The Surprising Thing About Rejection (Or What I Learned in 2014)

This will likely be my last blog post in 2014 and you might want to make a cup of coffee, because it’s gonna be a long one…

In past Decembers I’ve compiled gift guides, and last year I shared my first Christmas in a place I lived all by myself (and so could decorate as I pleased, safe in the knowledge that no one could touch anything or suddenly appear with a strand of the most offensive substance known to man, tinsel). But this year I’m coming to the end of my first term in Trinity College Dublin, barely three months in to a four-year degree in English Studies that I started at the ripe age of 32, and assignments are due. This necessitated a move to Dublin, one of the most expensive cities in the world; the shoebox I now live in, while comfortable and suitably Catherine-fied, couldn’t fit as much as a bauble. (I have no books here. That’s how small it is.) And once college breaks up at the end of the next week, I have to use my month off to—

Well, let me back up a little.

This has been a very exciting year. There was always something about 2014; I knew it would be a big one. During it I did three things I’ve been dreaming about for ages, for years in some cases: I moved to Dublin, I started studying English at Trinity and I signed with an agent. The agent, rather. The one who is at the very top of your wish list if you’re a woman who writes crime, the one who represents such awe-inspiring writers that you nearly didn’t even bother submitting to her because you assumed there was absolutely no chance, and when—

Well, let me back up a little again.

TCDcollage

2014 Highlights: Trinity College Dublin as it looked on my first day as a student. 

I want to tell you about the two very important lessons I’ve learned this year.

The first is that when it comes to making big changes, pursuing your dreams or just doing anything that will yank you out of your comfort zone, making the decision to do it is the hardest part.

Honestly, it is. Strolling around Trinity’s historical campus one sunny day in September – having previously only ever strolled around it as a tourist – I couldn’t quite believe that I was there. I go here now, I kept whispering to myself. How had it happened? [For those of you who don’t live in Ireland, Trinity is like Ireland’s Harvard. It’s for the top scorers. Mature students aren’t considered on their years-old exam results – thankfully! – but places are incredibly restricted and competition is fierce. But I filled my application form with all my book and publishing antics over the last five years, and I’m convinced that’s what got me in.] I’d had to apply; interview; come up with the fees; find a place to live in Dublin in what was described as the worst year for rental accommodation in three decades; move out; move up; and show up for the first day of Orientation.

But they were all easy compared to sitting in front of my computer at 11.30pm on January 31st last, half an hour before the CAO [Central Applications Office; how we apply to third-level education in Ireland) deadline closed for the year. I drummed my fingers on the desktop. Was I really going to do this? Could I do this? How could I leave the apartment I loved so much? Could I really move to Dublin in just a few months? Live there by myself? Afford to? Was there any real possibility that I would even get in? I’d been thinking about it for months but when it came to down to it, I wasn’t sure. It would be easier not to do anything. With minutes to spare, I finalized my application.

And that was by far the hardest part. Making the initial decision was the most difficult thing I’d had to do. After that, all I was doing was following through.

photo-16

Highlights of 2014: Champagne and Starbucks. What more does a girl want? (Thanks for the bubbly, Denise!)

Lesson number two was that rejection doesn’t mean no.

Quick recap, if you’re not familiar: I love self-publishing, and I can’t even imagine where I’d be now without it. (Not here, anyway!) But my goal has always been to get published. I don’t feel the need to justify it but if you’re wondering why, it can be summed up like this: because that’s what I want, okay? This little girl didn’t ask Santa for a typewriter because she was dreaming of seeing her book on the Kindle store after she put it there herself:

littlecat

Around about the time I self-published Mousetrapped in 2010, I finished a novel, Results Not Typical. Chick-lit meets corporate satire, I called it, or The Devil Wears Prada meets WeightWatchers. It got me a meeting with the editorial director of a major publishing house, who didn’t like that book but liked me and hoped I might write something else. We met every few months for two years, but after various outlines, sample chapters and synopses, I just wasn’t coming up with the goods. With hindsight I can see that my heart just wasn’t in it. I was trying to write a book that I wouldn’t choose to read, which of course is completely and utterly insane, and insulting to books and stories and publication dreams in general.

Meanwhile I’d had an idea for a crime/thriller novel. I am OBSESSED with crime/thriller novels. They are by far and away what I predominantly read. My favorite author of all time is Michael Connelly. If I color-coordinated my bookshelves, half of them would be black. I just love, love, love a good mystery, a chilling serial killer, a twist that comes like a sudden slap in the face. As for writing them, it’s something I thought I would do when I was older, when I had more experience both in life and as a writer. But one day in the summer of 2012, fed up with my failed attempts to write women’s commercial fiction, I caught myself thinking, When this outline is done, I’m going to try and write that thriller just for fun.

