Not a fun thing. And if not careful it can lead to the J word—a separate issue deserving of a post all its own. But for now let’s stick to rejection and what we can do about it.
So, what can we do about it? The same thing we can do about war: absolutely nothing. Because rejection itself is an external factor largely outside our control (or we’d all be at the top of the New York Times list, right?).
What we can control is what we do - and don’t do - in response to it. And the first thing we can do to improve our response to it is understand it. Because frequently there’s a gap between what we think the rejection means in the moment and what it actually means.
What we think it means: Shit! Someone didn’t like my manuscript! Someone important! They hated my manuscript, they hated my writing, and they probably hate me! My writing sucks! I suck! They’re a big-time agent or editor or reviewer and believe me they know the difference between good writing and bad writing, and if it was any good they would have represented/bought/loved it! But they didn’t, which proves I suck! Lord, do I suck! I will never get published! (Or get an agent. Or a starred review. Or a Newbery medal. Or a spot on the NYT bestselling list. Or whatever your particular golden ticket is at the moment.)
What it actually means: For one particular person, at this particular time, your particular manuscript isn’t a good fit for their current needs. For any number of reasons.
That’s it. Someone somewhere didn’t choose your work at this time. (For reasons which may remain unknown to you and which may relate to your work directly, indirectly, or perhaps not at all.) Notice I didn’t say, “Someone somewhere didn’t like your work.” And nowhere did I say, “Something thinks you’re a terrible writer.” Yet that’s what we tend to hear when someone passes on our work… writing is such a personal thing, so we tend to take criticism of our work personally. Yet the truth is, rejection is almost never personal.
It’s largely a business decision. And that decision is rarely in the hands of a single individual. (If anything, acquisitions are getting to be more and more of a collaborative process at major houses. Because business.) I’ve seen an editor “love” a manuscript, then end up passing because of concern from above stemming from the fact that a recent book of theirs with a vaguely related theme tanked.
Who knows? Maybe they like your work but it’s considered a little too close to another project of theirs which they also like, and which beat yours into the pipeline by a few months. (Seen this one also, and I feel extra sorry for the author who has to hear an editor say, “I loved everything about your book! But… we already have another book about a left-handed girl on our fall list.” Ouch.)
Or maybe you’re a published author but your last few books didn’t meet “expectations” (i.e. sales numbers didn’t stack up against the advances paid or copies printed in the initial run) so they’re not that interested in your next work, regardless of subject matter or basic manuscript quality. (Seen this happen to people too. An unpublished writer may have a better shot than a published one who’s seen better days—assuming equally strong manuscripts—because with the unknown writer there’s always the chance that she’s the one, while the law of averages says that another book by the mid-lister will probably sell what their last few book sold. Business, right?)
And of course there’s the sheer weight of the numbers involved. An editor at a big house can only acquire, edit, and shepherd a finite number of books through the publishing process (maybe a dozen or so a year), yet they have a flood of submissions coming in constantly. Same thing for reputable agents. Do the math. Every one of them will admit they’re forced to turn down way more perfectly good manuscripts than they accept.
Then there’s the matter of personal taste. The opinion of a respected agent or editor may be an “informed” opinion, but in the end it’s just one person’s opinion, based on one person’s taste. Just because your book didn’t click with that particular agent or editor doesn’t mean it won’t with the next one. There’s no lack of anecdotes about people passing on what turned out to be successful books, from Harry Potter on down. And even here they’re not saying they hate you and your writing. I’ve seen responses to authors basically saying, “I really liked the writing and the protagonist’s voice, but the plot didn’t go where I thought it should.” Or, “Loved the story, but found the main character unlikeable.” Or some other version of Loved X and Y, but didn’t quite buy Z. (Heck, I just read about the author of the breakout bestseller “All the Ugly and Wonderful Things” stacking up 122 agent rejections before landing an agent and eventually a contract at St. Martins.) And these sorts of stories crop up all the time. Which is my point: Rejection is the norm… it’s absolutely part of the process.
So… the first step to dealing with rejection is also the hardest: don’t take it personally! It’s not a referendum on your skill as a writer or your innate worth as a person—it’s one person’s decision at one particular point in time.
And the best way to get over it (the next step) is to write. When you have something out on submission, in my opinion the very best thing you can do is not to wait by the phone but get to work on something else. For several reasons:
(1) It gives you something constructive to do instead of biting your nails.
(2) If rejections start coming in, you have something new to emotionally fall back on… a creative distraction of sorts. Which is way better than fixating on how they don’t like your baby.
(3) It can serve as an internal reminder that you’re not just “the author of the project currently on submission,” you’re a writer, period. One who has many more books inside you. One who’s getting better with each new project you tackle. And writers write.
(4) I think it’s best to stay ahead of your submissions so you don’t feel as if your entire career depends on the manuscript currently making the rounds. Because that way lies madness. Believe me.
