Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Rejection: "Dear (Insert Name) - Please Only Send Your Best!"

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Rejection: "Dear (Insert Name) - Please Only Send Your Best!"

About seventeen years ago now, the fine poet and editor Barry Dempster scrawled across a form rejection letter: ‘please only send your best’.

I’ve kept every rejection letter I have received over the years, but this is my all-time favourite. I love it. It’s a classic. It’s perfect. And he was right. I was sending stuff out before it was polished to a gleam, before I knew without a doubt that I was employing the right word, in the right place, at the right time. The reply was condescending perhaps, but I took the hint and it helped in the long run. Thanks Barry.

Good editors are hard to come by. They are perhaps more valuable than good writers because their task is uglier and messier, and they must ultimately decide, in a sea of mediocre manuscripts, what has promise and what should be tossed. We’ve all heard those rare stories about the fiction editor who passed up a novel that ultimately went on to win a bunch of prizes and sell a billion copies. Yes, they were probably fired. But that’s not par for the course. The average editor is slugging it out, nose to the grindstone, trying to turn copper into gold, all while being poked incessantly by insecure writers and told to hurry up by deadline-minded publishers.

I had the chance to thank in person the publisher Jack David for encouraging me a few years ago when I submitted a manuscript to him. He gave me the contact name and address for a publisher he suspected might be interested in my book (she was; thanks Sylvia). When I finally got a chance to thank him at 'Word on the Street' this past year, he said my work must have been decent, because in his words, “I very rarely encourage writers.”

His comment made me feel good, but then I thought about it a little more and asked him to explain his reticence in encouraging writers. The reason? Why, our insecurity kicks in and we go absolutely crazy at the first hint that our work might hold a grain of promise. The encouraged writer, I realized, is a little like that 24-year-old boy who has never had a date and some poor unsuspecting girl at a coffee shop tells him he has a nice smile. It’s game over. You’re never getting rid of us … You’ll look out your curtains at quarter to three in the morning and see us waving our revised manuscript from our 1997 Honda Civic pulled to your curb.

As I said, I have almost every rejection I ever received for the work I sent out with wide-eyed visions of literary stardom and the tuxedo I would wear to the gala. I see my folder of rejection letters as a testament to my drive to continue, to learn, to get better – to never quit this thing I have felt compelled to do since I could print block letters. Listen: If you are prone to giving in easily, if you can’t take fair and especially unfair criticism, then writing is certainly not the racket for you. Get out now while you still have some free time and sanity left.

I can look back through that folder and track the turning points in my development as a writer, how the utterly impersonal form letters slowly began to arrive with hand-written notes from editors. And how those handwritten notes got longer and more detailed in their insights and encouragements. It was what I needed at the time to keep going.

I know Jack was being a little harsh on himself, or perhaps trying to convince himself he is a tough and hardened editor. But nobody does his kind of work for the money or the glory. And you can bet he’s encouraged more than his share of writers.

cb

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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C.B. Forrest

C.B. Forrest is the author of the literary crime novels The Weight of Stones and Slow Recoil.

Go to C.B. Forrest’s Author Page