BFTP #4: The Joy of Rejection (a.k.a. One door shuts, and another one also shuts)

A version of this post originally appeared on January 8th, 2008:

So there I was, Salt Lake City 1997, final round of interviews for the Rhodes Scholarship. I was one step away from a grandly ambitious destiny, and I couldn’t shake the feeling that I didn’t belong. The previous rounds of interviews had included enormously talented individuals from Harvard, Princeton, Yale and the like. As an example, one of the guys at the state level, a Harvard guy, had started a non-profit whose board members included Mikhail Gorbachev and Jimmy Carter AND he was a nationally ranked squash player with something like a 4.0 and I somehow made it past him to be where I was. I now had a 1-in-4 chance of claiming one of the most prestigious academic prizes in the world and setting on a path that would undoubtedly lead straight to the White House and from there to various Nobel prizes and, probably, the establishment of world peace. All I had to do was charm a room full of former Rhodes scholars who were all highly accomplished judges and CEOs and college presidents and the like. No pressure.

I fear this gentleman might have had a better shot during my Rhodes interview than I did.

I fear this gentleman might have had a better shot during my final Rhodes interview than I did.

I had one of the last interview slots and when my time came…how shall I put this? Have you ever laughed at the raving trailer drunks on COPS who scream incoherently whilst tearing their clothes and flinging random objects at the camera guy? I wish I’d been that well spoken. The point of revealing this little bit of misery from my past is–I took that loss hard. I won’t go into the psychological morass of why this particular rejection hit me like a bookie’s baseball bat to the knees of my confidence, but let’s just say I returned from SLC a bit of a mess. One of my professors, in an attempt to lift my spirits after the fact, told me: “if you don’t fail and fail dramatically on a regular basis, you’re not trying hard enough.”

Many years later, I continue pulling that statement out to lift my spirits when things get hard.

And things have gotten hard. Here are a handful of the rejections I’ve received–each addressed to my agent, Victoria Skurnick of Levine Greenberg. These specific rejections come from editors at HarperCollins, Penguin, Dutton, and the Other Press:

“I apologize for taking so long to respond, especially as I’m going to pass on this. It’s a very hard decision for me, but, ultimately, it boils down to my inability to rally the troops here. I love the story, and Caleb and Bigger’s relationship is as touching as it is quirky and humorous. It’s an epic story of a unique friendship, and I quickly found myself completely wrapped up in what was going to happen between Caleb and Bigger. Brown’s a talented writer, and he does a great job of maintaining the reader’s interest here. It is a difficult story, though, and at times it’s in danger of spiraling out of control. This presents a challenge, and while I got some great reads here, I couldn’t get everyone on board with it. The narrative goes in many different directions, and, in the end, it doesn’t all coalesce into the compelling whole that we’d like. Thanks, though, for letting me look. I apologize again for the delay. Please do keep me in mind for future projects. It seems that we have quite similar tastes, so I’d love to find something to work on together.”

“I must admit that I enjoyed Caleb Cross and Bigger Falkirk as characters, and I thought Brown handled the challenges to their friendship thoughtfully. But after talking about it here, I have to pass: Ultimately, we weren’t convinced we could sell this as successfully as another house might.” (There were several others like this one.)

“I am sorry to say that after much deliberation I am not going to bid on the Warrior’s Son. This was a maddening novel–at times brilliant, at other perplexing, and in the end I did not figure an elegant editorial solution to tie the disparate elements into a cohesive whole. The author can write well, but at times, it seemed his writing got in the way of the storytelling. I wish you all the best with it, but I will pass.”

“Many thanks for giving me the chance to consider The Warrior’s Son. I was hugely impressed by the imagination and narrative energy Brown has packed into his tale. I especially liked the parallel stories of Julio & Jose and Caleb & Bigger and the way the “historical” story commented on the (our?) modern one. I loved that Brown made that loquacious and deadly book a character–and a likeable one at that! While I suspect that much of this novel went over my head, I nonetheless applaud Brown’s obvious belief that there is a place for religion and mysticism and parable within a “commercial”–and often profanity-laced–story. He’s a writer full of contradictions and I think there is something intriguing and appealing about that. My problem is that I’ve never had a good handle on commercial fiction…and I think I’m the wrong person to steer this book to its widest possible audience. As out-of-touch as I am with the market for commercial fiction, Other Press is even more so. We’re all about serious, review-driven literary fiction and left-wing political nonfiction. I’m trying to get the Press to stretch in some ways, but I think The Warrior’s Son is just too far afield from what we do well.”

So…where do I go from here? In addition to the rejections quoted above, I have another dozen or so from the other editors who looked at my book. They’re all very friendly and many are downright encouraging, and yet…

I suppose the only place to go is on to my next book. And–if necessary–the next, and the next. After all, if we don’t fail regularly, we’re not trying hard enough. Right?

NOTE FROM THE PRESENT: I wrote my second novel in about 3 months, but it never made it out of editing. Before I could quite get a handle on it, I went back to very full full-time work for five years. I also started grad school. During that period, I began about a dozen different books–writing between 4 and 6:30 am. Three of those books made it past the 100-page mark, but not much further. It’s easy to say I was just too busy to finish a book, but it would be more honest to say that my internal editor went on overdrive–perhaps hoping to save me from another round of punishing rejections.

Earlier this year, I started to forge a community strong enough to help its members withstand the gusts and blows of fortune in the world of publishing. I don’t know that I’m any wiser than I was five years ago, but I do know it was harder than I imagined to keep going. If you have a story of rejection you’d like to share in the comments, I’d love to hear from you. Maybe together we can see rejection for what it truly is–not as an end point, but as a recognition that yes, indeed, we are trying hard enough.

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