My Rejection Letters

Hand is holding a bunch of shredded paper

I was about to stuff a bundle of correspondence through the shredder when I thought these ancient yellowing letters might make an interesting blog post. I know they’re hopelessly out of date but fellow authors might find them amusing, enlightening, or in some aspects still relevant and relatable. Reading through them for a final time, I see nothing much has changed in the world of traditional publishing. It’s still frustrating and mostly baffling!

My journey started way back in 1986, 30 years ago. I was pregnant and bored, so I thought I’d write a book. I called it Summer in October and it happily consumed me for many months. When I thought it was finished, I sent it to the first agent I saw in the Writers & Artists Yearbook: Andrew Mann. Well, no point starting at the bottom was there? I had no idea how large and influential Andrew Mann were but when I received an offer within a couple of weeks I actually thought this was all I needed to do!

DSCN6551The offer wasn’t exactly from Andrew Mann, but from Anne Dewe, who wore two distinct hats. A senior editor for Mann, Dewe was also trying to operate as an independent publisher under the name of Love Stories. She wanted the kind of romance which consistently fell through the commercial net. In 1986 there was plenty of chick-lit and formulaic light fiction, but anything outside of that parameter had no clear label. Sound familiar?

15th September 1986: ‘I like your style and the way you tell the story very much, but it would need a lot of editing in minor matters, occasional misuse of words, spelling and so on, but that is usual and nothing much. I have a few more major criticisms… (listed) do they seem outrageous to you or might you agree that the book would be improved by some changes? If you felt prepared to revise, I would be prepared to take an option. The advance would be £650 against a 10% royalty…’   

2013-03-12 02.55.16I applied the changes Dewe suggested – newborn on one arm – but several months later, she didn’t feel the revision was extensive enough. So my son had his first taste of a play-pen and I reworked the entire manuscript over the course of six months on yet another secondhand typewriter.

16th November 1987: ‘Congratulations! You’ve done the most fantastic job on the book. It’s really good, develops well, is hilariously funny in places and most convincing. Now, here comes the embarrassing part… I would very much like it for Love Stories but unless something comes from my selling efforts at Frankfurt book fair, we may have to stop publishing next year, but my main career is as a literary agent and I would very much like to take you on as a writer for this and other books. You clearly have talent and most important of all, determination…’  

Sadly, Love Stories never really got off the ground and as a result my manuscript was taken on for Andrew Mann, with Dewe wearing her agents’ hat. The rejections from established publishers were disappointing but given her initial reservations about genre restrictions, not entirely unexpected.

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Piatkus: Very readable. I’d be interested to see anything this author writes in the future. Michael Joseph: This isn’t quite suited to our current list. I think this is more suited to paperback publication? Headline: She writes with charm but I’m afraid that despite the background, the animals and the humour, this just wasn’t for us. Malvern: We regret we cannot offer to publish this as it is too similar to Applehurst Displayed, which we published two years ago. Severn House: I don’t think this is for us. I can’t see where we would have any luck in selling subsidiary rights.

So it all ground to a halt and the process was, for me, relegated to the back-burner as family life took over – including divorce – and my third typewriter fell to pieces. Dewe even tried – unsuccessfully – to place the manuscript as a young adult read as she thought this market was going to be big. She was right, but it wasn’t to be for Summer in October. It wasn’t until 2001, during my second marriage, and after a house move to North Wales, that I began to write again, this time using a modern word-processor. I hadn’t forgotten all the points Dewe had raised and the comments from some of the publishers. I’d since enjoyed a career in property, and the result was a novel called Under Offer. I did find it interesting that Dewe didn’t like this book at all and wasn’t interested but she was honest: It’s lively and very readable, but this one’s not for us. I am afraid you’ll just have to trawl the book. This business is so subjective one can’t really suggest other agents…

The result of this was that I stuck a pin in the Writers & Artists Yearbook again and sent the manuscript to Jane Judd. Once again, I received an offer to be represented. I knew what was coming this time, and braced myself for a re-write but Judd suggested I send the MS to an editorial company called Cornerstones.

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This was a real turning point for me where I learnt about structure, plotting, and characterisation in specific detail and how it related to my work. The entire MS was line edited by a professional so I could see where and why she’d made changes and suggestions, including the title. So… I rewrote sections of the novel and Wild Water was born as a huge printed document which cost a fortune to send through the post! Fortunately, Judd was very happy with the result, and I signed a contract with her in January of the following year.

