How to grow from literary rejections

Photo by Steve Johnson on Unsplash

(This interview also appears as a video on YouTube.)

Every essay I’ve written on How The Novel Starts has taught me in some way about the fundamental mistakes I’ve been making in my writing for years. It’s how I’m turning rejection into learning and growth.

I wanted to speak to another writer about her experience with learning, rejection, and growth: Grace Flahive. She’s content community manager with visual arts publisher Thames & Hudson, where she uses social media to help promote their upcoming titles. So naturally I wanted to ask her about some of the major themes of How The Novel Starts: for example, how concept and genre can hook readers, and how hooks actually function in the submission process.

But she’s also a novelist writing literary fiction. And her experience in pursuing publication is going to sound so relatable and reassuring to everyone trying to break through — you’ll see me nodding in recognition often during this interview. Her experience includes achieving a major milestone — getting an agent — after failing to do so with her previous work. So I started there, by asking her what actually happened once she got an agent, and how that’s led her to where she is now.

(The text has been edited for clarity.)

Grace Flahive: There’s this idea you have in your head: “OK, I’ve got an agent now, here’s where we are, everything’s going to go swimmingly, and my million-dollar book contract will be in the mail tomorrow.” That’s not how it works. Writing is a process of learning patience. Writing itself and the career side of it, takes years and years and years, which is something I’ve now come to appreciate. That’s a good thing that it goes to that length. It gives you time to learn and improve. But my book went out before the pandemic, October 2019. My agent and I worked together on a list of specific editors we felt would be excited about the project and that she had relationships with and had sold books to before. It was surreal that day when she sent me the list: “This is everybody it’s gone to.” That felt so amazing. But it was a waiting game, it was the ultimate anti-climax—you sit and wait. Then it was really lovely, you’d get feedback come in, you’d rejections, but the rejections would come with useful feedback. It was encouraging to know that my book was being read by some of the biggest editors in the world. Even if it was a no, they’d have some piece of feedback that was really helpful, or that had never occurred to me before, so that was really cool. But days passed, weeks passed, then we got to a point where we regrouped in the new year. We had really positive feedback but no sales yet, no offers. So it was a funny place to be in, but also a good place. It was disappointing obviously, but it got me to this weird point that I’m still at where we said, “We’ll park that for now, it doesn’t mean it will never sell.” But I was now in a position to look to the next project, which is also a theme of being a writer: it never ends. That’s beautiful, like, “What do you want to write next?” Which is the phase I’ve been in for the last year and a half or so, which has been really daunting, really rewarding. Until that point, for my whole life when I was writing, I wasn’t thinking anything of it, I was just writing because I loved it, so that definitely felt different. I was now thinking of things with a career mindset. I now know the process. So that’s been really cool.

How The Novel Starts: What kind of feedback did you actually get from those editors that you and your agent talked about? How did that affect your decision-making process with what to do with the book?

GF: So my novel Current that went out, there was a lot going on in it. It all took place on one day in the near future. On one day, Beyoncé dies, the Eiffel Tower falls over, and a baby’s shoe is found on the surface of Mars — which seemed crazy at the time. Then of course the pandemic happened, that ruined that for me! But it all took place on one day and it took place on a flight from London to New York, and it follows four characters whose lives were impacted by those events. It was really ambitious, so the feedback we got was, “We love you’re trying to do a lot. We really loved the writing, this is obviously really different and unexpected, but we wish you had done less better.” That is a theme lots of writers can understand that as well, and I sure you can as well. When you have a new project, it’s tempting to think, “I’ve got a thousand great ideas, let’s put them all in one…” And to bring it back to that theme of patience, I think, when I was sitting down thinking, “What do I want to write next?” a lot of what my agent and I talked about was if there’s that much going on and that many characters — and it was switching between their perspectives — the reader never gets the chance enough time with any individual character to really care about them. So the immediate thing I’ve done differently is I’ve just focused on one protagonist. There are obviously secondary characters that you care about as well, but trying to do less and to focus more. So that was the main feedback that I took in. Thinking through all of that brought me to other lessons that I came across in working through next drafts. Every writer, whether they want to admit it, we all do know our strengths and weaknesses. It’s easy to rely on things. I really love writing voice, but voice is not a substitute for plot. So I was trying to be hard on myself this new draft, thinking, “You can’t just like the images.” You have to be thinking, “What is this chapter doing for the story?”

HTNS: What I found interesting is how you talked about the story. You described these three overarching events and then how potentially they could impact people in this self-contained “bottle.” When you think about stories and the work you’re doing in marketing in your day job, and in your fiction as well, how important is it that a story is something you can talk about in a succinct fashion? And then balancing that with what you were describing, writing this beautiful prose? Sometimes that doesn’t always translate into an idea that can fit into one sentence. So where do you find that tension and resolution?

