The Martian, Rejection, and Finding Your Reader

Recently I read The Martian. It’s been the big buzz book over the last year or two, with a new movie out. Usually I don’t dive into a lot of the best-seller adult list, but I decided to give it a try after getting recommendations from friends in the sciences who enjoyed it. Psyched by the idea of a sci-fi novel that was heavy on the sci, I requested a copy from the library and (about four months later; thanks, Matt Damon), I read it.

It was fun and exciting. Mark Watney was a clever protagonist with a good sense of humor, and the rest of the astronaut team felt real. The science was well explained to the reader and seemed feasible, like manned missions to Mars could actually happen in my lifetime. The dynamics between NASA and the media and international governments felt genuine. Reading it, I could totally imagine this as a movie.

But if I’d gotten the manuscript as an editor, I totally would have rejected it.

Which is apparently what happened to author Andy Weir. He’d had experience with rejections in the publishing world, so he decided to put The Martian up as a free serial on his website. Success with that led to him self-publishing on Amazon, which led to him being a huge seller on the indie list. That got attention from traditional publishers, and his book was immediately a best seller in the traditional sphere, too.

I’m not surprised the book has connected to fans like it has. It’s an entertaining ride and a high five to science enthusiasts. But I’m also not surprised it didn’t start out in traditional publishing. If I were an editor and the manuscript came across my desk, I totally would have passed–not because I didn’t like the book, but because of these questions:

  • Image by U.S. Army RDECOM

    Image by U.S. Army RDECOM

    Who’s gonna read all that science?
    One of the best parts of the book is that Weir is so careful to document everything Watney has to think about in order to stay alive on Mars–how to sustain oxygen levels, how to grow potatoes, how NASA technology operates on Mars, etc. I would have thought “This is all cool and interesting, but how many readers are going to plow through a book that’s at least half legit science? Where’s the market?”
    Where I fail: Apparently the market is real and it’s big.

  • What’s Watney’s emotional journey?
    Image by Pedro Klien

    Image by Pedro Klien

    Mark Watney is a bright and funny protagonist. Part of the reason he was on the Mars team was because he’s the guy who can lighten up the room with a joke or funny comment. But we don’t get to see a lot of his emotional arch on Mars–sure, he gets upset and frustrated, but we don’t see the depths of his fear or loneliness. It’s a pretty emotionally light read, considering he’s been stranded on a lifeless planet.
    Where I fail: I think that also ends up being a draw for readers–it’s not literary fiction, it’s an adventure novel.

  • Who are all these other characters?
    Image by Tambako The Jaguar

    Image by Tambako The Jaguar

    And considering it’s about a guy stranded on a lifeless planet, the book’s actually got a pretty big cast of characters. Between the other astronauts and the NASA team and the other various scientists/government people, it’s a sizable group to keep track of, and aside from a few people, the voices don’t vary too much. Why would people read through their sections when you don’t care about them?
    Where I fail: a lot of the characters can blend together into NASA/China/etc., which means they don’t bog down the reader with their individual stories.

What does that mean for writers? It means that rejections aren’t a blanket assessment of your work. Your story can be a best-seller. It can be a movie. It can be a story that editors really enjoy, even while they reject it.

It sucks, because it’s so frustrating to think that your story can be great and readers can love it, and even then it’ll still get rejected. But I prefer to look at it as heartening. Even if you get rejected over and over, that doesn’t mean your story is bad or that your writing is worthless. It means that you need to find the right reader–whether that’s an editor in a traditional publishing house, or readers looking for innovative new work in the self-publishing field.

So keep writing, keep submitting, keep getting your work out there. Your work doesn’t have to connect with every reader–it just has to find the right ones.

In 75 Years, That Rejection Will Be Invalid

Don’t worry about those rejection letters. One day, when you’re considered one of the greatest American writers ever, The New Yorker will backtrack and publish that short story they passed on before you got famous.

At least, that’s what happened with F. Scott Fitzgerald. Recently his grandchildren found the rejected story in his papers. Fitzgerald scholar and editor James West passed it along to The New Yorker staff, who are going to run the story this week. The first time around, they weren’t so kind:

“The magazine wrote in an internal message that it was “altogether out of the question. It seems to us so curious and so unlike the kind of thing we associate with him and really too fantastic.””

Okay, so Fitzgerald’s not around to enjoy this belated triumph, but the rest of us can wave our rejection letters in solidarity.

(image: GoodReads)

Quote of the Day

“Being a writer does not necessarily mean being published. It’s very nice to be published. It’s what you want. When you have a vision, you want to share it. But being a writer means writing. It means building up a body of work. It means writing every day. You can hardly say that van Gogh was not a painter because he sold one painting during his lifetime, and that to his brother. But do you say that van Gogh wasn’t a painter because he wasn’t “published?” He was a painter because he painted, because he held true to his vision as he saw it. And I think that’s the best example I can give you.”–Madeleine L’Engle

From Madeleine L’Engle Herself: Reflections on a Writing Life; probably the best example of why the writing itself is what matters.

