The Zen of Rejection
by Magdalena Ball
It couldn’t have happened at a worse moment. My car had just been hit side-on by a truck, and I was standing amidst the wreckage of glass and metal when the local mail lady pulled up. After ascertaining that I wasn’t hurt, she handed me a package: the obvious thick SASE that went along with my novel’s manuscript. I was being rejected again, and this time by the small local publishing house I thought would definitely take the novel.
I’m not sure which hurt more -- the loss of my lovely vehicle, or the final rejection of the novel. Both hurt, but in the aftermath that followed, I’m sure it was my manuscript I was primarily thinking of. After all, I had won a mentorship for this work, and my mentor, a multi-published novelist, told me that the work was publishable and ready for submission. I’m not naïve about the difficulties of getting a first novel published, but I did begin the submission process in a hopeful state of mind.
It wasn’t all bad news though. Although I did receive a few form letters (“due to the volume of submissions, we regret that we are unable to provide feedback, etc”), many of my rejections, including those from large houses, were very positive, and cited the quality of the writing, the strength of the characterisations, and the powerful nature of the plot, using words like “heart-wrenching,” “complex,” and “rich.” Many also suggested that the sluggish market for fiction, especially literary fiction, meant that to be accepted, a novel had to be perfect, startlingly good, and possess a fairly strong commercial angle.
Mine was apparently good, just not good enough.
The criticism received was very thorough in some cases, and provided specific examples where the work could be strengthened, and once I was over the sting, I began to feel grateful to those professional readers, who had taken such trouble over my manuscript, and who were unwilling to accept a novel which hadn’t reached its complete potential. I am after all, the author, and the books I write set benchmarks which my readers will judge me by. The quality of the work is really all that counts. Everything else is just ego and transition.
I have heard many people, authors and publishers alike, bemoan the state of publishing, and criticise the overtly commercial world which seems to be focused solely on profit. It’s a natural defence mechanism and one which I have been tempted to participate in. After all, it’s so much easier to blame my rejection on "the state of publishing today" than on the work. However, looking back over the novel, and reading through the criticisms, I began to believe that the comments were both generous and valid. I was heartened by the full scale and thoughtful reading which even the most commercial of publishers gave my work, taking it seriously and taking the time to provide real feedback. I rarely encountered the dreaded slush pile, and was taken seriously, without an agent, by almost all the publishers I submitted to.
The process also helped me appreciate, and this is certainly part of the tremendous learning curve that goes along with writing a full length novel, just how much hard work -- not inspiration, just graft -- is involved in taking a novel from sketchy draft to full scale polished work of art. The book was ultimately published, by a picky, high quality traditional publisher, but only after multiple re-writes. I believe strongly that this is the most important part of the writing process – where a piece of work goes from being okay to being really professional. It’s not just painful – it’s also utterly necessary and work that doesn’t get worked on extensively, and with multiple inputs, can’t reach its full potential.
I’ve always loved fiction, even more as a reader than as a writer, but writing my own novel and seeing just how much crafting is involved in the books I love, read and re-read, has made me appreciate even more what a wonderful and powerful art fiction writing is. There’s no point in sobbing, or putting the work away in a drawer forever, shunning further rejection. It’s all part of the game; the very reason why great literature exists. Good novels take time and a tremendous amount of work, and in the end, the speed and ease of publication is the one thing which readers and critics will ignore. This is no easy lesson for an impatient writer used to fairly instant gratification. But it’s a lesson worth learning. Every rejection is another part of the process, and to be welcomed and embraced.
So what can you do if, like me, you receive your 20th rejection and begin to wonder if you’ll just print up an e-book as is and sell it from your website, or leave the work sitting in the dark unread caverns of your computer’s hard disk for the rest of your life? The answer is simple and almost too obvious. Ask for help from a cluey editor, gather in the criticism, and get back to work. At the end of the day, you’ll be grateful that you took the time to make the work shine. And so will your readers. It‘s all part of becoming an overnight success story (and if you don’t believe me, ask JK Rowling or John Grisham – both famous for the number of rejections they got on their early books).
The Compulsive Reader. She is the author of the poetry books Repulsion Thrust and Quark Soup, the novel Sleep Before Evening, a nonfiction book The Art of Assessment, and, in collaboration with Carolyn Howard-Johnson, Blooming Red, Cherished Pulse, She Wore Emerald Then, and Imagining the Future. She also runs a radio show, The Compulsive Reader Talks. Find out more about Magdalena at http://www.magdalenaball.com.
Tomorrow, February 13, my writing buddy Steven Tremp is being featured on Karen Cioffi's blog -- check it out! http://karenandrobyn.blogspot.com