Rejection slips, or form letters, however tactfully phrased, are lacerations of the soul, if not quite inventions of the devil — but there is no way around them. Isaac Asimov
It’s an inescapable fact that the writing life is bound up with rejection. Successful authors are those able to survive the lacerations. So in this second post in a series, I asked three successful authors — Anna Spargo-Ryan, Sheryl Gwyther and Ben Hobson — to share their experiences of both rejection and success. They have all been so generous in offering up these honest and wise words, and if you’re a writer you might want to paste Ben’s pep talk next to wherever you write.
I think the worst rejections are always the ones that mirror some insecurity you have about your writing. For me, that’s being wordy and obtuse. When my first novel, The Paper House, was published I remember waiting for reviews that would reflect what I ‘knew’ about the book and myself: that I had used six words when one would do; that the writing was florid and tiresome; and OH GOD the metaphors, why were there so many?
I felt it was only a matter of time before someone uncovered these truths, and so it was. A review in a major newspaper described the book as being poetic, but, you know, maybe not in a good way. Musical like a little kid learning the violin. Magical in the sense that I must have cast a spell on someone to get it published.
Realising someone else sees your flaws is devastating. I hoped — but didn’t believe — that I’d managed to cover them up. I thought I had dialogued over the top of my wailing symbolism. I had tried so hard to craft a plot to hide the layers of semiotics. But this reviewer had seen them anyway, and pointed right at them.
I responded by writing a whole other book with almost no metaphors in it. Eighty thousand words to prove that I could do it and the reviewer was wrong. Reader, that is too many hours to invest in someone you should probably just never think about again. Drink a Milo instead.
On the other hand, being seen can be extremely affirming. When my second novel came out I did an interview with the legendary literary journalist Jane Sullivan. We went to my local café on a cold day and I think she had a tea and I had nothing because I was so nervous. The Age was going to publish a double-page spread about me. Terrifying. Glorious, as well, but it made me want to die a bit.
I tried to be articulate. I talked about family violence and toxic masculinity in ways that I hoped reflected my intentions. I didn’t know what I was saying. Jane wrote in shorthand, which meant I couldn’t peer over and try to better articulate myself. I sped up. I blurted. I accidentally talked about my divorce, my own experiences of violence, my mental health. I wished I hadn’t. I remember thinking I had wanted to be professional, and that talking about myself as a depressed, anxious, no-good hack was not a particularly good way to do it. I might have even cried afterwards, although I cry at so often that it could have been unrelated.
A few weeks later, the interview was published. I was absolutely shitting myself, obviously. I think I made my partner read it first and promise to white-out any dreadful things I’d said (all of them, I was sure). I was so afraid I had revealed too many pieces of myself.
I peeked. It was a beautiful spread, with a full-colour portrait and an enormous headline. The stuff of dreams. And I took a deep breath and read the first line:
‘Anna Spargo-Ryan doesn’t seem at all like a miserable person.’
I was so shocked and so grateful I felt my heart was on fire. It’s my Twitter header image to this day. I carry a print-out around in my handbag. Jane had listened to me talk about the black clouds of melancholy and realised that wasn’t all there was. It was like having my portrait painted.
Anna Spargo-Ryan is the author of The Gulf and The Paper House, and was the inaugural winner of The Horne Prize. Her work has appeared in The Big Issue, the Guardian, Good Weekend and many other places. She lives in Melbourne with her family and more pets than is strictly appropriate.
Like every other writer I’ve had rejections galore … over 20 years they’ve become the wallpapering in the room of my determination to never give up.
I’ve repapered over the most disappointing rejections, but I remember a review in Magpies magazine of my first children’s novel, Secrets of Eromanga. It was a positive review, except for one line about the villains being one-dimensional baddies. The reviewer may have been right or not but, mortified that school librarians and my contemporaries would read it, it’s all I took in. Mind you, it did make me work harder on every single villain I’ve written ever since.
I also remember the day I met with HarperCollins publisher, Lisa Berryman, to chat about my latest manuscript, Sweet Adversity. This is it, methinks! She wants my story. But of course, it wasn’t. She listed several things that needed sorting out — one of which would require a major rewrite of the book’s last quarter. My hopes of a contract were dashed.
Despondent with failure, I returned home to my logical-scientist bloke. He rolled his eyes at my tragic recount of the meeting. ‘Sounds to me like Lisa wants your story,’ Ross said. ‘You just have to fix up a few things.’
