Monday, August 15, 2011

Killing the Pain of Rejection: A Writer’s Failed Experiment

Today I shot my rejection letters. It didn’t make me feel better.

Sharing this story may be a mistake. It’s very bad form to whine about rejection letters. For one thing, it is whining, and that’s bad enough. No one likes whiners. But it’s even worse when it seems that a writer is slagging on an agent, so let me be very up-front about this: I am not angry with the two agents who rejected my most recent novel this week.

I have a great deal of respect for literary agents. This isn’t some form of brown-nosing because I want one of them to accept my work. I respect them because I understand what they do. Even this knowledge has been gleaned thanks to the generosity of agents; I’ve never been an agent nor do I know any personally beyond a few evenings’ conversation, but some agents keep great blogs about their work, and these give insights into why agents do what they do. First of all, agents love books, love writers, and love connecting writers with readers. They’re our advocates. They’re on our side. The trick is getting a generic someone who is generally on the side of writers to become a very specific someone who is advocating for you, personally. That’s arduous, to say the least. But I believe it’s worthwhile, and not just because of the dollars and cents (though I’ll be the first to argue that taking 15% off of something is better than keeping 100% of nothing). But agents also make our work better, and not just once we’ve acquired one. Trying to please these gatekeepers forces us to ask important questions as we write. “Who will the agent sell this to?” forces us to think about audience. “Will this grab an agent on page 1?” forces us to write a first page that will also hold a reader. “Can I pitch this to an agent in under thirty seconds?” forces us to think about theme and character in a way that can increase the coherence of a novel. Agents serve us before they ever hear from us.

And then, when they do hear from us, they try to do right by us. If they love our work and believe they can sell it, “doing right” involves signing us, helping us edit the manuscript again, and pitching it to publishers. But when they have to reject us (and they do), they really are concerned about our feelings. I’ve never met or read about an agent who took that duty lightly.

So why do rejection letters seem so curt and even callous? There are a few good reasons, none of which make a lie of the agents’ concern for the writers they deal with. First of all, if agents wrote lengthy, detailed rejection letters, they’d be wasting the time they owe to the writers they’ve already signed. An agent who writes you a five page rejection letter is an agent you wouldn’t want signing you, because she would then spend her time writing five page rejection letters to everybody else in her slush pile instead of selling your work. Besides the time management issue, agents don’t write long letters because they are making a clean break with you. Think of that horrible ex-boyfriend your friend was dating. Instead of breaking off the relationship, he acted like a jerk until she finally did it. He was a coward, and it hurt her more than if he’d come clean when he didn’t want to be in the relationship. Agents don’t want to send the false impression that they might say yes if you tweak this or that part of the manuscript. When they write “It isn’t right for me,” by “it” they mean the whole thing. That doesn’t mean they hate you or that the book is garbage. They mean they can’t enter into a relationship with that book, even if it stops leaving the toilet seat up or does the dishes more often.

I was lucky. I’d met both of the agents who rejected me at last week’s Willamette Writers Conference. They were kind and encouraging in person and followed up with supportive letters that were much longer than necessary. I would have understood if they’d sent me a one line reply, but one of them gave me two paragraphs. Both of them are on my short-list for future novels if this one doesn’t pan out. I sent them short thank you notes in which I said I was genuinely grateful for their time and consideration, and guess what? I was being genuinely genuine.

And there’s the rub. Rejection hurts. Some writers hide from that pain by blaming the agent. “She didn’t recognize my genius!” they seem to say. Bull. First of all, appreciation for any given novel is subjective. What one person my find brilliant, another may find tiresome or confusing or in need of major revision. That’s not the agent’s fault. Criticizing her for that is like saying she has the wrong favorite color. Also, agents are working, not just reading for pleasure. Maybe she enjoyed your book but didn’t think any publisher would buy it. More specifically, maybe she didn’t think any editor would buy it from her, in which case she’s done you a favor by directing you to find someone who thinks she can sell it.

Some writers blame the whole industry. I think this inclines some people to look to e-publishing, indie-publishing, or vanity publishing (not the same things, mind you). That decision should be based on other factors, like platform and audience, rather than on a knee-jerk reaction to rejection. The great thing about the self-publishing world is that there are no gatekeepers. Consequently, some readers who wouldn’t have been served by the traditional market are being connected with some writers who would have been barred by that system. But those readers have to wade through a sea of mediocrity and worse to get there, and that sea just gets more polluted when writers who fear rejection throw their muck into it without concern for who their audience might be and why the traditional publishing industry isn’t snapping them up.