*ALARM BELL ALARM BELL ALARM BELL*

Shouldn’t everything I write be for fun? Why was I doing it otherwise? I ditched all notions of writing anything except the book I wanted to read, the book I really wanted to write.

I’d love to tell you now that I banged it out in a caffeine-fueled week or something, but what followed was eighteen months of mostly procrastination. Still, the idea was percolating away in my brain, so all was not lost. By January of this year I had a long synopsis – or, ahem, an outline; tip: if your synopsis is too long, just call it an outline instead! – and the first third of the book, written and re-written to what I thought was a high standard.

photo-15

Highlights of 2014: At the Bord Gais Energy Irish Book Awards with Hazel and Elizabeth. (Photo credit: Derek Flynn.)

I have a lot of writer friends, many of them published, and two of them in particular (shout out, Sheena and Hazel!) urged me to start submitting to agents. I said no, not yet, I want to wait until I feel like it’s perfect or, at the very least, finished. Don’t be daft, they said. Are you happy with the first third? Yes? Send it out then. You’re not a novice, you have all this self-publishing stuff behind you, great contacts and you do freelance work for one of the world’s biggest publishing houses. No, no, I said. I’m not ready. I can’t do it. But they kept at me, Dr Phil-style, and finally I said, Okay, okay. I’ll start submitting.

And then anxiety started pushing its way out of my skin in the form of sweat. My heart began to race. I was genuinely scared of the idea of submitting to an agent.

Why?

Because getting published had been my dream since I realized that people actually wrote the books I loved to read. With 30,000 double-spaced words under my arm and a cover letter I’d been perfecting for months, this dream was still intact. But what if I sent it out and got nothing back but a form rejection letter? That would be devastating, a sharpened scalpel tip right into the balloon of my publication dreams. So of course, it was easier to stay in the limbo in between, where my dreams could still happen.

Making the initial decision to take action was the hardest part.

plan

Highlight of 2014: finalizing the plot of The Novel.

But I did send it out. And it did get rejected. And I was devastated.

It was rejected by three agents. The first gave me detailed feedback, and some of it caught in my gut. I knew she was right so I rewrote it. The second one just said no (or a disinterested “Nah…” in my head). The third one said no too, in the worst possible way: I really enjoyed it, but I just don’t feel passionate enough about it to represent you. As I feel all authors deserve an agent who is passionate about their work… etc

I have a writer friend whose book launches I’ve been going to every summer for the past four years (shout out, Maria!) and who, not that long ago, went to London to meet with two agents, both of whom were desperate to represent her. They both pitched to her and then she got to pick. We first met at a writers’ workshop back in April 2009, when both of us were just dreamers. It had happened for her; I wanted it to happen – and happen that way – for me. But when the rejections started coming in, I stopped believing that it ever would.

I started thinking, Well, the best I can hope for now is an agent who’ll reluctantly take me on because, well, he’ll give it a go, and a deal with a small publisher with no distribution potential and no advance. I was downsizing. Because here’s the thing: if it was a good book, I thought, wouldn’t its goodness be universally recognized?

I finished my book over the summer and decided that my careful, one-agent-at-a-time strategy wasn’t getting me anywhere. I might never get anywhere, so what did I have to lose? I submitted it to two more agents, the agents, the agents I really wanted but had been holding back on submitting to because (a) if the agents on my next-best-thing list all said the book was a stinking pile of crap, it would need a re-write, and I didn’t want to ruin my one chance with my Dream Agents by sending them the first version (although I should say the agents I had sent it to were still brilliant, amazing, well-known agents that I would’ve been delirious to have been represented by) and (b) I thought there was no point, because they got thousands of submissions a year and took on hardly any new clients.

One of the agents was so selective that she only accepted the first ten pages of your book. Fifty is the norm. I’d no chance. I actually remember being on her website and thinking, There’s no point. It was a repeat of January 31st, drumming my fingers on the desk, thinking there was no point in applying to Trinity.

photo-14

Not a highlight, but what I’m stuck with reading as my essay deadline looms. Ugh!

But I’d got into Trinity, and now I was living and studying in Dublin. Making the decision was the hardest part, remember? So I took a deep breath, submitted my ten pages and hoped for the best.

Actually, I just hoped for a response.

