When people ask me about my novel, the questions regarding rejection are never far behind. I usually try to laugh them off. “Rejection is my middle name,” I once thought of saying to a group of aspiring student writers. But then we would be running the risk of entering a dangerous and self-congratulatory diatribe about how you have to fail in order to truly succeed and life lessons and don’t do drugs and all that crap. And let’s face it. It’s 2018. No one has time for life lessons and all writers do drugs.
So my middle name isn’t Rejection. But stranger things have happened. You see, when my parents were trying to decide on a name for their second (and as luck would have it, better-looking) child, they tasked my then four-year-old brother with deciding a good middle name for his little bro. He was very proud of his two selections: David and Baby Transformer. For some strange reason, my parents went with the more traditional approach. But could you imagine? “This is our child, Jeffrey Baby Transformer Hill.” That would have followed me around like a bad 1980s joke for the rest of my life. All thanks to letting a four-year-old go crazy with something as sacred as labeling another human for the rest of his life.
In terms of rejections, I’ve had a few in my day. Some were nice. Some were… not. I’ve had a workshop instructor light one of my stories on fire in front of the entire class once. I’ve had a teacher move to mentor and then to friend and colleague over the years. But I’ve also had agents say “I look forward to kicking myself for passing on this” and “This whole thing is subjective, so I wish you the best of luck with your work.” I’ve even had them tell me to contact them again with any future projects. Cold calling is hard. Agent speed dating is hard. Writing and sending and waiting for response to an email is hard. And you know what else is hard? Reading other writers’ work. Talking with other writers about their work. And writing more of your own work. But if you can’t do the work, especially when it’s hard, you’re not going to make it. And if you can’t accept rejection, what the hell are you going to do when you “make” it?
My friend Scott Wolven always says that writers have a responsibility to be nice to other writers. And that’s so true. Because agents, publishers, and editors literally get paid to rip your work apart. Because the internet gave rise to an entire generation of self-proclaimed critics on all things style and taste. And because for every fan, you’re going to have ten people who hate your book for no reason other than the fact that they didn’t write it. But don’t just give empty praise. That might be the only thing worse than hate mail.
The film Whiplash inspired me to stop offering praise for the sake of making students and workshop group members feel good. The film’s antagonist infamously states that “There are no two words more harmful in the entire English language than ‘good job’.” And though a bit harsh, there’s a large chunk of truth to this. They have families and friends for that. Now when I give a compliment, they know it’s real and that they’ve earned it. And if I don’t, they experience a little rejection. Which is good for them.
Because without rejection, I never would have realized that the important part of those emails and conversations with the men and women I so desperately wanted to work with in the industry was the lines I wasn’t ready to hear. I wasn’t mature enough to read. The ones that said “I’m just not up to the devastating subject matter in the opening pages” meant that my beginning wasn’t the beginning it needed to be. The ones that said “I’d encourage you to consider the length of your novel” meant that I had a much different project than I was pitching. But the most important piece of advice I ever got was from a fellow writer who simply said, “You’ve got a best-seller. You just need to trick them all into thinking it’s their idea.”
So there you have it. Rejection came for four years in a row with this novel because, well, it was a four-year-old and didn’t know what the hell it was doing. Just like my brother, I was tasked with an impossible mission. And just like my brother, I was half right. He was (and probably still is) a little bummed that his first choice for his baby bro’s middle name didn’t go through. But I happen to like the other one he went for. And I was (and probably always will be) a little bummed that the first batch of agents passed on the first draft of my book. The first draft may not have been published, but several drafts later, it’s finally ready. And I happen to love the one I’m sending out next month.
Jeff Hill is a moderately reformed frat boy turned writer/teacher splitting his time between Nebraska and New York. His work has appeared in dozens of publications and his mom has a binder full of printed copies for any doubters. He is the Chief Creative Officer of ComicBooked.com and is currently pitching two novels. Jeff is a past participant of the Sarah Lawrence College Summer Seminar for Writers and has served as a faculty member of the Writer’s Hotel since 2017 and writing instructor for Lincoln Public Schools since 2010. Follow him on twitter at jeffhillwriter.