When Writers Receive a Dear John Letter
May 8, 2012
It happens all of the time. You’re on top of the world. You’ve spent the past year doing exactly what you love to do. You may not have written the great American novel, but you’ve written a great American story, regardless of where the setting might be. Your friends have read and been enthralled with every word. The critics in the world around you can find no fault with the tale you’ve spun, and critics, even among friends and family, are always the happiest when they can find a hole in the plot, a character that doesn’t quite ring true, or a setting that has all the realism of a faded scene hanging frayed and worn on a billboard beside the big old highway.
The final period is in place. You have edited every word.
You’ve re-written chapters four through fifty-two.
You’ve polished and sharpened the hook in the opening sentence, and you know it’s a grabber because it keeps you awake at night just thinking about it.
Can you improve it?
Do you need to improve it?
The agent is waiting. You believe that with all of your heart. Somewhere within the shadows of tall buildings in New York, a major publisher is waiting. You’re just one good query letter away from ultimate success, and you’ve spent almost as much time on a hundred-word query letter as you did on a hundred-thousand-word novel.
You take a deep breath, place the query in a postman’s hands, and he places it an agent’s hands.
It’s all over but the shouting. You’ve learned from your past mistakes. You’ve gone to great lengths to improve your narration, your dialogue, your plot twists, an ending no one can predict.
And then the letter comes. It’s not just any letter.
It’s a Dear John Letter.
“Thank you for your interest in our agency,” it begins. That’s the way it always begins. “However,” it continues, “we do not believe that we can represent your work at this time.” That’s the way it always continues.
Dear John Letters are hard to take, especially when they are form letters. And you figure immediately that some twenty-something editorial assistant who has never written anything longer or more literary than a twenty-word text on a smart phone has had the bald-faced audacity to reject you.
Hell, what does a twenty-something editorial assistant know about reading, writing, or rejection?
But it doesn’t matter. Rejection and disappointment and frustration set in and begin to fester, gnaw at your gut, and you begin to doubt yourself as a writer or a story teller, and, frankly, you don’t feel up to beginning another novel or squeezing out another word.
Don’t feel as though you are alone. Even the best wordsmiths of them all had to deal with the gatekeepers who stand between you and a published book, gatekeepers who know that it’s infinitely easier to say No than Yes. If the editorial assistant or agent-in-waiting says Yes, and the book bombs, his or her reputation suffers. If the answer is No, there is no chance of failure, ridicule, humiliation, or getting fired for agreeing to represent the wrong book.
Carrie by Stephen King was rejected 30 times.
Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell had 38 rejections.
A Time to Kill by John Grisham faced the embarrassment of 45 rejections.
It would have been so easy to quit and give up. They didn’t.
So, really, how smart are agents?
When George Orwell received a rejection notice for Animal Farm, the agent said simply, “It is impossible to sell animal stories in the U.S.A.”
The Dear John letter written to Norman McLean about his novel, A River Runs Through It, said, “These stories have trees in them.”
Rudyard Kipling suffered the indignation of a rejection slip from an editor at the San Francisco Examiner, who said, “I’m sorry, Mr. Kipling, but you just don’t know how to use the English language.”
And an editor sending a rejection letter for The Diary of Anne Frank wrote: “The girl doesn’t, it seems to me, have a special perception or feeling which would lift that book above the curiosity level?”
He should have been fired. He wasn’t. He said, “No.”
Louis L’Amour collected more than 300 rejections before he sold his first Western. He went on to publish more than a hundred novels once he finally broke past the gatekeeper.
Ray Bradbury had more than 800 rejections before he was finally published, and he would ultimately see his name attached to a hundred science fiction books and stories. I always thought he wrote Fahrenheit 451 with the thought of burning his rejection slips.
It’s important to keep the faith, keep writing, keep banging on the door, and trying to find some way to storm the inner sanctum of a publishing world that is as lost and confused as today’s authors.
In the free-wheeling, double-dealing, catch-as-catch-can, illusionary gonzo business of publishing, it is probably wiser these days to pay attention to the dedication and ingenuity of Beatrix Potter. She wrote a little book entitled The Tale of Peter Rabbit. No one wanted it. Her manuscript was so universally rejected by so many within the harrowing and hallowed walls of publishing that she made the painful decision to produce the book herself. She self-published it.
The agents say you can’t do that. The publishers say you can’t do that. The idea wasn’t popular or accepted in her time either. It didn’t matter. She did that.
And The Tale of Peter Rabbit has become one of the best loved books of all time, selling, at last count, more than fifty million copies.
If you receive a Dear John letter from an agent or publisher, simply mark on the envelope, “Wrong address. John doesn’t live here anymore,” and let the post office send it back to whomever in New York didn’t have the nerve or creativity to say Yes.