Go for Broke: Break the Rules – Bev. Cooke

It took four years and three tries before “Street Kid, Subway Cat” was ready to send to send out. The story was based on my brother-in-law’s experience of befriending and domesticating a feral cat who lived in a New York City subway station. He named her Gidget, and we met her on a visit to my brother-in-law. Well, if you can call a middle of the night tromp over my calves and a panicked flight when I lifted my hand to pet her as “meeting” a cat – because she was the definition of “scaredy cat.”

The book about Gidget and her adventures had gone from a picture book, which felt too cloying and sentimental, to a young adult novel that was too short on both words and plot to a mid-grade novel that felt about right. I sent it to my dream publisher, took a deep breath and began to wait.

The editor emailed within the promised time, which is unheard of in the children’s literature (kid lit) market; it’s almost an unwritten rule they’ll take practically forever, but even so, she rejected it. But, again breaking unwritten rules, the editor explained her reasons. She said the book was neither one thing nor the other. It didn’t feel like a mid-grade. Some of the subject matter was too mature and it begged for more plot and conflict, or it needed to be shorter and simpler. She suggested that I either make it a picture book or a young adult. But thanks for submitting, and we’d really like to see more of your work.

I took my courage in both hands, said a quick prayer, and picked up the phone. I got through to the editor with no problem, another first in the kid lit market. Normally, editors only talk to writers whose books they’ve accepted, not to us wanna-bes. We discussed the rejection in more detail. I decided to go for broke and ask the big, forbidden question. In kid’s lit, you NEVER, EVER, EVER ask the editor to reconsider a rewritten rejection. Never. It’s one of the real, written down in stone and cast in concrete rules. You suck it up and send the story elsewhere. But, I figured, what did I have to lose? The press had already said no, and they had said they liked and wanted to see more of my work. So I asked: if I rewrote the book as a young adult, taking her suggestions, would she reconsider it? It took some persuasion, but finally, she agreed.

I sat down to the work. During the rewrite, Gidget, the inspiration for the book, came to live with us. As fearful as ever, she found a refuge under my desk by the hot air register and took up residence while I wrote about her alter ego’s adventures.

She dozed there, warm and comfy, as I broadened and deepened the story, discovered new characters and lived in that world so strongly that finishing work each day felt like more like entering a fictional world than returning to real life. I felt as though I knew Candlewax and Little Cat, the two main characters, better than I knew myself. I finished it, sent the manuscript in and began, again, to wait.

Again, within their stated response time, the editor called. Another rule in kid’s lit: editors only phone you to offer you a contract, never to reject. When I heard Ms. Editor’s voice, my hope surged, and my hand on the phone trembled – this had been a rule breaking experience so far. Was this phone call going to break another one? I could see the news flash: Editor calls to reject author’s novel! Story at 11! But while Candlewax, Little Cat and I might have been rule breakers, Ms. Editor wasn’t, at least this time: she offered me a contract. The book was released as Feral because, Ms. Editor said, she, the author and every character in it were feral rule breakers.

About Bev. Cooke

Rejection is a fact of a writer’s life, whether you’re sending out your first or 100th manuscript. Bev. Cooke knows this from personal experience but even so, she’s been lucky enough to have several things make it into the world. Her latest efforts are included in the women’s devotional, Darkness is as Light, edited by Summer Kinard and published by Park End Books. She’s working on her fourth Akathist and a fantasy novel for mid-grade Orthodox kids. She and her husband attend All Saints of Alaska parish in Victoria BC, Canada and are the
minions of Sampson, the household feline.

Rejection Letters: 5 Types and What They Mean

You work hard on your manuscript. The setting and characters are fresh in your mind, so clear that you have memories as if they are real people and places. You have the writer’s constant urge to TELL the story, to put words on paper that other eyes and hearts will see. It is so important to you that the publisher grasps what you communicated and finds it worthy.

But sometimes, that doesn’t happen.

