It is such a delight to host a not-too-distant neighbor, Rebecca Van Slyke, today. Her hard work and diligence have paid off with a cascade of picture books being published almost all at once! Her first picture book is the charming Mom School (Doubleday), quickly followed by Dad School (Doubleday), both illustrated by Priscilla Burris. Take it away, Rebecca!
Hello, Kirby! First, let me start off by saying how excited I am to be here! I remember several years ago (okay, maybe a few more than several), you came up to Bellingham to an SCBWI event to talk about writing. You were so generous with your advice, and it made me think that maybe I could do this writing thing, too. Aren’t children’s writers and illustrators some of the most encouraging people around?
So now I have some of my own books out! Mom School came out last year, and last Tuesday, Dad School made its appearance. There are also four more titles from different publishers coming out in the next two years!
Today, though, I’d like to talk about what happened before I started getting contracts: rejection.
Thank you for your recent submission to XYZ Publishing Company. I regret to inform you that …”
Does this letter look familiar to you? If you’ve ever tried to submit a manuscript for publication, chances are you’ve gotten a response similar to this at some time in your writing career. I remember the first one I ever got. I was in college, and my professor had suggested that I submit the dummy that I had done for his literature class to his publisher. Finally- FINALLY- I would be a published author! And at such a young age!
I sent it in. I waited. After a week, every time I went to the mailbox I was sure that this would be the day I would get my SASE back with a contract in the mail. I began to think about changing my major from teaching to writing.
After a few more days (okay, six months), my SASE came back! I pulled out my manuscript dummy and… a tiny postcard that began, “Dear Author…” I was crushed. I cried. I sent it out again in a massive simultaneous submission to every publisher that did picture books.
I got a massive simultaneous rejection.
But I kept writing. I kept learning. I joined SCBWI. I went to conferences, joined a critique group, and took classes. I kept submitting, but I submitted smarter. (Turns out that some publishers only publish certain kinds of books! Who knew?)
I got a LOT more rejection letters.
But. While each rejection letter still felt like, well, a rejection, I noticed that after a while they changed. I was getting some letters that began, “Dear Ms. Van Slyke.” There would be a reference to my actual manuscript, like they had read it. And sometimes the editor would tell me why it wasn’t a good fit for them.
I started to look for an agent. And- oh, goody!- NEW rejection letters came pouring in!
I eventually did get an agent. Unfortunately, it was, shall we say, not a happy match. The rejection letters stopped coming to me. But, as I later learned, that was most likely because no manuscripts were going out. I came to the decision that an unproductive agent was worse than no agent, so we parted ways.
Fortunately, I did get another agent, and manuscripts began going out again. As proof, I started getting rejection letters again. By this time, though, either because my writing had improved or (more likely) my agent was matching them more closely to the right editor, the rejections were very specific. And they started coming with offers to look at more of my writing, or even to look at a manuscript again after a few changes.
Now, after a few sales, I’m still getting rejection letters. LOTS of rejection letters. But I look at them differently now. Instead of focusing on the “No,” I look for themes. Does a manuscript get rejected because it’s weak or because the publisher already has a pirate book on their list? Do I see several of the same comments on the same manuscript? Perhaps it’s time to try another revision based on that feedback.
Most of all, though, rejection letters mean that I’m doing my job: writing. Submitting. Revising. Submitting again. Writing new manuscripts.
Because sometimes instead of a no, there will be a “Yes.
Rebecca Van Slyke earned her MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Rebecca is a second-grade teacher in Lynden, Washington, where she lives with her husband, daughter (when she’s not in college), and a very spoiled dachshund.