Rejection Is Good For The Soul
(If You Choose To View It That Way) 

“A rejection is nothing more than a necessary step

in the pursuit of success.” 

— Bo Bennett

Over a decade ago, before two children and a broken marriage, I thought I’d written a future bestselling crime novel that would change the world. I truly believed it would be stocked in every major (or minor) bookstore, and I’d see someone reading it on every tube or train or bus ride I went on. I guess I was a delusional fantasist. Or, in other words: a writer.

And because I’d decided my book was amazing, the next logical step was to grab the attention of an agent. I didn’t care who or what agent I ended up with; whether they represented crime fiction or usually dealt with non-fiction gardening. It didn’t occur to me to research the field. I simply picked a few names online, found one that accepted email submissions, and lumped together an embarrassingly inept query package.

Instead of a brief covering letter and synopsis, I wrote a rambling five-page email  in which I claimed to be The Next Big Thing  and then, to make things worse, I added an attachment of the entire book (rather than the standard three sample chapters), and finally, I signed it off with Yours Sincerely, Your Client-To-Be. I wish I could go back in time and punch myself to death. If that wasn’t bad enough, the novel itself was a pile of dog shit. In fact, it was quite possibly one of the most horrific things ever put to paper. Reading it back these days is on par with looking at a thousand pictures of Nazi death camps.

Which, if you’ve never done that — is pretty fucking horrible.

* * * * * * * * * * 

I didn’t know any of this at the time, though. I still saw the novel as a masterpiece. And when the agent responded with a generic This isn’t for us email, I decided to rewrite it in a new style and send it off again a month or so later — to the same agent as before.

Within days of this second attempt, I received a personal response this time, a quick line or two that said the writing wasn’t quite “up to par”. Not letting this deter me, I then rewrote the novel a third time, overhauling the style and trying to make it sound smarter — which, ironically, had the opposite effect: I somehow managed to transform a small pile of shit into a twelve-acre field of manure.

Still arrogant in the belief that I had written something amazing — just like one of those tone-deaf singers who audition for X-Factor every year — I persevered and submitted my novel to this long-suffering agent yet again. I can only imagine what he thought when he received the same subpar package in his inbox, with the promise of a new and improved writing style, for the third time. Most likely, he slammed his head into his computer monitor. Maybe he took out a blade and stabbed himself repeatedly in the chest. Not for any reason other than to release his frustration at my relentless idiocy.

I waited for a response and constantly refreshed my email, certain I’d soon be offered a contract with this agency. The agent would call me up, apologise for overlooking my talent, and give me a virtual pat on the back for the immediate improvement in my writing. Alas, that’s not quite how things turned out . . .

* * * * * * * * * * 

He did respond (I wouldn’t blame him if he didn’t), only this time he sent a personal and cutting reply. And almost twelve years later, I have it here for you to read:

George, well, full marks for trying but I’m afraid this really doesn’t grab me at all. I’m afraid I really do think the prose is pretty dire. Sorry! Frankly I think you need to read more, and more widely, as your use of English is slightly inaccurate and ‘stilted’. Eg, ‘rancid sweat’, ‘epileptic images’ and ‘massacred headlice in a battlefield of beauty’.

Kind Regards,

Robin Wade.

Before I carry on with how amazing this email was, let me just address the crack-addicted pink-tutu-wearing elephant in the room. I’m talking about the line: Massacred head lice in a battlefield of beauty, which is quite possibly the worst thing ever written in the history of the world. From what I can remember, it was meant to be a simile about blood in a little girl’s hair. I can’t recall the original line, but it was probably: blood droplets in her hair looked like massacred head lice in a battlefield of beauty. Even typing it out here I feel a little nauseated. Somewhere in my mind I thought referring to blood drops in the hair as massacred head lice was an intelligent idea. Let that just sink in for a second.

What the hell was going on with my life back then?

