Are you ready for rejection?
Remember the day you became a real writer? Remember those few choice phrases that set you up among the pros, from Plutarch to Pam Ayres? Remember your first rejection slip?
They're seldom back-projected at book launches, but rejections are part of every writer's past. Everyone, that is, except those who fear failure, which means they never send anything off.
For these unfortunates, let me soften the blow. Each year thousands of hand-written, single-spaced offerings with inadequate return postage are sent to inappropriate places. They deserve - and get - no response at all. A rejection at least suggests you know The Writer's Handbook from Yellow Pages.
What's more, considerate companies won't keep you in suspense, but will acknowledge your submission. "Thank you for your manuscript. I shall lose no time in reading it," is how Disraeli famously put it - but yours will more likely say it is "receiving attention". But from now on, be realistic. Your submission is one of hundreds a week. It may well be rejected.
Standard responses included: 'After careful consideration we do not feel it is right for our lists/the current market'; 'Our lists are full and we have to be more than usually selective in taking on new clients'; 'It would be unfair to both our existing clients and newcomers if we were to overburden our list'; 'We can't discuss it but would refer you to [for example] The Writers' and Artists' Yearbook'; 'I am not sufficiently enthusiastic about your work to be able to offer you representation'; and 'We feel unable to offer you a contract because it overlaps with an existing book'.
What do they mean? No more and no less than they say. They are brief because, as Alan Samson of Little, Brown & Co. puts it, "there is no point in creating a climate of dialogue we cannot fulfil." "Besides," says literary agent Barbara Levy, " it is unkind to encourage someone we feel has next to no chance of getting published." So does 'thanks but no thanks' mean you're useless? Not necessarily. "Mr [TS] Eliot's work is no doubt brilliant," conceded publishers John Lane, in response to a hefty batch of his gems (including Prufrock), "but it is not exactly the kind of work we care to add to our list."
In fact senders and recipients generally agree that shorter is better. Virago's card is sensitively worded: "Many thanks for sending us your manuscript which we have now had a chance to consider. We're sorry to have to use this printed card, but unfortunately the volume of material we now receive has grown to such a degree that we can no longer respond to each one personally. I'm afraid that we don't feel able to make an offer for your manuscript, but thank you for thinking of us."
By contrast, Interzone's long, impersonal letter is the stuff nightmares are made of. Headed bluntly REJECTION it goes downhill from there. Apologising for the "long delay" (though this is clearly unexceptional enough to be part of their stock response), it cites so many possible reasons for rejection, from lack of time to staff bereavement, that the reader feels accused of them all. Lastly it urges them to take out a subscription ("if you are not a subscriber already") and to "watch our editorial, advertisements and Small Ads for clues as to other possible markets."
If you enter a competition and have paid a fee, you should fare better. The Ian St James Awards use a tick box system to assess plot, pace, characterisation and dialogue. But organiser Merric Davidson, who also runs a literary agency, has so far resisted using this approach there. "I take each submission at face value and respond accordingly," he says. "Although this is time consuming, there are so many examples of good 'almost there' writing that it would be churlish not to take time out to indicate where, in my view, the writer needs to improve."
Editors are not impressed by ruses to catch them out - like placing a hair in the manuscript, or omitting a crucial page. Nor by crude attention-seeking - like the writer who, despite publishers' almost unanimous aversion to receiving complete unsolicited manuscripts, recently had a courier deliver their literary baby to every London publisher - in a carrier bag on wheels. Or the one who, honoured with a personal response from Souvenir Press, sent back a critique of the letter, saying it was " a fair stab at a non-standard rejection letter".
This is unfair, since most publishers go out of their way to be polite. Leigh Hunt back out of publishing Shelley's Mask of Anarchy with a sycophancy Mr Pecksniff would have crawled miles for. "I did not insert it," he squirmed, "because I thought the public at large had not become sufficiently discerning to do justice to the sincerity and kindheartedness of the spirit that walked in this flaming robe of verse."
Others, sadly don't try so hard. Some years ago a friend received the following sisterly encouragement, form a certain junior part-time reader. "I got rather bored - a bad sign - but at least I am paid to read for a living, which the general public is not." The signature? Jeanette Winterson.
So having come to terms with the offending rag, what do you do with it? Well, clearly if you have one of these, you wait until she wins the Nobel Prize for Literature and then ring The Sun. Otherwise frame it, learn to make an origami bird, start papering the loo or, if you are confident you can acquire several more, draft an article for The Collector. Or tear it into tiny strips to mark some particularly consoling WM features. Try September '92, May '93, February '94 and October '94 (all pages 4-5) and August '93 for starters.
Finally, in case you haven't been subscribing since 1719, let me remind you that Robinson Crusoe, hailed now as the first great English novel, was rejected time after time... that an offer of Jane Austen's first novel was refused, according to a publisher's note, "by return of post"... that Frankenstein was refused twice... that no one wanted to publish Vanity Fair (Thackeray published it himself)... that Shaw had more rejections than he had vegetarian dinners... that rejection was a rite of passage for Joyce, Lawrence, and Orwell... and that one recipient of Nabokov's Lolita suggested the manuscript "be buried under a stone for the next thousand years". And I don't suppose it was all plain sailing even for Shakespeare. Remember that bit about the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune? I bet he'd had a rejection slip that morning.
Julia Deakin is a member of the Society for Editors and Proofreaders.