My maternal grandmother received the following 4-page, single-spaced, detailed rejection letter in response to a novel-length manuscript she submitted between short stints of teaching in various rural schools in West Virginia, Maryland, and Virginia during the 1950s after abandoning her husband, who was 27 years older than her. She got her teaching certificate in 1915, after attending Harrisonburg State Normal and Industrial School, then did further coursework at Radford College (1915-18). From 1919 to 1951, she married and raised 4 children, my mother being her youngest. She wanted to be a writer, but only really succeeded at publishing short devotional pieces for magazines like The Upper Room, which never paid a living wage. So she taught school. Perhaps I’ll post more about her teaching career later on, since my wife is a teacher, my daughter is now a teacher, and I’ve been offering this free, online extension course (no grades!) in Obscure History Studies since 2003.
580 Fifth Avenue
New York 36, N. Y.
Cable Address: Scottmere
April 24, 1952
Mrs. Janie S. Clay [not her real surname—J.],
Dear Mrs. Clay,
Thank you for giving me the opportunity to read your novel, THE DOORMAT. Your previous writing experience has contributed to the formulation of a first rate style, end this is even more noticeable here than it was in your short story. It proves that you can keep your standards up to as high a mark in a long piece as in a short one–a sure proof of your basic writing ability. Your style has a clarity and straightforwardness that would be an asset to any writer, and you have a remarkable talent for colorful description. Narration, dialogue, and action are all handled with the ease and confidence of a born story-teller. Also, you have a grasp of character and situation that stands as a solid achievement in any appraisal of the whole work. However, all these qualities on the credit side of the ledger are not quite enough to make your novel marketable. In addition, it should have a strong, closely-knit plot, which moves along to a logical and satisfying conclusion. Since THE DOORMAT falls short in this respect. I am forced to return the manuscript to you as unsalable.
Plotting is definitely your weak point. and I will therefore devote the greater part of my report to an analysis of your story-structure. in the hope that it will help you when you begin work on your next story. You are already acquainted with the plot skeleton–lead character, central problem, complications, crisis, and solution–and I will again take it as a useful device for pointing out the structural flaws in your story, showing just why and how it fails to engage the reader’s interest.
In a novel, the familiar pattern is there even as it is in short stories. Of course. the “bones” of the skeleton won’t be immediately visible if you only give the work a casual glance, because there is always a great deal of “flesh” on them, in the way of dialogue, description, etc.;–in short, all the many striking and beautiful things that a talented writer can do with words. The pattern is there, but much expanded so that it covers a wider territory. A novel has plenty of room for development of character, sketching in background, and making the story full and rounded in all its parts; also, there is space for many exciting actions, many persons, and many problems. Nevertheless, one central problem or theme must predominate over all the others; they must stand in some relation to it, and it must give them their place and relevance in the narrative. The novel thus presents the author with an opportunity to examine one idea or problem in all its ramifications, and with a consequent chance for great variety and richness of subject matter. But the variety must be ordered and regulated by some strong line of narrative; it cannot exist in its own right, but must contribute to some oentral problem, issue, or impression, the nature of which is both clear end urgent in the reader’s mind. The reader must have an active and vital interest in the outcome of the whole story rather than a casual interest in its diverse parts. But he cannot do this if the problem doesn’t grip him from the very start, and your novel fails to meet this demand. You felt this, of course, for you mention it in your letter. It hits the nail on the head to note that the story lacks problem and suspense. The skill with which you write is not enough to compensate, and the problem remains too weak to support the plot structure which depends upon it. As a lead charaoter gives the story a point of view, so does the problem give it a purpose. I suspect that your sense of purpose in writing the book has been too-general a one to serve as a gathering-point for a strong narrative. David finally attains kind of character suggested by the title, but this is not the drama that holds the center of the stage most of the time.
But first, before we come to grips with the problem–or problems–let’s have a look at your lead character, Lucy Turner. She is a young girl, seventeen years of age, returning home from college because of her mother’s illness. This is a bit young for a lead, because the reader is more likely to identify with an adult facing adult problems. But you overcome this handicap by presenting Lucy at precisely the point of assuming the duties of an adult, and your further development of her character is both just and consistent. She, and your other characters, do have a liveness and naturalness in all ways that makes them attractive: you need have no fear on that point. However, she is not an exciting character, and her problems–central and otherwise–do not grip the reader’s imagination. Interest in the love between David and Lucy is aroused early, and remains the predominant theme of the narrative. The heroine at first has much to worry her though, what with her mother’s illness and her father’s drinking. Both these are out of the way before long, end something else pops up, a small example of the color question. One thing I want to emphasize here is that all these small early problems are just that–small! Yet they serve to take away interest in the Lucy-David relation, which operates independently of them. In other words, you have not used the materials of the narrative to develop anything; the events remain separate entities, and do not add up to any total impression. The story does not seem to be going anywhere, and is rather accounting for the day to day existence of Lucy, her family, and her friends. The problem of getting the young people together is there, but is not a pressing one. The reader thus has nothing to sustain his interest, nothing to hang on to. Minor problems are raised and dropped, sometimes solved, sometimes forgotten, and the question of what is going to happen between David and Lucy is apparently one that can be postponed indefinitely. As Lucy herself realizes, she can do little but wait and hope for David’s love: she cannot chase him. The fact that she cannot take a more active part in solving her problem automatically deprives her problem of reader interest. The possibility of an active solution has to be there: she cannot merely wait until the time and the circumstances come and grab her. Thus the problem at the heart of the story fails in its essential function of arousing and sustaining reader interest. What about the other problems?
