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Writing A Rejection of a Rejection Letter

September 18, 2013
Deep inside the writing

Deep inside the writing

I get rejected a lot. At least one or two on slow days. As many as five on fast ones. I have a system set up on my mac that flashes the first few words of an incoming email in a little window at the upper left hand corner of my screen. I’m so good at reading rejections that I can usually tell from these curtailed snapshots whether it’s a rejection or an acceptance. It turns out “Thank you for sending us…” is as good as a loud buzzer on a game show–or that Wah wah wah wawawawa sound from cartoons. Just about anything personal at the start of a letter is good. So is “Congrats.” If it says “Congratulations,” I do back flips.

But alas, most are rejections. My Submittable account tells me I have over 400 of them — and that’s not anywhere near the total. I used to collect them back in the days of snail mail and postcards. My writing window sill was proudly adorned with these replies. Each one a big fat NO. But I saw them as little stepping stones toward the elusive YES. Because that’s what rejection is: a dreary prelude to a grand symphony.

Most of the time, rejection feels like nothing at all. Especially when I’m in a writing groove. So thick in the process of writing, when I feel like those early monks who literally drew themselves into the very scrolls they transcribed, sitting at the writing table under the curving leg of an R as big as a house. When I’m dwelling in the writing process like a friar in an alphabet house, rejection doesn’t touch me. Sometimes, though, it sneaks up on me. It makes me a little crazy. My house of letters falls on top of me. I tend to respond with words made up of four of my favorite letters.

Got a rejection today for a story that may be too subtle for most harried readers. The two main characters are admittedly unlikable. They don’t make you want to like them, but my hope was to paint them and their interaction in such a way as to make you want to, at least, see what trouble they can get their unlikable selves into before the story or your patience for them ends. Anyways, chalk this one up to Lessons from the Universe number 74-j.

The rejection was unusual because it contained a few snippets of feedback. That sounds good, right? We want individual feedback from editors, right? Well, we should be careful what we wish for.

Many editors are so busy that their personalized comments are perforce abbreviations of a larger, more well-thought out idea. What you get beyond the standard repertoire of reasons– “not enough tension,” “didn’t jolt us emotionally,”–generally boils down to exactly what you get in the usual template rejection– “it’s not quite right for us.”

How I wish that, just once, a crueler type of person than most editors are would grab the brass ring of editor-in-chief and write back to rejected submitters with all the charm of an ejected bullet casing. “This sucked.” “We didn’t like it.” Or else (the hair-band version): “Writer, don’t walk away mad. Writer, just walk away.”

The problem is that specificity is a tea woefully steeped in bias–not enough tension, unclear turning point, no clear thematic message, and now–the latest in a string of actual comments from editors which I shall file under TMI–unlikable protagonist.

I’ve decided to practice the fine art of writing rejection letters back to my rejection letters. You should give it a try. It’s loads of fun. Here’s what I’ve got so far:

Dear Garrulous Editor,

Thank you for sending us “Your Two Cents”. We appreciate the chance to read it. Unfortunately, the advice is not quite right for us.

Best of luck in placing this advice elsewhere.
Michael Chaney

From → writing tips

  1. Ha, love your article. You might appreciate this…

  2. pi314chron permalink

    HAHAHA! Way to go, Michael! An idea whose time has come. Brilliant!


    • Many thanks–yet it would seem that this idea is as old as the first rejection letter. It’s time has been brewing for many, many years. I think we should share our rejection letters to rejection letters with each other on our blogs. The best one wins a prize!

  3. I like it. And for someone like me, just starting out in the business, a good heads-up. Thanks Billy

  4. Ah, this piece was a soothing balm for my own rejection wounds. and I love this idea of posting rejection of rejection letters. The only rejection I’ve had so far with real merit came from Word Riot. So kudos to them, I guess.

    • I have enough Word Riot rejections to start my own Magnet School. I arrange my Word Riot rejections in order of height for group photos. They’re learning different instruments now. Soon my Word Riot rejections will take to the field in Beefeater Hats and red velvety epaulettes. I’m going to teach ’em to do a mean rendition of “Eye of the Tiger”

  5. Love your piece. I once scrawled Kiss My Ass with a felt pen across a rejection letter and mailed it back. Gave me great satisfaction at the time, but, of course, came back to bite that same ass years later.

  6. I had a news editor once, (in the days of typewriters) who would get so frustrated and enraged by our appalling ineptitude that he would (occasionally) rip up the copy we had put in his basket and stamp on it. Unfortunately, for him, this caused a wave of nervous titters in the newsroom which ended in him storming off to the pub in disgust, where he would eventually buy us all a round of drinks. Rejection letters still suck; maybe they should come with a beer voucher attached.

