(A) Grudge is Good

“This could be a major thriller,” says the voice on the phone. “It has so much potential.”

It’s a May afternoon in 2007 and I’m sitting in my car in the parking lot of the newsroom where I work. The windows are up and I’m sweltering. My face is slicked with perspiration and I can feel the fabric of my shirt dampening under my arms. I’m going to be a sweaty mess once I actually roll into work. But I don’t care. This surprise phone call is too exciting. Because on the other end is an honest to goodness literary agent telling me how much she likes my manuscript, DEATH NOTICE.

“It’s great, but it could be better,” she says. “What I’d like is for you to rewrite it.”

She gives me a long list of things that will make my book better. It feels like a lot of work. Again, I don’t care. At last, I have an agent who might be interested in representing me. I’ll rewrite the whole damn book if she wants me to. I don’t even mind that she wants exclusivity, meaning I can’t submit to other agents until she says yes or no. I agree. To everything. When I end the call, I’m filled with boundless optimism.

Four months later

I wake up early, sore and exhausted from a terrible and restless night. My nerves are shot, as they have been for days. The only thing occupying my thoughts is the fact that my exclusivity period with that agent ends today. I’ve rewritten the book to her specifications. I’ve added characters and subplots and thousands of more words to make her happy. Now it’s decision time. Today she’ll be telling me whether it’s a yes or a no.

Only I don’t hear from her that day. Or the next. A week goes by, and I hear nothing. My e-mail regarding the status of my submission goes unreturned. I don’t dare pick up the phone and call. Like a spurned suitor, I come up with scenarios as to why I haven’t heard anything. She’s insanely busy. She’s horribly sick. Oh my God, maybe she died!

But as the days pass, I know that’s not the case. She’s listed on Publishers Marketplace as just having made a major deal for another author. There’s no news of her demise. I finally take the hint that she has no interest in representing me. My book, while filled with freaking potential, just isn’t good enough. I have been rejected in the coldest of ways — by not being rejected at all.

Four years later

I’m sitting at my computer, writing this blog post. On the desk next to me is a hardcover copy of DEATH NOTICE. It might not be a major thriller, but it’s good. Very good, if the critical and reader response is to be believed. A few book bloggers called it one of the best of the year. Translation rights have been sold in four countries. Even better, it’s mine. No matter what else I do in my life, I’ll always have that book with my name on the cover.

And I have that agent to thank.

Because while waiting to hear from her, during that rose-colored exclusivity period, I made the decision to abandon the book if she said no. After all, if this woman who had liked it so much didn’t want it, then no one would. It would be painful, but I’d get over it. I had shelved two earlier books because I couldn’t get an agent. A third failed manuscript wouldn’t make much of a difference.

But her failure to give me a yes or no, while professionally inexcusable, was really a blessing in disguise. It made me mad. Really mad. Pissed-off-and-ready-to-kick-some-ass mad. How dare she! I thought. She asks for rewrites and exclusivity and then doesn’t even have the courtesy to tell me no? What a bitch!

Just like that, my plan to throw DEATH NOTICE into that desk drawer where unpublished novels go to die turned into a plan to get it published at all cost. I wanted to show this agent that she was wrong. I wanted to prove to her that it was good enough to get published. I wanted to make her regret the decision to not represent me.

Was I being petty? Sure. Maybe a little immature? Probably. But it got the job done. That grudge fueled me to work harder than I ever thought I could. After her non-rejection rejection, I was hell bent on getting that book published, even if it was the last thing I did.

Now, does this agent know the book she kind of, sort of rejected was eventually published? I don’t know. Nor do I care. (And I suspect she doesn’t, either.) This post wasn’t written to shame an individual agent or make her regret not taking me on as a client. She has some big names on her list and some major deals under her belt. She has nothing to regret.

The point of this post is to declare that grudges can be good, especially for writers, who are admittedly sensitive and needy people. (At least I am. You may be different.) Don’t wallow in those rejections and negative feedback. Use them. I’ve heard of some writers who keep all their rejection letters as inspiration. That works. Others shred them. That works, too. Transform that negativity into something positive, something that can help you.

All hopeful writers deal with rejection. Even published ones do. (I’ll save that story for another blog post.) But when life hands you a lemon, for God’s sake, don’t make lemonade. Stuff it with gunpowder and turn it into a lemon grenade. It worked for me, just as it has worked for many others. Hopefully, it will work for you, too.

Posted on by Todd Posted in Musings, On Writing

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