Ramblings on a Rejection- or Don’t Do What I Did!

August 28th, 2010

Sorry guys, this is meant to be a book review, but I didn’t get time to read anything to review. My posts are always more like ”learn from my mistakes”. This is another one!

It’s been an “interesting” week.

Now “interesting” can mean good or bad, can’t it. If you’d asked me on Thursday evening, I’d have said bad, horrendously bad. Today, looking back, it’s pretty darned good.

On Thursday, I got a rejection, my third, from the Mills & Boon London office, on a submission for the August Medical Fast Track.

What could be good about that? Has Jane finally lost the few remaining marbles in the rattly tin can that passes as her brain?

When I got home from work and read that email, saw the horrible impersonal words of the form R, I could have cried. I didn’t. I swallowed the tears with a strawberry milkshake and a big piece of banana bread (still being a good girl and sticking to my diet- it was my home made high protein lower carb version of comfort food!), and pretended I was okay. I wasn’t. It hurt worse than a hard kick in the guts.

I’d had my doubts about subbing. Medical wasn’t a line I’d seriously thought about writing for. I’m a  nurse, and I think it’s harder for people with a real medical background to write a Medical. Nurses have the medical knowledge and know the reality of working in a big hospital or a GP surgery, but that’s not what a Medical romance is about. It’s about the romance! But still, it was a good opportunity to get feedback fast from a Mills and Boon editor. I had a story idea and characters I knew well with a situation that I thought could be Medicalised. Once I got the Superromance partial I’d been working on subbed, I started on this one.

 I wasn’t happy with it. Even Tuesday morning (last day for Fast Track submissions), I wasn’t going to sub. I didn’t want to let my characters down by sending them in too soon. Then Tuesday evening I though what the heck, what have I got to lose, I might get some useful feedback. Though I knew I’d thrown together the chapter in a hurry and it wasn’t my best writing, though I knew my characters and situation probably didn’t fit the line, I still hoped to get some comments, something I could use. The form R at first seemed worse than useless.

Whilst we appreciate the care and attention that has gone into the preparation of your submission, regrettably we feel that your story and characters are not sufficiently developed for publication in any of our publishing programmes.

 Here are our top tips to bear in mind for your next submission:

  1.  Ensure that your story and conflict are character-driven.
  2. Focus on the internal emotional conflict of your characters
  3. Use secondary characters to add richness and depth to your central romance but don’t let them take over!
  4. Target your work to a particular series – this means you need to read current books in the series you are aiming for and understand what that series delivers to the reader.

 We are pleased to have had the opportunity to see your work, and thank you for thinking of Harlequin Mills & Boon.

Arrgghh! It feels like no feedback at all. Feels like I’ve gone backwards, when my first rejection had some personalised feedback and a compliments slip, and the last two have been pure form. Impersonal, nothing directly relating to my actual submission. Feels like all it’s telling me is “Give up, now, your writing sucks.” And yes, that was my first instinctive reaction- I should give up and save myself the pain.

The second thought (once the ouch of it stopped stinging so much) was “I’m not going to stop writing. I’ll still keep doing it anyway no matter what. I’m not going to let this make me give up on romance for years like I did before. So what can I possibly learn from that about how to improve my writing and give myself a better chance next time I sub?”

Turns out, plenty! I was so wrong after my last form R to see it as no feedback. It was feedback, just not the feedback I wanted.

I might think that my characters and story are well developed, my story is character driven, my secondary characters don’t take over at all,and my story does so fit the line, but if that doesn’t come across to the editor reading my submission, I haven’t done my job properly.

I took a step back from the hurt feeling and looked at what I’d sent in. Oh. My. Goodness. So much wrong with it! It’s a wonder the editor (Anna Boatman, BTW) was kind enough to send a form R. She should have just sent back the shortest rejection ever- “WTF?”  Okay, there are a few bits here and there that I like, reading it back there are several things that make me smile, but overall, it’s baaaaaad. Breaks all the rules, and not in a good way!

