So before I talk about that stomach-twisting, soul-crushing, esteem-dissolving phenomenon that is a part of every writer’s life; rejection, I want to take a few quick lines to say hello to all my new followers and to welcome you to my blog. When I started this thing, a slow line of followers developed as I tagged the right way and promoted myself on Twitter, but the bulk of you, I imagine, came along when ‘Over the Wall’ was selected to be Freshly Pressed. I invite you to make me a part of your writerly experience – comment, argue with and query me – because if there’s one thing I know about writers is that you’re all a rare breed of spotted cat when it’s cool to wear stripes, and the more you learn and share with each other the better your writing will be. So high-five to my writerly friends in Pakistan, Qatar, Jamaica, Costa Rica, London, The Isle of Mann, Iceland, and everybloodywhere else. I’m glad to have you here.
I’ve been writing since I was twelve, although back then it was all imitations of Martin Scorsese films with shadowy-eyed wiseguys and slinky prostitutes, and my complete teenage ignorance about New York and drug importation crippled my work. I moved from gangsters to vampires when Anne Rice rocked my world at age sixteen, so for three straight novels my protagonists were French-lace-wearing undead and I fumbled with romance, which I wasn’t very successful at, as I was no one’s idea of desire with my waist-length black hair and my Blundstone boots and my rainbow braces. The first time I submitted a manuscript it was one of these preternatural angsty adventures to HarperCollins, and I got a rejection letter (in the mail!) a few months later. It was automated, but I didn’t know that, so I was thrilled by the ‘careful consideration’ they’d put into rejecting my work and the luck they wished me in my writing future. I ran back to the computer and thundered out another book, and this time I sent it to twenty publishers. The letters came back one at a time over nine months. Wow, I thought. This is tough business.
When I hit university at twenty I decided to take my writing ‘seriously’, so I sat down over a year and a half and squeezed every conceivable idea I had in my head into a 270,000 word crime epic monstrocity. Touch was a world unto itself, a heady clash of supernatural and detective novel spanning thirty years with a cast of dozens, multiple sub-plots and a desk full of research embedded in its pages. It was going to be the crime novel to end all crime novels. I sent it to fifty publishers and got cracking on the sequel straight away (because there was no way this wasn’t going to be the next Da Vinci Code) and was twenty thousand words into book two when the rejections started rolling in. It’s too big. It’s too descriptive. One of the main characters is an insufferable melodramatic sot who can’t seem to drag himself out of his self-loathing and thinks way too much about everything. It’s too dark. It loses it’s way. I watched the emails come in with ever-increasing existential panic. With ten publishers left to reject, a year or so after I’d sent the book out, a big Australian publisher called (I nearly died) to reject me verbally. The problem was, the caller got my book and someone else’s book muddled up in her head and half the rejection didn’t apply. ‘I really think that Mike is just an inconsistent character overall. The orphanage scene demonstrates this, you know?’
There was no Mike in the book. No orphanage scene. But I didn’t argue. I just cried. For three days.
So I scrapped Touch, and it’s sequel, Breathe. I wrote another book, The Retriever, inspired by Liam Neeson‘s character in Taken. I sent it to sixty publishers or so, but this time I made sure I included some overseas options. I caught the attention of a renowned London literary agent, who went nuts over the book initially before fizzling out about two seconds after I’d told everyone I’d ever met about her interest. ‘You have a great book in you,’ she said. ‘It’s just not this one. I’ll be here when you write it. Send me everything you do from now on.’ The sentiment she expressed was something I’d heard before. I was getting to know publishers by name and they were getting to know me in their oh-god-not-you-again kind of way. Keep writing, they told me. You’re good at this. The book is coming. This just isn’t it.
No, this isn’t it either.
Sorry, no, not this one, either.
Um, this is getting awkward, but… No. Maybe the next one?
I’ve never taken rejection well. For each of the two hundred or so rejection letters for the four serious novels I wrote before Hades, I got drunk. I hated the game. I hated the publishers. I hated Stephanie Meyer, and J. K. Rowlings, and that eighteen-year-old who wrote The Lovely Bones for their Cinderella publishing stories. I called my mother and ranted and raved until I knocked my wine glass over. How could no one want me, when there was such trash out there being printed and sold from Bangladesh to Boston? How could no one want me, when some of the people rejecting me were two-man garage publishing houses printing erotic poetry from elderly school teachers? It was rigged, I decided, the whole thing. J.K. was probably some big-wig publisher’s girlfriend in high school. I didn’t need to be published to write. And write I did. Every day. The same way I had been since I was a kid, chewing bits of plastic and hammering the keys and pulling my legs up and crossing them in the desk chair, Jerry Springer on the TV in the background, Facebook open on the tool bar. I wasn’t going to be less dark. I wasn’t going to write on trend. I wasn’t going to pick themes from the bestseller list or try to sound like James Patterson. I sat down and wrote Hades, and it was glorious fun. It’s going to final print in November.
I used to be ashamed of my colossal pile of rejection material, so much so that most of the time when I received a damning letter I kept it to myself, or deleted it immediately. My pile of rejections used to make me feel like a bad writer, and sometimes, when I was really low, a bad person: a loser, someone still harbouring the juvenile fantasy of an unobtainable rockstar dream, someone who should really just face reality and get a proper job. I’ve changed, and it wasn’t the publishing deal that changed me. Not long before the deal, I’d started joking to my family and friends that I was going for the title of Australia’s Most Rejected Writer. Before that, I’d been shocked by the respect, love, admiration and humour I’d inspired in others by being the blind, idiot wife of a cheating, gambling husband. When my marriage failed (and it was a monumental failure: I mean, I failed at that like it was my job) my shame was cancelled out by how wonderful everyone was about it. I was suddenly fallible. Brave, even. I’d proven myself.
Failure, I realised, and your determination to pick yourself up and brush yourself off afterward, can be an honour code.
It’s something that happens to everyone. It’s something essential to life. So the fifty, sixty, eighty, two hundred rejections you get will be the two hundred scars you got fighting your way to the frontline. Rejection should harden you without making you bitter, it should change the way you feel about yourself and your work, and when you gain success, as you will, it should stand as an indicator of your growth. For now, promise yourself that you will print your next rejection letter and keep it, the way I didn’t keep so many of mine, because it will be a part of your history. It will be a moment, one of hundreds, when you were told you couldn’t do what you were trying to do.
And you didn’t listen.