Monday, July 27, 2015

Rejection vs. Failure

"You do your best work after your biggest disasters."

       Tim Robbins,
       as quoted in The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp

I'm not sure that not finding a publisher nor an agent for my memoir manuscript constitutes my biggest disaster, but in terms of my writing it does. There's no creative project into which I have poured more time and energy.

I spent a good part of my time as writer-in-residence at the Hemingway House on querying agents and publishers. I stuck to the old adage that persistence is everything, that you just have to plow on. Overall, I sent 70 query letters and/or proposals. Each time I pressed the Send button, hope rose again. In each email sent there was the possibility of success. If I don't try, I won't succeed, I kept telling myself.

There were lots of nibbles, requests for manuscripts, but none went anywhere. With each rejection my heart sank a little lower, and my composure got more frazzled. When I reached the end of my list of agents, I plowed through databases of similar books to find publishers who take unagented work (of which, thankfully, there are plenty). One day, as I was finding similar books that got published while mine wasn't finding a home, I got so mad that I texted my husband. A good deal of my fury and frustration must have been evident in that text because he wrote back, "Maybe you need a break?"

So I took a break. I left my little studio up in the Hemingway House, walked over to the French bistro down the street and had a glass of Chardonnay with an omelette lunch. Then I chucked the process. I worked other writing.

Soon thereafter an email from an editor came in, suggesting a rewrite and offering to look at it again after that. That made me even madder. I didn't want to rewrite it based on someone's advice who had no skin in the game. A rewrite would be a lot of work and I wasn't even sure I could do it.

Then I had dinner with a good writing friend who yelled at me that this was a terrific second chance and that I'd better get to it. I didn't want to. I was scared.

"Change--changing the work and how we work--is the unpleasant task of dealing with that which we have been denying. It is probably the biggest test in the creative process, demanding not only an admission that you've made a mistake but that you know how to fix it."
Twyla Tharp, The Creative Habit, p. 218

"The unpleasant task"--yes, that's what I was dealing with! That's why I had been dragging my feet. I hadn't wanted to admit that this version of the manuscript had failed.

Thanks to my friend, by the time I was reading The Creative Habit, I was deep into attempting the rewrite. Up until then, however, I had seen my problem in terms of rejection. I had hunted around for advice on how to deal with rejection, how to keep up the fight in the face of continued, repeated rejection when really rejection had turned into failure.

When does rejection turn into failure? I wish I knew! I wish I could say, "it's after sending out 70 unsuccessful queries," or "when a second chance comes around." Part of the challenge of the creative process is that you're always operating in this foggy no-man's-land. Other writers and artists can only give you advice, share where they have been at, but it's you yourself who has to decide what to do about the work.

I am happy to report that I am glad I attempted the rewrite. It was easier than I thought. I shouldn't have doubted myself so much. I am done now, and I feel it is a better book.

What if the second chance doesn't pan out? Of course I am dreading that, but at least I gave the second chance a chance.


  1. Annette, my heart ached for you while reading this. But I also felt great admiration for your perseverance in this major project. Many would have given up after only a few query letters. You'll have a lot of moral support from your readers, I'm sure. So hang in there!

    1. Thanks, Nancy! Such is the creative process, right? It's not always peaches and cream (to use a cliche).

  2. Keep in mind that no matter how much you've invested in the original version, at this point in time you're a more experienced and better writer. Any changes you make to the manuscript will reflect that.

    Good luck with the revised version.

    1. Harriet, you're right about that. It was amazing to go through the manuscript again with some distance to it and much easier to cut stuff.

  3. Hi Annette,

    I have such a project of my own. I've spent many years working on a novel and did a total rewrite while working on my MFA. Since that time, I've revised it after a round of critiquing from my writing group. It still needs another revision. Alas, it sits on the shelf in my computer while I work on other things and try to brace myself to invest more time.

    My mind has changed on the self-publication route, and I may do that after getting a professional editor to review it and make suggestions. In the meantime, I work on other projects.

    It's hard to let go of something we know has real value and yet we can't seem to get the responses we want/need. Others have traveled this road before us, and I'm sure they will after too. Perseverance is the key. Good luck!

    Bonny Millard, a fellow Queenie

    1. Bonny, thanks for stopping by and sharing your journey. Here's to good results eventually, somewhere down the road! Onward and upward!

  4. It is frustrating when one sees EL James make a bloody fortune off of what started as fanfic, or the Kardashians have someone ghost write a novel for them, while better writing goes totally ignored by agents.

    1. Hm, well, I do hope my writing falls under better writing.