By Jennie Jarvis
Let’s face it – In the writing industry, we face a lot of rejection. In fact, most people know more about how writers are rejected than any other part of the industry. Throughout my life, each time I have told various teachers, parents, friends and strangers about my career choice of being a writer, their response would almost always have something to do with rejection. “Wow! You must have a thick skin to handle all that rejection!” they would say. Yes, sometimes, I’d get a blank stare followed by “You know, I always wanted to write a novel but I just don’t have the time” but usually, I’d receive some kind of well-meant warning about how I can look forward to a long life of people saying “no.”
And you know what sucks? They were right.
I never wanted to believe that my writing – which always earned As in every class I took or praise from every person I showed it to – would receive that same wall of rejection that other writers have received before me. For some idiotic and naïve reason, I always thought my work would be different. I’d sell my first screenplay and see it turned into a film shown in my hometown movie theater. I’d sell my first novel, receiving a fantastic six-figure advance and a mass-market distribution deal. I’d be the story that everyone points to as the exception to the rule. I’d be the writer the other writers dream of becoming while they spend hours toiling away at their own work.
Yes, I saw several of my screenplays turned into films, but they were low budget and no one outside of the film festival circuit saw them. None of them made it to a movie theater near my hometown, I can tell you that.
As for my novels, the first one got me my agent, and I’m grateful for that. But after a year and a half of shopping this same novel around with no luck, we have decided to put it on a shelf and put our energy into selling another novel I’ve written. Putting aside a beloved story is already disheartening enough, but what makes it worse is the consistent feedback we received from many of the editors who passed on it: We like it, but we don’t know how to market it.
Being told a piece of my work is good, but they don’t know how to sell it sucks because there’s nothing I can do to change that. If they told me they didn’t like a character or they didn’t believe a plot point, I could fix the book based on those notes. But to be told that they can’t sell it because of marketing… there’s nothing I can do with that note.
The Princess Bride had the same trouble. When that film first came out, the marketing team had no clue how to sell the film to the public. What they decided to do was trite and pretty terrible. It gave away major plot points, and it didn’t highlight any of the intellectual humor that makes the film so memorable and beloved. Here’s the trailer they came up with to sell the film. Try not to cringe.
See how terrible that is? It’s no wonder the film tanked at the box office. Thank God for the advent of home video! It gave this story a second chance at life, and word-of-mouth turned this unknown story into a beloved cult classic.
I’m not saying I think my novel could be the next Princess Bride, but understanding what happened with the film helps me understand the issue the editors face when they passed on my novel. After all, there won’t be a VHS player giving my book a second life if it doesn’t do well on its first run. If they can’t figure out how to market it, then it won’t sell. Period.
Understanding why someone says “no” doesn’t make it any easier to swallow. After all, growing up with the dream of seeing my work on the shelf of my local Barnes and Noble is a hard thing to let go. Those dreams are what keep us writing. They are what keeps us from drowning in a sea of disappointments.
One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever heard about keeping yourself inspired in the wake of rejection is to just keep writing. Yes, you have your heart and soul wrapped up in one story, but once it’s out there – once your agent is trying to sell it and there is nothing you can do with it – it’s best to fall in love with a new story. Find new characters who will keep whispering to you late at night when you are trying to fall asleep. Find new worlds that paint the back of your eyelids with their color and light. Find new plots to keep your fingers moving on the keyboard. Find a new way to keep swimming.
Once you have fallen in love with a new story, the rejection you receive on your last won’t cut quite as deep. Your heart and energy will be in a new narrative, so it’s not as available for the pain of the “we like it, but we can’t market it” feedback you receive. It still sucks, but it’s somehow more manageable because at least you are still swimming and not waiting to be pulled under the waters of rejection by some horrible monster. Maybe my metaphor isn’t quite perfect, but it’s what keeps me afloat as the tide of backhanded compliments (“we like it, but we aren’t going to buy it”) have come reeling in over email.
I hate to admit it, but all those naysayers I’ve met over the years were right: there is a lot of rejection in this industry. No wishing or dreaming will change that. Now we just have to find a way to stay inspired regardless of how many “no’s” come our way.
What do you do to stay inspired in the wake of rejection?