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Delving Into the ‘Rejection Archives’ of R N Morris

September 11, 2012
Cover of A Gentle Axe

A Gentle Axe. The first of the St Petersburg Mysteries. A historical crime novel employing the talents of Porfiry Petrovich, the investigator from Dostoyevsky’s ‘Crime and Punishment’.

R.N. Morris, is the author of a series of historical crime novels set in St Petersburg and featuring Porfiry Petrovich, the detective from Dostoevsky’s ‘Crime and Punishment’.

His novels so far in this series are ‘A Gentle Axe’, ‘A Vengeful Longing’, ‘A Razor Wrapped in Silk’ and ‘The Cleansing Flames’.

He has also written the contemporary thrilled ‘Taking Comfort

Intrigued by his tweet on his rejection letters as @rnmorris, I decided to read the blog post ‘Rejection archives’ on his website ‘Another bloody crime writer’ . Rejection letters are the literary ‘elephant in the room’, always there, but too embarrassing to discuss, too dreadful to face. Or are they?

Here was someone confronting his inner elephant. The researcher in me couldn’t resist delving deeper. The result is the following insightful interview.

It is important to note, as R N Morris points out, that by this point his manuscripts were being submitted by his agent.

Is this sort of rejection feedback actually useful or just confusing?

It depends. On one level, it’s neither useful nor confusing. Essentially, it’s just people saying no, which is not confusing at all. And it’s a mistake to read any more than that into it. That way madness lies.

On the other hand, it’s only human to try and interpret these runes, in the hope of taking some consolation from the communications from the other side. Especially if it’s all you have to go on.

What I should perhaps make clear is that many of these messages came to me via an agent. I had already cleared that first hurdle. So I did have my agent’s validation, belief and, yes, enthusiasm, to put against the negativity and conflicting opinions.

I remember when I got my first agent, she told me that she was going to a party at a big publishers’ the following night and she was going to make a present of my manuscript to her favourite editor there, who she was sure would love it. Well, it didn’t quite work out the way she had envisaged. My agent wasn’t an idiot. She represented some big name authors. Her agency handled J.M. Coetzee at the time, and – this is going to sound awful, like blowing my own trumpet – but when she took me on she said she had had the same feeling reading my script as she had when his first one came in, when he was still an unknown. So I was pretty excited. She seemed so confident. And then, there were no takers, and I think she was as surprised as me.

I’m not sure I would have got such blunt feedback if it wasn’t coming through an agent. The editors were writing to my agent, who passed the letters on to me.

Some of these letters were directly to me though, as they date back to the time before I got my agent. I’ll point them out as we discuss them, if any come up.

Which of these reviews were about the same novels (for example “I do feel that it is far too long, far too discursive.” And “It does take a very long time for the story really to begin.”). If they were, did any of the reviews contradict each other?

They are very contradictory. Except in one important detail. They all say no. And sorry to be pedantic, but they’re not reviews. They’re not readers’, or journalists’, impressions of reading a book. They are publishing professionals’ views of a manuscript they are considering for publication –  a manuscript which, if they decide to take it further, they will have to fight to get through various editorial meetings, not to mention all the hoops that sales and marketing put up.

So, a book that takes its time to tell its story is going to give them a quivering sensation in their sphincter because they’ll have tried to sell such books up the chain before only to have some smart arse marketing guy say – “It’s too slow…”

In fact, I’ve just remembered a quote from one editor, from a very literary imprint of a big publisher, who basically said, “I really like it but I won’t be able to sell enough copies.”

That’s what it comes down to. Writing is an art and publishing is a business. Books are rejected, or taken on, for commercial reasons. As for the quotes you mentioned, they are both from the same letter, which was actually from an agent. I think she was certainly right, the book in question was too long. Rather than trying to fix that, I moved on and wrote another, much shorter one.

Do you have an example of the last couple of rejections you had, just before your publishers took you on and any alterations you made from the remarks of the previous rejections that resulted in ‘striking gold’? Or did you make no changes at all and the novel was just right for the publisher?

