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Anna Grossnickle Hines
Published in the SCBW Bulletin, May/June 1985

      Now that I am a published author and illustrator of children's books I get occasional calls from other writers, or questions when I speak, about how to go about getting published. Remembering my own bewilderment, before I attended my first SCBW Conference in 1974, about how to submit a manuscript, to whom, and in what form, I am more than happy to answer these questions. However, I'm always surprised by the comments about the rejections. "How do you deal with all those rejections?" ...... do you not?

     Last week I had a call from an aspiring writer who hoped I could tell her which publisher would take her book because she didn't think she could take the rejections and didn't want to wait the months it would take to go through several publishers to find the right one. I couldn't help her. It isn't as if there is some magic door through which everything will automatically be accepted. Some of my things have obviously been accepted, and hopefully more will be, but not everything by any means. I still get rejections, more than acceptances, unfortunately.

     I don't know any way to avoid the risk of getting rejections. Publishers are not going to walk up to a person on the street and say, "You look like someone who could write a great children's book. You wouldn't happen to have a few tucked away in a drawer would you?" To have any chance at all of being published you have to risk having your work rejected...many times usually.

     And while it's disappointing to have a manuscript for which I have high hopes come back by return mail, it really isn't all that bad.

     For one thing I know I'm in good company. I've heard that ALICE IN WONDERLAND was rejected twenty-seven times and that Madeleine L'Engle's award winning A WRINKLE IN TIME was rejected by every major American publisher and was on it's way around a second time when it was accepted. Jack London had over 200 rejections before he made his first sale. Many such stories circulate among writers and aspiring writers. We need them to give us courage and reassurance that editors don't always know a good thing when they see it.

     Also there is often much encouragement in those rejections. A personal letter is to be treasured and followed up with submission of other work or a revision, if suggested and you agree. I had eighteen such letters from Susan Hirschman at Greenwillow before she accepted TASTE THE RAINDROPS.

     One very talented, hopeful young writer seemed surprised that I followed up so many times. I figure as long as an editor is taking the time to respond personally she's interested. She is hoping I am going to come through. Why should I give up before she does? What do I have to lose? My rule is, "Once a publisher shows some interest, don't move them to the bottom of the list until they send two form rejections in a row."

     Even a note scribbled on a form letter is a sign that someone at that house is interested. Send something else as soon as possible. Let them know you are serious and productive.

     Straight form letters are the hardest to take of course, but even they don't mean you have a bad story. It might be just not their sort of book, or maybe they aren't taking unsolicited manuscripts, or are committed for the next few years, or undergoing changes, or have already accepted a similar story, or any of a number of things. And you've learned where not to send your next manuscript, at least the next one of that type.

     I read that while Thomas Edison was searching for the right material for a light bulb filament, an assistant said to him, "We should give up. We have tried several thousand things that have failed." Edison replied, "Failed, no. We have learned several thousand things that do not work." Perhaps those writers who are afraid of rejections should think like Edison, that making submissions is a way of gathering information, learning what doesn't work as well as what does. As a writer, you are finding out which publishers respond to your work and which don't. You are finding out which stories get the best responses.

     Send those rejected stories on to other publishers, especially if you've re-read a piece, thought about any comments the editors have made in previous submissions, and you still believe it is a strong story. Somebody out there may eventually agree with you, but you'll never find that editor if your manuscript is sitting in a drawer.

     Sometimes if you combine the comments of two or more editors you may be able to learn something that you don't from the comment of one editor alone. One editor said of one of my stories that she didn't believe the mother would fail to respond to the child. Another said he didn't believe the child's problem was that great. Separately neither of these comments made sense to me. As a mother, I know all too well that mothers don't always respond to a child's needs immediately, and that to a child, having to wait for an adult to solve a problem can be terrible. But by thinking of both comments in conjunction I suddenly realized that the editors weren't saying such things weren't believable emotional issues in real life, but that I hadn't made them feel those emotions as readers of this story. After revising the story I sent it back to those editors, one at a time, and both thought it was stronger but still chose not to publish it. I then sent it to a third house where the editor made a different choice and, happily, it is now being published.

     So think of the publishers' responses, even the form rejections, as a way to learn about the publishers and about your writing. As you collect them, add them all together and study them carefully. These are your lessons.

     The editors are also learning about you. Are you serious? Can you listen to their suggestions? Are you willing to revise if they suggest it? You don't have to revise if you feel strongly about leaving a story as it is. You may find another editor who agrees with you, or you may feel so strongly about what you have done that you'd rather have it unpublished than changed. But in publishing, the writer and editor must eventually work together.

     I feel that the editor and art director have information and experience which I do not yet have...and may never have. If I work with them, I believe they can help me produce a better book. Not that the author has to agree with every suggestion, but it probably is important to let the editor know that as a writer you are at least willing to give serious consideration to editorial comments, that you are willing to work with her or him.

     Of course, you cannot expect to learn everything from editors. They do not have the time. The serious writer will learn everything he can about writing from every source he can find. He will read books on writing, take workshops and courses, join critique groups, study the works of other authors and, most importantly, write, and write, and write some more. For one thing, you learn by doing, and for another the more you write the more you know you can write.

     If you have one piece upon which all your publishing hopes are placed, of course a rejection is going to be devastating. One writer who was afraid of rejection told me she had only one finished book and was going to wait until that one sold before she put work into her other ideas. If you have a number of works to submit, or being submitted, you have a broader, firmer base for that hope. One rejection doesn't take it all away. You have a much better chance of one of those stories finding that first wonderful acceptance.

     And, perhaps most importantly of all, you will know that even if every one of those manuscripts is rejected by every publisher, you can write others. You can keep on writing, and learning, and getting better, until you make it. It will be much easier then, to look at submissions and rejections as just a part of the process, a way to learn about publishers, about yourself and your writing, and a way for publishers to learn about you. You'll be able to take it on the chin and come up writing.

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