Can you handle the truth?

In the world of publishing we (hopefully) agonize over a project until it is perfect and present something we believe in our hearts is an incredibly awesome work of art. So it’s never any fun when our projects are rejected by an agent or publisher. In 30+ years of publishing children’s books, here’s my take on the R word.

When I first started submitting projects and portfolios, the responses were almost always personal, and most of them were rejections. The rejections were not exactly what I wanted to hear, but I relished the feedback and still have some of those helpful and encouraging letters from the 1980s-90s. I was glad that someone important read my story and had something to say that might make it better! I knew their opinion was subjective and that someone else might feel differently, but I was also aware that they knew more about what I was doing than I did. I felt lucky that these people gave me those precious minutes of their time and expertise. I learned a lot from their feedback and have since sold projects to a couple of the editors who rejected earlier projects!

A very helpful letter about Pussycat Ate the Dumplings, Cat Rhymes from Mother Goose. I eventually sold the revised version to an editor who loved cats.

However, not everyone relishes or at least appreciates the value of rejection letters. They don’t realize that maybe their project came close and this could be an editor or agent who they might eventually work with. Editors I wound up knowing well enough to talk about these things told horror stories of writers who gave them a lot of grief for daring to reject their brilliance. There were nasty responses, hastily written revisions sent without being invited, insistent and frequent phone calls, personal confrontations, and even lawsuits over assumed promises of publication when the editor requested a revision and ultimately rejected a project. I experienced similar problems when I used to critique manuscripts or listened to table talk at conferences. Some folks just couldn’t handle the truth, even if it was sugar coated until it shined.

I did talk about the R word in my SCBWI conference workshops. I wanted people to feel good that someone took the time to read their work and respond, even if it was not what they hoped to hear. But alas, many people missed the point of how valuable that professional criticism could be. And in time, most editors stopped sending out personal rejection letters unless they knew the writer or her work, or it was submitted through an agent. To note, the reasons also had to do with increased workloads and cutbacks.

So these days, a “no response means no” policy or a form rejection with no comments are the standard responses un-agented authors get unless the editor or agent is interested enough to publish the work or sees enough promise that they go out on a limb with a request for a revision. It’s a sad state of affairs, for sure. How can an un-agented writer or illustrator get that valuable feedback their work most likely needs before it’s truly publishable?

Learn to handle the truth. Pay for a professional critique, either through a conference or by finding a qualified freelance editor, and learn to deal with what they have to suggest. While it is true that their opinion is subjective, remember to consider the source. Probably at least something they tell you is worthy of pondering. Don’t get defensive. Don’t ask for your money back or rant on your social media outlets (I’ve seen this done, it amazes me!). And please, don’t self-publish your work in defiance. While some very wonderful books have been given a pass by publishers for a variety of reasons, and we’ve all read those stories, most all of the projects that are rejected can use some rethinking – i.e. research on the appropriate market, consideration of the audience you are hoping to reach, genre, word count, reading level, etc.

We can always use some constructive criticism from other professionals, regardless of how much our loving and mostly clueless friends and family love everything we do. All of our projects require a brave, mature creator who can handle the truth, embrace it, and learn from it.

Addendum: the day after I posted this, Jessica Faust of Bookends posted yet another horror story. You can read “How Not to Impress an Agent” here.

6 Comments Add yours

  1. Good advice. Once we love our story, rejection and/or critique is hard to hear. Even if the person raves but has one suggestion, our brain only hears that it’s not perfect. Rather than dismiss everything the person said, or just give up on that story, I learned to nod my head, take notes, then let the information sit for a month or more. By then my raw emotions are calmed and I can really analyze the comments, sort through what is good advice or suggestions that resonate for me, and identify what might be more opinion that may not work for me or my goals with a story. Even if the suggestions aren’t right for me, I try to see why they’d want/think that would work. Maybe I didn’t do my job as well as I had thought and need to focus on fixing it my way, but fixing it nonetheless. It’s amazing how often something that sounded so off-base when I first heard it is so helpful when I’m able to be open to it.

    1. Robin Koontz says:

      Thanks, Ruth. Yours is a mature and common-sense approach. Glean what we can and go from there! I’ve certainly had my feelings hurt and have been disappointed, many times, but we must never shoot the messenger. After posting this I was alerted to more nightmare stories from agents and editors about how some writers react to criticism or even thoughtful positive suggestions for a revision (where they might then buy the book!) and it’s appalling how childish people can be. And sadly, some of them become successful anyway! I hope Karma comes ’round in the end.

  2. Good analysis and good advice, Robin, and so helpful to those just starting out as writers or illustrators.

    For all writers, “Don’t kill the messenger” can, in this case, be changed to “Don’t kill the message” — don’t reject the good suggestions usually found in a personal reject letter just because you may be stunned by what the editor has said about a work you thought was ready for publication.

    1. Robin Koontz says:

      Thanks. There are better articles about dealing with rejection, but I figured one more can’t hurt.

  3. Becky Hickox says:

    Oh boy–well put and so true. After much experience in being the recipient and giver of manuscript critiques, I feel so contrite about the way I received my first at an SCBWI conference years ago. Although not rude (I hope) to the well-known author, I was clearly upset and close to tears. The truth turned out to be the truth (in retrospect the story WAS trite and predictable, alas)–and no I couldn’t handle it. Glad I quickly learned to appreciate honest feedback!

    1. Robin Koontz says:

      Thanks Becky. I think we all have to lick our wounds for a while when someone says that our beloved projects are not as brilliant as we thought. You handled the truth, it was just really difficult. Unlike the bloke who tossed a plate of food on an editor at a conference I attended a few years back. He did not handle the truth very well. 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s