Why Your Story Was Rejected – The Query Letter Conundrum

December 1st, 2009

Hello –

“Thank you for your submission to “Yuri Monogatari.” We know just how much time goes into the creation of a story, and we appreciate your effort. Unfortunately, your story doesn’t really fit our criteria, and so we’re going to have to pass.

Of course we wish you the very best of luck in your quest to be published, and hope to hear from you again when you have another story that is suitable for the “Yuri Monogatari” series.”

***

There’s nothing fun about rejecting a story. I don’t enjoy it, the creator in question doesn’t enjoy it. We’re all unhappy. But it has to be done.

There are a zillion “so you wanna be an author” books and magazines, and all of them talk about the rejection process. They say it’s inevitable and that it isn’t you and that if you do it *just* right, you’ll get that magical request for more.

This is all true – and it’s all totally, completely untrue, as well. Like mostly everything, there’s an almost random combination of luck and hard work that goes into being published. When people receive a rejection, they want to know “why?” they were rejected. That conundrum obsesses most wannabe artists and writers. I thought I’d discuss *why*. It won’t make you feel better, probably. It might even make you feel worse. But here’s what it looks like from my end.

Here’s some of the things that might help you understand *why* your story was rejected:

1) Have you EVER picked up any of that publisher’s books?

No? Why not? By actually reading a couple books in that imprint you might have a good clue what the publisher likes and dislikes. Your query letter may be making it plain that you have never read one of that publisher’s books. That’s not going to give a favorable impression.

2) Have you read and grokked the Submission Guidelines?

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, you have three lines to impress me. One line has to be, “Hello, my name is… and I am writing to you because/with/for…”

That leaves you two lines to be intelligent, polite and show you “get* what I want. No, that isn’t a lot of space. Almost without exception, that is more than enough. If you are sending me a story in which a character drinks herself to death over a breakup and nothing *happens* as a result of that, there’s a good chance I’ll reject your story. If your email is filled with typos – or a really poor grasp of grammar – I’ll reject your story. It’s not personal, I just don’t have any interest in teaching you how to write. Or draw, so don’t tell me that you don’t know what you’re doing. I’m looking for some sign that your work is *what I want to publish.*

3) Your vision is obscure.

No, I really do not understand what you mean when you say, “they work it out” or “there is a disagreement” or “wackiness ensues.” And frankly, I don’t think you know what you mean, either. Using a filler phrase or marketing copy is not the same as telling me what your story is about. Don’t be clever. Just tell me what I want to know.

4) You reply to my inquiry with a million questions.

“Here’s my story. How do you want that? In your guidelines you say this size – does that mean this size? Or can I use some other size? How about color? Can I do a color page? What about the artist, because I have a story but no artist and…”

Hold off there for second. We don’t have a done deal yet and if I do accept you into the publication, don’t you think I’d tell you some of that important stuff? Puppy-ish behavior is cute in some places – not in a query letter. It shows a lack of professionalism and an inability to understand the process that has to occur for things to happen.

5) I don’t like your story.

No, really. I think your story idea bites. It’s misery with no meaning to it. It’s not nihilistic, it just sucks. You had an idea and didn’t flesh it out, so any reader reading it would want to stab themselves in the eye after three pages of your character doing nothing but exposition on a situation that happened previously and basically has little to no relationship to the now.

Or maybe your story is over-complex, because you don’t really get that an anthology is filled with short stories that must stand alone and you’re convinced that your Prelude to the Prologue of the Great American Graphic Novel will work just fine on its own without any explanation of the characters or situation.

Or, you’ve sent me the 10000000000000th version of “Girl Meets Girl. They like each other. The End.”

Or, you’re 16 and you write like you’re 16. It’s no one’s fault. You just need a LOT of practice and polishing before you learn to write well. At 16, very few people write well.

Or you’re 40 and you write like you’re 16. Then you just aren’t the writer you think you are. If I can’t follow your story in 3-4 sentences or 3-4 paragraphs, I’m not inclined to try 24 pages of it.

I don’t have to like every story in our books. But I do have to stand behind them. I have in the past made exceptions – great story/bad art, vice versa or something else. But don’t count on me doing that for you.

6) It’s personal

This is REALLY, REALLY rare, but yes, there are times when I’m rejecting *you*. You rubbed me the wrong way by writing a jerky query letter and I don’t care if you’re Shakespeare and Rembrandt rolled into one, you blew it.

***

The best way to fix all of these things is to do your research. Actually pick up a book or two from that publisher (or that the agent said they represented.)

Look at what the publisher is not saying in their guidelines as well as what they do say. If the publisher says, “It doesn’t all have to be happy, but we prefer that” then when you send a Goth-dark wallow in angst, don’t be surprised if it’s rejected. Also, if the guidelines say “we’re only taking completed stories at this time” and you send something you haven’t even begun to write much less draw, then don’t be offended when the answer is “no thank you.”

