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 .

Happy Thanksgiving


BULLETIN: Guess what? We have, for the first time, some poems posted by high school students! Thanks to Lisa Martino and her students in Crescent City, Florida, we can finally use our student group for grades 8-12! Thank you, Lisa, and thank you students. I hope everyone will click on WOM Young Poets, scroll to the last three entries, and enjoy the work of Lisa’s students.

REMINDER: Cutoff for November Word of the Month poems is tonight at 10:00 CST. So far we have a bumper crop of poems inspired by the word WORD. Don’t forget to post yours.

BULLETIN: For those who wanted to leave comments about my Tuesday post to WRITERS AT WORK: By a strange quirk, comments were shut off on that day — the only time this has happened — and we can’t seem to get it fixed. To save you from scrolling around, I’m cutting and pasting the whole thing again and asking you to try again if you wish to post a comment.

REMINDER: During my recent absences from the blog, I must admit that our Woza Woza Poem has not prospered. I’m reposting the last update we had, on November 12. November 12 was 13 days ago. Come on, poets, we need some help!

Today I witnessed something I’d never seen before –
A sea of cinnamon swirls surfed the forest floor.
The reason for the swirling suddenly dawned on me –
Tiny brown-clad creatures surfed that cinnamon sea!

Tiny brown-clad creatures wearing leather hats
Trimmed with golden feathers! Can you imagine that?
They danced in whirling circles, singing to themselves.
I blinked my eyes in wonder, these tiny folk were elves!

They sang of distant places, they sang of sea and foam,
They sang of Woza Woza, the elves’ ancestral home.
The magic of their voices carried me along
As faster whirled the circles, higher pitched their song

Of fairies, trolls, and giants, mere humans never know

Hello everyone,

I wish you a Thanksgiving filled with the pleasure of being with family and friends. My mother (at 98 our last living parent) will join us for Thanksgiving at our daughter’s house. We are saddened by the loss of Sandy’s mother but still have a lot to be thankful for. We also thank you for your kind notes of condolences at our recent loss.

Here once again is the Tuesday post to WRITERS AT WORK.

Hi everyone,

I’m adding my concluding thoughts on the subject of rejection. I heard plenty of comments about it during the NCTE conference that I can share with you.

Topic: The Reality of Rejection
Response 4: David
Date: November 23, 2010

So I’m attending a major convention. This morning I made a presentation about Word of the Month Poetry Challenge which, I think, was well received and might result in more teachers introducing their students to the project. Not ony that, I'm signing books at the Scholastic booth and last hour I signed books at the Boyds Mills Press booth. In both places, I greeted many old friends and met a number of new ones. When I finish here, I’ll attend the Authors Luncheon and sit around a table of teachers, each of whom will receive a copy of my latest book. They will ask me to sign their books and I’ll do it with pleasure. It’s hard not to feel good about this day. Until

I check my e-mail just prior to the luncheon. And there I find

a r-e-j-e-c-t-i-o-n.

And I am bummed.

Never mind how grown up we all try to be about having our work turned down, it still stings when someone says, “Not for us.” As Sandy says, we gradually reach a point where we take these rejections in stride as being part of the job. Maybe our sulk time shortens and the hysterics diminish. But come on, I’m having a Rejection Moment here. How about a moment of silence?

Okay, I’m back.

Today I visited with several other writers, among them some of the brightest and best. And guess what? One of them just got turned down twice; same for another. Others mention how hard it has been lately for them to get approval for new projects. These are STARS for Pete’s sake. I also talked with editors and they, too, lament how difficult it can be these days to get a book accepted. I mentioned earlier in my conversation with Sandy that I developed a habit years ago to keep a list of potential publishers for every new manuscript so that I could get a rejected manuscript back in circulation as soon as possible after it came back. The tactic still works. We’ve talked about dealing with rejection before the fact and how to handle it after it happens. Here’s my executive summary.