DSCN6560Pan Macmillan: A good combination of humour and poignancy. The author delves shrewdly into  her characters, gradually allowing their traits to become evident and appreciated. However, I regret I can’t see a place on our lists for Wild Water. Headline: Read with interest, but no. Piatkus: I do like this author’s writing and it was interesting to read this kind of story from a male perspective. However, I didn’t feel any of the characters were sympathetic enough and I didn’t warm to Jack as the hero of the story. Simon & Schuster: She does write well but this is a tough, competitive and crowded area of the market. Selina Walker: I really like this. It’s well written and it has an unusual twist in that you very much sympathise with the wronged husband but in the end I thought it lacked Trollope’s take on personal relationships. Hodder & Stoughton: I’m going to say no. Time Warner Books: I very much enjoyed reading this. I was absorbed immediately. However, we’ve brought a number of authors writing in this area with two-book contracts and I can’t see a slot in our schedule for this one. It’s a shame and I do hope that you can find a good home for this promising author… 

1970653_503555133083585_89336388_nI can’t say my agents didn’t try and I appreciate the faith they had in the material, and the editors I worked with at Cornerstones were nothing short of revolutionary to a new writer. And none of it put me off – I did write another novel and in keeping with the suggested branding by Cornerstones titled it Midnight Sky. (In fact the characters of James and Laura in this story were pinched from the first book, Summer in October. The plot line from Summer in October went into Silver Rain… but that’s another story). I even sent Midnight Sky to Judd at her request, but she disliked it. Over the course of 2004 I consulted the Writers & Artists yearbook many times and sent out both Wild Water and Midnight Sky to several small publishers, thinking that a two-book deal with tentative branding was a stronger pitch; but with no success.

I think this final letter from Amanda Stewart of Severn House is a perfect summing-up of the years I’d tried to break in to publishing both with the backing of two prominent agents, and as a solo effort: Whilst I know Jane Judd well and respect her editorial judgement, I’m afraid we would not be able to publish these books. Severn House only takes on authors with a long-standing track record. We almost never publish ‘new’ writers simply because we do not have the funds to take risks on untried authors…

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What didn’t fail was the knowledge I’d gained from the constant rejection. And the rest, as they say, is history. When Amazon introduced Kindle I found myself scanning in those huge typewritten manuscripts of both Wild Water and Midnight Sky to a laptop to produce an electronic file. Createspace allowed even more freedom and my books made it into libraries and a single independent bookshop by my own efforts. Wild Water won Cornerstones ‘most popular book’ in 2011. Both Wild Water and Silver Rain made the finalist list on The Wishing Shelf Awards and six of my titles were subsequently signed with another publisher in 2014/15. But wait… there’s a sting in the tail because the irony of this particular story is that I eventually ditched the publisher and returned to independent publishing…

Now… please excuse me as I have some shredding to do!

A is for Alphabet, Author, and Alpaca.

The alpaca is a glamorous member of the camel family and anything with a triple A in it has to be good at something. And I happened to meet a fellow author within days of coming across the alpaca, but I’ll start with the alphabet.

I’ve been in a shady place with all 26 letters for a good while. It all stems from that nonsense called Publishing One’s Book and entrusting it to an actual publisher. Well, that didn’t work, did it? Neither did the two name-worthy agents back in the old traditional days. Both agents said those immortal words: I’d love to represent you.

And the publisher said those other immortal words: I want to publish you.

11256845_1010782965672680_7187820645503081881_oIt’s been a week of lows for a few of my author pals too. The reasons are all valid and as writers we’ve all been there at some point. Sometimes a random, scathing comment can be the straw that broke the alpaca’s back. Unjust reviews, reviews of the editing or formatting of the book rather than the story, editors who’ve charged a lot of money and not completed the job, paying out for marketing and not selling a single copy, people who expect books for free… no sales. It’s a tough industry and sometimes those who should be supporting independent authors, let them down in ways we find hard to swallow on a permanent basis.

Someone told me that the only technically perfect book she’d ever read was edited and proofread by someone who charged £2,000 for the job. When royalties come in at 35p per 99p Kindle book and maybe a quid for a paperback which has cost several hundreds of pounds to produce to a readable standard, then I think we can all work out an appropriate response to that! 

thought-catalog-214785-unsplashThis is not misguided moaning, an excuse for sloppy work or a mass wringing of hands. It may be more serious: I may have reached a stage of indifference. I started this venture for fun. Now, I’m unsure if I want to write novels anymore, and not only because sales and visibility are phenomenally difficult – with or without a publisher – but because funding the process is exhaustive, and not just in monetary terms, but emotionally and mentally too. Maybe – and this is the killer of all things creative – I’m just plain bored with it all?