Here, in the spirit of being a salutary lesson in what not to do in your submissions (I’m sure none of you will commit all these sins in the same sub like I did!), are all the mistakes I made-

  • Hero and heroine don’t meet soon enough- started with a four page prologue with the heroine and her best friend talking in an office. The hero is talked about. Then I go on to write another four pages in hero POV before he and the heroine meet, briefly, and hardly talk. He is by himself for those four pages and the two that follow. Then I have the heroine by herself thinking about the meeting with the hero while she’s doing other things for four pages. Finally, on the last page of chapter one, the hero and heroine meet properly. When I rewrite, they’ll be together from page 1!
  • Infodump central- any time characters are by themselves thinking, even if they’re doing things at the same time, the risk of dumping in backstory is high. I sure did. I thought I was being subtle about it, but no, it’s still infodump. I need to drip this in, keep some things back. The characters don’t need to tell us all about themselves in chapter one.
  • Not enough dialogue- The characters are by themselves for too much of the chapter. When they do talk, it’s mainly to other people. There’s a total of four lines of dialogue between the hero and heroine in the whole chapter. Getting the heroine and heroine together faster will fix this too.
  • Characters seem unsympathetic- I know these characters inside out, so I know they are good strong likeable people. That didn’t come across at all in my first chapter. All that internal monologue made them seem self-centred, whiny, and weak. Especially my hero, who is a wounded Warrior, battling with survivor guilt and finding his place in the world. It can be tough to make a hero like that Alpha enough for the lines that need an Alpha hero. Best not to make the readers first view of him be sitting around feeling sorry for himself!  He needs to be shown as damaged, yet strong.  I didn’t do the heroine any favours either. She’s a dedicated nurse, on call 24/7 for her small community. Having the first thing she’s shown doing as taking the afternoon off to go skinny dipping in the creek wasn’t the best idea! The reader will understand and accept that later, when they see how hard she works and how much she cares for her patients, but not at first meeting. And especially not in the Medical line, where medical staff who care for their patients beyong anything realistic is part of the promise. Which leads me to…
  • Not fitting the line- I have a hero who isn’t a doctor. One strike. I have a hero who’s not really Alpha- two strikes. I have an unusual setting that I’ve never seen used in a Medical before. Three strikes, I’m out. A fourth isn’t needed, but I had another one- nothing “medical” in the first chapter to set the scene properly and give the medical setting that will be the backdrop to the unfolding romance. This story is not a Medical. I tried to Medicalise it so I had something for the Fast Track, and it didn’t work. I should know that trying to write something to fit a line that’s not right for me because it’s “Too good an opportunity to miss”, isn’t a good idea. I tried it with the Presents contests, but I didn’t learn and went and did it again. Oops! Still, I’m kinda glad I did, because I learned so much from it, from all those failed attempts. It’s not a failure if I walk away nodding thinking, yeah, I learned something there I can use, something valuable.
  • Not enough focus on the relationship and internal conflicts- okay, that’s obvious in chapter one. The characters weren’t together long enough! But the seeds of the internal conflict are there, aren’t they?  And I thought I’d brought the developing relationship and the emotional conflicts out well in my synopsis, hadn’t I? Wrong! On both counts. The seeds of the internal conflict are there, sure, but in internal monologue infodumps. Without the characters together on the page, it doesn’t mean anything that the heroine tells us she is wary of getting involved again after the last disastrous relationship, and the hero tells us he feels guilty about his best frind dying in the incident that seriously wounded him. Conflict only works when each character’s issues are triggered by the other main character. It’s dynamic, not static. The synopsis deserves a section of it’s own…
  • Synopsis is a list of external events- oh dear. I really thought I had this one right. I hoped that showing I had a good story in my synopsis would encourage the editor to overlook the flaws in my first chapter and ask for more, with some revision suggestions of course. Only when I asked the other Sisters to look at it did I realise I’d left out the most important part- the relationship issues. Not completely, it’s there, but I just haven’t made it clearly focused enough. This was a major lightbulb moment for me.  My synopsis makes it look like the external stuff is what catalyses the change in the characters and the relationship. Which jumps to another of the form R’s points…
  • Story not character driven- I couldn’t see how this applied to my story. It was all about the characters and their issues. But what I sent off didn’t show that. The chapter showed stuff happening and the characters thinking about it. The synopsis just showed stuff happening. What I wasn’t showing and hadn’t fully realised myself was- the external events reflect and symbolise the internal situation, but they don’t make it happen. The character’s internal shifts are what makes it happen. I can have exactly the same story and have it internally driven not externally driven. This is big, because it changes not just how I approach my synopsis but the whole story. I knew on one level that all these external events symbolised internal shifts, but it just clicked on a much deeper level what that means when I’m writing. It’s about what drives the story, what makes things happen, what comes first, the internal shift or the external event.  Here’s an example.- there’s a country ball in the story, and the heroine’s friend plays Fairy Godmother and makes her over for the Ball. The synopsis reads that the friend pushes her into it. Nope. How it needs to happen is that the heroine is ready to change, has already decided she wants to let the hero see who she really can be, and asks her friend for help.  
  • Secondary characters- this story has a lot of secondary characters. It’s set in a small community, and the heroine works with them all. I want and need those secondary characters in the story, but they need  to be kept secondary, and not get in the way of the focus on the central realtionship. They won’t in the completed story, but in the synopsis a secondary character gets a whole paragraph, and in  the first chapter the heroine spends more time with two other secondary characters than with the hero. They are all good, colourful, interesting secondary characters, but that’s not how it works in category romance! The other thing I see myself doing is thinking “Series”, adding in secondary characters not because they are necessary to this story but because I want to write their story to in another book.
  • Worst mistake of all- not honouring my own best way to write. I know I write my way into stories. I know the best way for me to write is to do a quick first draft so I really know the characters and the story, then throw most of it away in the rewrite. I know my first draft first chapter is going to be absolute crap and nothing like the first chapter in the finished version. So why the hell did I go against that completely and try to write a first chapter and synopsis in two weeks when I know that’s not how I write? I guess so I would have this fab learning experience and be able to write a rambling blog post about it!

