What was your first ever rejection?
I can remember mine perfectly. I won’t say it’s etched into my memory, because that would be a lie. It doesn’t dwell in my mind or my brain. It was cut into the soft, unsuspecting flesh of my heart. When I reach inside for the moment, I feel the jagged ridges of scar tissue beneath my fingers.
“But, I don’t understand… Why would anyone want to read this?”
The words haunt me even now. The utter bafflement of the pause, the scathing tone of the final word. She was thirty-something, bilingual, and had ‘a job in the city’; I was a shy twenty-one-year-old, and I’d jumped straight from a BA to an MA like a shipwreck victim clinging to driftwood.
Bumbling and with burning cheeks, I’d just read out a piece of creative fiction in my writing workshop at university. ‘Chapter 2 – The Grand Affair‘. I’d shared ‘Chapter 1 – Watson’s Sponges‘ a fortnight before as a one-off story, an impulsive tale scribbled down the previous night, but the rest of the class read it, enjoyed it, and insisted I follow it up with another.
She’d missed that workshop.
In a group of literary short story writers and incomprehensible poets, I was the only novelist. I was also the youngest student – in some cases, by decades – but somehow my quirky, funny idea had won over my eclectic classmates, who ranged from retired chiropractor to nipple tassel-wearing, self-proclaimed ‘fairy’, and everything in-between.
But not her.
“Why would anyone want to read this?” she asked in front of the entire class. No, she didn’t ask – she demanded. She demanded to know who would read an upbeat mystery novel about a crime-reading beautician turned amateur sleuth.
An awkward hush fell. Nobody answered her. Nobody stood up for me. And do you know what I said?
Nothing. Not a word. The rest of the session is blank in my mind, like a missing reel of film. I collected my sheets back in and got the hell out of there. I never shared another piece of writing with that weekly class. I’m not sure I ever spoke during it, either.
In my notebook where I kept a real-time record of the class’ critique, I wrote a damning word: ‘delusional’.
I meant me. But now, three-and-a-bit years later, I read the word and I know it means her.
Let’s strip away the cold critique, the overly-harsh response to the first draft of a general idea. Let’s forget the sting of her dislike. Let’s focus on the facts and figures. As of today, there are 174,267 mystery novels on Amazon. Of those, at least 21,364 are centered on female sleuths. According to one website, crime and mystery is the second best-selling genre in the world, losing out only to romance/erotica. Another site even suggests that of the people who buy one book a year, at least half of them would buy a mystery. So without a doubt, mystery is one of the most popular genres in the world of literature.
“Who’s going to read this?“ she’d asked, dumbfounded by the chapters’ very existence; angry at me for writing them. Who’d read them? Well, as it happens, potentially a lot of people.
But I didn’t know that then. And I certainly didn’t have the confidence to stand up to a ferocious literary snob.
As I fled the university building with the scribbled-on pages stuffed in my bag and a thick, trembling lump in my throat, that was it. Novel over. It was a stupid idea, a ridiculous one, one nobody would ever, ever want to read. I was useless. I was out of my depth. I was a failure.
“So, what happens next?“
The fifty-something chiropractor from my writing workshop had caught up to me and nudged me eagerly in the shoulder. I blinked at his grinning face.
“In your story. What happens next? Ella sees something in the photos, doesn’t she? Some sort of crime? And she decides to investigate? You have to tell me what happens next!“
On a sunny February day three years ago, I had my first ever rejection. But I also gained my first ever fan.
And that’s what writing is like.
Some people will ‘get’ your vision, your style, your plot, and they’ll devour it as quickly and passionately as they can. Other people won’t. And that’s okay. That’s normal. Think of a movie you hate but everyone else loves, or a book you adore but your best friend can’t stand.
We’re all different.
Despite the harshness of her words, I actually owe that woman a lot. She toughened me up. Writing itself is a hugely difficult task, but attempting to be published? You need thick skin. Nerves of steel. Unflinching conviction. She knocked me down before I’d even got to my feet: she rejected something that was barely a first draft. Coupled with the chiropractor’s glowing praise, I had two choices that day:
- Believe her – my story was awful and nobody would ever read it.
- Believe him – my story was brilliant and everyone would want to read it.
In the end I went for something in the middle: believe myself – the story wasn’t perfect, but it could be. One day.
So I learnt the craft. I practiced. I perfected. I went through multiple drafts and edits, I cut characters, added characters, renamed characters. I worked on my manuscript so hard because I knew I had to. She’d taught me that. Because, after that day, nobody was going to reject my novel before I was happy with it. 100%.
Since I started submitting and querying in February, I’ve been rejected dozens of times by dozens of different agencies and competitions. I was rejected five minutes ago, actually. But on my terms. I sent in a manuscript I was proud of, that I believed in, and it wasn’t right for them. They didn’t want it. But one day, maybe after a few more tweaks, someone will.
I’m waiting for the agent-equivalent of my kind chiropractor friend to run up and nudge me, asking for more. But until then I’m stuck in the seminar room with nothing but silence and rejection.
Only this time, I’ve got my head held high.
So, there’s the story of my first rejection. What’s yours?