Guest Post: Writing, Rejections, and Going for that Overhead Smash by Author Holly Robinson

My friend Holly Robinson’s novel, THE WISHING HILL (and its stunning cover) will be published by Penguin in Summer 2013. Oh, and she’ll have another novel published in 2014!  So I’m going to make sure she comes back to talk more about all that crazy awesomeness! But today, Holly shares with us why it’s important to just keep on writing, and trying no matter what.  Why? Because you just don’t know the moment that something is just going to go flying over the net. (The tennis pun is weak, I agree, but my intentions were good.) 

Please welcome Holly to Women’s Fiction Writers!

Amy xo

Writing, Rejections, and Going for that Overhead Smash

By Holly Robinson

ImageBy the time my agent was sending out my fifth novel, I figured I’d paid my dues as a writer.  Yes, it’s true that I majored in biology and had never even read James Joyce, but I atoned for that mistake by flinging myself into graduate school to earn an MFA in creative writing.  I even published short stories in literary journals where the payment was two copies.  I collected enough rejection slips that, one Halloween, I dressed as a Rejection Slip, donning a lacy slip with my rejections stapled all over it.

“Are you still writing?” friends and relatives asked, year after year.

“Of course.  And this one is it,” I always answered.

And then came novel #5.  This will be the one, I told myself, just like Charlie Bucket in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate FactoryThis will be my golden ticket!

When the rejections amassed that fifth time, though, I lost faith.  That tiny negative voice in my head, the one that was usually like some bee you can wave off, began to sound like a trumpet in my ear.  The voice blared:  You are not smart enough to be a writer. 

“Let’s try one more editor,” my blessed agent said.

I knew the editor he was sending my fifth novel to, and she is one of the smartest in the business.  As a book doctor and ghost writer for many years, typically on nonfiction health books and celebrity memoirs, I’d had the opportunity to work with her on several books.  I desperately wanted her to love my novel.

I waited three agonizing weeks.  Then the editor’s reply came:  “I’m sorry, but the novel just doesn’t work for us,” she said, adding various detailed observations about where the plot flagged and why the characters didn’t ring true.

“Should I get you some wine?” my husband asked when he found me prone on the sofa, the rejection letter crumpled in one hand and a bouquet of Kleenexes in the other.

“Go get me chocolates.  Good chocolates,” I hissed.  “I’m never writing fiction again.”

I was devastated enough by that one rejection to eat my way through an entire box of dark chocolate truffles, drink half a bottle of Grand Marnier, and watch Nicole Kidman attempt to sing in Moulin Rouge.  By now, that trumpeting voice in my head had turned cocky and mean:  Your sentences are dull and stupid.  Your plot lines are insipid.  Your descriptions are trite.  Your characters are flat and uninteresting.  Who would want to read your writing? 

That was it.  I was done with fiction.

With so much extra time on my hands, I decided to do something entirely unlike me:  I took tennis lessons.

I had never played a sport in my life, and I rapidly discovered that practicing a sport means getting yelled at a lot.  My tennis coach’s nonstop badgering nearly made me quit:  “Get up to net!  Come on, don’t stand around the baseline!  Go for it!  You want that overhead smash!”

My problem was that I was too timid and polite.  I got hit on the head with tennis balls more than once, nearly pummeled to the ground by aggressive women on the other side of the net going for their overhead smashes.

I spent hours and hours on the tennis court.  I joined a travel team and moved up the ranks.  Still, I hung back, always playing it safe, until one day my coach lost her temper.

“You know,” she said, “the only person who really cares about whether you screw up out here is you!  Just get up to net and take the balls in the air!  You might miss.  But you might surprise yourself if you try.”

The metaphor here is obvious, and so were the flaws in my tennis playing.  I had to force myself to net again and again.  Until one day, to my shock, I found myself looking for those overheads and smashing them down at my opponent’s feet.  I missed a lot of balls, but I made some great shots, too.

I became more confident at tennis, and that made me start writing again.  What did I have to lose by trying another novel?  Nobody was going to publish it, probably, but so what?  I love writing fiction.  So I started another book.

This is one of those happy-ending stories, but with a twist.  While I was writing my sixth novel, The Wishing Hill, I also revised and self-published that fifth novel, Sleeping Tigers.  Self publishing wasn’t the way I wanted to go, but going to net in tennis had taught me to gamble.  I revised Sleeping Tigers and published it myself.