There are many reasons why manuscripts get rejected. Sometimes, the writing isn’t good enough, but there are other more complicated realities. In a recent conversation, someone shared a comment they’d heard from a friend in the publishing industry. Not all good books are “good publishing.” For better and worse, publishing is a business. Personnel, paper, and presses all require financial support, and publishers need to publish books that sell. Publishers should absolutely take responsibility for their impact on market forces and their opportunities to influence culture. But they still can’t operate at a loss. What they can sell might not be the book you can write.

To survive as a writer (and as an adult human), you will develop emotional coping strategies. It’s my hope that your professional strategy will benefit from these perspectives on rejection letters, drawn from my experience and that of writers who kindly shared their favorite rejection letter with me for this post.

What kind of rejection letter is it?

Rejection letters come in many forms, but they seem to fall into five categories: total silence; generic, no details; personal, some details; second chance offers; and second chance rejections.

I personally have received all five types.

I also have 9 published or contracted books.

It’s important to remember that a rejection letter often tells you as much about the publisher as it does about your writing. If Charles Dickens submitted A Tale of Two Cities to a publisher of action hero graphic novels, he too would be rejected. The Bible is the only book that can truly be said to have the whole human world as its audience, and even that statement would be argued by millions. With that in mind, let’s consider the five types and what they mean.

Total Silence

Many publishers, especially the larger ones, note in their submission guidelines that they respond only if they are interested in pursuing publication. That means the vast majority of authors will never hear back. At all. The guidelines often tell you how long to wait before giving up. “If you do not hear from us in 6 months, you can assume we are not interested in publishing your book.”

So, you mark the date on your calendar that is 6 months from when you hit send, and when that date arrives with no response, you can consider yourself rejected.

This is unpleasant, but it’s a measure of the publisher’s size and of the avalanche of submissions that came in before and after yours. Some publishers that consider unagented submissions do so by adding them to a large file, where they remain unread except on those occasions when the publisher commands a staff member to dive into the large file and retrieve anything suitable for whatever project is afoot. The large file is deep and wide. The odds are not good. And the publisher does not have the time or personnel to respond to the thousands of authors whose manuscripts lie therein. Hence the policy of silence.

Generic, NO DETAILS

This type is a polite form letter. It comes from an actual human being, and it indicates that someone read at least a few sentences of your manuscript. Or the proposal. Or the entire proposal and a portion of the manuscript. They do know what you’re offering, and this is a time-saving way to say “Thank you, but no thank you” without troubling to spell out why.

Here’s an excerpt from an actual rejection letter I received from a small-to-midsize traditional publisher.

We have completed our review of the manuscript. We appreciate the time and creativity you have put into this work; however, we have decided not to accept this submission for publication, as it does not fit our current editorial needs.

This is from a Christian publisher, and you can see the writer took trouble to be kind. More often, generic rejection letters are like this one (also real).

Thank you for your submission. Unfortunately, at the moment we do not have room in our publishing schedule for it. 

This is still polite, but be honest – they would have room in the schedule if they wanted to have room in the schedule.

Generic rejection letters tell me one of two things: either I misjudged the publisher’s interests (“current editorial needs”), or the writing is not strong enough or appealing enough in their view to justify the effort and expense of publishing it (“we do not have room in our publishing schedule”). Publishing schedules do fill up. Thousands of manuscripts are submitted to thousands of publishers every year. But it’s a publisher’s job to sift those thousands, searching for the gold dust hidden in the sand. Sometimes, you just don’t sparkle the way they think gold should sparkle.

Personal, Some Details

If you’re lucky, the publisher will tell you why you are being rejected. This is a gift. Read their words and take them to heart. You may disagree, but don’t fail to value the glimpse of your writing as someone in the business saw it. Almost always, you can learn from a professional who takes the time to coach you.

