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Taking licks: On writing rejection and success

Rejection slips, or form letters, however tactfully phrased, are lacerations of the soul, if not quite inventions of the devil — but there is no way around them. Isaac Asimov

It’s an inescapable fact that the writing life is bound up with rejection. Successful authors are those able to survive the lacerations. So in this second post in a series, I asked three successful authors — Anna Spargo-Ryan, Sheryl Gwyther and Ben Hobson — to share their experiences of both rejection and success. They have all been so generous in offering up these honest and wise words, and if you’re a writer you might want to paste Ben’s pep talk next to wherever you write.

Read More »Taking licks: On writing rejection and success

Anna Spargo-Ryan
I think the worst rejections are always the ones that mirror some insecurity you have about your writing. For me, that’s being wordy and obtuse. When my first novel, The Paper House, was published I remember waiting for reviews that would reflect what I ‘knew’ about the book and myself: that I had used six words when one would do; that the writing was florid and tiresome; and OH GOD the metaphors, why were there so many?

I felt it was only a matter of time before someone uncovered these truths, and so it was. A review in a major newspaper described the book as being poetic, but, you know, maybe not in a good way. Musical like a little kid learning the violin. Magical in the sense that I must have cast a spell on someone to get it published.

Realising someone else sees your flaws is devastating. I hoped — but didn’t believe — that I’d managed to cover them up. I thought I had dialogued over the top of my wailing symbolism. I had tried so hard to craft a plot to hide the layers of semiotics. But this reviewer had seen them anyway, and pointed right at them.

I responded by writing a whole other book with almost no metaphors in it. Eighty thousand words to prove that I could do it and the reviewer was wrong. Reader, that is too many hours to invest in someone you should probably just never think about again. Drink a Milo instead.

Whatevs: on writing rejection

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A ‘failed’ novelist went viral recently when she wrote about giving up writing after her two literary fiction manuscripts were rejected one after the other. The comments make for interesting reading and broadly fall into two camps. The first is advice to self-publish, which I disagree with. (Hold the hate mail and let me explain.) While certain genres can potentially do well (emphasis on potentially), self-published literary fiction sells poorly. So unless you’re happy being read only by family and friends, it’s not a great option. The second is empathy, based on recognition of the current publishing climate (more on that in a moment), and encouragement to continue regardless of her lack of success to date.

Eliza Henry-Jones

The fact is, behind any successful novelist you’ll find a bunch of rejected works. Before Eliza Henry-Jones published her debut novel, In the Quiet, she wrote ten manuscripts which were all rejected. But she persevered, and now her second book, Ache, is due out next month. ‘It took me ten years to get a publishing deal; ten manuscripts; rejections from nearly every publisher in Australia,’ Henry-Jones says. ‘Rejection can feel like a physical wound, it can stall you and hurt you and stop you in your tracks—but if you are able to frame it properly, it has the capacity to both steady you and focus you.’

So how to survive knock back after knock back? Common advice is to remember that it’s the work being rejected, not the individual, but that’s a fairly arbitrary distinction. Novels take years to complete, and require absolute investment, so rejection is never going to be easy to navigate. What’s more studies have shown that rejection activates the same areas of the brain as physical pain. As Isaac Asimov said, ‘Rejections slips, or form letters, however tactfully phrased, are lacerations of the soul, if not quite inventions of the devil.’ Yet every published author has been lacerated and pushed on. Henry-Jones says, ‘Rejection reminded me over and over that I loved writing. That there were reasons bigger than a career or money or recognition to keep hunching over my keyboard to write stories, one after the other.’

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Sylvia Plath is rejected by The New Yorker

The truth is, writing a book is hard. The process is messy and complicated and reaching the finish line is an achievement in itself. Sometimes a book is rejected because the work isn’t ready yet and needs further refining. Then it’s possible to reframe rejection as an opportunity. But sometimes it’s rejected because the work just hasn’t found the right publisher, or the industry has decided that this particular kind of book won’t sell enough copies, or any number of other seemingly random reasons. Dr Seuss was told that his work was ‘too different from other juveniles on the market to warrant its selling’. Stephen King’s Carrie was rejected by 30 publishers, with one telling him, ‘We are not interested in science fiction which deals with negative utopias. They do not sell.’ (It sold in the millions.) And Sylvia Plath received the following rejection: ‘There certainly isn’t enough genuine talent for us to take notice.’

Indeed history is littered with the rejection slips of now celebrated books. In other words, publishers get it wrong. All the time. There is nothing about publishing that even vaguely approaches an exact science. Despite the fact that sales and marketing now hold great sway in determining whether or not a book will make it past acquisitions, predicting what will and won’t sell is all just an educated guessing game.

Rebecca James recalls how her bestselling debut, Beautiful Malice, was ‘rejected so many times I lost count. It was rejected by literary agents and publishers. It was rejected because the characters were too young, because they were too old, because they were neither one nor the other.’ Eventually it netted a $1 million book deal and sold in 52 countries. ‘Amazing and wonderful things do happen,’ she concludes.

In short, rejection is part of the business of writing. Writers have to be simultaneously thin-skinned (to write) and thick-skinned (to publish). In a Writers on Writing podcast, author Lisa Cron (who has also worked in publishing) quotes the statistic that 96% of novels are rejected. She goes on to say: ‘[But] I was talking to my agent about it and we were going, that’s way too low a number, it’s actually more like 98% or 99% of novels are rejected.’

Depressing, right? All writers can do is continue to forge ahead in spite of it all. To write about the things that won’t let them go, and make the words the very best they can before sending them out. Saul Bellow says, rejections ‘teach a writer to rely on his own judgment and to say in his heart of hearts, To hell with you’. Or as the kids say these days, whatevs.

