The Importance of Being Rejected

This is an article I wrote for the NSW Writers’ Magazine Newswrite back in 2011. The publishing world has changed profoundly in the last eight years, but I stand by the article I wrote at that time…


The Importance of Being Rejected: The Destiny Police and the Digital Future

As aspiring writers, we’re always hearing stories about famous books which were rejected a hundred times until some brave, inspired publisher was able to perceive the unique and wondrous genius that all the others had missed, and the writer lived happily ever after.

Occasionally these stories are true (or at least true-ish – Harry Potter anyone?) – more often they are not. I couldn’t say how many times I’ve heard people insist that The Lord of the Rings was rejected again and again before Professor Tolkien finally got his tome across the line, when the simple fact is: LOTR was commissioned after the stunning success of The Hobbit.

As usual, the ‘truth’ would lie somewhere in between (and a draft accepted by one publisher might be very different from the draft rejected by others), but the subtext behind these stories is dangerously seductive for the rejected writer, and that is: that publishers get it wrong.

“Good God!” thinks Reggie Reject. “If they got it wrong with Harry Potter or LOTR…no wonder they rejected my book!”

Rejection slips are painful – especially those impersonal two sentence emails: not suitable for our list at this time etc – so it is certainly a small comfort to realise that the book was only rejected because it was read (or not read) by some hayseed chewing philistine who trips on his/her knuckles when walking up stairs. But isn’t it amazing how many of these same philistines work in all the publishing houses?

And the agencies.

They’re all wrong.

No they’re not. The painful truth, which any writer capable of growing and improving must embrace, is that 99.937 percent of the slush pile has less literary merit than rat droppings.

I have been Reggie Reject more often than most, but once I stopped being defensive and accepted that everything I’d ever written was unmitigated, pointless drivel, I was ready to start making progress.

* * *

When I finished my first novel, back in 1997, I was exhilarated. I knew I had created a masterpiece and that the world would soon be smashing down my door, thrusting contracts at me and driving trucks full of money up to my house. I used to have this wonderful daydream where I signed away the movie rights in a magnificent office in Manhattan, and then settled down to enjoy a perfect life of writing, travelling and world acclaim.

The first rejection slip, I read with amusement – it was their loss. The second I read with bewilderment – two rejections? Was the world going mad? As the rejection slips piled up, I began to realise that the problem was far worse than just the ignorance and stupidity of the readers. The real problem was that the literary world was not ready for my genius.

Of course, the reading public were ready for it – clamouring for it. All my friends said it was good! And they shared my contempt for the evil powers-that-be, sitting complacent in their ivory towers with nothing better to do than trample the dreams of inspired, original writers. The Destiny Police.

As you can see, this way madness lies.

Fortunately, I didn’t give up. I started writing another novel, and gradually realised something wonderful: I actually knew what I was doing.

You need to write to learn how to write. Having written the first book, I had learned a few things – like how to set up the various story threads and start weaving them together; how to drop a plot kicker into a group of characters (and readers) who think they know where the story’s going. Best of all, I had found my natural storytelling voice.

Having learnt these things, I was then forced to reflect upon my first book. Maybe – just maybe – it wasn’t quite as brilliant as I had originally thought? I decided to re-read it and immediately started wincing and cringing at the purple prose and ham-fisted imagery. It had its good points, but it needed a lot of work (as some of those hated rejection slips had intimated).

This was a key moment in my development as a writer – realising that I wasn’t as good as I thought I was. (At least, not yet.)

My second novel (a comedy about conspiracy theories) was finished, bizarrely enough, around 10 pm on 11 September 2001. The next morning, I learned about the horrific events in New York and realised the planes were hitting the towers around about the exact moment I was hitting the ultimate full stop. Well that’s just great…I finally write a decent novel and the world comes to an end! Conspiracy?

This time I went much closer. The publishers still rejected me but a few were quite encouraging. One fellow even tried to get it up at the publishing committee but was outvoted. Foiled again!

But the message was clear: several publishers and a couple of agents wanted to see more of my stuff. I was on the right track.

* * *

My third novel was accepted by the first fiction publisher I showed it to.

In the wake of the disappointment of my second book going so close, I took a couple of years off writing novels and started dabbling with screenplays, which taught me a lot about character arcs and how to tell a story with the minimum possible words. And it was great for my dialogue.

This time, when I went back to novels (my first love), I was a much tighter storyteller with a strong established voice. I understood the interplay of characterisation and plot and I really knew how to pace a story and tease the readers along. I also did something I had never tried before: instead of wallowing in my esoteric ‘art’, I wrote about something that other people might enjoy. In other words, I deliberately targeted a specific readership and set out to create a commercial success.

Mr Cleansheets was published in April 2010 by Vulgar Press, a small Melbourne publisher. This is the stuff of dreams – the Emerald City at the end of the Yellow Brick Road. All that work – all those countless hours, hammering away in lonely obscurity with only rejection slips to keep me warm – all leading up to the magical moment of a publisher saying: Yes.

People sometimes ask me: was it hard to get published? And I think: no…Mr Cleansheets was snapped up straight away. So that was another lesson: if you’ve got the right product, it’s easy to get published. If you don’t, it’s impossible.

* * *

To return to my original point – I am now a published writer with some small profile in the mainstream and a fan base who keep asking when my next book is coming out. It took 13 years longer than I had hoped, back in 1997, but if I pick up my first book these days, I can’t read two sentences without vomiting blood. And yet, 14 years ago, I thought it was brilliant.

I have finally understood why rejection is so important for the publishing and writing industry. Without rejection, writers have no incentive to improve – to develop into the writers they are capable of becoming. There is no way I could have produced the right product back in 1997.

And this is why I fear for the online future. People argue that the capacity of new writers to bypass the traditional publishing houses and publish their own books on the net is ‘democratic’ and opens up the reading public to alternative voices that might otherwise have never been heard.

It’s hard to argue against that without sounding like an elitist wanker, but what this means is that the slush pile (still utterly dreadful, for the most part) will no longer be euthanased by the Destiny Police. It will be alive – a roaring cacophony which drowns and out-clamours any voice worth hearing.

Even worse – far worse – new writers will no longer be rejected. They will self-publish first drafts and never learn from their mistakes, and voices which may have developed in time into something wonderful will remain halting and unrefined. The whole future, not just of publishing, but of writing itself is in peril.

And if writing dies, then reading will die. And if reading dies then knowledge will die, enlightenment will fade and the world will become ripe for the plucking by neo-medieval warlords who…

Sorry. (There goes that ‘art’ again!)

It is imperative that the online future includes publishers still insisting on quality and filtering out the undeveloped and the impure – forcing writers to reassess and lift their games if ever they are to be raised up out of obscurity and penury into that ivory tower of popular acclaim.

And you all thought the Destiny Police were the bad guys…

1 Comment

  1. nice

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