(5) And finally, it’s always good to have new work waiting in the wings regardless. Because one type of rejection you may get is: This particular manuscript isn’t a good fit for me but I loved the writing—what else do you have? And if one of those comes in and you don’t have something else in the vault—something finished and ready to go—you’re going to get a sore foot from kicking yourself in the ass.
All of which is to say, we need to accept that rejection is an integral part of the writing life. I don’t know a single writer that got anywhere without going through rejection (and sometimes a lot of it) before reaching their goals. And it doesn’t necessarily stop then, either, because once you reach a goal (representation, publication, winning awards, hitting list, etc.), there’s another golden ticket to strive for, just out of reach.
So maybe we turn the tables on the R-Word, instead of letting it beat us down.
So maybe we use it as renewed motivation to get our butts back in the chair and do what we came here for in the first place.
So maybe we write.
I know a fair number of authors, and the vast majority of them wrote unpublished (and sometimes unpublishable) manuscripts before seeing their “first” book on the shelf. So much so that I’ve come to think of the OBFN (Obligatory Bad First Novel) as part of the process.
(*note: the actual number of OBFNs one may have can vary from zero to many. I refer to it in the singular for clarity, and because most of us have at least one.)
You hear it all the time—writing a novel isn’t a sprint, it’s a marathon. Very true. It’s a long, sometimes arduous process, and it’s better to think of it in small steps rather than trying to wrap your head around the enormity of it all at once. Who wants to think about actually sitting down and writing twenty-six chapters, or stepping out the door and running twenty-six miles? Better to deal with it a chapter—or a mile—at a time. As Anne Lamott says, just take it bird-by-bird.
But there’s another, less obvious way a novel is like a marathon. Experienced distance runners say it takes you two or three marathons just to get the damn thing figured out. How to train, what to eat and drink, what a realistic pace looks like, etc. (To include a bunch of variables you haven’t even thought of until you’re in the middle of it. Like when you’re a dozen miles from the start and you went out a little too fast and you feel like complete toast and you realize you’re not even halfway done yet and holy crap you feel a cramp coming on. Talk about your sagging middle…)
So yeah, it might take a while to figure out what works for you, writing-wise. And the place this learning curve happens may be during your first novel. And that right there is a great reason to write it—you’re going to learn stuff in the process that you cannot get anywhere else… not from a class or a book or a conference. Stuff about yourself, and about what process works best for you.
So the OBFN is definitely part of the journey, and you should view it as such and not get too twisted up about it. I’m not saying, “Your first novel is going to suck.” It may be great, or not. I’m saying it doesn’t really matter. At least not as much as you think it does in the middle of it. Because there’ll likely be more. And they’ll likely be stronger, building on what you learned during your OBFN.
I didn’t know any of this when I wrote my OBFN. I just thought I was writing an awesome book and I hoped everyone would love it. Alternating with feeling like I was working on the worst piece of garbage ever committed to paper. But either way, it was such a struggle while I was in the middle of it that I couldn’t imagine anything beyond it. (Not helped by the fact that it was a 500-page epic techno-thriller with three or four viewpoint characters… one of whom was a dog.) My mindset was, “This is it--my novel! It had better be perfect, because it’s my one novel!” Of course coupled with, “It had better get published, because it’s my novel!”
Guess what? It wasn’t perfect. And it didn’t get published. (And as it turns out it wasn’t my only novel. But I sure didn’t know that at the time.) I managed to get an agent with it, and he shopped it around to all the usual NYC publishing houses. And he got some nibbles from some of them. (One of whom said, “This was a very close call.” Which in some ways was worse than nothing.) But in the end it wasn’t placed, I was sort of heartbroken, and I went back to writing non-fiction for a while, thinking, “Boy, that was a waste of a year.”
But here’s the secret: It wasn’t. Not at all. I learned so much from that process, and it substantially changed the way I approach writing fiction, dumping all the stuff that didn’t work for me (including a fair amount of ‘conventional wisdom’) and keeping the stuff that did, learning to trust myself a little more. The next manuscript I wrote was placed (with help along the way from a great editor and a different—and amazing—agent) and published. But it absolutely wouldn’t have been without the OBFN preceding it. And if I had to do it over I wouldn’t change anything, including the “failure” of my first novel. Now I look back at it and think, Thank God that wasn’t published, because it honestly wasn’t that good (and a not-so-good book out of the gate can hurt your future prospects), and more important, even with substantial revision it wouldn’t be the kind of book I want to write going forward (it was all plot and no character).
So I’m not saying, “Don’t try, because a significant percentage of first attempts don’t ultimately publish.” I’m saying “By all means, jump in with both feet—write that sucker! But don’t stress over it, because you really can’t lose. Either it’ll be a blockbuster (good on you!) or it won’t, but either way it’s a necessary part of the process, and either way you’ll learn more about novel writing than you would reading a dozen how-to books.”
And either way, it’s a hell of a ride.
So—if you have one—tell us about your OBFN…
This is where I write about things that are of interest to me and which I think may be of interest to you. I’m assuming most of you are here due to an interest in reading, writing, editing, publishing, etc., so that’s the primary focus.