So who’s brave enough to share what they’ve learned from their rejection letters?

Oh, and just so it’s not all doom and gloom and because you deserve a reward if you’ve read this far, here’s a half-naked man for you- the inspiration for my hero!

34 Responses to “Ramblings on a Rejection- or Don’t Do What I Did!”

  1. Wendy Marcus says:

    A friend and I were just discussing the use of ‘whilst’ by the M&B editors. Whatever follows whilst is usually not good. And FYI, although I did not receive a rejection from M&B (yet!), their revision request mirrored your letter re: character driven conflict, avoiding external plot devices, and not letting secondary characters overrun the story.

    Good luck with your writing!

  2. Jill Q. says:

    That’s the way to take it :-)
    I just wanted to say I’m glad I’m not the only one who writes a fast rough draft and ends up not using most of it. I’ve had a few friends comment with envy on how I finish my first draft so quickly. I tell them the number of drafts afterward cancel out any benefit. ;-)
    And yes, I can see how it would be harder to write a medical if you are a medical professional. I use both my parents do research (two nurses in the family), but neither read romances and I have to be careful about how I phrase my questions. If I’m not careful I get a lot of technical information and not a lot of “meat” I can use for the story.
    Keep going and good luck!
    p.s. That guy is a real cutie. Love the smile.

    • Hey Jill! Yes, sometimes I think I’d rather write slower but get more of it right first time, like some of the Sisters here do. But I really can’t do it that way. When I try, I get bogged down or screw up, like I did with this one.
      We have to be true to our own writing style, or we won’t get anywhere.

  3. Susan Wilson says:

    B***** h***! How much have you learned! That was like an online masterclass! Sorry you didn’t get the feedback you wanted. But I have to say you are in a good club. My first submission to mills and boon was a whole 55,000 with relatively no POV. Yes, I actually did that. I was laughing out loud when I read it recently and rewrote the first two chapters in the space of an hour. The story is fine, the events, conflict and emotional growth is all there – you just have to be telepathic to find it! In the meantime, rewriting gives me something to do while waiting to hear back on revisions. That and another burning story in my brain, do you think a Scots girl can write a story with US President in it??!!

    • Susan, love the sound of that new story. I have no doubt at all a Scots girl can write anything she flipping well wants!
      LOL on a whole story with no POV. At least you couldn’t be accused of head hopping!
      Yeah, a lot of learning. Nothing like an R to focus the mind on honestly examining my writing. I wouldn’t do myself any favours to waste the opportunity.
      As it works out, I’m not unhappy over this one. I didn’t get positive feedback, but I got what I really wanted which was some insight into how to improve my writing and hopefully make it more readble and ultimately more saleable.

