The other day I watched an old MGM movie, The Last Time I Saw Paris (1954). It stars Elizabeth Taylor at her most gorgeous and Van Johnson at his most likable. Van plays a GI in Paris on VE Day. He gets kissed in the crowd by Liz, which is not something a GI would ever forget. When he sees her later at a party, he makes a beeline for her. Soon they are in love. Then married.
Van had been a wartime correspondent for Stars and Stripes, and lands a job in the Paris office of a wire service. But what he really wants to be is a novelist. He works diligently on his first novel, and finally sends it out.
It’s rejected at several houses. Van is naturally disappointed, but Liz talks him up, tells him to keep trying.
So Van spends the next couple of years writing his heart out. When he finishes the new manuscript he has Liz read it. As he looks on anxiously, Liz puts down the final page and gazes into Van’s eyes. “It’s even more beautiful than the last one,” she says.
Huzzah! He sends it out.
Rejected and rejected and rejected!
Marital strife ensues. Van spends another two years writing what is left of his heart out. But when he gets more rejections he nosedives into depression. He gets drunk, throws things around the apartment, and screams at Liz, “Let’s face it! I just don’t have what it takes!”
If you want to know about the rest of the movie, you can look it up on Wikipedia.
I mention it here because it captures what real writerly rejection felt like in the “old days” of publishing. Most writers born after 1990 haven’t experienced such a rebuke. They’re part of the participation-trophy, instant-gratification generation, and know all about self-publishing, be it on Wattpad or Amazon or blog or vlog or pod.
Well let me tell you kids something. Back in the pre-Kindle days—and especially in the 1950s and 60s—the walls of the Forbidden City were huge and ominous. “Serious” hardcover fiction (as opposed to pulp-style paperbacks and book-club mysteries) was the shelf “real” writers wanted to crack. Some—like Norman Mailer, Leon Uris, Herman Wouk, Sloan Wilson, Carson McCullers—made it, garnering critical or popular acclaim, or both. Most unpublished writers longed for same. And never got it.
Dreams died hard.
They still do outside the gates of the Forbidden City. Because of the great digital disruption and ensuing retrenchment in traditional publishing, there are even fewer slots for new writers. The City must depend even more on A-list blockbusters or celebrity debuts to sustain its Manhattan overhead.
In a private conversation with an agent friend, I was told that the market for new fiction writers is all but gone. From a business standpoint, that makes sense. The industry is understandably risk-averse. Yes, new deals are being made. But not nearly so many as ten and twenty years ago.
Which brings us to self-publishing, the greatest boon to writers since Gutenberg. No longer does rejection by the Forbidden City mean it’s all over, that you’ll never make it, that your dream of writing and finding readers is dead in the water.
Van Johnson would have been amazed by this.
So it may come as a bit of a shock when I tell you what I sometimes advise a new writer anxious to self-publish. Especially if it’s their first book. I say, “Get some rejection.”
Stay with me.
Before self-publishing became viable, when you got rejected it truly tested your mettle. First novels almost never got picked up by an agent or publisher. And most of the time they never told you why. Just something like, “Does not fit our needs at this time.”
This would sting for a few days. Maybe you’d throw things around and think, “I just don’t have what it takes!” But if you were a real writer you’d get back to work. You’d figure out (with help from others) what was wrong with your writing. You’d study the marketplace. If you were wise, you’d study the craft, too. Maybe join a critique group, go to a conference or two or three. Invest in yourself.
Most important of all, you would continue to write. And then maybe two or three or five years later an agent would take a chance on you. And another year or two later, you might land that first contract. And then eighteen months later, your book would hit the stores.
And you would discover the truth behind Martin Myers’ keen observation: “First you’re an unknown, then you write one book and you move up to obscurity.”
Yet all that rejection and heartache and sticktoitiveness made you a better writer. Which, in turn, increased your chances of having an actual career.
So if you’re a brand new writer with a brand new novel (and a lot of you will be at the end of this NaNoWriMo month), go out and get some rejection. Use the beta reader grinder system. Seek open and honest opinion. Take the chip off your shoulder. Consider hiring a freelance editor. Start thinking like a business. Set up quality controls.
Heck, spend a month studying our library of first-page critiques. Talk about a concentrated course on storytelling!
Sure, you can skip all that and toss your novel up on Amazon, where it will get rejected by the people you most need—readers.
Or you can be a little patient, work hard, listen and learn and improve, and greatly increase your chances of success.
So go get some rejection. Just don’t get drunk and throw things around your apartment. Especially your keyboard.
So what about you? What has been your experience with the R word?
Oh, and for those of you who saw last week’s post and wanted to know when the print version would be available, well, it’s here.