Rejection. The dreaded ‘R’ word. For writers, it is the one thing we fear as well as the one thing we try our hardest to avoid. But all writers – no matter whether we’re just starting out or we’re further down the line – experience it. From standard rejection slips and emails from journal editors to funding application failures and responses from agents and publishers, it can come in a variety of forms. Sometimes rejection can make us feel as if our world is ending or as if we’re just wasting our time with this dream of living a writing life. But sometimes – just sometimes – it’s possible a rejection may be more than that. It could just give us that little bit of hope we need to carry on, especially if we’re told we’re talented, that our work is enjoyable and that we should keep writing, keep producing and keep submitting because our next story might, just might, be the one that an agent or a publisher will love.
We’ve all been there at one time or another. Indeed, some of us are still going there. Stephen King, who is one of the world’s most successful writers, had his own fair share of rejection when he first started out. In his memoir On Writing, he says, ‘By the time I was fourteen the nail in my wall would no longer support the weight of the rejection slips impaled upon it. I replaced the nail with a spike and went on writing.’ After years of rejection he started work on what would become his debut novel Carrie – but after struggling with point of view and voice, he threw the manuscript away. And it was only after his wife Tabitha found it in the bin and encouraged him to continue with it that he did so. The book was eventually published in 1974 and sold more than a million copies during its first year in paperback.
One quick search on Google will tell you all you need to know about the writers whose now successful books were once rejected: J. K. Rowling, Alice Walker, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Chinua Achebe, Mary Shelley, George Orwell… the list goes on. This year’s winner of the Man Booker Prize – Paul Beatty – saw his novel The Sellout turned down 18 times before it was accepted by Oneworld. The debut novel of last year’s winner Marlon James (whose prizewinning book was also published by Oneworld) was turned down almost 80 times. If you write, these stories tell us, you will experience rejection at one time or another – it goes with the territory. And yes, it can be hard to deal with and difficult to get over (Marlon James was so downhearted he destroyed almost all trace of his rejected novel) – but it does prove one thing: by submitting your work, whether it gets rejected or not, you are at least giving yourself the chance of realising your dreams. As Sylvia Plath once said, ‘I love my rejection slips. They show me I try.’
My own story of rejection is similar to many others. I submitted to any number of journals and magazines when I first started writing stories over ten years ago – and every one of them turned me down. First it was standard rejection slips, then it was standard rejection slips with the odd comment on. Then, eventually, there were more comments and even some encouragement – ‘This one was not quite right for us but do try us again in the future’. For me, rejections were sad little packets peppered with hope. They didn’t leave me feeling broken or embittered but they did make me feel downcast and fed up for a while. But they also always gave me the push to continue: there is work to be done, the rejections said; you just need to keep reading stories by better writers, writers you admire like Raymond Carver and Tobias Wolff; you just need to keep writing and trying, writing and submitting. And then, just then, who knows?
Eventually, I had a story, ‘Zero Gravity’, accepted for publication by an online science journal called Lablit. I was ecstatic, of course, but one little bit of good news is never enough for a writer – there is a hunger to keep trying, keep reaching, keep getting published. Eventually, my stories were published in other journals I’d longed to be accepted by – The Yellow Room, Tears in the Fence, The Warwick Review… I was also longlisted in competitions such as the Fish Short Story Prize, then shortlisted in some others. Getting on the shortlist for the Willesden Herald International Short Story Competition was a particular highlight as so many good writers had been on the shortlist previously.
Eventually I obtained an MA in Writing and had a collection of stories ready to submit. So I decided to send Somewhere Else, or Even Here to Salt Publishing’s Scott Prize and luckily – after months of biting my nails awaiting the outcome – I was chosen as one of three winners alongside Cassandra Parkin and Jonathan Pinnock. My dream of seeing my book in print was going to come true. I was happy/overjoyed/relieved/afraid – I was a little bit of everything as most debut writers are. What if nobody liked my work? What if I’d made mistakes? What if, what if? But ultimately, the joy of publication outweighed any anxieties I might have had. And it’s still a thrill to this day to pick up a copy of my book and turn it over in my hand, knowing what I put into it to try and make it as good as it could be. Then, after publication, the collection was reviewed in the TLS, nominated for the Frank O’Connor Prize and shortlisted for the Edge Hill Prize. I also, rather thrillingly, won other awards – a K. Blundell Trust from The Society of Authors, a couple of writing fellowships… but, it’s important to remember, that in and among all the good news, rejection did not go away. It never left my side. I still had new stories rejected after my book was published, I was turned down for Arts Council England funding twice, I didn’t win other awards and prizes I applied for. Rejection, my shadow-friend, was always there to accompany me.
