I’m writing this post on impulse, before I have a chance to change my mind. Please note the title, because I put some thought into that: it’s not a post about rejection, it’s about what it can do to you if you let it. Many other writers and bloggers have shared their experience, including Guest Author – Suzanne Joinson on the Challenges facing New Writers and they’ve helped me. Now it’s my turn.
After spending two years writing my novel with the help of my writing workshop members, two months editing it and getting it read by a significant number of volunteer readers (I refuse to use the term ‘beta readers’ – it sounds second class, and these people are stars to me), I sent my first submission off to an agent on 29 February 2012. I picked that date because it doesn’t come around very often, and submitting my manuscript was a momentous day for me. When I was driving to the post office, a song I associate with starting college came on the radio, Take On Me by A-Ha. A bit uncool maybe, OK, a lot, but it gave me a good feeling: that was the start of something big in my life, and this might be too. Just maybe. In what I’m calling Round 1, I made a total of 9 submissions to agents.
Something else happened around that time. A close friend received devastating news about her health. I went to visit her in the hospital and failed miserably in my resolution not to cry. She is a wonderful woman of my mother’s generation, a former English teacher still brimming with humour and zest for life. We’d always enjoyed talking about books together – we even talked about books that day, and about life, hers and mine. She asked me if I was happy and I told her Yes. It was incredibly moving, and I thought quite likely the last time we would meet. When I left, she told me in no uncertain terms, ‘I want to read this book of yours – get it to me’. I was very humbled by this and concerned that someone in her position would chose to spend their precious time on it, but I went straight home, printed off the manuscript and got it delivered to her.
Some time went by, I got some rejections and felt like a real writer. I respect literary agents (I often think I’d quite like to be one) and I know I’m lucky that the five rejections I’ve had have all been personal, kind and given feedback. They’ve all said some really positive and encouraging things, in one case on the full manuscript, and I appreciate that. There’s no getting away from it though, as long as the answer is No, it is hard. I can’t believe how hard it is actually. The other four agencies haven’t responded at all despite me chasing, so three months on, I’m marking those as Nos as well – in a way, those are more disappointing. I don’t know for sure that they were safely received, or that anyone took the time to look at what I sent, but hey, nobody said this would be easy .
I threw myself into writing another book – it seemed like the only thing to do – and so far it’s a lot easier second time around. Friends started to say, ‘Perhaps this is the book you’ll get somewhere with’. I, meanwhile, began to imagine another 29 February coming round and not having got anywhere. It matters to me a lot, of course it does, but something like the shock of my friend’s illness really puts things in perspective. Big things like that matter, anything else is a bonus. Just because you really want something doesn’t mean it’s the end of the world if it doesn’t happen.
I started to think about doing some more submissions before the summer holidays and I couldn’t seem to motivate myself even though I’ve thought of a way to really improve the first chapter. I made endless excuses to myself: I was tired, I didn’t have time. It’s not that I was going to give up, I’m well aware how how long it can take, but I couldn’t face more rejections, not even nice ones. A few days ago, I got a call from my friend, who’s doing far better than expected. It turned out there was some hope after all. She asked to see me.
We met this morning. It was amazing to see her doing so well. I didn’t care whether she’d read the book or not, but she had, and she enjoyed it. We spent two hours talking about it and something struck me very forcefully. This was the same book that I loved writing, that really means something to me and that I’m proud of, but somehow I’d managed to lose sight of that and my belief in it was languishing in a corner bearing several large dents.
‘Keep at it,’ she told me. ‘You’ll get there.’ I’m tweaking that first chapter tomorrow and preparing for Round 2. The chance to follow your dreams is one of the great things about being alive. Nobody needed to tell me that in 1985.
http://youtu.be/djV11Xbc914 Damn it, WordPress, why won’t you make it look pretty? Here’s the video.
You go for it – the very best of luck.
Thanks Jo, that’s very kind of you!
Very moving. Very helpful. Exceptionally generous. The way you write about this really rings true (inability to motivate yourself etc – disguised sadness) and that’s perhaps, for me, the most depressing thing about this: if a writer of your calibre … etc. Of course, it’s not a depressing post at all. I find it heartening. Thank you.
Thank you so much Cathy, that is very kind of you and it gave me a real wobbly lip moment. We’re all in this together!
Hi Isabel, I really don’t know how to describe this post, or rather, essay. Probably my favorite post ever – so honest, so encouraging. We’re all lucky to be writing together, aren’t we. I’m so glad you wrote it before you had a chance to change your mind.
Kristin, thanks so much for all the support you give me and for believing in my book – it makes an enormous difference. I hope the post does encourage people not to be so hurt by rejection that they stop trying or stop writing.
Loved your post – it really rings true. Am in similar position and have found starting a second one particularly hard (fear of rejection / procrastination / ego issues etc). Have finally buckled down to it though. The fact you’re getting feedback with the rejections is a good sign – I know it’s still a ‘no’ but it’s not often agents do this. And all those people are now contacts you can approach again with your second book. Hope you enjoy writing it as much as the first one.
