Saturday, 11 May 2019

It's Not You, It's Meh - Kelly McCaughrain

Things I know but don’t really believe:

  • Harry Potter is 39 years old.
  • Brexit.
  • It’s not butter.
  • Even published writers get rejections.

I know this last one is true because I’ve got them myself. But apparently I don’t believe it because when I saw this thread from Claire Hennessy on Twitter a couple of weeks ago, I was like, no way! 



The thread contains a slew of not just published but established, respected writers, some of whom I’m in awe of, admitting that they get rejected all the time. They even write whole novels and then give up on them because no one wants them.


But why should we be surprised by this? Professionals in any area have off-days. People get passed over for promotions, interview for jobs they don’t get, politicians get voted out (thank God), directors make box-office flops, football teams lose, Olympic athletes fall on their asses and we all have a favourite band who made that one album we really hate... 

Actual album.

No one’s surprised by this, because it’s all quite public. But writers tend to brush their rejections under the rug and hope no one noticed, so all you see is their hysterical tweeting about their latest launch and everyone’s stunned to learn that a publisher might have turned down something they wrote.

I think even among writers there’s an idea that once you’ve made it, it’s plain sailing. Unpublished writers seem to imagine that once you’ve published something (even if it’s only one novel), your road is somehow easier. The eye of the needle will be a little wider and you’ll get away with things like bad first drafts, ridiculously long/short novels, unfashionable topics, wading into the OwnVoices furore, etc.

And to an extent, they’re right. Because if you have an agent and a contract with a publisher, then at the very least you can guarantee that someone will at least read what you send them, which not all writers can claim. And maybe if you’re absolutely massive then you will get away with more, but for your average midlist/newbie author, I think you’re pretty much in the same boat as everyone else. And maybe even at a disadvantage because the unknown writer always has the potential to be the Next Big Thing, while your track record is in black and white and probably not that exciting.

Publishers have lots of books to choose from and having a contract doesn’t mean they’re itching to publish your next tome. They want book 2 to be better than book 1 and they’ll wait 20 years for you to produce something they love if they have to (I have actually heard of this happening).

As always, I think our reticence comes down to the fact that any kind of artistic career isn’t a job, it’s an identity. It’s part of who you are. And so failure of any kind feels very personal and exposing. It’s understandable that we’d try to hide it, but we’re not doing ourselves any favours. 

Wouldn’t we all be a bit less depressed and anxious if failure was just an everyday thing that all writers, even really really good ones, admit to going through all the time? If, when the No arrives, we felt we were in company with Patrick Ness and Juno Dawson and Sarah Crossan and all the giants, instead of feeling like we’re being shut out of the club because we’re not good enough?

Ironically, it’s probably easier to talk about your rejections if you’re Sarah Crossan because you’ve also got a string of brilliant novels and awards to point to. If you’re midlist or just starting out it’s very difficult.

Believe me, I know. I’m the sort of person who never admits to trying anything until I know I’m brilliant at it. I don’t air my linen in public, I’m secretive to the point of being recruited by MI5, I never ask for help and I consider crying at funerals a sign of weakness. But Claire Hennessy’s thread was followed by a slew of writers (including me) saying, ‘Thank God, it’s not just me!’ and ‘I needed to hear this today’ etc. We need to support each other, and that means being honest when things go pear shaped. 

Ah, Liam. Is there anything you can't meme?
Personally, I’ve written and submitted two and a half novels since Flying Tips was published, all of which received a resounding ‘Meh.’ They were, to be fair, extremely Meh.

The interesting thing is, it’s not actually the end of the world. You just keep going. You just keep writing and learning not to panic and hoping that an idea that consumes you comes along tomorrow. 

I’m always writing, but I’m happy to wait for that all-consuming idea before I publish anything again, and if I write something crap in the meantime, I am downright grateful for the editor who tells me ‘Meh,’ rather than let me put it out there. There are enough books in the world without me projectile vomiting stuff I don’t care about onto the heap. Actually I wish the financial situation of writers allowed us to write like this because frankly:

  • the quality of stuff in bookshops would be a lot better
  • our books would get a bigger slice of the marketing/financial pie
  • non-readers might not be put off reading by the crap books we/publishers feel obliged to push onto the market in order to pay the rent.

