Anatomy of a Rejection

Well, friends, the weekend was good (family here, unbelievably cold Ice Festival, lots and lots of Australian Open matches, crosswords & coffee) but a bit overshadowed by yet another rejection letter on Friday.

Got to admit: this one was more disappointing than usual.

Probably because it’s the first time I thought I had a pretty decent chance of getting picked up. The book is my best work by far. The agent initially sounded warm.

But no.

There’s a certain sense of whiplash about this one too. The last book had structural flaws, but every agent complimented me on some aspect of the writing. This time around, my plot is apparently just peachy. This time it’s the characters who are unacceptably “flat.”

After enough rejection, you can’t help but notice the pattern that emerges. First the disappointment, maybe a little annoyance—how can it possibly take an agent nine weeks to flip through a book and write a 3 sentence rejection letter? This is, of course, just an emotional buffer so you don’t have to think about what the rejection means. At least for a few hours.

Eventually, though, you have to go through the second part: the enormous, nagging sense that this one agent and this one letter represents some sort of Great and Unalterable Truth about your value as a human being and your potential for success over the course of the next 30-50 years.

But, yes, it will feel legitimately scary.

I usually start thinking about finding a job that pays slightly better than zero an hour. Sometimes I even look for one. This part used to last for days—after going through this a bunch of times, I’m pretty sure how long this period lasts is just a gauge to let me know how insecure I’m feeling about myself. The more I care what other people think about me, the more I feel my value depends on my success, the worse this part feels.

In the end, who am I kidding?

Whatever happens I’m going to keep writing. Carl says the only way he would feel happy about me quitting is when I’ve written a book I feel is perfect. If I write a book I’m 100% happy about and it doesn’t sell no matter what I do, then I can quit without regrets. The whole “other job” thing is an emotional clutch. I understand that, but I also always feel it—for anywhere between a few hours or a few days.

After that comes the slow thawing out. The brain starts turning. You start trying to figure out how a dried out little sentence like “the characters are a bit too flat” can be juiced into providing a roadmap for the next draft. What does that mean? Which characters? Does it mean they aren’t complex enough, aren’t motivated enough, or aren’t flamboyant enough? Because those are all pretty different things.

That’s when you go back and start playing the mental tapes of what your other, more verbally voluminous, readers have said, trying to match up both perspectives and get a little depth in the picture.

And finally, you pull out your rough draft calendar of the year and try to figure out where to pencil in the 4-6 week revision period you now need. It’s looking like late April in my case. Am 60 pages into the new book, and I don’t want to lose the momentum I’ve got going there. I should have a rough draft finished by mid-April. Execution‘s 2D population will have to chill for a couple months.

So, no, this never feels good. But it is what it is, and I do what I do, and I guess the only thing you can really do is shrug and move on.

Maybe watch some tennis. Maybe make a chocolate cream pie. Maybe jot down some notes on that crazy fantasy storyline I’ve dreamed two nights running.

It’s all good.

I guess.

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More Rejection…

Also, I killed a duck.

Fortunately, those were not connected incidents. As in, the day went neither: a) I got rejected and therefore killed the agent’s pet duck in revenge, nor b) I killed a duck and, bloodstained and feather-mottled, was promptly rejected from an agency.

Nope. More mundane.

I feel worse about the duck, though. A trio of mallards touched down in the middle of Haggerty Rd, where the speed limit is 45 and traffic fairly heavy. I just had enough time to register: WHAT IS THAT DUCK THINKING? And, sadly, not enough time to check my mirrors before swerving and THUMP-POOF. In my rearview nothing but feathers in a mushroom cloud.

OH. Also the Comcast dude totally broke our apartment hall window.

What the heck, world?

But, those are the lowlights. Carl had an extra day off today, so we slept in, played tennis, got Jimmy John’s, and went to Kensington Park to walk along the lake for a mile or two. Beautiful weather.

It’s been a good weekend off, and I’m starting (hesitantly) to think more constructively about writing. Been getting bad vibes from the last couple of people I shared my latest project with… “But, where’s the romance?” they say. “Do they fall in love?”

Am I the only person who’s not feeling the love these days? Not personally, I mean. Am utterly happy myself, but… just not feeling the need to get all up in a fictional character’s Kool Aid, you know? Surely people do interesting things besides fall in L? I dunno. I think I currently believe that love (which is interesting) and falling in love (which is not very) are kind of separate deals.

Does that make sense?

In the absence of clarity on that topic, I think we’re going out for some late evening McDonalds. “I need fries,” I told Carl. “I killed a duck tonight. I need something to soothe the pain of making that male duck a widower.”

Carl said ok.

Eat your heart out, Bella Swan. That’s what true love looks like.

All American Rejects

It’s probably not good juju to write my first post on rejection, but with a fresh (but oh-so polite!) rejection letter sitting on my desk the topic is kind of glaring with me today.

Specifically, what is one supposed to do with a soon-to-be-extensive collection of rejection letters?

Paper mache is an option. Bonfire with frantic tribal dancing also up there on the list…

My first response was to snip open a frozen push-up pop and stare out the window for a bit. My husband, Carl, usually reads this kinds of letters for me first—not because I can’t bear to look, but because he gets tired of waiting for my courage to rise [read: me spending the whole day moping like Dostoevsky on Demerol]. So he reads, tells me the gist, highlights anything nice the agent might have said about my writing.

So far, 3 things seem important to me in this process:

  1. Keep Perspective. It can be really, really tempting to only see the NO in a rejection letter. And, sometimes, that’s all the letter says. Then again, sometimes the agent or publisher actually said something nice before the resounded NO. Don’t minimize this! Don’t assume they say something nice to everybody just to make themselves feel better. They don’t. So, analyze the compliment. Did he say your pacing was good? Did she like your characters? Your descriptions? Your plot idea or hook? Knowing your strengths is an important step in learning to write better—you know what to showcase in your writing samples and what other things you may need to work harder at next time around.
  2. Play Detective. Not only can there be lessons to learn about your writing abilities, an agent may also give you crucial information about the market. In the rejection letter I received, the agent said my project has “merit” and that the writing quality is “good,” in places even “excellent.” HOWEVER, he feels that publishers aren’t looking for this type of genre/project and did not want to represent the book because he felt he would be unable to sell it. Well, I thought, crunching through a frozen push-up pop, better that the story is wrong for the market than that my writing sucks to an irreparable extent. A new story is easy to find. A new ability is harder to come by.
  3. Blow it Off. While you’re busy learning from each new rejection letter to better gauge your abilities and the market, don’t forget two essential truths: no agent is omniscient and your writing career shouldn’t define you. Some agents pass on books that turn out to be bestsellers. My aunt sent me this quote yesterday from Michael Larsen’s book How to Get a Literary Agent: “Eight years after his novel won the National Book AwardJerzy Kosinski permitted a writer to change his name and the title and send a manuscript of the novel to thirteen agents and fourteen publishers to test the plight of new writers. They all rejected [the novel], including Random House, which had published it!” Obviously, don’t let a rejection keep you from trying again. Don’t even let 20 rejections keep you from trying again (but, do learn from them!).

It’s definitely tempting to feel like a failure when I get rejected. For me anyway, it often helps to remind myself that writing isn’t the only thing in my life. It’s not my only goal, and a lot of times leaving my desk for a while to hit the gym, plan a fab meal for my husband and myself, catch up on family emails, or even clean the bathroom helps me to remember that I’m competent, successful, and pretty fab in other areas of my life.

Even if some New York agent doesn’t like my novel.

There are always more queries to write and definitely more plots and characters to explore.