LETTERS FROM THE EDITOR

by Gar Anthony Haywood

A little over a month ago, I finished a book I’d been working on for almost a year.  It’s my first crack at a chapter book for young readers, in this case middle-schoolers grade 6 through 8.  I don’t want to say too much about it here because the manuscript’s still out making the rounds and I don’t want to jinx anything.  But for the purposes of this discussion, what you need to know is that it was inspired by the wonderful, zany, hilarious (IMO) work of Daniel Pinkwater, a prolific giant in the kid-lit universe, and as such, it’s not going to be for everybody.  Off-center comedy never is.

As you might expect, my wife Tessa and our two children, Maya and Jackson, were my first-readers, and the three of them loved the book.  LOVED it.  Which was one hell of a relief, let me tell you, because they’d been bugging me to try a children’s book, and finish this one, for ages, and if I’d rewarded all their patience with a dud, well…  Let’s just say I might at this very moment be taking that plunge off the Bedford Falls bridge Jimmy Stewart only contemplates taking around this time every year.

Still, what an author’s first-readers — spouses, children, aunts and uncles, etc. — think about a book doesn’t always foreshadow how agents and editors will react to it.  Quite often, in fact, the two schools of thought are diametrically opposed.  So while I found great encouragement in my family’s rave review, I didn’t put too much stock in it.  The professionals had yet to speak, and they’re the ones, after all, who write the checks.

My agent greatly enjoyed the book and promptly sent it out.  Two rejections are already in, and here’s what the first one sounded like:

“I realize this is a farce but I don’t find it very funny and I think it is problematic that this manuscript doesn’t use real responses to censorship as a springboard to the action, but instead creates a fake situation just for the sake of the story. Good luck finding the right editor for this.”

My First Reaction: Fear.  Uh-oh.  This does not bode well.

My Second Reaction: Indignation.  Wait, this humorless putz edits children’s books?  And he/she wants to complain about a lack of “real responses” in my novel after conceding that it’s a farce?  What’s wrong with this picture?

My Final Reaction: Fear again.  Uh-oh.  What if the putz is right?

Because sometimes the putz is right, and in fact is not even a putz at all, and you and all your first-readers are wrong.  Your book is either dead on arrival or seriously flawed, and the sooner you face up to the fact and get down to the business of fixing it (or trashing it), the sooner you’re likely to make your next sale.  Denial just costs you time you can’t afford to waste.

On the other hand, giving up on a viable manuscript just because an editor or two (or three) doesn’t care for it can be just as unproductive, if not more so.  Editors have agendas, and biases, and bad days just like all the rest of us, so their judgment can’t always be trusted as certifiable.  And the scope of what they can buy these days — non-potential blockbusters need not apply — severely dampens their enthusiasm for books that don’t fit the bill.

I’ve never done an exact count, but I would estimate that my agent and I received over thirty rejections over a period of 18 months for my last novel CEMETERY ROAD.  Some were incredibly kind, others blunt to the point of cruelty, but all, in the end, were expressions of indifference to a novel I firmly believed was the best I’d ever written.  After all those rejections, had I put the book down (to use an equestrian term), who could have blamed me?

And yet. . .

When the book was eventually published by Severn House, it earned me some of the best reviews of my career.  Positive fan mail continues to flow in, like this email I received just this week:

“Just a quick note to say how much I enjoyed CEMETERY ROAD.   A friend loaned me her copy.  I liked it so much that when I went to Amazon to send it as a gift to my elderly Aunt Connie (who will love it), I passed up the used copies so you’d get your pittance in the royalties.

“You really did a terrific job weaving plausible, interesting characters engaged in a complicated, suspenseful, believable plot.  Keep up the good work.  I’m looking forward to reading the books you have already written and reading the ones you will write in the years to come.”

