Today I’m pleased to welcome Sarah Stovell to the blog. Sarah is the author of Mothernight and her latest novel, Exquisite was published by Orenda Books on 1 June 2017.
Today Sarah talks about having to deal with rejection as a writer.
Weird thing: My fifth novel, Exquisite, seems to be not entirely flopping within minutes of publication. The other two that I’ve had published in the UK flopped magnificently. (I am not sure whether I wasn’t invited to my previous publisher’s summer party because of my dreadful behaviour at the one before, or because of the failure of my book.) Then there are the others: the one that was published in Holland and the one that is still lying around my computer, entirely unread by anyone except me and a few trusted friends.
When an author has a book published, there is often a need not to talk about the failures that went before it. This is mostly for marketing purposes. Publicity departments won’t usually run a line that says, ‘We are about to launch this brilliant book. We are confident the author will be a bestseller this time, although we have a strong history of turning down all her other novels because we thought they were a load of unmarketable crap and so did every other publisher in the country.’
But it is a familiar story. Rejection is part of the writer’s life, as is not being quite good enough to be stocked in the shops; or not quite good enough to appear at Edinburgh Festival; or not quite good enough for your publisher to offer you another deal after your first; or not quite good enough to be a bestseller; or a prize-winner, or even a writer that readers notice among the thousands of other writers published each year.
It is easy, when you’re a writer, to not be good enough.
I am fortunate to have been blessed with a thick skin, mainly because I spent my twenties with Bad Men and Bad Women, whose ferociousness can never be equalled by even the most vicious of rejections. I’ve never been reduced to tears by rejection, even when I’ve had four in one day. I am reasonably good at shrugging it off and moving on to the next thing, whether that is some distant shining light on the horizon (‘It’s still out there with 21 editors! We only need one!’), or an acceptance of failure and a movement to the next project.
But there is what I refer to as the drip-drip effect. That is, the slowly-creeping impact all this has on a writer’s mental health. I was 21 and very recently out of university when I decided I wanted to be a writer, although like any vocation, it’s not really a choice. It’s simply something you have to do, or you will be miserable forever.
It’s difficult, though, and it goes a bit like this:
You live by the words someone wise once said you, ‘You can only excel at at one thing at a time,’ so you decide not to excel at a conventional career (you’d be shit at them all, anyway, because all you care about is literature and there aren’t any jobs in literature, and you can’t do something you don’t care about) and take up some sort of crap job to keep you going and leave you with enough energy to devote to writing. You do this while watching your friends take up their places in the City, or on teaching courses, or as journalists while you waitress, or teach English to Italians, or sell double glazing by phone. You scratch away at stories in your spare time and can’t, no matter how hard you try, make ends meet. People around you start buying houses. You do an MA in Creative Writing because at least if there’s a qualification at the end of it, it makes the hobby more acceptable. Afterwards, aged 27, you move in with your parents because your mother is in despair at the fact that you can’t eat and can only afford to rent damp bedsits with walls thickened by years of grease, and you’re clearly not going to give this writing habit up. And by now, you’ve written the novel and have an agent, so things aren’t completely hopeless.
Meanwhile, you work as a nanny for a variety of super-rich families who treat you like a dog and expect you to be grateful. Your agent send your novel out. It is rejected by 24 publishers, but accepted in the end by someone tiny with hardly enough money to push it. You take it, anyway, thinking it must be better to be published than not published. The book sinks without a trace.
You keep on writing, keep on being rejected, keep on failing. Sometimes, you lose hope and spend a few days depressed. You constantly feel anxious. Really, really anxious that you made a terrible mistake, that you will be poor – truly poor – for the rest of your life, but you know that by now you are also unemployable. You try and construct a cv for some kind of decent job, but your cv is a shambles. You reach for the anti-depressants, and keep on writing.
If you mention the fact that you are depressed to all hell about the state of your life, people raise their eyebrows and remind you that this is what you chose. You chose not to get a proper job. You chose to be poor and write books. You chose this life.
This was true. You chose which important thing to sacrifice: a financially easier life, or your talent and your mental health. But your talent is what drives you and it won’t ever go away. It is a beast that will keep on scratching until you let it out, and if you don’t let it out, it will drive you mental.
So you let it out. But you still suffer from a not-entirely-healthy head. You keep on writing. You finish a book. Your agent tells you it’s brilliant. He sends it out to another twenty-four editors. Some say they love it and are showing it to colleagues. Your hopes rise. You get ten rejections but they don’t matter because of the four hopes. There might be an auction. Then someone in Holland makes a large-ish offer for it, and a deal in the UK is looking even more likely. But then a hope rejects. And another. And another. And then the last, who just couldn’t get the director on board. You file the novel away and write another one.
It goes on and on and on. You and your agent part company. Agentless, you find a university that will pay you to do a PhD in creative writing because you were thirty-one the other day and you still haven’t had a baby and you will not let yourself give it all up for writing, but you don’t see how you will ever have children and write unless someone pays you to do it.
You have the baby. You do the PhD. You manage to publish the PhD book, but it sells 68 copies, mostly to your family. Your publisher stops getting in touch with you. You care less because by now you have a baby and who gives a shit what anyone apart from the baby thinks of you?
You write another book. You suspect it isn’t very good. You write it, anyway. You finish it after two years. You read it and it isn’t good. You file it away. You start another one. A thriller, because thrillers sell. You no longer have literary pretensions. You just want to write something that will get in the shops.
You write it in six weeks. You find a new agent who loves it and sends it out. It is rejected. Over and over again, it is rejected. You feel despondent. Even when you write something the world is meant to want, no one will buy it. You look into the future and can only see more of the same. You reach again for the pills.
Then someone offers. Karen Sullivan loves it. It needs work, but she loves it. You do the work. It sells for what feels like huge money in Germany. It goes to auction in France and Sweden. There is an audio book. Reviewers love it. The press loves it.
But you will never forget.
About the book
“Bo Luxton has it all – a loving family, a beautiful home in the Lake District, and a clutch of bestselling books to her name.
Enter Alice Dark, an aspiring writer who is drifting through life, with a series of dead-end jobs and a freeloading boyfriend.
When they meet at a writers’ retreat, the chemistry is instant, and a sinister relationship develops…
Or does it?
Breathlessly pacey, taut and terrifying, Exquisite is a startlingly original and unbalancing psychological thriller that will keep you guessing until the very last page”
About the author
Sarah Stovell was born in 1977 and spent most of her life in the Home Counties before a season working in a remote North Yorkshire youth hostel made her realise she was a northerner at heart. She now lives in Northumberland with her partner and two children and is a lecturer in Creative Writing at Lincoln University. Her debut psychological thriller, Exquisite, is set in the Lake District.