Most agents, editors, publishers are as gentle as possible when they reject you. (Okay, some aren’t as gentle as possible, but most are) and yes, we are aware that it sucks to be you. I swear we aren’t chortling on the other end, glad to have crushed your dreams. And you may, yes, have to internalize the fact that you are not as good as you think you are. There’s no soft, nice, easy remedy for that. Hurtful truth is hurtful.

Honestly, knowing “why” I rejected your letter probably won’t make you feel better. But you can be darn sure that I take no pleasure in telling you no. What I’d like is to have a glut of amazing lesbian stories to tell. The answer to the conundrum of “why” is always “because we’re sorry, but you just aren’t doing what we want to publish/edit/represent.”

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11 Responses

  1. Matthew says:

    Thank you–as always–for the solid advice Erica. I’ve yet to submit to anyone, but I will keep this in mind when that rejection letter comes rolling in.

  2. Anonymous says:

    You should start posting links to this post in your form rejections.

  3. BruceMcF says:

    I’m struggling to follow this, but as near as I can tell, what you are saying is that Jo Mangaka was an ordinary 17 year old, until she gained the power to write effective manga scripts through years of learning how to write, and then started submitting them to publishers that liked the kind of stories she writes, and then fun and mayhem ensued.

  4. @Bruce McF – “Or” statements. :-)

    @Anonymous – I will, just like I post the “7 Things” link in pre-query queries.

    @Matthew – I hope it helped!

  5. Kuugen the Fox says:

    There is actually more to a rejection letter then what was listed here, but most of those only apply for general literature. There are some publisher that just don’t publish fantasy. Or adult material. Or non-adult material. Then, there is always the question of demand. If a month ago a highly anticipated thriller novel released, chances are slim they are going to want your thriller as well. It’s more likely they’ll be interested in something else. Like Comedy or Romance.
    Then, there is always the problem with unorthodox material. ( I’m fairly sure i misspelled unorthodox there and here again )
    Over-the-top based on your physical laws and settings. Thats also something few people can relate to. Some people write really well but they forget that if their material is going to be published, someone else beside them has to actually understand what is happening.

    Before I leave half a essay about this here, I’ll just get back to work. My editor will kill me anyway.

  6. Anonymous says:

    I think this was a very helpful post. :)

  7. BruceMcF says:

    Still struggling. I don’t understand what “‘Or’ statements” means, so I think its a case of you being mean to me.

    That gives me an idea for a manga about an aspiring Mangaka, Jo Mangaka, who’s publisher is mean to her, and sets her up as a assistent to an deliberately crule Jake Mangaka whose already been published. Fun and mayhem will ensue.

    Any similarity to any existing work is entirely untentional, as it was never my intention to have no orijinal ideas of my own.

  8. @Bruce McF – I mean the various sentences are each possible circumstances are not meant to be read as one continuous scernario. You may have done this *or* you may have done that.

    Your story idea has already been used – the title is “Eve’s Apple” (Eve no Ringo.) It was aboust an aspiring young managka with a cruel editor. http://okazu.blogspot.com/search/label/Eve's%20Apple

  9. BruceMcF says:

    Aha, that has been done. What a mean and surly thing to point out.

    But that gives me another orijinal idea. Jo Mangaka gets a job as an assistent at a publishing house, with a surly chief, a freind whose also an assistent, and is secretly smitted with Jane Mangake, a star Mangaka at the publishing house.

    On top of that madcap cast, there’s a totally orijinal twist: unknownst to everyone else, Jo also has super powers, and constantly has to drop doing her mangaka assisting duties to save the world. And to make it totally ironic, Jo actually saves Jane several times in her secret super-powered version, and Jane Mangaka really and openly likes the super-powered version of Jo, but Jo can’t say its her because that would revele her secret.

    Fun and mayhem ensue. ….
    ______________

    Of course, fun and mayhem must always ensue, since mayhem and ensue are two of the fanciest words that our fictitious submitter can reliably spell correctly, having copied them from the back of a favorite DVD.

    When we consider some of the worst stuff that actually gets published, and then realize that as bad as it was, there were anywhere from 10 to 100 submissions that were even worse, wading through the submissions is clearly one of the hard work parts of producing an anthology of original work.

    However, one imagines that, just like teaching, on the occasion when the light turns on and something of quality emerges, that’s a entry on the positive side of the ledger.

  10. Great advice as always, Erica! Much of what you say here can be extrapolated to other kinds of publishing as well, so I hope many aspiring writers find your essay.

    I’m also glad you included a few sentences about how rejection affects the publisher — my experiences editing a journal taught me that it’s even less fun to be in the position of rejector than rejectee when it’s evident that the author has invested a lot of time, energy, and passion into a project.

  11. Nimara says:

    Though I’m not a prospective writer, I gained a lot of insight by reading this. It was great advice to give and I thank you for it!

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