(as featured on my weekly Huffington Post blog)
If you haven’t been slapped round the chops by at least twenty publishers, then you haven’t earned your literary chips. Rejection is a well-worn path on the road to success (however you define success), and it’s good to remind yourself of all those truly gifted writers who’ve faced it before you.
“You’re welcome to le Carré – he hasn’t got any future” pronounced one of the many publishers to turn down The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, the book which kick-started a writing career of over half a century. “An absurd and uninteresting fantasy which was rubbish and dull” said one of the twenty publishers to knock back Lord of the Flies, which later sold more than 150 million copies. “She should get a day job since she has little chance of making money in children’s books” was another’s verdict on JK Rowling, having read the manuscript of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.
It’s definitely a right of passage to have a fistful of rejection letters stashed in your sock drawer/pinned on your loo wall, before you can get a book published. The roll call of rejected writers ranges from James Joyce (18 rejections for Dubliners), Joseph Heller (21 for Catch 22) and John Grisham (12 for A Time to Kill) to Stephenie Meyer (14 for Twilight), Kathryn Stockett (60 for The Help) and Eleanor McBride, whose 2014 Booker prize winner A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing took ten years to find a publisher.
Besides, rejection is much more productive than soar-away success with the first submission. In most cases it means you need to scurry back to the computer to tighten the story, slough off yet more words, make your prose sing etc. But rejection serves another purpose – it makes you dig a little deeper, mining those hidden seams of patience, persistence and dogged bloody mindedness.
It’s often said that a truly successful writing career (or any career for that matter) is not purely about the work you bring into the world. It’s also about the qualities that will be brought out in you as a result of it. Whether it’s an unshakeable self-belief, a dedication to hard graft or a refusal to give up when things look beyond bleak - this is where the gold dust lies.
Rejection also makes you reassess why you write. Is it for the sheer love of words and telling a story? Or is it for validation/book sales/fame? If it’s the latter three, as Mario Vargas Llosa warns in his Letters to a Young Novelist, you may as well toss your pen away right now. If you are seeking to get rather than give something through your writing, you’re setting yourself up for a big fat disappointment.
So when that next rejection letter lands on the mat, remember that however hard to stomach it may be, it’s manna for the soul. And you can also comfort yourself that you’re in splendid company, while having a sly chuckle at some of the publishers’ responses to books that went on to sell by the barn-full.
‘Oh, don’t read that horrid book.” HG Wells’s The War Of The Worlds.
“I haven’t the foggiest idea about what the man is trying to say. Apparently the author intends it to be funny.” Joseph Heller’s Catch 22.
“Nobody will want to read a book about a seagull.” Richard Bach‘s Jonathan Livingston Seagull.
“This author is beyond psychiatric help. Do not publish.” J.G. Ballard’s Crash.
“An irresponsible holiday story that will never sell.” Kenneth Graham’s The Wind In The Willows
“Does it have to be a whale?” (Herman Melville’s Moby Dick)