1. Write something.
2. Polish it until you can’t read it without sunglasses.
3. Study the market.
4. Make a list of potential publishers.
5. Submit to the one at the top of the list.
6. Remind yourself that there is a strong chance you’ll be rejected.
7. Be prepared to hold the briefest pity part possible before going to #2 on your list.
8. See #7.
9. See #7.
10. See #7.
11. If you sell something, bask in the glow, but don’t get used to the idea that you are now invincible.
12. See #7

Sorry to be so spotty lately with my posting. Once I’m home again it won’t take long to get back on schedule.


WRITERS AT WORK, Reality of Rejection (Part 3)

Hi everyone,

We’re back with another episode of WRITERS AT WORK. Sandy Asher and I started this informal chat about the nuts and bolts of writing two and a half months ago. This is our third subject. We’ve talked about The Care and Feeding of Ideas and Dealing with Obstacles to Writing. This month we’re focusing on The Reality of Rejection. Remember, if you feel moved to join the conversation, jump right in. If you are interested in writing a longer piece on the subject, get in touch with me to see about being a Featured Author. And at the end of every month, Sandy brings together the total conversation on the subject and posts it on America Writes for Kids. http://usawrites4kids.drury.edu/

This week is Sandy’s turn again. And here she is now.

Topic 3: The Reality of Rejection
Response 3: Sandy Asher“ . . . Ignorant editor, stupid economy, out of touch editorial board, backward sales force, malicious promotion director, clueless art director . . .”

David! What a delicious incantation! I think I’ll post it above my computer and chant it out loud – with gusto! – whenever another rejection rolls in. Take that and that and THAT! I just know I’ll feel cleansed, cheered, and most importantly, energized.

Anger has its up side. It tells us our needs are not being met. It provides the adrenaline rush needed to get them met. Earlier I mentioned “revenge” as a response to rejection. Sounds destructive, but guess what? Properly employed, revenge can be quite a healthy and productive response. I figured that out just about the time the steady waves of rejection finally began denting and rusting my faux armor of ignorant self-assurance. (For more about that, see Response 1.) As I tore open more and more dreaded envelopes containing returned manuscripts, I took to sprawling on the sofa for long, sometimes tearful, sulks. My husband and children would wander by, murmuring words of sympathy and encouragement. Sort of.

Me: Whatever made me think I could publish my work? What made me think I could even write? Never again. I give up. I mean it!

Them: How long is it going to last this time? Are you planning to cook dinner or what?

Eventually, even I would grow tired of my own self-pity. That’s when the second tsunami would wash over me: REVENGE!

Me: I will revise this thing until it’s so wonderful the next editor to see it will snap it up – and it will be so successful the rest of them will eat their hearts out that they didn’t grab it when they had the chance.

Them: Okay. So what’s for dinner?

I’m not a vengeful person normally, but I do have an older brother, so I learned early to stop sniveling and fight back. My current household confirmed that sniveling would get me nowhere. But thoughts of literary revenge gave me the energy I needed to stand up and get back to work. And cook dinner, too.

These days, I’m less of a drama queen. No kids at home means a reduced audience anyway. “Self-pity Meets Revenge” is a short one-act instead of a full-length play, and it’s performed mainly inside my head. But that “I’ll show them!” impulse still gets the adrenaline flowing.

Not everyone needs to face rejection. Writing is a good thing. Writing for oneself, one’s family, one’s friends – all valid and worthwhile endeavors. Writing for professional publication is a whole other challenge. As I’ve often told my students, “It’s art when you create it; it’s art when your audience receives it. Everything in between is BUSINESS.” Rejection is an unavoidable part of that business. But no one’s required to go there. If you can be happy doing anything else, do that other thing and write for the joy of it. But if you can’t be happy without sharing your work through professional publication, figure on spending considerable time wending your way through the Big Business Forest that stands between you and your audience. Prepare to meet lions and tigers and bears. Oh, my.

I don’t remember which Hollywood mogul said it, but an agent passed it on: “If I’d known I was getting into this business, I never would’ve gotten into this business.”

