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?