Even Laurie Halse Anderson Needs Persistence

You know Laurie Halse Anderson, author of highly-acclaimed YA novel, Speak, as well as other equally moving and successful books? Apparently her historical novel, Fever 1793, didn’t have an easy road to publication even with all of her authorial success. On her Tumblr, Anderson says:

“The research and writing took seven years. Thirteen publishers rejected it…I lost track of the number of revisions. 14? 112? Whatever, it took a long time and needed a lot of work. This book was my apprentice piece.”

I think Anderson is an amazing writer, so it’s shocking to see that she would have had to work so hard and face so much rejection with Fever 1793. Fortunately, she kept at it:

“It has sold more than one million copies in the United States, won all kinds of shiny awards, is a standard part of elementary and middle school curriculum, and has been translated into Catalan, Dutch, Italian, Japanese, Mandarin, and Spanish.”

Lesson learned? Persistence pays off, and even amazing, super successful writers face challenges. Keep going, writers!

Lessons in Rejection

Rejection is hard, no matter who you are or what your career is like. (At SCBWI, Jane Yolen talked about how she still gets rejected.) It’s hard work, putting your writing out there and hearing that it’s not quite good enough. Writers usually have to develop thick skins, or else hide away all manuscripts in desk drawers. But Nancy at Out to Play has some great suggestions for coping with rejection. I especially like her Mike Wazowski approach!

A couple of other tips I’d add:

  • Editors/agents get a ton of submissions. Their email inboxes are constantly overflowing. As a result, they have to be super picky about the work they represent. Rejection doesn’t mean your work is necessarily bad. It just means that this editor/agent didn’t feel the right connection with it. When I was working on lit journals in college and grad school, most of the submissions we got were perfectly fine. But we only have the space to print a handful, and we had to make cuts somewhere. But that also means that if someone selects your work, they absolutely love it and will treat it with major enthusiasm.
  • It may seem like your fellow writers are never rejected, but that’s not true. For the most part, people don’t tend to talk about their failures like they do their successes. Remember that everyone gets rejected, and maybe broach the subject with some close writer friends.
  • It’s not rejection; it’s a learning tool. If you can figure out what went wrong, maybe you can make your story sharper and better than ever for the next time around. That way, it’s another step on the road to being an even more awesome writer.
  • When you do get good news, think about those former rejections and how they led you to where you are now. It’s all a process.

What are your tips for handling rejections?

Wishing and Hoping

When I was in grad school, one of my professors encouraged our class to submit our work to journals, agents, editors, etc. “You live differently when you have work out there,” she said. I’ve found this to be surprisingly true. Over at Kiss and Tell, Sheri Adkins has a post about a very similar feeling: the waiting while your work is out there. Such as waiting for that special call from an agent or editor:

Still, every time the phone rang I had the pleasure of wishing for it to be “the call”. For the few seconds it would take to get to the phone I would often send up a little prayer or get a little thrill that this could be it—my big break!

I totally felt this! There have been times when I’d see an unfamiliar number on my cell phone and think “Maybe this is it!” And of course it would be my dentist confirming my appointment for the next day, or the CVS automatic refill reminder. But there’s something exciting about that, too: any moment could be the moment your life changes. As Sheri says:

Still, the wish for that possibility keeps us going, don’t you think? It’s the courage to go after our dreams and most cherished wish that defines who we are.”

When you submit your work to an agent/editor/journal, it means the potential for rejection, which is hard. But it also means that you are a writer. You are living the writer’s life. And you never know when your work is going to land on the right agent’s desk. There are a lot of people who say they’d like to be writers, but they keep their work to themselves. That’s fine, but they’re missing out on the possibility that someone will love their work.

So submit your work. Send out those queries. You’re living a different life when you do.

(via NESCBWI Kidlit Reblogger)

The “Something”

From an interview with publishing powerhouse Jean Feiwel:

As you and your fellow editors look to acquire books, is there one element that grabs you each time, that one essential element?

I say this in my rejections letter, if I don’t emotionally connect with something I’m not going to respond to it. There’s something about the story that has to pull on my emotions in some way. It has to make me laugh. It has to be very dramatic. It has to surprise me. Something has to happen for me to respond to a story. Even it’s something I’ve heard a lot , even if it’s yet another vampire story, if there’s something in it that feels fresh or emerges in some surprising way I’ll will respond and go after it. There has to be something emotionally alive in it for me.

I think this is the hardest part of querying. You can have a fantastic pitch and a wonderful book, but if it doesn’t connect with that particular agent/editor it’s not going to work. And that’s good, in a way. You want your agent or editor to be passionate about your book. If they’re not, they won’t really want to put in the time and effort required to make it a wonderful, successful work of art that readers will love. And it’s so hard to tell what exactly will strike an agent/editor. As Feiwel says, it can be an old story (back again, vampires?) but something about it has to stand out. While you can revise a novel to tighten the plot or enhance the character development, it’s really hard to pinpoint what that “something” that will catch an editor’s attention.

Jean Feiwel will be part of the “Children’s Books, Today and Tomorrow: Four Expert Impressions” panel at the 2012 SCBWI conference in January. So excited to hear more of her thoughts on the industry, and for the conference in general! (For more conference news and previews, check out the SCBWI conference blog)