• Bridge Ladies

    Bridge Ladies When I set out to learn about my mother's bridge club, the Jewish octogenarians behind the matching outfits and accessories, I never expected to fall in love with them. This is the story of the ladies, their game, their gen, and the ragged path that led me back to my mother.
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Tell Me Lies Later, Come and See Me

Last week when I came into the office, I found a query letter on my desk with a post-it note from one of our interns. It said, “I don’t think this is very good, but I’d feel terrible rejecting it.” The letter was from a woman whose daughter was schizophrenic and had been in and out of hospitals her whole life.

I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned this, but I used to be known as the pain and suffering editor. Mental illness? Show it to Lerner? Physical impairment? Show it to Lerner? Death row? Bulimia? Stuttering? Sexual Dysfunction? See what Lerner thinks. Lerner thinks if the writing sucks, no one is going to want to read it.

Dear __________________: I am very sorry to learn about your personal tragedy. It takes great courage to write about it with such candor. That said, I’m not convinced you’ve found the universal chord in your story — at least not yet. I hope others feel they can help you place your memoir. Many thanks for the chance to consider your work. Sincerely, Betsy Lerner

What kind of letter would you write?

48 Responses

  1. Dear Betsy,

    While I am an avid fan of your blog, gourds really freak me out. Squash you spend time and acreage to grow but can’t eat? Vegetables with warts? They seem an unnecessary addition to an otherwise lovely holiday season.



  2. Please don’t print any other responses. That’ll do.

  3. I agree, about the gourds. Also they’re very phallic, not that this is necessarily a bad thing.

    Your rejection letter is nearly pitch perfect. As a writer, one of the things I love best (after having something accepted) is a rejection with real feedback. Your note about the universal chord, while I’m sure is apt, would be frustratingly general to me. To writers who I think deserve A for effort, I might give them a piece or two of solid, specific criticism. But that’s just me.

  4. I would do what many agents do these days and not write any kind of letter in response. I would let the query die the death of “if you haven’t heard from us in two/four/six/eight weeks, it means sorry, we’re not interested/the right agent/taking new clients at this time/awake.”

    And I would tell my intern to buck up and taking a double dose of tough before it’s too late and he/she/it ends up stocking groceries/waiting tables/repossessing cars. This is a business, this agenting stuff, iddn’t it? If you don’t think it’s very good, the only terrible you should be feeling is at the prospect of having to read any further part of it.

    • My father was a successful businessman. He owned a huge toy store. I worked there when I was in high school. Besides being savvy, I believe he was successful because he treated his employees with respect and his customers with dignity and empathy.

      I remember one Christmas, a dad who was down on his luck came into the store and told my father that he had three kids and no money to buy toys. My father asked me to help the guy pick out “a Christmas” for his kids and to be sure to “wrap the toys and don’t forget the bows.”

      I think sometimes business people (even agents) need to remember the bows. And you know what else? That intern is learning how to conduct business from a master.

    • Tetman usually rises to Betsy’s defense whenever someone attacks her, maybe even when she’s hard on herself, but this response has the (unintended?) effect of sounding mean, which is unlike him. He even screwed up the grammar on one of his sentences, which is even more unusual.

  5. I think yours is a good letter. It strikes the right balance between honesty and compassion. You also avoid telling the writer to make changes, thus avoiding the inevitable resend.

  6. Betsy, your letter is very kind. That’s what makes you special. Don’t know that I could have done better, though I’m very interested in schizophrenics and probably would have requested it!

  7. I can’t top that. A clean cut with the guillotine, and it’s ‘over.’

  8. Warts, gourds, and the universal chord. I may steal that title.

  9. “The universal chord.”

    Is this another way of saying, “Cosmic fingernails on a blackboard?”

  10. This letter needs no parallels. The impression of sensitivity and respect shown in that letter is exactly what a writer needs – perhaps not wants, seeing as it is coming tagged to a rejection, but after the initial disappointment has blown through, then the writer will be able to build from it, instead of being crushed. Too many people doing the crushing, through simple callusness.

    There’s enough toughness behind the decision not to read, you don’t need to act tough to somehow prove the point.

