OK, first up, I picked that title because it sounded cool. I’m not sure rejection really is good for the soul, but I do believe it’s good for your writing. Yes, this is another of my sporadic reflections on The Writing Life, a pathway which is strewn with the stingernettles of rejection.
Admittedly, I got lucky in my early writing career. At age 9, I submitted a poem to a church children’s magazine and was BLOWN AWAY when they not only accepted it, but gave it an illustrated full-page spread. That kind of thing goes to your head when you’re nine. And, as I explained awhile ago when talking about how I hate writing synopses, I got my first book published as a result of winning a contest — which led to many subsequent contracts for further books with the same publisher — which minimized the sting of rejection that most writers experience when starting their careers.
However, while this was a nice thing, it wasn’t necessarily a Good Thing for me as a writer, because it gave me the false illusion that a writing career would be easy, and that I was a brilliant writer, and that I would constantly keep stumbling over people who just loved what I wrote and wanted to publish it.
Such, dear readers, has not always been the case.
Many years ago I sat in the lobby of a dormitory at Parkview Adventist Academy, having a Deep Life Conversation with a bunch of tenth grade boys (I know a lot of people think this is impossible, but in fact some of the best Deep Life Conversations I’ve ever had have been with tenth grade boys). One of them was a bright student of mine who had always made straight A’s and always intended to do so, and had a career path marked out for himself that he was sure would lead to success, mainly because it involved doing things that came easily to him. I said, “You know, there’s a lot to be said for trying something that doesn’t come easy to you, something that challenges you, even if you might fail at it.”
With the rapier-like perception of a fifteen-year-old, he turned to me and said, “So, what are you doing that challenges you?”
Good question! At that point in my life (mid-20s) I had had my third book published with Review and Herald and was working on what would eventually be a five-book series for them. I was pretty sure that I could go on writing young-adult stories for that particular publisher and that particular market for the rest of my life and enjoy some modest success at it. But I wanted to try something new, and harder, so at that point my obsession was getting a short story accepted by a literary magazine. Any short story — I had four or five of them I was constantly reworking, polishing, and sending out — in any literary magazine.
That cold winter in Alberta, I used to trudge home from the College Park post office every few weeks after opening up my little mail door to discover yet another discouraging envelope addressed to me in my own handwriting — another story rejected by another literary magazine. This went on for the next three or four years, and out of all those stories –I think I had eight or ten of them in circulation eventually — I maybe two got published (another got accepted, but the magazine folded before my story appeared — somewhat of an occupational hazard when dealing with small literary journals).
I collected a fine pile of rejection slips, and was duly rewarded for it by the writers’ group to which I belonged, which annually hosted a free brunch for the person who’d collected the most rejections. Rejections were considered good because they were proof you were getting your work out there, making an effort to get it published, and if you don’t make that effort, it’s never going to happen.
But something else good was happening, something that had never happened with the books I so easily got accepted by my regular publisher. Because I was getting rejections, I was being forced to take a good, hard look at those short stories. I was rethinking and revising. I was constantly struggling to make my work better.
I was also making decisions about where I wanted to expend my efforts. After several years trying to get short stories published because that was the accepted route to literary respectability, I woke up one morning and remembered that I didn’t actually like reading short stories all that much. Why not write what I liked to read? Like, say, historical novels? I had this idea for a historical novel that had been kicking around in my head for years … why not do something with it?
To make two very long stories short, I’ll just say that both my historical novels, The Violent Friendship of Esther Johnson and By the Rivers of Brooklyn, experienced lots of rejection before they ever got published. Along the way, there were rejection slips. There were false hopes. There was soul-searching. And there were changes. Most of these were changes for the better. Brooklyn ended up being 2/3 of its original length, and every word in there is stronger because of the words that got cut. If the first publisher I submitted to had accepted it at 185,000 words, I would have published it that way. And the book would have been worse for it.
(True story: When I told some writer friends I had to cut 1/3 of the length from Brooklyn before Breakwater would accept it, they said, “Are you prepared to do that? Is it worth it?” I said, “At this point, if they asked me to publish it backwards, in Urdu, I’d do it.” But seriously, I knew those cuts were right and needed to be made. It wasn’t just desperation, though desperation played a role).
