Congrats to contest winner Leslie Nagel!
It is an extreme pleasure for us to welcome the incomparable Laurie Halse Anderson to The Debutante Ball. While we could rave on and on about her and her incredible body of work, we’ll let her speak for herself. As she says on her website:
Laurie Halse Anderson is the New York Times-bestselling author who writes for kids of all ages. Known for tackling tough subjects with humor and sensitivity, her work has earned numerous national and state awards, as well as international recognition. Two of her books, Speak and Chains, were National Book Award finalists. Laurie was honored with the 2009 Margaret A. Edwards Award given by YALSA division of the American Library Association for her “significant and lasting contribution to young adult literature…”. Mother of four and wife of one, Laurie lives in Northern New York, where she likes to watch the snow fall as she writes.
Today Laurie takes a spin on our dance floor to weigh in on this week’s topic, Rejection. Keep reading at the end of the post for your chance to win an autographed copy of Laurie’s latest book, Forge.
(Photo Credit: Joyce Tenneson)
Triaging Rejection Pain
You know the dream, right?
You steal the hours before dawn or after midnight to scribble the stories that won’t leave you alone. You write possessed by the spirit of the Muse. You are driven by the need to be published and maybe by the idea that being published will change everything.
After years of work, you submit the manuscript. Maybe you say prayers, or light candles, or visit shrines like Mark Twain’s house and leave small offerings of cigars and pots of ink. And then you wait. For days. Weeks. Months. Sometimes years, all the while explaining to your skeptical family and friends that really, this is the way the publication process works, and you expect to be hearing from the editor any day now.
Finally, the news arrives. Not the phone call from the delighted editor. Not a bouquet of flowers from your agent. Not a marching band led by Steven Spielberg who wants to option your story for his next blockbuster film.
You receive the Rejection Letter. It says something like this.
“I’m afraid we’re unable to make you an offer to publish as your story does not meet our needs. We appreciated the opportunity to consider your work.”***
Ouch. Who knew that such bland words could be so devastating?
Rejection often leads us to cycle through the stages of grief:
- Denial – you double-check to make sure the letter was sent to the right person.
- Pain – you cry. You curl up in the middle of the floor and sob. That letter is an acid-tipped shard of glass thrust deep into the heart of your dreams. When you finish crying, you make a cup of tea. When the mug is empty, you cry some more.
- Anger – you plan out an exposé for Harper’s on the sham that is the publishing world. You post furious blogs and snarky Facebook status updates. You try to use your rage for something constructive so you shovel your neighbor’s driveway and throw out your back and wind up in traction. And then the next stage hits.
- Depression – the sad, lonely black dog creeps in between your ribs and gnaws, slowly, on your liver.
I know your pain, my friend. We all know this pain.
The nice people who encouraged you to follow your dreams vanish when the dreams are shattered, don’t they? And that university where you earned your MFA does not offer a money-back guarantee when the rejection letters outpace your student loan payments.
All of this is the bad news.
It is also the good news, too, in a strange and twisted way.
Because rejection is a constant in writing. Even when you get to the stage where you have an editor who regularly publishes your books, you will still deal with rejection in the form of nasty reviews, or bad sales figures, or non-existent marketing budgets. The fantasy that we have of everyone loving our books, and praising them to the heavens, and buying a bazillion copies is a lovely fantasy, but it is hardly the material for you to build a career upon.
Even J.K. Rowling has bad days. Seriously. She does.
Do not say to me that you would be willing to have her bad days as long as you could have her income. You didn’t become a writer to be rich. She didn’t, either. She had a story in her heart and she wrote it. She controlled what she could.
You have control, too. You have total control over the quality of your work. My Fever 1793 rejection letters? The manuscript deserved them. It was bloated and not well-crafted. Frankly, it sucked. I thought that an editor would see what a good idea it was, and then, you know, edit, and help me make it better. That’s not how it works. Don’t send out your story until it is perfect.
You also have control over where you send your work. A couple times I sent Fever 1793 to editors who hated historical fiction, because I did not research the kind of books they worked on. A considerable part of being a professional author means understanding the business aspects of our world. That includes knowing which imprints at which houses will appreciate your story. It also means staying on top of the dizzying changes that go on in publishing, including where editors work and when they move. (Harold Underdown’s website is a great resource to help with this.)
You are the one in charge of your life plan, too. Were you hopeful that this novel would earn you a five million dollar advance and free you from your day job, your debt, and your worries about the future? Did you have your Caribbean island picked out? Most successful authors live frugal lives because they understand the financial realities of the publishing world. Being published is an amazing experience, but it contains no guarantees. I think a part of the pain of rejection is that it crushes some unrealistic financial hopes.
The way to pull yourself out of the slimy pit of Rejection Depression is to go for a very long walk. Bring a notebook and a pen. Write down all of the financial goals that you had attached to the sale of your book. Make a note that in a week, you will come up with a different plan to achieve those goals. This allows you remove financial pressure from your writing dream. Removing the financial pressure will go a long way towards allowing you to be clear-headed about the quality of your work. It usually leads authors to take the time to do another draft – or three – before they send their stories out again.
After the walk, read the last five books edited by the person who rejected your story. You may realize that your story is way outside of what this editor enjoys. But if you feel even more strongly that this is the perfect editor for your work, then you are left with a somewhat painful, but ultimately very useful lesson.
Your story is not good enough. Yet.
This is truly good news. Because you’re a writer. You’re a reader, a creative, open-minded person. Your task is to figure out how to make your story even better. And you will do this.
You might consider taking some time away from the story. You are probably too close to see the forest for the trees. Draft another novel. Set a goal of writing six picture books. Read outside your favorite genre for three months. Write some poetry. Draw. Take voice lessons. Dig other creative ditches and then return to the manuscript that was rejected.
That’s what I did. I set aside Fever 1793 for a year and wrote Speak.***** After writing Speak, I returned to Fever 1793 and was able to see all of the weaknesses of the story. I revised and revised and revised some more. The book became much better. The next time I sent it out, the editor called me, and in a very pleasant voice, explained that Simon & Schuster wanted to publish it.
The last stage of grief is Acceptance. Yep, your book was rejected. But you are alive. Your creativity has not diminished. You are capable of learning more and writing better. Rejection, in all of its forms, is part of being a writer. Take it as an opportunity to become more professional, and to lift the quality of your work to the next level.
And don’t forget to take a trip to Twain’s house. A little homage to one of the masters never hurts.
***Quote is from one of the thirteen rejection letters I received for my historical novel, Fever 1793, that went on to earn a place on twenty state reading lists, become a BBYA title, and has sold nearly one million copies.
***** For the record, Fever 1793 sold before Speak was published.
Thank you so much for that inspirational post, Laurie; we’re thrilled beyond words that you joined us here at the Ball.
If you’d like to win a signed copy of Laurie’s latest book, Forge, just leave a comment below. The winner will be drawn randomly and announced in next week’s News Flash. Good luck — we can’t wait to hear from you!