  11. Yours was perfect. As for your intern, I have to agree with tetman.

  12. I’ve had exactly two experiences writing rejection letters:

    The first was when I interned during college for a book producer. My boss had this unwieldy memoir from a friend of the family, so she felt obligated to offer a personal response. First, I read the WHOLE thing and wrote like a 6-page reader’s report. Then she asked me to craft a rejection letter with the vague instruction, “You know, let him know that it’s not publishable.” Because I was a moron I took her literally, so I wrote something condescending and cruel, like: “Thank you so much for sending this memoir. You’ve written something very special for your family, who will surely treasure your memories for years to come. Unfortunately, however, the manuscript is simply not publishable.” Thankfully, my boss saw the letter before we sent it anywhere. She took one look, shook her head, and said, “Well, you sure are honest, aren’t you?” And never asked me to write another rejection again.

    My second experience was when I accepted poems for a campus publication and had to craft a rejection note. My first draft was painfully standard and cold, something like, “Thank you for sending your poem but unfortunately, we are unable to accept it for publication. Good luck in the future.” When I showed it to my roommate for her opinion, she said, “You know what I’d do if I got this?” and then mimed slashing her wrists. I was shocked — I thought my note was a pretty standard rejection letter. I ended up pussying out and not sending rejections at all to the poems I didn’t select.

    So in other words, I suck.

    • I think you set the bar for cruelty pretty low. For limbo, that is. For high-jumping I guess you’ve set it high.

    • I wouldn’t say you suck. That’s quite a conclusion to reach based on the evidence you presented. And as you said, you don’t have a whole lot of experience in crafting rejections.

      Nobody asked, I don’t think, but my preferred form of rejection is the form. The pre-printed one that says, Thank you for your submission, but we are unable to find a place for your work. Something like that, you know? Short and sweet. No useless palaver and no transparent hypocrisy.

      One of the most thoughtless and cruel blow-offs to read on a rejection is the good-luck wish, like the one you described: Good luck in the future. You know how that reads? How that really reads when the writer reads it? It reads, Good fucking luck, buddy, getting anybody to publish this piece of shit, but if I were you, I wouldn’t show it to a lamppost at midnight.

      Probably the most unprofessional rejection is the rejection of no response. This is becoming more common in the literary industry. Editors, agents, and publishers can make any excuses they want for it, but there’s no excuse for it. If you invite writers to make unsolicited submissions, you ought to have the common decency to respond. Telling them, If you don’t hear from us after some nebulous period of time, that means no–that just doesn’t cut it.

      But the most painful rejections are the ones where the editor writes, We really liked this and we discussed it at length at the editorial meeting but in the end, we decided against it (for reasons that you can only guess). Here’s a rainbow and a unicorn, good luck and best wishes and send us something again maybe sometime if you like so we can do this again, we’d like that.

  13. I liked the line “At least not yet”– offers encouragement yet doesn’t pander to the writer. Some people are blessed with good bullshit detectors, so hopefully the person receiving this rejection would appreciate your honesty and the respect you showed. I would not be surprized if you got a follow up to this one, though.

  14. The would-be author may not have struck a universal chord, but the note you wrote to her was pitch-perfect. Guess that’s why you’re the maestro. I hope you write me such a kind rejection note someday. No, wait …! (Maybe I should rephrase that?)

  15. I don’t believe in cruel to be kind. You are not cruel; your intern is not cruel; and you have offered the writer some validation of his/her pain while encouraging him/her to continue writing. So, there’s nothing I could improve on.

    The rejection letter I got yesterday from some other agent? It was just short of “fuck off.” Believe me, when my manuscript gets picked up, I’ll be sending a note of my own to him.

    Wait. Compassion. Deep breathing.

    Right. I’ll be sending him a compassionate fuck you letter.

    • Reading that made me realize that there’s no such thing as “cruel to be kind.” We must tell people the truth, as kindly as possible, but without dilution. If someone, in addition to suffering, has their head so far up their butt they think the truth is cruel, then so be it. Been there. It took me months to realize that my supposed enemy was actually my friend, just being honest with me. And then the truth of what she said—literally—set me free.

      I hope the querist takes some writing courses if that’s what she needs, and self-publishes—if that’s what it takes—to get her story told.

  16. I like your letter. It’s honest and sensitive, but direct. I couldn’t write a better rejection letter.

    On the flip side, I’d wager you’d also go to the wall for work you believed in. I say this because you frighten me with your profanity and touch me with your confessions, ie. becoming teary-eyed at your daughter’s recital.

    You’re scary, Betsy. But you inspire trust.

  17. Have to agree with Mike D. It’s the letter I’d want to get (and write) myself, and I’d probably leave that one line in–knowing that it could be taken as encouragement to send me a second draft.

