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TweensLet’s explore some of those ubiquitous rejection letters that even internationally published novelists see frequently.

A while back a senior editor from a prestigious publishing house in London said this about an early draft of my manuscript, THE SABBATH EXPERIMENT.

“This has a terrific pace, and it reminds me of a cross between Dean Koontz and Robin Cook. All in all it was a very enjoyable read and I certainly felt myself compelled to turn the page. Alas, it’s not something I see on our list. And this has nothing to do with the quality of the writing or the strength of the plot....”

I pitched the same draft to a Simon and Shuster (Pocket Books) editor at a writers’ conference in Maui. He described me as a “clever writer with good plot devices.” Still, he passed on the project, calling it a “tweener” – “not the type of thriller that Pocket does, or does well.” (In other words, Pocket Books doesn’t do clever page-turning thrillers, and when they do, they don’t do them well?)

Another pitch to a senior vice president and publisher of Warner Books netted this response: ”I enjoyed the complexity of the characters – especially Dr. Sabbath, a devious villain with a somewhat likable humanity. While there is certainly a lot of talent represented here, I’m afraid that it’s not quite right for my list.”

An editor at Putnam offered me this: “I love the futuristic setting and found the novel’s premise fascinating.” But, alas, not right for her list.

The manuscript is now with my agent, who loves the novel (bless her heart!). She just sent along another rejection note: “I can see why you’re so enthusiastic about his book, but I don’t think it’s right for our list....”

SO WHAT ARE THESE PUBLISHING LISTS” and how do you get your novel on one? Apparently, it’s not enough to be a writer with “lots of talent” with a novel that’s “a very enjoyable read” and ”a page turner” with “a fascinating premise,” ”a terrific pace,” “clever plot devices,” “complex characters” and “a devious villain with a somewhat likable humanity” ... in the words of some of publishing’s biggies.

So, if not a fascinating page turner, what exactly are publishers looking for? To get an idea, browse any bookstore and you’ll find shelves stocked with familiar plots and structures – elements publishers feel confident they can market successfully again and again. Peruse the bestseller shelves: the same authors are recycling the same stories with the same characters. We’re competing in an age of “artistic franchises.”

Why? Because editors’ careers depend on their ability to keep audiences biting at the same hook. That’s why manuscripts on their lists often follow very rigid formulas ... variations on trusty themes, characters and devices that have earned well in the past. Why risk confusing your audience with a new voice?

So what chance does a “tweener” story have? I’ll let you know....

  • Guest - Chad LaFarge


    What are you opinions on self-publishing? I know that there are several companies that provide these services with different levels of marketing support, and I know a few people who have self-published. They liked the quality of the printing/binding, but didn't get a lot of exposure to help push the work.

  • Hi, Chad. Self-publishing is one option, but not a very good one if you’re trying to establish yourself as a serious writer. State-of-the-art digital on-demand publishing produces gorgeous editions of your work that, if done right, are indistinguishable from books produced by major publishing houses. This is a good option if you have a “niche” topic with a built-in audience (e.g., corporate employees, or you need copies to pass out or sell at your seminars).

    But here’s the catch: it’s very difficult getting a self-published book taken seriously. No book store wants to stock them, and most publications won't review them. And any marketing is your responsibility alone (or you pay for a publicist).

    I highly recommend that if you have a worthwhile manuscript that your truly believe in, work like hell to find an agent and publisher that will do it justice. It took me two years of solid work to find an agent who would represent my first novel CODE:ALPHA … and she sold it in three months. The key was never giving up and never taking “no” for an answer. But you need to have a thick skin for rejections — they sux!

  • Guest - CJ Dabbs


    Thank you so much for posting exactly what I needed to read tonight.

    I have a 15 year old daughter. She is High Functioning Autistic and has critical visual-spatial impairment. More than that, she is a young writer. A good one (I'm not just saying that because I'm her mom - her teachers think so, too). Her disabilities makes getting things onto paper difficult, but she has worked hard to overcome every obstacle that arises.

    She has been posting some of her work on an online forum for writers. It seems to be mostly adults. Problem is, some 'reviewers' are trapped in a world of 'same old, same old'. Heaven forbid they step outside of the same stories. The negative reviews from some and the venomous way in which they deliver them have disturbed her and this week she began to doubt whether she should continue in her writing.

    Your article about Tweener Rejections was exactly what she needed to read so she could understand why some people are so bothered if she steps outside of the norm - their norm. It also let her know that writers get rejected. Something they don't mention in writing class. You let her know that writers carry on, learn, and persevere.

    The article about how to outline a story was also great info for her. The writing class at her school spends a lot of time on grammar. They didn't mention outlines.

    Now, she's back on track and ready to continue pursuing her dream of writing.

    Thank you for these two super articles. Most of all, thank you for being willing to share your personal experience.

    A very pleased Mom!!!!

  • Guest - Joe Massucci

    In reply to: Guest - CJ Dabbs Report

    CJ, it's unfortunate that your daughter is getting criticism for her work rather than helpful critiques and support. See my article about participating in writing groups – some do’s and don’t’s – which might help. Here's my eighth point:

    8. Critique, yes … criticize, NO!

    There are two types of people in this world: those who criticize to hurt, and those want to help build something better. Put-downs and attacks are out of place in a writing group. This is a critical rule that must be enforced, or you risk alienating members, or worse. One mean-spirited comment can cause a talented beginner to lose faith. It’s stupid and pointless.

    Keep in mind that the reason for giving feedback is to help the writer improve, not wound her. Good critique is specific, constructive, sincere and helpful, and inspires the writer to do her best work. Be honest and tactful, keep your language positive, and give encouragement and praise whenever appropriate.

    Focus on three things:

    1. Start with the positives – what works
    2. What isn’t clear or could be better
    3. Suggestions to consider

    At this stage it’s important that your daughter be allowed to find her own voice and explore her own creative themes. I’m a big believer of urging writers to think out of the box and come up with something totally original. I’m tired of formula writing, formula genres and formula themes. I love a story with unique characters that take me someplace new!

    I may have sold more books if I had kept rehashing the same plots, characters and mainstream themes. But that’s not what satisfies me as a writer. I get bored easily (as a reader and as a writer), and I’m always looking for something new and interesting to explore.

    You daughter probably needs to drop out of that online group and find another that offers her what she needs – ideally, a group with members at the same levels of their writing careers who share common goals.

    I’m not a big fan of “online” writing groups for the very reasons your daughter experienced. People are more likely to criticize and offend behind the safety of their computer screens, rather than saying things face-to-face.

  • Guest - alexp


    Great article.....

    from Alabama, USA
  • Guest - Edina Clark


    I would like to say that quality writing is the strength of anyone's material. It's up to you how much you want to improve. When I was in school, I was so scared to write an essay. I searched for help online to and I got it!

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