Everything I Know About Writing I Learned from Rejections, the Sequel

I have never understood why people remain in unproductive relationships. Not just the obviously abusive kind, but relationships that seem to generate no particular emotional benefit, that coast on through sheer force of habit—because breaking up is hard to do.

It wasn’t until recently, however, that I realized that I myself had been in such a relationship for a rather extended period of time. With one twist. In that relationship, I’d been the no-good sorry-ass that I kept telling my friends to ditch.

That’s right; I’m talking about me and my former agent.

Like all once-promising relationships, ours had a romantic beginning. She was one of the agents I queried for my very first finished manuscript (a prior incarnation of SCHEMES OF LOVE, which, torn down and rebuilt many years later, was sold this summer to Bantam). We did the usual song and dance. I queried. She requested a partial. Then she requested a full. Then I didn’t hear from her for nearly two trimesters.

Then one day, out of the blue, she called. She didn’t offer representation, but we talked for two hours, on my book, on writing, on everything else under the sun too, probably. When I finished my next manuscript, I sent it to her and she called right after I brought my newborn second son home from the hospital. She loved it. We became a team that day. And what a lovely time it was in my life, with a beautiful, sweet baby in the house and a limitless future in publishing stretched before me.

The manuscript didn’t sell, but we continued to have fun. When my husband gave me a surprise registration to RWA’s national conference in NYC, she changed her vacation plans and flew back from New England especially to meet me.

That was, however, the last run of good times for us. My new manuscript she did not like. I revised and sent it back. When she finally called me, she was livid. I’d changed the story around, but did absolutely nothing to improve it. “It’s not that you don’t have conflict,” she thundered. “You don’t have a story!”

Oblivious to the precarious position I was in, I sent her a few chapters from my new WIP, a slow-moving few chapters where absolutely nothing of importance happened and—I cannot believe it today—the whole thing was written from the view point of an unimportant, observing character. I never heard back from her.

She tried to tell me where I needed improvement. She really did. But I simply never heard her. I’d written one manuscript that she loved and I thought I’d learned everything there was to know about writing novels, not realizing that that particular manuscript was more of a fluke than anything else. I’d sat down and done more or less the same thing as I’d done on my first ms. It just came out a lot better. Then I pretty much went on doing the same things, and predictably enough, there was only so much story luck going around in the universe, or encoded in my karma. And my subsequent efforts sucked like the black hole at the center of the Milky Way.

A lot of times, when I see women stuck in relationships with men who don’t deserve their love, I get as angry at the women as I do at those men. Why do you tolerate that no-good sorry-ass? How is he gonna learn that what he’s doing is unacceptable unless you refuse to accept it anymore?

Well, my former agent wasn’t one to stay stuck in such a relationship. When she finally saw how clueless I was, she did the smart thing. She dumped my no-good sorry ass. And, proving that my theory on relationships and sorry-asses was exactly correct, getting dumped by someone who used to love me was one hell of a wake-up call.

I stopped assuming that everything I scribbled was readable. I became a lot more suspicious of my affectionate indulgence toward my own output. I finally got a critique partner. And tried, at least tried, to do things right.

I didn’t get things right immediately. I floundered for another whole manuscript—sixteen months, that one—showing flashes of improvement in certain chapters, and a great deal of laziness and lack of understanding on what makes anything a good read in other chapters.

But one thing was for sure. Getting rejected by my own agent taught me, if not a whole lot about writing techniques, at least a lot about myself, about the weaknesses in my character that needed to be addressed before I could sustain any kind of success, in publishing or any other field.

I can’t say that I enjoyed the process. But, just as I enjoyed neither pregnancies nor labors (no drugs, ah the pain, the pain) but am awfully fond of my children, I’m glad that someone had the wherewithal to kick me out of the house and say “I’ve had enough of your sorry ass. Grow the bleep up!”

Next Tuesday, the conclusion to the thrilling trilogy, Everything I know About Writing I learned from Rejections III: When Rejections Go Bad.

6 thoughts on “Everything I Know About Writing I Learned from Rejections, the Sequel

  1. Great post, Sherry.

    And I can’t help it, I gotta say it — I’ll bet she’s sorry now…! 🙂

    I checked out your Web site for the first time today, and read your SCHEMES OF LOVE excerpt. Love it. It feels fun and wry a la Desperate Housewives (and I hope you don’t hate that comparison — I didn’t like that show for a long time but recently have been renting the DVDs and am obsessed with it, after all this time).

    Anyway, I can’t wait to read more.

  2. Wow! You really have a healthy outlook. Yours is an amazing story. Sounds like you really deserve the savvy agent you finally got!

  3. “I’d written one manuscript that she loved and I thought I’d learned everything there was to know about writing novels, not realizing that that particular manuscript was more of a fluke than anything else.”

    Honestly, that’s one of the major problems right there. I’ve known a lot of writers over the years, and thinking that there’s nothing more to learn is a big mistake. Even if you are good, thinking that you know as much as you can and there’s nothing better to strive for can land you in a rut of stagnancy. (Ala many bestselling authors.)

    We live. We never stop learning. 🙂

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