* * * * * * * * * * 

Anyway, back to the email. I loved it. Not at the time, probably. But as the years went by, I would constantly refer to that email. The rejection (and the brutal way in which Robin put me in my place, and deservedly so) inspired me to work harder, read wider, and write better. I wanted to prove this guy wrong. He’d written me off as a failure, some no-hope shit-bag writer, and I was adamant I wouldn’t live up to that belief. (And I didn’t: six years after that email I was finally signed to a literary agency; that rejection letter was partly responsible for my determination to succeed.) 

Some people might take such an email to heart, call the agent a hack, an idiot, rude, or any number of things. Those are the type of people who will most likely never fulfil their ambitions. This email was quite possibly the greatest response about my writing that I’ve ever received. If it hadn’t been for that, if he’d merely sent me another generic template letter, I might have written in that vein for years. People around me — friends and family — probably would have convinced me I had talent, and I would have continued on that rusty track until I slammed into a brick wall a decade down the line.

* * * * * * * * * * 

The fact is, if you pin your self-worth on your work, you’re bound to be hurt by rejection. For some of you, a rejection as harsh as the one above (or maybe even as gentle as a standard template letter) will be enough to derail you from your career as a bestselling author. You’ll take it as an indication that your work sucks giant donkey dick and you’ll bow out of the race — sometimes when you’re only inches from the finish line. That’s pretty tragic. Right now in a basement somewhere is the next Stephen King, or Dennis Lehane, or Shakespeare, but he no longer sends his work off because he can’t deal with rejection. We might never see the mastery he’s created due to his lack of a backbone. Thankfully my spine is made of titanium.

Every rejection helps to push me harder and further on my journey. It’s the fuel to my fire. And if you want to be one of the greats, you’ll embrace it too. Even better: you’ll seek out rejection. Because praise means nothing in the long run. It doesn’t help you, it doesn’t improve you as a writer, it’s just a short and meaningless ego boost. You’re an amazing writer from your best friend will not sell any novels in real life. What you need is the truth.

Brutal as it can sometimes be. It’s the only way you’ll progress.

* * * * * * * * * *

Think of all the authors who were rejected and went on to be big stars. If you do a quick search on Google, you’ll find numerous stories about authors who were rejected multiple times and later went on to critical and financial success. Harry Potter, probably the best known book/character on the planet, was turned down by twelve different publishing houses before a Bloomsbury editor was convinced to publish it by his eight-year-old daughter. John Grisham’s A Time To Kill was rejected by sixteen literary agencies and twelve publishers. It sold 250 million copies. Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen (co-authors of Chicken Soup For The Soul) received 140 rejections, many of them stating that “Anthologies don’t sell” — they went on to sell 125 million copies.

And it doesn’t stop there. Look at Stephen King, Dean Koontz, even The Beatles: every artist who ever made it to the top has a story about rejection. They all started off being told no, or being told they were rubbish, and they all pushed through regardless.

My friend, author Rob Boffard, sent his debut novel Tracer to ten agents. They all rejected it. So he went back to the book, rewrote it, tightened some scenes, made it better, and sent it off to another ten agents. In the end, he had to choose between three who all wanted to represent him.

He went from being rejected by multiple agents to being sought out by three of them in the space of a few months. He then signed a three-book deal with Orbit Books for his Outer-Earth trilogy. That’s the difference between a whining quitter and a success story. He didn’t give up. Incidentally, his debut novel (the aforementioned Tracer) will be out on July 2nd 2015. I’ve read it and it’s a great Sci-Fi novel. I recommend it highly. Go and pre-order it. (Also check out my interview with him here).

* * * * * * * * * * 

Finally, on a related note, go and check this brilliant fable (here) which appeared in Lawrence Block’s writing guide Telling Lies for Fun and Profit. It encapsulates everything I’ve been saying in the form of a short story. Read it, and then go get rejected.

Okay?

You have my permission.


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  1. Pingback: How I Got A Literary Agent | George Kelly Fiction

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