I’m delighted to share a sample of this type provided by a published author, who we’ll call David Taylor. David recounts the following experience which occurred while David was querying agents for a fiction manuscript. David writes:

I was querying with my second novel and having no luck when a Manhattan literary agent with an impressive list who had the first 50 pages requested a full. Two weeks later, I received a three-paragraph critical rejection that pointed out my main problem: “You’re a strong writer with a compelling story. Reading on, we were disappointed to find that you kept us at a distance.”

A three-paragraph critical rejection is amazing. It’s a mini-critique group just for you, and it’s a sign that although you are being rejected, the agent or publisher thinks you show enough promise to be worth coaching.

Think hard about the advice you’ve been offered. Will it help you achieve your goal for this manuscript, or is it simply a more detailed explanation of why you should apply elsewhere? In some cases, you can incorporate that advice and submit your revision for a second chance.

Second-Chance Offers

On occasion, a publisher will reject the manuscript in its current form but extend a second chance. They’ll explain what it would take for the book to succeed and give you the option to make those changes.

As with David’s letter above, your next step is to decide if you want the second chance. What are you being asked to do with your manuscript? Will the changes improve it, or do you feel you’re being pressured into something that doesn’t match your goals?

If you decide to try for the second chance, follow the directions. You’re asking the publisher to reconsider, so you need to prove you can be coached and that you’re capable of producing what they want.

This process can take patience and a sense of humor. My first children’s chapter book began life as a short story that I submitted as a picture book. The picture book was rejected, but the editor thought the story might work as part of a collection of short stories for children. I wrote and submitted the collection. The editor responded that the acquisitions board didn’t want a short story collection; the board wanted a chapter book of the same length with one story arc through the whole book.

I considered banging my head on the wall.

Instead, I pulled one of the stories from the collection and expanded it. That story was finally accepted for publication.

Second-Chance Rejections

A second chance doesn’t guarantee acceptance. Your revised submission may prove to the publisher that you aren’t a good fit for their market, or that you haven’t taken their direction in the way they hoped. The person who read your manuscript the first time may no longer work there, or someone else may have submitted a book they like better in the meantime.

This type of rejection is final. You had a chance, and it didn’t work out, and they don’t want to see a third version of your book. Respect that. Look for another publisher, consider self-publishing, or sit down with coffee and quiet to rework your manuscript.

If you’re fortunate, you’ll get good feedback in the final rejection letter. I recall one such letter I received about a decade ago. The editor offered a second round of criticisms, some that had not been mentioned the first time and therefore were not addressed in my revisions. The letter closed with some tough love: “I have no doubt you have another great book in you. This may not be it.”

What can we learn from rejection?

Rejection is not final. It is not the only possible opinion of your work, but neither is it worthless. Don’t let it kill you, but do let it teach you. In time, you will learn to distinguish between usable criticism that can improve your writing and rejection that simply means the publisher or editor is not your intended audience.

My friend Phoebe, a published author and established blogger, gives the best advice on submitting writing for publication. “I always keep in mind a fallback option,” she says. Decide before you submit the manuscript what else you can do with it. What’s the next publisher you will try? Where else can you use that writing – on your own blog, a friend’s blog? If you have a plan, it will remind you that rejection isn’t final. It’s the next step on your path, and you’re ready for what comes after it.

Bev. Cooke, another published friend, will be sharing a story on this blog soon about a rejection that led to something better. Rejection is only final if you let it shut you down. Don’t fear it. Take it in, break it into parts and analyze what it means and doesn’t mean, and then proceed with your plan.

Never forget that rejection is part of the writing life. Walk through a bookstore, staring at the loaded shelves, and murmur to yourself, “This author got rejected just like me, and now she’s published. This one, too. And this one. He got rejected, and he kept going. I can too.” It’s encouraging, and it’s also true.

I’d like to close with a wonderful rejection letter shared by Steve Robinson. He even sent a photo of the letter, which he framed and hung on the wall.