But that’s another issue.

*(IMPORTANT DISCLAIMER: To be fair, Hennessy also points out that if you got a good look at an editor’s inbox you’d be amazed how much good work gets turned down. This can be for so many reasons that have nothing to do with the quality of the writing, so take heart. I’m really not saying your book was rejected because it was Meh. Just that mine was.)

But it would be a lot easier to keep going and not panic if you felt that these fallow periods and rejections were just part of the job and not a sign of the complete and singular lack of talent you’ve always suspected in yourself, (despite that one time you got lucky and wrote a book people loved, which was a complete fluke obvs).

Let’s not do that to ourselves anymore. Rejection, like wine, is best enjoyed with friends.  

(With thanks for the inspirational tweeting, Claire Hennessy!)


Kelly McCaughrain is the author of the YA novel Flying Tips for Flightless Birds

She blogs about Writing, Gardening and VW Campervanning at 



Sheila c said...

Spot on.Sooooo insightful. So many writers won't get a chance to read this - there should be wallpaper with it on; loo paper; the backs of cereal boxes. Then a lot of us would feel a whole lot better. Or at least, less inferior.

Anne Booth said...

I do agree with you, but I don't think that this covering up of failure is coming from writers - whenever I meet with writers we are eager to talk about and share problems and I would personally love to do what you say. I think it is coming from the industry. I have been specifically warned off , by a publishing professional, about sharing on social media the fact that my work had been rejected because apparently publishers get nervous about this (and I'm not talking about naming publishers - I'm talking about being seen as an author others didn't want). I showed the publishing professional a post I had written specifically on this subject for my blog - about all the rejections I have had and, exactly as you say, how I don't expect all my books to get accepted - and they said that my post would be fine were I JK Rowling and established, but that PR and marketing get very nervous about the whiff of failure from someone who is NOT an established big name recalling a rocky beginning. The publishing professional admitted that this wasn't good, but they wanted to warn me that publishers don't like to feel that they have invested in an author others turned down, and so I didn't publish my post. I know this sounds ridiculous , as publishers must know the truth, but according to the advice I got, it is all about marketing and spin. I think this may link with the former post - authors and publishers have to get together more and talk about our experience - if we aren't being paid enough and aren't allowed to talk about the reality of our jobs then there is a problem.

Kelly McCaughrain said...

Thanks Sheila! LOL, not sure how I'd feel about having my words printed on loo paper!

Kelly McCaughrain said...

That's so interesting, Anne. I do agree writers are quite eager to discuss their rejections with their writer friends. I certainly find it easier than with non-writers, who don't really understand how things work.
And I agree, the publishing industry is probably not helping. I can understand a publisher being nervous about this, and I don't think I'd post stuff like this on my 'professional' blog on my website or anything for just that reason. But if we all did absolutely everything our publshers wanted we'd all be stark raving mad publicity machines. You have to look after your mental health too. Maybe all the publicity about writers incomes these days will help to promote a more open and honest atmosphere about other things too. And I think for lots of isolated writers especially, talking online and feeling supported by other writers online is very important. It's a tricky one though.

Anne Booth said...

I think 'stark raving mad publicity machines' is such a good way to put it! I definitely think that things need to change - it is really unhealthy for writers and illustrators and creatives. So many brilliant writers I know are suffering from stress and burnout and anxiety and depression because of this inbuilt contradiction - they have to project themselves as successes and promote themselves as brilliant, whilst worrying about the rent or mortgage and whether they will get another contract. It just isn't fair or right.

Susan Price said...

There's a good point here, but I think I've never tweeted, FB'd, blogged about it simply because it never occurred to me that it was news to anybody.

I've often been asked in schools if I've ever had anything rejected and I'm happy to tell them that, yes, loads of stuff. As my old Dad used to put it, "You don't win a coconut every shy." I thought that was a given.

Kelly McCaughrain said...

Absolutely, Anne. And what are the compensations for such a stressful job? Cos it's not money!

Kelly McCaughrain said...

Thanks Susan, I think you're right, and I love talking to writers about this, but I find that to non-writers it really comes as a surprise and then you assume that they're thinking you must be the worst writer ever because you got rejected! Maybe that's just me being paranoid. I love your Dad's saying, I'm going to use that!