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  • Peter Hay

Gold Stars

Updated: Apr 15

This past summer, at my very first writers conference, I had an agent ask me, “If this is your first conference, how did you learn to write?” My answer: “Uh…um…by writing, I guess? Oh, and getting feedback. Did I mention my book went through two professional edits?” I told him the editor was from Scotland, which seemed relevant since my protagonist is a Scotsman, but the agent only shook his head dismissively and said, “Well, they don’t mean the same thing by editing over there that they do here.”

This was at a “Pitch Slam.” Think speed dating, but with agents: a huge room with agents stationed around all four walls, and hundreds of aspiring writers lining up to speak to them. When you get to the front of the line, you have three minutes to tell the agent everything there is to say about your book—genre, word count, characters, plot premise, central conflict, any comparable titles that have already been published, and a little bit about who you are and how your background helped you it writing this book—and make it all sound exciting, engaging, and above all, marketable.

It’s freaking scary, holding up your pride and joy for a critical once-over and a quick thumbs up or down. I got to talk with eight agents in the allotted time, and all eight of them were interested enough to request pages or chapters to look at. Eight thumbs up—even that dismissive agent was interested enough to ask for a sample chapter.

And it still left me feeling emotionally bruised. Still…success, right?

A week later the first rejection from one of those agents came in. Of course I was expecting rejections. Lots of them. I’ve been told a hundred rejections isn’t unusual before the first time an agent takes you on as a client. And this first rejection was the kind that is more precious than gold, the kind that included a whole page of specific, substantive criticism.

But it still stung.

Friends hurried to reassure me. One told me the story of Stephen King’s railroad spike on his desk that he nailed rejection letters onto, filling it two and a half times before getting his first offer.

Another told me to take my rejection letter and “Frame it!!! It means you’re a real author!!” (Sadly, they don’t send paper rejection letters any more, or else I would have done that.)

Rejections are good. A writer wants rejections, because rejections mean you’re productive and putting your work out there. But the emotional bruising can be a problem, because the easiest way to avoid it is to decide you’re not ready, you’re not good enough yet, your book needs another rewrite, or you need to scrap it and start a new one…and you stop sending out submissions.

I know this. But I needed a way to make myself feel it.

I once suggested to a writer friend of mine that he make a burnt offering to Apollo, the god of poetry, of at least one rejection letter a month. I’ve taken a less dramatic approach for myself. I made a chart with 100 spaces, ten rows of ten, and I bought myself a packet of gold stars. At the end of each row I listed a reward to give myself.

I’m only up to three stars so far, but the chart does make me look forward to the rejections instead of dreading them.

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