The Seven Rules of Rejection
Writing, like life, has a nasty habit of turning around to bite you in the bum when you least expect it.
So it has been while I was gently pondering what to write in this column. Rather to my surprise, I found that I had never written about that constant companion of a writer’s life, rejection. There is nothing quite like the disappointment of being turned down for testing our dedication, mental toughness and professionalism. We need to establish some basic rules of rejection, to be able to recognise it in its various disguises, and then to limit its personal, collateral damage. What a perfect subject for an Endpaper column.
It was at this point that I received a telephone call from The Author. Would I consider sharing this column with other writers? Maybe I could introduce guest contributors now and then? Or alternate with someone else?
An email correspondence ensued. In the end I decided that a column ceases to be a column if it’s a team event: the whole point of it – continuity, a recognisable voice – is lost. A polite slow-fade would be undignified.
The subject I had been planning to write about in what now turns out to be my last column for The Author had come to visit me.
The first rule: rejection is rejection.
Whether delivered with gentle regret or with a pointed finger and a Sugaresque ‘You’re fired’, the result is the same. Sometimes, to save embarrassment, it is sensible to cut the process short. In the words of the great Kenny Rogers song, ‘The Gambler’, you’ve got to know when to walk away, know when to run.
The gentle turn-down, oddly, is often more painful than the various traditional forms of rejection authors become used to receiving: from the bored standard letter sent to thousands of slush-pile hopefuls to the hand-wringing personal expression of sorrow from an editor who simply loved the manuscript but found it was ‘not quite right’ for the list, or ‘just not what we are looking for at present’, or – that tantalisingly vague phrase – ‘it doesn’t quite work for us’.
The second rule: any compliment contained in a rejection letter or email is entirely worthless.
Editors are human. They prefer not to seem beastly or callous, even when they are. For this reason, they will often try to soften your fall with a few well-worn, shop-soiled compliments – ‘beautifully written’, ‘nicely observed’, ‘heartfelt’, ‘utterly original’.
A relatively recent trick is for an editor to blame her colleagues – committees, sales, accountants. Goodness knows she tried, she’ll say. She would, of course, be interested to see anything you write in the future.
The third rule: distrust any request to rewrite your manuscript.
Some particularly wimpish editors will resort to the worst kind of rejection – one that offers false hope. They say that they would love certainly reconsider their decision if the manuscript were completely revised and rewritten.
It is a lie, and one which invariably costs authors months of work leading to more heartache. Any work which has been turned down once will be turned down again, however radically changed. Editors are too busy to have second thoughts. They rarely, if ever, change their mind.
The fourth rule: affection precedes rejection.
As your career develops and you become pally with publishers, another uncomfortable truth may emerge. It is precisely when you are told by your agent how fond of you your publisher is that you should fetch your coat: it is a sure sign that you are on your way out. Either you get a new contract, or you get expressions of personal warmth. The two do not go together.
The fifth rule: sometimes it is silent.
One of the less well-known forms of rejection is one explained to me recently by a senior agent who, like many of her colleagues, prefers to avoid firing authors – it looks bad and makes them feel a bit guilty. How, then, I asked, does she get rid of them? ‘I starve them of oxygen,’ she said. Emails are ignored, calls fail to get through. It is the equivalent of someone in a relationship behaving so badly that their partner is forced to leave them.
The sixth rule: accept it.
Trying to fight a decision which has been made, or moaning about the unfairness of it all, is pointless.
I intend to obey that rule here. I am, of course, very sad about my departure. A writer writing about writing for other writers might seem a marginal activity, but for me this has been one of the most enjoyable and rewarding jobs of my career. I’m grateful to the Society, and also to the brave, patient editors who have put up with me since the mid-1990s. The reactions of readers of this magazine – a wonderfully sophisticated, bloody-minded, opinionated bunch, I have discovered – have been cheering and occasionally inspiring.
The seventh rule: move on.
It is probably the most important rule of all. Don’t allow a rejection to define you. Another task awaits. Look forwards, not back.
Many of the Endpaper columns I have written for The Author can be found in the drop-down menu at the bottom of the page here.