Steve says:

I still have my first rejection letter framed (and my first acceptance letter). The book sat at Multnomah for months going through rounds of meetings before I finally got this. I was appreciative of the “complimentary rejection” because it told me I was on the right path. Most publishers just send a “form rejection” with no input unfortunately. (It eventually got published as “Lord of the Hunt and Other Tales of Grace).

That’s how to make meaning out of rejection. Be grateful for the criticism, and read between the lines so you know when you are on the right path.

Seven Holy Women: Conversations with Saints and Friends

Seven Holy Women is a one-of-a-kind journey into the lives of one modern reader and seven women saints. Created as both a deeply personal and enriching communal experience, this unique tool speaks directly to its reader, drawing her into the lives of these holy women as it prepares her to relate her own story in the book’s final chapter.

Each of the first seven sections of the book includes a story from a saint’s life; contextual information about the saint’s life; a reflection on ways the reader and the saint intersect on their journeys; personal surveys for the reader and a friend to complete; and a journal prompt that encourages the reader to explore and document her encounter with themes from the saint’s life.

In the final section, the reader will weave together the varied strands she’s identified by stepping into the stories of seven other women, meditating on the holiness she seeks for herself and the obstacles and inspirations of the life in which her quest unfolds.

This book grew out of a short-story binge that occupied cold winter evenings about a year ago. As it grew, I invited a group of writer friends into the book, offering each of them the saint of her choosing. These friends are (clockwise from top left) Anna Neill, (me!), Georgia Briggs, Molly Sabourin, Katherine Hyde, Laura Jansson, Summer Kinard, and Melissa Naasko. The union and distinction of their strong and beautiful voices make this book special.

Seven Holy Women: Who are the 7?

This week, I shared the first letter and the number of letters in each of the names of the seven women saints who are part of my next book, a storytelling journal I wrote with seven friends. Here’s what the clues looked like.

The guesses were interesting, and I learned the names of saints I haven’t heard of yet! It was fascinating to see which of our seven saints are known and unknown. Today, I announced the correct answers. How many of these saints do you know?

This book grew out of a series of short stories, which I wrote because of a long-held sense that the lives of saints have a lot of story potential! I browsed long lists of saints and their stories, looking for incidents in their lives that leaped out at me as unusual, thought-provoking, picturesque – all the things you look for in a good short story. As I wrote, I realized that my short stories were trying to be a book. But the idea of writing the whole thing myself made me so tired!

At this point, I embarked on what I like to call the Holy Spirit Theory of Writing – in which you let the book be what it wants to be and follow along in a spirit of joyful curiosity. I realized that I could ask friends to help me write the book, and after staring at my list of saint names and daydreaming for a bit, I asked the friends who seemed to go with the saints.

I’m so glad I did! This is seven times the book it would have been if I had written it all myself. And it was exciting and mysterious to see the ways that the seven saints matched the women writing about them. In every case, there was some aspect of that particular woman that was drawn out and filled with light by the saint she was writing about. I can’t wait till you read this book!! In one case, we even decided that the woman writing looked a lot like the portraits we found of the saint she was writing about.

Beauty leads to beauty, and love to love. Writing the book together is drawing us closer to each other, and I think also closer to the saints we chose to meet in our writing. It’s the beginning of many conversations, not the least of which is an exploration of creativity, or what might be called an educated imagination, in our life of faith.

#SevenHolyWomen #book #journal #storytelling #shortstory #Orthodox #saints #faith #imagination #writing

Painting Angels: Cover and Co-Author!

Painting Angels, Book 3 in the #SamandSaucer trilogy, just went to press! It’s due to release on July 21, and I want to share the cover, catalog copy, and adorable new co-author for this book as we wait to see the book “in person.”

