Rejection letters

I just got my first rejection letter from a New Zealand publisher. A while ago I finished a fiction manuscript that I’m pretty happy with – happy, considering it’s a first and self-taught attempt – and started shopping it round literary agents in the UK. It’s set in England and I’d love to have it published there.

That pretty much went nowhere though, so I thought – ‘duh, New Zealand. Go direct to a publisher here’, which is why a few weeks later a letter arrived with the usual polite-but-firm “I’m afraid this is not suitable for our list”.

Don’t get me wrong – it was no drama – heck, when I got my first UK rejection a few months ago I was kind of proud (oh look! I’m a real writer now!) – and any sting in mail like that is softened by their obvious form-letter quality. Their formulaic language is a sort of metric for the pressure that modern fiction editors are under. Though that’s frustrating too. When you believe you’ve written something that stands out from the vast sea of mediocre and just-plain-awful unpublished novels out there, getting it picked up by someone reputable starts to feel like a game of a chance. A right-person, right-day, right-year, right-cup-of-coffee-and-a-kiss-from-their-partner-in-the-morning, gosh feeling cheerful today and oh what’s this manuscript on my desk? kind of a game.

Funnily enough, I’ve actually been on the other side of the fence, as a manuscript reader for a small publishing company called Hazard Press in Christchurch, so I know what it’s like. It was a privileged position, reading works that were (invariably) not good enough to be published, but that still had flickers of beauty. I remember them all.

Especially the one that came close. It was set during the great depression in New Zealand and focussed on men who hit the road as itinerant workers – travelling hobos really. It was pretty good. It think I said as much in my letter to the boss, I told her she should read it herself – though I don’t know what happened to it after that.

Other manuscripts, though, were plain hilarious. One was a rollicking dynastic sci-fi space drama. It was camp – boarding on the raunchy. All the characters had raven hair, piercing green eyes and wore thigh-high black boots and purple miniskirts with phasers at the belt. And it was so bad – unintentionally bad – it bordered on being fun, and I made it almost half the way through its 200,000-odd words

The editor trusted me enough to forward my reports to the authors by way of feedback, so when it came to writing my assessment, I had to bite my fist and hold back, remembering that this was someone’s baby. In the end I resorted to bullet-pointing a few phrases by way of indicating how richly absurd – and unprintable – the book was. I’ll always remember my favourite line, which was about an evil scientist character who – I kid you not – was described as “having created an alternate universe from the purloined gonads of his enemy”

Well, I put that in quotes, but it’s from memory and this was 12 years ago now, so I can’t be sure of the exact phrasing. Except for “purloined gonads” that is – that one’s seared on my brain.

PS – to the person who wrote that book – and others in the same boat. It’s easy to mock, but I still respect the fact you completed a novel. For all I know, you’ve got a half dozen on the shelves by now. Meanwhile, I’m in literary limbo and may have to purloin my own gonads to survive. *

* I don’t think that’s even possible.

PPS – What was my qualification for sifting through the slush pile of unsolicited manuscripts and taking an axe to people’s dreams? A B.A. and ambitions for a career in publishing – ie, sweet F.A. And that’s why you can’t sweat it on the rejections.

PPPS – I’d love to hear back from anyone else who’s working on a novel / wants to be / or had success in publishing – drop a comment!

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