I got some rejections.
Plus it was still early days: Marlon James's first novel was rejected seventy-eight times, I had only been rejected five, for lord's sake. Get a grip.
My rejectors, so far, were:
1. My fan
2. The gentleman agent, who wrote a nice encouraging email after a week to say my submission, though entertaining, wasn't quite right for him
3. The grande dame, whose assistant emailed after a couple of weeks to say:
We very much enjoyed reading your work however after careful consideration we have decided it’s not best suited to us, so unfortunately we will not be making an offer of representation at this time.
Very much enjoyed... careful consideration... not making an offer of representation at this time. That definitely gave the feeling that they might make an offer at another. Those teases. Hardly a rejection at all.
4. The sassy agent sent me a brief form rejection email moments after some excited tweeting about being on the train to a crime-writing festival. Whether or not she'd looked me up and discovered that her agency represented my celebrity ex was uncertain. It had been foolish to send her anything at all, on reflection. She was very young and her taste in clients seemed rather downmarket, now that I looked into things properly. It was sad to have to unfollow her on social media and make do without her cat pics but I would survive.
5. The Agent of the Year also turned me down, not via the sharp slap of a rejection email but by the deflationary torture of a warned no-response. This was a new snub in agents' arsenals since the last time I'd tried to interest any of them in one of my scintillations. In the past it might have taken six months but you always got a response one way or another. Basic politeness, given the amount of work and pain it takes to write something, send it out for inspection and sit there twiddling your thumbs. But these days a certain sort of agent explained on their websites that
if you haven't heard from us within x weeks then we will not be taking your submission further.
The Agent of the Year's x weeks had passed and I had heard nothing. I would never submit to anyone with this policy again, I vowed. Too busy to send form emails but plenty of time to prattle on Twitter – I wouldn't vouchsafe my art to this type of lowlife.
I had also heard nothing from the honcho, but he could take up to twelve weeks to respond, his website said–and he promised always to respond. The twelve weeks weren't up but I had a bad feeling. He'd got back to me after twenty-four hours for my earlier novel that had whetted his interest.
Perhaps he's busy. Perhaps he's discussing it with colleagues, weighing it up...
I began to feel downhearted, especially after a bonus sixth rejection from the small alternative publisher I'd sent it to to during their open submissions window six months earlier–when my book wasn't even properly finished–and forgotten all about. I'd submitted in a moment of excited experimentation, and really it had been very generous of me to even consider dangling my showstopper in front of such a small-scale operation, I'd felt at the time. What a gift to them, a bolt from the blue to lift them from crowdfunding penury when my book became the worldwide hit I felt was its destiny. Yachts agogo for those East London flâneurs. Not that I'd have signed with them, expecting that throng of agents and major publishers I'd have been foolish not to go with. Who also now did not seem to be materialising.
You've only been rejected by six.
They will regret.
I moaned to a wise friend who told me to suck it up. "This is what it is. Van Gogh died a pauper," she told me, not that we were comparing me to Van Gogh. "You've made something... a bit different. What makes you think everyone's going to love it? It'll get published, eventually, if you plough on. It just might not be an instant major deal that rakes in the millions. And why should it be? Why the entitlement?"
Why on earth had I imagined my grand alternative take was fated for instant worship from the mainstream? Why was success seemingly bound up for me with immediate pats on the head and million-dollar advances from the corporate world? Yes, being a fantasist is a job requirement for novelists, but if it was spondulix I was after why hadn't I, uh, attempted something more regular? I felt caught with my pants down after a gross and semi-public attack of hubris. What had I been thinking? Why so capitalistic? And–was it possible?–a tiny bit of self-doubt started to rouse itself in me. Was there a smidge of possibility that my book might be–hush now–the taddest bit shit?
"Don't go there," my wise friend said. "The important thing is not to lose faith. The people who get published are the ones who don't give up. You've only been rejected six times, don't be ridiculous. Plough on. Send it to..." and she mentioned a friend of a friend who worked at a posh agency. I sent my package to him and he wrote back immediately to say it sounded intriguing, he wasn't taking on more clients at this time but was forwarding it to a junior associate, cc'd. The junior associate, a recent Bookseller 'Rising Star', was
drawn to strong female leads, original voices, quirky and endearing narrators, and well-executed plot twists
according to his agency page. Well then: kerching. Wasn't that my book in a nutshell? Plus he wrote back at once to say he was very much looking forwards to reading my effort and would
get back to you soon...
Ah, that was more like it. This had been my mistake: going for the old established, the already-successful resting on their laurels, getting fanned by assistants in their Bloomsbury lairs. I should have been sending my suckerpunch to young sharks on the make, hungry for fresh meat. While I waited for the Rising Star to begin his salivations I sent my package to three others of his ilk: recently-promoted, or solo operators of small new boutique agencies, all of whom promised on their websites to reply within six weeks max.
Just for fun I also sent my package to Dan Brown's agent, who was fairly well-established. A long shot, yes, but it's good to spread your risks. And you never know.
This whole submitting to agents malarky was strangely similar to modern online dating – or what I imagined online dating was like these days, being happily married myself. Skimming the smorgasbord for shared interests, the thrill of the initial connection tingle, the presenting oneself in the best possible light (I was not an amateur who sent identical cover emails, I tweaked for each agent, they seemed to want that). The last-minute checks, the decision to press 'send'. Then the waiting. Then the ghosting, as I was to discover, when none of the on-the-make youngsters deigned to reply.
