Saturday, 21 April 2012

The Great Wall of No

A few days ago, I realised that, although I don't have the teary tantrums of yore when I receive rejection letters, the drip-drip-drip of the submission process for my first novel, Sharonville, is subtly wearing a hole in the Sweatpants of Hope which I wear when I write (and, I suspect, many of my comrades do too).

Now, as the Sweatpants of Hope often remind me, I really don't have that much reason to be despondent as I'm only about 18 agents into my search. Indeed, as the lovely Isabel Losada pointed out  (, Jonathan Livingston Seagull was rejected 98 times, so I'm still a rookie at this game. I should also be optimistic because this book was not only one of  the 100 books out of 1800 to be longlisted in the recent Mslexia Novel Competition (, but has also been nearly taken on by three different agents in the past year. I also have a very fine small literary press interested in reading the book soon - another thing which makes the Sweatpants smile.

Still, there's that gravelly, ten packs-a-day voice which whispers in my head that my dreams will never come true, that my work is too this or too that to sell, that I'm wasting my life and a complete and utter failure.

Nasty, nasty stuff.

Indeed, I've often thought we could fuel reactors with the toxic self-hatred which boils in us at times. We certainly need a pretty thick concrete wall between it and us if we're to have a happy, creative life.

So that's why I posted the following question on my Facebook wall a few days ago:

I was just wondering how my gorgeous literary friends handled rejection earlier in their careers (or maybe even later!). I've been doing the agent trawl off and on for a year now and have realised today it's bloody hard to keep being my own cheerleader.

Any tips for maintaining hope and self-belief when faced with The Great Wall of No and keeping the Wolf of Professional Envy from the door? 

The Great Wall of No often feels endless, like The Great Wall of China - that's me, wearing red, right at the back.
I used to tell my college students to never fear asking me a 'stupid' question, so I dared to be as brave as those young adults and expose my vulnerability, my state of unknowing and even my shadowy, shameful envy. It cost me a lot to write those words in terms of pride, but, I also know it's just common sense to ask people who have done what you want to do how they did it, to learn from those who are experienced in the craft you wish to perfect. Writers are no different than plumbers in that respect.

And, as often happens when we are bold and aim at what is real, the response was far beyond what I imagined.

Whereas recently I had been considering leaving Facebook's bazaar of comparison and cute kitties, I now recognised what I would be losing if I left (aside from the kitties!) - that I had made real connections online and that other writers were there to inspire and support me, not make me feel inadequate. I also came to to see, through the passions of their various responses, that all of them suffered due to rejection - no matter what stage of their career.

Reading their comments, I also recognised that whilst I stomping my feet in the goop of self-pity about finding an agent and publisher, but they were standing in the mire too. When the savvy publisher and writer, Adele Ward ( revealed how punch-drunk she was from fighting her own fear of submitting work, I didn't feel so bad that my novel spent a few years hidden in a metaphorical drawer until Jacqui Lofthouse ( forced me to drag it, zombie-like, into the light. Suddenly, I didn't feel so much of a coward for finding this all so damn hard.

Indeed, when the lovely and multi-talented writer and comedienne, V.G. Lee ( ) shared her similar experiences of those painful 'Almosts' with her own first novel, I felt my own frustrations weren't so uniquely painful. In fact, I discovered that, even beyond the fabled book deal, writers still face repeated hurts, in terms of, say, sniping Amazon reviews - something which Edmond Manning, fired up by my question, discussed with his usual warmth and wit in his blog (

What's more, I also learned that well-received authors, such as Vanessa Gebbie (, also have to bear the pain of waiting for literary prize lists to be announced. And then, of course, there are sales figures to worry about. As one recently published writer friend said to me, 'It's one disappointment after another.'

But, the thing is, despite all these challenges, every single writer still emphasised enjoying the writing itself. Indeed, the very experienced Paul Magrs ( suggested that a pet project (perhaps aside from the main one) could offer the inspiration and pleasure to sustain authors through dark times.

However, bestselling Brighton author Sarah Rayner ( made a very astute point -  given that it's, arguably, the sensitivity of writers which allows us to create moving, emotionally compelling work, she wondered if we should even expect ourselves to handle rejections well.

