The rite of passage (image source: billanddavescocktailhour.com)
So it finally happened. I received my first rejection email from a literary agent on Friday. It was a very polite, well written, even encouraging rejection letter, but it was a ‘no’ all the same. I know that there are many of you out there thinking about submitting your beloved manuscript to an agent and I wish you all the very best. If, however, things do not go to plan, I would like prepare you for the emotional roller coaster you are about to undertake. Here is my guide to the five stages of
grief writer rejection*:
The tingle of excitement as you read the email heading soon turns to disappointment as you get to the key phrase “your book is not for us/we are not interested in representing you/my eyes, my eyes!” It is at this point you enter the first stage of writer rejection:
1. Denial and Isolation
There must be some mistake. You had just spent the best part of a year/years putting your life’s blood into the manuscript. You may have only sent through the first three chapters but what great chapters they were! Your Mother loved it when she read it through, said it was the best book she’d ever read. Perhaps there had been a clerical error and some lowly intern had sent out a rejection mail by mistake.
By this point, disappointment’s insidious rise starts to subvert your brain’s initial denial into a completely different emotion.
How dare they! Exactly who do they think they are, sitting on their high horses acting as gatekeepers to the promised land. Then again their website is a bit of a giveaway, filled with the latest autobiographies of z-list celebrities keen to make a quick buck in the lead up to christmas. Plus they represent the Author X, who’s writing is terrible despite the bucket loads of books they’ve sold. You know that you’re so much better than the cliche-riddled tripe that they produce every six months. It’s clear that the agency clearly put commercial success above artistic merit. It’s as if they believe selling books is some form of business!
You chanter away for a while, dreaming of Molotov cocktails and agency windows, but as your anger subsides, you are left with feelings of helplessness and vulnerability and feel the need to somehow regain control.
Perhaps you could beef up the opening paragraph. Instead of your hero smiling at his beau over a cup of coffee, he could be handing her a child he’d just rescued from a burning building whilst under-fire by guerrilla rebels, putting his body in the line of fire to protect the child and taking a bullet while winning her heart? Then again, maybe it was the chicken analogy. You’d always thought it a bit clunky. Perhaps if you used a skunk instead it would be more eye-catching. Or you could change…
With each thought, like raindrops striking a dog-turd, your confidence in the integrity of your book erodes until you believe that the whole thing is just one big shitty mess. This leads to the fourth stage:
You were an idiot to have sent it in. The book is clearly awful. Who were you kidding? You’re the writer equivalent of those poor, deluded saps dreaming of stardom while warbling tunelessly during X-Factor auditions. The only way you’re likely to get published is as an example of how not to write for creative writing students, or as an email circular agents send to each other** with the title “You’ll never believe what arrived this morning.” Perhaps it would be better to pack away the notebook, the highlighter pens and the mind maps and go back to the day job.
For some, this period of despondency takes months to recover from, for others just minutes, but eventually you come to the final phase.
It was just not meant to be. For whatever reason, this agent and your book were not a match. It was nothing personal and it doesn’t mean the other 20 submissions you sent would end up the same way. You’ve had enough good feedback from others to believe there is some merit, and even you thought it was OK and you are your own worst critic. Relax. Look at the number of famous authors who initially faced multiple rejections. And it wasn’t as if this agent was the one you really wanted to work with, was it.
Plus, even if you get rejected by every single one of them, there is always self-publishing, which pays a much higher percentage per book…
Other good blogs on handling rejection:
25 Things Writers should know about rejection – Chuck Wendig
12 Famous writers on literary rejection
Literary rejections on display
*with apologies to Elisabeth Kübler-Ross
** I have made this up, I’m sure agents are far too professional to behave this way. Well, most of them.