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More Writers' Frustrations

Several years after receiving from the second Australian editor the rejection for what is now Mark Willoughby and the Impostor-King of Lazaronia, as detailed in Blurbs for Earthlight, I discovered that she too was no longer with this publisher. It’s a common practice among writers to resubmit manuscripts to a publisher whose editorial staff has changed, so I resubmitted The Impostor-King and received the following rejection:

“Your writing was entertaining and had a good fluid narrative style. Unfortunately it isn’t the type of material that we normally publish.”
Although it’s good to know that my stories aren’t boring, this letter left me wondering whatever happened to the fantasy list for which that first editor had said The Impostor-King was suitable? (Her exact words were: “ … the style is appropriate for my intermediate level fiction, the subject matter and breadth of the story are all good.”) Her idea of intermediate was children from 8 to 11 years old.


Shortly before the arrival of the second rejection from the “new” editor, quoted above, I received another one, also from Australia. This publisher’s senior editor wrote:

Your work is well written and highly imaginative, but unfortunately this doesn’t mean that we can make you an offer of publication.
Reasonable enough, I suppose—until, towards the end of the letter, she went on to say:
Although we have ventured into the world of fantasy publishing, I cannot say that it is a world with which we are very familiar.
Now, I would accept such a statement from a publisher of adult fiction, but I consider it very strange for a children’s publisher not to be familiar with fantasy! It’s a bit like a hot bread shop not being familiar with French loaves, a sweet shop with toffees, a butcher with sausages.

These aren’t the only weird rejection letters I’ve received. One of the first rejections for The Impostor-King began as follows:

Fascinating, reading this and considering its possibilities. You write really well. In all truth, I think it could only be published within a much larger market like Britain or America. For this company in New Zealand, it is so far outside the normal type of fiction that we publish in our … lists that it would sit very uncomfortably there. Basically, witches, spells and dragons are the stuff of very young readingpicture flats and the like …
After continuing with some details of book lengths, prices and age ranges in the New Zealand market, he finished:
Doubtless you will want to try other local publishers, but if unsuccessful I suggest you send the proposal to Sydney, London or New York. I have a hunch your work might be of international calibre, but am not certain of that. If you want to try our offices overseas, give me a ring and I’ll let you have the addresses. Certainly your writing has quality; the main question in my mind is the subject matter for contemporary kids able to cope with these lengths.
All I could deduce from this is that books such as C S Lewis’s Narnia series, which I was under the impression are still tremendously popular with children, and which are definitely not “picture flats”, are read only by adults!

Another weird rejection, this time from New York, read:

You have a highly inventive mind and have created a complex world. I am concerned, however, that there is too much going on at once. There are too many subplots and people to keep track of. Also, the language would have to be substantially adjusted for an American audience.
She came to this sweeping conclusion from a two-page synopsis and the first few chapters of the book!

The world of Lazaronia is no more complex than Narnia or that of Tolkien’s The Hobbit. or Lloyd Alexander’s Prydainin fact, with fewer words to tell my story than any of the above authors had, I deliberately made the world as simple as I could. As for the rest of the letter, I find its attitude towards childrennot to mention American readersdownright demeaning.

Incidentally, a survey* done by British Book News around 1980 reported that, among fiction, children’s preferences were in this order:

  1. humour
  2. ghost stories
  3. science fiction
  4. fantasy
  5. school stories
  6. adventure
  7. mystery
  8. animal stories
  9. cartoons
  10. war
  11. romance
  12. poetry
  13. historical classics

Assuming that “ghost stories” also includes anything that is spinechilling, as well as genuine ghost stories, then it’s clear that children’s tastes haven’t changed much since this survey, though I suspect they now prefer fantasy to science fiction. Publishers, however, are asking for “contemporary, realistic” stories and are definitely favouring books with dysfunctional family settings, preferably featuring some of the problems they consider many children of today have to cope with: abuse of various kinds in the home, bullying at school, difficulties in learning, physical disabilities (particularly things like being “fat” and having to wear spectacles) to name a few.

One way to judge whether children enjoy this type of literature is to compare the condition of such books on library shelves with books in other categories of a similar age. From my own recent observations, it would appear that the novels favoured by publishers sit on the shelves far longer than fantasy titles of the same age. In fact most of the fantasy novels I borrow (when I can find them) from the children’s section of my library are considerably more worn than almost any other category.

But this, of course, applies only in my part of the world. Should your curiosity be roused sufficiently to do your own survey in your local library, I’d be very interested to hear the results. Just email me to let me know. If you’re a child, of course, you won’t even need to do such a survey!

