Dr. No

It’s dispiriting to think about, but I feel I want to write about rejection and failure – I have to – because it’s such a big part of making a writing life work.

Rejection is tough – even if the reasons have less to do with your own work, and more the legacy of previous acquisitions or other current clients against whom you are competing for attention. You’re in the wrong place at the wrong time. It never feels objective.

Putting on a brave face, you want to learn, but rejections don’t always offer constructive advice. There’s a language of rejections. If you are declining a piece of work, and feel unable to offer to work on the text or even engage in correspondence over it, it’s difficult to make suggestions which might be construed as an invitation to revise and re-submit. So you offer other reasons. You just have to close the door as tactfully and efficiently as you can.

It’s a part of the business that nobody likes.


My worst days in publishing were when I had to steel myself to decline submissions (often having avoided the inevitable), only to switch on my personal e-mail to find my own work had been turned down simultaneously. I was living in a land of No.

dr no.png

Recently, J. K. Rowling tweeted some of her rejections when she submitted her Cormorant Strike novels under a pseudonym. Her intention wasn’t to humiliate anyone, and yet the named publishers couldn’t help but appear exposed, as if she had identified a flaw in their acquisitions process – when there was a perfectly valid (for them, at least) reason for turning the work down.

A reason unique to them, not shared by others, proving after all that it is subjective after all.

‘This is just one opinion in an industry of many.’ I borrowed that line and used it myself. The flipside, of course, is that it takes just one opinion to reverse your fortunes – a phone call from an agent who likes your work, an e-mail from a commissioning editor. (Provided they can make your work appeal to sales and marketing people, who in turn have to convince retailers to offer shelf space for a book.)

Drafting this piece, I felt quite dispirited and wondered if I wouldn’t post it. But then my good friend Linda Newbery conducted an e-mail interview with me for her blog. In answering her questions, I realised I’d passed through another kind of rejection process – I had gone through a tough time rejecting myself, or the kind of writer I thought I was. Recalling it, I know I felt as dispirited as if an external person had declined my work.

But I got through it. And that seems a good note on which to end. We can get through it. We will get through it. That’s my opinion, at least – but I hope it’s also yours.




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