I will not have a new book coming out in 2021.
Last summer I finished what I thought would be the first book in a new series. My protagonist could be described as ‘like Jack Reacher, if Jack Reacher were a fortyish ex-housewife with no martial arts training.’ I loved it. My agent was enthusiastic about it. We sent it to the publisher.
The publisher said: No.
Not ‘this needs some work.’ Not ‘the villain isn’t convincing.’ Not ‘here is ten pages of suggested changes.’
They did add: ‘But you know what we’d really like…’
In the writing world, having a book rejected is not only a shock, an interruption to the publishing schedule, a pain in the #*&^$ neck and possibly a financial hardship, but it really hurts your feelings. It’s a punch to the gut like your mother throwing your drawing away instead of hanging it on the fridge. It’s like spending your senior year working up the courage to ask a particular person to the prom and when you do, they give a snorting laugh and walk away. It’s like overhearing your spouse confiding to their best friend that they should have married the person they dated before you.
It is, in a word, the worst.
In case I haven’t made it completely clear, it’s not only that a year of your life has been utterly wasted. (Sure, you can tell me it was a learning experience and all for the best and it will make me a better writer, but I won’t believe you. On principle, I won’t believe you.) It’s not a matter of second guessing, such as: Did I choose the wrong setting? A boring title? Maybe I should have given my character red hair.
No, a rejection this flat makes you doubt your very sanity. Am I so out of touch with reality that I thought this was a good book? Am I crazy, or just stupid?
Of course I handled the whole thing with maturity and professionalism. For example, I moved through the seven stages of editorial rejection in record time:
Disbelief: What, no? You’re just going to say no? As in, like, no?
Denial: This can’t be right. Is my editor on vacation? Did the snarky temp at the front desk write this email?
Bargaining: What if I throw in a sex scene? What if I make the character twenty years younger and a one-armed trapeze artist who escaped from a circus in Uzbekistan?
Guilt: This is karma for not completing the three-page character profile of the protagonist’s second cousin.
Anger: The publishing world has been taken over by uncouth mercenaries who wouldn’t know a good book if they were stuck overnight on the Flushing line with nothing but a copy!
Depression: I suck. This book failed because I suck, have always sucked, and they probably only published all those other books because my mom made them.
Acceptance: All right—what would you, publisher, really like? [Maybe I can repurpose this manuscript down the road….]
But of course, it was 2020. The country, the entire planet, was having the worst year ever and I’m going to publicly weep and moan because I typed ninety thousand words that no one wants to read? Complain to my husband, who was out of work for 8 months? To my niece who’s trying to teach middle-schoolers via Zoom? To friends and family who have loved ones in the hospital with Covid-19? Nope, not an option. Besides, who wants to advertise the fact that they crashed and burned into a still-smoking heap of failure?
So there I was, wallowing in a writer’s peculiar and lonely kind of misery—but here’s the kicker: I actually mean this to be an inspiring blog. Because I’d been there before, and survived.
I’ve had a book rejected before, a previous year of my life tossed in the can. I’ve had chapters axed, a character completely remade, book ideas vetoed without even an outline read. Once before an editorial meeting I spent ten minutes explaining my next plot to my agent only to be warned: “Yes, well, don’t say that. Say pretty much anything but that.”
There is a lot of rejection in the writing life, and yes, you have to get used to it. But you also have to believe that it’s only a rejection of this particular piece of writing. It’s not a rejection of you. Writers write a lot of stuff–some of it works out, and some of it doesn’t.
You only fail when you let it stop you.
So tell me, dear readers: when did you refuse to let a setback stop you?
I was amazed to learn that one of Lisa Black's stories was turned down by an editor! Lisa is a NEW YORK TIMES bestselling author of incredible thrillers that have been translated into six languages and even optioned for films. Her latest EVERY KIND OF WICKED was released just a few months ago. Then again, it's just like Lisa to admit to receiving a rejection – as an inspiration to aspiring writers – the message being: You never fail until you quit. Kudos to you, Lisa – now I can't wait to read your NEXT great novel! Karna Small Bodman
Thanks so much!! The support of the Rogues is really keeping me going right now!
To write an entire ms. and see it rejected is tough. I've had my setbacks but they've turned out for the best in the long run, if painful in the short term, as you describe so well, Lisa. As Karna says, can't wait to read your next great novel!
Thank you!!! You're an inspiration.
Guts (to talk about it) and honesty (sharing your feelings). What a cocktail. Lisa, keep going, honey. What's that lovely saying by one of our very very favorite authors: "Wouldn't take nothing for my journey now." You've come so far, so a deliciously frank "no" is just the Universe's way bucking you up a little and letting you know, as your readers (hullo, waving at ya!) already know, that you have the talent to one-up that last novel. Speaking of honesty, I think Jack Reacher is inimitable: in this case, don't flatter by imitating. Grow your housewife into her own skin: I think she sounds fascinating. And . . . this year and last, I've been gut punched over and over and over: felt like giving up, never writing another line. I pushed ahead, kept at it, found my novel's sweet spot, so to speak. Thanks for this post, and wishing you and your readers, and the world, a lovely, lovely happy St. Valentine's Day.
Thank you!! That's very encouraging!
I don't know about anyone else but given the publisher's essential one word rejection of the proposed book, this makes me want to read it that much more. You know, because I'm crazy enough to still believe in making up my own mind about things.
I'm still hoping to 'repurpose' the story somewhere down the road…
I love this post so much, it's hard to express. (And that's another failure for a writer!) You just nailed it, Lisa. And you know what? I bet you nailed it with Real Housewives Reacher too. I would *love* to read that book *when* it finds its way. Till then, I'll wait eagerly for the next Lisa Black!
Thanks!! Fingers crossed!
Is your agent shopping it? That sounds like a fantastic book! Like others here, I want to read it, stat. I feel certain it will find a great home.