Some ‘generic’ rejections are a lot more constructive (and encouraging) than others. Mslexia Magazine’s recent letter to writers not longlisted for their children’s novel competition was, I thought, particularly helpful and (with their permission) I’ve reproduced it below. In case you don’t have time to read the whole thing, I was particularly struck by their saying that many more women than men give up submitting their writing after just one rejection:
Our judges commented on how challenging they found the challenge of whittling down submissions for the longlist. ‘My “yes” pile kept growing and there were far too few on my “no” and “maybe” piles, so I ended up having to eliminate a lot of good material,’ one told us. ‘There were so many “nearly there” manuscripts,’ said another. ‘So I hope those that weren’t longlisted won’t feel too dejected.’
Most submissions featured female protagonists; often feisty, or geeky, or bullied or with some kind of superpower – sometimes all four! One judge suggested a more complicated central character might have been more effective. And those written in first person, with a strong and idiosyncratic voice, often grabbed their attention. Where a boy was the main character, he was usually ‘rambunctious’; so, again, a bit more complication would have been welcome.
Another comment concerned the depiction of magical, fantasy or dystopian characters. Our judges wanted to stress that it’s not enough for someone to have a strange name and a special power – a believable personality is far more important.
Many of the novels were set in the familiar terrain of school or home. Where the story was also set in the past, or the future, this worked well. But by and large the more unusual settings were the ones that stood out, especially those in which the setting was integral to the plot. ‘Historical stories tended to be better explored, more original,’ was one comment. ‘I liked it when the writer seemed knowledgeable about the strange world they were creating,’ was another. These comments suggest to me that a light rewrite with a fresh setting might be something you might consider.
A lot of novels began with a prologue, which often consisted of a dramatic and intriguing scene. Unfortunately this was sometimes followed by a rather ponderous Chapter One, occasionally with a different set of characters – so ‘the momentum of the beginning was lost’. Our judges wondered whether the writers could eliminate the prologue altogether and substitute a first chapter that catapulted the reader immediately into the story. ‘Mysterious openings worked from the word go,’ one told us.
I am so sorry not to be able to give you specific feedback on your entry, but I hope that these comments, general as they are, will be of some help if you decide to redraft your novel – which I hope you will. I’m sure you’re aware that the vast majority of published novels are the result of a huge amount of rewriting – changes to the order, the tense, the narrative voice, the main protagonist… What feels like a finished draft is often just the beginning.
That’s not to underestimate what a huge achievement it is to complete an entire manuscript – a survey we conducted a few years ago found that only 24 per cent of women who start a novel have managed to finish it. So we salute you for getting this far.
We also found out recently, in another survey, that many women – many more than men – give up submitting their writing after just one rejection. I do hope that this letter won’t have that effect on you, and that you will see it as an almost inevitable part of the writer’s life. And that, when the dust has settled, you will let us see some more of your work.