Rejection. Straight up, no ice.
My agent is now shopping my memoir project, Children of Paradise. We got a rejection this weekend, from Random House: “It’s a touching story and the Toby depicts Hawaii vividly, but I fear it’s too small for us.”
What do you do when a publisher calls your life story “small?”
I took it like a punch to the gut. It knocked the breath right out me.
My life is too small to be of interest. Ouch.
Immediately in comes the self talk, both negative and positive: well, it’s just one story about one person, I’m always so grandiose thinking I can do something like this, I must not have a big enough platform, who am I to take it personally, of course its early days yet, why would anyone want to read it, who am I to think I have a story to tell, they’re a business, and publishers keeps saying Hawaii stories are “too niche,” etcetera.
In the end, there’s nothing to do but suck it up and move on.
Here’s the thing: REJECTION IS STANDARD FARE FOR A WRITER. Even when you’ve had a degree of success as I have by sidestepping “the system” in self-publishing, there is always the reality check of slow sales, bad reviews, losing contests you enter, wasted ad money that doesn’t boost sales, famous authors failing to blurb for you or saying no—all of which add up to rejection, if a little less direct than “I’ll pass” from a publisher.
I’ve been through this before: the entire Lei Crime series was shopped for a year. My YA novel, Island Fire, has been circulating, collecting rejections. Now, the memoir.
I thought I was battle-hardened, but the memoir is my personal story about my life—it’s taken tremendous internal fortitude just to write it. I’ve been steeling myself at every turn to deal with old ghosts, family members’ reactions, feedback from the Kaua`i I grew up in and the people who might see themselves in the book, unflattered by my depictions. I’ve struggled for ten years to do this book and it’s finally happening, the hardest writing I’ve ever done. Hands down.
And it’s going to be the best, too. Unsound is my best writing to date in my opinion, and Children of Paradise is going to knock Unsound into next week.
Personally and professionally, this is my Everest—and it’s “too small.”
What do you do with those feelings?
I sought solace on my friendly FB community, and it quickly got painful as people gave me hard truth and embarrassing as they tried to encourage, so I took down my over-share post. I went to church, and cried through the whole service. The message I’m getting from God is that I have to keep going and not chicken out no matter what. I have to step up to it, no matter the consequences.
It was not comforting.
I exercised. I took a nap. I cleaned house. I baked. I juiced lilikois. I ate a lot of jellybeans. I watched a really violent movie with a ton of car crashes and explosions. I read a romance novel. I took a shower. I worked in the garden. I even tried to write.
Nothing really helped but this: telling myself I won’t be derailed, swayed, or minimized by being called “SMALL” by anyone.
That’s a part of my memoir—I’m just too stubborn to let anything or anyone keep me down. If there’s any part of this post that helps you deal with your rejections along the road of writing–even if it’s just to know that we all get rejected—take hold of this.
YOU AREN’T SMALL.
YOUR STORY MATTERS.
All of us, everywhere. We matter, and we have a story, and for each of us, it's not small.
Whatever your Everest is, climb it anyway.
This means you are a pro. Spear this to your version of Stephen King’s spike-on-the-wall, mine the experience for any actionable take-aways, and keep on moving on. Hear that? It’s all of us cheering you on. You are inspiring and informing the rest of us in our “little” lives with our “little” writerly dreams. You keep on keeping on. We are all counting on it.
Thanks Lori, these are my take-aways…and I appreciate the kind words because even writing this blog post was scary. I hate to seem like a whiner! But honestly, putting yourself out there over and over…not for the faint of heart, and seems to be what’s necessary, even the vulnerability of saying how much rejection hurts even when I “should” know better!
Aloha and friendship…
Don’t sweat it. I’ve been rejected more times than I can count. Truly, what do they mean by small? Makes ‘little’ sense to me!
Beautiful post. Very powerful.
The rejection part of being a writer is so tough. It takes guts to put yourself out there, and especially to write a memoir.
As tough as it is, remember it was just one person’s opinion. If your memoir gets another rejection, it could very well be that it was “too big” for that particular editor. This stuff borders on the ridiculous sometimes. I was once rejected because I didn’t write manly enough. (I’m a woman.) Hang in there.
Thanks Holli, and so glad I met you through this post!
