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Rejection and Direction

So, you've written yourself a pretty good book. A great book, you dare say. It has a unique (but trendy) premise. You've spent months--no, years--developing your characters, filling in every novel-writing worksheet you could find, and using only the latest, best-reviewed organizational program. You've work-shopped the chapters multiple times with your trusty writers group. You've hired pro editors and revised the manuscript so many times, you can recite entire paragraphs by heart. Your level of confidence is so high that it's a little scary.

Masterpiece in hand, you spend several weeks compiling a list of agents and publishers. You rank the list. You color-code the list. You scour writers forums and blogs one last time to make sure you haven't overlooked any possible market, no matter how obscure. Then you sharpen the hell out of that query letter until everyone who reads it tells you it's a winner. It's perfect.

Fast-forward six months. You've received fifty+ rejections. One of them seems personal, but it could also just be a form letter meant to trick you. But among all that negativity, you have also received one request for the full manuscript. You try to play it cool, but you can't ignore the feeling of relief. The clouds part. Your hopes lift. Your heart feels a little lighter as you make a futile attempt to tamp down romantic images of bidding wars and big contracts.

More time passes. The rejections keep rolling in, and your chances are drying up. One miserable day, the interested agent sends you a rejection. It's a form letter.

You don't even update your spreadsheet anymore. You reluctantly start Googling "how to self-publishing." You lose your appetite. You think about buying a ukulele.

(Okay, at this point, even I'm a little unsure if I can turn this around and make you feel better, but let's give it a try...)


Yes, the world is full of people who've written books. Every November, tens of thousands of writers join those ranks. Big deal.

But your book is good. Really good. Maybe you did write the first draft in a month. But, dammit, you didn't shelve it like so many others. You rescued the diamond of a story buried beneath a billion cringe-worthy descriptions and pointless bits of dialogue. You gave the story CPR and sat by its bedside, nursing it to its fullest potential. You spent years--yes, years--writing this f#%*ing book, and you know in your heart that it's better than 90% of the garbage that's out there.

You've put in the work. You've sacrificed. You've persisted when most others have quit.

Give yourself a break. It's hard. Really hard. And you did it.

You know what else you did? You queried the crap out of that book. Though the idea of putting your ego and your work out there in front of the firing line gave you heartburn, you did it anyway.

Those rejection letters (or, these days, e-mails), are battle scars. Each one is a testament to your bravery and hard work.

So, let's review:

  1. You wrote a book (few people do)

  2. You spent years making it as great as possible (even fewer people do)

  3. You had the guts to put it out there for rejection -- and not nice rejection, either. We're talking form letters and, unfortunately, a lot of de facto rejections where agents and editors didn't even acknowledge you. That's harsh.

That's a lot to feel good about.

Big deal, you say. So what, you say. I still don't have a contract.

True, you don't. But you do have time and a proven record of determination. So, mine the internet a little more. See if you've missed any potential markets--small publishers, university presses, contests.

And if, after all that, you still don't have a book deal, then you have some choices to make.

That's where I was after my first time out with "Camper Girl." Despite some interest from a handful of agents, there were no takers. After cursing an unfair and obviously idiotic industry, I had to decide whether to shelve the story and move on, or to dig deeper. I took a long, hard look at myself and chose the latter.

Why? After all the work I'd put into that manuscript, what more could I possibly hope to accomplish?

I suppose the alternative--shelving the book--was too depressing.

All I could think about was all that work. I had worked too hard to turn back. I had to look forward.

There was another reason, too, maybe even more important: I believed in the book. I just did. Maybe I had to, to make myself feel better, but even in my darkest moods, I truly believed that the story was worth telling. It was unique. There was an empty spot on the bookshelf that only it could fill.

Now, at this point, I could've jumped back into the manuscript with a chainsaw, but I knew I needed time and space. While waiting to hear from agents, I'd been working on short stories. I submitted some. A few got published. I submitted a few more. More publications. One of my stories won an award. These served as reminders that, yup, I could tell a pretty good story.

Bolstered by these accomplishments, I took another hard look at "Camper Girl." And you know what? All those uninterested editors and agents were right: it needed work. I had the bones of a good novel, but I jumped the gun. I had thought the book was ready, only to realize later that I had been impatient. I guess I'd convinced myself it was ready because I wanted it to be.

This was a hard pill to swallow. It took weeks for it to go down. But once I accepted the situation, I felt unburdened. Free. Even a little excited.

Fast-forward four years. "Camper Girl" is sooooo much better than it was before. It's smarter, more engaging, sharper. I did everything I did the first time around, but I doubled or tripled my efforts. Pages and scenes and entire chapters got chopped. New characters entered. New details emerged. Subtle arcs appeared, loose threads came together.

It sucks to get rejected. There's nothing good about it, at least not at the moment when you click on that email and read yet another "Dear Author" letter. But this is about what you do after you wallow in self-pity for a while. In time, you get over it (and yourself). You suck it up. You get back on the horse. You dig deeper.

Rejection is what it is. There's nothing you can do about it. You can only control how you react. You either stay shut down, or you get back to work. You use all those rejections as fuel to move forward.

The system is unfair. It's cold, calculated, and uncaring. The publishing business is undergoing some unsettling changes, and entering the fray as a hopeful author is crazy. I mean, who does this to themselves? Who throws themselves to the wolves? Who willingly runs the gauntlet of death, where gutted dreams and corpses of self-confidence lie in bloody tatters?

We do, because not trying is unthinkable.

Write on.


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