tolerate disappointment well. Our side of the profession is riddled with stories about writers who argue with editors over every detail of every letter. If we explain that the protagonist's motivation in chapter seven doesn't work, we know we open ourselves up to a letter explaining precisely why we weren't paying attention to the set-up in chapter six. (That kind of argument won't win you a contract, in case you were wondering.)

Or, we get a letter kindly offering to revise the motivation in chapter 7 and resubmit, even though we never invited revisions. (If we want revisions, we'll ask for them. Never doubt that.)

Or, after reading and rejecting a partial, we sometimes get the full anyway, with an explanation of why we were wrong not to request it. (Gee, thanks.)

This reminds me of a conference legend involving an elevator, a laptop, and a romance editor who can never blend into the crowd at romance conventions because he is a he. Poor guy. He's tall, too. Sticks out like a linebacker at a doll party. Every time I hear a story about this guy at a conference, I wonder if the story is true or if it's always him in these stories because he's such an obvious target.

So, as the legend goes, our heroic editor boarded a crowded elevator at a major conference last year. One of the passengers recognized him and pounced.

"You requested my manuscript and you've had it for nine thousand million kajillion months," said the writer. "Aren't you ever going to read it?"

"I'm a little behind on my reading," the editor admits. At this point, the elevator probably feels a bit like a cage, but this guy is also legendary for being a good sport, so he might not mind being cornered.

"I've got it on my laptop." The writer whips out said laptop and fires it up to the manuscript.

There are two versions of this legend, one which has the editor welcoming the chance to read the manuscript right there, and one which has him blinking in surprise before formulating the answer least likely to get him shoved down the elevator shaft. In either case, the editor is said to have graciously taken the laptop and begun reading the manuscript on the screen.

"Well," he says after reading a bit. "This probably won't work for us. You're opening with a lot of backstory, and it's slowing down the pace."

He starts to return the laptop, but the writer pushes it back on him.

"Keep reading!" she insists. "It gets better in chapter four!"


Form rejections shield us from this sort of thing. We don't know you. You could be the nicest person in the world, or you could be elevator-laptop girl. (Helpful career tip: Don't be elevator-laptop girl.)

The Downside of Form Rejections

Occasionally, there comes a writer who we like very much but whose work we cannot buy. Case in point -- this story is true, and I know it's true because it happened to me.

Last year at a major conference, I went to the bar to meet up with some friends and couldn't find them. Somehow I ended up at a table with three writers, all of whom were strangers. They were delightful people. We talked about the city and the conference schedule and what we like to read. We commiserated over the impossibility of getting table service in that bar. We played the who-do-you-know game and I ended up giving all three of these fine people my card. One of them assured me she would submit something, and that was the extent of our business discussion.

I bumped into these women at various times over the course of the conference and they were always delightful. After the conference, as promised, the one woman submitted work to me. I was happy to see it from her.

I couldn't make her an offer on it, but I also couldn't have lived with myself if I'd used a form rejection. She was so nice, and I wanted to help her. So I sent her a long and detailed revision letter and made sure she understood that my office door remained open to her. Since that time, we've corresponded a bit and I'm doing what I can to help her shape up her prose. I'm always pleased to see something in my inbox from her. She's consistently pleasant and I know how hard she's working to learn her craft.

The Moral of The Story

What does this have to do with critiquing a story that's basically well-written but doesn't appeal? Everything. When I'm confronted with a story like that, my first decision has to be whether to send a form rejection or something more personal. Three factors come into play here, and none of them have to do with whether I "hate" the manuscript. (I hardly ever really hate a manuscript. I either love them, or I think they don't work. Occasionally, they make me spray tea through my nose, but laughably bad manuscripts are more rare than you might think.)

The three factors are time, how much repair work needs to be done, and whether I feel the need to shield myself. As to the first two factors -- I never have any time, and most of the repair work at this pre-contract stage is done by the writer, not the editor.

Which leave the third factor, whether I feel the need to shield myself. Most of the time it's a guessing game because I don't know three-quarters of the people who submit to me. And momma always warned me, don't open the door to strangers, and I always do what momma says. So that means the default preference is for a politely worded and kindly intended form rejection, even if the writing is mostly good.



makoiyi said...

From a hopeful writer's perspective, the hardest thing of all is 'not knowing'. I understand the agent/editor perspective, of course I do. I can't even imagine the amount of reading you do. But as a writer, I also understand why folk get so frustrated.

It is that not knowing. Obviously if you have so many rejections on one project then it isn't working. But you don't know 'why' it isn't working.

Join a critique group. Right. They all love it. Send it out. More rejections. So you are left scratching your head and wailing why!

Because, you don't know if you are nowhere near, halfway near, or just so close it was a hard decision.

That, I think, is our real frustration.

We still move on, write something else, but if we keep making the same mistakes - how will we ever know?

The time the agent/editor says, yes.

But it's a heck of a journey.

Edittorrent said...

Susan, one of the reasons we started this blog is that we hope to alleviate exactly what you're describing. You know, I can't take the time I'd like with every promising new writer. I wish I could. I really do.

But I can take a little time to write this blog, and maybe that will help. I see it as a time-effective way to communicate with a lot of people at once.

Keep learning. Keep trying. Keep finding new ways to look at your pages. It is a tough game, but rejections don't matter. The only answer that matters is the one that says, YES!


makoiyi said...

And I do appreciate it! I was just trying to give the other side.

I've certainly recommended this blog via my blog on lJ. I even sent you some sentences to pull apart. *G*. I find that analysis quite fascinating.

Dara Edmondson said...

I've always appreciated the detailed rejection (as rejections go) and make a habit of sending a Thank You note to the rejector. Just good form. It also lets them know I'm not a nut case - I hope.
Unless... they're thinking I'm trying to suck up.
Do you find those annoying or just polite?

Edittorrent said...

A thank you note is fine, Dara, as long as it's really a thank you note! Being polite and professional will never hurt you.


Unknown said...

I just checked y'all's Blogger profile and saw that you are both acquisitions editors, but you don't say where you work or where you might be appearing at conferences so that we might query you. Are either of you attending any conferences in the foreseeable future? Do you already get too many queries (and thus don't really want them proceeding from this weblog)? Just wondering.

Edittorrent said...

Chantal, I'm managing editor and Alicia is senior editor at Red Sage, which is linked on the sidebar of the blog. If you want to submit to Red Sage, just follow the submissions guidelines on the Red Sage site and put one of our names on the submission. Please don't submit via the blog.

We blog about conferences and other functions we attend. At the beginning of the month, I blogged about Love Is Murder, a 3-day mystery conference that invited me to attend this year. And I just blogged last week about a sex scene panel I did for a writers group. Alicia probably travels more than I do, but we both attend many conferences and other functions.


Anonymous said...

It's the shield business that bothers me so much about form rejections. I hate getting lumped in with the nut cases.

Genella deGrey said...

Rejections don't kill me so much, but I'll have to admit that (if I may borrow lyrics from Tom Petty)

"The waiting is the hardest part"

(You pretty much said that, didn't you Susan?)

Especially when you don't want to break the exclusivity request of the publishing house you've submitted to.