Of the smaller ones, perhaps the most interesting is the race-relations theme. The new Baptist preacher, old Mr. Allen, goes out to preach before a colored congregation–a thing unheard-of in this part of the country. But this only looks as if it is going to be a problem, and it never develops into anything. There is talk, people gossip, there are objections in private conversations, but the controversy never comes into the open, and the threats soon vanish as if nothing had ever happened. The theme returns again in the last chapter, but it is no more than a promise of better things and more help for the colored people. The issue never comes to a head, and the problem fails to become pressing and vital. Mind you, there are a great many fine and telling points made by the wayside: your characters are always dropping wise and witty comments here and there, as for instance Mr. Allen’s reason explaining why so many Negroes are Baptists; and another good one that I remember is when some one observes that the Primitive Baptists are so narrow they can sleep five in a bed! These are right in tone, and this kind of color goes a long way towards making your book a pleasure to read. But of course, no amount of this kind of thing can make up for the lack of problem and plot.
The other major issue in the book is David’s attitude to the ministerial service, and this is the source of your title. But this, too, lacks vitality. The fact that he is not your lead character deprives it of a certain amount of interest for the reader. It does not come vigorously into the open until the fifteenth chapter (p. 148), then goes underground again, to be finally resolved only by the ministrations and good advice of Jim Peterson. I realize that it is not quite the same thing in its later form, but it is still the problem of how to serve adequately. The solution is brought about by a minor character, which is also a weak point, since reader’s like to see a character get out of his jam through his own exertions and by his own ingenuity.
As for the complications to the central problem, most of them are provided by David, who finds that he cannot play the part Lucy would have him play. They are separated by the circumstance of his having to go off to college while she stays at home and teaches school. But the reader will feel that the problem of getting David to marry Lucy is not really pressing enough to worry about. You give her other interests that will keep her from taking his loss too hard. This is already evident by Chapter Twelve in which Lucy is made unhappy by David’s distance at the service. What happens here is that the religious interest overshadows the personal angle, and she seems so happy in the primary joy of religion that the reader will feel this is bound to be ample compensation no matter what becomes of her relation to David. Her thoughts about him at the baptizing are merely passing notions when compared to her pleasure she takes in the proceedings. It is all too obvious that if worst comes to worst, the problem of David’s reluctance and distance will not sweep her completely off her feet. This is a paradox at the very heart of your story, because the reader understands from the start that this is precisely what Christianity is supposed to do: we almost presume it when we see it in a story. This is bound to take away suspense, no matter how you try to get around it. David is at college for three years, then goes off to the war. Soon after he returns, he marries enother girl, leaving Lucy heartbroken. The loss makes her doubt, turns her listless, and almost changes her character. However, she is brought back to herself by Elizabeth’s efforts, and by the end of Chapter Twenty-two has attained inner peace and happiness. But this, of course, she could not do by herself; again, the minor character makes all the difference in the world, and moves the story in the direction you want it to go.
At this point, there is a gap in time, and the next chapter takes up three and a half years later with a remarkable accident that sets the stage for the reunion between David and Lucy: the reader hears that David has killed his wife in a tragic hunting accident, and is almost crazed with grief. This, however, is not quite fair, even as the background of a solution. Coincidence should not play a part in the construction of a story, especially insofar as complication and solution are concerned. Stories can start from a coincidence, but it is not proper to make them end there. Chance and accident can solve any problem, and should therefore not be used. The reader doesn’t want to find that the lead character is being brought to his goal by means of luck. Of course, the problem was solved when the accident took place, and reopens the possibility of David and Lucy coming together again. The accident raises another problem–getting David back into the world of men–which is solved by his summer with Jim Peterson (mentioned earlier). Gradually, you bring the lovers together, until they finally decide to get married. It was the natural thing to do, seeing that his wife was dead. But the story moves exceptionally slowly in this part, because the obstacles to their marriage no longer exist, and it is only a matter of time. You have a tender love scene between them at the time of the proposal, but it cannot seem to bring the narrative to life. (There is a slip of names, by the way on p. 242, when Lucy becomes “Mary”; guess you got excited!) The story still carries on for two more chapters, showing something of Lucy’s and David’s life together after they are married, but this does not do more than settle a few minor difficulties raised in the past and give a promise of a useful future for the two main characters. Both have learned exactly how to serve, and they are able to help each other in the work. I’m afraid the everyday-ness of much of the rest of the story is even more apparent here, and that the reader’s interest cannot possibly be sustained.
I’m sure you can see by now why I am unable to recommend a revision of your novel. Its flaws are structural, and are too basic to be “patched up.” The weakness of central problem and solution are insurmountable obstacles inherent in the whole work. However, I think you do have the talent to write a salable novel–and one with a real message–if you put a bit more thought into your plotting. By all means keep up the good work! Best wishes.