How many people reading this have submitted a novel manuscript to a literary agent? More to the point I wonder how many people have received rejections? In fact, scrap that. Forget about writing and submitting manuscripts to an agent. How many people have been rejected for anything, ever? A job, a business proposal, a grant, even a romantic interest, whatever. It’s hard not to take that stuff personally – on that face of it it’s a statement that what you have put in front of me is fundamentally not worth perservering with. In the case of being rejected by a romantic interest, the rejection is even starker: your genetic material is not worth propagating. Which is a real doozy of a thing to take away. No wonder you take it personally!
I’m in the rejection space right now. I’ve neglected this blog space for quite a while, for various reasons. Lockdown, and finishing and redrafting The Green Man, and other such things that are not sufficiently relevant to record here. I’m feeling the start of another creative spark in me, the need to try and make something, or make something happen. So I’ve actually started the submissions process for TGM and have sent the MS out to eight or nine different agents. Mostly I’ve had nothing back – which is the standard form of response from agents – and I’ve already had a couple of rejections.
Funny thing; I received two rejections this week, and it made me smile in a wistful kind of way. One was from Clarkesworld for Filthy Shades Of Grey, and a day later one from an agent for TGM. I received both these rejections within two days of submission, which is definitely some kind of record for me.
So I’ve been feeling ready to make something happen, but almost immediately this seemingly arbitrary wall – rejection – shoots up in front of me before I’ve barely made a few footsteps’ worth of progress. So I stopped. I started thinking about my relationship with writing. In one sense entering the slush pile is almost insanity. There must be millions of people in the same boat as I am, trying to garner the positive attention of a literary gatekeeper in the form of an agent, and seeking that golden ticket into the industry. I once thought that having some limited success in this field would help get a foot in the door, but the publication of Man O’War has really made no difference at all in getting the attentions of literary agents.
I once heard a series of statistics that I’ve always derived strength or resilience from. It goes along the lines that of all the people who start writing a novel, only 5% will complete it. Of those, only 5% will redraft it; of those, only 5% will submit it to an agent, and of them, only 5% will get it sold and published. And I thought, well I can control the first three things – writing, drafting, submission – and then if you throw enough mud at the final 5%, some of it will stick and you’ll get an acceptance. Lo and behold, MOW did get published, and I only submitted it to three publishers (and no agents). Maybe it was luck, or timing? Who knows? I do know I wrote a good book, which obviously helps, but I’ve also written two more novels since then, which IMO are far superior but have gained zero traction within the industry.
And it’s bloody tough. Constant knockbacks do make you question the validity of what you’re doing, the value of what you’re producing, and even your worth as a person (if not completely, then at least partially). Here’s where this strange business of writing – and attempting to do something with the writing – becomes a neat metaphor for wider life.
Resilience and Control
I recently heard a presentation from a colleague on the topic of resilience. Without going into details, she has had to endure extraordinary suffering in her life, taking in abuse, homelessness, abandonment, and several – I mean, we’re running into the hundreds – of rejections when it came to interviews. It actually made me for a moment find my own gilded tribulations in trying to get a book published seem quite distasteful, when some people were facing hundreds of rejections to attain the means to feed and house themselves.
Yet the overall conclusion of her presentation was about the idea of hope; hope that things will get better; about hope as an entity that is a catch-all for the ideal state of things within you and without. The world will erect barriers, no matter what you try to do. Or, to think of it another way, the world constructs walls around us in the face of ambition. And some barriers cannot be negotiated with, pushed over, circuited or climbed over. The only thing to do is to take another path. My colleague had a long think about what was within her control. She found that was receiving poor feedback from interviews, so she said that. She dispensed with the filter that prevents us from causing discomfort in others to ask them why things are the way they are. Sometimes orthodoxies need to be challenged. Other times, not. But she found she could – with politeness and decency – take control of the way she did things. She focused – quite ruthlessly – on doing that. And she has achieved quite staggering things off the back of that. I won’t provide details of her story here because it’s not my place, but maybe I’ll reach out to her in time.
This has permutations that go beyond her own experiences. The whole story is – if it’s not too corny – inspirational. And truly so, not in the pat Hollywood sense, but in the very real sense that it has sparked ideas and thoughts in others, in me, and caused me to have a long hard look at myself. I have received several rejections for The Hole In The Sky and TGM. Yet I continued to batter away at a wall which was immoveable. submitting to an agent is to render oneself into a state of loss of control. Even the name – submission – is explicit about handing over the keys to your progress to someone who has little or no investment in your work. And when they receive well over a hundred submissions every day, the chance that they will anoint you above the several thousands of others with Chosen One status in that six-month open window is vanishingly thin.
I’ve decided to take control of a few things. Mainly to do with writing. I think it’s possible. If you’ve been rejected, then there could be a decent reason for it. Change your angle, and try again. There’s usually a different angle; finding it is the tricky part. So that’s where I’m headed now. Rejection does not invalidate my work. Nor yours. I’m feeling this out for myself as I go here, so let’s see where it takes us.
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