Both agents requested the full manuscript. And then they both offered representation, one of them even before she’d finished reading the book. I shook and squealed as I read their e-mails. And just like my friend Maria, I had a day (during my first Reading Week!) where I flew to London and met with two amazing agents and listened, slightly dumbfounded, while they pitched for me and my work.

The day before I’d got an invite to the Irish Book Awards and the day after the new Michael Connelly book came out, so that was quite the giddy week, let me tell you.

A few weeks before my London trip I was watching an episode of ITV’s Crime Thriller Club where crime writing queen Lynda La Plante was being interviewed. She said if she could give advice to aspiring writers it would be that “rejection doesn’t mean no.”

I rolled my eyes. Um, that’s EXACTLY what it means? Come on, Lynda. Aren’t you supposed to be a writer? But after my London day, I realized what she meant.

Publishing is an incredibly subjective operation. Whether or not someone likes your book depends on their personal tastes, their professional experience and even what mood they’re in when they sit down to read it. Whether or not an agent will take you on depends on all this and the level of belief they have in you, what they see in the possibility of what the book can become. Timing factors in too, of course. Maybe they just took on a similar author, or they know that a publishing house just paid five-figures for a similar book. That’s why we have these stories of Ms Author getting rejected all over town for years, and then getting an agent and going on to hit the bestseller lists.

Just because your book got rejected doesn’t mean that your publishing dreams are dead. It doesn’t even mean that you have to modify them. Rejection, as Lynda said, doesn’t mean no.

Last week I signed with Jane Gregory of Gregory & Company. Next week I’ve to hand in my first lot of university assignments. Then I start on a re-write of my novel and after that, who knows what the new year will bring? It might bring everything I want, or it might bring disappointment. I’m ready either way. I’ll keep you updated.

In the meantime, remember that making the decision to take action is by far the hardest part and that rejection doesn’t mean no. Consider this when you sit down to think about your writing goals in 2015.

In the meantime, thanks for reading in 2014, especially as life has got in the way and I’ve become so sporadic with my blogging. I hope to improve a bit in the New Year!

Wishing you and yours a fabulous Christmas and a New Year that brings everything you want.

Catherine x

(Fun fact: this blog post is the exact length each of my four essays has to be. Procrastinating much?)

72 thoughts on “The Surprising Thing About Rejection (Or What I Learned in 2014)

  1. Marilyn Parel (@mparel) says:

    Oh, how your post so resonated with me. I’ve done the same thing with this screenwriting business. And yes, making the decision was the hardest part and yes, I’m poorer than I was last year but so enjoying the writing. Lexa said it best with her motto of “Enjoy life.” Congrats to you for all that you’ve accomplished. Celebrate the holidays and your life to the fullest.

  2. Leanne says:

    I will miss your posts but I wish you all the best, and I hope your words stay with me as I procrastinate over my 50,000 word unfinished book because, as you say, that way it keeps the dream alive! #RejectionDoesntMeanNo

    • catherineryanhoward says:

      Leanne this isn’t what you’re supposed to do, but I am a TERRIBLE procrastinator so this is what I did: I sent out the beginning, and that put a fire under me to get it finished. It still wasn’t completely finished when an agent requested the full (not an agent who ended up offering me representation – you’ll understand why by the end of this sentence) and so I told her I was going on holidays, as a friend had done (!), and then wrote the last half of it in 3 weeks. Obviously, it wasn’t great and she didn’t offer representation, but at least it was DONE, and now I had a full length MS to go back and tinker with. So if there’s no end in sight, you could try this dangerous method! 😀

      • Leanne says:

        Haha thank you for the advice! Great minds, I just recently did this to encourage me to finish quickly (i wrote the first 50k words on a 2 week break from work, the editing needed was woeful but at least it can be done!) gahd i just need to finish it for my own sake i think lol but thanks for taking the time to reply, i will keep up to date with your work on twitter 🙂

  3. Joel D Canfield says:

    Are you really sure you don’t just want to publish that thing right now, so we can all read it RIGHT NOW?

    No? Okay.

    I have sooooo many stories about how deciding has been the only necessary step to amazing things in my life (ask Best Beloved about our 5th anniversary . . .)

    People with nothing to lose have done a lot for mankind, y’know?

  4. Julie Christine says:

    Oh, Brava!!! See, dreams come true! I’ve just signed with an agent and a publisher the old-fashioned way (a writing conference pitch)- no connections, no mentor, no MFA, no well-honed list of publications behind me. They say it never happens this way anymore, but what do they know? Giving up a good-paying, satisfying job to write full-time was terrifying-financially, emotionally-and very lonely. One published book is not going to salvage my bank account or make my writing career, but it gives me such courage, hope, determination to plow on. I’m so thrilled for you!

