“Ordinary People Becoming Extraordinary”

Sometimes we have to laugh at ourselves and our conceits. Yesterday I wrote a blog post Whose Book Is It? about readers who saw something different in my books than I intended. I wrote:

A Spark of Heavenly FireA reader once pointed out that A Spark of Heavenly Fire was about love in all its guises. He was right, that is a major theme, though that hadn’t been my intention. I wanted to write a big book, an important book with ordinary people becoming extraordinary in perilous times. Since I didn’t want to do a war story, I did the next best thing — created an epidemic so deadly that the entire state of Colorado had to be quarantined to prevent the spread of the disease. To “personalize” the catastrophe, I told the story from several points of view, not just character POV, but the various ways the characters viewed the epidemic. And what shone through, by the time all the stories were told, was the theme of love in all its guises.

It wasn’t until this morning that I remembered that I hadn’t intended to write an important book with ordinary people becoming extraordinary in perilous times. Well, the important book part is right — I wanted to write a classic story that most people would be able to identify with. But I never used the phrase about ordinary people becoming ordinary until I received a rejection letter from an agent, in which the agent thanked me for sending them my excerpt since they “were always looking for such stories about ordinary people becoming extraordinary, but . . .”

Oddly, I don’t remember what followed the “but.” There was always a “but.” “We liked the concept of your story but we didn’t fall in love with your characters as we had hoped.” “Your book is excellent, but we only publish literary books and yours is more commercial.” “We loved your book, but we don’t know how to sell it. It has too many science fiction elements to be mainstream fiction and not enough to be science fiction.”

But I digress. The point is, that is where I got the idea of A Spark of Heavenly Fire being a story of ordinary people becoming extraordinary. I figured if I got a personalized rejection letter rather than a badly Xeroxed form letter or even just a “no thanks” scribbled on my query, that maybe I was on to something. So I started using the phrase “ordinary people becoming extraordinary” to describe the book in subsequent query letters. I did it so often that it stuck even after I learned the truth — the rejection letter that had so impressed me had been a form letter after all. (I thought that since they had expressed an interest in my writing, I’d query them about another book and got the exact response as I did the first time.)

The truth of why I wrote A Spark of Heavenly Fire is that I wanted to write about society turned upside down. I wanted to create conditions where the successful folk didn’t have the skills to be successful in the new world, but the unhappy, the failures, and the outcasts were able to find happiness, success, and fulfillment. I mostly achieved that, but one character — a beautiful young woman — turned out to have good coping skills, which gave the book more of a dimension than if she’d ended up in the gutter.


Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” All Bertram’s books are published by Second Wind Publishing. Connect with Pat on Google+


Rejection Letters. Just Goes to Show . . .

D.B. Pacini, author of youth/YA fantasy novel, The Loose End of the Rainbow, soon to be published by Singing Moon Press, sent me these rejection letters from her files. They show how arbitrary this business is, and should give aspiring authors hope in a roundabout way. I am publishing the letters with Pacini’s  permission.

From an agent:  I’m not available because I’m getting married and I’m too busy for new clients. Your novel, Emma’s Love Letters is too short for my consideration anyway.  Increase the word count by 25,000 words.  Good luck.

From a publisher:  Thanks for your query.  Emma’s Love Letters is a bit longer than novels we publish.  Can you shorten it by 5,000 words?  Your novel, The Loose End of the Rainbow is much too long for our consideration, especially since it is the first in a trilogy.

From an agent: I apologize; I’m not available to unpublished authors.  I only accept new clients that already have published success. Your novel, The Loose End of the Rainbow is interesting.  Unfortunately, it is the first in a trilogy and I don’t like the working title you have for the second novel.  I wish you the best.

From an agent:  Dear Ms. Pacini, Regarding your question about titles for your novels I must say that the last thing that matters at this point is what your titles are.  I believe you will find that publishers often change titles for numerous reasons.  Don’t be married to a title. 