  4. Maisey Yates says:

    Jane, you’re sort of a fountain of knowledge…did you know that?

    Just wanted to say -really, emphatically- that I believe in you. I really do. I think you’re quite awesome you know! And I really want to give you majore kudos for your honesty. :D

    • LOL, Maisey, it’s one thing being a fountain of knowledge, it’s another actually applying all this stuff to fixing the story!
      I don’t want to be like some of the other disappointed writers we see around the interwebs who deal with Rs by coming up with conspiracy theories or saying “What would the editors know?” etc etc etc, getting all bitter and twisted instead of doing the only thing they have any control over- going back and taking a hard realistic look at what they subbed.

  5. Jilly says:

    Hey Jane,

    R’s are the pits, however they’re dressed, and the fact you’ve already turned it around and found the positives to carry you forward says everything about the Jane that I know and respect as a person, as well as a writer :-)

    Sadly, I’m nowhere near as dignified when it comes to the business of dealing with R’s. They just seem so bloody personal, even though really you know that they’re not. I think I cried buckets when I got my first R, courtesy of a submission to Presents. Looking back on it now, I can understand why. My voice just isn’t Presents at all, and there were so many holes where it didn’t meet up to the line that it could easily have been mistaken for an M&B colander.

    So I guess you could say that I learned three things from that R I received almost three years ago. First, don’t write a Presents ‘cos I ain’t got the voice to pull it all off. Second, it might be okay to be different (that, after all, is what will stand out and hopefully catch an editor’s eye) but you still have to work within the perameters, stay true to the ‘promise’ of the line that you’re aiming for.

    And last but not least – and for me, one big eye-opener – three little words: keep it simple. Category’s short with not enough room to thoroughly explore a whole host of conflict. Better to keep it to one major issue and then dig deep and wring all the angst and emotion we can from it. We might be drawn by the lure of a plot that we think is intriguing and oh-so-clever, but 50K just isn’t enough to do that plot and our characters justice.

    Easy to say, much harder to do, but taking on board what the dreaded R’s telling us is simply an essential part of the journey. As long as we listen, work to apply it, hopefully that journey will be a lot shorter :-)

    Hugs and good wishes coming your way. Goes without saying :-)


  6. Jane, well, I’ve learned a sh*tload from my Rs. They’ve helped make me a better writer (tells herself this loudly!). As an over-complicator extraordinaire, I constantly have to do what Jilly’s just said – Keep It Simple. And just in writing this little response to you, I’ve realised that I’ve complicated another one of my WIPs…sigh. I guess at least I find that out now…

    Anyway, just to say that you rock and so does your writing. You have a gem of a story there and I have to say, it’s too big for a Medical. The fast track was an unexptected opportunity and big ups to you for taking it, but ultimately, it says nothing about what you can do. Go Supers! I fully expect to see it find a home there. :-)

    • Jackie, something made you a better writer. You were good when your chapter came runner up in the comp, you are fabulous now!

      I did laugh when you commented on my synopsis being all external and maybe overcomplicated! The original idea from 9 years ago was far more complicated. It had nearly all that’s still in it, plus the hero in the car crash and taken off to hospital amnesic, another woman pretending to be his fiancee, the heroine taking the job of his nurse just to be close to him. Phew!
      Those last three chapters were busy, enough to make a whole book out of!

      I know I still overcomplicate but I’m a little better than I was.

  7. Lacey Devlin says:

    (Hugs) on the R Jane! But fabulous post! You know Stephen King had a spike for all of his Rs.. not such a bad idea… It’s like the punching bag for writers until we all come back to our senses and want to take another look.

  8. Amy Strnad says:

    Hmm, I think I’m that friend that Wendy is referring to. Yes, the word “whilst” strikes fear into my heart! Thanks for sharing, Jane. You are a STAR!


  9. Chelsea Finch says:

    Jane, my goodness… you got all of that from a form R??? Want to interpret mine? Oh wait :-) you did that already and saw that I’d missed the point of the letter altogether. I got as far as “however” and assumed it was the worst rejection ever.

    I love that you’ve been able to find so many positives and such a clear direction and I can’t wait to read the Super version of this story!!

