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Oh, rejection!

We all face it. Even published authors. Even Jane Yolen!

This is how I consider rejections now, after seven years in the business:


But when you’re still unpublished, rejections somehow hurt more.

Besides applying a baking-powder-and-vinegar salve three times daily, how do you ease the sting?

Welcome author Emma Walton Hamilton. She will teach you what those rejections really mean and how you can use them to your advantage.

EmmaHAMILTONby Emma Walton Hamilton

Manuscripts are like children–we birth them, nurture them, pour our heart and soul into helping them be the best they can be. Then we send them into the world, praying they have what it takes to succeed. If we’re lucky, and we’ve done our job right (we hope), they’ll fly. But inevitably, we–and they–must muddle through setbacks and tests of resolve before they can claim their place in the world.

One of those setbacks is rejection. Manuscript rejections are an unavoidable part of the writing life…but that doesn’t mean they aren’t painful. It also doesn’t mean they can’t be converted into learning opportunities. This is such an important distinction that Julie Hedlund and I devote an entire module to “Interpreting Rejections and Dealing with Feedback” in our new Complete Picture Book Submissions System, which we created to support picture book authors through every step of the submissions process, since we know firsthand how challenging that process can be. (Check out Julie’s recent blog post exposing one of her earliest query letters.)

Converting the experience of rejection from personally devastating to professionally useful begins with bearing a few important things in mind:

  1. Manuscripts get rejected, not writers themselves. Meaning, this is not about you–it’s about the manuscript not being a right fit with that agent or publisher.
  2. It’s business–not personal. The reasons for the rejection may in fact have less to do with the quality of your writing and more to do with the focus of the agent or publisher at this time, or the limitations of their current resources.
  3. Hundreds of famous children’s authors received rejection letters on what later became their most successful manuscripts, including Dr. Seuss, J.K Rowling, Madeline L’Engle, Stephanie Meyer, Meg Cabot, C.S. Lewis and many, many more. (Check out Literary Rejections if you don’t believe me, or could use a little company for that misery.)
  4. The wrong fit at one place can be the right fit somewhere else. Moreover, that somewhere else will serve you and your manuscript better than the first place would have, because they “got it.”
  5. There may be a gift accompanying the rejection at best, insight into how to improve your manuscript or query, and maximize your chances of nailing the next submission; and at least, the opportunity to strengthen your commitment and resolve. (An old acting teacher of mine used to say, “Never mind the talent, do you have the tenacity?” This is just as relevant for writers.)

Maybe the rejection includes some feedback worth considering (although it’s important to distinguish between meaningful feedback and form letter feedback, which is something else we focus on in the Complete Picture Book Submissions System… it’s easy to confuse the two.) But even without feedback, every rejection is an opportunity to revisit your query and/or your manuscript. Is it really submission-ready? Is it structurally sound, formatted correctly, typo-free? Is every word essential?

Finally, it’s important to take care of yourself during this time. Sending your creative work into the world can make you highly vulnerable, and it’s easy to lose perspective. Do whatever you do to nurture and reinvigorate yourself: take walks, meditate, see a movie, go shopping, get a massage. Seek the company and communion of fellow writers for support, learning and perspective. Most of all, keep writing–generate new material to keep building your portfolio, stay in the flow, and avoid having all your eggs in one basket. That is, after all, the real work of being a writer.

Picture Book Submissions System

Emma Walton Hamilton is a best-selling children’s book author, editor and writing coach. With her mother, actress/author Julie Andrews, Emma has co-authored over thirty children’s books, seven of which have been on the NY Times Bestseller list, including The Very Fairy Princess series (#1 Bestseller), Julie Andrews Collection of Poems, Songs and Lullabies, the Dumpy the Dump Truck series, Simeon’s Gift, The Great American Mousical, and Thanks to You–Wisdom from Mother and Child. Emma’s own book, RAISING BOOKWORMS: Getting Kids Reading for Pleasure and Empowerment, premiered as a #1 best-seller on Amazon in the literacy category and won a Parent’s Choice Gold Medal.

“Don’t use art notes,” is what you may hear as a new writer.

It’s not that editors don’t like art notes. It’s just that many new writers want to dictate illustrations that do not require direction.

For instance, you shouldn’t pick what your character looks like. Red hair, blue shirt, green sneakers, pigtails, etc. are not for you to decide. The editor of Mary Ann Hoberman’s THE SEVEN SILLY EATERS thought the characters should be animals, like crocodiles. Marla Frazee, the illustrator, thought they should be people, and she was right. She even made the mother a cello player, which was not in the text, but it added a delightful layer to the mother’s personality. The options were wide open—the author never described the characters’ appearance.

The exception to this rule is when your character’s appearance is crucial to the story, like FRECKLEFACE STRAWBERRY. Although the title pretty much says it all, right?

You must trust that your editor and illustrator have ideas for what your scenes should look like. Better ideas than you. Leave the art direction to them (and the art director). Writing that the house has a front porch, or that the cat is calico, or that the car is yellow is all unnecessary.  Again, unless that car needs to be yellow for your story to work.

But you will no doubt read picture books with subversive text—where the character is doing completely opposite what the words say. Or books with text so spare, the action comes thru only in illustration. These are times when your text requires art notes. SCREAMS for them.

But if you have an art-heavy manuscript, where much of the story relies upon the illustrations, how do you submit it? Putting the art notes in [brackets and italics] is typically the way to go. However, too many art notes can interrupt the flow of the story. It gets difficult to read and comprehend.

So what do you do?

Maybe…submit your manuscript in grid format.

What?! But Tara, I’ve NEVER heard of this before.

I know, me neither. But my agent just submitted a manuscript like this. I was skeptical at first, but then I realized the grid was the best no-nonsense way to present the text with the illustrative mayhem. Yes, this book has MAYHEM. And FRACAS and PANDEMONIUM, too.

Here’s what the grid looks like in manuscript format:

The header includes your name, contact details and a word count.

Then the title (in caps) and your byline.

There is a general art note at top which introduces the story idea. Moreover, it states the art notes are “intended as a guideline.” Again, as an author, you cannot rule over all that is picture in picture books.

Next comes the grid. On the left is the story text, on the right appears “rough art direction.” Notice we said “rough” because they are only suggestions for the editor to understand the story. Remember that the illustrator may create something even better, funnier, more poignant. Remember the CELLO.

The grid continues for as long as it takes to tell your story. Typically one or two more manuscript pages.

Please note this isn’t a standard way to submit, it only serves as an example of what one author and her agent did. It’s like the photos on the front of frozen food boxes that say “serving suggestion”.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I suddenly became very hungry.

obamaHow many of you have a budding young author in your home? Now’s little Johnny’s chance to see his words in print. Random House will be releasing Kids’ Letters to President Obama in 2009.

Editor Bill Adler wants your letters…err, I mean your children’s letters. The funnier, the better. But get them in soon. Deadline is December 31!

Click here for the announcement.

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