Not one of these flibbertigibbets, with their lying response promises emblazoned on their pompous websites, managed to send me a single email to let me know my masterwork wasn't for them. And not one of them could be roused from slumber either when nudged with a gentle reminder email after their own timescales had elapsed.
Not even the Rising Star, with whom I even had a personal connection, kind of, who had written back so readily to let me know he'd
get back to you soon...
Absolute silence, despite his desire for strong female leads. After two months I wrote to nudge him and received an immediate out-of-office explaining he was on holiday that week – an out-of-office that went straight to my junk mail folder. Egads, perhaps that was where all his emails went! Perhaps he'd already written to me weeks before to announce his excitement and interest and I hadn't received it! Perhaps it was him sitting dejected on holiday after hearing nothing from me.
Feverishly I combed my junk folder, which only stored mail for one month. And it had been two months since we'd first communicated!
I hummed and hawed for about five minutes. Then I wrote to his assistant, a grovelling serf-like email explaining the situation and my fears.
I heard nothing from her. The weeks ticked by and I heard nothing from the Rising Star either though his holiday was well over, according to his out-of-office dates.
It's one thing to give a warned no-response, to say: if you don't hear from me I'm not interested in your piffle. It's quite another to lie and perform the unwarned no-response: pretend on your website that you will respond no matter what within x weeks and then skedaddle off into the night. So lazy and dishonourable, so vicious and unnecessary. Because when writers submit to agents they believe they've entered into an unspoken pact: you will make yourself vulnerable by sending them your intense labours in whatever form they ask for (five pages, three chapters, a ten-page synopsis, a one-paragraph synopsis) and in return they will let you know and not leave you dangling for all time. Otherwise the impression given is one of disdain: that your package is exquisitely awful, something to be sniggered over at publishing parties: Oh god yes, did you get that one too? Not the churning female degradation... oh yes, what an affront to even receive it, pass the smelling salts, I simply couldn't respond, let them feel the shade...
You start feeling you've created outsider art, when the reality is more dull: they don't think they can flog your stuff and they can't be arsed to say so. I found solace in great online resources where altruistic fellow rejects recounted identical blankings from the same skanks.
By now my rejections had entered double figures and were starting to burn. I sent out more, willy-nilly, to random bods, the high and the low, getting desperate. I sent it to Americans, feeling perhaps they shared with me a wider vision, bending my rules for them since Americans usually go for the warned no-response. And still no word from the honcho. Thirteen weeks were up. I could smell the roses but emailed his office politely. Later that day I got my rejection from his assistant:
While we enjoyed reading your submission, we're afraid we didn't feel enthusiastic enough about the material to take it further. I'm sorry to be writing with disappointing news, but thank you for giving us the opportunity to consider your material and we wish you every success with your writing.
So that was that. A form letter. After all those years, all the almosts, everything we'd been through together. So near and yet so far. Maybe next time round.
He couldn't even write to me himself. He got his assistant to do it.
At least he replied.
It was very hard to unfollow him but rules are rules.
More people rejected me. So what, it didn't matter. Pearls before swine, them and their identikit clients, let them enjoy publishing the same books twenty million times. I seethed with fury at the injustice of the world. I felt there were international conspiracies holding my book back.
My friend the Celtic Detective Novelist took pity on me and sent my book to his agent, who turned it down nicely for various reasons, including that he found
some of the action a bit too dark
I neglected my day job. I took to wandering through local woods. I started smoking again. I entered unsuitable competitions. I sent it to small presses. I dealt with outright rejections, and warned and unwarned no-responses. I stopped sending it out. I started thinking it was rubbish, what on earth had I been thinking, what an absolute fool I'd been to think it could get anywhere. A brilliant friend of mine took me aside.
"Enough," she said. "Get over it, this is pathetic. Your book's fine, it could probably do with a tightening up and hacking off about ten thousand words, why not get busy with that? It's different, that's good, there's plenty of places you haven't sent it to. You only need one yes, who cares how much its been rejected. You got to toughen up, take it, work hard, believe in yourself, plough on."
I got over it and got ready to work. I saddled up and went to a local coffee shop to start a new draft, allowing myself a quick warm-up surf first. I recalled that it was nearly time for my celebrity ex's memoir to come out – perhaps there were previews I could read online before I got down to hacking my book apart? I didn't think he was going to be writing about me much, but was generally curious, of course, about what that old cat would be purporting. He'd been on Desert Island Discs recently and not mentioned me, plus we'd actually even seen each other a few months earlier at someone's birthday party. We'd had a quick chat, nothing much, but things were fine between us, I'd thought, after all those years. Water under the bridge. Plus he'd have said something if I was to feature in his book, I knew that. That's what people do if they write about exes in memoirs: let them know beforehand, right? To do otherwise would be skankish to the max.
But when I went to Amazon and found there were indeed advance passages of his book to read online I was in for a surprise.
I had wanted to write a best-selling book. Now I realised I was about to appear in one.
Next: Part 8: Unsatisfactory Products
Previous: Part 6: An Aloof & Reclusive Author
Read my rejection odyssey from the start here.