My first novel published was ‘Taking Comfort’. Actually, my agent didn’t like it – it just wasn’t his thing. However, he had submitted it to one publisher and an editor there was very keen. She gave the impression that an offer would be coming soon and it just had to be rubber stamped by a few other people.

The few other people were less enthusiastic about the book. However, I did get to go out to lunch with the editor who’d liked it and she remained very enthusiastic about that book, but also interested in what else I was writing. I don’t think I have any written communications concerning it, because the agent I was with by then – who is still my agent – didn’t believe in sending every single rejection letter on to writers.

‘Taking Comfort’ was always going to be a difficult book to place, a Marmite book. I had written something else – a detective novel – and I think my agent felt much more secure with this. He was pursuing the detective novel but not doing anything with ‘Taking Comfort’, so I submitted it myself to Macmillan New Writing, and it was taken on and published as one of their first books.

So that particular book hadn’t had any of these kind of comments attached to it. But maybe the experience of being exposed to all those comments had helped me write a book that would be able to get through the hoops.

Taking Comfort Book Cover

“The plot itself feels a little contrived.” (Did you ever find out why?)

I think I knew why. Quite often these comments are telling you things that you already, subconsciously, know. You just haven’t accepted.

That actually was for a radio play. I first wrote A Gentle Axe as a radio play. Anyhow, I realised that I hadn’t put enough thought into the plot. I went back and reworked it, realising in the process that it couldn’t be a radio play, it had to be a novel. So I guess that was an example of a useful comment! Have I just contradicted myself?

“It is an extremely impressive novel, and one which I read with great enthusiasm. The scope of imagination involved in the book is startling… However, in the end I’m afraid that I just could not work up quite enough passion for it to want to make an offer.” A bit of a contradiction? What did you make of this?

Actually, there was more of the gushing stuff in the same letter. I obviously came close here. I could have wept at the time. I probably did, or more likely I shut down, sleeping through the weekend. That was my usual reaction to rejection.

I think it’s harder when you can see you’re close, but still you haven’t done enough. You haven’t managed to supply whatever the magical ingredient is that would have whipped up the necessary amount of passion in the editor. The only thing you can do, when you’ve got over your disappointment, is sit down and write another book – better than that one.

That was always my reaction. To put the rejections behind me and get to work on something new. I never was a great one for tinkering and re-tinkering.

“On the whole I found it rather slow moving, and won’t be offering.” What pace was appropriate? Did you feel it was slow moving or had deliberately written it that way?

This was a comment from a different editor on the same book as provoked the gushing response above. Another editor again described it as “a brave and interesting novel. Never has a literary style been so appropriate.”

The book could obviously have been improved with a bit of editing. But then, as now, publishing houses are generally looking for manuscripts that are pretty much there; ideally they would like something that requires only fairly minimal, light-touch editing. I don’t know. I did rework the book, but with the input of my next agent. I got it to the point where he too was extremely enthusiastic about it. But he couldn’t sell it any more than my first agent had been able to.

“I didn’t really have any confidence in the direction the story was taking, didn’t particularly care about any of the characters and at the close many of the loose ends are not tied up.” At last something that doesn’t contradict itself and might be offering reasonable advice?

This was the same book, exactly, about which the editor at Cape said, “I thought it was excellent”. In fact, the two letters came in within days of one another.

Of course, the editor at Cape might have been lying when he said that, but I don’t really see why he would. He could have simply sent it back with a standard non-committal “no thanks”. In the end, it doesn’t make any difference either way.

Again, I think I managed to write a book that divides people. That’s often the way, and always will be.

“We have studied your work with interest, but regrettably we do not feel that it is appropriate for our list.” And “I thought it was excellent, but couldn’t quite see it on the Cape list.” I have always found not being suitable for a list an interesting phrase. Does it just mean we don’t want to publish it, but we’re letting you down slowly or is it truly not appropriate and why? How do you work out if the book is appropriate for someone’s list?

I don’t really worry about that. Let them decide if it’s suitable for their list. Within reason, of course. I wouldn’t send a sci-fi space opera to a publisher that only published Regency romance, or vice versa. But these were general/literary publishers. What goes on their list, and what doesn’t, might be quite hard to determine for an outsider. With the second of those two quotes at least, the book had been submitted by an agent, who had a history of dealing with that particular editor and publisher. So they might be expected to know the nuances of the list – but no.

