In January, my new picture book Goldy Luck and The Three Pandas, a multicultural retelling of the Goldilocks tale with a Chinese New Year theme, was released by Charlesbridge Publishing after a long and arduous nine-year journey which took the manuscript through five editors, two publishers, numerous revisions, and one-cancelled contract. An interviewer asked me recently, “What was it about this story that made you stick with it and not give up?” Why, indeed? How do we, as writers, know when to abandon a project that wasn’t selling? How do we know whether our story hasn’t made its way to publication because: a) it’s just not right for the current marketplace, b) not right for one (or a few) particular editor(s), c) needs more revisions, d) needs to be rewritten entirely, or e) needs to be shelved altogether?
This list of possibilities runs through my head every time I get a rejection. When should I let the story go and move onto something else? I’ve shelved projects before because I can’t make the story work or it’s encountered a few rejections. But then, the thought always crosses my mind: did I give up on it too soon? Kathryn Stockett received 60 rejections for her novel The Help before the 61st agent took her on. At 5 rejections, should I have pressed on for another 55?
The frustration for writers is that there is no one answer to that question. There are too many variables and editors are readers first, with individual reading tastes, and editors second, when they’ve already acquired the manuscript. You can have a brilliantly written story but if it’s not in a genre that appeals to an editor, she will most likely pass on it.
I probably have a dozen stories on my computer that have been shelved for one reason or the other. Some, like a manuscript called “Papa Bear’s Good Deed”, the Goldilocks story written from papa bear’s perspective, have morphed into different stories such as the current Goldy Luck and the Three Pandas. Others should probably never see the light of day. And then there are stories that keep calling to me from the bowels of my hard drive. And that’s when I know they’re not ready to be abandoned. They’re just on hiatus.
For Goldy Luck, the decision to stick with it was a bit easier. Sure, it’s had its share of rejections, but it was also always on the cusp. Editors liked it. It was taken through the acquisitions process a few times. I’ve had two offers of publication, first from Tricycle Press/Random House until RH decided to shutter the imprint and subsequently canceled my contract, then from Charlesbridge Publishing. I knew there was something in this story that was worth hanging in there for.
Between Tricycle Press’ offer and Charlesbridge’s, my editor Karen Grencik of Red Fox Literary submitted Goldy Luck and the Three Pandas to several other publishers. Here’s one rejection email it garnered: “The recasting of this familiar fable is perhaps a smart (and safe) approach, yet the frequent attempts to make it feel authentically Chinese felt overly self-conscious.” Ouch!
A couple of months later came my wonderful Charlesbridge editor Alyssa Mito Pusey’s email: “I’m thrilled to report that the acquisition folks loved Goldy Luck. The cultural details and unique voice really made the story stand out for them.” Two different publishing houses, two very different responses. It’s a subjective business.
I always weigh editorial comments carefully, but try not to let rejections derail me. What one editor doesn’t like, another might love. Ultimately, it only takes ONE editor to take you from unpublished to published.
So keep writing, keep collecting those rejection letters (every painful one will make you stronger), keep submitting, and keep on believing.