Guest piece originally posted on Nevets.QST as part of a series in which authors discussed how they first came to be published. Her content has been slightly modified to remove some time-sensitive elements and remove an expired link, but remains otherwise unchanged from the original.Originally written in 2011 and published on Blogger
Writers face all sorts of rejection and criticism. Some of it is helpful. Some of it arbitrary. Some it is just plain contradictory. Historical fiction novelist Deborah Swift knows how hard hard this, especially the more vulnerable and honest your writing is. She faced scathing rejections on the path to publishing her first novel, The Lady’s Slipper, and then scathing criticism after. But criticism doesn’t mean a book is a failure.
To date, she has published fourteen novels, the most recent of which is The Poison Keeper.
A writer has to have a thick skin, which is a big ask precisely because we spend so much time battling to expose our sensitivities in our work.
When I first wrote my historical novel, The Lady’s Slipper I wrote it for enjoyment. Some friends read it, liked it a lot, said it was really gripping and encouraged me to send it to an agent. I chose from the Writer’s Yearbook an agency who represented authors I enjoy reading. The agent took me on. I was completely bowled over by her response, as it is one thing friends liking it, and quite another (so I thought) to convince a professional. My agent said she would start sending it out to publishers straight away, and they’d love it. I naively thought that everything would be plain sailing from then on.
Rejection after rejection poured in. The novel was “overwhelmed with period detail,” the novel was “thin on period detail”. The main character was “unlikeable”, the main character was “sympathetic” but the plot needed work. The plot was “engaging, but it wasn’t for us.” In other words twelve differing opinions, but all were clear on one thing – they weren’t going to publish. The agent was fantastically supportive, but suggested that as she’d run out of publishers I should shelve it and start a second. I wondered what the point would be if nobody was going to read them. But I was hooked on writing, so I did begin another novel, and began to regain my love of the process of storytelling.
At the same time I went back and edited The Lady’s Slipper again, scrutinising it and trying to bear in mind all the radically different opinions, but more to the point paying attention to my own inner compass.
A few months later I sent it to a mainstream publisher that takes unsolicited submissions. To my delight they decided to publish. The publishing house was one that had already rejected the manuscript when it landed on a different editor’s desk.
This is when I first began to realise that even within the publishing world, readers are readers and all have very different tastes, and that includes editors. An editor is going to spend hours and hours poring over your book, fighting for the right cover, wrangling with you over edits, talking to the marketing department. Who can blame them if they say they have to completely love a book before they will take it on.
Since the The Lady’s Slipper has been published, the discrepancy in readers’ opinions, particularly “professional” reviewers has been astonishing. Imagine my horror at this; “Swift has a hard time creating believable characters” a review which is now plastered all over Amazon. Even though there are several underneath it saying such things as “Her characters are so real that they linger in the mind long after the book is back on the shelf” – to a writer the bad reviews hurt. Even if it is only one reviewer in the whole world that feels that way, the review is out there putting people off before readers even give the book a chance. You need to have a thick skin to take this sort of criticism and not hang up your pen.
So my message to writers is this – there is probably at least one reader out there who will enjoy your book, so be as authentic about your own story as you can. (I rejected the advice from one publisher that The Lady’s Slipper would stand more of a chance if I re-wrote it as, god forbid, a Regency novel) If you are lucky, that one enthusiastic reader will also be an editor, a publisher or a professional reviewer.
And develop that thick skin.