The R Word: how to cope with rejection
‘Rejection.’ Nothing cushions the impact of those three syllables. Last week I wrote about how to submit to agents, this week I want to look at the ‘R’ word. How do we turn something so negative – our precious child returned unwanted – into a positive that helps us get published?
Few authors are published without a taste of rejection – the only one I know who had a smooth path to publication is Susan Hill. Even authors whose debut novels are published endured rejection by agents.
Some more than others: 50 agents rejected Clare Morrall before Tindal Street published her. Those agents must have kicked themselves: Morrall’s début was Man Booker shortlisted. And pity the poor agents who wake up screaming because they failed to realise the potential of J K Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone when it landed on their slush pile.
Bestselling historical novelist Elizabeth Chadwick is typical of many whose novels are now regulars in the bestseller charts. She had eight novels rejected before anyone wanted to publish her. She keeps these unwanted children – see the picture accompanying this post. ‘It goes to show that perseverance pays,’ she says. ‘These chart my learning curve.’
Lesley Pearse is another novelist whose stellar success is built on a foundation of rejection. Her first manuscript was by her own admission dire. ‘I didn’t have one word of dialogue in it. I wrote it in pencil and stuck the pages together like a child,’ she told me. But like Elizabeth Chadwick, she persevered: her fourth book, Georgia, was taken on by agent Darley Anderson, who helped turn it into bestselling gold.
Rejection is not always a reflection of quality, as author and poet Sarah Salway points out. Agents may reject your work because they consider it is not commercial, not to their taste or because they cannot see a market for it. ‘I realise that often it’s my best pieces that have been rejected along the way,’ Sarah says. ‘This is because I’ve not been scared to try something different and to keep on expanding my style, rather than to try to write safely and what I imagine everyone will like.’
‘But,’ I hear you say, ‘my book has been rejected by so many agents, how can I possibly continue writing?’ Well, it takes guts to carry on in the face of rejection, but remember, if you give up you have reduced your chance of publication to exactly zero.
So, here are my 10 tips to defeat the R word:
- Get on with it: Celia Brayfield, who wrote Bestseller and runs the Creative Writing MA at Brunel, rebuffs unpublished authors who complain a book has been rejected by agents for the umpteen time with ‘write another.’ It sounds harsh, but what she means is use your energy positively, don’t bury yourself in failure.
- Feed your habit: Every successful writer I know writes because they are compelled to do so. If you are serious about writing, you will be moved by the same compulsion. Indulge it.
- It’s war: writing is a war of attrition, but you must be the last man standing. Let the competition give up and clear the field for you.
- Keep learning: Elizabeth Chadwick asked herself: ‘What can I fix so the next one will stand a higher chance.’ She looked at other historical fiction to understand the genre better and ensure her work was influenced by the best.
- Believe: as a young aspiring novelist Lesley Cookman came close to a book deal, but it fell through at the last minute. She gave up. Years later she started writing again. She has now published 10 novels
- Get trained: friends and family are poor critics. There are now more writing resources for aspiring authors than ever before, use what is available, whether workshops, courses or writing groups. Work on your craft and develop your style and voice. Listen to informed criticism and learn from it.
- Get real: this is the first time that the number of readers has eclipsed the number of would-be novelists. Rejection slips reflect the amount of competition.
- Enjoy the freedom: once tied to a publishing contract you will not have the same freedom to experiment with genre, style, voice and form as you had before you were published. Enjoy this freedom.
- Toughen up: if you can’t take rejection now, how will you cope with less than enthusiastic reviews once published? If you can develop a thicker skin, it will help deflect the pain of criticism when published.
- Be professional: don’t hold grudges against agents who reject your work. They are doing their job. Your job is to write a book they want to publish. Nothing will alienate you from agents more than a hissy fit. Writing is a profession, be professional!
And finally, something to help you laugh in the face of rejection: Bernard’s Letter