How to survive rejection and uncertainty in Writers’ No-Man’s Land

I haven’t written my blog for a while because I’ve not had much to say – not in the way of exciting announcements anyway. On the contrary, I’m (still) in writers’ no-man’s land – of which there are many varying landscapes, all united by one coveted horizon – a glorious, glowing publishing deal, stretching its rosy tendrils across the sky.

But then I thought that writing about how it feels to be in this writers’ no-man’s land could be cathartic for me, and maybe helpful to others. So here goes.

I’m currently out on submission. What that means – if you’re not on a writing journey or perhaps in the early stages of one – is that I have an agent who is sending out my manuscript (MS) to publishers. It’s an exciting time, and certainly a brighter landscape than the writerly no-man’s lands where I’ve loitered in the past. I acknowledge that I’m extremely lucky to have an agent, especially one who is lovely and supportive, but I also know it’s still crucial to keep my expectations in check.

I wanted to write this post now, while I’m on tenterhooks, kept in a daily state of suspense, hopes rising one day, sinking the next, precisely because I need to make sure that if I get 25 rejections from 25 publishers, I won’t feel like I’ve been sucker-punched in the gut and drained of the strength to start over again. I need to maintain a balanced mind-set. In short, I need to be already immersing myself in the next project right now, regardless of the outcome of my current MS.

‘But JK Rowling got 27 rejections,’ I hear you say. ‘You can’t let this make or break you.’

So true. But actually JK Rowling was pretty lucky to only get 27 rejections. My tally (and I’m not alone) is somewhere in the hundreds, as this is my 8th MS, my 3rd agent and my 3rd entry into the submissions lottery – over a 20 year period. When I first started trying to get published I was 28, working as a magazine sub-editor, engaged and child-free. I’m now pushing 48, working from home as a copywriter, and married with 2 teenagers.

I feel very blessed in my life. I’m surrounded by a loving, supportive family and wonderful friends. I enjoy copywriting, too (well, most of the time). But the dream has always been to write fiction, be published and be widely read. And for some reason, no matter how many times I get rejected or find myself back at the drawing board, I can’t seem to give up trying. I might step out of the ring and take a break occasionally, but give up completely? I haven’t reached that point yet – and not because it hasn’t been painful enough.

I’ve had a few sucker-punch lows over the years: my 2nd agent letting me go; my foray into self-publishing starting off with an unexpected boom, then dwindling to a trickle and now the odd tumbleweed of a sale; and last year my previous MS, YA comedy The Reinvention of Rolo Rawlings, reaching an acquisitions meeting at a major publishing house before eventually being turned down.

But after this last blow, I knew I had to find a better way of coping. Hence tip no1: always have another project on the boil.

I noticed that some of my writing comrades had more than one idea in development at any one time. I was more of a one-idea-at-a-time person, but I could see that if one of their WIPs looked like it was hitting a dead-end, they could focus their hopes on the other one they had simmering away – while using what they’d learned from their rejected MS to strengthen the one in the pipeline. My problem was that I was waiting for the final verdict before beginning work on anything new.

However, when the tank is empty, it’s empty – as it was after submitting my MG comedy Clementine Florentine to my agent a few months ago. I knew I needed to start developing a new idea in order to distract myself from the submissions process, but I had nothing. NADA. The old noggin was well and truly empty. I felt like I’d exhausted every character, every plot and every punchline.

Fortunately, this next tip I learned from my husband, a graphic designer, artist and street photographer – and therefore thankfully someone I can talk creativity with on a daily basis! Tip no2: open yourself up and be receptive. Just switch off trying for a while. Give yourself a goddamn break. Take walks. Read books. Watch movies. Go to exhibitions. Watch paint dry, etc, etc.

Therefore it’s possibly not surprising that it was while on holiday in France that the seed of a new idea came to me. It seeped into my mind a couple of times before I realised this was it – the embryo of my next novel. I didn’t get my notebook out immediately. I just watched it for a few days before eventually scrawling down a few lines to officially earmark it. But what a flipping relief! That exciting feeling was back – I was not washed up, flat out of ideas, finished, as I used to believe. I was onto something new. And now I have to remind myself that I haven’t already done the best work I’m ever likely to produce – that there’s always a new idea waiting in the ether, and THAT is going to be an even stronger piece of work than the last one. Basically, no matter what happens, my best work is yet to come.

Anyway, the discovery of this new idea was over two months ago. I’m still mulling it around and jotting down notes, but overall a shape is emerging from the clay and I’m gearing up to write a first draft of the synopsis soon.

Meanwhile, Clementine Florentine is entering its 4th week of being on submission. I’ve had no responses yet (good or bad) and it’s Frankfurt Book Fair this week, so no doubt that will delay news even longer. I am, of course, getting my hopes up a little. But I know the odds are slim. I learned last week that only 10% of agents’ submissions to publishers make it to acquisitions meetings, so that was an eye-opener. Looks like Rolo did pretty well to get that far, hence there’s every reason to be hopeful with Clementine. But there’s also every reason to forget about it, move on and get busy with the next one.

