Dealing with rejection – get used to it.

 

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Ah. The old ‘How I got my agent’ post….. Or rather, the ‘Here is what happens before you find an agent‘ post.

Rejection, old chums. And plenty of it. So, how to cope?

Realism

It is extremely unlikely that you have written the greatest novel of our age or that the world will be changed by the message you carry. Soz. What you have done is written a story that primarily has provided entertainment and escapism for you. And that may well be enough. It should be enough. Writing is a hobby that some people are fortunate to turn into a career but it should always be fun, soothing, therapeutic. It should do you good, otherwise what’s the point? Stories are for falling into; immersing yourself in a different world for a few hours at a time. And, yes, stories are also for sharing – that is how we learn about life, but be honest, your book may not contain the secrets of the universe. It might just be a story about a dog and penguin. And that is perfectly alright – because who doesn’t love stories about dogs and penguins?

It doesn’t matter what your story is about as long as it pleases you and gives you a route out of the humdrum of daily life. If it then pleases those around you, that’s an enormous plus, but again, not essential. And if you make it to the hallowed portal of the slush pile and find that your story pleases an agent and then a publisher, well that’s great. But what you need to know right from the off is that this story is for you.

Rolling Rota

Imagine yourself standing with your book in your hands and before you stretches a queue of agents extending as far as the eye can see, over the horizon and into a distant land. Unless you’ve written something really niche, there are a helluva lot of agents out there who might choose to represent your book. There are also many smaller publishers who will take you on without an agent AND there is the burgeoning market of self-publishing. You are spoilt for choice. So, start with your top ten, research them, make sure they represent the kind of work you’re pushing and send it out to the first five (doing exactly as these sort of articles always suggest, following the submission guidelines to the letter). And then every time a rejection comes in, simply move along to the next one on your list and send it to them. This way you always have five irons in the fire and five emails to look out for with a mixture of trepidation and excitement. Periodically add five more agents to the list and keep working through. Keep a record of it on an excel spreadsheet. Your list may run to fifty, sixty or into the hundreds. Who cares? What have you got to lose by sending it out? Nothing. What do you have to gain? Either a publishing deal or a lot of weight from your rejection chocolates – see below.

Rejection chocolates

An idea given to me by a lovely author Pernille Hughes – she suggested buying a box of your favourite, most expensive chocolates; it had to be proper high end confectionary, a real treat. And then only allow yourself to eat one if you get a rejection. No exceptions.** No chocs if you’re just ‘having a bad day’ or ‘feeling a bit peckish’ – only for rejections. What happens is you find yourself feeling pretty cheerful when you see the ‘Thank you for giving us an opportunity to look at your work. Whilst there is much to admire, we simply didn’t love it enough to take it forward….’ email because you know that you can help yourself to one of the delicious Godiva Belgian Selection currently perched on the top shelf of your study (away from small children).

 

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Resilience

Mental toughness. We get told this as GPs all the time – resilience is the key to avoiding burn-out – as if it’s my moral weakness and lack of fibre to blame for the fact that I’m crying inside when faced with an absolute bloody deluge of medical work. One thing is true though, a career in general practice has prepared me well for facing the slings and arrows of publishing misfortune. And at least publishing people are courteous, or at worst they ignore you. It’s rare to have an agent reply saying ‘You’re the worst writer I’ve ever seen and I’m going to sue you if you don’t look at my daughter’s verruca immediately,’ or similar. In the main, people let you down gently. And an author who has faced no rejections at all (if such a beast exists) is going to find life very tough when they get their first bad review on publication.

If you put it out there you have to understand that not everyone is going to love it. But one person might. And if it’s the right person then you are on your way.

The key thing is – pick yourself up. Keep writing. Keep subbing. 

That’s it really.

 

** Admittedly there have been some exceptions – and when I did get an agent I scoffed the lot, thinking my days of rejection were over – then had to promptly buy myself another box when we started subbing to publishers but that’s another story (quite literally)

The path to publication is paved with good intentions (and big decisions).

 

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In the last post I outlined the unreserved joy of writing romantic fiction for the first time but I glossed over the complexities. Please note – some of the opportunities that come your way may require big decisions….

Decision One – Do I change my story?