The funniest (as in something that makes you laugh) rejection I’ve ever received was the following:

There is no way in the world this book would be suited to the age groups you specify in its present form.

Even giving them credit for an advanced vocabulary, your long sentences are very difficult even for me to follow, and as a teacher and college lecturer, as well as an editor, I am quite good at trying to figure out what people are trying to say.

Standard writing averages 17 words per sentence. My book averaged 12. As for giving my “long sentences” credit for an “advanced vocabulary”, I should be so lucky! I know the writer meant “Even giving children credit”, but that’s not what the sentence says. The rest of the paragraph merely insults its writer. It gave me a good laugh, anyway.

It’s hard to believe all the above editorial comments were for the same book. It’s just as well for the motorist that motor mechanics are more likely to agree on what’s wrong with a broken-down car than editors are on manuscripts.

It’s certainly very frustrating to have your manuscript rejected by a publisher who has just published something that you know was nowhere near as well-written as your rejected book. While I’m more inclined to compare my work unfavourably with other writers, this has actually happened to me.

The following has to be the most bizarre statement I have ever encountered in a rejection:

As agents we prefer fantasy that does not have fantastical names, e.g., Rahtu rather than Rahti. Lazoronia [sic; he couldn’t even get that right] is OK. Odd as those opinions may appear to be.

Odd? They are downright nonsensical! Setting aside the fact that most fantasy books have fantastical names, Rahtu would be a highly inappropriate diminutive of Berahtein. Maybe Rahtei would be more appropriate than Rahti, but I worked on the principle used by English-speaking people in creating “pet” names for their children, e.g., Betty instead of Elizabeth. Besides, if Rahtu is a real Christian name I assume it must be a Maori one, although it’s one I haven’t heard before. It would therefore be most unsuitable for a boy whose parents come from another world. This agent also criticised my “Lotto ending that is too elementary to be true fantasy”. (Amazing how some people can use English words that most people understand and still be incomprehensible!) I can only assume he meant that he considered one of my characters winning $1 million in Lotto was too much the wrong sort of fantasy. But that million dollars was intended, in the complex spell set up by Rahti’s mother, to go to the person who did what she saw as the right thing, and I could hardly have it suddenly appear in the character’s bank account without arousing the suspicion of first the bank and then the police! The only reason I can imagine for this agent’s reaction to my plot synopsis (which is all I sent him) is that he went straight to the ending and, having made his judgement from that, didn’t bother to read the rest. That would account for the apparent stupidity of his suggestion that the boy should be called Rahtu instead of Rahti, as well as for his lack of understanding about the Lotto win. It would also account for the lack of criticism of the name Iggie (short for Ignarius) for a youth of 19. Let’s face it: if he didn’t like Rahti as a diminutive, he would absolutely loathe Iggie!

This rejection also included the following:

Fantasy is always difficult to evaluate, by agent and publisher. If it is extremely good it can be successful. If it does not attract attention (agent, publisher, booksellers, librarians, teachers, parents, kids) it may well end up unpublished. For this agency, we require that the story should be irresistible.
I agree that an agent or publisher could have difficulty evaluating a fantasy, although only if they are so uninterested in the genre they never read it. But how, I asked myself, can a book attract the attention of booksellers, librarians, teachers, parents and children before it is published? The next sentence (in a paragraph all by itself as if to emphasise it) read:
Which applies also to realistic fiction, which almost everyone prefers.
Now, in this case the “everyone” refers to “kids”, as he ineptly called them. I can’t believe that, in the face of the Harry Potter phenomenon, this man could be stupid enough to honestly believe what he wrote, so I can only assume he intended to be … well, to be frank, nasty.

Later in this rejection came a one-sentence paragraph that I had even more trouble understanding:

And you, as the author, have to have distinction and to be promotable alongside your book.
What on earth is that supposed to mean? It’s my work he was meant to be assessing, and therefore my work that should have “distinction” (presumably in the sense of excellence rather than other meanings of the word) not me personally!

Then there are the following clumsy sentences:

It will be your entry ticket into the world of publishing or not, if it is not judged to be irresistible.

Therefore your book proposal can be the most important thing you have written, and be concentrated on accordingly.

I don’t want to be represented by anyone capable of being less than polite in a letter to a stranger, and incapable of correcting bad or clumsy grammar.

*My source for this information is The Way to Write for Children by Joan Aiken, published in 1982 by Elm Tree Books/Hamish Hamilton Ltd (p 86).

 

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