I’ve just read Lionel Shriver’s excellent book We Need to Talk About Kevin, at the back of which is an interesting article she wrote for the Guardian regarding its path to success. Shriver had already published six novels when she submitted the manuscript for this one to her agent, and still it was rejected. It was deemed to be too dark (a mother with no maternal feelings for her son, a son who commits mass murder at his high school) and written at the wrong time (just after 9/11). Shriver spent the next eight months – as an already published writer, eight months! – looking for a new agent without success. In desperation she sent the manuscript directly to an editor who’d published her before and from there got an offer, a new agent, and finally publication. Even so her advance was small, the advertising budget next to nothing, and sales got off to a slow start, but what made her book an eventual success – a 1 million copy bestseller, Orange prize winner, Hollywood movie – turned out to be word of mouth by readers. I bet Shriver’s original agent, who actually sent her a bill for photocopying the manuscript, is still kicking herself.
All aspiring writers love these rejection stories because they give us hope. Hope that one day our book too will be published if only we do one thing: Persevere. Lionel Shriver could have given up. Of course she had six published novels under her belt to give her confidence in her work, but all those books had lost money. She could have thrown in the towel long before hitting the jackpot, as it were, with novel number seven.
Anyone who wants to become a published author has to grow a thick skin. You’ll start collecting rejections like a philatelist collects stamps, only without the joy. But push through the pain of all that disappointment and after a while you start to understand when your work’s being rejected because it isn’t right full stop, and when it just isn’t right for a particular publication. Even the best writers have been rejected. Even the best have readers who write, “This is the most boring book I have ever read” on Amazon. Writing is all about rejection, but the good news is it’s all about perseverance too, and you can do something about that. The more you write the better you’ll get, and one day that stream of rejections might just be stopped by an acceptance.