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When to Reject Rejection


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48954705593_7f3910efc8_c-1.jpeg?resize=5This is a short PSA.

I want to talk about a very specific kind of rejection from editors – the one about how they just didn’t connect with the main character or characters. It has variations, but basically they didn’t find the character likable or relatable enough or they didn’t fall in love with the character enough – not to the level they needed in order to make an offer.

I’ve been publishing for decades. I’ve had twenty-some novels published. This means that I’ve seen a lot of rejection. For every novel that found an editor, there was a stack of rejections. Plus, many of my friends are writers and I’ve taught writing for years so I also hear from my students with books that have gone out on submission.

And so, friends come to me after a few rejections of this kind and they’re often upended. They now believe that they wrote characters that are unlovable. They have to rewrite the book so that their characters deserve love or at least to be liked.

Of course the writers can’t help but take it personally. I don’t have to go on here about where characters come from.

Women writers often hear the message within the message and it’s not new to them. Be more likable. It can land as: Why don’t you have your characters smile more? Why can’t you smile more?

For writers who come from underrepresented communities, who are BIPOC or LGBTQ+, those who are writing about things like poverty or violence against women – this list could go on and on — the note that the editor doesn’t connect to the characters can land hard. It can seem that the publishing world is telling the writer that their experience is too foreign, too much from the edges. It can feel like being othered when often the entire novel exists in order to show – beautifully, painfully – what othering feels like.

I don’t think editors are mindful of this at all. This is a larger problem that I won’t tackle here. I believe this response is so pervasive that it is, to them, a clear and quick way – a nearly nondescript way – to pass on a novel. Often the rejection comes with compliments about the writing but they do little to help if the larger note is so disorienting.

It’s become an absolutely predictable part of the process of having a friend’s book go to editors, so much so that I have prepared speeches to talk them through this kind of rejection.

I mainly tell them that this response — not connecting with the main character — is as close to a form rejection as it gets. It is the “I’m so sorry I already have plans” of the publishing world.

It means nothing. Do not fold. Do not rewrite your characters to make them shinier or more likable – whatever that means. Do not change in order to be more universal. We know the loss that can come from that — for you and for readers who need your specific voice and lived experience. Do not rewrite in hopes of connecting your experience to the unknowable experience of an unknowable editor.

Rewrite, revise – yes. Make the work stronger, always. But do not smile for them.

All of these responses – and likely many others that I’m not privy to – can open up old wounds, land hard in the writer’s body, and can end up being something they have to carry for a long time.

My hope in writing this PSA is that – before you have a book go out to the market – you expect this response from an editor here and there, and when you see it appear, you can stand a bit removed from it and say, “Oh, I was warned about you.”

And then move on and away.

Have you ever rejected a rejection? Why? 

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About Julianna Baggott

Julianna Baggott is the bestselling, critically acclaimed author of over twenty books. Her novels Harriet Wolf’s Seventh Book of Wonders and Pure were New York Times Notable Books. She writes under her own name and pen names Bridget Asher and N.E. Bode — most notably, The Provence Cure for the Brokenhearted, and, for younger readers, The Anybodies and The Prince of Fenway Park. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Washington Post, Boston Globe, Best American Poetry, and on NPR’s Talk of the Nation, All Things Considered, and Here & Now. She’s the creator of Efficient Creativity: The Six-Week Audio Series. For 50% off, use the PROMO-CODE: UNBOXED. Learn more about Julianna and her books on her website.

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While I agree that negative character comments in rejection letters can simply be boilerplate, it is true that many agents and editors (as well as readers) wish to become emotionally affixed early on to the protagonist, feel sympathetic towards them, like them on some level as opposed to finding them bland or disagreeable.

Here is an article about the subject with examples from various novels: 

WWW.NOVELWRITINGONEDGE.COM

Novel Writing on Edge is a time-tested and trusted source for all genres on the topics of novel writing, development, editing, and publishing.

 

And btw, the statement about the character "smiling more" sounds absurd on the face of it. 

Just doesn't make much sense.

Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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