A professional writer is an amateur who didn’t give up. If you keep going you improve and you’ll break through eventually, but you must keep going.
Some years ago I had a room-mate, lets call him Robert, who was an exceedingly talented writer and a super bright individual. Robert had come from a north of England working class family and had won a scholarship to a top college at Oxford to study law, and then proceeded to get a 1st. In a class ridden society such as England is, this is quite a feat. He then went on to barrister pupilage in London. So far, so successful. He struggled in London however, his working class roots a subtle bar from invitation to the glossiest circles, and he let it get to him. Robert decided to jack the law trade in and devote his time to his hobby, writing prose.
Robert was blessed with a wondrous poetic use of language and could craft very beautiful, visual prose. He also had an instinct for story. Within a year, a short story by Robert, had won a prestigious national prize. The way seemed set for a glittering career as a writer. Robert sent out his first novel manuscript to an agent of his choosing. It was rejected. Robert was speechless and sunk into a depression for a few months. Eventually he rallied round, spent another six months moving commas around pages and plucked up the courage to send it out again. And again it was rejected. This process was repeated a third time, after which Robert hit bottom and decided to never write again – and I learned a valuable lesson by proxy.
Robert’s book was slow-paced and poetic and not to everyone’s taste, but there’s no doubt it was good. It may have even eventually have been published had he persevered and found the right agent/publisher. However, Robert’s issue was that he could not take rejection. Following a lifetime of over-achievement, he had unreal expectations and a sense of privilege and entitlement that often accompanies high success at a young age – yes, even for those from working class backgrounds. If Robert had had the skills to roll with the blows, he would have no doubt become a barrister and a published and acclaimed author – but he did not know how to handle rejection, so he gave up. Dealing with the turn-downs is the most important skill a writer needs.
Robert had three rejections and then stopped writing. It’s July, I’ve had 33 rejection letters since January this year alone, and I’ll have the same number again by December (I’ve had 10 acceptances thus far this year, however, just to give you an idea of the percentages). If you are not willing to take the hits, you need to get out of the writing game. The upside is that if you keep going, keep sending those ships out, keep improving and keep rolling with the punches, you absolutely will break through… eventually.
August 8th, 2013 at 21:44
Thanks for this. My writing has been rejected so often, I think of it as a given. Not to be negative, just realistic. Still, you can’t win if you don’t play, right?
August 8th, 2013 at 22:17
Don’t get too used to it, Sue! It can spill over to your RW life! But, I totally agree, part of putting yourself and your work out there is learning to handle rejection, letting it roll off your back, and going on to bigger and better.
August 9th, 2013 at 00:19
Encouraging words…rejection can be so soul destroying when you don’t knwo how to handle it, and I so know where you’re coming from when you say about burning all your writing that time…I guess dealing with rejection comes with maturity and therefore takes some of us longer than others to achieve! Enjoy the Edinburgh Fringe and I hope you find a good theatre! 🙂
August 9th, 2013 at 00:33
Thanks Sue! Wonderful advice!
August 9th, 2013 at 08:53
Sensible advice and fair dues to you for being honest about the less glamorous aspects of writing. Interesting stats about your strike rate too – gives good perspective.
August 9th, 2013 at 11:28
The trolley lady is a stroke of genius!
You’re an accomplished writer, but winning everything would be very unhealthy for your creativity.
I never won anything and am so creative I could cry 🙂
August 9th, 2013 at 12:56
Sometimes I measure my success in the quality of the rejection! Congrats on being short listed. As another Irish writer once said “fail again, fail better.”
August 9th, 2013 at 16:15
You rock, Sue! Soon all your boats will come back to port when you least expect. I’d say you’re doing just fine, (Easy for me to say) Every career choice has its processes, it seems. Such is life.
August 11th, 2013 at 16:39
You’re so right in your advice! I’m becoming sadly aware that sitting fearing rejection isn’t getting my writing any better, that I’m not going to wake up one day and discover that it’s fallen into place and I can write. And it is that sheer determination that sorts out those who can really push through rejection and get there. Congratulations on all those that did get through and good luck fixing those that haven’t yet 🙂
August 16th, 2013 at 01:15
Rejection is tough, it kept me from writing for several years. Thanks for your honesty Sue!
August 20th, 2013 at 15:18
Sorry to hear you didn’t get short listed honey 😦
I’ve decided I’m going to paper my downstairs loo with rejection letters once I get enough 😉
August 20th, 2013 at 21:03
Ah, but I did get shortlisted… that was the good part… I just didn’t win… But hey, all those rejection emails keep my feet on the ground.
August 21st, 2013 at 06:52
Whoops, sorry honey, I thought you were long listed, in that case CONGRATULATIONS on THAT 🙂 I’ve never been short listed for anything lol
That’s the spirit 🙂
August 24th, 2013 at 10:28
Hi Sue, Thanks for finding and following my blog. Sorry about this rejection, I know how it feels. But you’ve got to keep sending out your babies!
