The valley of (writerly) death

It’s been a lousy writing month. After the exhilaration of the San Francisco Writers Conference in early February, I received rejections from two agents. That makes a total of five rejections for my novel The Mothers’ Group

Five rejections doesn’t sound bad, you might say. Many writers get dozens of rejections. Scores of rejections. Hundreds of rejections. And then they finally publish The Naked and the Dead (12 rejections). Or Gone With the Wind (25+ rejections). Or Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (121 rejections). 

And most of the rejections I got were lovely rejections – not form letters, not generic “dear writer thank you for your submission but we must decline” letters, but thoughtful, personal notes saying they liked many things about the book BUT. 

For a while, I veered back and forth about how to deal with this. One option was to soldier on, and keep sending the manuscript to more agents, figuring it would just take perseverance until I found someone who “clicked” with it. 

The other option was to go back to the drawing board – WAY back, beyond the continuous small revisions I’ve been doing – and dramatically revamp things. 

It’s tempting in this kind of situation to feel like a victim. There are so many things you can point to, and some of them are true. Publishers are all chasing the mega-million-dollar celebrity best-seller. Publishers are less willing to take chances these days  on new writers whose work doesn’t involve exploding tanker trucks or vampires. Some agents really just want formulaic genre books. Some agents just don’t “get” what I’m trying to do.  

And so on… down the slippery slope to the point of: They are all idiots and they don’t recognize brilliant talent when they see it! 

I don’t like people who act like victims. Certainly there are many people who suffer injustice in this world, but to me, the most admirable victims don’t act like victims – they don’t sit around feeling sorry for themselves but they get out there and do something. Organize a union or a petition or a boycott. March into City Hall and demand action. Move their child to a better school. Etc.

It’s been written about before, but it continues to be disturbing how America – the most powerful country on earth – seems to have developed a nationwide victim mentality. Everyone is a victim! The Tea Partyers and Fox News moguls say they are being victimized by Obama. Politicians in trouble say they are victims of the Mainstream Media. (And you wondered what Sarah Palin and Charles Rangel had in common!) Conservative Christians say they are being oppressed by the Gay Lobby…. 

As a reporter, the sure-fire sign that I had a wacko on the phone was when a caller would careen through a long unhappy story blaming every other possible person for his or her misfortunes, without admitting even a tiny iota of responsibility himself or herself. 

So it was with some misgiving that I realized I was starting to think that way about my book: They are all idiots and they don’t recognize brilliant talent when they see it. 

In any event, I decided to try and fix the manuscript before sending it out to more agents. Perseverance is a virtue, but so is being able to hear criticism. I got in touch with Alan Rinzler, a very experienced freelance editor whom I had hired in December for input on my other novel, and asked him for help with this one. (Alan has a blog about writing and publishing, which you can find here.) 

We’re meeting tomorrow morning. 

I don’t think I’m going to like what he tells me. I suspect I am going to have to make some big changes. It will be hard. It will be scary. It will be discouraging. If these were easy changes, I would have made them already. Coming home from our meeting, I will probably have to remind myself to get on the BART train, not in front of it. 

But I hope the input helps me get to the other side of this valley of writerly death. 

The alternative is to keep sending the manuscript out, and keep getting rejected, while waiting for the One True Agent who recognizes my incredible brilliance. 

The alternative is to become that wacko on the phone, or Charles Rangel or Sarah Palin.


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11 Responses to “The valley of (writerly) death”

  1. SusieMiller Says:

    No, no, no…those aren’t the only choices. But, please, DO get ON the train…so sorry to hear of your letters of rejection, but I am proud of you for standing up, dusting yourself off, and doing something about it! Excellent. Now, I, on the other hand would think about publishing a chapter a month on the blog or self-publishing it on…but then, I never have had the nerve to go after a real literary agent.