That’s why I wanted to write this blogpost now, while I don’t know whether I’m about to achieve my life-long goal, or whether it’s back to the drawing board yet again. One other coping mechanism I’m relieved to have discovered: the Buddhist philosophy that all suffering comes from craving or aversion, and all feelings and experiences are impermanent (or something like that, I’m still learning…). So tip no3: acknowledge the craving, then look at it from a different perspective. For example, it could be a case of: get a publishing deal and it’s champagne and cartwheels for a few days and then it’s shit your pants trying to whip the book into the exact shape an editor wants, OR don’t get a publishing deal, slap your pillow about, have a hearty cry, shovel a few cakes down your pie-hole, pick yourself up, dust yourself off and move on to the next project.

Either way, whatever happens next on my writing journey, I’ll be sure to share my impermanent feelings of joy or misery about my impermanent situation of success or failure. In the meantime, best of luck to you, my fellow writers. As ever, keep on truckin’.

Why I decided to self-publish, as told to The Guardian

Below is a link to my interview on The Guardian website. As part of their self-publishing showcase, I talk about my own self-publishing experience so far, from 10 years of slushpiles, literary agents and rejections to going it alone and finally, albeit slowly, getting somewhere. It was cathartic to say the least! I recommend all the other features in the series too.

Agents: masters of TLC (Tough Literary Criticism)

They take months to respond, and then it’s usually with an impersonal rejection. In the miraculous event that they like your MS enough to take you on, it’s still a gamble whether or not they’ll be able to sell your book to a publisher (see my previous post).

So, in this era of accessible-to-all self-publishing, are agents worth paying any attention to at all? The answer is yes. It is absolutely worth going through this process, even if, like me, you get all the way to being taken on, only to be released again, novel unsold. For while my agents were unable to sell my novels, they helped me to edit my work, to ‘sharpen’ it so that it was as good as it could be, and I’m very grateful for that.

For example, one of the areas that I needed to work on was pace of plot. In my first ever novel 12 years ago (which I haven’t put on Amazon because I don’t think it’s good enough), an agent I met with at the time pointed out that the beginning was strong, the end was strong, the characters were strong, but the middle of the story “sagged”. She was right. I had a lot of re-writing to do. Even though, despite the re-write, that agent decided not to take my novel on, it was a good exercise which I learned a lot from.

With Package Deal a few years later, my agent at the time suggested putting in an extra scene where the main character, Mia, has some kind of confrontation with her mother or her mother’s husband. I followed her advice. She was right, it added more tension in the build-up to the climax. She also suggested toning down Steve and Craig’s language. I deleted a few expletives here and there, but in doing so I could almost hear Steve and Craig shouting at me: “Give up swearing? Us? You must be fucking joking!”. They’re just not polite, what can I say? They’re real.

With Hot Property, and yet another agent, I was advised to lose 20,000 words. (My word count was over 100,000.) That was a challenge. I didn’t want to lose any of my precious words, but they had to go. Fortunately, as a sub-editor I’m used to axing copy, but when it’s your own copy, it’s a lot harder to detach! Also with Hot Property I was advised to change a risqué storyline to avoid “alienating readers”. I didn’t like this suggestion or agree with the reasoning behind it, but I did it anyway. And now that I’ve self-published, I haven’t changed it back to the way it was originally because it felt OK like that.

I was also given advice on presentation and layout, told to shorten the sections where Georgie is emailing her friend back in the UK and make them more “punchy”, and work more on each character’s voice so that they all sounded different and distinct. It was pointed out that my teenage character Sophia was a bit of a Nobby No-mates – wouldn’t she have some friends to hang out with? All these observations, whether I agreed with them or not, helped me look at my work more objectively, more carefully. The result was a better, stronger story.

So even though I’ve ended up self-publishing on Amazon, I’m still glad to have had the experience of working with a literary agent. It has definitely helped me improve my writing.

I’m currently editing my fourth novel (title TBC) and half-way through writing my fifth (working title Blown-Away Man). Now, while I’m editing, I try to bear in mind what an agent would say (even though I’ve currently got no plans to submit to one). But while I’m writing, I shut those voices out and listen to the characters. It’s their story, after all.

Are literary agents still the key to success?

I’ve touched on this issue before in my post Back on the shelf again, where I compared getting a literary agent to getting a new boyfriend. But I thought I’d revisit the subject, given that many writers today are asking themselves if they even need a literary agent anymore, now that self-publishing online is giving traditional publishing a run for its money.

When I first got a literary agent, I made the mistake of assuming I’d made it, that I was one teeny-tiny step away from getting a publishing deal. I’d been plucked from the slushpile and deemed worthy. I had an industry professional’s stamp of approval on my work. My self-esteem was lifted from the doubtful doldrums to heights it had never known.

