Weaponised Low Self-esteem and Good Rejections

One thing that happened recently was that an agent, after some months, rejected the manuscript I sent them. I’m now free to take it somewhere else. We are told not to talk about these experiences, as if some kind of stench of failure will accompany us and create an eternal miasma of Loser, because we are obsessed with luck. Given that good luck in most areas is a combination of qualification, charm, and connections, this is a little rough.

I mention the rejection because, for a form email saying no to representation, it was well worded enough to be inspiring and uplifting, and I want to celebrate that delicacy and degree of interpersonal skills, although I will from general tact refrain from mention of the agency. First of all, the reason I sent out that manuscript at all was to have it rejected.

Surely not? No, seriously:

I was going through one of those periods that are pretty much the norm for any creative person in any field, the “nothing I make is any good and anyone who thinks it is either is lying to me or doesn’t know any better” swamp. It isn’t even doubt, because sound suggests uncertainty, as opposed to this rock solid conviction of absolute terribleness which refuses to be budged by any kind of external validation.

At the same time, this self hatred was servicing my laziness beautifully. Well, all my work is terrible, right? So it would be pointless to go through the long and tiring process of either self publishing – making edits, writing my marketing copy, typesetting, designing my cover (s), making changes based on print and ebook requirements, all of which I do myself – or of submitting it to consideration, which as everyone knows involves covering letters and synopses of differing length and focus, elevator pitches, constantly having to describe your work…. Really to undergo this kind of process, to really SELL something, you have to BELIEVE in it, truly and with zeal.


You can do what I did, while I was in that sad, immovable pit.

You can do all of this as a form of self-punishment.

“No one will ever want to read my work because it’s terrible and all the people who have read it and enthused about it are Just Saying That”? Alright, brain, you’re right, but let’s get some more evidence. Let’s prove how awful this story is. Let’s send it to every single agent who could conceivably be interested in it if someone else had made it, and let’s get rejected.

Let’s get rejected by everyone.

“It’s going to be humiliating”, is it? Well, you keep saying how worthless I am and how I don’t deserve anything. So maybe I don’t deserve to avoid humiliation like the big sad coward you keep telling me I am. Maybe I have to go out and look for people to tell me how shitty I am, and how I shouldn’t have wasted their time, and how much they hate me for having gifted them this book I think is so awful.

“It’s a lot of effort–” Yes, it is. But you keep saying I’m worthless, and only people who are worth something get to sit down and do nothing. That’s called “relaxing”, and you’re just painting it as “being lazy” because you’re just laziness in disguise and want to distract me from the fact that you’re trying to stop me from doing anything by making me feel bad. I am onto you, Shitty Self-Worth, and now I am going to validate everything you keep claiming by making sure the entire world agrees with you. That’s science, Brain.

So I sat down and I wrote the synopsis and it was horrible and I hated it and I wished I’d never been born about ten times in each sentence. And I wrote the covering letter from a template, because I wasn’t going to give my awful, awful, horrible book the excuse of being failed by a bad letter: it had to stand or fall – definitely fall, because it was obviously hideous – on its own merit. Not something I could worm out of, like the coward my brain kept telling me I was. The punishment had to go all the way.

And I sent off my manuscript, and then I said “well, I have done this and now I can be a lazy waste of space and do nothing until it gets rejected”.

Good Rejections

Submitting short stories to magazines has traditionally been a gruelling business for me because the majority of them don’t bother to send out rejections. They just go in for “if your submission hasn’t been answered by X time assume we don’t want you”, which seems at first like it’s great for your ego but actually turns the whole process into even more of an insane and dispiriting waiting game than it is already, which is really saying something.

Occasionally you will get A Rejection, which ought to feel crushing and terrible but after endless pranging of stories into the void to the sound of an automated confirmation email, “we have received your submission and now the darkness has eaten it, goodbye”, even getting back an actual immediate response of “this is not what we are looking for thank you” is worth a fanfare.

When I was 17 and filled with Hope, like a moron, and had just won a writing competition and spoken to the editor of the company who published the anthology (because Networking Is Important, You Guys), I was encouraged to send in any other work I had, and because I was 17 and filled with Hope, like a moron, I did not do what I do now when encouraged to send someone my work, which is to laugh it off because They Are Just Saying That, and then never send them my work or indeed speak to them ever again in case they remember I exist and ask me to send in my work or express an interest in something I’m doing or continue to be there as a possible avenue towards some kind of Obviously Undeserved Success. Instead, I … sent in a manuscript.

It was my First Ever Novel and I’d written it the year before and it was objectively fucking terrible, but I didn’t know it was objectively fucking terrible, because I was 17 and filled with Hope, like a moron.

