I seem to be coming across this same story over and over recently. First, I watched Oprah’s interview with J. K. Rowling. In it, Rowling reminded Oprah that twelve publishers passed on Harry Potter; what’s more, her agent warned her she would “never make any money in children’s books.” Then, Thursday night I interviewed Geneen Roth. So many houses passed on Roth’s latest, Women Food and God, that it nearly didn’t get published. Oprah, one editor insisted, would never take a book with “God” in the title. Oprah made it a bestseller. Add to these two Garth Stein, whose The Art of Racing in the Rain (no one wants to read a book told by a dog) is at 68 weeks and counting on the NYT bestseller list, and Richard Bach (Jonathan Livingston Seagull rejected by 20 publishers before selling 44 million copies), and we see a pattern. Yes, novels like Danielle Trussoni’s Angelology sell quickly at auction and go on to be bestsellers, but swarming attention from publishing houses is not the only indicator of a novel’s commercial or literary value.
Conversely, do not take rejection as a sign of a work’s inherent genius. There is no formula for how many rejections you are allowed to receive before moving on to the next project. Just as you must know where a story begins and where it ends, so too must you know that it is your job to gauge – without the benefit of evidence – what the next best step for your project is once it has been written. In the business of sustaining a writing career, this can sometimes be as important as your craft.
Garth Stein fired his first agent when she told him she couldn’t sell Racing in the Rain. He did not know at that time that the book would spend over a year on the bestseller list. All he knew was what his heart told him, that he loved the story and he believed it was worth sharing with other people. This very same knowledge is available to anyone willing to listen to the voice that needs no evidence. Be as serious in your attunement to it as you would to the voice that guides you through the stories you write. This alone will allow you to tell that other story, the story of your life, with the same surprising satisfaction as the best story you’ve ever read.
If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group conferencing.