  7. Here’s one I’d like to reject, but the time has come that I’ve been forced to acknowledge, blah blah blah:

    Well, it’s finally happened: after over thirty years of answering every query letter that has ever come my way, I’ve been forced to finally acknowledge that a new era is upon us all. Before the arrival of e-mail submissions, I used to receive perhaps one hundred queries a week. That was a lot of queries but it wasn’t frankly unmanageable. The XXX Agency now receives more than twice that on a daily basis and it’s becoming impossible to attend to much of anything else! I’m so sorry for the impersonal response, I hate to do this. Writing a good book or a good proposal is among the hardest things in the world to do; I promise, we’re not unsympathetic! You have our word that we are reading every single query letter that comes our way, but from now on, we’re only responding personally if we’re sufficiently curious and would like to read further. Please don’t take offense at this Draconian measure– there is undoubtedly a wonderful agent out there for whom your book might just be the perfect match. Toward that end, we wish you all the best!

  8. Love it 🙂

  9. I like it! And for someone like me just starting out in the business…nice heads-up on what to expect. Thanks.

  10. I got a giggle out of this post, Michael. I’m not quite to the point where I’m submitting my work, but I have accepted that I’m going to get at least a couple hundred rejection letters before I get a “Congratulations!” letter. I like to think I’m ready. 😀

  11. I always love to read about famous authors’ rejections. It always makes me feel better! Like this –

    I also wish I could write back to all rejection letters with my favorite quote from The Big Lebowski. “Yeah, well… that’s just, like, uh… your opinion, man.”

    • Close associates of mine aver that I can “do” that exact quotation in a spot-on dialect. Maybe it’s all the surfing I dreamed of doing as a kid. Maybe it was the 90s: I blame Clinton and Nirvana.

  12. This reminded me of a comic I saw recently. I think you’ll enjoy it.

  13. My favorite ‘two cents’ is from a review of my very first novel, written at age 22. The reviewer called my dystopian sic-fi “relentlessly melancholic”. What a way to start off a writing career. 20 years later I recently got a “witty, wryly humorous” which I think ALMOST evens the score out. ALMOST.

    • For my first academic book, one cagey reviewer called me “murkily brilliant.” I loved that so much I’m still considering it as a tattoo across my belly a la Tupac’s Thug4Life, only mine’ll say–“MurkilyBrilliant4Life”

  14. Hi Michael, me again. Thanks for writing about things like rejection – it’s very humane. One of my favourite ever talks was given by an incredible screen writer 2 years ago, the wonderful Charlie Kaufman on the Bafta’s “Guru”. You can listen to the full version here, or watch highlights. It’s so frank and open and earnest… it’s beautiful:

  15. For what it’s worth, as a writer and an editor, I hate rejection letters. Ugly part of the jobs. But I only add my “two cents” if I think the writer’s worth a damn. I love the idea of sending rejections to editor rejections. There could ensue a sort of never ending Beckettian nightmare between the two parties… there might even be a short story in that.

    • Beckettian nightmares are my favorite to have! They’re so much more funny than Freudean ones–or Faulknerian ones, Gawd! Please no more of those.

  16. Ajaytao2010 permalink

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  17. Dorian permalink

    I’m reading Stephen King’s “On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft” (awesome book), and he nailed all of his rejection slips on the wall with a giant spike. Got so many he graduated to the spike after pushpins and nails for the first while… So I guess that’s encouraging to the rest of us! I appreciated your image of the friar tucked away in his work, hermitesque… I identify. It’s easy not to care about the rejections then. But when we stop making art and look too long at those emails… that’s when writing ego suffers! Kinda like a plotline, I’m finding: gotta keep the forward progression to survive this thing.

  18. I’ve just started writing seriously and I’m glad I came across this post. Bracing myself for those rejections! Great post!

    • Brace away! It gets easy. Real easy—but then, painful as it is to admit, it becomes sort of hard again. But then, it’s easy street again, until… well, you get the idea. It’s all life, I suppose, in yet another guise.

  19. Haha! I recall commenting on your old posts that I couldn’t believe you get rejected a lot. This time I still don’t!

    Anyway, I fully agree with your point. As an artist who gets rejected sometimes (I guess if not a lot as of yet, that means I definitely still lack experience), I get demoralized or even mad at the rejection due to the “cluelessness” of their point. I get it if my work’s not that good, but sometimes, I also have a rational interpretation in which why I did that said work. And if they only comply such as “meh, I don’t like it… make another better”, nobody will be able to comprehend what they actually want. Specificity really is the key to betterment.

    • Specificity is the key. I couldn’t agree more. And my rejections are numerous and lusty–they multiply like rabbits.

      • Ooh, I take it you see rejections as sexy. I’ll try to make it flirty for me too haha!

  20. Reblogged this on heatherzhutchinswrites and commented:
    What a novel idea–pun intended! Let’s all create some rejection of rejection letters.

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