My first novel is a Pride and Prejudice type love story set in a hospice.  My main protagonist is a junior doctor and the love interest is the wealthy son of a dying patient.  So far so good, but issues already on the table are professional accountability, conflict of interest and compromised doctor-patient relationship. Conflict is good in a novel, in fact it is probably the only essential component of any story.  If it was all, boy meets girl, quite fancies her, she quite fancies him, they get married, the end – most people wouldn’t pick up their kindle.  But multi-title romantic fiction publishers like their conflict to be a little less ethically fraught, and perhaps more reliably formulaic. This is not a bad thing – the romance genre very much does what it says on the tin, and a happy ever after is essential.

So, decision number one was, do I scrap the idea and pursue a more conventional medical romance plot line? (Dashing cosmetic surgeon who fears rejection meets feisty but devastatingly beautiful scrub nurse etc, etc).

No. I liked my original idea and if I was beginning with a potentially controversial plot line, no matter. I pressed on.

Decision Two – Do I change my setting?

Later, I had some feedback that perhaps a hospice was a ‘hard sell’ as a setting for a romance. I disagreed of course, what better place could there be to set a love story? All human emotion is here, strong feelings, big gestures, remorse, guilt, reconciliation and, above all, love. But it’s hard to disagree with an agent who is basically telling you in a very kind way that she’s not sure if she could place your book because of its setting. That’s a bit of feedback you have to take seriously. Interestingly this particular agent changed her mind, but I could easily have chosen to rip up the original manuscript and set the romance in an orange grove in Tuscany.

I didn’t.

 

Some of this is bloody-mindedness – I don’t hold with the idea that my creative work is my ‘baby’ and that for others to frown upon its perfect form is abhorrent and unacceptable. I welcome criticism – genuinely – because criticism from the writing community usually comes in the form of high quality, politely-delivered advice. Even the rejections when they come are terribly, terribly kind and earnest. You can almost hear the eggshells being tiptoed upon as the agent or publisher gently treads around the writerly ego. And compared to the kind of language some of my patients use, or some of my children use from time to time, editorial feedback is milk and honey. But – at this stage in my writing life I didn’t have anything to prove. I didn’t need to make radical changes to my plot or setting because I was happy to keep on sending it out and testing the water.

If I had continued to hit brick-wall after brick-wall and everyone had said the same, then I may have changed my mind – but nobody was depending on my selling books to bring in food for the table – nobody had whispered on their death bed, ‘Publish a book, Nancy. In my memory….‘ (last gasping breath) ‘Do it for me…‘ – so I had no pressure. I could plod along with my little book, my little plot line and my unexpectedly romantic setting, for as long as I wanted. My two big decisions – whether to change my protagonists and make the romance more formulaic, and whether to alter the setting to make it an easier sell, both resulted in a no, not yet.

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Decision Three – Do I sign a deal I’m not happy with?

Along this route I also had another big decision to throw into the mix – do I sign a contract for a  publishing deal I feel uncomfortable about? (I suspect the more perspicacious amongst you will have spotted that the answer is no).

I won’t go into specifics here – it would not be fair on the company or those very happy authors who are published by them – but my main cause for concern was that this particular publisher refused point blank to deal with an author who had an agent. Now, I didn’t have an agent at the time they made the offer, and I know that many digital-first publishers and imprints work happily with un-agented writers, but to have someone refuse to work with an agented author struck me as odd – like saying you weren’t allowed your lawyer to accompany you into the police interrogation.

I took advice and joined the Society of Authors  https://societyofauthors.org/join  and it was THE BEST DECISION I EVER MADE. They knew I was being put under pressure to make a decision (again, not ideal for a future working relationship) and they read through the contract in record time, emailing me a thorough and detailed report a mere forty-eight hours after I’d joined. They suggested that I’d be better self-publishing than signing this contract; waiving my rights and tying myself into a situation where I had no control over my work, and no option to duck out.

And I think this is where we come to the crux of the matter. The reason that some unscrupulous people in the industry have been able to take advantage of writers is because we are all desperate to be published, to say ‘someone else thinks my book has merit‘. This is where vanity publishers come in, the sharks who ask you as the writer, to pay them to publish your book. These are the real cowboys – whereas the company offering me the deal were, and still are, a completely legit organisation who I’m sure have brought writerly happiness to thousands.

