Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Writing My Own Rejection Letter (February theme) by Claudia Mills

It's 1979, and I've left graduate school in philosophy to take a position as an editorial secretary at Four Winds Press/Scholastic. Throughout my years in graduate school, while my fellow students stayed up late to discuss obscure puzzles in the philosophy of language, I was curled up reading children's books checked out from the public library. So was thrilled to be able to flee academia for the enchanted world of children's book publishing.

Except that I can't master how to type editorial letters on my IBM Selectrix typewriter, making that little sandwich of letterhead, carbon paper, and second sheet so that the copy doesn't come out on the BACK of the original. And I can't figure out how to transfer phone calls. And the bus commute each from Princeton to NYC is so long, a good 90 minutes each way.

But on the bus ride I sit with my clipboard, pad, and pen writing picture books (they're so easy, right?). I start submitting them to publishers. They all come back rejected: standard form letter, no feedback, no clue re what I'm doing wrong - even my masterpiece, Campbell the Tomato, starring a stuffed toy tomato who is ostracized by the other stuffed animals until he rolls across a nursery fire ("Stop, drop, roll") to put it out, save the day, and become a hero. Why on earth would any editor reject THAT?

I say to myself, "If only I could be there in a publishing office to hear what editors are saying about Campbell. If only I could eavesdrop, invisible, to learn more...."

That's when I have my brilliant idea of submitting Campbell the Tomato to Four Winds Press under a pseudonym. I could be sitting there at my desk, typing, filing, answering the phone, ready at hand to hear the editor's shriek of delight when she races out of her office: "I've found the book I've been waiting for, for twenty years! I will be known forever as the editor who discovered Campbell the Tomato!"

Alas, Campbell was rejected, yet again.

And I was the one who had to type the rejection letter.

I sent in a second pseudonymous story. I typed myself a second rejection letter.

Then I sent in a third. This time my boss, Barbara Lalicki, came out of her office with my story, handed it to me, and asked me to write her an editorial critique.

What did I think of my own story?! Well, for starters, I thought it was amazing, astonishing, and sure to sell a million copies. I rolled a piece of paper into my typewriter and readied myself to write the critique. But then I read my story over again, as if a stranger had written it. For the first time I saw flaws I had never seen before. A picture book, this wasn't. It was too long, too old, too dark. The ending didn't work. But what if it were developed into a full-length novel? So I wrote Barbara a balanced and objective critique, highlighting both strengths and weaknesses. Barbara sent the critique by her editorial secretary (me) to the author (me),  with a letter (typed by me), saying that if the manuscript was revised according to these suggestions, she'd like to see it again.

That was the manuscript that became my book At the Back of the Woods. Of course I had to tell Barbara who I was. Luckily for me, she has a good sense of humor. This was my path to publication.

Few people are going to get their work published in this way. But I think I can distill some more general nuggets of advice from it.

1) Know your market. From working in the industry, I learned a lot about what gets published and what doesn't, and why. That made me more able to critique my own work. A good substitute here is to go your local bookstore or public library and read as much good new work as you can. Talk to your bookseller and librarian about what they think works, doesn't work, and why.

2) Be prepared to re-conceive your initial conception of a project considerably. In my case, a picture book became a middle-grade novel.

3) Be prepared to put some projects away forever in a carton in your attic or garage. Campbell the Tomato is still there in mine.

4) Keep writing new work as you wait to hear the fate of old work. Even after Four Winds Press accepted my first book, and a second one, they rejected my next four manuscripts in a row.

5) Don't take rejection too personally. Everyone gets rejected. Just be glad you don't have to be the one rejecting yourself!


  1. That's such a cool story! I can't even imagine having to reject my own work let alone breaking it down as an impartial observer. Perhaps I need to learn to do that. Great post!

  2. I also had the experience of reinventing a PB as an MG novel. Not easy, but worth it!

  3. I'm so enjoying all the posts this month and hearing everybody's same-but-different stories.