GF: It is tricky because writing is a passion and writing is also a business, and it has to sit somewhere in the middle. If you’re being a writer and you know you want to be published and make a career of it, it does have to be marketable. That’s what I do in my job: pull out the hooks of books and make things marketable. But at the same time, you don’t want to completely take the soul out of it, and sit down and think, “OK, what’s my hook and what am I going to write?” You do want to be able to have those pages that are you really enjoying something that is serving no purpose and doesn’t have any hook or anything. I think it’s really tricky. Finding my way into a story has taught me a lot about my relationship to that. Especially in those periods in the pandemic when I was overthinking things, I was holding myself to a standard of every single sentence needs to be written in this voice, and then actually writing that out and realizing I had completely compromised plot for voice because it was just unreadable, it was really wordy. Whereas at other times I’ve went way too far down the other side, writing something so plainly that it had no personality. If you want to make a career of it, you’ve got to think of what your elevator pitch would be, but if you do that too soon, it could really paralyze your writing. You overthink it. I don’t know what the answer is, but the only thing I have figured out is as soon as I came up with that concept of what those general three things would be, and what naturally came out of that, I was excited about it. That’s the core of it. Whichever way it sits — if it’s something dense and literary or it’s commercial and hooky — what matters is it’s exciting, that you’re excited about it, because that’s contagious in the writing, and when you’re pitching it to agents, editors, friends, or people at parties. As long as you are writing something you’re excited about, the rest will come.

HTNS: So how do you go from writing something that is really meaningful and emotional and subtle like that, and finding “This is what’s going to grab a reader, this is how I’m going to talk about, this is how potentially some other marketing person in a different publishing company is going to talk about my book”?

GF: So much of literary fiction is about feelings, internal experiences, and the human condition. It’s not easily made into a hook. My novel Current was about feelings and people having experiences, but whether I realized it or not, I was trying to counter that and give it a hook in the sense of, “This is the structure.” Every scene in the book wasn’t about one of those three things, but it was always impacting it. It was me setting up that hook for myself. Then digging into it, digging down into the layers, the actual content of the book was very literary and exploring those feelings and experiences. I think I was relying on that [hook] too much. I was going too far afield the other way of thinking of the elevator pitch and using that as a crutch, working backwards. When you talk to friends about books you’re reading, if it’s literary fiction, it’s interesting to see how people describe books even when they’re not thinking about how they’re describing it. Maybe literary fiction doesn’t need that hook in the same way. It’s just, “Oh, this book made me cry. This book really made me feel this way.” Not that commercial fiction doesn’t do that. It’s just harder to say, “This is what happens.” Literary fiction is often a framework of an experience that a person is going through. So, you know, “This is a book about someone who just had a baby.” It’s difficult, but it is that same spectrum of how commercial do you want to go in terms of the way you’re framing it, and how much are you going to let it be what it is, and hope people come to it.

HTNS: Was there a conversation with your agent or in internally in your own creative monologue: “I’m going to not revise that book any longer and send it out again. I’m actually going to instead work on a new project and take everything I’ve learned and pour it into something new.” Because, especially for myself, at a certain point we get married to what we’ve written and we think, “It’s just one revision away from getting over the hurdle.” Is that a trap or a delusion? Or is there some value to sticking with it? Or is there something to be said of, “OK, I’m going to make a fresh start”?

GF: Ironically, going through that process taught me so much about my writing, but I hadn’t yet had time to apply that to a new project. It was this pathway of “do we go deeper into this particular draft, let’s have a fifth draft or whatever, try to use all of that, tweak things.” It’s a really difficult decision. That book is unpublished. I’m so proud of it. It’s the best thing I’ve written that’s complete, but it’s not published. That’s a really difficult thing to admit, to say, “We’re going to park this.” But the first page of my new draft of something that’s not yet finished is better than that, because I’m using all of those learnings on it. So it’s difficult. We had sent it out to all of our top choices of editors and publishers who would want to take it, and we did have a conversation of “Should we cast the net wider? Should we send it to people we think maybe it’s not perfect for?” We decided no. In terms of my career, we wanted to start in the right place, and start it somewhere that’s really a good match. So that was difficult. Every writer knows that haunting thing. You spent years on this, and it’s seen by nobody. Any creative endeavour is this weird thing because in other professions, there are these visual markers or societal markers. When you’re studying to become a doctor, there’s a path for that, and you finish it and eventually there’s a day when you are a doctor. Whereas with writing — or musicians or artists — you can put years and years and years of effort into it, but until you have a book deal or a record deal or you’re represented in a gallery, you can’t see it, it’s invisible until there is that thing. It’s not as cool at a dinner party to say, “I was almost published…”

HTNS: “I’ve been rejected by so many editors!”

GF: Exactly! You might have seen on my Instagram, I said, “My greatest writing rejection.” And being rejected by some big agents as well before that, too. It’s this weird negative space. I know how close I got to being published by some of the biggest publishers in the world, but it’s invisible except to my friends and to my Instagram followers. It’s a lot of reframing that and having a positive attitude about it. “How cool is that my writing was read by those people?” When I have a project that’s ready again, it can go out to those same people and they can evaluate that next project. But it’s a difficult one. You know it’s going to be hard work. You know the work might come to nothing. But if you were writing just to sell books, you would lose your mind, because that’s not what any of us do it for, purely. I’m going to write for the rest of my life anyway, so if I get published, that’s awesome, and if not, I’ll keep going.

