“Who do you think you are?” Mrs. Ross flung my first marketable book in my face. “Don’t peddle that garbage around here. Give me my daughter’s nickel back.”
I was six years old. Earlier that day, I had sold the folded sheet of paper with my penciled-in tale about a crayon pony to Mrs. Ross’s daughter, my classmate.
Mrs. Ross’s churlish critique thickened my creative skin. I kept writing, although it would be years before I tried to sell my work again.
The next run of rejections came as I queried syndicates for a comic series that I had developed. These were the days of query-by-post; email submissions had not yet caught on, and so the rejections drifted in months after mailing. They arrived in thick brown envelopes, the pristine rejection letters each signed by an 'assistant to the editor' atop my travel-worn excerpt.
All but one arrived in this manner. I researched every editor I queried, and discovered one fellow at United Media had been in his post for more than 20 years. I jokingly wrote into my query that his lengthy tenure was unique in the publishing world, and that therefore I suspected he was a corporate-crafted entity, much like Betty Crocker. He sent back a friendly handwritten note assuring me he did exist, he was glad that the stretch of his career had been noticed, and slipped in that he was about to retire. He still rejected my work, but:
The personal note made me feel that I was writing to people, not to corporations.
Years on, a journalism class assignment required that I sell feature articles to the press. I had already been published as an editorial cartoonist, but the dread I felt at pitching my printed words showed that Mrs. Ross’s denunciation had burned close to the bone.
To my shock, the newspaper bought the first story I pitched. Acceptance into one writing circle, however, did not turn the tide of rejection in the other. I submitted short fiction pieces to national competitions and while I always made the top 10 per cent, I never made that final cut. The near-misses would have saddled me in gloom, but the rejections came with detailed appraisals from the competition judges. That kept me writing.
I wrote my first novel, sweating through every page, rewriting it repeatedly until each line was sublime. At least I thought so, but no agent agreed with me, so the manuscript lay idle.
It would be ten years before I entered the fray again, this time with my second novel.
I have fired off 124 novel queries, and in response have received somewhere in the neighbourhood of 60 emailed rejections and 40 de-facto by non-response rejections.
Most of the rejections are impersonal, but two were from prominent agents who wrote that they loved the story idea, the conflict, the concept, but my writing style failed to resonate. Years ago, that might have slain my muse.
Rejection, however, no longer carries the same sting as it did when meted out by the infuriated Mrs. Ross, and not only because I’m an adult with better coping skills.
If ever there is a place to learn the odds on publication and success for a novel, it is in the newsroom.
Over my newsroom career, I often reviewed books, putting me in the odd position of receiving sales pitches from the very publishing houses that I longed to have adopt my own novels. I learned that the book business is a bruising one every step of the way, for publishers and agents, as well as for authors. I wrote my rejection notes keeping in mind that kindly United Media editor of years ago, and always tried to incorporate a personal tone in my ‘no thanks.’
I don’t have an iron skin: I do feel a smidge of sadness when I get the thumbs-down from an agent who I felt would be just the firecracker to sell my work.
It helps that I keep the creative side and the business side of writing completely compartmentalized, writing in one half of the year and trying to sell in the other. It also helps that I have been either the audience to or the receiver of a blistering response from a writer whose work has been refused.
Rude behavior and borderline paranoia have a way of welding into an editor’s memory.
This is not how a writer wants to be regarded in professional circles.
Writing is personal, but selling is business. You can put your heart into the former, but never the latter.