Writers: Why rejection is good for you

A rejection letter ruins my day. And the closer I seem to get to finding an agent, the more those letters sting.

But rejection has an unexpected edge. It makes your work better.

Every time I get a rejection from a literary agent, I’m crumpled. The words, It’s not fair! kick through my head in a silent, red-faced tantrum. I find it hard to lift a smile. Everything seems heavy.

But my mope always sends me back to the screen. How can I make this thing sing? I try again.

Rejection shakes your work up; it fine-tunes it. It reimagines and reshapes things. It helps you create something a hundred times better than what’s been given the big thumbs down.

But God does it hurt.

There’s a world of difference between the amateur book that I first submitted three years ago. The story is different, the title too. Many darlings have been murdered, but not forgotten. All that telling rather than showing has been rooted out and shoved onto the slag heap.

But it was only by going back to that really rather rubbish book and sending it out again, that it got a new life.

A rejection letter from a literary agent has led me to a brilliant editor and mentor who’s helped me write a book with all the things that were missing from that first attempt. Pace, tension, character arcs – things I hadn’t even realised weren’t there. It was only by sending out my book again and getting rejected over and over that I found her.

She (and me) thinks my book is just about ready – one more scene to write, two more proofreads and then ping – I’m hoping that this book might earn itself a new R word. Representation.

* Post-script – I found representation just a few weeks after I wrote this blog post, and my novel The Maid’s Room has been published by Hodder & Stoughton.

What it’s like to finish writing a novel

It’s almost time to send my first novel out into the world again. There’s nothing left to write on its pages.

There was the first draft. Then a literary agent met me and suggested changes. Next, came the second draft.

When the rejection came, I pushed the book into a drawer for a few months. Then somehow the book started niggling at me again. I found the will to push on with the third draft.

Another literary agent liked it, and what happened was this: a major rewrite and a new plot, resulting in draft number four. Cue good reactions from several literary agents, but still an all-round no.

Then one of the agents wrote back to me recommending an editor/mentor, and with her insights I’ve now completed the fifth draft. Let’s hope this draft is fabulous number five.

When Hannah Kent finished Burial Rites, she had a surprising reaction. (Admittedly this was her first draft, not her fifth).

‘I realised I no longer knew what to write. There was nothing more to write. I pushed my keyboard away from me, read the last line over and over, and then – unexpectedly – burst into tears. They weren’t tears of elation or disbelief. I was suddenly, profoundly sad.’

I can relate. Finishing feels like a loss. I’m glad that I’ve got this far, but all those obsessive late nights, all those burnt pieces of toast, all those half-listened to conversations, are gone.

I’m not sad. Neither am I elated; I just feel knackered. I’ve read my book that many times aloud that I sound like I have a forty-a-day habit. During warmer months, me speaking in my characters’ tongues has spilled through the open windows. ‘I don’t want this anymore.’ ‘It isn’t a marriage anyway!’ The neighbours must think I’ve got multiple personalities. Either that or I need a bit of marriage guidance counselling.

And I have to admit, I do feel slightly unhinged. A chapter of my life is now over. This book is just about as good as it ever will be; it’s do or die.

I’m stepping into some new place, some other writing project, something that might give me yet more oxygen. Because writing is like breathing to me: it’s the only way to live.

Is Your Novel Ready To Submit?

I thought I knew the answer to this question. I’d written and rewritten my first book, given the thing to friends to read, gone back to it and changed bits. And then I’d sent it off to agents, in full book deal fantasy mode.

I’ve probably submitted about 30 times in all, but each of those submissions was flawed. A central character lacked depth, another character wasn’t as funny as she should have been. You know the drill.

And so the rejection letters stacked up, sometimes with reasons: ‘it’s not enough to stand out in today’s overcrowded fiction market.’ Oh yeah? ‘I didn’t fall in love with it.’ Well, you can’t argue with that.

Then something fortuitous happened, a gem of a thing. An agent read through half of it. She loved my concept, my writing, but the characters’ voices just weren’t strong enough, she thought. I know it’s all subjective, but the thing is, I agreed. All my editing had turned the characters into papery beings, people on the wrong side of dull.

Me old novel!

Me old novel!

I started over. I didn’t write it chapter by chronological chapter. I wrote one character in her entirety in one file, another character in another file and so on – that helped me to discover each character and give them a distinct voice. I then fitted the novel back together with its brand new plot and a completely different ending.

I’ve edited it, and given it to one person to read – he loved it. Another friend has started reading and is two chapters in. As it stands, my book is the best it can be at this moment in time. The characters are strong (I think, but then I’ve thought that before), the plot line has drive, (but then I’ve thought that before too).

So is it ready to send out? One more proofread and yes, I think it is. Cue fantasy mode again.

But the beauty of starting over is this: I’m hoping that this new book has all the magic of the original draft of my first book before it got ironed flat by edits.

Writing Competitions – Why Bother?