And even now – five years after my collection was published – rejection is still close and breathing at my ear. It always will be. It made its presence felt after I completed work on my first novel – something that was both a challenge and a joy to write, having never written something of that size before. I submitted to agents and a few were interested but I signed with the agent who seemed the most keen and who made an offer of representation within a week of submitting to her. We worked together on the book to ensure everything was working as well as it could and after editing was completed, it was eventually sent out on submission. Unfortunately, and despite all my best efforts, it has so far been rejected. After three years’ work it is hard to deal with – especially when editors said it was beautifully written ‘but’… The reasons for rejection have been many and varied. And, yes, each one has felt like an electric spear in my gut. But at least, I tell myself, there have been nice comments by editors, some really lovely feedback. At least, I tell myself, I managed to write a novel – so many people want to and don’t. And at least I know what kind of beast a novel is now, don’t I? It’s all experience. And who knows? There is always hope, isn’t there? But if not, then perhaps my next one will be better. Perhaps. Nothing is ever wasted. As Chuck Wendig said: ‘Rejection refines us. Those who fall prey to its enervating soul-sucking tentacles are doomed. Those who persist past it are survivors. Best ask yourself the question: what kind of writer are you? The kind who survives? Or the kind who gets asphyxiated by the tentacles of woe?’ Well, you can keep your tentacles of woe, thanks – I’ll try and aim for the survival option. What else is there to do but keep going?
Because of my own experiences – and those of many other writers, whether they be new or more experienced – I wanted to interrogate the notion of rejection in all its various writing-related guises. So I’m starting a series of interviews with writers to find out their own take on rejection – including looking at their experiences of it, how it may have helped to shape them as writers as well as their thoughts on rejection more generally. My hope is to take some of the sting out of rejection and for us to see it for what it is – something that will always accompany many of us throughout our writing lives and how, rather than a foe, it could actually be a friend to us, helping us to improve, try new ways of working or just toughen us up for the long haul.
I hope you enjoy Writers on Rejection. I’d love to hear from you about it so please feel free to comment below or share any of your own experiences of rejection, whether they be positive or negative.
I had some ludicrous rejections for my novel, which said how much they loved it but for some pathetic reason they couldn’t publish it (usually to do with not knowing how to pigeonhole it in the market), and now it is being published next year by a great press, which took a chance on me, which makes me feel very ‘up yours, mate!’ to all those who rejected (including the many agents who rejected me). You’ve got to be like a boxer, keep on telling yourself you’re great, so you can fight on and write on.
I love that, Rowena – ‘fight on and write on’. I’m not always the best at telling myself I’m great but it’s a good philosophy to live by.
Thank you, Andrea, for sharing. Because rejection is bad enough, but suffering it alone and in silence is worse. I’ve had a few stories published but have struggled for years to get a novel accepted by an agent. It was almost easier to receive those impersonal standard rejection slips. What really hurts is being told ‘almost’ and ‘but I wasn’t passionate enough about your work.’ I read so many novels that I don’t feel passionate about, yet they still manage to get published. A few that are brilliant, and others which are atrocious. The bar seems so much higher for emerging writers than for those who already have agents, and it seems to be getting higher each year.
I can understand your frustration but don’t lose heart, Helen. It’s very difficult for writers out there and it can be very depressing to see not very good books being published when yours isn’t. The main thing is to keep writing and keep enjoying the writing. Best of luck.
Thank you for sharing your rejection story. I think the more we go public with this, the less unpublished writers like me will feel ashamed of the hundreds of rejections we’ve racked up. It tells us that there isn’t anything wrong with us, that the rejection process is perfectly normal, and we need reassuring of that .
My best rejection was for a novel where the agent said “there is much to admire in this” followed by the inevitable but. But he also took the time to point that it was one individual’s opinion, and that other agents may not feel the same. It’s encouraged me to persevere with that novel.
Yes, perseverance is key I think, Wendy. Your feedback sounds very positive so definitely worth continuing to submit.
I’ve had many, many form rejections, but the ones that were upbeat and complimented my writing and my story are what keep me going. I am fully aware that traditional publishing is not for the weak. Although I do feel the sting when I get rejected, I also know, based on the helpful ones that tell me I have a good story, that I just haven’t found the right agent (or publisher) YET.
Fully agree with ‘YET’ – keep going!
This is fantastic.
My own ‘best rejection so far’ from a very prestigious agent: ‘I think you write incredibly well but I am sorry to say that, after much thought, I don’t think I would be the right agent for you. The market is so difficult at the moment and I just wouldn’t feel confident in being able to place your work with a publisher. I am so sorry to disappoint, and thank you so much for giving me the chance to read it. I have no doubt someone else will feel differently.’
And someone did feel differently – the book was The Storyteller which many love, some hate, and some are traumatised by.
Thanks, Kate – I’ve definitely heard of other writers getting that same kind of feedback!