Meanwhile, I finished my newest novel, The Wishing Hill.  The same editor at Penguin, the one I had always dreamed about working with on a novel, bought it.  She recently bought the new novel I’m working on, too.  It will be published a year after The Wishing Hill.

What’s the takeaway here?

  1. If you are a writer, you will surely get rejected.  Nobody cares but you.
  2. Writing, like anything else, is all about keeping the ball in play, watching for new opportunities, and not being afraid to go to net.

Want to make it as a writer?  You have to fail first—and sometimes many times.  Get to the net and write another book.  Keep going for that overhead smash, and you might surprise yourself.

Image 1Holly Robinson is an award-winning journalist whose work appears regularly in national venues such as Better Homes and Gardens, Family Circle, Huffington Post, Ladies’ Home Journal, More, Open Salon, and Parents. She also works as a ghost writer on celebrity memoirs, education texts, and health books. Her first book, The Gerbil Farmer’s Daughter: A Memoir, was named a Target Breakout Book. Her first novel, Sleeping Tigers, was named a 2011 Book of the Year Finalist by ForeWord Reviews and was more recently listed as a Semifinalist 2012 Best Indie Book by Kindle Book Review. She holds a B.A. in biology from Clark University and an M.F.A. in creative writing from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. She lives north of Boston with her husband and their five children.

Submission Guidelines For Writer Rejections: A Guest Post By Author Janet Josselyn

We’ve all gotten them. Rejection letters. They run the gamut from leftover napkins scrawled with obscenities to carefully worded and helpful emails that enable us to shelter a bit of self-esteem. Wouldn’t it be fabulous if we could dictate how those letters were written? After all, if we’re going to get them, shouldn’t they meet OUR guidelines?

Author Janet Josselyn thinks so! And I agree!

Please welcome Janet to Women’s Fiction Writers!

Amy xo

Despite Its Evident Merit—Submission Guidelines for Rejections

by Janet Josselyn

Rejection is a staple of a writer’s diet and it comes in many forms and guises.  My personal favorite, however, is the rejection that describes how talented my writing is while simultaneously rejecting what I have written.  I have a stack of those backhanded compliments.  I culled the most flattering and they appear at the beginning of Thin Rich Bitches.

Some editors, on the other hand, don’t even attempt to say something flattering in their form rejections.  “We’re sorry to say that your piece ‘The Comely Behavior Manual for U.S. Army Generals’ wasn’t right for us, despite its evident merit.  Thank you for allowing us to consider your work.”  Apparently the “evident merit” wasn’t sufficiently evident.  In response, I have this to say:

Dear Editors:

Thank you for submitting your recent rejection of our latest submission.  Unfortunately, the rejection isn’t right for us at this time, despite its evident merit.

Before submitting a rejection in the future, you might want to familiarize yourself with our Submission Guidelines for rejections:

  1. Ditch the happy face after the part where you assure us that there is a publication “somewhere” that will appreciate our work.
  2. There are only so many chuckles you can get out of making fun of conservative white men who work and have female wives.  Open the humor up a little, please.  Sometimes it’s actually funny to make sport of people who look or act odd.  People who go all crazy-ass on people who eat meat can be really funny.
  3. Are all of the published authors of your journal related?  We are not suggesting incest-style “related,” but we are suggesting “old boys club, wink-wink, nod-nod, not-if-you-are-a-girl-writer related.”  Okay, just had to play the gender card.  You guys are liberals, right?
  4. Evident merit comes in many sizes.  Despite its evident merit, a rejection should evidence sufficient merit or it will not be right for us at this time.

Thank you for allowing us to consider your rejection.

Best regards,

Rejected Writers Everywhere

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Janet Eve Josselyn graduated from Colby College, Harvard Graduate School of Design and Boston College Law School.  She is an attorney and an architect.  She has published one novel, Thin Rich Bitches, and has written numerous articles for publications in the US and the UK.

Author Anne Clinard Barnhill on Writer’s Rejection, Otherwise Known As ‘A Sure Thing’

I met Anne Clinard Barnhill because we’re both pregnant — BOOK PREGNANT, that is.  We’re members of a small group of debut authors who yammer on and on all day in a undisclosed location and then post publicly on the Book Pregnant Blog, which you can find here. Anne’s such a diverse and talented author with published short stories, poetry, a memoir and a novel — I’m thrilled she is willing to spend time with us here today! 

Please give Anne a hearty WFW welcome — I’m sure in no time you’ll feel like she’s a good friend too!

