Friday 9 October 2009

Coping with Rejection

There cannot be a writer, and the exception will only prove the rule, who has not had to cope with rejection. The only way to escape your work being rejected is to keep it in your drawer or on your hard disk, not even trying to find a reader for it. For some of us, this may be how we want it. Others, and I am one of those, want to be read. To be read you need to find a publisher. To find a publisher you need to find an agent first. To find an agent you need to steel yourself for rejection. Once your rejection letters are in their double figures you will stop counting them, or at least I did. I can only tell you that they are numerous.

What I want to talk about here are the effect they are having on the writer and her work.

The first rejection letters arrived while I was still in a state of innocence about the life of a writer. I had picked out some names from the Writers’ and Artists’ Handbook and full of hope sent out the synopsis and sample chapters of my first novel, convinced that it wouldn’t take long until somebody would be persuaded by the brilliance of my writing to take me on. I don’t remember how long this state lasted but by the end of it I was ready to enrol in an MA in Creative Writing, accepting that I probably had to learn a bit more about my craft.

I decided not to rewrite the rejected novel on the course but to start a new one. While writing my second novel I sent out the first one to a few competitions, and encouragingly, it was short-listed for prizes. At that time I was too busy to cope with the course and the death of my mother and the illness of my mother-in-law to send it out again to agents.

At the end of the two years-long MA course I had finished another novel, and a few of the agents and editors who had been invited to a reading of the students’ works, were very interested in taking it on. This caused a state of euphoria in me that I distinctly remember. I was on a high, hardly needed sleep, and started to polish the novel with the help of an editor from a big publishing house. When in the end she didn’t take it on, something inside me switched. It is difficult for me to say whether this was purely the effect of rejection, as I was also dealing with grief at the time and a seriously ill mother-in-law who was living with us and needed care. The fact was that I stopped sending out my work. As far as I remember I didn’t make a conscious decision not to put myself through the ups and downs of this process. I simply concentrated on the other areas of my life which was not difficult at the time. I also stopped writing at this point, except in my journal. I have always written journals for myself, therapeutic writing, as I call it, but I never confused this with my fiction. I firmly believe that fiction is not the place to deal with undigested emotions. I am not a champion of the misery memoir or turning your life into a novel. I believe that writing has to be a creative act of the imagination, using your experiences but not being dictated by them.

I can’t remember how long that state lasted, somewhere between two and three years. All that time a character would frequently come to me and ask me to tell his story. He called himself Ayyub and told me that he was Iranian by birth. I successfully ignored him because I had never been to Iran and I didn’t want to write another novel.

After my mother-in-law had died, and the house had been renovated to incorporate her half of the house into our half, I felt empty. There was nothing to distract me from the fact that I still had a yearning to write fiction. Ayyub was insisting that his story was worth telling. I played deaf.

Then I saw an advert in a writers’ magazine for a residential course that would give me the skill of editing my own work. Part of me thought, ‘How ridiculous is this, you have passed your MA with a 2:1 and don’t know how to edit your work?’ Part of me thought it was too much money, after I had already spent so much on the MA without getting anywhere. And part of me, the one that won, said, ‘If your children can spend money continuously on school trips that go nowhere you can spend three days with other writers without feeling guilty.’

To take part in the course we had to submit chapters of our novel which were then used to teach us the skills we needed. I chose to work on my first novel. It had been written so long ago, I wanted to see whether I could still stand behind it. In the end one of the partners in the literary consultancy liked the novel so much that she tried to find me an agent for it. This had always been part of the deal, that she would try and use her contacts for novels that she thought good enough to be published. Now the serious rejections started to come. They were not generic rejection letters where only the name of the author and the title of the novel had been changed. They were e-mails to the literary consultant and giving good reasons for the rejection that she kindly forwarded to me. Let me quote a few.

I can see exactly why you love this. Fatima has a rare talent, knowing and understanding her characters intimately, and leading us effortlessly into their emotional lives....Yet for all its brilliance, the novel felt sparse at times, and a part of me was hoping for the concessions to style and narrative that would clinch its chances of commercial success...
I think Fatima is a wonderful writer and I love the setting of the novel. Karl positively makes my stomach turn. I do wonder if it is a little bit too quiet and whether the pace should be worked on more.

