Thursday, March 17, 2011

A Lesson in Rejection

Elizabeth Zelvin

Every piece of work that’s been rejected is one I’ve eventually come to see was not publishable in that form. I’m not saying that every novel or story that gets published is what I’d call publishable. There’s a lot of bad writing out there, along with a lot of good writing. And my work has been rejected numerous times for reasons unconnected to its quality: it didn’t fit the publisher’s list, the topic was distasteful to the editor, it lost out to other worthy work for a highly competitive place in an anthology. But again and again, I’ve been heartbroken or indignant when a manuscript was turned down, only to think, on reading it over a year later, “I’m so glad this didn’t appear in print!”

I was inspired to write about this now by a recent reclamation project. Those who know my series about recovering alcoholic Bruce Kohler and his friends, Barbara the world-class codependent and Jimmy the computer genius, know that the first book is Death Will Get You Sober and the second, Death Will Help You Leave Him. Well, there was supposed to be a book in between the two: Death Will Improve Your Relationship. But my editor, oh, why not, I’ll tell you, the late, great Ruth Cavin, read the manuscript and didn’t like it. Now, Ruth was about 90 at the time, and she couldn’t relate to my setting, a New Age intentional community of which Bruce says, “Anyone who’d heard of Esalen and Sedona but wouldn’t be caught dead going there called it Woo-Woo Farm.” Jimmy calls it “a dude ranch for space cadets.” I suspect that Ruth had no idea what goes on in such a place, and she didn’t believe in my space cadets, who I thought were pretty funny. Luckily, I had completed the next manuscript, which she did like, and all was well.

But here’s the point: when I took out the rejected manuscript three years later and reread it, I was surprised to discover that it wasn’t what I’d now call publishable. The problem wasn’t the setting or the characters. Nor was it the writing, at least not all of it. But in between the clever lines were (1) darlings crying out to be killed, otherwise known as overwriting, which my eye has since become keen enough to axe a lot more of in early revisions; and (2) the cardinal sin of those of us who write about social issues: preachiness. Since my series is about not only murder but also alcoholism, codependency, relationships, and personal growth, and since all my main characters are in twelve-step programs, I always have to be careful not to get didactic about these things. I always put too much information about AA and recovery in general in the first draft, and then I have to cut out anything that doesn’t advance the plot or illuminate character. But I didn’t realize how much my ability to do this has improved in the past three years until I took another look at work I had considered ready for submission at the time.

For my own edification, I took my virtual blue pencil, which experience keeps sharpening more and more, to Death Will Improve Your Relationship. I ended up with a delightful mystery of 43,000 words, too short for a novel and too long for a novella. Maybe I’ll put it out there as an e-book one of these days.


Paul said...

Rejection can be a complex issue -- beyond the possibility, perhaps likelihood, that the work is simply no good -- as you note. I've managed to bring back to life a few youthful endeavors that were rejected at the time but benefited from a vigorous reworking with the wisdom and maturity of more experience. But I have many more works that were not ready and would never be ready.

Still, it's hard to accept that something you've devoted so much time and effort to is never going to be publishable somewhere, somehow. They all linger in the back of my brain, and I wonder if I visited them again if I might still be able to make something of them.

Of course, there are all those new ideas knocking on the door, asking for attention too. Such troubles!

J. D. Revelle said...

I really like the 2 published 12-step community books. Get the "relationship" one out there for us! Sedona sounds great...please?!?!

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Thanks so much, J.D. :) Look for DEATH WILL EXTEND YOUR VACATION, set in a lethal clean and sober group house in the Hamptons, next spring.

Sheila Connolly said...

Lesson #1: Rejection always hurts, even if we can bring ourselves to admit it's justified. Lesson #2: Our writing is never so good that it can't be improved, and distance and time help us to see how to do that. Lesson #3: Nothing is ever wasted.

You have a particularly difficult balancing act, since you're writing about an important real-world issue that means a lot to you, but you're also trying to tell an effective and appealing story.

Love your take on Ruth Cavin's understanding of New Age communities!

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Sheila, you've trumped me on reducing a novel to a story, getting yours down to 5,000 words. My 43,000 is now 21,070, and I may make it to my goal of 20,000. But that doesn't mean it'll be any good. Oh well, another learning experience!

lil Gluckstern said...

The problem with rejected manuscripts is that they stick with us, as the clients who did so well, and then didn't. One of the reasons I'm loving my Kindle is you writers can Put stories, novels, whatever, out there for your fans (me) to buy and enjoy. So consider this an invitation to get "relationship" out there.

Sandra Parshall said...

As a critique partner, I've read quite a few good books that for various reasons didn't "suit the needs" of publishers. I think e-publishing might help the authors find an audience for those books.

I tend to cannibalize my rejected work, though, and use parts of it again, so I don't have much that hasn't been picked over. Some, but not a lot.