    • catherineryanhoward says:

      Congrats and who are “they” to say anything? I refuse to listen to “them” anymore. In the last couple of years I’ve had to sit there and smile while people give me so-called “advice” – basically that I should give up and stick to self-publishing – but what I’ve realized is that they and I are not the same. Sometimes the people giving me this advice are people who never even thought about writing a novel until the whole self-publishing thing happened (whereas I’ve wanted to do it since I was a child), and they’re writing novels they can’t summarize in less than two pages (whereas I’ve the core of mine down to a sentence) and they don’t have the contacts, experience, etc. that I have. Their advice is for people like them, not people like me (or you). So the next time “they” tell you something, smile and nod and remind yourself: you and them are not the same. 😀

  5. bridget whelan says:

    Great post and great news. But I wasn’t surprised to hear that two agents wanted you. I’ve been reading and recommedning you since 2010 and I knew it would happen one day. You’ve earned this opportunity.

    • catherineryanhoward says:

      I *WISH* I still had it. That was the best present I ever got. The MONTHS of entertainment. The camping trips on my bedroom floor, the jaunty convertible rides out the back garden… Do they still make them, do you think?

  6. Maarit says:

    CONGRATULATIONS! As a loyal blog reader who doesn’t even self-publish anymore yet can’t bring myself to unsubscribe from your posts, I fully vouch for the addictiveness of your writing. I’m so proud of you, and so excited for you!

  7. Sarah says:

    Huzzah! Congratulations, Catherine – I’m completely delighted for you! Lots of luck for your rewrite and for securing a publisher; I have no doubt you can do it!

  8. barryknister says:

    Catherine–congratulations! And never think you have to apologize for wanting to succeed as a traditionally published novelist. Very few serious writers who turn to indie publishing do so as a first choice.
    And congratulations as well for having the courage, the moxie to seek admission to Trinity, to not be dissuaded by your age or the possibility of rejection. What a great holiday season this must be for you, and richly deserved. I have followed you for some time, and I know this to be true.

  9. Zig says:

    Congrats Catherine! I look forward to reading the book when it’s finished.

    Glad you’re enjoying Trinity. I spent 12 years there and did not want to leave.

  10. Karen says:

    What a wonderfully inspiring post. It made me think of that saying, ‘the harder I work, the luckier I get’. If anyone had a great publishing deal coming their way one day, it was you! Can’t wait to read your novel 🙂

  11. Melissa Stacy says:

    *Best* end-of-year blog post EVER!!!!! Cannot WAIT until this traditionally-published novel of yours is up for sale!! I will be devouring that book!!! *So Excited to Read It*!!!! Congratulations, Catherine!! You ROCK!!!!!

  12. John Manchester says:

    Congrats on the agent! Though I’m not surprised. I’ve been following your blog for some time, and you write very well.

    I also was unaware that you wrote in the mystery genre (mine, too.)

  13. Van Wolverton says:

    The picture of the young lady with the typewriter speaks volumes: it was meant to be. I wish you the best in the coming years of stress followed by euphoria followed by more stress as you deal with your studies at Trinity and rewriting your novel so the publisher can sell gobs and gobs and working in the obligatory author tour and…you earned every bit of it.

  14. Irma says:

    Congratulations, Catherine. I think the biggest congratulations goes to going with your gut and enrolling in school, though getting an agent is pretty awesome as well. Wow, Girl! You rock! Now get on those essays!

  15. Widdershins says:

    Blog post equals essay – see how easy that was! 🙂

    Big congrats on your agently signage and future publishage, and the whole Trinity/Dublin thing.

    2015, here you come!

  16. Sine says:

    SO nice to hear such a feel-good story (although I admit with a teensy twinge of jealousy:-). Congrats, both on Trinity and the agent, and thank you for the great advice, so very true. I have been in both places. Though not made progress on either one…

  17. Sylvia Valevicius says:

    I am just so darn happy for you, Catherine! I love that you got into the English program at Trinity – I’ve never been there, but I did do a degree or two at McMaster University in English Lit. in Canada (where’re I’m from) when I was ‘older’ – and was thrilled – you go girl! as they said back when, haha – Congrats on your agents/books, etc. I have your first one. Wonderful!! Sylvia xox

  18. jamespmoffatt says:

    Hey Catherine,
    Great post. It seems especially relevant since I moved to London in the summer to work as a fashion photographer and rejection seems to be a huge part of the creative industries. Well done on taking the initiative to go for your dream agents. Come see my studio in the new year so I can take your portrait before you become too famous!