I used to write for pleasure. Is it right to write for pain? Not for me. I publish myself through choice and this is perhaps the epitome of freedom for an author or any artist, but it’s a double-edged sword because I now know that none of the routes are golden. So many authors still presume the interest of an agent or a publisher is the mark of excellence or the end goal. It may work out for some, but there is still a hard line of prejudice in the commercial world as to what will sell or what is currently trending. The sad part about this is that the quality of writing seems to be the least important ingredient.

I write complex, multi-layered character family-drama. I write my stories because they are the kind of books I like to read myself. There’s a piece of me in each and every one, and I think this is what makes the process so enjoyable. 

DSC_0005I guess I’ve hit rock bottom a few times over the previous six years and I managed it again in spectacular form a few days ago when I managed to propel myself down a full flight of iron steps. The close proximity of the Llangollen canal and the fear of breaking bones was especially unpleasant. My backpack, stuffed with miscellaneous rubbish, saved me from serious injury. Apparently, I’m not the first person to pitch down those steps and I guess as a metaphor we’re on the right track here because I did manage to walk away mostly unscathed, apart from a large bruising around the saddle area. I hobbled on, fortified by the lure of meeting Shani Struthers in a wine bar…

Sometimes, when the chips are down a curveball comes rushing in and we have to listen to what the universe is trying to say to us as individuals. There was something whispering in my ear that day. Could something as simple as removing the pressure to perform, bring its own reward? I used to really, really love writing. This was before I began the process of commercial publishing, sales, marketing and all that jazz that seems to be expected of us. If we remove these stumbling blocks is it enough to engage with a smattering of genuine readers who deeply connect to your material? If you can honestly answer yes, then I think I can promise amazing results and instant satisfaction by writing exactly what you want to write whilst spending the majority of your money on food and drink!

Alphabetti Spaghetti might be the answer… Bottoms up!

The X-Factor Curse and Crybaby Cole

I talk to my editor John Hudspith, about X-Factor Fiction, Halloween, Hugging Dermot O’ Leary and Saving the World! 

tumblr_inline_nfnlsvul2t1rqjcsmJohn: It’s that time of year again, when writers send an avalanche to the ebook shelves hoping for a festive bestseller; when big-boobed slebs offer up their latest ghost-written shenanigans; when agents and publishers hire staff to handle the increased numbers of rejection notes. Had any good rejections lately?  Jan: Rejection is a tough lesson. I grew up with plenty of it. (I’m talking creatively; as in, go away and do this again it’s not good enough). At primary school I was told it’s vital to experience rejection in order to improve. Character-building, even. John: did you sob, like an X-Factor reject? Jan: I don’t remember sobbing or clinging on to Dermot when my first manuscript thudded back through the letterbox for the umpteenth time; it had morphed into a hefty wedge of dog-eared paper with mostly derogatory scribble in the margins by then –  but I guess if Leery had been available, I might have been tempted into a bit of clinging. John: Is that because you fancy him? Did you know he’s only 3 foot in his underpants? tumblr_inline_nfnnwgqu1s1rqjcsmJan: He is quite short, isn’t he? That’s suits the midget that is me; I’d still look up to him. I’d have fallen into his arms but only because he’s cuddly, not because I thought my life was over. John: Was it that bad? Jan: ‘This work has promise but it is overwritten and the scene where the shop blows up is ridiculous.’ It was, actually. Those times draw a fair comparison with past X-Factor winners who’ve taken the prize initially but then sunk without trace. And yet, those who’ve come in third or second have scooped the best prize of all: by going away to think, then coming back with quality material. In my case, I went away for several years and did it again, and again and again. In fact, I kept on re-writing until I was sick to death of it. John: And then they snapped you up? Jan: No chance, I really could have wept: ‘Congratulations on producing a novel that is fully engaging, the narrative is sharp and the dialogue excellent. However, we cannot see where we would place this book in terms of marketing.’ 

