Writers have a special relationship with rejection. When I first began as a writer (before email) and sent a manuscript off to publishers you could usually tell when it was the beginning of the month by the thud of a rejected manuscript dropping through the letterbox. I remember one time I had a manuscript rejected by return of post! As a writer, more than most creatives, you have to develop a very thick skin pretty early on.
When I was teacher, (I used to run a Master’s program in Creative Writing), students would fear rejection and I would tell them that it’s a badge of honour. Firstly it means you have actually completed a novel, not everyone who starts a book finishes it. Secondly you found the courage to send it out for appraisal. OK they didn’t like it and you probably didn’t get back a letter explaining why, but was it sent to the right person to start with? What can you learn from the experience?
It’s pretty much the same with relationships. The reason many relationships fail is because one doesn’t apply the same logic to ‘love’ as your manuscript.
Is this the right person for me? What do they like? What have we got in common?
What have they published (or dated) before, how did that work out? Are they open to discussion? Do they go out there looking for new talent or wait for it to come to them? Is there a writers’ conference you could go to meet agents and editors in person and pitch to? Does that even work? What if they don’t like the look of you? Or hate your pitch? What then?
Matching is a science. Match.com is successful because they use an algorithm to ‘match’ your needs and desires to another person and if they coincide enough on the scale, then the chances are you’ll like each other and form a bonding. Well, you have to do that with your creative work too and the specific people you might pitch to.
You have spend months, sometimes years working on your book, with luck you will have also shown it to first readers and taken onboard their feedback and made changes. Believe me, if you think you can write a book that doesn’t need changes you really aren’t ready to show it anyone yet. A novel needs a collaborator, that reader to make it real. We aren’t just talking about errors of punctuation or spelling. We are talking about whether a character is convincing, or a given situation works. I can cite many instances when a readers input has made my work better, from the angle of a gunshot wound, to how a girl might react to a specific situation or even what they are wearing or might eat. This is important, because if your reader cares enough to worry about a detail, he or she has already accepted the character is real.
It’s tougher to sell a novel now. You will see agents on-line who will say just send me five pages. I know this is true because my former editor would reject a book from reading just one page and if it didn’t grab her she was only too happy to reject as there would be several hundred a month to get through, every month and with the best will in the world, your work has to be very special indeed if it can cut through an agents or editor’s wall of indifference. Who could blame them?
So it is incredibly important to read the guidelines. It is just as hard to get an agent as a publisher and the Writer’s Handbook will tell you that few, very few, have a door open and even there they will reject 95% of them because they don’t match their tastes or requirements. Still writing Vampire books? Didn’t you know that is so over?
To avoid rejection you will have to do a great deal of research.
You have to find the agent who likes your genre (check their website and they will gladly tell you what they dislike, what they want from you and follow the submission guides to the letter. Don’t waste their time).
Or find the publisher that needs a fresh take on an old subject or more rarely, something unique. It’s one of the anomalies of publishing that everyone wants something new but no one wants something completely different, as they don’t know how to pitch it to their sales people.
Even more important than what you have written now, is your presence on social media. Got one million followers on Facebook or Instagram, they will probably come to you. If you are an old curmudgeon like me who loathes Facebook and doesn’t follow anyone anywhere – publishers and agents will pass you over, even if you have written something terrific. It’s a changed world. If you aren’t shaping the world around you, they aren’t going to do it for you. Marketing budgets have been slashed.
The truth is, it is easier to reject than accept. It’s not them, it’s you.
So now you know. Treat your great novel with respect. If you get advice, act on it. Revise, rethink, re-title, sometimes editors can just hate a title. Work at your opening lines, check there really is a plot and that characters are ‘real’ and have clearly visible different identities. If you love a particular novel by someone – ask yourself why does that work so well? What was so special about it that it got across the minefield of the selection process? I used to say to my students you are here to read as well as write. Was Gone Girl a success because of who she knew, or simply because it was a terrific tightly plotted pacy thriller? (It’s the latter if you must know).
Applying dating techniques to find acceptance. (Er, I’m not talking Tinder here, as multiple submissions are still frowned upon).
Every writer has been rejected, some many times. Each scar is a badge of honour. If you are lucky enough to get a useful comment, heed it, it might prevent the next editor from dismissing your work.
Remember this, rejection is just a stop on the eventual path to success. Or as my ex says – another door stop on the way to oblivion …. she’s such a joker.
© Sam North December 2015
author of Diamonds – The Rush of ’72 and Another Place to Die: Entime Chronicles
Sam also joint edits hackwriters.com