“Keeping the Faith” by Shona MacLean

Hanging on to hope and a little bit of self-esteem through the rejections:

When I was writing my first book, I hardly told anyone. Just my husband and my children (I could hardly hide it from them) and possibly my siblings. I think. Going away in to the study, having an hour or two to myself in my seventeenth century world was my indulgence, my delight, my secret shame.

I wanted to write the book for myself – the story had been building in my head and was becoming very real and important to me – I really wanted to tell it. But I wasn’t just writing for me – I definitely wanted to be published, for my work to be validated. Finally, with four children, the oldest of whom was getting closer and closer to university, the family needed extra income. Admitting that is not saying I was ready to turn out any old trash. I wanted to write as good a story as I possibly could, and I wanted it to sell.

So why was this my secret shame? The money bit, nowadays, I think most people will understand; it was the rest that was the problem. I was putting my longest-held dream, what I had always believed I was capable of, to the test. The fear of failing, and at being seen to fail at something that mattered so much to me, was something I could hardly face up to. I suspected reactions to hearing I was writing a book would range, not very widely, from ‘Isn’t everybody?’ to, ‘You’ll never get published,’ and so I didn’t tell anyone, until I was very near the end. I mentioned it to two friends, separately; their reactions were identical: an embarrassed smile, a glance elsewhere in the room, no comment on what I had just said, and a quick changing of the subject.

Four and a bit years and several house-moves after I had begun writing The Redemption of Alexander Seaton, it was finished. Triumphantly, I began my procession through the agencies and publishers in the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook. As I posted off my first brown A4 envelope, such was my personal elation at having completed my novel that my only mild concern was whether I would manage to get in to our nearest town in time to find a nice new outfit before I had to go down to Edinburgh or London to meet my agent – the advice books were quite specific on the need to look smart. I needn’t have worried – it would be 18 months, and a dozen rejections later before I finally got on that train.

The first agent did not reply at all. She was not alone in this. Most did, with a standard rejection letter. One did ask to see the whole script before deciding it wasn’t for him, and another wrote a nice letter explaining his fears that it might not be commercial enough. Every one of these rejections gave me an instant buzz and then a few days’ feeling of deflation. The buzz was because for a few, glorious hours, I existed, even as a reject, in the literary world I was trying so hard to become a part of. The deflation, I suspect, needs no explanation, and lasted a lot longer.

After a year or so of this, I gave up for a while. I put Alexander Seaton back in his box under my desk and had a good hard talk to myself. What I had always believed I was, what I had always believed I was capable of, I wasn’t. At 40 years old, it was time to understand that and get on with living a useful life, as almost everyone else had to. I enrolled on a computer course, a proof-reading course and determined that I would make myself employable and be content. I had tried to be a writer; I had failed. Good job I’d hardly mentioned it to anyone.

Then, a couple of months later, I read a newspaper feature on well-known writers whose first books had utterly bombed, or who had had several rejections before finally making it in to print. I thought, ‘Well, it can’t really do much harm – the cost of an envelope and a stamp every now and again.’ And the truth was, I was beginning to miss my hero and his seventeenth-century world. Every so often I would pull the box out from underneath the desk and take a peek at him. In secret, of course.

It was when we returned from our summer holiday and were trailing dog, bags and children over the door that I noticed an interesting looking envelope poking out from the pile of mail on the mat. As the usual family chaos of coats, shoes and requests for sustenance unfolded around me I read the letter and ignoring the melee traipsed through to the ‘phone in the study where I found not one, but two calls waiting for me from the agent who had sent the letter. When she mentioned who she represented I nearly fell over: I had avoided approaching her agency for so long because so stellar was their client list, I’d thought they would never be interested in me. I kept that message on the phone for the full period BT allowed, and listened to it every day until the answering service’s holding period expired. About three weeks later I was on a train bound for Edinburgh, dressed in my at-last-bought new clothes to meet my London-based agent at the festival, beginning on the adventure of my life. A year later I was appearing at that festival. The friends I was afraid to tell about my secret shame now shake their heads in happy amazement at what’s happened to me.

The moral of the tale is simple, and probably the most common piece of advice any writer hears: Don’t let it get you down, and don’t give up.

Shona is the author of A Game of Sorrows and The Redemption of Alexander Seaton

4 thoughts on ““Keeping the Faith” by Shona MacLean

  1. Helen

    Thanks so much for sharing this Shona. I’m a forty year old closet writer who has just finished the fifth draft of my first novel. I sent my first round of chapters off last year thinking it was as perfect as it could be. Five rejections later I put it away, confused about what to do next. I left it ages then met the most wonderful lady who has given me so much help and advice I’m hoping my next round of queries may prove more succesful. If not at least I can keep trying :)

  2. harry dunn

    Hi Shona
    Great story with a very happy ending. Congratulations on your successes.
    I have completed my first crime novel and am still on the well worn path of trying to find representation.
    I have had the usual rejections but one personal letter from one of the most prestigeous London agencies said ‘I have definite commercial writing talent.’ Another publisher asked for the next fifty pages after reading the first three chapters but I haven’t heard anything for a few weeks.
    I have submitted to the ‘Alibi’ short crime story competition this year and have started my second crime novel.
    Blimey, this is beginning to sound like a query letter.
    Anyway, it was heartwarming to read of your experiences Shona.
    All the best.
    Harry Dunn

  3. Lesley

    I know exactly how you felt. My daughter keeps trying to get me to join a poets society here in my home town and one which actively encourages new writers but I am too fearful of rejection. I hug my poems to myself but I do tell people I write, I think I’m trying to convince myself.
    You with your story have given me a little faith. And I’m a lot older than you…..but I know I can write……

  4. Rin

    Thanks for sharing this Shona, a really encouraging article and something I shall hang onto when I send out my first full length manuscript and watch as the rejections come back!