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.


Writing my first novel… pitfalls and back up again.

Is the world made up of people who can write and people who can’t? Or is it made of people who do write and people who don’t? I would like to think the latter. Until three months ago I had considered myself a non-writer. Despite two failed attempts at novels, one which I did actually finish but was rubbish and one which I lost enthusiasm for. Then someone asked me what I did for myself, what my passions were. And my answer was that I would love to write but I don’t have the time.  In fact, I didn’t think I had time for anything outside raising a family. That got me thinking and I decided to test myself. Make myself write everyday and see what happens. Now , three months later I have just hit the 60,000 word mark which is the minimum requirement, or so I read, for young adult fiction which is my chosen genre. Whether or not my book flies or fails in the world of publishing, I really don’t care. I am succeeding as a writer. After all, a writer is, in the simplest terms, someone who writes. Published or not.

When I started to understand that writing was becoming a huge part of my life I started reading tips from other writers, advice. But it was all from established writers. Naturally. I thought about all those other beginners. All those other people who have failed or simply not succeeded yet. I would like to read their advice. It is as important to understand what not to do, as what to do.  Here are some things that I have done wrong. And some things I have done right.

Some things I have done wrong:

  1. Littered my text with the word “Suddenly”. I am dreading how many times I will need to edit out that word.
  2. I did not decide my genre until I was at 30,000 words. I started writing for an adult audience although I had teenage protagonists. I was writing away and in my head I was constantly changing the audience I was writing to. I ended up printing what I had written and reading it and then I realised that the audience was definitely young adult. That means I have huge passages that I will need to delete when I have finished the first draft because they are simply not relevant to teenagers.
  3. That leads to another mistake. Yes, I have explained why I read over what I had written before I was finished the first draft. But it was a bad idea outside of discovering my genre. I immediately started seeing my many mistakes and the urge to correct and edit was so strong. Although I resisted, I still find myself wanting to go back and change parts I read that didn’t make sense etc. But I know if I do that I will never finish my first draft. Editing is for later. Evidently it is for at least 6 weeks after I put the first draft in a drawer and lock it.
  4. When I began writing I was inhibited in what I wrote. I was too aware of what the teenage reader’s parents would approve of and not approve of. That stunted my progress. Another author said to me I needed to stop caring so much what other people think and just write. After that my writing became a lot more real.


Some things I have done right:

  1. I have continued reading frantically. Not only is reading the perfect escape for a working mum of two children under three years of age (relaxed reader, relaxed writer) but I have started looking at what I am reading in a new light. Suddenly (ha ha) I am noticing things that really annoy me that other writers do (e.g. over description, repetitive use of words etc.) and thus I can avoid repeating the same mistakes. Sometimes.
  2. The best thing I did was start writing. Before that I was someone who had the potential to become a writer. Now I actually am a writer.
  3. Reading Stephen King’s “On Writing”. Something that really stuck out at me from that book was the advice to use just “he said, she said” as much as possible. If you need to put an adjective at the end  “he said passionately, she said angrily” then the narrative is not strong enough in itself. I now constantly have that in mind. Removing the over use of adjectives is difficult. But it is easy to see how it improves the writing.
  4. Most importantly: Making writing a part of my daily routine. I used to think that I had no time to write. Sure wasn’t all my time taken up with being a mum, wife, nurse? I came to a point were I was feeling stifled from the lack of creativity going on in my brain. I decided to force myself to write everyday. And I mean FORCE. I have read other writers say that a real writer shouldn’t have to force themselves to write. But I disagree. Some days I have to force myself out of bed. That doesn’t mean I don’t love being awake. Forcing myself to go for a jog doesn’t mean I won’t feel fantastic while I’m doing it, and it certainly will feel great when the post baby belly starts shrinking. So yes, I had to force myself to write. When is the best time to write? Morning would be great, but not with two babies wanting my attention. Afternoon could work (why not give elder child her daily hour of t.v while little baby naps?). But alas being a parent comes first. And anyone with young kids knows that parenthood means constant interruption. No matter how much you plan, you just can’t plan. Interruption means bye bye creative flow. So it had to be after their bedtime. And you know what? After about two weeks of forced writing every evening I started getting up in the morning looking forward to writing that evening. In the last three months there was one day I did not write. I was too lazy and tired due to other circumstances. But that night as I lay on the couch watching t.v I felt guilty. I felt wrong. As if I was missing out on a vital part of my day. My writing had become a part of my life. I no longer need to force myself to write. 95% of the time anyway.

I have no doubt I will have more to add. I will probably be able to write reams of pages on “what not to do” once I get to the editing stage.

Until then.