Do letters and reviews like this invalidate all the rejections the book received earlier?  Emotionally, yes.  But not every rejection CEMETERY ROAD received from editors to whom it was submitted, regardless of how well appreciated the book has been since its publication, was misguided, or the work of a clueless dunderhead.  Many were honest and heartfelt and exactly the right call for the editor’s house at that moment in time.

Which brings me to the conundrum I face yet again today, as I wait for more editorial responses to my Daniel Pinkwater homage for young readers to dribble in:

How to know when to take a rejection letter to heart and when to line your birdcage with it?

Questions for the Class: When do you take rejection seriously enough to rethink a manuscript’s viability?  Are editors the best judges of a great read, or do readers tend to do a better job of recognizing greatness?

15 thoughts on “LETTERS FROM THE EDITOR

  1. Alaina

    I'm not yet to the points where editors can tell me about things; I'm still relying on agents.

    If I get a third partial request and rejection for the same reason– that it's good, but they don't think it's commercial enough/will sell well enough– then I'm going to look at my story hard for a while. It's when all the people who reject you agree on something that you really need to change.

    I used the same approach to my beta-readers. I had three of them. They agreed on two or three points. Those were the ones I changed. The ones where they disagreed on, I thought about what they had to say and pondered for an eternity (it felt like).

    And I can't answer the editor/reader question, sorry!

  2. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Man, this is a tough one. I tend to believe that if you are fully behind your work before sending it out – that you've put on your critical thinking cap and run every scenario in your head, and you're still behind the material, and if you put your faith in others whose opinions you respect, ie, your wife and kids, and they came back positive, and you put your faith in your agent, and he/she comes back positive….stand behind it. Let the editors say what they will. Find the ONE editor who stands with you.
    I had numerous negative responses to Boulevard. I had a top editor say he was interested only if I was prepared to do major rewrites.
    I found the ONE editor who loved the book the way it was, with minor, simple editorial changes. And he fought the battles FOR me from that point on.
    Go with your gut.

  3. Allison Davis

    Ah, the push me, pull you issue of confidence in your work (You are the artist after all) and when to defer to others. At what point do you compromise to please the editor, and when do you stick to your belief in your work, and keep searching for "the one." I'm with SJS, follow your gut, your heart or your belief — you'll know if it's wrong to compromise or if someone is wrong. The "Harry Potter" experience tells a good tale.

    But you have to know the difference between a good product that you believe it, and a product that may have flaws you haven't seen…hopefully that is the feedback from your inner circle to validate your own feelings.

    At least you are worrying about editors. Some of us are still at the "wife and kids" stage (only some of us don't have wife and kids). I should have your problems. Sit tight. Good things are in your future.

  4. Susan Shea

    Boy, you jump right into the tender parts of this business, don't you, Gar? Since Cemetery Road is an outstanding novel (I've already done my fan thing so I won't repeat it), it is a gift from you to other authors to confess it went out to 30 editors before finding the right one – going through that process is never easy. Hearing an editor's feedback can be useful, but sometimes it's too vague or too singular to mean much. The 'pass' you quoted was pretty strong, though! Good luck with the book – may it find the right home.

  5. Reine

    Gar, hi. What I am not quite getting is why the forced choice? Why does starting the next book preclude working on and for the submitted, but yet-to-be . . . um . . . not rejected?

  6. Reine

    Gar, I do love your real-life descriptive style. I am very anxious to see how this might play out in your YR. All that odd-sounding criticism makes me all the more curious. I am a huge fan of a few YR authors and ah kind of slid into that through the HP series that I only started to read for the med students who wanted a Hogwarts type of back to school banquet. Now I can't let go of the genre. I find myself wanting to write in the genre and not knowing how. So really, please don't give up on the idea, eve if you decide to let go of – but please do not – the one you've been sending out.

    And I hope if I should ever find myself in such a position, my agent will be like Alex's, because I would totally fold. You get extra stars for not folding.

  7. PD Martin

    Heartfelt post, Gar! And one that I can relate to having recently done the rounds with agents all over again – my agent passed away last year.

