Writing through Rejection

During a panel of agents at the Cork World Book Festival, Vanessa Fox O’Loughlin asked Polly Nolan (Greenhouse Literary Agency) and Simon Trewin (WME) what was the biggest reason for manuscripts to be rejected. The answer was writers sending out their work too early. They recommended putting your manuscript away for a month, three months, six months. Long enough that your eyes no longer skim over the words, and you can see the mistakes and areas that need work.

Putting a novel away and trying to be patient is one of the hardest parts of writing. I would love to get a novel published so I could feel justified as a writer, and to feel less like an outsider looking in on a community that I strive to join. But very few writers make it on their first book. It took me a while to realise that a ‘Debut’ novel doesn’t mean the first novel the author has ever written. It’s the first novel they got published. Many writers have one or two or ten novels hiding away at the back of their laptop or under their bed. They’re probably awful, hence the not published part. But they were a learning curve; their apprenticeship. Some of those novels were submitted and rejected. It can take years until a) your ability to write is good enough, and b) your story is good enough.

A stack of books and notes, probably full of scribbled revisions

Submitting before your book is ready will lead to rejection. Every writer has been rejected, for hundreds of different reasons, and it helps to build that thick skin you’ll need to grow, before your writing goes out into the world. Simon Trewin changed my thinking when he expressed his dislike of the word ‘rejection’. To him, it’s less a matter of being rejected and more a matter of not being the right fit. If you go into a book shop and pick one book out of one hundred, it means that one appealed to you above all the others. You’re not, as such, rejecting the others. Reading is subjective, there’s no size that fits all.

I’m always surprised to hear how people react to rejection. Every time I receive a rejection from a journal or a competition or an agent, I feel two things. One, happiness that I’m a real writer doing real grown up writerly things like making submissions. Two, a little bit of heart break. It is harrowing, working on a piece for weeks on end (or years when it comes to novels), pulling up the courage and emailing it out, only to get a polite ‘No thanks’. I certainly don’t send back angry emails, but some people do. Threatening and abusing whoever had the audacity to reject them. But this is business, and whoever rejected you is not a robot; they are a person. They have a right to refuse, and a right to be respected. Rudeness has no place. And from another angle entirely, you can never re-submit to that agent with your next book, if you’ve made such a fool of yourself.

If you’ve tried your very best, and you just can’t get your book published, it may be time to let it go. Move onto the next book. This is not easy, but you’ll bring what you’ve learnt from the first book to your next. And in a year or 2 down the line, you may take out the first book and have fresh eyes to see what the book was lacking. Sometimes it’s not the right time for a book. You might be submitting a dystopian book, just as the trend for dystopian fiction is nearing it’s end. Maybe the time will come in a few years. Maybe that book will never be the one to launch your career. So let it go, for now, or forever, and try again.

Being flexible and trying a new style, or genre, can be what makes the difference in getting published. I often read prose that I wished I’d written myself. But when I try to write similarly, it comes out as jargon. It’s not my true voice. You need to allow yourself test different styles to find your voice, and be open to suggestion. Exercise your writing muscle in different ways, and you may surprise yourself. If you keep getting rejected for the same reasons, then maybe you need to listen to what the agents or editors are saying. But don’t sell you soul either. You have the power to say no, and the power to say yes. Stand over your book, but don’t let it cripple you. Every parent needs to give their babies room to change and breathe, all by themselves.

So, how do you survive rejection? When I receive a rejection letter, I analyse it. Do the suggestions ring true to me? Can I see where they’re coming from? Is the letter hopeful, ‘maybe next time’, or down-right a bad fit? Do they even give me a suggestion, or is it just a bog standard rejection letter? But then I stop analysing it. I go for a walk, take a break, forget all about it for a few days until I can see the wood from the trees and decide whether to take on board any suggestions. Sometimes I feel like never writing again, and then I take a break for a day. But by the second day I miss writing and feel all wrong, and when I sit down at a new or different project I remember the reason I started writing in the first place. Not to be published, but because writing cheers my soul. That’s how I live through rejections; by remembering I write for the love of it. Writing stills my busy mind, it inspires and over-powers me. It can turn my bad mood into a good one, and gives me a place to express myself and work out my thoughts. Simply, it brings me joy. So don’t let rejections make you reject writing.