From My “Dud Agent” List: 

            At one point I decided to email agents and ask if they were accepting queries because a high number were not. Most agents have explicit query instructions on their websites. It takes time to query precisely as an agent wishes and it’s disappointing to receive a quick response that the agent is not accepting queries.  

            An agent responded to my email that asked if she was accepting queries.  She curtly told me to follow the query instructions on her website. I carefully followed the elaborate instructions. One minute after I emailed my query she sent me a “Dear Author” email saying she is not accepting queries at this time. 

            Fortunately, most agents are not this petty. There are undesirable or disreputable agents out there for many reasons.  Authors must be careful. You want an agent that will love your work, an agent that will develop a mutually respectful relationship with you. Always research, be smart. Securing an exceptional agent is as important as writing an exceptional book.

More Rejections

I’ve been sending out queries lately, so I’ve been getting rejections. I think I would be more accepting of the situation if there was a consensus as to why agents and editors are turning down my work. One rejection letter said that my writing was good and the premise intriguing but the book leaned too far toward science fiction to be a good fit. Another letter I received the same day for the same novel said that she was immediately impressed but that there weren’t enough science fiction elements for their list.

Oddly enough, I never considered the book to be science fiction at all — I thought it was more of a thriller, except that it’s not thrilling enough to be classified as a thriller. And if not a thriller, then a mystery, though it doesn’t quite fit into the mystery/suspense category, either.

I can’t imagine what reasons they will give for rejecting my work in progress, assuming I ever get the book finished. (For some reason I can’t write during the summer, so it’s really a work in stagnation.) But the book defies any sort of classification. Well, there’s no point in worrying about that now. I have four completed novels that are racking up the rejections, and that’s about all I can handle for now.

As I was writing this, I received another rejection in the mail. Lucky me! This one said “The concept of the novel is intriguing and the ominous and tense tone of the writing reflects the mood of the protagonist fairly well. Unfortunately, due to the confusing nature of the plot, it’s not right for our current list.” Confusing? I thought that was the point — keep the reader confused until the end when all is made clear and they become unconfused.

I’m used to rejection, of course. It’s all part of the submission process. But oh, how marvelous if just once in my life I had to get used to acceptance!

Mafia Cat Rejects Hilter. Hitler Breaks Off German-Italian Alliance. War Ends.

I once read that certain topics were guaranteed attention getters. The only four from that list I remember are Hitler, the Mafia, war, and cats, to which I would add rejection. My post “A Rejection So Pleasant It Was Almost an Acceptance” attracted more attention than the last four combined. The title of this post is a 12-word short story based on those five attention getters (it got you here, didn’t it?) but the one I will be focusing on is rejection.

Rejection is hard to deal with because we feel so . . . rejected. Writers aspiring to be published, however, need to learn how to deal with it. There are hundreds of thousands of books written each year by unpublished novelists, and only a couple of hundred will be accepted by major publishers. Rejection, then, is part of the game.

A fellow writer pointed out that my great rejection letter scored high on the etiquette scale, but it was very likely a form letter. He could be right. I once got a rejection letter from an agent that was printed out on a computer and addressed to me personally. The letter spoke of my writing ability, mentioned the name of my book and how they had considered taking it on but had to pass because the subject matter was not quite right for their agency. Pleased with the personal touch and believing I was close to finding representation, I checked to see which of my novels would be a better fit, shot off another query, and received the same basic rejection letter in return. Definitely a case of a form letter that scored high on the etiquette scale.

If it is possible to write rejection letters that make the recipient feel good, why do agents and editors send letters that are cold, almost cruel? Because, despite what they say, they do not want to be queried. They get thousands of queries a year, and each of those queries mean unpaid work.

My advice? Briefly glance at any letter you receive to make sure it is a rejection, then shred it. Get it out of your sight. Send out more queries; to a certain extent, the more you are rejected, the more you become inured to it. Also, learn to see rejection letters for what they are: an attempt at keeping you from bothering that agent or editor again.

And hope that one day you will become so well known that those agents will seek you out, and then you can send them rejection letters.