Your phone vibrates in your pocket during a meeting at work. You’ve set the alert to the email you use exclusively for querying literary agents. Your stomach flips. How long will your co-worker blab on about co-pays and ICD10 coding? Is it the agent who reps your favorite author requesting your manuscript? You thumb away sweat from the wrinkle between your brows, trying to look engaged, but your mind is a million miles away…or about 832 miles away in my case.
You excuse yourself and go to the one-hole staff bathroom and lock the door. Your hands shake as you take out your phone, click on your email icon and…another form rejection. No offer. No manuscript request. Just kind platitudes like “this is a subjective business” and “it’s not the right fit for my list, but keep trying other agents.”
Your heart sinks. Another Tyson-like left hook to your ego. Another layer added to the mountain of evidence against your conviction that you have something interesting to say. Sound familiar?
I’ve spent ten years trying to break into the creative writing market—novels, screenplays, short stories, you name it. In terms of publication success, I have very little to show for a decade of grammar workbooks, online courses, and thousands of hours of writing. Rejection hurts. It feels so personal. I cry. I cuss. I complain. If my track record is any indicator, I haven’t learned much about writing. But I have learned about coping.
By day, I am a social worker. I have had to integrate aspects of my practice into my writing life for the survival of my dream and my sanity. I wanted to share some of these strategies, reflections, and paradigm shifts with anyone who may need them. Some of what I’m pulling from is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) but really most of what I’m sharing is just a hodgepodge of living lessons learned the hard way: failure.
First, I thought it apropos to address narratives in our heads as a general concept, and then try to unravel some of the specific stories that cause us stress.
THE NARRATIVES IN OUR MINDS, GENERAL:
The hippocampus is a seahorse-shaped portion of our brain that is responsible for emotional memory. The stronger the emotion, the stronger the encoding within the hippocampus, which is why you can probably remember when your dad died twenty years ago, but not what you had for lunch last Tuesday. Its function is to be a catalyst for decision-making short cuts on a subconscious level. A very simplistic example: a person gets attacked by a dog, the experience is tagged with a very powerful dose of fear, and the person draws the conclusion that dogs are dangerous. I give you this brief neurobiology lesson because artistic rejection creates strong emotional memories from which we draw conclusions. We get rejected and we tell ourselves we are failures. Or we have no talent. Or we are misunderstood. Negative narratives spring like vines from the emotion-rich soil of our hippocampus. Ironically, the distress we experience comes not from the rejection letter, but from the conclusions we draw from it. The only difference between writers who stick it out and writers who quit is what they think a rejection letter says about them.
A big part of CBT is poking holes in erroneous paradigms. We’ve examined what’s happening in a general sense when we experience rejection, but let’s look at some specific tales we tell ourselves and challenge them with reality.
NARRATIVE: THE AGENT REJECTED ME AS A PERSON.
TRUTH: THE AGENT REJECTED THE QUERY.
It hurts when we labor at something for years, only to have it met with indifference or hostility. Artistic rejection feels like a direct assault on our spirits, because we create from our spirits. Despite what it feels like, that agent doesn’t know you. They aren’t evaluating you as a parent, friend or person. It’s no indication of how they feel about you as a person because they don’t know you as a person.
NARRATIVE: THESE REJECTIONS MEAN MY BOOK ISN’T ANY GOOD.
TRUTH: MAYBE, BUT MORE LIKELY IT MEANS IT ISN’T AN EXACT FIT.
The editor I worked with on my latest book gave me some great advice: a book being good is just the first prerequisite to publication. What she meant was, the book also must be timely, or topical, or hip, or timeless, or whatever the market is calling for at a particular period in time. I’m not suggesting trend-chasing—what is en vogue now could be passé next week. I’m saying the quality of the book is not the only factor in play. A well-established agent in my genre posted her statistics for the year. She received almost 25,000 queries. You know how many full manuscripts she requested? 41. You know how many new clients she signed? Five. Five. That’s 25,000 down to five. That’s 0.0002 percent. I guarantee you more than five of those books were good enough to be published in the traditional market. Let’s say only 5% were market-worthy. That’s over a thousand great books not seeing the light of day. But those books weren’t right for that agent at that specific period in time. That’s it. To be fair, your book may really be a stinker, but having a lot of rejections doesn’t necessarily mean that.
NARRATIVE: THIS OTHER CRAPPY BOOK GOT PUBLISHED AND MINE DIDN’T! THEY TOOK MY SPOT.
TRUTH: ANOTHER PERSON’S SUCCESS IS NOT YOUR FAILURE.
Writer envy is very real. It builds up inside me, along with other negative emotions and makes me a walking, talking barrel of toxic waste. More on that later. What many unpublished authors fail to realize is that most agents don’t have hard caps on their client lists. Sure, they have some squishy approximation of what they have time for, but if they fell in love with a book they wouldn’t say “Well, I just signed somebody last month, so that’s my quota!” If an agent loves two books that agent will rep two books. So be happy for other authors. They didn’t steal your spot.