It’s there in black and white, the longlist and your name’s not on it. The disappointment sinks you. That voice starts nagging at your ear. ‘You’re fooling yourself about this writing malarkey; you must be, else you’d be up there too.’

Somehow you manage to scrape your fried-egg-ego off the floor and force yourself to start typing something new.

Unknown

Why do we do it, eh? Why do we waste 8 quid, 10 quid, sometimes 25 quid when, with more and more people entering writing competitions, we stand such a miniscule chance of being one of the chosen few.

I’ve been on both sides of the fence – what writer hasn’t? – but getting placed in this year’s Writers’ and Artists’ Short Story Competition was just the way to do it, I reckon. Enter the story then completely forget about the date that the results are revealed. I found out that my story Antelope had made the final 19 when another writer Tweeted me to tell me.

That’s so rarely the way it happens, right? I mean, how can you score through a date that’s so firmly etched into your brain?

So when the big day arrives and you discover your name’s not on the longlist, resist the urge to whack yourself over the head with a saucepan for not being quite good enough. Maybe you are, but if your work doesn’t strike a chord with the early readers in competitions, you’re out. Maybe you almost got through – who knows? – or maybe you just don’t have the same writing tastes as the judges.

Case in point – last year I was lucky enough to be in the Bristol Short Story Prize shortlist. Here’s a confession – I entered the same story, albeit a much shorter version, into the Yeovil Prize, and it wasn’t even placed. Even though, I like that story so much better than the one which Yeovil commended me for back in 2013.

BRISTOL PRIZE PIC

It’s all about your audience. So this year, right back at you, Yeovil; I’m hitting you with something new.

In fact, I’ve got that many short stories up my sleeve now, I’ve got one for every UK competition that’s going. Only I’m not going to enter everything – there’s only so much disappointment a girl can take.

So why bother entering anything at all – because being placed occasionally really does help to silence your own self-doubt, for a while at least. And it’s a small voice of encouragement that you might just be doing something right.

What NOT to do when a literary agent reads your book

Three years ago, I finished my first book. I entered it into a competition and although it didn’t win, it was among the final three on the shortlist. A literary agent liked it enough to meet me and ran through the things I should change. One thing I needed to do was big up one of my main characters.

I patted and shaped, tore the book to pieces and put it back together again. And in the middle of all this, I ended up on the shortlist of another major competition. Yes, I clenched my fists and jumped up and down. This is it: signing with an agent, here I come. Except, it didn’t quite go like that.

The agent enjoyed the first half of The Maid’s Room, but didn’t fall in love with it. Oh I admit it, I snivelled.

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But not for long. The next day, I started my second novel and spent three months bashing away at the keyboard until it was finished. (It’s now in the polishing stages.)

Something unexpected happened then. I started to think about my first book. I tried not to, I really did, but there it was – with its underground car parks, its jackfruit and its rambutans. There it was, with its swimming pools and shopping malls. I could see suddenly how everything in the story connected. I hadn’t seen it back then when I’d been so close to landing an agent. When she’d asked me to rewrite a third of the book and give that character new life, what I’d done was create someone flat and unbelievable, someone dull, not the feisty, clever, tactless woman she is now, not the woman with three dimensions instead of just two. Worse than that though, I’d written the whole damn soul out of the book.

Well, now, I’ve put the soul back in. I’m proud of it, really proud, in a way that I wasn’t before. Best make a start on sending it out then……

* Thirteen months after writing this post, literary agent Rowan Lawton signed me. My debut novel The Maid’s Room will be published by Hodder & Stoughton on 16th November 2017.

 

Dusting Down

Time to regroup. I’ve written the first book, rewritten it, rewritten it again, and still don’t have an agent. I do, however, have several rejection letters – ranging from the nice, ‘You really are a talented writer,’ to the, actually-not-that-cutting, ‘I haven’t fallen in love with your book in the way that I wanted to.’

So do I carry on sending the first book out?  ‘Cooee, look at me – I’ve been shortlisted in a few things.’ ‘I can write, you know; I’m a journalist.’ Or do I give up searching for an agent and try to self-publish?

Perhaps I would, were it not for what takes hold after an agent tells me my book wasn’t for them. I kick harder, work harder and have a bloody good laugh at my friends’ indignation on my behalf.

And that approach seems to be working. I felt flat when a piece of my work wasn’t longlisted in a competition earlier this year. But I dusted myself down and poured thoughts into a new story about the tea industry in Africa.

The result? I’ve been shortlisted for this year’s Bristol Short Story Prize and my story is to be published in the anthology in October. Gulp. A real book, with an ISBN number and everything – that’ll also be available to buy on Kindle.

And my first novel? Well, self-publishing, finding an agent can wait. Because the fight is back in full force. I am deep into writing my second novel. 52,739 words in, to be precise. I’m using all that I learnt in writing the first book and this one’s flowing – the characters, the terrible central dilemma. I’ve made a deal with myself: The first draft by the end of December.

And maybe, just maybe, someone might fall in love.