The trigger for this blog was my sister saying she didn’t like chapter 13 of the novel I am writing (working title of I Castrati). She had loved the previous twelve chapters but this one, she says, is predictable and the new character that is introduced is too much of a stereotype. She basically said “no good – try harder.” Was I grateful for her feedback? Did I re-read the chapter myself to see if she had a point? Did I hell! I felt as if she had physically punched me in the stomach and I immediately moved her e-mail to Trash.
Chapter 13 is the start of a love story between the male protagonist, Philippe, and a woman known as La Strega (Italian for witch) because she lives alone in a wood and makes healing potions out of herbs and natural ingredients. It is a sub-plot and I absolutely loved writing it. Ann, the writing group lead, suggested a few things but said it was “another good chapter.” How could two people have such different feedback on the same chapter? And who should I listen to?
You would think that by now I would be used to rejection. There were of course the normal job application failures and the many relationship failures over the years that are all part of life’s rich tapestry and, I am sure, all very character building. But when you become a writer of any sort you open yourself to almost constant rejection and criticism.
- There’s the failure to win competitions (flash fiction, short story, poetry, 1st 3 chapters of a novel ……) – you name it and I have submitted something and 99 times out of 100 I have heard no more. And when I did win a children’s short story run by the Society of Women Writers & Journalists (SWJJ) my first reaction was that there can’t have been many to choose from, such was my cynicism by that point. You very rarely get any feedback on failed entries to a competition so, as people say, “you just have to keep submitting – you won’t win if you don’t enter”. This is true, of course, but it is very disheartening when you have sent what you consider to be a brilliant piece of work but when you scan down the list of the top twenty – it is nowhere to be seen. I very rarely read the winning entry – I just know I won’t think it is as good as I think mine is.
- Having had no luck with literary agents the first time I sent out The Jewel Garden, I paid £195 to a professional reviewer to provide a report. His main feedback was that the reader would become more emotionally involved with Mary De Morgan if the story was told chronologically rather than as flashbacks after she had died. The first time I read the report I was almost physically sick. The whole book was basically multiple flashbacks and so, in my mind, he was saying that the whole book was rubbish. After a few weeks I re-read the report and discovered that he was actually very encouraging and was just recommending that I re-sequence the events so that the reader was engaged with the growing relationship as it happens, rather than retrospectively. I had to admit that it did make sense so I did what he suggested and a very much better book was written.
- The biggie is, of course, rejection by literary agents and publishers. Before the re-write of The Jewel Garden, I sent out to 21 literary agents and 20 publishers. I got 18 rejection e-mails in total over a number of months and no responses from the others After the re-write, I sent to 37 literary agents and 6 publishers and received 23 rejections. I considered the synopsis and introductory e-mail were sound, the book was well edited and presented, so the reason for the rejections was, as far as I was concerned, that they didn’t like my book, or not enough to bother with it. It doesn’t matter if they say something really positive, such as “I really enjoyed reading your work” – there is always a “but”. And it is these “buts” that tear a writer apart. After every rejection I felt like a little bit of me had died. When I did finally get an e-mail from Williams & Whiting offering to publish the novel I almost deleted it without finishing reading it, being sick and tired of getting to the “but”. I know all writers get rejections. J. K Rowling, apparently, got rejected 12 times (is that all??) before the 1st Harry Potter was snapped up and writers such as Hemingway, Herman Melville, George Orwell and Marcel Proust were all rejected multiple times. This doesn’t make me feel any better, it just proves that literary agents don’t always know a good book when they see one!
- Even once you are published, rejections abound. There are the unanswered e-mails to libraries, book-shops, reviewers – each non-reply is a rejection. The press-releases sent to newspapers, local and beyond – each non-acceptance is a rejection of me as a writer. Even a ‘friend’ on FaceBook who doesn’t accept is someone else who is judging and rejecting your invite.
- I haven’t had many reviews of The Jewel Garden yet, and so far they have been really lovely, but I have had a couple of academic books published and there is nothing as vitriolic as one academic criticising another. The feeling of mortification, embarrassment and downright depression after a bad review is almost too much to bear. Obviously the reviewer has to be honest and point out failings (as they see it) but there are ways of doing this that are supportive and encouraging rather than just totally destroying the writer’s confidence and credibility.
- There are, of course, the positive reviews which makes one’s heart sing, or the publisher who has faith in you and your novel, or a magazine who does print your press-release, or a bookshop who says they are willing to do a book-signing, or a library that would love you to come and give a talk on the upward struggle of being a writer. Or the good feedback from your writing group leader. Or from your sister. These all make you want to continue a keep on putting pen to paper.
It is so hard not to take each and every rejection and criticism to heart. I certainly am not sure which ones to just ignore and which I should take notice of. I do know that you can’t please everyone all the time. If I changed chapter 13 to please my sister, would Ann like it as much? Would I?
It is a hard lesson to learn that not everyone loves what I write, but at the end of the day I am still writing and producing work I am happy with and which at least a few other people enjoy reading.
Although perhaps not always my sister.