I have moved the whole blog to a new address. Please join me over there as no new posts are being added here and I have removed key info from this old version ...


When you get there, PLEASE rejoin as a "follower" - changing addresses means I lose my 230 lovely friends!

NB also - all comments are intact on the new version.

Monday, 23 February 2009


This is what you and your friends / writing group say to each other when you are rejected by an agent or publisher. Because we all know that you'll never get a room full of people to agree about the merits of a published and multi-award-winning book, let alone an unpublished one.

So rejection doesn't mean you're not good enough, because it's just one opinion, right? And it's a rubbish opinion, right? And it's just someone who happens not to like this style of book or be on the right wave-length, right? In fact, your only mistake was to pick this particular rubbish agent / publisher and if you'd picked a different one everything would be all right, right?

Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong.

This is not just one opinion: this is an expert opinion.
Yes, still an opinion, and it is possible that another expert might disagree at least in the detail, but it is a much more important and likely-to-be-right opinion, and certainly needing to be listened to. It is an opinion based on an understanding of the market and a proper, trained knowledge of how a book works and what ingredients it needs to propel it to its readership and critical acclaim (more expert opinion). A book is not just a lovely idea wrapped up in some passionate words and tied with a pretty bow. A book has structure and rules (which may be broken but only when you know how and why) and a shape, with patterns which are far from random. There are shapes and tricks and pitfalls and techniques and absolute no-noes, any of which you may not know but all of which the good agent, editor and (usually) published author have learnt.

This, really, is where the "everyone has a book in them" idea falls on its face. Now, it is possible that everyone has an idea in them which a writer might turn into a book, but it is absolutely not the case that most people have a book in them. Woolly nonsense that everyone deserves to be a writer is what keeps the slush pile clogged up with drivel. No, everyone does not deserve to be a writer any more than everyone deserves to be an astronaut or a opera singer. Some people simply don't have the necessary talents to be those things. I certainly don't, much as I might wish I had, or even be prepared to try.

It's a bit like the "everyone deserves to pursue their dreams" thing. Yeah, okay, everyone has the right to pursue them - just as I have the right to pursue a dream to be a world-famous singer. The fact that I'm useless at singing just means I don't have the right to succeed. And I certainly don't have the right to demand that a professional singing teacher gives up time to offer a detailed critique of my crapness or become my agent without any hope of earning any money from me.

To succeed, I'd need talent, followed by very very very hard work, and the ability to listen to a great and EXPERT teacher.

Of course, I am not meaning to say that you're useless at writing - of course you're not. Many of you are likely to be very talented and full of potential and will doubtless become published - in fact, many of you are already and I'm delighted to have some seriously successful authors reading this blog. Really, I'm just riding my hobby horse into the sunset. But I'm also making a point about talent and opinion and how every type of art has certain skills and talents, with experienced professionals who have expert opinions about those talents, opinions which are valid and must be listened to. Argued with, possibly, but listened to and not dismissed in favour of your mother's opinion. Even if your mother is a publisher, frankly. Being a mother tends to get in the way of things.

But the rejection letter is not necessarily saying you don't have the talent. It's saying that your book hasn't sufficiently revealed that talent; or possibly that it does reveal potential talent but that there are too many things wrong with this particular book. (I am going to do a whole post on "What the rejection letter means" so I'll do that in more detail then.)

Back to the "just one opinion" thing.
There's a TV series in the UK called Masterchef. You may have it in other countries too, though I guess with different presenters. Anyway, it's a competition for seriously good amateur cooks and the standard is incredible. The judging is done by these two guys, professional and well-known chefs, and they taste all the food and judge it. Now, clearly with food, it is literally a matter of taste. But when they judge, they are able to transcend any thoughts such as, "Hmm, I never was particularly keen on mushrooms - slimy things at the best of times," or "Tarragon - a hugely over-rated herb, I always think, fit only for cows." They have an expert and objective view of what "notes" should be in a dish; they can tell you that yes, each flavour is perfect but that there are too many flavours on the plate; they can say that the lemon is over-powering the rose and that a tiny whiff more cinnamon would improve it, even if they personally don't go for cinnamon in the first place. They will talk about the shape of the flavour, the balance, the mouth-feel, the warmth of the salt, what it's doing to each part of their tongues. Now, you can call it pretentious if you like, but these guys know how to judge food by its taste without letting personal predelictions get in the way. It is a genuinely expert opinion, as objective as possible.

And that's what a good agent or editor gives you when herehe or she rejects or accepts your manuscript. (Granted that there are some other elements - do read ARE PUBLISHERS EVER WRONG for some very good reasons why publishers may reject a perfectly good book - and it may just be the wrong book for them, or they've just taken on another too-similar book. But in that case they are likely to say something that suggests this. Though, of course, they may not suggest this, since agents and publishers can be the masters of obscurity. PS: in fact, by pure coincidence, Jane at How Publishing Really Works was obviously writing a piece giving very good reasons for that while I was doing this current post - read it here.)

So, be very careful when you go down the "what do they know?" route to dealing with rejection. They do know. (Well, unless they're rubbish, which they occasionally are but if they are then you don't want them to accept you anyway because their editorial judgement will be lousy, their copy-editing cheap or non-existent and your book will end up being published in a form which is embarrassingly not as good as it should be and you will wish they'd turned you down or you hadn't been so desperate. Trust me.)

If you choose to believe your mother, partner, kids or writing group, rather than the professional who actually knows enough about all this to make a living out of it, fine. But you're risking missing a much more helpful truth: that in some way your masterpiece is not yet good enough and that you need to improve it.

I aim to go one by one through the possibilities of what the imperfections might be. We've done voice. The next one is either going to be pace or over-writing. Or possibly monotony in sentence structure. All of those things will really drag down your writing, even if you do have underlying talent and potential.

Mind you, that's just my opinion.