Everything I know about Writing I learned from Rejections, Part I

Alas, the author interview has been devoured by the Crapometer, hungry for some nourishment before its next appearance at Miss Snark’s dig. I have it on good authority that by the time the Crapometer has feasted on the blood and guts of dozens of hopeful writers, it will regurgitate my insignificant little piece. In the meanwhile, nothing to do but wait, and muse about rejections.

I took rejections well. When I tore open a limp, self-address envelope that had hitchhiked all the way back from New York City, and read that “thank you, but no thank you,” I grimaced a little, maybe rolled my eyes, tossed that sucker in the shoebox in my closet, and got on with my day.

No weeping into my porridge bowl, no banging my head against hard, shiny surfaces, no telephoning my fellow scribes, begging them to help me picked up the broken pieces of myself. And boy, was I smug about my robust ego and Teflon-clad, resolute sense of self. I was tough, baby, t-o-u-g-h. I got what it took to make it in this business.

Problem was, I wasn’t making it in this business. I churned out completed projects with some regularity. I had people who liked my work. I even had representation for a while. But I couldn’t scale that final height, cross that last hurdle, and get a publishing house to cough up cash for my work.

Slowly it a rather appalling suspicion began to take shape in my mind. Was it possible, was it at all possible that my toughness was actually a-r-r-o-g-a-n-c-e? I was plowing ahead, damn the torpedoes. But was I learning anything, getting any better at this whole mysterious, inexplicable art of storytelling? Or was I doing the same thing over and over, each time expecting folks to like the results a lot better?

One of the most instrumental rejection letters in my writing life came at the beginning of the query process for my grand martial-arts historical fiction. An early query letter went out via e-mail to Marcy Posner, an established NYC agent. She responded within three days, asking to have three chapters snail mailed to her.

Needless to say, I complied immediately. Three weeks later, her response came.

Dear Sherry,

Thank you for sending HEART OF BLADE. Unfortunately I just did not love it. It needs a lot of editing and is too long for the marketplace. Please do keep in mind that this is only one opinion. It is often the case that material one agent doesn’t respond to is to be met with much enthusiasm by another. You will want and need an agent who will get behind you and your work with full confidence. Given my hesitation, I’m not the one.

Sincerely,

Marcy Posner

I haven’t seen this letter in over a year. I pulled it out of the bowels of my mail folders today and was shocked by how kindly it was worded. Because I remembered it differently. I hated it when it came. It had been a bucket of cold water thrown in my face. I couldn’t care less at that time that the water was Evian and had all kinds of curative properties, I just cared that I was cold and wet and royally peeved.

What made me unhappy were the words “It needs a lot of editing”. That totally conflicted with my view of my writing. I wrote polished prose, damn it. What the bleep was I supposed to edit? At least she had the sense to acknowledge that this was only her opinion, I thought huffily.

But as the rejections trickled in, singly and in pairs, I became less and less sure of myself. Every “not right for us” joined the chorus that backed up Ms. Posner’s professional opinion. Reluctantly, but ineluctably, I began to see that my grand opus wasn’t the masterpiece I’d thought it was, but a great idea trapped in an unwieldy execution.

The other dozen or so rejections were important. They added weight and preponderance to Ms. Posner’s judgment. They made it hard for me to say, “Oh, that’s just one person who doesn’t get it.” But it was Ms. Posner’s words in that personal rejection that really sank in, that went a long way toward turning me into a much harsher judge of my own writing.

And I’m a better writer for it.

Next Tuesday, Everything I Know About Writing I Learned From Rejections, Part Deux.

5 thoughts on “Everything I know about Writing I learned from Rejections, Part I

  1. I myself am constantly worried that I have a great idea trapped in mediocre writing.

    But maybe my consciousness of that will help me improve my writing, so that when all is said and done, I’ll have written a great story around that great idea.

    Here’s hoping anyway…

  2. I’m unpublished, and I went into this game with the idea that my hoped-for writing career was a lot like going back to school for any other career. I started with the attitude that with each book I wrote I’d learn more and get better at telling a story. After a while I made comparisons to school…

    I’ve written one novel (manuscript) as a freshman, so to speak. Now I’m working on my second novel as a sophmore.

    I think it’s a healthy attitude because my focus has always been on becoming a better writer and telling a killer story. I went into this with the realization that I may have to write four (or more) novels before I sell even one, and that also helps offset the bestseller fantasies.

    I often read about unpublished writers who expect a lot from the publishing industry. They go into it with what seems to be entitlement and complain about rejections and whatnot. Even published writers seem to suffer from this when they complain about their advance or the amount of promotion. It’s understandable, and maybe valid in a lot of (most) cases.

    But I often wonder whether they truly see their endeavor as a learning experience. So it was refreshing to read your post.

  3. I’m really enjoying your blog. I had a similar experience recently with a novel I’m working on in a workshop. Everyone told me that one character’s voice wasn’t ringing true and I’ve been defensive and huffy about it. It’s only recently that I was able to accept they were right. Sucks, but at least now I can work on fixing it.

    Keep posting–it’s fascinating and instructive for those of us who are still striving to move out out of the unpublished category.

  4. Wow. Ms. Posner should recieve my full by the end of the week. I hope I get equally as good of feedback as you–whether positive or negative.
    Thanks!

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