Friday, April 22, 2011

A Word About Rejection

Originally published on my website 12/11/10 (www.lisalregan.com)

I’ve mentioned in an earlier post that it took me 149 rejections before I found an agent for Finding Claire Fletcher. Well that’s not all the rejections I’ve gotten. Once I finished Aberration I started querying for that as well. I had 89 rejections on that one. So that means in four years of active querying, searching for an agent, I had 238 rejections. That means that 238 times I opened an email or a “SASE” and had my hopes crushed. That works out to a rejection just about every six days. A rejection every week for four years. Of course I didn’t get them in that fashion. Usually I would go into querying flurries where I’d query a whole bunch of agents in one day and then not query again for a month. So my rejections often came in flurries too.
At first it was upsetting. By the time I landed my agent, it was routine. I would get an email from an agent and immediately expect it to be a rejection. I was pleasantly surprised if one of them asked for a full or partial.

Honestly, the rejections based on my query alone didn’t hurt that much. I knew it was going to be like that. I had steeled myself against it. All the research I had done before querying indicated that I should expect multiple rejections. It was actually a lot like that children’s book with Sesame Street’s Grover where he’s the monster at the end of the book. Every page of that book is filled with signs that there is a monster at the end of the book. Only in this case the monster at the end of the book was 238 agents saying no. Researching queries was like that children’s book—everywhere you turned there were notices, disclaimers, signs, warnings, cautions saying: YOU WILL BE REJECTED. EXPECT REJECTION. REJECTION LIES AHEAD. It was almost comical. So I thought okay, I can deal with this. I’ve waited for things before. I’ve waited years for other things far more important than this to happen, knowing all along that they might not (i.e. preparing for rejection) so this I can do.Once I started, it felt a lot like trying to get into a building that has 1,000 doors and only one of them is unlocked. You just keep trying doors until you get to the one that’s not locked. I knew one of them had to be unlocked so I let those first-level rejections roll right off my back and I kept going. I thought at least I’m out there. At least I’m actively doing something to make my dream come true. I’m putting myself out there. Corny as that sounds, that made rejection easier to take.

The rejections that hurt the most were the ones I got after an agent had read my book. Those were the ones that really hurt. Because I’m just like most pre-published writers: we all (should) believe in our work and we all secretly think, “If I can just get an agent to read it that will make all the difference. Once they read it, they will love it.” Yeah, not so much.
Out of the rejections I got based on an actual reading, the worst ones were the ones where the agent DID love my book but still didn’t want to offer representation. That was like missing the lottery by one number. Like going to the Emergency Room with a life-threatening injury and dropping dead in the vestibule. Like being in first place during a race and falling on your face when you’re a hairs-breadth away from the finish line. Brutal. Demoralizing.

“Your book is great but I’m going to pass.”
“You’re a great writer but I’m going to pass.”
“This novel is a home run but I’m going to pass.”
Ah . . . the sounds of almost.

I honestly didn’t mind the rejections where the agent read the whole book and said, “I just didn’t fall in love with it.” Period. End of story. No protracted back and forth where they promise you a list of suggestions and never get to it. No professions of love for your book before dropping the big R on you. Just “I read it and it didn’t suck me in.” I got a few of those. You might find it surprising but those didn’t hurt that much. I mean they hurt for sure, don’t get me wrong. I’m not trying to say rejection isn’t painful. But it seemed fair to me after the initial sting of the rejection had worn off.

I read tons of books and I don’t fall in love with every one of them. I’ve talked before about how your agent should be passionate about your book. How you want an agent to pitch your book to a publisher with: “It is fabulous and I couldn’t put it down” and not, “It was okay”. So to me it seemed pretty fair that the agent read my book, gave it due consideration and just wasn’t that into it. I mean I can count on one hand the number of books I’ve read in the last five years that took my breath away. So ouch, but okay, I can live with it.

So what have I learned about rejection? First and foremost: YOU WILL BE REJECTED. EXPECT REJECTION. REJECTION LIES AHEAD. Get ready for it. Maybe have your spouse or best friend kick you in the shin a few times real hard before you open that first email in response to your query. That way when you read it, you won’t be able to tell if the tears in your eyes are from the rejection or the pain in your leg. But seriously, toughen yourself up. Your dream is not going to come true overnight. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. I’m not saying there are not exceptions. I’ve heard plenty of stories that go like this: “the first agent I queried asked for my full and gave me a contract within a week and within 2 weeks after that I had a 2 book deal with a major publisher.” Those stories are out there. We’ve all heard them. It COULD happen. Hell, I hope it does happen to you! But just in case it doesn’t, mentally prepare yourself for rejection.

