On Rejection and Other Matters

Busy, busy, busy. That's PC this fall. Many papers, many quizzes, many forms, many college recommendation letters. Busy, busy, busy.

I have, however, had the time to send out a couple of queries, none of which have as yet been successful. Before you ask, no, I'm not giving up--I've got my latest short story ready to send out even as we speak, and I'm dropping it off at the post office shortly. But I'm still hammering at the door of publication, and I've been standing on the welcome mat long enough to feel the "Welcome" message should not be taken literally.

That said, I did get a really good rejection recently. It came from an agent (who shall remain nameless) after taking a look at my query for the fifty-birds-in-fifty-states book, and while it was definitely a rejection, it was about as good a note as I could have asked for, barring an offer to take it. It was a useful rejection.

I should explain that. Most of the time, when a writer gets a rejection, it's simply a form letter--"this material does not suit our present needs" is the classic line, and it's a classic because it's so often used. Even if you don't get that line, you'll often get a letter that leaves you wondering what the editor/agent/publisher found so objectionable in your manuscript, or what the e/a/p might prefer to see instead. Sometimes you can gather that the e/a/p wants something simpler, or flashier, or more marketable, but sometimes all you can gather is that the e/a/p wants something else.

This time, though, the agent let me know in the first sentence that he wasn't taking the book--it's always good to have that established up front, in my opinion--and went on to give me a coherent explanation of what he did and did not like about the synopsis and samples I'd sent. Plainly put, he didn't like the fifty-birds-in-fifty-states idea; it seemed too facile to him, a simple catalogue of things I'd seen, with no real unifying vision or underlying theme. He pointed out that one of the two excerpts, which concerned the life birds I'd spotted in California a few years back, described the same thing that happens to every birder who goes to California for the first time. He used the image of a tourist coming home and describing every painting he saw in the Louvre: deadly dull, especially without a slide show.

But he was intrigued by the other sample, a section I'd composed as I was considering the whole fifty-state initiative and coming to the conclusion that it was kind of a silly idea. The borders drawn between the states are so arbitrary, and often so bizarre, that the whole quest is much more of a game than any true examination of American birds. That got me thinking about the other lines we draw--lines between nations, between languages, between genders--and even the lines we draw between species, which biologists have been smudging increasingly over the years. When dogs, wolves, dingos, and coyotes seem to be able to interbreed, are we talking about one species or four? And what do we do with "ring species," the phenomenon where a species can interbreed with a nearby species, which can interbreed with a more distant species, which can interbreed with a slightly more distant species, etc., until the most distant species is actually back in the same area as the original species--but those two cannot interbreed.

That part, I knew, was good stuff. Even when I'd written it, there was no doubt in my mind that this would work. And reading the agent's assessment of the two excerpts, I realized he was right: when you get down to it, the fifty-state idea is not, in and of itself, worth writing about. But the ideas that are generated when I'm out visiting those states and seeing those species? Those will make a book. It won't be the book I originally planned to write; it will be a better one.

And once I've got a handle on it, I think I'm going to let him take another look.

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This page contains a single entry by Peter Cashwell published on October 15, 2010 1:26 PM.

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