WRITERS AT WORK, Dealing with Editorial Suggestions (Part 4). Also, Dealing with Rejections, with Mara Rockliff


Hello everyone,

As many of you know, Sandy Asher and I welcome volunteer contributions to our regular Tuesday feature: WRITERS AT WORK, an informal chat among two friends and writers about the nuts and bolts of doing what we do. Therefore we were delighted when Mara Rockliff sent an article about her own response to Dealing with Rejection, which was our third topic in the series.

Today is the last Tuesday in December so I decided to post Mara’s piece today immediately after Sandy’s final response to our current topic: Dealing with Rejection.

To see the rest of Dealing with Rejection, you can refer back to the previous posts on this topic by reviewing them on my blog or seeing the consolidated responses for the month (November) on America Writes for Kids (http://usawrites4kids.drury.edu )

First, here’s Sandy with her final comments. Sandy?

Topic 4: Dealing with Editorial Suggestions
Response 4: Sandy
December 28, 2010

Editorial suggestions AFTER the contract is signed? Who knew?

We all thought that after “yes” came “and they lived happily ever after.” Right?

Uh . . . ‘fraid not.

David, you described that head-spinning response to editorial communication so well – euphoria (She loves it!), disbelief (She wants me to change it?), and slow realization (Well, maybe she does have a point there . . . or two . . . or three . . . ).

My personal favorite example is a four-page, single-spaced letter I received from Bebe Willoughby, the editor who worked with me on JUST LIKE JENNY and many other books back in the days when such letters were delivered by snail. I still carry the letter with me to show around at workshops. JUST LIKE JENNY was my third YA novel, but it was Different. Or so I thought. It inspired a bit of an auction among publishers, a head-swelling, once-in-a-lifetime situation that led me to believe the book was already as perfect as perfect could be. The first page of Bebe’s letter confirmed that it was, indeed, pretty darn good. The next three pages (single-spaced, remember) were filled with questions and suggestions for rethinking and revising it.

I went ballistic. “What is wrong with these people? They said they loved the book! They gave me a two-book contract! And now they want me to change the whole thing? That’s crazy! I can’t do it! I won’t do it!”

My agent, the late, great Claire Smith, heard me out and firmly instructed me to calm down, reread my manuscript, and then reread the letter. So I did. And slowly but surely, I came to understand that Bebe wasn’t forcing me to make a wrong manuscript right. She was helping me to make a good manuscript better. As only a totally objective, experienced, knowledgeable reader – not a friend, teacher, spouse, or neighbor, not even a colleague – can do.

So now when editors are busier than ever and not always able to give each and every manuscript their full attention, I worry. I’d rather have an editor call my attention to problems before publication than have a critic or, worse yet, reader catch me out later. I’ve learned to cherish that objective response, not just the opening love letter, but the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, every single-spaced page of it.

That doesn’t mean I follow every directive slavishly, or even willingly and joyfully. I tend to adore the ones that turn on spotlights in my head, illuminating quick and easy fixes that make the story amazingly better. I tend to balk and grow sullen over the ones that show me something’s got to be done but leave me in the dark, trying to figure out exactly what and how all by myself. (Have I mentioned earlier in these chats that I’m basically lazy?)

I’ve also been known to defend my words, politely, against suggestions that make no sense to me at all. If I can make a good enough argument as to why not, the editor will usually accept my preference. An example: In my picture book STELLA’S DANCING DAYS, Stella starts off as a kitten who loves to dance. Time passes, she grows up, gets busy with other things, and dances less. The human beings in her life miss her dancing days. But, I wrote, “Stella did not miss her dancing days.” The editor asked me to revise that sentence so that Stella would miss her dancing days, too, because not missing them sounded harsh. I thought about it, as I do all editorial insights. Finally, I said, “No. First of all, Stella is a cat and cats are not nostalgic about their kittenhoods. They live in the moment. Second of all, Stella represents her young readers, who are not nostalgic about their babyhoods. They won’t find it harsh that Stella doesn’t miss her dancing days. They’ll understand she’s simply far more interested in growing up – just as they are.”

The editor understood. The children understood. And Stella eventually has six kittens – three boys and three girls — who all love to dance.

Speaking of dancing, David, it’s my turn to lead! If you agree, I’ll tackle “The Perils and Joys of Writing in Different Genres” next.

Thank you Sandy. I’ll be glad to dance with you in Different Genres next month. But first, as promised, here are remarks by Mara Rockliff about dealing with rejections. Mara, the stage is all yours.

Topic 3: The Reality of Rejection

What I Love about Rejections
by guest Mara Rockliff

Okay, nobody really loves rejections.

But when that storm cloud of rejection drives its icy needles down my neck and soaks my socks, here are the hints of silver lining that I spy:

Rejections are fun!

Okay, not always. But sometimes they can be pretty hilarious, like the time I sent out a picture book story and it was rejected—two and a half years later. (With a form rejection!) Or the agent who turned me down, saying she didn’t think she could sell my manuscript—even though I’d told her I already had an offer on it from a major publisher.

Rejections are educational!

Think of a rejection letter as a free bit of professional advice. Six editors say the same thing? If it’s “the plot is thin,” maybe you should consider working on the plot. Six editors say six different things? No point revising now, unless one of the comments really clicks. Otherwise, keep submitting. Even a form rejection tells you something: that whoever sent it wasn’t interested enough to spend much time. Twenty form rejections is a good hint that your manuscript needs lots of work—or that it should be put aside while you move on to something else.

Rejections are terrific practice—for rejection.

Every aspiring writer dreams of that magic moment when a manuscript is accepted for publication. Break out the bonbons! You’re a real writer now! You’ll never be rejected and ignored again!

Then months go by with no word from your editor. Or years. Or she calls to tell you that the illustrator they were hoping for turned down the project. In fact, every illustrator on the planet has turned down the project. Your editor points out cheerfully that scientists may still discover life—and illustration talent—on Jupiter’s moons.

Your book is published, but no one reviews it. Or it’s reviewed, and the reviewers hate it. Or reviewers love it, but the big chain bookstores decide not to carry it. Or they carry it, but no one buys it, so the books get sent back to the publisher and eventually shredded to a pulp.

Luckily, you’ve learned how to deal with rejection! So you don’t waste time dwelling on these setbacks. You go straight back to your writing desk. After all, the sooner you finish another manuscript, the sooner your mailbox will start filling up again with more fun, educational rejection letters.

Rejections are The Way.

As Lao Tzu pointed out, there can be no light without dark. (I’m pretty sure he said that when the twenty-third editor finally called with an offer on the Tao Te Ching.) And if you eat nothing but ice cream, it loses its taste. So as you choke down those bitter rejections, just think: without them, the good news you’re waiting for could never be so sweet.


Mara Rockliff’s recent titles include Get Real: What Kind of World Are You Buying? (Running Press Teens) and the picture book The Busiest Street in Town (Knopf). Visit her online at http://www.mararockliff.com .