“I felt the novel rather collapses into melodrama.” A melodramatic statement in itself. But what is it about the novel that is melodramatic?

I’m sure she was right. I’m not averse to a bit of melodrama. But I think the problem might have been more to do with consistency of tone.

I guess if you have a book that is operating within a melodramatic aesthetic throughout, then that’s okay. But it’s not okay if your book starts off in a relatively realistic mode and then moves into something melodramatic. I suspect that that particular book was a problem because it changed in that way. Maybe not. I wrote it a long time ago, so I can’t really remember the details. Come to think of it, I’m pretty sure it was melodramatic throughout, so I resent the suggestion that it “collapsed” into melodrama. “Soared” would have been the word I would have chosen.

Words like “melodrama” can scare writers, because it has a negative and unfashionable charge, but I think if you are doing something consciously, if that’s the effect you’re going for, then it’s valid. You just have to accept that it may not be to everyone’s taste, as it obviously wasn’t here.

“We do not consider your work to be sufficiently outstanding.” A bit harsh or do they mean it isn’t going to stand out from the crowd enough to makes us money?

I think that’s exactly what they mean. And that’s not harsh. It’s hard to be outstanding.

“Sorry to disappoint you, but do persevere as you definitely have a talent.” Was it encouraging to know you had talent or did you find this condescending?

Definitely encouraging, not condescending at all. It sustained me. I was feeding off crumbs. This was an editor at a very literary publisher, who had published some great books by amazing writers. I was very encouraged

To put it in context, this was before I had found my first agent.

“I am afraid that our Reader found that there were unresolved problems with the work as it stands particularly in the areas of narrative style, structure and characterisation.” Right, but how on earth did you decide what the problem was with the narrative style etc.?

Actually, that was the covering letter to a report that I had paid to have done, through an agency I had submitted to.

It’s an old scam. I submitted chapters to the agency, they wrote favourably back and invited me to pay to have a full reader’s report done. I did.

The reader hated the book. There was a lot of detail given in the report. I decided that there were too many problems to fix, so wrote another book.

“I found Helios a highly original and interesting novel. At best the writing style is excellent and the experimentation successful… I like novels that are highly stylised but at times found Helios just too dense and obscure.” Did you go out on a limb to write something that you wanted to write? Did this feedback mean you were prepared to experiment further or you gave up stretching the limits after this?

Did I go out on a limb? I suppose so. I had a book I wanted to write and I wrote it the way I thought it needed to be written. I don’t think I stopped experimenting or taking risks after that, not entirely. Though perhaps some would see moving into writing historical detective fiction as a move to the mainstream and away from experimentation, as a sell-out even. I don’t. I’m still writing books I want to write, the way I want to write them. The difference is that they now fall into a clearly defined genre, which makes it easier to sell them. The secret to getting published is writing within a genre.

“This is a good first draft of a novel.” Was it encouraging to know you might be getting there, or shocked because you thought you had handed in the finished masterpiece?

Yes, definitely encouraging, particularly as the editor in question offered to look again at the script once I had done some work on it, though she wouldn’t meet me to talk about it.

Anyhow, when I’d done the work, she decided she didn’t like it at all. I think I lost my way on the book because I was trying to double-guess what it was she wanted from it.

“lacked the baroque flamboyance we look for in our original fiction.” What is baroque flamboyance?

I’m not sure I know.

To be fair to them, they are a small press that specializes in “decadent” literature. I knew this. Thought I’d written a book that they would like, and asked my agent to give them a shot. There never would have been much in it for him financially, but he agreed to try them. It was a long shot at a very small target.

Summon Up the Blood

Summon Up the Blood.

Summon Up the Blood. Set in London, 1914. Scotland Yard’s Inspector Silas Quinn investigates the members of an exclusive gentleman’s club. In the turbulent months leading up to the First World War.

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  1. More on the rejection archives. « R. N. Morris

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