He was right, of course. Two weeks later, I send the manuscript back with eight extra chapters plus a much stronger ending. Lisa rang me. ‘You’ve nailed it, Sheryl,’ she said, ‘I’m taking it to acquisitions next week.’ Sweet Adversity was on its way. Truly a lesson in being proactive rather than reactive. And more important, the ability to listen to an experienced publisher … no matter how much extra work it means.
Writing for kids prepares you for total honesty — they don’t bother with sugar-coating. I love it. I remember a review of Secrets of Eromanga by a Year 8 student from New Zealand. He ‘didn’t want to read this novel’ and, just like he expected, ‘it was a dumb story’. Poor guy — being forced to read something he didn’t want to!
But then you get brilliant feedback too. Recently, at the Darling Downs Readers’ Cup Quiz where Sweet Adversity was on the reading list, I signed a copy for an 11-year-old boy. ‘I wouldn’t normally read this sort of book,’ he said. ‘Harry Potter has been my favourite book,’ he added, ‘but now it’s Sweet Adversity.’
I laughed … thinking how sweet he was to be so kind. But his teammates, all girls, said, ‘He’s telling the truth! He did love Harry, but now all he talks about is Adversity.’ Ahhh, the joy of writing for children!
Award-winning Queensland author Sheryl Gwyther writes novels, chapter books, short stories and plays for children and adults. Her recent historical adventure Sweet Adversity (10+ readers) is set in the Great Depression with Addie, a brave, vulnerable hero, a Shakespeare-quoting cockatiel, a tribe of lost children and enough dastardly villains to chill the bones.
Rejection is important. It’s training. It’s you running a 100-metre sprint every day practicing for the Olympics. If you want to run that race in front of that crowd then you have to practice. You have to take your licks. Trip over your shoelaces, faceplant into the gravel. Rejection moulds the writer. It is your training ground and every writer must endure it, because those made of weaker stuff are the ones that fall away. It is the refining fire of authordom.
The rejection that stung the worst for me also turned out to be the thing that kept me going. I entered To Become a Whale into the Vogel award, and it was really my last gasp. It was the last sprint I had in me. I pinned all my hopes on that thing so when it was rejected, my dreams felt like they were crumbling through my fingers.
The thing is though, that rejection also contained these words; this is a moving tale of father and son relationships, masculinity, blood, all in a unique setting. And then a ‘but…’ So while I was down — and I mean, I was — I eventually managed to pick myself back up again, read those words, and knew that I’d done something. It felt like I’d almost made it through. Those words spurned me on to rewrite once more (one more sprint, damn it) and send it on to an agent. Who sent me a very excited email.
There’s an old biblical adage: suffering produces perseverance, perseverance produces character, and character, hope. This is rejection for the writer. It’ll either make you turn away, or buckle the hell down and grit your teeth that bit harder. And in that perseverance your character will be made. Character that allows you to be charitable to other authors who are suffering. Character that fights with bared teeth for what you believe in. And lastly, hope is produced. Because when you are a published author and you are engaged with everybody who is still suffering you are a beacon of what might be.
It’s awful. Every time one of the stories you’ve laboured over gets rejected feels so hard. I don’t mean to minimise it at all. In fact, I want to emphasise this. I want to acknowledge it. It is damn hard. You spend years working on a novel. You make all the right moves. Get pre-readers, hire a manuscript assessor, take it through a program. And at the end you send it off with your heart attached to it with paperclips and you hold your hands together and sit by the mailbox like a dog waiting for its owner to return. And then you get the form letter.
It sucks. But I’m saying to you: you can persevere. You’re a writer, damn it. Get off the floor and clench your fists and edit and send it out once more. You can endure. You are being refined. Collect rejections like UFC fighters collect scars; each one of those things is a mark that has created this warrior you’re becoming. Be proud. And send it out again.
Ben Hobson lives in Brisbane and is entirely keen on his wife, Lena, and their two boys, Charlie and Henry. He currently teaches English and Music at a Queensland High School. To Become a Whale, his first novel, was published in 2017, and was longlisted for the ABIA debut book award, and shortlisted in the Courier Mail People’s Choice Award at the Queensland Literary Awards in 2018. His second novel, Snake Island, will be released 5 August this year.
This month you can win FOUR books by these incredible authors: Anna Spargo-Ryan’s The Paper House and The Gulf, Sheryl Gwyther’s Sweet Adversity, and hot off the press Ben Hobson’s Snake Island. Simply sign up to my monthly newsletter (sign-up box on this page) before 5 pm on Monday 15 July to go in the draw.
Read the first post in this series with Eleanor Limprecht, Annabel Smith and Natasha Lester.