    Oh, and I had to laugh about NOT trying to write something to fit a particular line just because it’s “Too good an opportunity to miss.” I think I’m the worst offender ever when it comes to that :-)

    • Yeah, that “however” is a trip wire for the unwary. I think it’s far easier for someone else to see what’s there in those more complex revision or rejection letters- the writer is always too close to take that step back and get perspective.
      Well, I had to try to get something from this one and once I looked honestly at what I’d subbed the answers were all there.
      Finding our “home” as a writer is half the journey, I think.

  10. [...] I was due to do another post on the Sisters blog, so you can read more about what comes next over [...]

  11. Coming in late but what a FABULOUS post! Thanks Jane for being so honest with us about your experiences. And commiserations on the R too but what a fab attitude you have.
    I’ve learnt from my R’s that you really have to target a LINE, you can’t just write a story and hope it fits somewhere in M&B land – although with the invent of Riva, I think that might be changing.
    I’ve also learnt to really think about the conflicts up front. I’m not a plotter but I need to know the GMCs before starting anything!!
    Good luck with your next sub :)

    • Thanks Rachel! I think not targetting the line properly was my biggest mistake, that and subbing first draft of course! Most of what is wrong with the submission is fixable, so that’s what makes this such a good R. Who knows, maybe I wouldn’t have seen all that if I hadn’t decided to sub first draft?

      Now I just have to go write this story properly!

  12. Wow, Jane. I think you must be very intuitive to figure out what was wrong with your submission so quickly. Even with feedback I’m often stumped for months on what I did wrong and how to improve.

    I’ve done each of those “not to do’s” many times myself. Good for you for turning this into a great learning experience.

  13. Michelle Styles says:

    Jane –
    First of all hugs.
    Many Medical Romance authors are nurses, or doctors. But what they understand is that a Medical Romance is at its core an escapist fantasy. It is not an accurate reflection of real life in a hospital. It is essentially an office romance and the seeing of patients etc helps to further the romance.
    Popular venues for Medicals include maternity, A&E wards, children’s wards.

    The only thing a form means is that premise was not right for the line. It says nothing about future books.

    When you get a form R, you do need to go straight back to the beginning and look at the obvious — focus on the romance, are the characters likeable and their situation sympathetic, is the emotional hook up front etc. You do need to learn to take it apart. And you can’t just medicalise or historicalise or even Presentise a ms. Each line has an unique character and that is why you do really have to know where you are targetting and why. YOu have to want to write 40 books in that line!
    About heroes: Sheila Hodgson is fond of saying — all M&B heroes are alpha even if the author doesn’t know it. Alpha is just another way of saying a proactive leader rather than passive follower.
    With wounded warriors in need redemption, you do have to SHOW they are capable of redemption. Sometimes, this is where a prologue can really help. Think about the movie Sweet Home Alabama and the prologue. Without that prologue, you wouldn’t have rooting as hard for Jake who seems like a complete jerk when you meet him again. Been there, done it and learnt the lesson.
    Good luck with your Supers sub!

    • Michelle, you are so right about targetting the line. Confession time- I haven’t read any recent Medicals, so I really don’t know exactly what the line is looking for. I used to read the line a lot, but not lately. When I first thought about writing for M&B back in the 90s, Medicals was the line I wanted to target, but then I gave up after a few abortive first chapters, until the Instant Seduction contest got me thinking about trying for M&B again. I need to read some new ones. Reading back cover blurbs and first chapters on the M&B site is NOT the same !

      My number one mistake was trying to “Medicalise” a story that I’d intended for another line. These characters and their situation were never going to work as a Medical. I had another idea that I think would be a much better fit for the line, but I chose to go with this one because I knew the characters so much better. The other one was two characters and their conflict that just popped up one night when I was thinking about Medical plotlines. I should have tried them instead! Though I would have missed out learning what I did from this, so I’m not regretful.

      The second biggest mistake was presenting my characters unsympathetically. My hero IS an Alpha, but I started with him in a position of weakness. All Alpha heroes have their flaws, their blocks to loving that need to be revealed and healed for the HEA to happen, but that can’t be the first thing the reader sees of him. That’s a useful thing to remember for when I do write the other more truly Medical story. That doctor hero has a chronic health problem which doesn’t stop him working but ties in deeply to his relationship block. I need to make sure that “weakness” is not what defines him, that being a brilliant dedicated doctor leading his team is what defines him. Heroes need to be heroic! I haven’t seen Sweet Home Alabama. I’m going to finish the first draft of this story before I worry about going back and starting it right, sounds like I should make sure I watch it before I start to rewrite!