But despite my agent’s total confidence that she would sell my novel Package Deal in a jiffy, she was unable to. ‘Not to worry,’ she said. ‘Go and write something else. No one gets their first novel published.’ Alas I was eight months’ pregnant with my first child at this point, and writing didn’t feature on my agenda for a while.

Cut to a few years later, and I’ve self-published Package Deal (against Agent One’s advice) in paperback format. I’ve got it into a few branches of Waterstones, and I’m getting a weeny bit of publicity. At this point I hadn’t embraced blogging, Twitter (don’t think it existed yet) or any other social media – not even Facebook – partly because I was knee-deep in nappies, and partly because I’m a bit of a luddite. In terms of marketing and sales I was going nowhere, but I wasn’t bothered because a new agent was interested in my next novel Hot Property.

However, I now knew that getting an agent didn’t necessarily lead to a deal. ‘What if you don’t manage to sell my book to a publisher?’ I asked Agent Two. ‘It’s not a case of if, but when,’ she said with the kind of uber-confidence I wish I’d been born with. I liked this woman, but I was a little wiser and so I kept my joy in check. I was just thankful to be back in with a chance.

Together with Agent Two’s guidance, I wrote several drafts of Hot Property. Each time I sent it back to her, there was something else she felt needed adjusting. I did whatever she suggested. I trusted her expertise. This went on for six months, a year, perhaps. Then she said, ‘How about you put Hot Property to one side for a while and write something else?’ This sounded familiar. I could only assume the economy was driving publishers to invest less and less in new authors and my book was in the saturated category of women’s fiction. Never mind. I had a new idea anyway.

I wrote a synopsis of my new idea and sent it to Agent Two. She asked me to change the characters’ ages, which I did, and eight months or so later, I’d written a new novel. After months of waiting for a response, she rejected it and soon after left the agency, leaving me high and dry. I don’t mind admitting that I cried. (Not in front of her, thankfully.)

A year goes by and, not quite knowing where to start again, with an increasing sense of the utter futility of trying to get a publishing deal, my husband finally persuaded me to stick my books on Amazon – after all, what’s the point of two perfectly decent commercial manuscripts sitting at home gathering dust?

They are now selling, slowly but surely. This month’s sales are up on last month’s, and last month’s are up on the previous month’s. I’ve waited a long time for the satisfaction of having total strangers buy my novels. If sales accelerate to a noticeable amount at some point, maybe I’ll approach an agent again. Or maybe I won’t. The nice thing is, my feelings of self-worth as a writer are no longer dependent on having an industry professional’s stamp of approval.

Back on the shelf again

Getting a literary agent is a bit like getting a boyfriend. The very first time he rings you up and asks you out, you do a few cartwheels, followed by a mad dance, followed by several days of singing in the rain and holding doors open for strangers. Your world is a happy place full of cherry blossom and rainbows. You’ve made it. Your dreams of literary success are coming true. Or so you think…

At first things are going great. He digs you. He likes your style. He thinks you’re smart, funny, going places. He takes your hand and says he can see a bright happy future together. He’s really looking forward to seeing you again. You skip to the bus stop in the rain, hold your umbrella above a stranger’s head, offer the bus driver your last Rolo. Life is so beautiful you could cry with joy.

A publishing deal is just around the corner. You imagine your novel lining the shelves of Smith’s and Waterstone’s (in the number one spot of course). You picture your books being bigged up in Heat magazine. You daydream about being interviewed for the broadsheet culture supplements, appearing on BBC News 24’s Meet The Author, and The Big One: selling your film rights to Brad Pitt, who’s your biggest fan and can’t wait to meet you in person.

But as time goes by, the honeymoon buzz starts to fade. He’s not gushing about you any more. He doesn’t reply to your emails in a hurry. The friends he couldn’t wait to introduce you to have just been really, really busy. Then he says it’s impossible to see into the future. You get the sense he’s not as in love with you as he once was. So you try harder to make him happy, do everything he asks you to do, without coming across as too much of a doormat and without making contact too often in case he thinks you’re starting to reek of desperation. Which you are.

Then one day, the end comes. Times are just so hard right now, he says. Harder than ever. It’s not you, it’s just the way it is. The timing is all wrong. He knows you’ll be snapped up one day and it’ll be his loss. He wishes you the best of luck in everything. You walk home in a teary blur. As you pass the corner shop you contemplate buying a packet of fags even though you haven’t smoked in years. That night you drown your sorrows and wonder how you could have ever deluded yourself that you were smart/funny/pretty enough to attract the likes of him. You’re just not good enough. Life’s a bitch. 

A few weeks go by and you pick yourself up and dust yourself off. It’s not the end of the world. You are not dying, so enough with the moping. You are good enough, you just need to up your game, hone your skills, and listen to your writing voice. Stop trying to write what you think he/she/they will like. It’s what you wrote without anyone else’s input that attracted him in the first place. Get back to your true authentic voice – the one you talk to your cat in when no one else is around.

And there you are, back at the beginning, no worse off than you were before, but older and wiser. You do this because you love it, because you can’t not do it. You’re a writer. You just keep on truckin’.