Chapter Nineteen - Rejection24 August 2010
Morrissey once sang, “Rejection is one thing, but rejection from a fool is cruel.” Well, in writing, rejection’s something you’re probably going to have to get used to as soon as you start sending out your work. Don’t be ashamed of those rejection letters when they start mounting up—they’re a sign that you’re taking a vital step forward, braving the terrors of the publishing world, displaying courage which most would-be-but-never-gonna-be writers lack. You can only be rejected if you put your neck on the block—and if you put yourself in that position, then you’ve taken a massive leap forward, and should be proud of yourself!!! Anyway, here are some of my thoughts on various rejections which I’ve had to deal with over the years.
I often get asked for tips about writing, and one of the most crucial is this — you have to be prepared to fail, at least in the way that society judges failure. Most writers (dream-chasers in general) don’t make very much money. I was lucky — I wrote Cirque Du Freak when I was 24 years old and it changed my life forever. But I might have have written that book until I was 34. Or 44. Or 54. Or maybe never. I was very proud of my work up to that point — I’d completed lots of books, fiddling about with genres and styles, pushing myself, experimenting. I always hoped to find a market, but I never went in pursuit of it. For me, knowing that I was following my dream and creating work that meant a lot to me was the most important thing. That should be the same for every creative person. Yearn for success by all means, but don’t sell your soul to try and achieve it. Keep creating and fighting and believing, and accept that maybe that might — no, probably will have to be enough. If you can’t accept that, maybe you need to re-think your priorities and ask what is it you truly seek — the realising of a dream, or enjoying the bonuses that success will bring? If the latter, you should probably go be a banker or commercial lawyer or something like that, because you stand a far better chance of hitting it big in those fields than you do in the murky waters of the creative world, where true originality and genius goes unloved and unnoticed and unrewarded all the time.
I started editing one of the books I wrote for adults several years ago, before my first one was published. I’ve written lots of books for adults. Some will never be published, I’m sure, as they just weren’t good enough. But others have a good chance of seeing the light of day at some stage in the future, once I’ve worked on them some more and knocked them into shape. I spent a few years not doing any work on any of my adult books, for two reasons. One was that, with the success of my children’s books, I was busy enough not to need to pursue a second career. But, in truth, I work very swiftly, and am more than capable of juggling two careers at the same time. The real reason was the second reason—when my first two adult books didn’t sell very well, I kind of lost heart. I’ve often spoken of the need to have a thick skin if you’re a writer, to take criticism on the chin and march on, no matter what. But rejections and failures DO hurt. I still believed that the two books I’d published were good books, that they’d just been mishandled by their publisher, that under different circumstances they would have found an appreciative audience—but I couldn’t be certain. Maybe I was wrong. Maybe they were just no good.
Since there was no pressing demand from any publishers for a third adult book from me, and since my other books were kicking up a storm around the world, I retreated from the world of adult fiction for a time. I focused on getting ahead with my Darren Shan novels, on touring and answering fan mail and doing all that I could to promote the books and interact with the fans. But I knew that I wasn’t being true to myself. I still wanted to prove myself on the adult front, and go even further than I had done, test myself, challenge myself, push onward and upward to create books I could be proud of. So when HarperCollins approached me a few years ago about republishing Procession of the Dead, I returned to the field determined to prove a point. And I think I already have—Procession hasn’t sold as well as my Darren Shan books, but it’s sold very well for a debut novel (which, in essence, is what it was), and the response from fans and critics has been very approving. I hope that Hell’s Horizon and City of the Snakes will do just as well, but I’ve now started looking beyond The City trilogy, to what comes next. If I’m going to push on the way I hope to, it means following up those books with something even better, and to then keep on going. I have one book that I’m positive about (the last book for adults that I wrote, 6 or 7 years ago), but since that’s a non-fantastical crime novel, ideally I want to bring out another book first, to ease readers from the full-on fantasy of The City into a different, albeit just as dark realm.
So yesterday I decided to look up a book I wrote a few years earlier, one that has been flitting around inside my head over the years. Good stories do that, even if they don’t work out the way you might have wanted first time round. If a story is strong enough, it will call to you years after you’ve last worked on it, demanding to be told. I’ve written books whose titles I can’t even remember. But there are other, going back 10, 15, even 20 years which still sing to me, which I know I’ll go back to and work on again at some point, until I find a way to bring out their potential. This book was one of those. I’ve been editing it for the last couple of days, putting in longer hours than normal, because it excites me—while I recall the overall story quite well, I’ve forgotten most of the finer details, so it’s almost like reading another author’s work! It’s stronger than I remembered—all it really seems to require (so far anyway) is trimming—I wrote a lot more than I needed first time round, and now I’m pruning it down and tightening it up. It’s still early days, and nothing’s set in stone at the moment, but I think I might just have found my fourth published book for adults… Watch this space!
A fan called Alex wrote to me with a few queries: When you were working before resigning to write full time, what was urging you to quit? The desire to write full time, the desire to write more publishable books or was it a feeling that there is nothing else you want to do, other than write?