Thanks Eleni, it’s an experience shared by so many people and I find it really helps knowing that everyone finds it hard. You have to find a way to keep going – Great news that you’ve got started on Book 2 – I know from your journalism what a talented writer you are.
Isabel, if this is an example of how wonderful the writing in your book is I have absolutely no doubt in my mind that it will happen for you. I look forward to reading your book when its published x
Gosh Amanda what a lovely thing to say, thank you! Really looking forward to meeting you on 26 July.
Great post. Even if we’ve heard from other people about their coping strategies, I think we always have to go back to first principles when it happens to us. The perspective you felt about your friend’s health and writing is good. So is perseverance! If you’ve had feedback from agents you are already near the top of the pile: keep going. (Just don’t resort to green Comic Sans.) Looking forward to meeting you in September!
Thanks Isabel, really looking forward to meeting you too! Yes, I will keep going, and no, I’m not desperate enough to resort to cake, flowers or enclosing a handy paper shredder for when they decided to nuke it!
What a moving post, so glad your friend is doing OK. Illness and death do put everything in perspective. You write beautifully, as others have said, and I’m sure success will come to you at some point, you just need to keep looking for it.
(PS: it took 5 months for an agent, who is now my agent, to get back to me! Hang on in there.)
Thanks very much Louise. It’s so great that you are already over the first hurdle of getting an agent – you’re right the whole process demands far more patience than most of us seem to have! This probably sounds silly but I can visualise myself at my own launch (I go to enough others!) and even though that may be a deluded fantasy, I’m not letting go of it!
I can totally empathise with you Isabel and admire your honesty. When I finally got an agent, I naively thought that the next step would be a publishing deal- easy peasy, but that hasn’t happened for me- “liked it but didn’t love it enough” etc. So now I’m in the same position as you and finding it hard to always believe that this 2nd attempt (I’m not even counting the book I wrote pre agent) is THE one that will make it. I’m going to “keep at it” too because as you say, we need to follow our dream! Keep the faith!!
Thanks Helen. Of course from where I’m standing, it feels as if getting an agent is the biggest challenge and many people do seem to think it’s ‘home and dry’at that point but nothing in publishing is ever that simple! I know some other very talented writers in your position and I really hope you all get the success you deserve. There’s no turning back…
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Lovely post, Isabel.
I think submitting is not as much about rejection as your strategies for dealing with it. Like you, I’m lucky that I’ve had some personal and very encouraging responses that have still been – no. I had one rejection after a request to see my full manuscript again after I’d done another edit and I thought that was the hardest because I’d dared to think it might happen. But worse was when I had a rejection from a publisher who said they’d have taken it on a few years ago in a different publishing world. That did knock me sideways but only for a couple of hours. Then I did what I always do. I reminded myself of the quote from the lovely author, R.J. Ellory who I met at a writer’s conference, and have been spouting every since, that the difference between a published and unpublished writer is that the unpublished writer gave up. And then I take out my manuscript and submit again. Until recently, I used to make changes before each submission but now I think I’ll ‘worry’ it if I tinker any more. I still haven’t sent many submissions though, I think the more targeted your approach, the more likely you are to get a sympathetic ear and thus response and those have to be more encouraging than a stack of blanket refusals from many agents/ publishers who don’t even work in your genre. I agree that not hearing can be as bad as a rejection, if not worse. It’s the waiting that drives me mad.
Best of luck with this part of your journey, you’ll get there, I’m sure.
Hi Jackie thanks for sharing your experiences, which show the additional danger of getting your hopes up! It must have been very difficult coping with those disappointments (way beyond any stage I’ve got to!) but I admire your attitude and perseverance. I know Roger Ellory too – he’s been very kind and encouraging towards me – and there is no doubt he is right – it’s one of my favourite quotes too, and I don’t even like quotes! I really hope it happens for you as I for one would love to read your novel!
This is a lovely post, Isabel – very daring and emotionally open. I think we need to be honest about this as writers (both pre- and post-publication). Very few writers avoid rejection (I didn’t – and haven’t). When someone’s honest about how it feels, it’s good for everyone. I can only say: keep on keeping on.
Thanks so much Shelley – they say don’t write about rejection and on any other day I wouldn’t have, but I’m really glad I did. I agree with what you say , and I particularly appreciate it when published authors share what they had to go through. It’s such an encouragement to the rest of us!
This is a wonderful post, Isabel. We’ve been running parallel for a while now, and I was also ploughing on with book 2, but this post has encouraged me to go back and look at book 1, and see if I think I can give that another shot.
I already know that I could improve it, it’s just I felt that after 2 years of writing & submitting it, I couldn’t look at it anymore with fresh eyes. A few months have passed since I last submitted it, so perhaps it’s a good time to retrace my steps.
Thanks – I am really glad I wrote this post, just look at all these amazing comments! Just about every writer has to deal with rejection (quite a lot of it in most cases) and I can’t see that it benefits anyone if nobody talks about it and it is regarded as an unmentionable topic. It’s great that you’re now thinking about going back to #1 and sending it out again. I vividly recall your extract from 7 Lines and thought it was really fun and energetic. GOOD LUCK!