    It’s always a guessing game. Sometimes you just have to hope that the person on the other end is intelligent and perceptive enough to take a carefully-calibrated rejection letter the way it’s meant, and once in a while you guess wrong. But that doesn’t happen too often, does it? I think it’s a small price to pay for being able to feel more like a human being.

  18. Damn. That’s good.

  19. This letter is a no, but an encouraging no.

    I think the ability to write something like this is underrated and the willingness to do so is all-too rare.

  20. “That said” is always the uh oh.

  21. You are obviously a writer, an agent, and a kind person–deep down.

  22. I hope this incident has been sufficiently “fictionalized” so that the actual writer does not recognize his/herself. ‘Don’t know how I would react to receiving this rejection letter and having my rejection publicly dissected.

    • God yes. I always disguise the identity of the people I write about. I’m still in the biz for goodness sake. But I get at least a half dozen like this every week. THere is a lot of pain and suffering out there. A lot. The problem is that no matter what you’ve been through, it doesn’t make you a great writer, or even a good, writer, or even an okay writer. That takes years and years of developing your craft. One or two writers may be sprung from the womb fully formed, but it’s pencil shavings for the rest of us. One more thing, I usually disguise myself as a happy, loving, generous person.

      • These words of wisdom should be the watermark on your stationery. And that disguise, I suspect, isn’t all costume but really the core of You.

        Thanks for giving us that extra insight.

      • Clark Kent thought he was wearing a costume, too. Doesn’t mean he really wasn’t Superman.

        You’re always a class act.

  23. I worked at a publishing house long ago enough that we still accepted manuscripts over the transom, with no agent. We had a recent college grad send form rejection letters. He called himself Dr. No.

    Yours is so much better.

  24. I hope my rejection letters come with such a personal, honest and thoughtful touch.

  25. Terrific letter Betsy. If I received it I would feel encouraged.

  26. But should this person (or these persons on whom this composite is based) really be encouraged? SO much confusion out there between adversity and triumph over same followed by publication and genuinely good writing.

  27. I had to read a lot of those types of submissions when I worked in children’s books. Your letter is very good–and offers a bit of hope–with the “at least not yet” part. The part about striking a universal chord is so important–most memoir writers don’t seem to understand how crucial that is.

  28. Well, first of all, I think you have it right. But, I have a huge problem the word place. Small details in my Reich. Writers are not placed as if in a large factory of truth telling emotion creating Henry Ford economy creating machine. I Totally disagree with that wording, dudess. And you have now been sufficiently punished. As I wrote, I agree with you; personal tragedy does not equate to universal understanding, which is what writing is about. I write because the people I wish to express a thought to do not live in my town, or city. I have a lot of energy so city doesn’t seem to be out of my league, but I don’t live in New York. Or Chicago, or Bombay, or whatever it’s called now, or Toronto, or Moscow, or Baghdad, or Miami, or Berlin, Constantinople, or Tel Viv, or whatever. You name it. To be honest with everyone, if you need my advice about writing a great book about anything, you shouldn’t write. Because! You have not been reading. You think it’s a quick way to win some money. You think that it will make you popular with your community, therefore giving you more respect than you deserve. Well, I’m tired, so, you don’t really read, or rather, have not read any good books. Now! Here we go. I consider a good book what is referred to as a classic book. Any book that was written long before you were born. If you can’t do that, without complaining, please, just go back to being a good TV watcher and a good mother or hard working father. I am not offended. Not everyone has a universal story to tell. Sometimes, people’s stories are part of the universal story, so you should keep living it and Telling it every chance you get, to whomever you might meet. It is good. It is human. Peace, above all aspirations, be with you.

    • And if I hadn’t bitten my tongue while writing that, I would have filled you in on all the secret details to writing a best seller so you could tell your boss to fuck himself. Now, if that is not what it is all about, I don’t know what is.

  29. I have a wrenching personal story! And it strikes a chord! Of course it does — doesn’t the writer always know? (I’m being facetious, by the way.) The trick is to convince people that my writing talent came first, then the Tragedy Of My Life, but with every other wanna-be out there, I may be consigned to the trash heap of “Oh, whatever, not more of this.”

    Yes! More of this! Mine’s better! Everyone says so!

    Yes. I know. I’ve run across a slew of people who’ve had Horrible Life Experiences and so now want to Write A Book to share their Misfortune and Make A Fortune at the same time. These are people who can’t so much as return an email because that would involve, uhm, writing. But that’s okay! No writing talent needed! Gah.

  30. […] once declaimed the need for a “universal chord” in a memoir. If it’s a chord, what are the different notes? What sort of harmony is it […]

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