I was intending to write about September and new beginnings, but over the last month I have noticed an increasing amount of angst and frustration aimed at the lowly rejection letter. Maybe there is something about September. For some it ignites the desire to begin a new task or perhaps start a new manuscript. For others, the time of year causes them to reassess. It’s almost as if our brains are hard-wired on school term time and we are either buying new tools for new tasks or we are stressing out that we’ve not quite gotten that summer coursework completed in time. For writers that translates to measuring up our successes and our perceived failures for the year and maybe this is the reason so many of us are feeling the bite of rejection from the publishing industry all the more.
Rejection is and can be truly disheartening. Let me tell you why. When you are first struck by the idea that will eventually form your novel, it is so consuming that it just must be written. And not only that but every time the idea falls short on the page, or drives you away from your computer, the idea always wins. It always calls you back. In the process of capturing your idea, you may experience hair-loss, obesity, marital divorce, carpal tunnel syndrome and liver damage but nothing can stop you, that itch just gotta be scratched.
So when your novel has been beaten into shape, reworked and each sentence has been re-read a gazillion times, your idea is no longer an idea but an entity. It is an organic thing that feels like it’s been carved out of your insides. You have put as much of yourself as well as your imagination into your novel. And even though you hadn’t wanted to tell anyone about it, suddenly you feel brave enough. It is as good as many other books you’ve read. You are rightfully proud of what you’ve achieved and are passionate about what you’ve written.
And then you are told the worst thing you could possibly hear about your novel: that it should remain on your hard-drive and never see the light of day again. Ouch!
It is no secret that writers who would have been published a decade ago, are struggling to even get through the agent net and published writers are discovering that career security in the publishing world is a mythical creature. Rejection is spreading faster than a flu virus in a windowless office and writers don’t know where to turn or what they can do to prise open those publishing doors. No one likes rejection but for writers and artists it’s something that goes with the territory. Of course saying that helps not one bit in easing the pain. Our relentless willingness to hope that someone, somewhere will see in our work what we do, leaves us open to the heart-ripping slash of the rejection letter.
Personally, I think what is most difficult about these rejections is the unknowingness of it all. There is, in all forms of artistry a ‘subjectiveness’ in the nature of how art is viewed and therefore despite a manuscript being beautifully written, well plotted, engaging or whatever its plus points, it still may not cut the mustard for an agent. And sometimes it is just the thing but then the market is working against both of you and it leads to another rejection. All in all, it’s a depressing and isolating experience that seems cloaked in mystery. The common use of the ‘form rejection letter’ maintains the lack of transparency within the system, causing many writers to doubt their ability when it may simply be that the market is not quite ready for their particular idea yet.
The ‘Form Rejection’ cannot be helped though. It is just not feasible for any agent, who may receive anything up to 100 submissions a week to set out writing detailed explanations for rejections – although some are very generous and will comment on work that they feel has potential – because as much as agents and publishers use words and phrases like: ‘loved’, ‘adored’, ‘had to have’ and ‘couldn’t put it down’ in the first rush of a book’s release, this is, after all, a business. And unless you’ve managed to snare some saintly, knight-like agent (some do exist by the way!) who also does not need to pay rent or a mortgage and can live on fresh air, they need to focus their time on their existing clients—whose books they can earn from.
So how does it all end for those on the rejection treadmill? Are phrases like: ‘chin up’, ‘fail then fail better’ and ‘keep going’ all that we can hope for when those gates are all but welded closed. In some ways yes, this is all you can do if you want a traditional publishing deal but my perspective changed slightly a year ago when I was bemoaning this very topic to my sister. She gave me simple but wise advice that has stuck with me and I refer to it often when I feel a wobble coming on.
She suggested, in her no nonsense way, that I should return to writing for me—that this is where I would be happiest. She reminded me that I could put my words out there on my own, that I could do anything with them because they were mine. I could paste them up on my blog, send them to magazines, give them out on pamphlets, put them up on Amazon, Kobo, Smashwords—wherever I wanted. And I needed that. Even if I never self-published, I needed to be reminded that my novel was still my own. It’s not groundbreaking advice but somewhere in the submission process I had lost my focus, I had become paralysed creatively and had begun to believe that my novel was only as good as my next query letter and the next rejection. Ultimately I had forgotten what novel writing was all about: writing novels.