Whenever someone tells me they want to write a book, I cringe for them. Sure, writing can be satisfying in itself because it is a form of expression, an art form. I cringe because the unspoken assumption is that completing a book means it is ready for publication and that chasm between writing and publishing can be like traversing the Grand Canyon on crutches. This is the story behind the story of South of Justice which comes out May 15th.
How many writers have held up their first draft like Mufasa in the The Lion King held up his son Simba for all the world to admire? Remember that Simba was not ready to face the world alone or assume his true place in the world until YEARS later. It is like that with first draft manuscript. Oh, if I knew then what I know now….
In my eagerness and pride, I gave my manuscript a single edit and pushed it out into the world prematurely. This is the story of that painful hike and the justified rejections it received on the path to publication.
As a journalist, I thought I had developed a thick hide for criticism. In journalism school my editor was Tom French, who later earned a Pulitzer Prize for his writing in St. Petersburg, Florida. He was tough and fair and taught me to separate criticism of my writing from criticism of my soul. I later worked at a Fortune-500 company where a manager would toss things at people when he was upset. I dodged a chair once. So I thought I was prepared to handle rejection and criticism.
The critique group Kiss of Death toughened me up with oh-so-insightful, honest suggestions and corrections for my manuscript one chapter at a time. Like dental work, it was grinding, but vastly improved the story.
Then with hubris only first-time authors understand, I shot the once-edited manuscript out to contests. Lotsa contests, gaining accurate and occasionally cruel critiques from judges. Encouraged as the story finaled in national contests under the titled Unredeemed, I sent queries to agents. And yes, pride goes before a fall…here is the painful history of rejections from the query letters sent:
February 2013, had a double header of rejections. Ms. Bradford of the Bradford Agency rejected it with good wishes. Then Janet Reid wrote that it wasn’t a good fit for her.
March 2013, Lauren E. Abramo of Dystel & Goderich Literary Management rejected it with a note, “We have to really fall in love with a book before we will think about representing it and, although you are a fine storyteller with an appealing voice, that just didn’t happen with this one.” Harvey Klinger read the first three chapters and replied by email, “It’s a pass.”
April 2013, Simon Lipkar rejected it as “not quite the right fit” for him.
July 2013, Paige Wheeler wrote: “Thanks so much for sending your chapters and for offering me the chance to consider your material. There’s a lot to like here, but ultimately your project doesn’t seem right for me. Since it’s crucial that you find an agent who will represent you to the best of his or her ability, I’m afraid that I’m going to have to step aside rather than ask to represent your manuscript. You have a great imagination – I love the premise – and you’re a good writer, but I’m sad to say that I just wasn’t passionate enough about this to ask to see more. I wish I could offer constructive suggestions, but I thought the dialogue was fine, the characters well-crafted, and the plot well-conceived. I think it’s the kind of thing that really is subjective – why some people adore the book on the top of the NYTimes bestseller list, and others don’t. Just to reiterate, another agent and publisher will probably feel differently. I certainly encourage you to continue to see representation elsewhere (I’m afraid, though, that I cannot recommend someone), and thank you again for the opportunity to take this on.”
September 2013, Danielle Egan-Miller’s response was, “Thanks again for submitting your manuscript to Browne & Miller for review. We read South of Justice and while we love the suspenseful premise of your story, unfortunately it’s just not the right fit for us. We struggled a little with the multiple viewpoints and couldn’t connect with the characters like we hoped we would. Thank you again for thinking of us, Joni. We wish you the best of luck with South of Justice, as well as in all your publishing endeavors.”
October 2013, Pam Ahearn emailed, ” isn’t right for me.”
A query to Martin Biro was apparently sucked into a black hole.
The painful truth is that they were right to reject the story. In its 2013 version it had seven, yes, seven viewpoints which confused readers because it wasn’t clear whose story it was. It had no focus.
So swallowing pride, I assumed I knew nothing about storytelling. I participated in workshops by Donald Maass, James Scott Bell, Christopher Vogler, and Larry Brooks to learn. Then through fresh knowledge, I found and refined the story. It took three more complete revisions to refine South of Justice into ready-for-publication form.
My apologies to all the agents who took time to review that immature manuscript. I thought it was ready. I didn’t know then what I know now. It no longer has seven viewpoints. It is a cross-genre story involving a crime, a strong female protagonist, and a romantic subplot. It is a stronger story for the journey. Thank you, critique partners, beta readers, agents, and contest judges, for your help.