Me too! 🙂
There’s another way to look at the phrase “too small”–it could just mean they didn’t think there are enough potential readers because . . . well, who knows what their reasons are. “Too small” is a lot like “Doesn’t fit our list” and “Isn’t in line with our editorial vision”–all blah blah blah for “There’s nothing wrong with your story, we just aren’t going to publish it.” Don’t give up!
Yeah, that’s where I ultimately ended up with it, and so did my agent in terms of what it meant. TY for the encouragement!
Great post, and unfortunately, it’s part of the business. But what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and it sounds like you’ve lived that :). Also, keep in mind that many big authors were rejected a ton of times (I’m talking way more than what you hear, like Grisham being rejected fourteen times). I went to a conference years ago, and an agent talked about being one of the many, many who turned down Angela’s Ashes because he thought it was too dark and people wouldn’t be interested. His comment: “yes, I blew it.” Random House could very well be saying that about you someday :).
Best of luck!
I hope that’s the case!
keep on rockin’ toby…..you’ve got other ways to get that baby out into the world if those publishing houses all decide to pass…no biggie
It is my opinion that the publishing industry no longer has their finger on the pulse of readers. If they did, they wouldn’t pass up books that make it to the bestseller lists in the self published world. That being said, no matter how many rejections we get, or in what form, stink. And hurt. And make you want to kick someone in the shins. Good luck, I hope you don’t have too many more shins to kick. 😉
I agree Shannon, and ultimately I’ll self publish this book. Part of my strategy as an indie has been to be diversified, though, so being a hybrid in print would be a good thing, especially with a memoir.
In time, the right time, the right publisher, when it is meant to be received, it will happen.
Very zen, and a great way to feel peaceful. I’m getting there.
This is an inspiring post. Go you for being strong enough to take a “punch” like that and get back up again! Thank you for the positive message 🙂
Even sharing my struggles takes courage becuase I don’t like to show how these things hurt or be a whiner..but I think it encourages everyone in this boat to know they’re not alone.
An entire world can be found in a raindrop if you look closely. Kauai is a microcosm of all Hawaiian history and that’s a big subject. I have run into the same small thinking on the part of publishers and that is why I struck out on my own. I am pleased to have positive feedback from people like yourself with an intimate knowledge of the Islands and what I tried to do. I am not making millions, but I do have the satisfaction of sharing the Hawaii story my way. You say writing success is 50% marketing and you have proven yourself to be outstanding in that arena. Traditional publishing is crumbling like a house of cards. I would not be too concerned about them finding your life “too small.” I am looking forward to reading your memoir.
All the best-Linda of Wai-nani, High Chiefess of Hawai’i fame
Thanks Linda, I really appreciate your support and friendship.
This rejection is not a rejection of you or your story!!! It’s merely a decision based on corporate stuff! It does NOT change the value of what you have written!
Thanks for your many layers of support, Kristy! aloha
I have to agree with Kristy McCullough here, it sounds like the rejection was based on economics rather than literary or creative merit. Stories about local writers shopping Big 5 publishers often share the same story, even the most economically successful here in the islands have struggled to gain the attention of the larger publishers simply because those publishers feel the scope of the work will not appeal to a larger audience unfamiliar with the complexities and inner workings of the place being discussed.
Of course, this is foolishness, like you note, all stories, novels, etc. are specific to the setting and character (place defines us, how can it not), but when you are writing about a place that carries stereotypes and preconceptions that have been perpetuated for years, by local and North American authors alike, the “small” scale begins even more minute; thus, the problem.
* becomes not begins
Thank you for the thoughtful comment. I actually have a strong author platform and good sales of my Lei Crime Series books; it’s interesting how even solid numbers don’t sway these kinds of opinions.
I’m sure you’ve already done this, but I would peruse the book shelves or online catalogs on amazon and look at whose publishing work similar to your own, local and otherwise. it may just be a matter of submitting to St Martin’s affiliate press, or one that specifically deals with a certain genre that your book fits in. You have an agent, so I imagine the majority of this has been said and discussed, you might also revisit your cover letters, etc. and determine if you can spin the information differently to appeal to publishers looking for specifics types of books.
Have you published excerpts anywhere?
I was invited to submit some essays for consideration in Spirtuality and Health mag whose editor i know saw the first three chapters…I haven’t done that though, I’m unsure how to proceed. Got any ideas?
My agent and I decided to have me finish the book before we start shopping again, and I’m done with the first draft. On to editing now before I send it back to him. I do think Hawaiian Heritage or another smaller press might like it but he always shoots for the Big Six because that’s how he makes his money!