Well, I’m in it. If you decide publication is the way you must go, learn to read between the lines of those rejections. The standard form says, “Not for us at this time.” Okay, that’s a “no.” But it does leave open, “Maybe for someone else at some other time.” The handwritten note, even a “Sorry” scribbled at the bottom of a standard form, means “Not for us, but, busy as I am, I still want to let you know you’ve impressed me.” The more extensive personal comment means, “Not for us, but likely for someone else, and I’m hoping we connect with another piece soon.” And if an editor’s comments end with “If you’re willing to revise along these lines, I’d like to see this again,” you’ve got an open door. Walk through it!

Hang onto those personal comments. Editors do not make them lightly. I keep a collection of them and was able to remind an editor of her former kind words when submitting something entirely different to her years later, after she’d moved to another publishing house. She remembered. That’s how much those comments mean to a busy editor taking the time and making the effort to write them!

Oh, and given her new job and my new material, she was able to offer an entirely different response: “Yes.” So, burn no bridges behind you. David’s incantation is strictly for home use only. Repeat as needed, then forge ahead!

Your turn to wrap it up, David.

WRITERS AT WORK, Reality of Rejection, Part 2

Greetings everyone,

Welcome to another Tuesday session of WRITERS AT WORK. Our current (and third topic) is dealing with rejection. Sandy Asher led off last week with the initial response. Here’s mine. Don’t forget, we welcome your comments and additions. Longer pieces may qualify for Guest Author spots. At the end of each month Sandy posts the entire conversation on our America Writes for Kids blog site.

Topic 3: The Reality of Rejection
Response 2: David
November 9, 2010

Sandy, I enjoyed your remarks, all the more because they sound so déjà vu-ish. I hope that someone reading this has a better story to tell than yours or mine, but early, easy success, as far as I know, is rarer than a joke book from Kirkus.

My quest for publication began as a college science major. I took a creative writing class and the professor told me I had a knack for writing. Being unfamiliar with the market (Oops, was there a class in that?), I dreamed of instant recognition, which would save a lot of time and work. My voice was so singular, so remarkable, so undiscovered that somewhere an insightful editor was going to read my story, slap his forehead, and gasp incredulously. Okay, that last part was over the top. But I’ve always wanted to write, “gasp incredulously,” and not be engaged in purple prose. Whatever, it didn’t happen.

In my hot pursuit of that head-slapping editor, I read that writers keep more than one story in circulation. Also, writers keep lists of places to send each story, on the remote chance that it comes back with its tale dragging, before rigor mortis of resolve sets in.

I followed both pieces of advice. I devoured Writers’ Market; made lists of “friendly” publishers; copied names of editors and mailing addresses; laid in a supply of 9×12 envelopes, address labels, and reassuring rolls of stamps; maintained detailed records of each story’s history of submissions and rejections; and churned out new stories with an impending sense of destiny. I took pride in having at least a dozen stories out at all times.

During the next half dozen years I averaged ten submissions per year. I averaged ten rejections. Net gain: zero. This was not the best time of my life. But it was the most necessary. Now, after dozens of books on my belt, I can laugh and say, “Ha-ha-ha, no more rejections for me!”

But, of course, that would not be true. Rejection is always with us. As Sandy points out, it’s not unusual to get turned down. There can be lots of reasons: Ignorant editor, the stupid economy, out of touch editorial board, backward sales force, malicious promotion director, clueless art director . . . Okay, sometimes maybe the story is a teeniest weeniest bit shy of the mark. These are obstacles we live with. Emerging writers may feel rejection a bit more personally than beat up old pros. At some point a writer becomes more philosophical about rejections. He or she learns to roll with them to a certain extent. They still smart and frustrate and aggravate. But editors, some claim, don’t really hate us. They work for companies that hope to show the stockholders a profit at the end of the year. How mundane.

Here’s my advice to emerging writers. Frame your first rejection letter. Choose a nice frame and hang it where you can see it every day. It may only be an impersonal printed slip but it’s still important enough to keep. The first rejection is your ticket into the fraternity of eternally optimistic folks who make up stories, write nonfiction, or pour out their hearts in poems. There is no sin in being rejected. The only sin is in quitting because the big boys kicked sand in your face.

Sandy, back to you.


