by Sheila Lowe
Sheila Lowe is a mystery author and forensic handwriting examiner.
Have you ever read a book that you absolutely loved, but your best friend just shrugged and said, “meh”? Of course you have. And there are doubtless many books that have not resonated with you, which millions of others rave about (think: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo phenomenon, or Gone Girl).
We read through our own personal lens, which is an outgrowth of our personal experiences throughout life. That’s just as true for agents and editors as it is for you and me. So when you’ve just received a rejection of that book you poured your heart and soul into, remind yourself that publishing is a highly subjective business and that rejections reflect personal taste, not necessarily the quality of your work.
Having said that, though, if you find yourself getting the same comments from agents, or critique partners, or other beta readers, it’s time to step back and take an impersonal look at what they are saying. For me, doing so made the difference between staying on the outside looking in and getting published.
My first mystery, Poison Pen, won third prize in a competition. Third place out of 97 entries in mystery wasn’t bad, I thought. And with the prize being submission to two big name editors at major publishing houses, I knew I would be published any minute. I had a rude awakening coming. These editors had judged my work worthy of winning, but now they said it was a “good” story, had “good” characters, I was a “good” writer, but…it just wasn’t strong enough. What? With all those “goods,” what did “not strong enough” mean?
Hopefully, you’re quicker on the uptake than I was. It took seven years and numerous drafts for me to find the answer. When it came, it was from an independent editor I’d hired to tell me what was wrong. I learned that what is meant by “not strong enough” is that there were too many adverbs sprinkling the manuscript. Those pesky words ending in “ly” point to lazy writing.
You know that annoying advice you’re always getting to “show, don’t tell”? Well, adverbs are the words that tell, rather than show. For example, “What the hell is going on?” he cried angrily. Using a stronger, more descriptive word than the adverb “angrily,” could paint a more interesting image. His face reddened, his eyes bulging like a bullfrog. “What the hell is going on?” Okay, it’s not a great example, but you get the picture. Cut out the adverbs.
Another lesson I learned from that first editor was that my main character, Claudia Rose, was weak. Until it was pointed out to me, I hadn’t realized that Claudia constantly felt guilty, which rendered her less likeable. Readers want our characters to be strong. It’s not that there can’t be moments of weakness, of course, they’re not robots. It’s just that guilt-ridden heroines are not popular heroines.
Back to my point. When you are getting rejections, even when you feel like Sisyphus, forever damned to push a boulder up a hill, you must keep on going. I read an interview with well-known author James Rollins, who said that a major publisher scribbled on his first manuscript that it was unpublishable. That book went on to sell over a million copies. See—it’s subjective. Once you have had your work professionally edited so you know it’s up to snuff, keep on submitting it until you find the agent who loves what you do. Every rejection takes you another step closer to success.
I’ll end with some advice from Neil Gaiman. He writes, “(1) if you’re going to be a writer, you have to write. (2) You have to finish things. Beyond that, I suspect all is detail, but I would add to that, that having written it and finished it, you should send it off to somewhere that might publish it, and not get discouraged if it comes back.”
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