    Best of luck with everything,

    James. x

  19. Sherry Chen says:

    Hi there, I think your site’s got beautiful design and such interesting pieces, so I’m following! 🙂
    I really enjoy your posts and look forward to your next.
    Feel free to check out my writing about publishing: publishinginsights.org
    Sherry

  20. hilarycustancegreen says:

    Great post. My parents always said there were only three Universities – Oxford, Cambridge and Trinity College Dublin. I was in my forties when I applied to do a PhD and all my friends said you’ll never get in, you’ll never finish, it will hang over you for the rest of your life etc. I had the most stimulating three years of my life and studying was far easier than in my teens and twenties. Enjoy! I’m envious of the agent, I’ve been nibbled several times, but never swallowed. I find self-publishing takes me away from writing for too long, but I’ll remember that rejection doesn’t mean no. (Border Line published two days ago).

  21. Chris says:

    Congratulations! This is the perfect, hopeful post for the holidays. Thanks for sharing your successes, struggles, and optimism.

  22. gwnorth45 says:

    Catherine, your journey so far has been inspiring. Congratulations on getting an agent. You know you will get published. You have the heart and talent for it. Now I need to take a cue from you and send in some of my completed works. I did that once and was told by two separate agents that I simply need to strengthen my characterizations to get published, and that the story was great. I’ve been working on that, and learning from your example. I think it’s time to submit. Your blog is great, and I look forward to reading more in the next year. Again, congrats.

  23. Joey says:

    Catherine, i’ve just found your blog from google. since 5 hours ago, i’ve been reading probably close to 20 blog posts of yours. you can write very well, the posts are almost always concise. and i see that you’ve been writing the blog for a couple years.

    congratulations on the first step on the door!

    i come here to say that your typewriter machine childhood photos is very powerful. well, at least powerful for me.

    secondly i also post to ask, will the english major on trinity be your first bachelor’s degree, or did you do a major in your 20s before Florida?

    im terribly sorry in advance if my question is a little nosy or anything…

    cheers

  24. dannie54 says:

    Talk about a resonant post. I’m not in writing and I’m not looking for a publishing deal but I’m sort of at that exact same point in my life in my fields (library and theatre) where I just need to decide to do something. I’ve watched several job postings that could have been dream job material float by because I did’t think I could do it. This is the inspiration and push in the right direction I needed to read to know that I just need to do it already! So really, thanks for sharing this story. It’s inspirational. And so exciting for you! Congratulations a thousand times over!
    stilefotocibo.wordpress.com

  25. ERMurray says:

    1) congrats again on getting your agent (though we all know how well deserved it is)
    2) thanks for all the amazing blog posts that help so many throughout the year on so many levels
    3) thanks for giving me shiny hair for the book awards & for choosing a photo where I don’t look like Mr Potato Head
    4) hope you have forgiven ‘the couch trick’
    5) catch up soon? X

  26. Rebecca says:

    Catherine, I’n so happy for you. I’ll certainly buy your book when it gets published. Good luck!!!Merry Christmas from the other side of the Pond.

  27. Lorna says:

    Woohoo, huge congrats, delighted for you and to have two vying for you. I have to admit I’m at the stage when I need to get my ass in gear and start sending to agents (gotta find some appropriate ones first!) so I can really empathise with how you were feeling.
    Many congrats on Uni too btw. I went back to college to do English and History as a mature student too (was 24) and then did a MA too. Loved it, soaked it up like a sponge. Enjoy

  28. ridicuryder says:

    Happy Holidays Catherine,
    I’ve unrejected the idea that a scruffy blogger can’t write a book recently. Your blog seems to be a shining “how to” example for terrible procrastinators who are kinda goofy, so I’m glad I found you.
    See you in 2015!
    Mark

  29. Misha says:

    I am new to your blog Catherine but I have been so inspired from your posts. Thanks for offering some encouragement for us writers and congratulations on your success. In your spare time, please check out my blog which is filled with inspiration and positivity! I am looking forward to your next post.

  30. catherineryanhoward says:

    Lola, darling, I’ve deleted your comment because I’d hate for you to embarrass yourself.

    You might want to have a look around this site and, I don’t know, actually READ THE POST before you leave comments that tell us more about you than anything else…?

    Thanks SO MUCH for stopping by.

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