So, I have agonised over this overnight and I think I am going to pass. I love Fatima’s turn of phrase, her Germanic tone, the sparseness of the sentences. This book feels definitely European and also somehow other worldly and she is certainly a very skilled wordsmith. That said, I just can’t fall in love with any of the characters.

That should be enough to make my point. Whenever you receive a rejection letter from an agent, and chances are you won’t receive detailed ones like these unless via a literary consultant, remind yourself of one thing. Tastes are completely subjective. One agent loves my sparseness, the other dislikes it. One can’t fall in love with the characters, the other one does.

You may not be surprised by now to hear that I still haven’t found this elusive person, the agent who loves my characters, my writing style and the story. I guess it is a lot to ask for. The consultant gave up trying to find me an agent after about ten rejections. When she heard that the novel won the Muslim Writers Awards in 2008 she gave it another shot, equally unsuccessful.

This time the rejections did not have the same effect on me as after completing my MA. Maybe I was stronger emotionally. Coping with grief helps one to put things in perspective. I think what helped me most was the fact that with every rejection there also came praise. I was lucky in that. The only way forward as a writer is aiming for that balance of knowing your weaknesses and your strengths.

I am also part of a writers’ group. We are five women who met during the MA course and felt that we needed the regular feedback of others. We aim for a monthly meeting, mostly to share our writings, but also for comfort, encouragement and advice. Because we respect each other we are honest in our feedback. Often enough I have left one of our meetings in despair. Yet the next morning, trying to rewrite the chapter after digesting the remarks of my friends, I realised how kind they had been. They hadn’t torn apart the whole scene; they had given me tools to make it clearer, subtler, livelier, more believable, whatever it needed. And most of all, not once did I think they were wrong.

If you only get rejection letters from agents, try finding a writers’ group whose members take their writing seriously, who aim for publication rather than treat writing as a pastime. There’s nothing wrong with writing as a pastime. I can’t imagine anything more satisfying than spending an hour writing. Why should we not encourage that? Does anybody think that playing the flute for pleasure is wrong? Yet if you want to perform and ask the public to part with good money to hear you play you will have to commit yourself to daily practice and to frequent rehearsals.

How have things worked out for me? As I have said, I am still looking for an agent. In the meantime the Arts Council have sponsored a Print On Demand version of my first novel. The copyright stayed with me and I am still hoping the novel will find a home with a proper publisher.

Ayyub finally won and I told his story in my third novel. This novel was written with the help of brilliant mentor. There were many reasons why I chose to work with her. I wanted to be forced to write regularly. I had trouble making space in my day for writing. I wanted somebody to be able to comment on the whole of the novel, the way the story unfolded, something that the members of my writers’ group were not able to do. We simply haven’t got the time to read more than a few thousand words for every meeting. The novel has been written and the first rejection letters have arrived. I hear my mentor’s words in my head every time I read one, ‘This novel is very good. Trust my verdict. It deserves to be published and it will be published.’ ‘In sha allaah, God willing,’ I added in my head at the time and I still do.

Ultimately this is where my real strength comes from. I know from a deep place that God has given me this skill with words. I can’t think of anything else that I could do with the same sense of achievement and satisfaction. I am talking of course here about the area of my life that is concerned with work and my place in the world and in a certain degree with my relationship with God. For the time being I know that this is what I am meant to do, the rejections are part of this work, there must be wisdom behind it.

You never know, one day I might be writing a blog entitled ‘Coping with Success’, in sha allaah.


Pep Cougar said...

Your insight is devastating, how wonderful you are with words and how strong and determined you are. Writing to be published is often about appealing to the zeitgeist and I genuinely hope it sways your way - to literature with meaning.

Anonymous said...

I love what you've written here Fatima, and to me it makes sense in a broader context than just writing. I think that it's true in life generally that if one wants to achieve, one needs to put oneself out there for critique and learn to grow from negative response, which of course can be hard when you put so much of yourself into something that is then responded to so apathetically by others. For me as a medical student, it is of course a very different situation, but I feel there is some parallel. If that makes sense.