And the editor of the company who had published me in an anthology read my submission and said they didn’t really handle that genre but I shouldn’t let that stop me and here was some advice on how to improve my manuscript, because I was 17 and filled with Hope, like a moron, and sensible editors nurture young writers so that there will always be a pool of new talent for the industry to draw from, and because sane human beings derive no enjoyment from destroying the dreams of even the most stupid and annoying of 17-year-olds.

That was A Really Good Rejection. It contained ADVICE! Pointers on how to be better! Editorial guidance! More Hope for me to fill up my idiot 17-year-old self with, like a moron!

A Good Rejection Doesn’t Take Much Effort

The recent form rejection of the Awful, Horrible, No-Good book (which on reflection, having reread it in the light of not actually being in the midst of a firestorm of utter self-loathing and negativity at present, is unsurprisingly not the worst book ever written by a human mind and is in fact a perfectly decent work of fiction with some pleasantly complicated characters, a solid plot, and entertaining dialogue, the way EVERYONE KEPT TELLING ME IT WAS, ONLY I COULDN’T LISTEN BECAUSE MY BRAIN WAS FULL OF SHIT) has proven A Good Rejection too.

It turns out it’s really easy to reject something, in a form letter way, in a way that’s really obviously a form letter, without sounding like you’re enjoying smashing someone’s dreams, without discouraging people from writing any more, and without sounding anything like as stern and terrifying as the example letters on writing blogs, or indeed the ex-editors I know socially who all have fire and hatred in their souls and 90% of it aimed at authors, who are objectively The Worst People Alive.

though I found the premise interesting and the writing good, I didn’t feel passionately about it in the way that I need to to champion a novel in this competitive marketplace.

Already this is a masterclass in presenting the bad with the good. It contains praise – the praise may well be bullshit and it is almost certainly the same wording for everyone but that’s irrelevant, because when you’ve just been rejected, being told you’re interesting and good at what you do is a definitely balm on a wounded ego. Similarly, “I didn’t feel passionately” is a wonderful piece of “I-not-You” phrasing. It says “this is on me. There’s nothing wrong with your work”, regardless of whether there is, in fact, something horrendously wrong with my work. It is once again, artful soothing of the sad sputtering flame of the authorly ego.

There’s more:

This is – of course – entirely subjective, so I wish you the very best of luck with other agents.

“I wish you the very best of luck with other agents” would have been standard and sufficient for good manners, but underlining the “I didn’t feel passionately” with “entirely subjective” reinforces that social delicacy, the idea that it’s merely a matter of Personal Taste, the subtle chemistry for which no one receives blame and everyone is happy. It is frankly the kind of rejection that job agencies and employers could learn from, and designed to keep things running smoothly, which is really what you’d expect and hope for from someone whose entire career is predicated on persuasion.

Several Good Rejections

But this form email, obviously, is not going to be sufficient. I have more punishment to acquire. My ego might get ideas as a result of being briefly told that it isn’t terrible by some external force – although I’m quite capable of rationalising this flicker of formula praise into nothingness – and there are a lot of literary agents in London, never mind the world. They all deserve the opportunity to explain to me that I’m appalling.

So I’m going to create a new email folder in my inbox, and I’m going to dust down the online equivalents of the Writers & Artists’ Yearbook that was my bible back when I was 17 and filled with Hope, like a moron, and I’m going to do my absolute best to actually break the email server with the sheer number of stored rejection emails.

And also if I accidentally screw this up and end up somehow convincing an agent to represent me, it will be at least interesting to see how my godawful brain chooses to spin that as They’re Just Saying That.

If you are being persistently bullied by your brain I can thoroughly recommend “pretending to go along with its bullshit” as a method of getting things done in spite of the constant hail of self-loathing, but I’d point out that as a way of living it’s pretty much only possible temporarily, and that I’m in long-term therapy trying to teach my brain to stop automatically kicking me in the crotch whenever I do something. If your brain also thinks it’s Jolly Highjinks Fun to persistently hit you with the Big Stick of No Self-Esteem, I’d recommend doing the same thing.


2 thoughts on “Weaponised Low Self-esteem and Good Rejections

  1. This is a brilliant post, D, and in fact really helpful to hear it from the reciever’s point of view. I have to regularly crush the dreams of teenagers who want to write for us, and wording those rejection letters while including praise/advice/constructive criticism is a physically painful process.

    “If your brain also thinks it’s Jolly Highjinks Fun to persistently hit you with the Big Stick of No Self-Esteem, I’d recommend doing the same thing.” – Yeah I’ve started getting on that.

    1. That sounds painful as hell – I’m aware telling people their work’s not up to standard is really unfun for everyone involved, so I’m in favour of both blanket policy (“Your work is great and interesting but not quite the right genre”) and rejections like this one.

      It’s a useful tactic! It also means I don’t have to stop with my favourite kind of motivational pep talk, “you’re a useless bag of shit”.

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