By Elisa Boxer
Welcome to our new series, 20 QUESTIONS.
Each blog post in this series will feature our Soaring 20s members answering a picture-book related question.
“What was your most memorable rejection?”
The bear you see above is a sneak peek into author/illustrator Abi Cushman’s book SOAKED! According to Abi, it’s also “my face when an editor said my submission was really cute. TOO cute. And passed.”
Sure, rejection can be an opportunity for growth.
Sure, it’s just one editor’s/agent’s opinion.
Sure, every pass from a publisher brings you one step closer to finding the right fit.
But silver linings aside, the truth is, rejection still stinks.
We know. We’ve been there. We might all have books on the way in 2020, but our paths to publication have been paved with some pretty cringe-worthy rejections.
File this first one under Reasons to Proofread Your Emails:
Mary Wagley Copp, author of WHEREVER I GO, says, “After submitting a query that I worked on for weeks, I heard back from an agent with this: ‘Thank you for sharing your manuscript. We are totally in love with this enough to want to represent you. We wish you the best of luck and appreciate your thinking of us.’”
Sounds great, right? “We are totally in love with this” is every author’s dream response from an agent.
That’s what Mary thought too. Until she asked for clarification about the mixed message, and received this response back from the agent: “I am so sorry, but I omitted the word ‘not’ in that first sentence.”
As in, they were NOT totally in love with it.
In fact, Mary says, “it was the second sentence where the agent meant to include the word ‘not,’ which made that her second error in as many emails!”
And then, there are rejections where the agent or editor actually does seem to be in love with the manuscript, but passes anyway. The so-called “champagne rejections.”
NoNieqa Ramos, author of BEAUTY WOKE, once got a rejection that read: “Her stories have a great beat to them, too, with a rhythm and rhyme scheme that screams for these stories to be read out LOUD. And there’s a spirit that is simply infectious. Her energy (and creative energy) are clear, refreshing, unique.”
With a rejection like that, who needs an acceptance?
“Of course,” NoNiequa says, “I have had the ‘your work is dumpster trash’ rejection. But at least that makes sense to me. With this rejection, I have hope and want to possibly frame it.”
Candy Wellins, author of SATURDAYS WITH STELLA, will not be framing her most memorable rejection.
“My agent sent a story of mine to an editor who responded by asking if it was a real submission or a joke,” Candy says. “It was a humorous story that I guess she did not find funny.”
Anna Crowley Redding, author of RESCUING THE DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE, also recalls a wince-worthy question from an editor. This one came at a conference. “I was so excited for the critique,” Anna says, “and to be paired with an editor from a publishing house I admired so much. (Can you tell where this is headed yet?) We sit down and the editor is holding my manuscript in their hands. I’m waiting with bated breath for incredible feedback. The editor said, 'Can you tell me what this story is supposed to be about?’ I wanted to be beamed up immediately to the Starship Enterprise. Thank goodness for my critique group members who found me afterwards and kept me from quitting!”
If you’re reading this, we don’t have to tell you how subjective this business is. One person’s pass is another person’s prize. Editors and agents are aware of this too, right?
Apparently not always. Many of us have had rejections that make more sweeping generalizations about our manuscript’s marketability.
Lindsay H. Metcalf, author of TRACTORS ON PARADE and co-editor of NO VOICE TOO SMALL, had an agent who rejected her manuscript and “told me to read more picture books so I could learn how good ones are written.”
TRACTORS ON PARADE is scheduled to be published by Calkins Creek next year.
Vicky Fang, author of INVENT-A-PET, says, “I had an in-person agent critique where the agent clearly didn’t like the manuscript, and politely told me there wasn’t a market for it. The manuscript ended up getting multiple offers.
An editor told Darshana Khiani, author of HOW TO WEAR A SARI, that her story was “quite unformed and needed more work.” That same version is now her debut.
The above answers remind me of my own most memorable rejection, from an editor who emailed that she “can’t really see this as a picture book.”
She was talking about THE VOICE THAT WON THE VOTE. It comes out in March.
So take it from us: The story that sparked your most painful rejection just might be coming soon to a bookstore near you.
When asked for their most memorable rejections, many of my colleagues included wait times in their responses.
Kelly Carey, author of HOW LONG IS FOREVER?, once received a rejection from an email submission in seven minutes flat. “Talk about rejection whiplash,” she says. “Authors often complain about lengthy query wait times, but trust me, seven minutes is even more painful.”
And then there are those of us for whom the waiting game is more of a marathon than a seven-minute sprint.
Kjersten Hayes, author of THE ELEPHANTS’ GUIDE TO HIDE-AND-SEEK, says, “Over the course of too many years, I had several enthusiastic personal requests that I submit my work—maybe after a critique, or through a recommendation, or someone liked my art and wanted to see my writing too. But then, more often than not, after I’d submit…crickets. I’d never hear from the requester again. Those are the roughest rejections.”
Rob Justus, author/illustrator of KID COACH, recalls, “For my first submission, an editor really liked my dummy book, but felt the story was more of a second book in the series. They asked me to come back with an “origin story” for the characters. So I spent the next six months writing and illustrating not one, but two origin story picture books for them to choose from. Only to have them completely drop off the map. My agent followed up numerous times by email and phone, only to be met with silence. Definitely had my hopes up, but definitely learned a lesson there.”
Hope Lim, author of I AM A BIRD, says, “An editor’s positive response filled me with hope for many months, but then it was ultimately a rejection.”
And then there’s Susan Kusel, author of THE PASSOVER GUEST, who was an avid reader of Highlights magazine as a child. “I particularly loved the 'Your Own Pages’ section, with creative writing from other children my age,” Susan says. “I finally got up the nerve to submit a poem at age 10, and got a form letter rejection. I was heartbroken at the time, but got over it. Many, many years later I got an invitation to give a keynote speech at The Highlights Foundation. That showed me if you wait long enough, a rejection can become an acceptance.”
It can also become a teaching tool.
Kirsten W. Larson, author of WOOD, WIRE, WINGS: EMMA LILIAN TODD INVENTS AN AIRPLANE, says, “An editor called an earlier draft of WOOD, WIRE, WINGS 'didactic,’ and that’s a critique that’s really stuck with me as I’ve grown as a writer. When I first started writing true stories, I was in love with the facts and ‘telling’ readers the story. But now I’ve learned to focus on the emotional arc of the main character and to figure out what can be shown in the pictures and cut from the writing all together.”
Melanie Ellsworth, author of CLARINET AND TRUMPET, also recalls a helpful rejection. “I guess I expect brief, impersonal rejections,” she says, “so I particularly remember the ones that are really kind. In one rejection, the editor even took time to basically line edit the manuscript, which I think is almost unheard of in a rejection.”
On the flip side, of course, there’s feedback that makes it tough to know where and what to revise.
Rajani LaRocca, author of SEVEN GOLDEN RINGS, says her most memorable rejections were ones that “said the exact opposite of each other!”
So take heart: If you’re reeling from rejection, you’re in good company.
And now we turn it over to you…
What was your most memorable rejection?
Let us know in the comments. We promise to accept them all. ;)