I wanted to write the very best books that I could, to push myself as far as I could. To do that, I needed to write full-time. I wasn’t content to hold down a regular job and develop slowly by writing part-time, as most writers do. I was prepared to go without money for a few years, and to scrape by. Writing mattered more to me than anything else.
Also, how did you write to Christopher Little when you first sought an Agent? (I mean more in terms of writing style). Did you write in a way that would show respect towards the Agency or more to show how you and your book(s) have the potential to go far? When i wrote to two agents i wrote my letter as formally as i could to show maturity and that I’m well-spoken (which, by the way, i believe i am). Needless to say i have 2 rejection letters. Which brings me on to another point – should I be sad that I’ve lost one of them. It may be a disappointing letter, but i was proud of the fact that i had spoken out and shown my work to a Literary agent and quite saddened when i couldn’t find the letter later on. I still have the envelope, not much consolation though.
Rejection letters are cool!!! I mean, obviously an acceptance letter and an advance from a publisher are far cooler!!!! But the great thing about getting rejected is that at least you’ve made the effort to get your work out there — you have physical proof to show people that you are really trying to suc-ceed as a writer. It takes guts to send your work off to an agent or publisher. Many would-be writers never work up the courage to take that step, and end up going nowhere and putting their dreams aside. You should be proud of your rejection letters, of the fact that you’ve had the guts to stand up and be counted. While it’s nice to hold onto them, especially an early one like this, I wouldn’t worry too much about losing one — you’ll probably pick up lots more before you make it!!!!! If you’re se-rious about being a writer, rejection is part and parcel of the process — Cirque Du Freak was rejected by 20 publishers in the UK, all at the same time!!!!! You have to believe in yourself and your work, and just keep plugging away. As for writing your letter to an agent — as I always advise young writers, read The Writers And Artists Yearbook (the American version is called, I think, Writers Market). That provides you with all the sort of practical advice that you will need for matters like this.
You mentioned in your blog on 26/11/09 that you are hoping that your new adult book gets the green light. Does that mean that you feel like an un-established author who has sent off his latest manuscript, or would you say that being as successful as you are, you are more likely to have your manuscript accepted by an agent and bought by a publisher?
Because I like to play around with different genres and styles and stories, I never take it for granted that my work will be automatically accepted. The Demonata was a very different sort of series to The Saga, and could have been rejected. The Thin Executioner and the Mr Crepsley books are very different to The Demonata, and again there was no guarantee that my publishers would go for them. I think it’s good for a writer to challenge himself and live out on the edge as much as he can. I don’t ever want to turn into a safe, comfortable writer, one who becomes part of the establishment. I want to send a shiver down the spines of my readers, but be seen as some dependable, kindly uncle type of figure!! I’ve been on a winning streak for the last 10 years with my children’s books, and my adult books are starting to pick up a head of steam now. But by looking at what’s happened to other writers over the years, and given that I am always testing myself and trying new things, I have to accept that there’s a good probability that one day I’ll struggle again and have to fight my corner the way I did with Cirque, when I basically took on the entire publishing board of the UK and won. I might not win next time round, but if I fail, I won’t go down without a good, strong, bloody battle!!!! You’ve got to be prepared to fight for your work when you’re a writer — after all, if YOU won’t stand up for it, who the hell will???
I reveived the following email from Lisa: I know you probably hear this all the time but I’m a huge fan of yours and have every one of your books (gutted I lost out to the Hell’s Heroes limited book on ebay though by one bid!), and they’re such a good read. Just finished reading The Thin Executioner and I honestly think you should get a world prize for best writer…screw J.K. Rowling, you’re like the best! I do have a question which I hope you can answer. You’ve been my biggest inspiration to writing for many years now and after recently turning 21 I’d like to try and get something out there but then I re-read the saga or something and I feel inferior to a God like you. Where did you get the confidence to send something off to a publisher? I’ve heard all the time that we’re our biggest critics and I seem to be very critical about every sentence I write, do you ever feel like that when writing?
As for finding the confidence to send off your work… you just have to brave and do it. Accept that you’re probably going to get rejected (virtually every writer is) and that you’re going to have to fight hard to prove your worth. Then get on out there and start fighting!! I began sending out work even when I knew it wasn’t good enough to be published, because I couldn’t wait to get into the ring and start punching! Nobody’s the finished article when they start out. At 21 my writing was still very rough and ready (for proof, look at the first draft extract of Hell’s Horizon in the Extras section on my site, which I wrote when I was 23—it’s currently not there, but should be copied across from the old site soon). Yes, you need to be very critical of your work if you are to learn and progress—but you also have to be your own biggest fan too!! You should believe in your stories, in your talent, in your potential. Don’t see your weaknesses as anchors which are always going to hold you down—see them as obstacles which every writer must face and overcome. As long as you believe and work hard, you WILL overcome them. But to do that, you need to face them. You have to send out your work and take the criticisms and rejections. You have to develop a tough skin and dig in and fight. It won’t be easy. It won’t always be nice. But as I’ve often said before, the battle is ultimately what defines success in your own eyes—anything that comes easily can’t usually be enjoyed as much as something you’ve had to struggle and fight hard to earn. Don’t hide from your work or from yourself. Start sending it out as soon as you feel it’s even halfway decent. Don’t be ashamed to unleash a bad story onto the world. Don’t fear rejection. Writing is just the start of your journey as a writer, assuming you want to be a published author. It will probably be a long, hard climb to the top of your game. The sooner you throw yourself into it, the sooner you’re going to get there. In short—don’t put off until tomorrow what you can and should do today!