The Cover

The Catalog Copy

What happens when you can’t get away from the person who drives you craziest? Sam and Macrina are about to find out. Stuck working together to help the nuns, Sam and Macrina come up with a thousand reasons to disagree. Sam is too rude. Macrina is too bossy. Summer at the monastery will be miserable if they can’t find some common ground. With the help of three friendly nuns, a runaway bunny, and Saucer the trusty corgi, Macrina and Sam discover a big secret that helps put them on the road toward peace.

The Co-Author

I am thrilled to announce that I have a co-author for Painting Angels! Thirteen-year-old Veronica Naasko kindly contributed an account of life as a “farm kid” that is going into the print, ebook, and audiobook editions of Painting Angels! The animal farm at the book’s imaginary monastery is central to the story in Book 3, and when we found there was space available at the end of the book, we asked Veronica to write for us. I recorded my part of the Audible edition this weekend, and Veronica is submitting hers this afternoon. Her part of this book is awesome. It has turkeys. It has wolves. It even has an unusual bishop. Just wait till you read it!! Here is a picture of Veronica recording for Audible.

Quick Fixes: Simple Ways to Improve Your Writing

Two days into running a private Facebook group for Orthodox Christian Children’s Writers and Illustrators, I’m thinking about writing technique, publishing tips, illustrators I like, group activities, and other delights in every available moment. This evening, while washing the dishes, I decided to jot down my list of hard-earned “simple fix” wisdom for writers. Here are 10 questions to ask yourself as you read over your work. Ask yourself before an editor asks you! And no, number 1 is not a question. It is a command.

  1. Spelling. Seriously.
  2. Are you relying on “to be” verbs too much? What stronger, more specific verb could you use instead of “is/was/are”?
  3. Are you over-explaining? Are you saying “As she stepped out of the car, she opened her umbrella because it was raining and she was getting wet” instead of saying, “She opened her umbrella as she stepped out of the car”?
  4. Are you writing in the active voice or the passive voice? There is only one right answer to this question. ACTIVE.
  5. Are you speaking for your characters, or are you letting your characters speak for themselves? When you write a piece of dialog, are they saying what YOU would say or what THEY would say?
  6. Are you using the same word twice in one sentence, or in adjoining sentences? Do not do this. Find another word or another way to make the statement.
  7. Words are music. Listen to the beat or rhythm of your sentence. Is it musical or awkward?
  8. Are your details consistent? Is that sofa the same color in every chapter?
  9. Is your point of view consistent? Do you keep switching from one perspective to another mid-sentence, mid-paragraph, mid-chapter? Did you forget what your characters would and wouldn’t know because you’re the author and you know everything?
  10. Is your agenda bleeding through your narrative? Are you noticeably judging your characters? Is your plot buckling under the weight of the point you are hammering home?

Those are my 10 simple fixes for writers. What are yours?

Painting Angels: Coming this summer!

Today, I enjoyed being a writer for a few minutes during a day of otherwise un-writerly work. The publisher sent back the copyedited version of Painting Angels (Book 3 in the Sam and Saucer series). The book is going to press in just a few weeks. I’ve seen some illustrations and sent back feedback, and I’ve worked on all the text edits sent to me. Now I just need to read this copy-edited manuscript, and it will be off to the proofreader – almost finished!

Today I also received the “promo copy” for the book. This is the description that shows up in the publisher’s catalog, on their website, on Amazon, and everywhere the book is sold (in English). When the original manuscript was submitted, I completed an author questionnaire as I do each time one of my books is published. The questionnaire asked me to provide text that could be used to create this promo copy. The editor worked with it, and I’m happy with the final result. Here it is!

What happens when you can’t get away from the person who drives you craziest? Sam and Macrina are about to find out. Stuck working together to help the nuns, Sam and Macrina come up with a thousand reasons to disagree. Sam is too rude. Macrina is too bossy. Summer at the monastery will be miserable if they can’t find some common ground. With the help of three friendly nuns, a runaway bunny, and Saucer the trusty corgi, Macrina and Sam discover a big secret that helps put them on the road toward peace.

