Friday, May 25, 2007

How to say "no" nicely

With the gracious permission of its author, here's the rejection letter I received for my first ever Doctor Who novel submission, 13 years ago. (You can read "Mondas" here.)
11 October 1994

Dear Mr Guerrier

Thank you for your letter telling us about your Doctor Who proposal. We do our best to read everything that gets sent to us, and we’ll certainly consider any material you care to submit.

I have to say, though, that there are already clear problems with your proposal as far as we’re concerned. The first point is simply one of presentation: we ask for a full plot synopsis and two or three chapters of sample text before we can give an idea proper consideration. Nice as it would be to work in tandem with every author from day one of their story, there are something like six hundred people out there trying to write for us and something like one of me. (Given the other lines of fiction that we publish and the fact that there are only four people in the department, it works out that there’s about one person dealing with Doctor Who.) Also, your letter is handwritten – we must insist that all proposals are typewritten or word-processed. But all that’s in the guidelines, which are enclosed.

Now, the more serious issues. Continuity references are a moot point, but I’ll argue them as far as I can. While there have been a number of old characters and other references to the show’s past in the New Adventures, we don’t encourage them – particularly from first-time authors. Firstly, we want to keep the New (and to a lesser extent the Missing) Adventures new, introducing exciting new races, settings and characters. You’ll notice that even when old elements are reused, they’re usually mixed with something original. Secondly (and this is usually the cruncher), many writers fall into the trap of relying solely on the old faces for the entertainment and drama value of the story. We might take an excellent submission if it happens to have familiar faces in it, but if the central premise of the book is simply the return of the character the plot is likely to suffer. Finally, many Who fans are rather conservative. They don’t like people messing with their favourite characters. If we ever do use Daleks, Cybermen, Time Lords, etc., we try to make sure we have an experienced and popular author is (sic) handling them.

Similarly, we don’t like stories which come about largely in a bid to clear up continuity; they can do so incidentally, but the way to go about a book in the first instance is to start with plot ideas, characters, situations and images. You’re trying to do far too much with this idea: explain the origin of the moon, the destruction of Venus, the exodus of Martians from Mars and the hibernation of the Silurians (who, incidentally, couldn’t possibly predict such and event!). It adds nothing to the story and smacks of tokenism.

I’m afraid to say that there aren’t many new ideas in the plot. What it boils down to is some people on a planet fighting. I don’t think there’s enough action to stretch to a full-length novel, and what there is doesn’t sound very spellbinding. For me, it was all summed up by ‘running down a few corridors etc. etc.’, which is not the sort of plot detail we look favourably on.

Things that made me go ‘Ouch’: what was the vague ‘force’ that pulled the TARDIS down on Mondas? How could the Cybermen possibly know the TARDIS was going to land there? Where does Benny’s info about the projectile hitting the sun come from (the TARDIS only knows as much as the Doctor)? Moreover, where on earth does she get the notion that a ‘child prodigy’ is involved? Why mention Mondas and the Cybermen so early in the story when you could get lots of drama and suspense out of it? How can you send a group of Cybermen back in time to ensure the race is not wiped out by the Doctor when you don’t know the race is going to be wiped out by the Doctor? (The Cybermen in their arrogance would never consider this contingency, and they’re hardly clairvoyant.) Why is the Doctor allowed to live so long in captivity (the Cybermen must know how dangerous he is by now)? Isn’t the ‘delaying genesis by a few millennia’ too similar to Genesis of the Daleks?

Things that made me go ‘Yeuch’: ‘the Ice Warrior’s exodus’; they replaced limbs for metal and plastic; befreind; Jurrasic; anymore; suprises; eighteen years-old. This sort of thing needs a lot of work before your writing will be of publishable standard.

I hope you’ll understand, then, why this isn’t too upbeat a reply. A lot of the faults, you’ll doubtless be annoyed to hear, can be put down to your age. It seems writing is one of the last abilities to fully mature in human beings. Some people never learn how to write well at all. But even the most talent authors started late; I think it’s because the more experience you have, the better you write.

I can’t really say anything without sounding patronising, so I might as well just go ahead and say it: eighteen is young. The youngest of our authors to be published was 23 when his book came out – and that’s very young by normal standards. I’m not saying you won’t be able to write something good enough for the series; just alerting you that it’s not very likely.

Having said all that, you’ll never get good enough if you don’t practise. By all means carry on writing – even the one you’re working on, if you don’t mind the fact that we won’t be interested in it as it stands. And as I said, we’ll read things that you send (though there won’t be anything this detailed again). Carry on trying, and enjoy it.

Yours sincerely,

Andy Bodle
Editorial Assistant
It's funny how much of this has stuck; I still see red when other people write "any more" as one word.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting that! It was very inspiring.
-Ken

Dave Snyder said...

Geez, he went into an amazing amount of detail, didn't he? That's the longest rejection letter I've ever seen.

Leslie said...

That IS an amazingly detailed rejection letter. I've never gotten anything like that. It was ambitious for 18, and at least you learned how to spell anymore.

Lauren said...

Look at you with the fancy personalized rejection!!
All I get is a form letter.
:(