I was 22 when I finished writing my first book.
It wasn’t my first attempt, but it was the first time I’d managed to get through the challenges of something with a beginning, middle and end. It was 140,000 words (at least 40,000 too long), defied all notions of genre and to this day still hasn’t been published. Not long afterwards, a TV show came out with a creepily similar plotline and I went through several frantic weeks of being convinced someone had hacked into my computer. These days, I reflect on it and think perhaps it shows I was tuned into the zeitgeist of the time, which is kind of cool.
Despite being ultimately unsuccessful, that first novel got some good feedback. I went through the motions of submitting it to local publishers, the “monthly catch” portals and a handful of agents. I was offered a publishing deal with a very small print to order publisher, which fell by the wayside one day when they stopped replying to my emails.
My second novel was a dystopian adventure. This time, I decided I wanted to try a different route. I submitted it to a few local agents, one of whom had given me some positive feedback on my first work. She passed again, but suggested I try sending it overseas as I might have more luck in the US market. That I did. I queried a grand total of 65 agents in the United States (setting myself a goal of 100 before I finally called it). There are plenty of metaphors for going through a query process like that; I wrote a few of them down here then cut them immediately, because seeing them typed up like that was a little melodramatic.
What I did do was write a poem called Dear Author 65*, the title of which I’ve repurposed for this article. It’s a letter, cobbled together from some of the rejection letters I received last year. I would like to say there were 65 of them, but that’s not true. (The agents who write back to applying authors, even those who respond with a form letter, are something to be appreciated. They are like unicorns, carbon copied unicorns, but unicorns none-the-less.)
The 65th agent I wrote to came from one of New York’s biggest and fanciest agencies. He read my query, asked for the manuscript a day later and two days after that he was booking me in for a Skype call to ‘discuss literary representation’. From my research online, my understanding was this guy was the best of the best. I was told how landing representation with this agency was like ‘hitting a homerun in your first major league game’. Understandably, when the Skype call had come and the deal was made, I was thrilled. I hung up with the words ‘selling your novel is a matter of when, not if’ ringing in my ears.
Six months later, he cut me: the ‘submission had run its course and it would be best if we parted ways’. My disappointment was profound, but I kept it to myself. One lesson I’ve heard time and time again is how the literary world is small and you don’t want to burn your bridges.
Third time’s the charm, right?
I finished the rewrites and edits of my third novel that same week. I started sending it out with bated breath and after firing off about 20 queries, I waited. The rejections began to trickle in.
And then, a short, sweet, to the point email: an agent, from a boutique agency, who wanted to read my novel. This is where our story catches up to the present, me waiting, her reading.
The story I’ve written here is nothing new—for most writers, rejection is a rite of passage. J.K. Rowling apparently has a trunk full of rejection letters somewhere and Stephen King often tells the story of a nail on his wall that was wrenched from the plaster by the weight of all his rejection slips. To circle back to the baseball metaphor, it sounds as though maybe you don’t get to the majors without playing a few games of tee-ball after all.
So, what’s my point?
For me, a post-grad writer with a couple of manuscripts and a drawer of short stories under his belt, the writing, the art of the thing, has never been all that much of an issue. The pitter-patter of fingers on keys and the appearance of letters on a screen make me happy. The business side of being a writer is another matter entirely. That takes a kind of stamina and grit that’s naturally occurring in few people. Speaking to a writer-friend with two small children, he expressed concerns that perhaps it can’t be taught, either.
If I weren’t at a point now where I feel like I might be making some headway, maybe the tone of this article would be different, but after doing the dance a couple of times, I think there’s something to be gained from the process; same as there’s something to be gained from writing a book in the first place. Dear Author 65* wasn’t my best idea, but it was cathartic. I began the submissions for my new novel out of a desire to get back on the horse, but it meant the care I took into my submission letter was greater than before. I researched comparable titles I could compare my new work to and I looked into who my market might be.
Perhaps grit and resilience aren’t something that can be taught, but maybe they can be fostered. Maybe the lessons we learn from the process of selling our work makes us braver and better writers in other ways. We can learn to be writers by gaining technical skills and we can become better artists through practice, but maybe to be authors we have to fail. We have to fill a trunk with rejection letters or tear a chunk of plaster from the wall. And maybe, if the machine chews you up and spits you out again, you’ll come away from it all with a cool idea for a poem, story, or a blog post.
You can read Seth’s poem Dear Author 65 here.
Seth Robinson is an American-born/Australian-bred writer. He currently resides in Melbourne, where he is studying in the Master of Creative Writing, Publishing and Editing program at the University of Melbourne. He’s an author of short and long fiction and loves nothing better than an immersive story that traps you and triggers a binge, whether that be on page, stage, or screen.