Reading this, I realized how well this book fits the time in which it will be released. God willing, we’ll be out and about before the summer, but who knows? Even if we are, our memories of being cooped up, struggling together, will be fresh! COVID-19 never entered my head during the writing process (in fact, the last major revision was completed before quarantine), but today I see major parallels!

Writing and imagination, minds and thoughts, and the whole spiritual atmosphere swirling around us fascinate me. There is no knowing the complex of our connections with each other, or with the unseen influences around us and within us. Perhaps the only key to the mystery is this:

And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.

Romans 8:28

God help us all, according to His purpose.

Writing in Faith, not about Faith

I think I just found THE words for an idea I’ve been striving to express for decades. The idea sprouted before I was Orthodox, but here it is in my present context.

Good Orthodox fiction is written IN Orthodoxy, not ABOUT Orthodoxy.

Fiction written ABOUT Orthodoxy (or Christianity in general) will crumple under the weight. Fiction does not do the work of nonfiction; it does a wholly different work, though it can bear similar fruit.

Fiction written IN Orthodoxy is fiction. Fiction may be full of light or full of darkness. The light’s the thing.

Narrative can only act for apologetics, in my view, the way a tune can remind you of a lyric. Faith-informed fiction is the melody only. If it’s rendered accurately, you will know the words.

It’s the difference between an oil painting of a flower and the shredded description of the flower pasted to the canvas in a floral shape. Let the explanation be the explanation. Let the portrait be the portrait.

Vase of Flowers. Creator: Jan Davidsz de Heem. Date: 1670. Institution: Mauritshuis. Provider: Digitale Collectie. Providing Country: Netherlands. PD for Public Domain Mark

#Blogtown: Letters from the Homefront

Dear Friends,

Why does this blog post begin like a letter? I’ll tell you.

My friend Anna at The Brown Dress Project is drawing on a lifetime of history-reading for strength and motivation in the present time. I love her assessment of what qualities are needed.

 Thrift, ingenuity, service, hard work, gratitude for daily bread, commitment to neighborliness were all traits which brought families through. Those times are no longer the faded memories of grandparents – they are upon us now.

Anna the Librarian/Historian

In today’s open letter on her blog, Anna’s suggesting that our #blogtown community stick together through this hard time by writing letters to each other. Noting that the front lines for this “world war” run squarely through the home of each person, Anna hearkens back to the days when the efforts of those at home provided the strength and resources for those far away on the more obvious battlefields. That’s why she’s calling for Letters from the Homefront.

If you have a blog, welcome! You’re automatically a neighbor in the #blogtown community. Your well-being matters. The funny moments, frantic boredom, quiet inspiration, fabulous nap, or dogged determination that got you through the day are worth sharing with all of us, your virtual neighbors.

It’s a quiet day at my house. I’m pondering the mix of worry and relief this situation has brought to us. I meant to bake bread today, but instead I played games with my kiddo and took a gray-day walk, looking for leaf buds and early flowers. I even curled up on the couch with the dog and stared out the window at the intricacy of tree branches.

This week has been fiercely busy. I work for an internet company, so working at home isn’t a change. But the sudden influx of EVERYONE ON THE PLANET onto the internet, all hoping to help, all live-streaming, all sharing tips, all asking if this or that is going to happen and when, seemed to make all my days twice as crowded.

I love the surge of helpfulness, but I also believe that we humans aren’t capable of sustaining this level of intensity. Once the novelty of this situation wears off, we will either turn on each other or relax into this new way of being and go back to binge-watching Netflix or reading real, tangible, papery-scented printed books. We’ll walk around the block, and around again. We’ll bake things. Our supply chain will recover from our panic, and there won’t be as much to say about toilet paper any more. But I don’t think normal life will come back for a few months.

I’m at peace for now. Mostly. And exchanging letters with all of you here in this cozy internet community will be something I continue to enjoy.

God bless and keep you,

Melinda

#LettersfromtheHomefront