I hope that ‘failed’ novelist can get to the whatevs stage. It might just be her third book that makes it.

This post first appear on Noted Festival’s blog, NotedBook, here.

Almost (not) famous

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Here are ten reasons why you shouldn’t despair if you have an unpublished manuscript. These famous rejections are sure to cheer you up:

1. Can you imPossum Magicagine a world without Possum Magic? Apparently many publishers could. Mem Fox’s classic was rejected nine times over five years. Little Hush would have remained invisible were it not for Omnibus Books in Adelaide. Originally called Hugh, the Invisible Mouse, Omnibus suggested changing the mice to possums, and the rest, as they say, is history. Since 1983 Possum Magic has sold 3.5 million copies, making it the bestselling Aussie kids’ book of all time. And speaking of magic leads me to…

2. Harry Potter, of course. It was turned down by twelve publishers including Penguin and HarperCollins. In the end it was a child who made it all happen. Bloomsbury only took it on because the CEO’s eight-year-old daughter begged him to print it. Thanks to that little girl JK Rowling is now the world’s richest author. In one year alone (2007–2008) it was estimated that she made $300 million, and it’s rumoured that she’s now a cool $50 mill richer than the Queen. Enough said.

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We Need to talk about Kevin3. Even authors with a publishing track record sometimes struggle to get their newest work into print. Lionel Shriver’s controversial seventh book, We Need to Talk About Kevin, was rejected 30 times before finding a publisher. It went on to win the prestigious Orange Prize for Fiction. If you haven’t read this book yet go out and buy it immediately. Yes, immediately. It is compelling, disturbing, haunting and beautifully written. A stunning book that I can’t get out of my head.

4. This one has got to break some kind of world record for the number of rejections it received. Chicken Soup for the Soul, by Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen, was turned down 140 times. Publishers claimed it was ‘too positive’ and that ‘anthologies don’t sell’. I bet Canfield and Hansen have been laughing their way to the bank since Health Communications took a chance on it. The 200-title multimillion dollar series has since sold more than 112 million copies in over 40 languages. Touché.

5. Ted Geisel, aka Dr Seuss, was rejected by 27 publishers before Random House picked up his first book. Just imagine if he’d chucked it in after the twenty-seventh rejection! We’d be without Which-What-Whos and Fox in Socks and Green Eggs and Ham — my children would be none too pleased about that. And I’m guessing there are a few others who might agree. Seuss was advised by one rejecting publisher that his work was ‘too different from other juveniles on the market to warrant its selling’. In contrast, former president of Random House, Bennett Cerf once said, ‘I’ve published any number of great writers, from William Faulkner to John O’Hara, but there’s only one genius on my authors’ list. His name is Ted Geisel.’ At the time of his death in 1991, Dr Seuss’ 44 books had sold more than 200 million copies.

6. Stephen King may never have been published if it wasn’t for his wife. King threw his novel Carrie in the bin, but his wife retrieved it and encouraged him to keep going. He did so, but it wasn’t smooth sailing from there. He received 30 rejections for Carrie, with one publisher commenting, ‘We are not interested in science fiction which deals with negative utopias. They do not sell.’ Eventually it was picked up by Doubleday (who had previously rejected three earlier novels of King’s) for a modest $2500 advance. The book that would ‘not sell’ found its way into the hands of over one million readers in its first year. King’s books have now sold over 350 million copies making him the third richest author in the world.

Lord of the Flies7. Lord of the Flies is a standard on school curricular across the globe but William Golding’s classic novel was initially rejected by 20 publishers. One nastily pronounced it to be ‘an absurd and uninteresting fantasy which was rubbish and dull’. I bet they wish they could take those words back now. Golding went on to win a Nobel Prize for Literature, and, in 2005, TIME magazine ranked it as one of the top 100 English-language novels ever written.

8. To say I’m a John Grisham fan would be untrue, but he certainly has a devoted following. It wasn’t always that way. His first novel, A Time to Kill, was rejected by 16 agents and 12 publishers. Of course when the book did make it into print it became the first in a series of bestsellers. The sweetest kind of revenge.

9. Who knew that a story told from the point of view a seagull that flew for pleasure, not just survival, would become a bestseller? Certainly not the 18 publishers who rejected Richard Bach’s Jonathan Livingston Seagull. Macmillan finally took it on and the book sold more than a million copies in its first year. Then came a movie, a Neil Diamond soundtrack, and a paperback version that sold 7.25 million copies, despite one publisher’s claim that ‘Jonathan Livingston Seagull will never make it as a paperback’.

The diary of Anne Frank10. Pretty much everyone has read The Diary of Anne Frank, right? But the English language rights were passed up by 16 publishers, including Knopf whose reader dismissed it as ‘very dull’. He advised: ‘Even if the work had come to light five years ago, when the subject was timely, I don’t see that there would have been a chance for it.’ This was in 1950. It was Doubleday who finally published the diary and made it one of the bestselling books in history, with over 30 million copies sold. Take that, Knopf!

So if you have an unpublished manuscript in a bottom drawer and a growing pile of rejection letters, take heart. You might just be the next Golding or Grisham poised on the brink of stardom.

And even if you’re not plucked from the jaws of a publisher’s bottomless slush pile it may not signal the end. The landscape of publishing is currently undergoing a period of dramatic change. The digital age means that rejected manuscripts (both good and bad) can find their way online. Perhaps a list of famous rejections such as this will soon be antiquated.

This post was first published on Overland literary journal’s blog.