One agent loves your setting, but feels your characters fall flat. An editor likes your premise but can’t connect with your voice. If your head has begun to spin from the manuscript rejection feedback you’re receiving while on submission, you’re not alone.
The trick is to figure out which criticism is worth considering. Once I determined how to separate wheat from chaff, I did some of my best revising while my debut novel (Fräulein M., Tyrus Books/Simon & Schuster) was on submission. My rejections ranged from one-liners (“Not for me, thanks”) to lengthy revise-and-resubmit notes and even a few phone calls with editors. The secret, I found, was to pay closer attention to matters of craft than taste. Here are a few specific examples of each:
This guest post is by Caroline Woods. Woods is the author of Fräulein M., available everywhere books are sold from Tyrus Books (Simon & Schuster). She has taught creative writing to undergraduates at The Boston Conservatory and Boston University, where she earned her MFA. Her work has appeared in Slice Magazine, LEMON, 236, and The Scene. You can learn more about Caroline at carolinewoodswriter.com. Follow her on Twitter @carocour and here on Facebook.
1. “Your subplot detracts from your main storyline.”
My agent and I heard this comment from several acquisitions editors. What held us back at first was that both my agent and I loved the subplot, which was about a pregnant teenager in Vietnam War-era America. We were both attached to her and her struggle. But editors found it too distracting from my principal story about women in the Weimar Republic. Eventually, I decided the subplot was cannibalizing the book. I did a major overhaul, shrinking it from approximately one-third of the story to a small frame. This decision finally led to a book deal. As a consolation, my agent and I decided I could rewrite my pregnant teen character into a future book.
2. “The structure of your novel is confusing.”
A lovely agent I queried early in the process pointed out that my multiple-POV novel did not have a predictable structure. She suggested that I reorganize it into chapters of relatively even length and alternate between POV characters in a consistent pattern. I followed her advice, even though it took a lot of work—I even converted several first-person chapters into third so that the book flowed more smoothly. If it is important to you to create a varied, unpredictable mosaic of a book, then by all means ignore this sort of advice. But having a loosely constructed novel did nothing to strengthen my story, so this was feedback I gladly accepted.
3. “This (or that) character isn’t likeable.”
I heard this a lot. The problem was that I almost never heard it about the same character. Acquisitions editors had differing opinions about which of the two orphan sisters at the heart of Fräulein M. was more likable—or if they were likable at all. Berni’s transgender best friend, Anita, sparked even wilder swings of opinion. Agents and editors either adored her or hated her. I was tempted at times to change her character, but in the end I’m glad I didn’t. I don’t believe characters have to be likable (just believable). Keeping Anita moody and jealous allowed me to contrast her with a Nazi character who at first appears charming and kind. And in the end, the Booklist review of Fräulein M. claimed Anita “steals the show as the novel’s most compelling character,” further proving how subjective character likability can be.
4. “Your monster isn’t enough of a monster.”
Only one editor mentioned this, but I took it seriously. The oil that drives your novel-machine is conflict. The main source of conflict in my novel was simply not behaving badly enough to justify the lifelong rift he causes in a sister relationship. Furthermore, I’d chosen a heavy and important topic—World War II and the Holocaust. I realized I had to adequately explore the evils committed in that time period. By intensifying one character’s actions, I could increase both the narrative tension and historical significance of my work.
5. “I didn’t connect with the voice.”
The first few times I read these words, I panicked. The voice?! What was the matter with my voice? I’d stare at the opening sentences of my book with only the vaguest idea of what “voice” even is or how I could fix it. The bottom line is that your voice is your voice. It changes at a glacial pace, as you age and experience and read. When I see these words in a rejection letter in the future, I will recognize them for what they are: a kinder way of saying, “I just don’t like this book.” And that’s okay. When you see that someone doesn’t like your voice, take a breath and move on. There will be better advice in another letter.
— Formatting & Submitting Your Manuscript
— The Writer’s Digest Guide To Query Letters
— The Weekend Book Proposal: How to Write a Winning Proposal in 48 Hours and Sell Your Book
— How to Make Your Submission Stand Out
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Brian A. Klems is the editor of this blog, online editor of Writer’s Digest and author of the popular gift book Oh Boy, You’re Having a Girl: A Dad’s Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.