Finished my latest edit of the third book of the new series today. I haven’t yet shared any of the books with anyone, because I don’t like showing a book to even my agent until I’ve done 3 or 4 drafts. I had planned to email the first three books to my agent once I’d finished editing the third this afternoon. But when I was done, I hesitated, then decided not to send it to him. The series can’t start to come out until at least 2012, maybe even later if I choose to release another one or two one-off books before I move on (which I might or might not do). So there’s no rush in sending it to him. I figured I’d just leave it until I’d done another draft or written a few more books in the series.
I went for a walk after that. It was a lovely sunny day and the hills looked delightful in the distance across the river. Goldie came along with me and had fun chasing a nice big stone which I kept throw-ing for him. (He chases stones, not sticks, because he chews through sticks too easily!!) But despite all that, I felt uneasy. Something wasn’t sitting right with me. I’ve always found walking a good way to thrash out one’s problems — I’ve often worked through the knots of a tricky book while out walking. So, while I was strolling along the banks of the Shannon, I looked inward and tried to figure out what was itching away at me inside. And then it clicked. I realised the REAL reason why I hadn’t emailed my agent the new books as planned.
I was afraid.
Sounds silly, I know. I mean, I’m DARREN SHAN, I’ve released over 20 books, sold about 15 mil-lion copies worldwide, there’s been a film made of some of my stories… You’d think submitting a new book would be water off a duck’s back to me!!! But the thing about it is, when it comes to my work, I don’t think of myself in those terms, as a guy who’s made it and has a lot of pull and who can do pretty much anything he wants at the moment. In my head, I’m no different than I was 20 years ago when I wrote my first book. More accomplished, sure, able to do a hell of a lot more now than I was then. But I’m still a guy who loves telling stories, who struggles to create them, who does every-thing he can to knock them into as fine a shape as I can, and who worries that nobody else might love them quite the way I do. When I’m in the middle of a series it’s different, the hard early work has been done, I know that people are enjoying what I’m doing, that expectation is there for the sequels. But with a brand new series, breaking new grouond, trying something a bit different, pushing the boundaries… well, there’s no guarantee that people will like it, or want more, or come with me on this particular journey. I THINK that they will. I BELIEVE that they will. But there’s still that little nagging voice at the back of my mind, which was there when I started The Saga, and there when I wrote The Demonata, whispering “It’s rubbish. You’re useless. Nobody will like it. Throw it away.”
In some ways writing gets easier as you progress. Success is great and it gives you confidence and lets you try new things. But it’s a double-edged sword. In other ways it gives fresh power to that nasty little niggling voice — you become conscious of your fan base and start worrying that you might disappoint them if you don’t serve them up exactly what they want. Or that they might get bored of you if you don’t keep trying new things and surprising them. Or… You get the picture.
As soon as I got back from my walk, I emailed the 3 books to my agent. Because we HAVE to face our fears in life. If we don’t, we can’t move forward, we’ll just stay in our comfort zone and rot. My books are all about people who step up to the mark and don’t let their fears dictate the course of their life — I’d be a poor master if didn’t try to match the deeds of my fictional creations!!! Maybe my agent WILL hate the new books, Maybe he’ll ring me up, tell me they’re useless, that I should throw them away and start again with something different. I don’t think he will (I think the new series rocks!!) but there’s a chance that he might, the same way there’s a chance that we’ll suffer rejection and pain ANY time that we step up and confront our fears, send a new book to an agent, or try out for the football team, or apply for a job, or ask a girl if she wants to go steady. We can’t afford to play it safe in life. We have to confront and deal with rejection and the possibility of it. Otherwise we’re cowards, and who wants to face a life of nothing but cowardice? Better to stand tall and be rejected than cower in a corner and avoid the chance of rejection.
Life’s a big, savage, unpredictable beast. Each one of us has to decide at some point (normally quite a lot of points), do we stand up to it and risk being ripped apart in our efforts to tame the beast, or do we meekly lie down and let it slowly but surely eat us alive? The next time YOU hear that voice whispering inside your head, urging caution and predicting doom, go for a nice long walk like I did, track it down, look it in the eye, sneer at its fury, and tell it, “Go on, life, do your worst!!!” You’ll feel a hell of a lot better afterwards, believe me — even if it tramples you to dust in the process!!!