Looking back on the dumpster fire of a year that 2017 was in so many ways, I thought I’d try to focus on some good things that happened to me in the middle of the all-around shit-storm.
Roxane Gay had a series of tweets recently correcting people who call her an “overnight success.” If you’re someone who pays attention to the literary world, you know this is a damned lie. Roxane Gay has been working her ass off for years in the trenches. And maybe some people make it as bestselling writers without having worked their asses off for years. But I don’t know who those people are and I don’t think I’d like them much if I did. So along with a celebration of the great things that happened for me, I thought I’d include all the rejection that came in between.
In February of this year, I signed with the amazing and effervescent Brent Taylor of Triadas US Literary Agency!!! This was a pretty big deal for me because as many of you out there know, getting an agent is not an easy thing.
I sent my first query letter to an agent in May of 2013. That was for the first ever novel I wrote and in retrospect, it was not such a great novel. I mean it was okay and I actually got a few requests for the full (for you non-writers, this is when an agent asks to read the entire novel, instead of just the first few pages), as well as some very nice detailed feedback from the amazing Linda Epstein. But unless you’re some amazing writer superstar (and I don’t believe those people really exist), your first novel is probably not that great.
I queried different projects on and off for the next four years. Because I keep meticulous records, I can tell you that in total, I got rejected 54 times by agents over those four years. Those are just rejections from agents and really, that’s still a fairly small number. I also got about 200 rejections from literary journals and magazines. If you add all the contests I entered as well as the fellowships and retreats I applied for, I’m pretty sure I’d hit 300 rejections.
Depending on who you are, four years and over 300 rejections either sounds insane or like nothing at all. In retrospect, four years and 300 rejections seems fairly lightweight. While I was in the middle of it, it was interminable.
And then as things do, right when I least suspected it, everything happened at once. I’d had this weird idea for a nonfiction book about gender as a choose your own adventure bouncing around in my head for a year or so. I put the final touches on the proposal and sent it off to a couple of agents. Two weeks later, I signed with Brent, who is like a one-man crusader for making the publishing world as diverse and spectacular as it can possibly be. A couple of weeks later, we sent out the proposal. In June, I had a book deal!!!
Don’t get me wrong. Those 3-4 months between sending out the first submission to editors and getting the offer sucked in a lot of ways. I mean, it was super exciting knowing that at any moment, any day, I could get this e-mail saying someone wanted to publish my book. But there was also more rejection in there and moments when I lost faith again, even though being on submission for 3-4 months is actually pretty quick. And when I got the letter from the editor at Sourcebooks, I knew that they GOT IT. There was no need to explain to them why this book was so important and cool. They were already there.
Every single writer has a story like this behind them. And the rejection never ends. Since I signed with my agent and got the book deal, I’ve been rejected some more. The one thing that is promised to you as a writer is that you will be rejected. A lot. As many rejections as I have ahead of me, there are even more ahead. That’s how it goes.
People think writers are crazy for all kinds of reasons, but this is the real and true nature of our insanity. As a writer you get told no over and over and over again, but you’re crazy enough to just keep going. As craziness goes, it’s a fairly good kind of craziness and one that probably works in a lot of areas of life. We will fail. A lot. What then?