  2. johnmangels Says:

    I think, after taking a couple of weeks to think about it, only you can be the final judge of what needs to be done to your work. I think you need to listen to (and evaluate) the buts you’ve received. I think it’s a good idea to have someone look at your work, as you are doing. I think it’s worth asking yourself (if your book really does say what you really want it to say); is it more important to be published (and paid) than to hold to your vision. And I KNOW it hurts like the dickens when your baby (your very self) is criticized by anyone, let alone by other thoughtful people. But this is your call. And if, after consideration, you’ve really done what you intend and want to do, you might be ultimately vindicated, even if your book is not commercially easy to market.

    Then again, you may decide you’ll have a better book if you take account of some of the suggestions. And then, by all means, it may be major rework time. On your terms. For your reasons. Even if they were suggested by others …

  3. Lewis Buchner Says:

    I appreciate your vulnerability.
    Vulnerability begets vulnerability which is the only way people really begin to understand each other. Thanks!

  4. Ilana DeBare Says:

    Susie — self-publishing is a more viable option than ever before, whether via an e-book, a blog, a self-publishing company that creates print books, even Twitter novels (brrr). Some self-published books sell well and a few get picked up by conventional publishers.

    But there are a lot of self-published works that are flabby, hackneyed, cliched, redundant and generally in need of editing. If you self-publish, the burden is on you as a writer to do even MORE self-editing than if you go with a conventional publisher, since you don’t get any outside editing at all.

    I would consider self-publishing at some point but only if I feel the manuscript is really the best it can be, and still no one wants it.

    Then I will hire you to help me with online outreach and marketing (to mommy bloggers)! No kidding. You’d be great at it.

  5. Jim Richardson Says:

    Literary Agents: Agents of Satan. Gatekeepers protecting the ordinary. There are psalms about these people.
    I would love to read your book. I hope you find a way to muscle past this antiquated publishing system that was perhaps suited to the time of Charles Dickens but is now totally absurd. So listen to the writing coach, but don’t be too hard on yourself or your work.
    You may also want to go directly to some publishers, maybe even including UC Press. Some publishers now avoid the agents. May more join them.

  6. rachel Says:

    I am such a novice in the writerly department compared to you, but I’ve had rejections and acceptances over the years (not novels, but articles, short stories, poems and so on). It’s utterly amazing to me how I almost feel as if my finished item feels like one of my children, so criticism of it (contructive or otherwise) I find quite hard to take, although I have got better at it over the years.

    I am now working on a novel myself, doing all the proper planning that I never felt I had the stamina for in previous times. I wonder how I’ll feel about that baby once I’ve finished it…

    Very best of luck for your meeting!

    • Ilana DeBare Says:

      It is true that it is very hard not to take criticism personally, especially when it is a long work that involved a lot of personal creativity.

      I typed up a sheet of paper with criticisms from the various agents who read the manuscript. It is helpful seeing all the comments together in one place. And they are all constructive, friendly comments. But I can physically feel my face flushing when I read them. It feels kind of like a reflexive “fight or flight” response.”

  7. Judy Pace Says:

    I too really appreciate your being “out there” about your experience, Ilana. I am curious though; what do you think about the “But’s” that you’ve heard? Do they resonate with you? Piss you off? Confuse you? Make sense but you really don’t want to go that route? Or . . .

    Hope tomorrow’s meeting helps; I bet it will. Keep us posted!

    • Ilana DeBare Says:

      The BUTs make sense. Some of them are consistent, from multiple readers, so I think there must be something to them.

      The problem is finding a solution to their criticisms — in particular, a solution that doesn’t change the manuscript so substantively that it becomes a different book.

  8. Frances Dinkelspiel Says:

    Ya got what it takes, babe: perseverance. Write, rewrite and rewrite some more. It’s clear you want to be a published novelist and I believe you will get there. Thanks for your honesty and for sharing what you are going through.

  9. Mimm Says:

    I could have written this. SFWC was exhilarating. Having an agent respond to me was exhilarating – even though they were rejections just like yours (love the idea but…).

    And I’m thinking like you: how far back do I go? Simply tweaking or as far back as the drawing board? For now, my manuscript is going to “simmer” for awhile as I work on some other writing projects. I figure I’ll be able to muster some objectivity when I pull it out again in a month or two.

    Thanks for assuring me I’m not alone!

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