Author Anne Clinard Barnhill on Writer’s Rejection, Otherwise Known As ‘A Sure Thing’

I’ve been writing professionally for over twenty years. During that time, believe me, I’ve had my share of rejections–none of them were pretty but some hurt less than others. Those with hand-written notes to ‘send us something else’ or a quickly scribbled ‘love this story but it doesn’t fit our current needs’ feel a lot better than the usual form rejections that say ‘Never, and I do mean NEVER send to us again.’ Okay, I didn’t really get any that said that, but it feels just that lousy when those big ‘NO’s arrive. In twenty years, I’ve never met a rejection I actually liked.

But as every writer knows, rejections are part of the writing world. I want to share a couple of my favorite rejection stories–then, maybe you won’t feel so bad when you see that familiar-looking envelop plopped in your mailbox.

The first story takes place about ten years ago when I had an agent who loved my first novel (still in a box under the bed) and wanted to represent me. I eagerly signed the contract, expecting her to keep her promise–to make me a famous writer. I figured I would hear something from her fairly quickly.

No so. I waited And waited. And waited. Then waited some more.

Finally, the Christmas season was upon us and I was decorating the house in preparation for my children to come home for the holiday. About four days before Christmas, I saw a big UPS truck pull into our driveway and carry a fairly large box to the front door. He rang the bell, then retreated to his truck. I wondered who would be sending me a Christmas present. My parents always gave us money so it couldn’t be from them. My kids were coming home; it made no sense for them to have mailed anything. Who could have sent it and what in the world could it be?

I hurried down the steps and opened the front door, grabbed the box and took it into the kitchen where I quickly took a knife and opened it up. I had seen my agent’s name in the return address and was certain this box contained a publishing contract or something along those lines. It would be the happiest Christmas ever. Oh, innocence! Oh, youth!

On the top of a stack of manuscripts was a brief letter. It said, “I’ve tried to sell this to fifteen places. Here are all the rejection letters. Since I can’t sell this book and I don’t like your second one, I am no longer willing to represent you.” Then, stacked all in a row, fifteen rejection letters.

I won’t tell you how I curled into a fetal ball on the kitchen floor and cried for at least an hour. I won’t tell you put that manuscript away for at least five years. Nor will I mention what a lousy holiday we had. What I will say is that was the worst rejection I’ve faced and it took me a good long while to recover from it. Merry damn Christmas!

The second story starts off even worse. I sent a short story to a literary magazine and received my cover letter with “I HATE THIS STORY” scrawled in very black ink across the top. I was so furious, I immediately wrote the editor, thanking him for his no-pulled-punches approach, that every writer deserved that sort of response and some other stuff I fail to remember. I then printed out another story, stuffed it and the letter into an envelope and mailed it that very same day.

I was furious at this man who wrote so cavalierly about my work, as if I, the writer, had no feelings or investment in the story at all. I was surprised and a little frightened when, a week later, I got another missive from him. Only this time, there was a big ‘Yes’ written across the envelope and a check for $65.00. Who knew?

Bottom line, rejections happen and continue to happen. But then, suddenly, someone sees your work and gets it. Love blooms like daffodils in spring and before you can say ‘the hell with rejections’, your first baby is born and out in the world. And that is worth any rejection I’ve ever had.

Anne Cli­nard Barn­hill has been writ­ing or dream­ing of writ­ing for most of her life. For the past twenty years, she has pub­lished arti­cles, book and the­ater reviews, poetry, and short sto­ries. Her first book, AT HOME IN THE LAND OF OZ, recalls what it was like grow­ing up with an autis­tic sis­ter. Her work has won var­i­ous awards and grants. Barn­hill holds an M.F.A. in Cre­ative Writ­ing from the Uni­ver­sity of North Car­olina at Wilm­ing­ton. Besides writ­ing, Barn­hill also enjoys teach­ing, con­duct­ing writ­ing work­shops, and facil­i­tat­ing sem­i­nars to enhance cre­ativ­ity. She loves spend­ing time with her three grown sons and their fam­i­lies. For fun, she and her hus­band of thirty years, Frank, take long walks and play bridge. In rare moments, they dance. www.anneclinardbarnhill.com

AT THE MERCY OF THE QUEEN: A Novel of Anne Boleyn, St. Martin’s Press, January, 2012.

COAL, BABY, poetry chapbook forthcoming from Finishing Line Press

AT HOME IN THE LAND OF OZ: AUTISM, MY SISTER AND ME , a memoir, Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2007

WHAT YOU LONG FORshort story collection, Main Street Rag,  2009