I think she's nailed something important her and would add that maybe numbing ourselves might dull some of that affective energy. Nevertheless, the fact is, we do need to somehow become more resilient if we are to remain on the potholed literary road. As Richard Ford told me some years ago when we discussed self-doubt: 'It never goes away.' Evidently, rejection eats Pulitzers for breakfast.

Count Floyd from SCTV certainly knows that rejection is scary, kids!
As well as novels, poems, plays, films, acting careers, songs, life-saving inventions, potential love affairs ...  Life is one big fat buffet for this fear-monger.

So what can we do to fight back, to become a little less afraid to post that competition entry, to make the time of crying under the duvet a little bit shorter next time rejection plagues our houses?

I think there is no easy answer. Rejection's agonies are maybe the result of a swirl of psychological longings and losses, the sense of sociological injury of being expelled from the 'tribe' and our culture's obsession with perfection and success - even as Tony Robbins and other excellence experts assert that failure teaches us more than easily-gained attainments (

All I know is that my question stirred a powerful response in my writer friends, showing that this is an issue which we all deal with, no matter what the world perceives us as, and that, as Sarah Rayner said, needs more exploration. There are plenty of books on writing technique which I respect, but the literary life is based in our beings, our minds, and we need to know how to tend to those as they form the core of our work. After all, it's pretty pointless being a fabulous stylist if you're too petrified to send work out - or if you make your high-falutin' literary life a misery by focusing on every critic's narky remark.

Julia Cameron has done much to illuminate the emotional and spiritual dynamics behind making art (, but I believe more close attention needs to be paid to this issue of rejection, so in the coming months - despite being bound up in submitting this novel and completing another and tussling with a chronic illness! - I will attempt to try to gather some wisdom and resources together in a book which will help writers (and anyone who faces difficulties, in fact) face up to the Great Wall of No. I'm going to undertake some research and talk more to my writer friends, but I'd also love to hear your thoughts on rejection and your coping strategies. The Sweatpants of Hope need you to save them from holey doom!

Remember, the wonderful thing about a wall is you can write anything on it.

The graffiti artists who created the Lennon Wall of Love in Prague


  1. What a great post, Sharon. Have gone through this process with securing my agent and then again right now with the submission process out to publishers. The answer for me to deal with the stress, has been to be to throw myself into my second novel. Writing, creating, is why we do this... and within that I find the answer for me. Everything becomes clearer and regain focus and most importantly belief. Keep following that dream and never ever give up. As Patrick Ness said at last week's London Book Fair, always write for your self first and foremost. If you write for an editor, etc, through that route lies frustration and dead ends! Always believe and hopefully one day someone else will do too.

  2. Thanks, Nick, for your encouraging and wise comments. I think you're right that the writing itself needs to be the priority. Richard Ford told me to forget about the market and write the best book I can and people would want to read it - I try to hold onto that advice! Just knowing I'm not alone with this has helped me feel more optimistic and in control. Best of luck with selling the novel - keep me posted as to how you get on.

  3. Thanks for this post Sharon and for opening up this big question for writers - I'll share this with the Writing Coach community via Facebook too. Your work is wonderful and you have been right to hang onto the idea of writing the best book you can. The book I tried to write for an agent was the hardest book I ever wrote, and whilst I'm proud of it, it is not my best. As Michael Nobbs pointed out to me yesterday, reminding me of Julia Cameron's idea, jealousy points to what it is you want to achieve. And it's worth reminding oneself that literary success doesn't equal happiness either - I've heard Martin Amis talking about depression; so it doesn't protect you from sadness. I am so delighted that since this article you have have an extract from a novel accepted by Unthank - bravo! I know your work will find its audience...

  4. Through the realm of social media I discovered a signpost directly to here. (courtesy of Jacqui Lofthouse). Fabulous post and I'm reading it just at the right time - mid point with debut novel; unpublished; no agent. I have all the mountains to climb but your post & the above comments have been very inspirational. Thanks for sharing. All best wishes.