So when you get your very first rejection, you can go ahead and let it ruin your day for awhile. Because it will suck. So go ahead. Get it out. Get good and depressed and let your nasty, pessimistic inner-critic speak: “You suck. Your query is horrible. Your book is horrible. You can’t write for crap. What made you think you could do this? Your work is so bad that it makes crap look good. You’re a joke!” Go ahead and wallow for a bit. Get really down and really low.

Now KNOCK IT OFF.

Yeah, you got your first rejection. Do you know what this means? You’re doing it. You’re actually doing this. You’re actively pursuing your dream. You’ve entered the game. You’ve put your gloves on. You’ve put yourself out there. You’ve started your journey. You are officially on the road to publication. I know it sucks but you’re never going to get there unless you start here. You’ve chosen to go for it and I think that’s pretty exciting. Of course when you’re opening up rejection number 139 it won’t seem so exciting and your inner-critic will be even louder then: “See, I TOLD you it would never happen for you!” Well I say screw that inner-critic.

My father has this piece of advice that he repeats all the time. For the first twenty-five years of my life it didn’t make any sense to me. Now it’s practically my credo. He always says, “Let ‘em tell you no.”

I’m going to repeat that. LET THEM TELL YOU NO.

In other words, try. Put yourself out there. No matter how many rejections you get, no matter how many things go wrong, no matter how loud your inner-critic has become, you never really know what’s going to happen. So get out there and give it a shot. Never assume that you’re going to be told no, never assume that you’re going to fail. Get out there and try and see what happens.

There was a time, not so long ago that I was ready to give up altogether. You don’t get 238 rejections and not hit some rocky bottoms. I remember one night in particular. I was laying in a hot bath, soaking away the indignities of the day which included two rejections and I thought, “This is not going to happen for me. I’m not going to find an agent. It’s been four years—two books. It really is time to hang it up. Let it go. Move on. I can stop writing and find something else to do. I gave it a good try but it is just not going to happen for me.” Not even the tiny optimist who lives inside me, perpetually clad in a cheerleader’s costume, got up to say, “Don’t give up! Keep trying!” She was totally silent and that seemed to cement the decision for me. No more writing. No more trying. It would be a relief in a way not to have this agent search hanging over my head. Not to check my email fifty times a day. Not to open another rejection. Not to worry about word count or plot points or pacing or dialogue. Not to worry about how I’m going to squeeze in some writing time. I didn’t even feel upset. I just felt numb and eerily calm as I decided to give up the dream I’d had since I was eleven years old.

Then I got out of the tub, got dressed and checked on my sleeping daughter. When I looked at her face I knew that I could not give up. Even if I wanted to. Even though I wanted to. Because I don’t want to set that kind of example for my child. I don’t want her to be my age and have family members say things to her like: “Yeah, your mom was quite the writer in her day. She used to write all the time. She really could have done something with that.” I don’t want her to grow up and look at me and see an almost. I don’t want to be someone who almost did something with my writing. Someone who almost pursued my dream. Someone who almost worked hard enough to make something happen. Someone who almost hung in there long enough. I’d rather be 63 and still trying—a silly, doddering woman approaching old age still convinced after thirty years that one of her books is going to be published—than try to come up with a good explanation for my adult daughter as to why I gave up on my greatest dream.
Look around and count how many people you know who have dreams and are actively pursuing them. Life gets in the way. Your dreams start to feel silly and frivolous. Ridiculous, even. You’ve got too much to do, too many things or people to take care of to have your head in the clouds. Well I don’t want to be that person and let me let you in on a little secret. If you’ve stolen enough time from your hectic life and worked hard enough to write a good book, if you’ve honored the unspoiled part of yourself that still believes in having a dream, then this part—the agent search, the rejection—it’s not going to cost you very much.

238 rejections and you know what? I still have a job, a roof over my head, a pretty damn amazing family and I still get to write stories in my spare time. I lost some money on postage and yeah, emotionally it really sucks but on the whole, I’m still in pretty good shape. The hard part for me was writing and revising the book. Writing queries was hard too but googling agents and sending letters, opening rejections and crossing agents off my list—not as taxing. So just keep doing it. And keep writing because you get better the more you write, the more you practice. Keep honing your craft. Quite honestly, our first book might not be the one that sells. I figured that I’d just keep writing books, keep revising them and keep searching for an agent until eventually some agent somewhere at some point in time would want to offer me representation for one of my books. A marathon. Not a sprint. Let ‘em tell you no.