April 25, 2012

Critique and Rejection

I visited a 4th grade classroom yesterday, and one of the questions the teacher asked me to respond to is what it's like to face critique and rejection over and over, again, and again, and again.   My answer:  I look at critique and rejection as an opportunity. My published works would not be published works, if it were not for both elements being a big part of my writing life.

Case in point: The Nest Where I Like to Rest was honored as an Oregon Book Awards Finalist in 2011.  It's a 250 word picture book. In typed, manuscript form, it is only three pages long. Here is the file folder that stores the many, many revisions to this one story:

On the left is an example of some notes I took during a critique session back when this story was entitled, "The House I Made Out of Hay" (one of many titles along the way).

This story went through dozens of revisions and iterations before it was selected for publication (Newsflash: it went through several additional revisions even after I received a contract for publication).  The turning point for this story was when I received a professional critique from Kirby Larson at a writing conference. Kirby's feedback was very positive, and yet full of suggestions. She liked the humorous aspect of the story, and encouraged me to lean into that more heavily.  She praised my ability to rhyme, but questioned the purpose of some of the characters that were included in the story at the time.  She challenged me to take a good story and make it better.  I accepted the challenge, and made some significant changes to my story.  Those changes led to the eventual final draft that I submitted to publishers. And then the real fun began!

Here is as sampling of the rejection letters I received for this manuscript once I started submitting it:

During yesterday's author visit, a student asked me to read the worst rejection letter I'd ever received for this story.  I explained that for me, the two worst kinds of rejection letters to receive are 1) standardized form letters with nothing personalized about my actual story, (which means I have no morsels of wisdom to work with to make the story better), and 2) a personalized letter where the editor praises my story, but indicates that the particular manuscript is not right for their publishing house. After I left the school visit, I paged through my files and re-read the most disappointing rejection letter I ever received for this story.  It was from Steve Geck, who at the time was Executive Editor at Greenwillow Books, (a publishing house near the top of the list of prospects I had identified as a good fit for my work).

The letter itself was thoughtful and complimentary ( " . . . It's a beautiful, playful text . . .") What made the correspondence so disappointing (and yet exciting at the same time) was that Mr. Geck enclosed my original manuscript along with a retyped version of my manuscript (where some editorial changes had been inserted).  On the retyped version of the manuscript was this sticky note to "Virginia" (the Vice President and Publisher of Greenwillow) pictured below:  

I did some research and determined that "Paul Z." was likely Paul O. Zelinsky (an amazing illustrator who has published several books with Greenwillow). Sigh.  My story made it all the way to the publisher's desk, with an editor's suggestion about who might be a good illustrator for the project.  But alas, the decision was, ". . .  In the end, however, I'm afraid I didn't feel we would be able to publish this successfully . . ."  

The truth of the matter, however, is that Mr. Geck's letter helped boost my confidence.  It motivated me to continue sending the manuscript to other publishers.  In the end, it did get selected for publication and later as a Finalist for a meaningful award. Not to mention that it continues to be one of my favorites to read aloud at public appearances--with or without the
chicken hat!

I am beginning to catch my breath from the demands of my new books that came out in January, so that means I will once again start submitting my ready work to targeted publishers.  Rest assured that I will strongly consider Greenwillow (and Mr. Geck's current publishing house, Sourcebooks), as I plan my marketing strategy for my new publication-ready material.  Stay tuned!


  1. Thanks Dawn for an inspiring post - only with those critiques will we become better writers! I just try to wear thick skin. :)

  2. HI Dawn...thanks so much for your support! It is fun to know you and Lulu...did she tell you about my post? We had a nice visit yesterday about the SCBWI...we are busy thinking and working on Picture Books..

    1. Hi Deirdra. I found out about your post via your message on the Toad Hall list. I was so thrilled to hear of your experience at SCBWI-WA. Tell Lulu hi! : )