Hang in there, Isabel. I’ve been getting some rejections this summer too! It sucks, but we just have to believe that if we keep working at it, it’ll happen eventually. It sometimes makes me feel better to read the stats on how many times a lot of famous authors were rejected before they were finally accepted.
Best of luck to you!!
Thanks Erin, I know and love those stats too! In fact the better the writer, often the more rejection they had to suffer. I think it’s wonderful that so many people have been willing to share their experiences here and take encouragement from each other. You’re absolutely right, keeping going is the only option if you can’t imagine stopping writing, and I can’t. Good luck to you too!
Such an inspirational post, and a reminder that published or not, sometimes the best responses come from the least expected sources. Don’t give up on that first attempt, if the agent doesn’t happen there are are other ways to get published, all part of building your profile and leading towards that ultimate goal. Bonne continuation.
Thanks Claire, and you make a very valid point – there’s more than one way to achieve publication these days I certainly don’t rule anything out. I think over the next few years there could be big changes afoot in the way self-publishing and indeed traditional publishing operate. Merci pour ce message sympa!
Lovely post Isabel. Rejections are always a blow to confidence and self belief, no matter how nicely penned, and agents who don’t bother to respond at all are without doubt the worst. The waiting seems interminable, and hugely frustrating, but I’ve learned nothing happens fast in publishing, even for a published author. The only advice I can offer is to keep doing what you love doing; keep writing. After numerous rejections – and feeling brow-beaten and disheartened – I gave up on submitting my first novel and wrote something else (purely for pleasure). Before it was finished I had an agent, a few months later a book deal. It wasn’t a book I’d planned, and certainly not the one I’d thought would get me picked up, but sometimes that’s the way it happens. ‘The Last Summer’ was borne out of frustration, a story I sat down to write feeling as though I’d never get published but thinking ‘what the hell’.
Thanks so much for sharing your experience Judith. I am suprised to hear that The Last Summer came about in such circumstances but what an inspiring story! I’m enjoying writing my second novel even more than the first – as you say, if you love writing, you’re going to do it anyway. I can’t imagine ever not writing. Very much looking forward to your next book!
Interesting post, Isabel – well done for shining light on one of the dark corners of a writing career. And how heartening and inspiring to read the generous comments from other writers. It’s a strange way to want to make a living, isn’t it? Trying to be perceptive, open and sensitive enough to bring characters to life on the page; and then be tough-minded enough to haul yourself round a succession of closed doors to sell the scrapings of your soul. I don’t know whether the short sharp ‘no’ is better than the lingering death by waiting; either way still hurts. One of the aspects of the writing life that fascinates me is the need for mental strength. It’s certainly a great test of (an author’s) character. I’ve been lucky enough to have a few successes, in between the many, many rejections. Remembering that keeps me going. And after I send work out I try to get straight onto another project – maybe a short story, while my novel is doing the rounds. Then it’s a bit easier to come back to the longer work with a fresh eye. I also think it’s fine to acknowledge the down days – writing well is really hard, and tiring. Sometimes we all just need a break. I agree with Judith – keep doing what you’re doing. It will happen! Good luck.
Thanks for your interesting comment Sarah. You’re right, the various strengths a writer needs pull in different directions – it’s a wonder anyone can cope with it all. And as for the notion of ‘making a living’ – that made me laugh! If I ever earn back what I’ve spent on paper and ink that would be a result (leaving aside the trips to New York!!)
One from the heart Isabel (and that’s not a reference to the frankly bizarre yet oddly compelling Coppola movie with Nastassja Kinski and Terri Garr!). Once again you have crafted a really inspirational little piece, which really struck a chord. I had been re-reading Stephen King’s great little memoir “On Writing”, and I love the story of his butcher’s spike above his writing desk with his 84 rejection letters duly impaled. I’m sure there was something really cathartic about skewering those rejections. I’m delighted that you feel up to Round Two…good luck and keep positive!
Thanks very much Ian. Quite a surprise to start getting comments on this post again after the huge outpourings of moral support and cameraderie amongst writers when I first published it. Interestingly the only rejection I’ve had since this was met with not much more than a shrug from me!
This is a great post. It’s easy to lose sight of your goals, particularly when a rejection, even a complimentary one, still feels like a cut to the bones of you. I’ve had a few really lovely rejections which is rather bittersweet. I’m still pursuing that original book because I really really believe in it. It’s just undergone a bit of a revamp in the first three chapters. I’m gearing up for round three, and I’m learning something new from what comes back to me. And, when it all becomes a bit chaotic in my head, my friends with their realities and strengths really ground me and stop me from getting blown away by people saying ‘no’. Go for it, someone who can write as eloquently as you will find an agent who will really click with it and love it. Good luck!
Thanks Hannah, that really is a very cheering comment! I do always try to remember that ‘only one agent needs to LOVE it’ and I believe they’re out there (would really help if I knew who it was!) Totally agree about how important it is to have family and friends who don’t stop believing in us when we have the occasional wobble, as everyone does, and as this post has shown, there’s a lot of support and understanding from fellow writers. All the best with your third round!