HTNS: I’d love for you to talk about what you’re writing now, after all we’ve explored all of these different learnings. So what is the story you’re working on?

GF: It’s very early days, but despite everything I’ve said, I have a bit of an elevator pitch already. I’m calling it “Climate Change: The Notebook.” It’s a love story that’s set across fifty years. It takes place in the 2070s. It follows Hannah, who is this larger-than-life hotel owner. She owns a hotel in Florida which, in the 2070s, is a bit of an unusual place climate-wise. It’s her looking back on her life. That was me directly taking feedback of thinking let me focus on one character and really draw in the reader. I had plagiarized myself in the sense that there was one love story in Current between Jacob and Georgia, and my agent had agreed and some editors commented that that was the strongest story. So I basically pulled that story out. Now that story in my current project is very different, but that same essence, that was something I felt I did really well, so I thought that’s the strongest bit, let’s take that and go in a different direction. So we’ll see. I’m still in the “figuring it out, getting it down” stage, which is really fun.

HTNS: So when do you think you’ll be taking that to Instagram? For writers, there’s always this pressure: “I wish I could tell people what I’m writing but it might be terrible a month from now and I won’t want to talk about it anymore!”

GF: A few months after, there was this post, “OK, it’s gone out now.” When you’re tracking your timeline like that, people are like, “Oh, great!” The next time they see you, “So how is the book?” “I wish I hadn’t told you because…” I put out a post that was, “It hasn’t sold but this is the next steps and everything.” I haven’t posted since then. It’s always tempting, especially on a bad writing day when you can’t get a word out to skip completely ahead and dream up the marketing plan and the jacket. I have that tendency sometimes. When I do have a book to help my publisher market, I’m really looking forward to that, but I want to focus more purely in the meantime on the writing and get that good. The rest will come.

HTNS: At what point do you say, “OK, I’m done. I’m actually going to bring it to my agent”? Is there an iterative process or do you perfect it in whatever definition of that is for yourself, and say, “OK, So-and-So, here’s my book, it’s ready, let’s send it out.” I know different people have different ways of working and process is such a topic of conversation among many writers, so I’d love to hear yours.

GF: First drafts can be rough, so I don’t know that it would even be useful to show anybody a first draft. That is something that there’s still stuff in it you don’t even understand. My agent would know the general gist of things, maybe would have read sections of it, and would know the plot and the direction, but until it was at least a second draft I don’t know that it would be helpful to share that. But everybody has a different relationship with their agent. Some agents are really hands-off, and some love to be involved in the editorial process. Agents are really good at knowing what every particular writer needs anyway. I mean, I’m in a limbo because I’m “in development.” I don’t have an editor yet, so you’re in that position where your editorial feedback is coming primarily from your agent, whereas once you have a book deal, you’d have your editor who you’d have that relationship with, and the agent would be slightly more on the business side of things. Hopefully I’ll get there one day as well.

HTNS: Something that doesn’t get a lot of credit — and I’m appreciating the way you’re sharing your story — is that this act of writing, this profession, this practice, isn’t just about the end point and the success. It’s this huge thing that’s happening under the surface. There’s so much time and investment and learning, and ups and downs. We don’t always get to see all of that. But I’m guessing you’re hoping that with this novel you reach a certain culmination of everything you learned before, and you hope it’s going to be the one that gets published. But what would happen if, let’s say, it’s still part of your journey, and the next novel after that is the one. How do you deal with another setback? How do you keep going? Where do you find your inspiration to keep going?

GF: That’s a very real possibility. I could finish the project that I’m working on now, have the exact same thing happen again, where we get nearly to the finish line and get some bittersweet positive feedback but it’s not quite right. That could happen. The odds are stacked against all of us. It’s very cliché but every creative person knows that when your creative thing is going well, it feels amazing. It’s such a happy, fun thing to do. That has nothing to do with the business/career side of things. As long as I love to write, I’m going to do it. If I’m published then that’s awesome, and I’ll whip out my marketing plan that I made five years before. That’ll be great. But knowing that you like it as an act — and not necessarily as a final destination of where you want to get to — is the important thing.

Grace Flahive is content community manager at Thames & Hudson. She spoke to me from London, and you can follow her on Instagram.

I’d love to know what resonated with you from this conversation. How have you grown from rejection? Write a Response or leave Applause, and be sure to follow me to be notified of my upcoming essays. You can also watch this interview as a video on YouTube, and support the growth of my content on Ko-fi.

I explore the opening chapters of popular novels, and figure out what writers can learn from them for their own work.

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How The Novel Starts

How The Novel Starts

I explore the opening chapters of popular novels, and figure out what writers can learn from them for their own work.

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