Not every change that happens on the road to publication is for the better. My second book with Review and Herald, way back when I was a young writer, also had to be much shorter to fit the word count they were then using for young-adult books, and those cuts hurt the book. It was a better, richer story before the cuts. When Violent Friendship was being considered by the publisher that almost accepted it, the editor who wanted to see revisions suggested a different, less bleak ending. I wrote a new ending that fit her suggestions, and she rejected the book anyway. Years later, when it was accepted by a different publisher, the first thing the new editor said was: “I hate this ending. It doesn’t feel true to the book — it feels tacked on.” And I explained that it was tacked on, and restored the original, darker ending.
There are false starts, changes that have to be un-changed again, things that simply don’t work out. I’ve never become an acclaimed writer of short stories, and I’ve also never published that fantasy novel that’s collected such a slew of rejections. Even my tried-and-true Christian publisher, R&H, has rejected a couple of my books when I was trying to go in a new direction that, in at least one case, wasn’t really the best fit for me (I had written an as-told-to story with someone else. Didn’t work). I still have unpublished manuscripts around, and some of them may never be published.
But I have gotten both those historical novels published, and they’re both better books than they would have been if I’d gotten them accepted the first time I submitted them, because rejection forced me to take long, hard looks at what was working and what wasn’t.
It’s a messy process and it bears almost no resemblance to every writer’s dream, where you publish your first short story, a big New York agent calls and says, “I’d love to represent you,” you go home and write your first novel and your big New York agent takes it to auction and a frantic bidding war starts among four big publishing houses and the biggest one gives you a seven-figure advance and the book becomes a bestseller and you get to buy an extra house in Europe and both your houses have pools. With pool boys. That doesn’t happen to very many writers. It certainly hasn’t happened to me yet.
But, sans pools or pool boys or houses in Europe, I keep hoping that some day, after 24 years and 18 books, the process will get easier. That I will be able to sail through rejection-free. And I realize that would probably happen if I were content to keep doing things that are familiar and come easy to me. But if I’m going to strike out in new directions, I have to be prepared to be rejected — and to learn from rejection.
Right now I’m trying two new things at once. I’ve written a book (yawn, the road trip novel, I know my blog-friends are all sick of hearing about it) that’s something different for me: contemporary women’s fiction, just a hairsbreadth removed from chicklit, intended for a mainstream, not a Christian, readership. And I’m trying to sell it by hooking one of those big New York agents — or rather, an American agent (bigness and New York-ness are not actually prerequisites). And I’m doing it by sending out queries, cold, to agents whose names I’m finding on websites, or via Twitter, or in the Acknolwedgements pages of books I’ve enjoyed.
This is tough stuff, people. I’ve been writing and rewriting this book for two years, and I didn’t start sending it around till I was sure it was good and ready. And now, since getting a few agent rejections, I’ve taken that long hard look at it, particularly at the opening chapters, and identified some obvious problems that may have led to me not being flooded with offers of representation. As a result, I’ve rewritten it yet again, trying to address those issues — issues I never would have seen or noticed if the manuscript had gotten accepted first time out. And yes, this latest draft is better.
So, I hate rejections and they make me curl up and cry, yes — but I also believe in them. I believe rejection is necessary if you want to push yourself to try new things in your writing (and maybe anywhere in your life). And I believe rejection, awful as it is, can be just the tool that forces you to grow and change and try harder. Do better. Rejection can force that upon you, especially if, like me, you’re a bit lazy and likely to settle for “good enough.”
Believe it or not, that’s not all I have to say about rejection (you can tell I’ve been thinking about this a lot). At 1800+ words, this blog entry is a bit like the first draft of Brooklyn — it really, really needs to be cut. But the beauty of blogs is that no-one gets to reject them and you can blather on as much as you like. And if you’ve blathered an awful lot and you still have more to say on the subject, you can always say: come back in a few days, and read what I have to say about Rejection, Part Two (this part really is about how it’s good for the soul).