A good friend of mine, with an especially bad history of boyfriends, once told me a tale about her worst date. The guy in question actually picked her up from a friend’s house to take her to the restaurant. This might have scored him some brownie points had it not led her to wonder which he had last cleaned – the car or his armpits? So great was the throat stopping odour of unscrubbed body parts that she was actually glad when he filled the car with cigar smoke and cranked Barry Manilow to the max on his stereo.
Through the haze of cigar smoke she noticed he was perched on the sort of cushion favoured by those stricken with haemorrhoids. En route to the restaurant he stopped to fill up his car. As he went to pay she glanced over at the cushion and a saw a huge, sticky puddle of blood and other liquids on it. She then glanced out the window at the seat of his pants and the large wet stain that glistened in the forecourt lights. It seemed that his haemorrhoids had just burst.
Choking back the vomit, my friend slipped off her heels scrawled a hasty note and then ran for her sweet life. The note read “So sorry, changed my mind. Please DON’T phone me xxx” Brutal perhaps but she had to do something. There are worse ways of breaking up with someone. One of my sister’s ex-boyfriends once ended their relationship by throwing a flaming bag of dog shit at her head (which probably tells you all you need to know about my family background). My friend chose to end this brief encounter with a rejection letter.
Which brings us rather neatly to the subject of this month’s column – Rejection Letters. If you have a writing career that lasts any length of time, then you’re going to amass a lot of these, from agents, editors and just about anyone to whom you send your work. They’re an unfortunate, but unavoidable part of our careers. Every writer gets them. Stephen King used to have a huge spike on his wall where he’d impale his rejection letters. James Lee Burke kept his in a shoebox and told himself one day he was going to autograph every one of them and auction them off. Every major publishing success of the last hundred years from Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz through to Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone has racked up an impressive pile of rejection letters.
Like all jobbing writers I’ve learned to cope with rejection letters and the disappointment they bring. What seems most ironic to me however, is that considering these letters are written by people whose job it is to spot good writing, they’re often not at all well written themselves. It’s not that they’re misspelled or riddled with the sort of mistakes that send grammar Nazis reaching for their Lugers, it’s just that I’m not sure enough thought was put into how they’re received.
I have to admit from the off that while I’ve had a career that’s included just about every form of professional writing, from journalism and copywriting to novels and scripts, I’ve never actually written a rejection letter myself. Not even to a guy who’s piles had just burst. So while I’m aware of what a difficult and delicate matter it is, it’s a dreaded deed I’ve never had to do (unlike excessive alliteration, which I can’t seem to get enough of).
George Bernard Shaw (a leading proponent of beards and plays that never seemed to end) once said: “the right to criticise is attained by the ability to do better”. As I can’t claim I would do a better job myself I decided instead to devote the rest of this column to helping those who are forced to shatter the hopes and trample on the dreams of budding writers everywhere. Think of it as a public service.
The best way I can think of to go about this is to write a composite rejection letter based on those that I, and my many colleagues, have received, showing what your average editor/agent says. Then below each line, in italics, I’ll show you what the budding author actually hears.
So here goes:
And I use the term Author in its loosest possible sense.
Thank you for sending us your manuscript.
No honestly, we really appreciate it. Our Mailboy’s been wanting a break for ages and thanks to the hernia you gave him lugging the blasted thing upstairs he can now take all the time he wants.
Unfortunately I’m afraid we can’t take it any further.
Any further than the incinerator that is, which is where the cliché-ridden, turgid pile of unreadable crap I referred to, even more loosely, as your ‘manuscript’ actually belongs.
While we took every care to consider your work…
Yeah right! I removed it from the envelope like it was an anthrax coated dog turd and flung it instantly into the slush pile. A toxic mound of manuscripts that have been festering in the corner of my office for so long that some of them are written in languages nobody speaks anymore. Then, to punish a junior employee for letting yet another best selling author slip through our fingers I commanded her to read it. She immediately stapled her eyelids shut to avoid doing this, so I was forced to hand it over to the chimp I hired as a teaboy, in our latest cost cutting programme, who had great fun using it as a target for his own faeces.
…we really don’t think there’s a market for it at the moment.
Outside of the seventh level of HELL that is! Where my rival colleagues should be forced to listen to you read it aloud for all eternity as a punishment for their insufferable smugness.
You must understand that we are a very small company and we receive a lot of submissions.
Me! Me! It’s all about MEEEEE! Never mind that I just wiped my butt with your dreams I’m now going to complain that I just burst a haemorrhoid while doing so!!! Do you have any idea how tough it is out there at the moment? Do you know how many kidneys my junior employees had to sell just to keep this place afloat?! And now to top it all off you want me to interrupt my nervous breakdown to read your unpublished work. I mean it’s not like it’s my job to read manuscripts or anything… oh wait …
But I’d like to take this opportunity to wish you lots of luck finding a home for your work elsewhere.
Cos lets face it Buddy, You Are Going To NEED IT!
yours &Etc …
A. S. S. Hole (D.Lit.)
If I’m honest, I don’t think there is an ideal way to write a rejection letter. No matter how you go about it, or how tactfully you choose your words, you’re still going to be dashing someone’s hopes. If you are landed with the unenviable task of writing one, might I politely suggest that you take the time to really consider how the person to whom you’re writing might take your words. Sometimes the most innocuous comment can turn out to be amazingly crass or insensitive.
From my own experience the worst rejection letter I ever received was from a children’s publisher who’d actually solicited a contribution from me then sent me a standard rejection letter that informed me that they were only a small imprint (owned by a multi-national publisher) so they had to: “…really, really love everything we publish.” A phrase which has the unspoken corollary “...and we fucking HATED your work.”
If you do receive a rejection letter yourself, the single best bit of advice I can give you is to make sure you always respond as politely and graciously as possible. I owe my entire career to the fact that I binned the excoriating rants I first dashed off to the ignoramuses who rejected my work, took a deep breath and instead wrote a polite and humble letter thanking them for the time and the trouble they took to consider my work. In many instances this opened up a correspondence that led to my first professional sales.
If I’d sent that first letter I’d probably be toiling as a teaboy for some two bit publisher right now and flinging my own faeces at the slush pile.
Trust your Uncle Jasp on this one. You know it makes sense.
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