Some writers turn that rejection inward. “She’s saying I’m a worthless human being.” Again, writing is subjective. Plus, she’s not saying anything at all about you. She’s saying something about your manuscript. It’s not personal. Of course it feels personal to us, because we poured our soul into that book, but, at this stage, it’s important to remember that we’re more than one novel. Faced with the choice between blaming the agent and blaming myself, I think it’s healthier and more honest to take responsibility, as long as it motivates me to write a better book next time, but not if it makes me want to reach for the bottle of vodka in the back of the cupboard.

But the pain is still there. I can’t let it consume me, and I can’t direct it at the agent who sent me the letter. So what am I to do with this feeling?

I had an idea. I decided to try to externalize it and attack the feeling directly. I printed out the rejection letters, then added a digital “REJECTED” stamp and crosshairs. They looked like this:


Even before I shot at them, I suspected it wouldn’t work. For one thing, I don’t go target shooting out of anger. I’ve only recently become a gun-owner, and I bought them for a number of reasons. First and foremost, I want to be prepared should I ever need them to feed or protect my family. Second, firearms are an interesting subject to learn about, and I’m only now realizing how completely ignorant I’ve been regarding this vast area of study I’ve completely neglected. Third, I’d like to come across as at least somewhat believable when I write about people using guns in my fiction. Finally, I admit, it’s a lot of fun. None of these reasons inclines me toward any kind of hostility involving firearms. They were the wrong tool for my purposes. I’d brought a gun to a feeling fight.

But I tried. I shot the ever-loving s--- out of those rejection letters.


As I’d expected, the exercise did little for my emotional well-being. It got a few chuckles out of some friends and family when I explained my plans. But once I was shooting, the pleasure of the experience came from trying to hit the target. I completely forgot about the abstract emotional goal. I could have been doing any other fun, competitive task. I might as well have been practicing my free throws or trying to learn a musical instrument. It had no effect on my feelings about rejection in general, or the specific disappointment those letters produced.

That shouldn’t surprise me. I’m sure there are more emotionally evolved people who can export specific feelings, physicalize them, and confront them. They’re probably mostly Buddhists, and they are unlikely to project those emotional constructs into paper targets and shoot at them.

I’m not a Buddhist. I’m just a writer. I shape feelings into letters and words and sentences. Then I hope that someone is willing to read those sentences. A reader’s empathy provides the comfort that small, singed holes in paper never can.

That’s the moral of the story: To confront rejection, put the gun away and get back to work.

5 comments:

'abdul muHib said...

Huh. Well, of course, one doesn't need to be Buddhist. Quaker will do. And from a Quaker perspective, I am a little bit disturbed at the idea of buying a gun to protect one's family.

Jill said...

I know some of your neighbors Ben...buying that gun was a smart move. P.S. "I brought a gun to a feeling fight" - best line ever!

beckcomm said...

A most interesting post, Ben. I've had my shares of rejections (as evidenced by the fact that so far I have published only nonfiction books). When you brought in the gun, I thought, "Wha--,where is this going?" So now I get a chuckle that the gun is what the two first comments focus on.

Were the agents the right agents for your manuscript -- or were they just agents of opportunity because you met them at a writers' workshop? One of the novels I'm writing is a mystery in the "cozy" subgenre. I met an agent at a workshop who told me to send it to her. I said I hadn't planned on sending it to her because she didn't cover cozies. She said to send her a query. I got my query back in the return mail with a very curt, almost brusque, note saying "I don't represent cozy authors."

Hang in there! Listen to what the rejections say and if there's a common thread, then pay attention to that. Otherwise, start working on the next novel while you're shopping this one around.

Benjamin Gorman said...

Jed, though I still have a great deal of respect for a kind of absolutist pacifism, I've come to recognize that I lack the faith for it. To be that kind of pacifist, one must be so convinced both of the afterlife and of the absolute virtue of peace that one is willing to sacrifice not only one's own life, but also the lives of one's spouse or child. While I would once have been willing to die rather than kill, I now realize I would kill to protect my son or my wife. I just don't have enough faith that the hereafter would make their sacrifice to the cause of peace worthwhile. Chalk that up to another reason why the loss of faith is, in fact, a loss.

Jill, thanks! (That was my favorite line, too.)

Wendy, both these agents were pretty high on my list, though one has had more success with commercial and literary fiction than the other. Both encouraged me to see if I can get some excerpts from the novel published as short stories in literary journals to make the book easier for an agent to sell, and seemed to believe that was a real possibility, so I'll give that a whirl. In the meantime, I'm four chapters into my next novel and enjoying it a lot more than the lesson planning that I really should be working on at this time of the year.

'abdul muHib said...

This is interesting. Your loss of faith has lead to your taking more conservative positions.