The Art of Fiction: Rules for Avoiding Rejection

April 30, 2007
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Dissonance
Dissonance, a Novel by Lisa Lenard-Cook
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The Art of Fiction: 

Rules for Avoiding Rejection

by Lisa Lenard-Cook
May, 2007

Lisa Lenard-Cook is a regular columnist for Authorlink. She is an award-winning published author and writing instructor. This is another in the series, The Art of Fiction. Watch for her insights every month on Authorlink. Read more about Lisa.

"No editor will bother to give your manuscript a second glance
if you don’t pay attention
to the small stuff in the first place."

—Lenard-Cook
Do you think you can skip sweating the small stuff (grammar, spelling, manuscript formatting), because that’s what an editor is for? If so, you’re in for a rude awakening come manuscript submission time. No editor will bother to give your manuscript a second glance if you don’t pay attention to the small stuff in the first place.
"I’d like to look at three rules all writers . . . should follow to help them present their work in its best light."
—Lenard-Cook
But that’s not the only thing you can do to avoid rejection. This month, I’d like to look at three rules all writers (fiction, nonfiction, and all those grey areas between them) should follow to help them present their work in its best light.
"Rule 1 for Avoiding Rejection is to do your homework before you send your manuscript. . . Read the magazine. . . Read the writers’ guidelines. . ."
—Lenard-Cook

Unfinished Business

Nearly all overworked editors (and really, there is no other kind) will tell you that 90% (or more) of the unsolicited manuscripts they receive never should have left the post office in the first place. Among the more egregious errors editors cite everything from improper formatting (a recent Internet search on this topic netted me over a million hits, so saying you don’t know how is not an option), to poor spelling and grammar, to material simply not suited for the publication to which it was submitted.

So Rule 1 for Avoiding Rejection is to do your homework before you send your manuscript to an editor. Read the magazine, if you’re submitting to a journal. Read the writers’ guidelines (these days both publisher and magazine writers’ guidelines are easily accessible online) no matter where you’re submitting. Submitting a manuscript to every editor whose magazine begins with “A” without looking at the magazines themselves is not only a waste of your time and money, but a waste of an editor’s as well.

"Rule 2 is that Cleanliness is Next to Godliness."
—Lenard-Cook
Rule 2 is that Cleanliness is Next to Godliness. I’m continually amazed at the number of people who think that an editor’s job is to clean up writers’ mistakes. No. No. A thousand times: No. An editor’s job is to make sure your already fabulous manuscript shines. If it hasn’t been tidied up in the first place, an editor’s not going to bother looking at it.
"Rule 3 is to get out there
and meet people in the business. . ."

—Lenard-Cook

Meet and Greet

Rule 3 is to get out there and meet people in the business, either through a local writers’ organization, at writers’ conferences, or in classes. And by “people in the business,” I mean writers as well as editors and agents. I don’t believe I myself am all that well-connected, and yet, I can almost always point someone toward the right person if I’m asked the right question.

But the other part of Rule 3 is equally important: You are far more likely to get your foot in the proverbial door if someone knows you than if you’re cold calling. Even if your only meeting with an editor was a ten-minute pitch session in Gee-whiz-ville, if you send your (polished!) submission to her with a note that you were the guy wearing the red carnation at the Gee-Whiz Writers’ Conference, that editor will give your manuscript a closer look.

"I don’t have to quote you the oft-repeated statistics: how many editors rejected Dickens, Hemingway, Fitzgerald. . ."
—Lenard-Cook

Even A Great Manuscript May Be Rejected

I don’t have to quote you the oft-repeated statistics: how many editors rejected Dickens, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, et cetera, et cetera, before their works of genius were finally published to general acclaim. The thing is, editors are people, and hence have subjective tastes. Among the recent books I haven’t liked are The Da Vinci Code (all right, I admit I never got past the second page), The Time Traveler’s Wife (an admission that often provokes shouting), and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. I’m clearly in a minority, but I stand by my reckonings.

If I had been an editor and The Da Vinci Code had been sent to me, I would have suggested the author expand his characters beyond stereotypes and for God’s sake lose the clichés. I can’t say why I didn’t care for The Time Traveler’s Wife; perhaps it was just a victim of Wrong Book-Wrong Time Syndrome. In the case of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, though, I can say unequivocally that I have no patience with precocity, from which the book suffers to the Nth degree.

"My point is that editors who reject your perfectly acceptable work will have likes and dislikes just like mine."
—Lenard-Cook

My point is that editors who reject your perfectly acceptable work will have likes and dislikes just like mine. They will also know fairly quickly if a manuscript is one they will want to read. How quickly? Most editors can tell by reading the first sentence. If they like that first sentence, they may reach the end of the first paragraph before changing their minds. If you’ve still got them by the end of the first paragraph, you’ve got a page to hook ’em for good.

". . .if it’s a choice between your untried story and one that Joyce Carol Oates . . . guess which is going to win?"
—Lenard-Cook

Hooked But Sunk

All this said, you will nonetheless get letters from editors that say, “Loved this. Please try us again,” which leave you wondering why, if they loved it, they didn’t buy it, for goodness sake.

The answer is that most magazines have only a limited amount of space, and if it’s a choice between your untried story and one that Joyce Carol Oates offered gratis, guess which is going to win? This brings us back to Rule 3: It’s Who You Know. So get thee to a writers’ conference. It will be more than worth the effort of getting out of your pajamas

Lisa Lenard-Cook
About
Lisa Lenard-Cook
Lisa Lenard-Cook's novel Dissonance was short-listed for the PEN Southwest Book Award, a selection of NPR Performance Today's Summer Reading Series, and the countywide choice for Durango-La Plata Reads. She lives in Corrales, New Mexico, where she is currently adapting Dissonance for the stage.

 

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