or You Gotta Have Faith
To quote Joan Rivers, “Can we talk?”
I’m not supposed to blog that I’m not breaking down doors and setting the world on fire with my queries letters. Ah, well. My Mom taught me never to lie.
Since the most common advice to an aspiring author is “keep trying” I don’t think I’m alone in this experience. But, it does get frustrating. (I know, I’m not supposed to admit that either.) And not just for my own work, but also when I see my peers meet with the same closed doors* when I know first hand how wonderful their work is. I’m beginning to think “market” should be a four-letter word. [*Barbara, of course, has now broke through the debut author barrier, since she’s published one novel and has sold two more.] I’ve said it many times, and I’ll say it once more (today, at least): Some of the best novels I’ve ever read have yet to be published.
So I’ve done a lot of chatting, commiserating and war-story exchanging with my peers and I’ve come to a conclusion. What’s the most important factor in turning an unpublished project into a published novel? Faith.
To put things in perspective, here are a few familiar names that made it through the chamber of torture we call the query process.
William Saroyan received about 7000 rejections (a 30-inch stack!) before he sold a short
Ray Bradbury has received around 1000 rejections over his 30 year career
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance -- Rejected 150+ times
Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach -- Rejected 140 times
The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde -- Received 76 rejection letters
Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell -- Rejected 38 times
Chicken Soup for the Soul by Hansen and Canfield-- 33 rejections, dropped by agent
Watership Down by Richard Adams -- 26 rejections.
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle's – Rejected 26 times
Dune by Frank Herbet – Rejected nearly 20 times
M*A*S*H by Richard Hooker -- Rejected 17 times
Princess Diaries by Meg Cabot -- Rejected 17 times
The Diary Of Anne Frank -- Rejected 16 times
Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling – Rejected 9 times
Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child – rejected repeatedly
Surprised? Look at the comments on some of these:
Tony Hillerman was once told to "get rid of all that Indian stuff."
Someone said of J.G. Ballard: "The author of this book is beyond psychiatric help."
About Sanctuary, William Faulkner was told: "Good God, I can't publish this. We'd both be in jail."
Of Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, someone wrote: “The whole is so dry and airless, so lacking in pace, that whatever drama and excitement the novel might have had is entirely dissipated by what does seem, a great deal of the time, to be extraneous material.”
And how about this classic: “I'm sorry, Mr. Kipling, but you just don't know how to use the English language."
You see? We are not alone in the rejection universe! There’s a lot of famous people here with us.
Everyone gets rejected. Yes, rejections hurt, but they aren’t intended to cause injury. Agents and editors have a genuine interest in seeing authors—especially debut authors—succeed in a big way. If you’re ready to give up after a few rejections (and many do) then maybe all you need is some perspective.
Writing is a business. I think the failure rate of most new businesses is probably more than 90%. The ones that make it are the ones that believe in their product. They know what they sell is quality and that it deserves to be on their shelves. Writers are no different. First and foremost, they have to believe in what they’re selling.
Being an agent or a publishing house is a business, too. Most agents are taking a huge chance when they give a writer’s work the nod because they see something shiny and sparkly in the work. They’re taking a chance that their attention, time and effort is going to pay off. They are acting on faith. There’s no guarantee they’ll get any return for all their hard work. Publishing houses are also taking a huge chance, and they’re putting their money where their mouth is. They spend a lot to produce and distribute an author’s book, and they take on a lot of risk. They do this because they believe the book is going to make a profit. In order for an agent and an editor to believe and have faith in your work, you have to believe in it first. Believe it’s the best possible product it can be and that it’s going to turn the world on its ear. If you don’t believe it, who else will?
Receiving a rejection does not mean that your work sucks. The most likely reasons it was rejected have to do with market or not being a good fit for what an agency or publishing house represents. Sometimes it can be about the agent’s or editor’s mood that particular day, or personal taste, or an element in the story that strikes a negative chord with them. None of this has anything to do with your writing ability. None of this means the next person you query isn’t going to fall in love with your work.
You can save yourself some pain by researching who you should query. Sure, you can send out a hundred queries at a time, spray the industry with random bullets, as it were, but what’s the chance of hitting the target when you aren’t even aiming at one? Put another way, if you’re selling beef, you wouldn’t blanket query a bunch of vegetarians, would you?
Query smarter. Select your targets carefully.
Your mission, should you chose to accept it, is to boldly go out and find that certain genius who’s going to recognize the potential in your manuscript. Let’s hope it doesn’t turn into a five-year mission, but be prepared to do what it takes, as long as it takes. To quote one of my MC’s favorite phrases: “Keep your eye on the prize.”
And meanwhile, remember…you’re in very good company in Rejectionville.
Here’s a few links that might also help inspire you: