I like rejection. Rejection is good. Actually, rejection is the best thing that can happen in the development of a writer. It’s the place where dreams meet reality. I know this because I have been rejected by some of the finest publishers in the world.
I should zoom in on the type of rejection I mean. I don’t mean passive rejections, where you sit by your letterbox (or inbox) for weeks, months and years and hear zip. I don’t mean hostile, “this is rubbish,” rejections, either. Or even the apologetic, “we like it, but it’s not for us,” rejections. All of them are useless. They mean nothing to a writer, unless… but I’ll come back to that later.
I wrote the first draft of my novel, TimeStorm, in the late 1980s. Until then I had written two unpublished short stories and a published article on the history of the soccer world cup. I was obviously ready to write a novel, but to my surprise it was utter rubbish. Not the story, I hasten to add, which is pretty much unchanged. It was the actual writing that stank. I revisit that draft every now and again, like one of those painfully embarrassing incidents you can’t forget. And try as I might, I also can’t forget that I sent the manuscript out to about thirty publishers. Thank goodness there was no internet in those days; it would have gone viral under the heading, “I received this manuscript. You will not believe what happened next!”
Anyway send it I did. I even got replies, most of them polite rejections, and, surprisingly, no one asked me if I had another career to fall back on. The wakeup call, when it arrived, was in the form of a short paragraph from a middle range publisher which, in essence, said, “do not submit this to anyone else until you can write.” How rude and insulting! What a cheek! How dare he! By the time I had finished reading – and stopped swearing – the letter was confetti. I should have kept it. It would now be framed and hanging in pride of place in my office.
That is still my favourite rejection, because after a writer is told he has no writing ability, nothing can hurt him ever again. It wasn’t so much a rejection as a suit of armour in an envelope.
It took a while to realise this, however, as I went from anger to despair, stopping off at self-pity, misery, denial, Kings Cross, anxiety and madness. Sorry, one of those is a railway station.
I stopped sending out the manuscript, which indicates that at some level there was a small portion of common sense that told me, alas, that the words were true. I did resolve to improve, though. Writing the novel had me hooked on writing – bad though it was – and I couldn’t stop. I hid the manuscript and read writing manuals, subscribed to writing magazines, read everything I could get my hands on. And I wrote. Short stories, articles, letters to editors, anything. And then, after a few years, I dug out the manuscript and started again
It was better this time. The writing was dull, the descriptions dry and the characters were literary blocks of wood, but you could read it without being induced to commit suicide. I sent it out to a dozen publishers and the feedback was better, the criticisms referred more to the content and genre and not so much the writing. I had a couple of detailed critiques and even corresponded with an editor who was kind enough to refer me to novels and style guides she thought would help me.
I clearly had much more to learn and this manuscript joined the first in a drawer, while I managed to get a few short stories published, achieved modest success with a syndicated humour column and turned to screenwriting.
But TimeStorm was always on my mind. Every few years I would do a complete rewrite and send it off and as the internet became established, responses from publishers became few and far between and comments even more rare. But I wanted more. I’m not one for writers’ groups or classes and I didn’t know any ‘real’ writers then. I wanted feedback from professional publishers, so instead of moving on when I got a form rejection, I wrote back and asked what they really thought. I wanted their honest assessment and to my amazement, many of them came to the party.
I again found myself of the end of harsh criticism, but this time I knew what they were talking about and could identify it in my writing. It was liberating and I felt like I had been given an arsenal of weapons to go with my suit of armour. The drafts improved.
I was no longer getting criticism for my writing. The strongest objection was now: “no one wants to read this type of story.” I countered that with a note to self: “Bullshit!” I had stuck with this novel for all those years precisely because I ‘knew’ it was a story people would want to read. Once my writing ability had caught up and I could do justice to the tale, that is.
Two years ago a medical issue provided the compensation of two months off work. I decided to give TimeStorm one more draft. I performed a page one rewrite using everything I’d learned and employing all the notes, previous drafts and rejection letters I had kept over the years. The draft was good and I knew it. This wasn’t arrogance (maybe it was?), just my own conviction. By then, I’d befriended an accomplished US novelist and screenwriter who provided some very honest feedback on my scripts. I sent him TimeStorm and he agreed it was good, going even further by saying it was ready to be published.
He was right. Three months later I signed a contract with a publisher and TimeStorm was finally a reality outside my head as well as inside it.
I often read that authors eventually found success despite multiple rejections. But now I wonder if, perhaps like me, they were guided, nurtured and published because of them.