The upside of self-publishing is that you are the boss – the downside is that you have to believe yourself capable of being the boss and having the time, money and inclination to promote your book to the masses. But to have someone in authority at the SoA put it in those distinct terms was immeasurably helpful. If I signed I would still have to do most of the leg-work in terms of promotion but the company would get a far heftier wedge of my profits than standard publishing contracts take.  So I declined. Which, with hind-sight was brave, but at the time felt potentially stupid, like I had a really inflated opinion of myself.  It is hard to say, ‘thanks for your offer of publishing fame and glory, but no thanks.’ I’d like to say that I did so in the clear knowledge that it was the right thing, but in reality I was crippled with doubt for weeks.

And weeks.

And then I thought, better start subbing to agents, seeing as I’ve made such a bloody song and dance about needing one…..

The journey begins…

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mean really, could there be anything more indulgent than someone writing about their writing?

Those of you who know me from Twitter or my first foray into blogging http://www.mumhasdementia.com might be aware that I have recently made the move into writing fiction.  Like squillions of others, I have been writing / pratting about for a long time but it was only two years ago that I tried my hand at a full novel. I thought it may be of marginal interest for those at a similar stage to know what led me to this point and how things progress from here, although I suspect this blog will only be remotely entertaining if I actually end up with a publishing deal. There are people out there who find solace in the evidence of someone trying and failing repeatedly – it may at times even be instructive to learn from the mistakes made – but if you would rather stick pins in your eyes than listen to someone blah on about their non-existent writing career then I suggest you move on swiftly.  Like my dementia blog, I’m aiming for niche audience not big numbers.

I began my current WIP (work in progress – get me) a few years ago when I contemplated pursuing a side-line career in writing medical romance. I’m a doctor, I thought.  I’ve been in love before and continue to be very much in love – this will be a piece of cake, I thought. I wrote a chapter and then buried it away when I started the dementia blog.  There are a limited number of hours in my week for writing and at that stage the blog was providing enough of a creative outlet for me. I also realised that medical romance of the Mills and Boon variety was not necessarily the straightforward beast I had assumed – it has very specific rules and it is not something I tend to read – one thing my sister had told me repeatedly is read what you write – so I had failed at the first hurdle.

Two years ago however, I noticed on Twitter that Trapeze books had launched a competition in conjunction with eHarmony to discover the Next Great Romance Novel.  I could write that I thought, with trademark humility and I returned to my chapter, spruced it up, added a bit and submitted it – genuinely thinking I had a good a chance.

Clearly, I was out of my tiny mind.  Half the world want a publishing deal for their debut novel.  People with Creative Writing BAs, MAs and professorships are all competing for the tiniest number of prizes and a possible glimpse of an agent.  And my 3 chapters were complete shite – let’s be frank.  For a start it was a masterclass in how not to do exposition – it was all telling and no showing, all the dialogue was ‘he said kindly’ / ‘she said winningly’ / ‘she wrote dreadfully.’  Now, I read, I read a great deal.  I love books SO VERY MUCH. But I had no grasp of even the basics of getting my own story down on a page.

Nonetheless, I was undeterred.  I had the bug.  Whilst waiting for the inevitable competition win / agents banging my door down / Hollywood on the phone wanting film rights, I just ticked along with my story and I had so much bloody fun.  Writing romantic fiction is an absolute blast, and I’ll admit, I massively fancied my male protagonist; every time I wrote about him I was sort of lusting after him in a literary sense.  I felt like my characters were my friends, which may be a little tragic given the fact that I have a lot of very lovely non-made-up friends already.  Romance is pure escapism (a comment that causes deep distress to my husband who is admittedly very romantic). Given the state of the country and background anxieties about work and family life (I’m a GP with three kids and a mother with dementia, living in a fairly divided Britain – and this was before the pandemic), immersing myself in an invented world came to feel almost essential to my well being.

Writing a story is like reading a story although you can have as much fun writing a crap story as reading a really good one. Most people I know who write describe the agonies, the torture of creative genius, the pain of the edit.  Bollocks to that.  It’s a treat, an indulgence, an act of pure, selfish joy. I have edited and rewritten over and over again and I still love my story.  Even if nothing ever comes of it and nobody ever reads it, I have enjoyed writing it enough to make the whole enterprise worthwhile.

Caveat – It may be important to stress here that I just haven’t reached the really tough bit of writing, the exhausting fourteenth draft, the overwhelming fear of rejection, the dreaded block.  There will be wise and experienced writers out there doubtless shaking their heads at my naivety.  No matter – I will get my comeuppance perhaps – or perhaps not. Maybe it will always be a joy – I hope so.