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?