    I think it's good to show readers, authors and aspiring authors that just because you're published doesn't mean it's easy times.

    Good luck with the YA and stay with it! As Allison said, remember the Harry Potter story and stick with it until you find the right editor. I guess the only other thing you could do is pass it on to other readers who aren't your relatives πŸ™‚

    Phillipa

  8. Pari Noskin

    Gar,
    I think you go with your gut . . . the one that nags at you after all the other reactions of defensiveness and insecurity.

    Pay attention to your inner voice and let the criticisms bounce off of that for a real answer.

    That'll serve the artist in you and keep your creativity flowing. Be honest with yourself.

  9. David Corbett

    Gar:

    I REALLY wouldn't take this to heart. Editors are in a state of barely contained panic right now, because nothing's selling and they want to blame everyone but themselves for picking mediocre would-be megahits. You're right, CEMETERY ROAD was brilliant, and, well … Oh Christ, what's to say?

    Bunker down, don't take it personally — yeah, right — and keep on swinging. You're the real deal. They're the phonies. I mean it.

    David

  10. KDJames

    I have no experience with this and my opinion is probably less than worthless. Then again, I just wrote a blurb for my upcoming ebook and sent it to five readers and got five completely totally different opinions. So in that context at least, I empathize.

    Humour, especially satire, is so subjective. But I guess I'd ask whether you wrote that story because you wanted another published piece out there with your name on it or because you had a story you wanted to tell the best way you knew how. Okay fine, I know, you wanted both. We all do. But which one motivated you to spend a year writing it? I suspect it's the latter. In which case, eventually someone in a position to publish it will recognize and appreciate that passion and act on it. Or not. Sometimes people are just plain wrong. Sometimes they're wrong AND big stupid doodooheads.

    In the meantime, buy a bigger birdcage and write the next thing that inspires you. There is no such thing as a book everyone will love, just as there will never be a book so good that I won't ever have to read another. All we can do is keep writing.

  11. Gar Haywood

    Sorry to have bailed out on you guys — been playing landlord this week and got slammed installing a new wall heater for our tenant (don't ask).

    Stephen: That anybody had a negative word to say about BOULEVARD is a testament to the unreliability of editorial judgment I'm talking about here. Go with your gut, indeed.

    Allison: I don't think you ever want to make substantial changes to your work solely to please an editor. You should only do so when an editor's suggestions make sense to you, or at least don't strike you as off-base. In some cases, a leap of faith is what's necessary; you can't see the point in it, but you trust the editor's judgment enough to do what's being suggested. And thanks for the encouragement.

    Susan: Thank you for the kind words about CEMETERY ROAD.

    Alex: What I just wrote to Susan. You are very sweet. Rejection letters can indeed be hard to read but I have to say they can sometimes be incredibly entertaining, too, if only because they're so absurdly callous or impenetrable. Sometimes they're actually both. Still, can't say that I blame you for passing on the experience.

    Reine: I promise not to give up on the book or the genre. Writing it was too much fun.

    Pari: I don't feel particularly defensive or insecure. I'm just trying to make sense of what rejections mean in this day and age, when a great read, in and of itself, isn't necessarily enough to win an editor's heart. Not that they weren't always looking for the next million-copy bestseller, but that has now become a literal mandate, rather than an aside to the simple mission of finding and buying a good book.

  12. Gar Haywood

    David: Thanks, man. I didn't really write this post to suggest I'm fretting over two rejections, even as bad as the first one was. I'm just riffing on what a mystery this part of the writing life is. Who knows what to do with anybody's opinion about a book, good or bad?

    KD: The book was definitely a labor of love, so it is indeed my hope that some editor out there will recognize it as such and show it the proper respect and appreciation. And five figure advance.

  13. Pari Noskin

    Gar,
    I guess that's part of the reason I'm focusing on being true to my inner muse at the moment; I don't seem to have my hand on the pulse of what that next bestseller might be . . . so I just write . . .

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