August 24th, 2013 at 11:42
Your award collection is outstanding but unfortunately the internet is killing the writing profession because no one likes to read about topics which have little relevance to their lives. Reading for pleasure, especially if it is rather verbose and doesn’t get to the point quickly, is going out of style rather rapidly. You have to be a celebrity with a book to get it published and make any money these days or have a very large money promotion war chest. I wish you luck making money at writing because frankly it is a dying profession, especially book writing.
August 24th, 2013 at 11:45
Thanks for the follow sue, I am not so experience writer whom just start poetry introduced by hastywords basically grade six education and a lot street life, which am currently writing to you now. There seem much to learn and little time.
cheers toad (chris jensen)
August 26th, 2013 at 22:36
Thanks for the wise and witty post. I admire your honesty, sense of humor and resilience. Especially love the ship’s log–brilliant! Looking forward to reading more. Cheers! P.s. Congratulations on all of the ships that have successfully returned to port-quite impressive considering the stormy seas and abundant shoals that are the artist’s lot.
August 30th, 2013 at 08:32
So glad you’re following my blog. I really relate to this piece. The best antidote to rejection is to get your stuff back out there as soon as possible. While you keep trying there is hope, when you stop trying there is no hope. I seem to follow the same path with relationships!!!.. not sure this advice works so well there.
I’m really interested in the grant you received from the Arts Council for your novel. Is it a particular fund or award? If you have the time I’d be really keen to find out more. I have an idea I want to research but could do with a bit of funding to help me do so.
August 30th, 2013 at 22:11
hi Carol, It’s not a particular fund – any artist can apply to the arts council for funding for a particular project. You need to have a strong track record in your art and to propose a very good project, however. Their website will explain the procedure.
September 1st, 2013 at 12:26
Love this post — and your forthrightness about the whole process. Ships. So great…hope you never have a Vasa (check it out.)
Last year I was one of 278 applicants for a Big Fellowship here in the States, 14 of whom got to the interview. Ugh. I had 15 minutes (!) to impress five judges. I did not win, and I was not well prepared as I’d really not expected to become a finalist. This year I am back at it again (this might be the 3rd or 4th time trying for that one). I am amazed by people who slink away after their work is rejected — because they often conflate their work with their personal worth. BIG difference. Until you can separate the two, (and the sting of not being chosen), it’s very tough.
I know my ongoing success, like yours, is as much a result of bloodyminded not giving up as talent. My first two books were each rejected by 25 (!) publishers before the 26th said yes. Stressful as hell, but what if I or my agent had given up?
September 3rd, 2013 at 17:44
Just taking a quick break from updating one of my blog drafts so rather than leave the desk to indulge in some domestic chore as I usually would, I thought it more productive to at least stay at he keyboard:
I must say the picture compliments your post here beautifully, quite the stroke of genius if you forgive the cliché. There’s little else I can say that hasn’t already been covered by previous replies here other than to say well done, and that I’ve no doubt your perseverance will bring great success in the near future.
September 4th, 2013 at 04:26
[…] only struck me — reading Sue Healy’s brilliant blog about writing, (and she’s a former journalist) — that, as a default position, I expect to be able to […]
September 5th, 2013 at 16:39
Thank you for writing this post! I think rejection and bouncing back from it are topics that should be addressed more often (especially the latter).
September 9th, 2013 at 01:30
I appreciate the follow.
Wonderful post, Sue. As a new author, I’ve had plenty of time to fret about rejection. But, strangely enough, It bothered me a lot less than I feared. Probably I haven’t received enough thanks-but-no- thanks agent emails yet:) I agree that persistence is the key. I loved my first novel, but it was just that. My second novel will be the one I feel good about sending out into the world.
September 11th, 2013 at 21:55
It can get discouraging, but you can’t give up! 🙂 You also have to celebrate the wins, such as your screenplay being shortlisted and realize that is a big accomplishment in itself. Another thing that keeps me going is the occasional positive feedback from editors or agents. I think it means a lot if they take the time to give a personal response.
September 12th, 2013 at 22:24
Congrats on the shortlisting. I get chuffed if a get a personalised rejection and do the Cancan on the rare occasions that anyone asks to see the whole manuscript. I read recently that tests show that successful people have more failures than unsuccessful ones – well illustrated by your post. Thanks for following.
October 16th, 2013 at 21:25
thanks, this means a lot. had similar approach with sending out and receiving rejections. stopped for ten years to “just write” and breaking out back to sending is quite a heavy weight to lift due to waiting and procrastination. again, thank you for posting this. getting back to action!
July 18th, 2016 at 11:15
I was feeling quite disheartened about (yet another) rejection email and flicked to my next email, which was this blog update. Perfect timing – thank you Sue!
October 25th, 2016 at 01:27