NARRATIVE: ALL THESE REJECTIONS MEAN I’M NEVER GOING TO MAKE IT.
TRUTH: SOME GREAT BOOKS GET REPRESENTATION ON THEIR FIRST QUERY. OTHERS ON THEIR 145TH. READERS DON’T KNOW OR CARE HOW LONG IT TOOK.
I’m not one to say “if we stick with it long enough we will all get published.” That’s not true. Many of us—the majority actually—will never be published in the traditional market. I can say, however, that if you quit you definitely won’t get published. There’s a false assumption by unpublished authors that a debut novel is actually an author’s first novel. That’s rarely the case. It is just their first novel to get published in the traditional market. It’s often their third, or fifth or tenth. Just because your current book doesn’t get representation doesn’t mean that your next one won’t.
NARRATIVE: IT’S NOT FAIR! I’VE WORKED SO HARD! I DESERVE TO BE PUBLISHED!
TRUTH: SO HAS ALMOST EVERYONE, AND SO DOES ALMOST EVERYONE.
This is another one that rattles around in my head almost daily. I get up at 5AM to work out and then study grammar before I get my kids up and ready for school, work nine hours at the hospital, and then write after my kids go to bed. I use part of my meager social worker salary to take classes online and to get professional editing. Purely by level of discipline, karma should reward me with a six-figure, multi-book deal from Tor, right? Sorry narcissistic self, all the other 24,995 reject-ees also bust their ass, pinch pennies and sacrifice their free time. This is what writing asks of us. And for most of us it will never “pay off” in terms of writing for a living. However, you will have excised that idea that keeps you up at night by putting it on paper. On your deathbed, you won’t be someone who could have written a book, you’ll be someone who wrote a book. There’s a big difference.
SO WHAT CAN BE DONE?
While recognizing our erroneous thinking is a good start, are there things we can do to heal our wounded souls? Most mental health professional will tell you working out and meditating will help with most negative emotions, and they are correct. But I wanted to go into more specific recommendations tailored toward the querying writer. While there’s no magic panacea, I can share a few things that help me.
Take a Break to Purge Toxicity: As the rejections mount, my frustration becomes bitterness, which transforms me into a cynical, angry person I don’t want to be. So I stop for a bit to focus on things that reduce my toxic feelings. I read books outside my genre to prevent the comparison game. I pour myself into working out, meditating, and spending time with my family. When I can read a book in my genre and enjoy it again, I know my toxicity has been purged enough to get back on the horse.
Find Other People to be Happy For: This one is very tough. Search the internet and find an author who has recently signed with an agent or gotten picked up by a publisher. Give them a true, heartfelt congratulations in the comments section. At first it will feel uncomfortable and disingenuous, but suspend judgment on your motivations for a minute and just do it. Then do it again for someone else. And again. You may find this helps heal some of your jealousy.
Find a Confidant: I’m a bit wary of writer’s groups as they can be hotbeds for comparison/competition. Also they can lead to some counterproductive advice if everyone in the group is unpublished. However, if you can find one or two other people in a similar boat who understand what you are going through it can be helpful to vent together, and (hopefully) celebrate together. But it needs to be someone you really trust that you can genuinely support and be supported by.
Put Yourself in the Agent’s Shoes: For most of us, being a traditionally published writer is our dream. Dreams are important. But at the end of the day, if my dream never comes true, I’ll still be a kick-ass social worker with dental insurance and a 403B. In terms of selling books, an agent has much more on the line than you or I do. If they don’t rep books they can sell, they don’t pay their bills. Books may be our dream, but it’s their livelihood.
There are no Time Limits: If you get traditionally published at 21 or 71 it doesn’t matter. You did it. You broke through the two-foot thick bulletproof glass wall that most of us just smash our faces against for a lifetime. There is no rush. There is no quantitative measure of when you should “expect” to break through. Just keep putting your chisel to the wall and hammer away.
Do you Have the Strength of Character to Soldier on? As much as we all want to reach the inner sanctum of traditional Big 5 publication, it’s not worth becoming a person we do not wish to be. If continuing to seek representation is going to kill your relationships, compromise your ethics, or take your self-respect, it’s not worth it.
Do you Have the Strength of Character to Walk Away? Can you keep an empathetic heart and positive worldview if you walk away? Can you make peace with it? If you are anything like me, this isn’t the only book rattling around in your brain. Can you move on and be happy?
Traditional Publication Will Not Make You Happy: This is a fact. Sure, you’ll get the rush of excitement when you sign on the dotted line. You’ll get butterflies in your stomach when you see your work on bookstore shelves. But if you talk to anyone traditionally published, they are no more or less happy than any of the rest of us. The rush fades when you don’t make any money past your advance. The butterflies curl up and die when you get savaged by bloggers. The highs and lows don’t go away when you are a published author, if anything they get more pronounced because the stakes are higher. Seek happiness in yourself, your loved ones, and your spiritual or humanist pursuits now, as an unpublished writer, and later, when you have a bestseller. Let your writing be an expression of your creativity, not a litmus test on your happiness.