tumblr_inline_nfnm6z4apy1rqjcsmJohnAh, yes, the worried publisher… talent doesn’t matter, simplicity does. Jan: Right. I learnt that I wasn’t actually sick to death of it, more puzzled by these powerful gatekeepers, the agents and publishers who could make or break your day – your life! But this was traditional publishing BK. (Before Kindle, and before X-Factor)  John: I do like X-Factor, and it’s a good comparison; the machinations of voracity versus real quality – the psychology of it all.  Jan: We need the same show format for fiction, imagine the panel! Simon would be thrillers and crime with a strong leaning towards mafia bosses with lapdogs. And Louis Walsh – ‘I t’ink you should give her a chance, Simon. I t’ink it’s got something’ – he always ends up with the groups and oddballs, so, anthologies and something daft? John: Yep, the requisite annoyance. Remember Jedward? Maybe Louis could have sex with dinosaurs. The books, I mean. Big sellers, apparently. ‘I love, love, love, your book “T-rex on Top”… it looks good, it’s freaky, it’s got everything, it’s what this show’s all about!’ Jan: You know, I was amazed those dino-sex books actually exist. Who the hell reads dino porn? John: Louis Walsh, probably. What about Cheryl? I do like Cheryl, she’s a canny Geordie like me. Jan: Crybaby Cole? – ‘A was blown away by ye’ – sob – ‘but a have to turn ye doon cos o’ the typos, like’ – romance and true-life stories. article-1224081-070440cc000005dc-919_468x454John: She’s not Cole anymore though, is she? Some weird-sounding long name. When Dermot announces it, he sounds like he’s casting a spell, ‘Cheryl Fazhawazzfini’ or something like that. Jan: She should have gone back to Tweedy for her stage name, shouldn’t she? Simon and the panel get a far bigger intro than any of the wannabe artists. The judges – or let’s say, the book bloggers and reviewers and the big promotional sites – are set to become more important than the author, much like disc-jockeys did in the seventies. They just played the records but their endorsement and their inane chatter made them into far bigger celebrities than the actual artists. John: DJs from the seventies have a creepy image these days, though. Creepier than clowns, even. Jan: True story. Let’s not go there. John: So, for the initial auditions, they have to read a blurb? Then, at boot camp they’d get to read one page, then whine `There’s better to come` when they’re told the narrative voice is out of tune, repetitive and boring. Oh, and at the `take a seat` stage, they’d read a longer, random section and provide evidence of social marketing skills before submitting the entire book to get to judges’ houses.  

tumblr_inline_nfnnkitaoj1rqjcsmJan: Where Simon isn’t happy with the lineup… Simon: ‘Hold on, you’ve all picked books that are well-written, we need a couple of dumbed down ones to get the bookworms annoyed, so they’ll hit the phones and vote. Remember guys, it’s a pound per phone call, so I’m going to swap The Extraordinary Life of a Turtle for She likes it with Next Door’s Dog by Crystal Balls. Louis: No one wants to read badly-written erotica, Simon! Simon: Fifty Shades of Grey would disagree with you. Louis, you’re out of touch. Louis: *blinks, grins, does the orangutan clapJohn: Yeah, Simon likes his quota of weirdoes. Jan: Talking of weird, what about Sinitta? Where would she fit in? John: She’d appear at Simon’s house wearing three strategically placed bookmarks. Then she’d judge the books by their covers. Jan: And people do, don’t they? Although, as in the real show, they’d be looking for raw talent they could manipulate… I mean mould. So maybe all the books in X-Factor Fiction should start with brown paper covers. On the live shows the backstory footage would include the authors getting professionally designed covers. John: But some would want to use their own ideas… Simon: ‘What – the bloody hell – is that?’ (looking at an image of yet another bare torso). Louis: ‘It’s all the rage, Simon.’ Cheryl: ‘Divint worry, pet. Simon’s just jealous.’ Mel B: ‘Phwoaaaaaaar, let me hug that boowk.’

tumblr_inline_nfnmg2gfph1rqjcsmJan: Okay, here’s goes, it’s Halloween and we have to read a chilling paragraph to the panel. ‘He carried her to his bed. Clothing was removed, some of it snatched and torn in the process as if their connection had disturbed something feral. A hundred different thoughts, a hundred different reasons not to sleep with a man she’d only just met, a hundred different voices shouting in her head and yet, she slid beneath him, her underwear in disarray. They both seemed in perfect tune, one moment caught in the delicious intensity of anticipation, and then suddenly laughing at the craziness of it, laughing at the red freckles sprayed across his hands and face. He kissed every inch of her face, she kissed every inch of his face… Maybe it was then when she knew; that moment when she tasted that unmistakable metallic tang.’ APPLAUSE…

Louis: ‘You looked amazing, you sounded amazing, it was amazing.’ Simon: You need a new script, Louis.’ John: Wise words from Simon. So many books, so many writers, but not enough depth, originality or imagination. Jan: Stop being grumpy. Readers will always determine what writers write, right? John: Very true. Teaching the next generation how to read is a must, not only for the future of decent storytelling, but, you know, that old save the world from humanity thing. Jan: Yes, there’s a long way to go with that. John: And it starts with the written word. Jan: Once upon a time…