The Lullaby Monster

(Since it’s Halloween… a poem for the day that’s in it)

I’ve heard the gnashing of his teeth,
The midnight scraping of his feet.
The monster hiding beneath my bed,
Has eyes of fire and claws of lead,

I know he’ll crawl out from the deep
The minute that I go to sleep.
I think he feasts on young boy’s toes,
His all time favourite: children’s nose.

Tonight I will not close my eyes,
That monster’s in for a big surprise.
Tonight I promise I’ll be brave,
I’ll catch that monster in his cave!

All day long I’ve been prepared,
Determined that I won’t be scared.
I stole Dad’s tools out of the shed,
They’re hidden deep down in my bed.

I wait until the dark of night,
Before I grab my dad’s flash-light.
I pull my backpack from my bed,
And put my helmet on my head.

Wrap my bandana around my nose,
Three pairs of socks to protect my toes.
I’ve got my marbles, elastic bands,
My hockey stick gripped in my hands.

I lower my body to the ground,
Careful not to make a sound.
Now on my knees, I think I’m shaking
He’ll hear the noise my heart is making!

I roll a marble towards the dark,
Wait for fire, a flame, a spark.
But not a sound comes out to greets me,
No monster coming out to meet me.

I am brave, I am a knight!
I flick on my dad’s best flash-light,
All I see is dust and toys,
Nothing even makes a noise.

Come out!” I cry, “Come out and see
If you can fight your way past me!”
Then suddenly there is a rumble
A deep and throaty sort of grumble.

His feet are scraping on the floor,
I nearly run right for the door.
But I’m too late now to run free,
The monster’s right in front of me!

Slime is hanging from his chin
His belly’s fat, his legs are thin.
He’s not the size of a great hog,
More like a yappy little dog.

His eyes are sad, he starts to cry
“I guess I’ll have to say goodbye.
Beneath your bed has been so great
But I see now you’re full of hate.

Hate for monsters far and wide,
No one is ever on our side.
I thought because you are so brave,
You’d let me stay here in my cave.

Outside the world is awfully scary
I’ve got no friends, no godmother fairy.
Monsters live such lonely lives.
Look, I’ve broken out in hives!”

My jaw drops, my throat goes dry,
I never meant to make him cry!
What an emotional up-heavel,
I just presumed that he was evil!

But aren’t you planning soon to eat me?
Bite off my toes and badly treat me?
Use my bones for your toothpick,
The worry has nearly made me sick!”

Then suddenly a sweetly sound,
Fills my bedroom all around.
To whom does this sweet tune belong?
Could it be the monster’s song?

“Forgive my laughter, can’t you see?
You needn’t be afraid of me.
I’m the gentlest of them all,
I’m not just friendly, not just small.

I’ve never once made someone cry,
The name I’m called is “Lullaby”
My job was helping children sleep,
Fill their heads with counting sheep.

My songs are famous, don’t you know?
I’ve helped so many children grow,
A good nights sleep is truly vital,
But now I’m old I’ve lost my title.

I need a place I can retire,
A home is all that I desire.
Somewhere dark so I can be,
Away from work, retired and free.

I didn’t mean to make such noise
I’ve lost my touch, my stealthy poise.
And if I stay, please rest assured,
Your sleepless nights- as good as cured!

Every word sounds like a harp,
His eyes seem kind, his teeth less sharp.
I find myself filled up with trust.
Of course you’ll stay, in fact, you must!”

I remove my socks, the helmet too,
So glad my fears had been untrue.
Lay down my head and close my eyes
Good night then, Maker of lullabies.”

He disappears beneath my bed,
But as his song fills up my head.
I suddenly think, clenching my feet,
If not me, what does he eat?!