Now that Hyperborea Publishing is set to release my novel A Song Without a Melody, I find myself thinking often about the rejections I’ve received over the years. Some of these haunt me, and being obsessive like most writers, I often used them while trying to make this story better.
The book has gone through many revisions (originally, it was a third longer). Rarely have I sent it to more than two or three publishers without significant changes before the next. It has received many personal rejection letters by editors attempting to be supportive and helpful. Those letters have touched on many things that I’ve considered during future revisions. One thing, however, has not proven helpful, despite being a constant in these letters: the word ‘too.’ It seems to be everywhere: a favorite term of editors. What hasn’t been consistent, however, is what follows that one little word. The next words have skittered in all directions and left their ugly trails like the footprints of a mouse that just climbed out of a paint can. Underground presses have described the novel as too literary, while literary presses have deemed it too much a part of the subculture. I’ve seen it labeled too dense, too loud (a personal favorite), and too cynical. One editor found it too out there, and another too easygoing. A few have said it’s too personal, and that’s okay with me (regardless of whether it actually is). Is any writing ever really too personal?
Needless to say, I’ve come to hate the word ‘too.’ It’s too—oh, I don’t know—damning. When editors use the word ‘too,’ they heat a brand with which to mark my pages. This has happened so much that the book already looks like it’s sleeved in tattoos or wearing a 1980s-style gray denim jacket overrun with patches and buttons from heavy-metal bands. It’s just too much, and that’s too bad.
One thing I haven’t seen in regard to A Song Without a Melody is the phrase “too existential,” which surprises me too much to admit. All my novels are, at their heart, existential novels in the sense of Camus or Hesse. They deal with questions of identity, illusions, awakening, and transcendence. Human questions. This one just happens to be set in Pittsburgh in the 1990s, where a timid young reporter covering the local music scene falls for the lead singer of a small-time alternative band, the two of them trying to figure out who they are as their lives spiral into chaos. It’s angst-filled and sometimes bleak, but as with all existential novels, a depiction of human nature and a product of the times it explores. So, I guess it’s more of a Gen-Xistential novel. But not too Gen-Xistential. No, never that.
In any case, I’d like to suggest to editors—at least those genuinely trying to be helpful when writing personal rejections to authors—that they should take a scalpel and excise the word ‘too’ from their vocabularies. It’s too specific (though at the same time too ambiguous and therefore too confusing). It’s also too painful and too often wrong. In fact, in the last rejection letter I received for A Song Without a Melody before Hyperborea accepted it, the editor referred to my novel as—I shit you not—too mainstream.
I was too shocked to be outraged. What I wouldn’t give to be too mainstream…
—Ace Boggess, author of A Song Without a Melody