      Love your FWIWs, BTW. Your comments are always worth serious consideration!

  14. Nicole says:

    I still haven’t heard back on my medical, but I feel like I learned so much from this post! Even if I do get the dreaded form “R” I’ll definitely be rereading your post and looking over my submission with the same eye.

  15. Mell61 says:

    Jane, I’m in awe, of yourself and anyone else who has written and submitted, as my story is still rattling around my head.
    I bought a scrap book to post pictures of my heroin (Eva Green), my hero (current a younger Liam Neeson – blame my recent A Team cinema trip),and both their homes. I know what I want to happen, how it will pace, what the conflict is…
    And still they rattle around in my head, I haven’t managed to put down more than 100 words, before second guessing those words and deleting 99 of them.
    I’m trying to get my ass into gear, and to write write write, but I don’t.
    So forget your R, you have my Respect for going what I haven’t yet managed.

    • Thanks Mell!

      Yummy hero and heroine! You sound like you are where I got stuck for so many years- ideas that seemed good and workable, great characters, but no progress on the word count, because of trying to get it perfect first go.

      Everyone’s writing style is different, and some writers HAVE to do it that way, but if it’s not working all I can say is- just write! You may find the NaNo philosophy of pushing yourself to write everyday and being very strict about not letting yourself read over what you’ve written (okay, maybe the very last sentence to get you started for the next writing session!) is what works for you. Don’t try to edit or criticise what you’re writing, simply let the story come out. Second and third drafts are for prettying it up, the first draft can be getting the words, any words, on the page. Doing timed writings using a program like Write or Die can help, or having timed Word Wars with a writing buddy. You are one step ahead of the game with strong characters and a good grip on what their conflict is.

      Good luck with telling your wonderful story!

  16. Jane Holland says:

    Sorry to hear about your form R, Jane. That sucks.

    But I agree with what others here have said. You really need to decide where your heart lies, where you could write several dozen books for one specific line, and stick to targeting that. Some people like a number of lines – I do, in fact – but liking to read a line and being able to write for it don’t necessarily go hand in hand.

    On a personal note, my first historical R from M&B mentioned issues around my ‘wounded hero’, i.e. he was a bit too wounded and not enough of a hero. So clearly it’s a fine line between brooding and whiney, lol, and something we all have to watch when writing that particular type of hero.

    Better luck next time! Jx

  17. Good for you for getting past the rejection and on to why it didn’t work. I too am a RN and although I’ve written books where my heroine is a nurse, I haven’t written a medical romance. Not in the way that M&B wanted. You know though… if you don’t try to write something that at first doesn’t interest you, than you’re missing out on a possible growth field.

    I wrote a short werewolf story for a contest… I didn’t win, but I did final… and I went on and wrote 3 novella length reads that have done very well in the small press e-pub world. So hey, try something new.

    And if you’ve written a full manuscript and really want feedback there are publishers that will give you something. I write for The Wild Rose Press, and they will NOT send a form rejection. It’s not something they do. So although they don’t take every ms that comes their way, (far from it) they do let you know why they rejected it.

    Keep writing above all else.

    • Hey Catherine, thanks for visiting here too! I never intended to write Medicals, As an RN, it just seemed a bit too much Busman’s Holiday, plus the medical knowledge isn’t actually helpful, IMO, because whats needed is a fantasy version, not reality. At least, I never worked in any hospital or GP practice anything like in the stories- an I’ve worked in a few! But the fast track was too good an opportunity to pass up, so I thought I would give it a try.

      Of course, in retrospect it was very easy to see where I got it all wrong! I wasn’t honoring my own writing process in the way I wrote it, and I wasn’t writing at all what would work as a Medical Romance. But like you say, why not try something different, I may have just found what was perfect for me too.

      Wild Rose give all subs personalised rejections? That’s marvellous! Those editors must be very busy! I’d aleady decided if I don’t get anything back from the Super sub that’s already out there and SYTYCW that I’ll start subbing to epubs. I would like an answer to the question- Is what I’m writing publishable but just not a good fit for HMB, or is what I’m writing just not publishable and I better go back to square one and start relearning my craft skills?

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