WRITERS AT WORK, Reality of Rejections (Part 1)

REMINDER: Don’t forget about our new challenge, the Woza Woza Poem, which will grow each day throughout the month as we add a new line contributed by readers. I started yesterday with this line:

Today I saw something I’ve never seen before.

Cory Corrado has given us a potential second line:
A sea of cinnamon swirls surfing the forest floor.

We have the rest of today to accept other possible second lines so get busy. I said that this first poem can be free verse but free verse is also free to rhyme now and then when needed. Your suggested lines do not have to rhyme. Tomorrow we’ll need a third line to see where this begins to take us.

Welcome to WRITERS AT WORK, the ongoing conversation I’m having with Sandy Asher about the nuts and bolts of being a writer. As we begin a new month, we open the floor for our third topic. This month the subject is, The Reality of Rejection. What hurts more than rejection? And what do writers share in common? Rejection. It’s Sandy’s turn to lead off, so here we go. Don’t forget to chime in any time with your own thoughts and experiences on this painful but necessary topic. For anyone interested in writing a long enough piece to qualify as a Guest Author on my blog, let me know. At the end of each month Sandy takes the complete conversation on the current subject and posts it on America Writes for Kids so that’s a good place to see everything in one document. That link is http://usawrites4kids.drury.edu/

Topic 3: The Reality of Rejection
Response 1: Sandy
November 2, 2010

Rejection. Huge sigh. The very word picks at the scabs of ancient schoolyard wounds. The myth, the hope, the dream is that literary – and perhaps even personal — rejection will end once we’ve “got our foot in the door.” That may be true if the foot belongs to J.K. Rowling, but it’s not true for most of the rest of us. I’ve had my foot in the publishing door for well over 40 years now. Rejection continues to graze nearby, raising its beastly head from time to time to charge my way.

If it’s okay with you, David, I’d like to talk about dealing with rejection BEFORE it happens in this first part of our chat and dealing with it AFTER it happens when I chime in later.

My favorite pastime during the first 10 or 15 years of my writing career was reading other authors’ comments in writers’ magazines about the numerous times their work had been rejected before it finally got published –10, 15, 20, 25. After a while, I didn’t need those reports anymore, because I had my own war stories to tell, but I believed in the happy ending: Those folks did, eventually, get published. I clung to that happy ending with all my might. I was willing to battle my way through any forest of tangled and thorny vines to get to it. What I wasn’t willing to do, at first, was acknowledge that our field has rules and that I need to play by those rules if I hoped to get anywhere.

There were no marketing skills taught in my college creative writing classes. I happened to see a copy of THE WRITER on a news stand one day, bought it, and submitted a poem I’d written in class to a tiny literary journal I found listed inside. I sent the poem off without requesting a sample copy of the journal to study first, and without enclosing a self-addressed, stamped envelope for its very possible return.

A few weeks later, I received a postcard telling me the poem had been accepted for publication. A dream come true, and possibly the worst thing that could have happened to me at that stage in my development. I thought, “Oh, this is easy! All I have to do is write stuff down, mail it off, and they’ll print it up and send back money.” (Well, okay, not money — but two contributor’s copies and that’s a start!)

So I sent out all the poems, stories, plays, and articles I could think up, as fast as I could get them down on paper. Never mind rewriting — I was clearly a genius. Never mind studying the markets. If publications had rules, and THE WRITER hinted that they indeed might, they’d break them for me because everything I wrote was divinely inspired.

About ten years into this vigorous, and arrogant, attack, I had indeed published quite a few pieces, but when I finally paused to take account, I realized that for every 50 envelopes stuffed with brilliance I was sending out, 49 stories, poems, plays, and articles were coming back rejected, and ONE was getting accepted for publication. Chimpanzees typing randomly could probably have done as well.

The moral of this story reflects ten years of trial and error on my part. May it spare you much effort and time: Study the market. When editors state their requirements in a market guide or in contest rules or at conferences — believe them. I can’t promise that will stop rejection in its tracks, but it’ll definitely slow the beast down.

Sandy, lots to think about in your lead response. I’ll consider my own feelings on the subject and post them next Tuesday, November 9. See you then.