Dear Jerusha - I've been writing for over five years now. The second novel I wrote met with a pretty usual reception: eight rejections, and one request for the full novel which bred only silence in the face of several polite follow-up emails over the next two years. Since then I've written several more, which I haven't been able to face sending out at all. When I finished my most recent novel I summoned up every ounce of courage I had and sent it to two agents. Result: one rejection, one request for the whole MS which I'm sure will be another deathly silence. In the rest of my life I'm a professional, I'm a competent, organised person and I make plans for trying to sell my work and... I fall before the first hurdle. Instead of sending it out I spend months tweaking and polishing, and then write another novel, while the one I know should go out gathers dust. Any advice/encouragement/kick up the backside welcome.
It's very hard to deal with, I know. This stuff is personal, however much we also know that it's a business. Your heart's stapled to the pages that you're sending out, and there's sod all you can do about that: it's the nature of being the creative bit of an industry which deals in creativity - and I do mean deals.
A rejection is both a bereavement - your hopes for the novel have been taken away - and a judgement: someone with power over your work has told you that it's not up to scratch. Grief and humiliation are some of the most painful things that humans can feel: no wonder it hurts so much.
Does it help at all to remember that a rejection isn't telling you anything about you as a person, nor anything about how good a writer you are or could yet become? It says nothing about the books that came before, or the books that may yet come after. It's not a judgement of you as a creative being; it may well not even be a very comprehensive judgement of the merits and demerits of the book. All a rejection is telling you is that this agent, today, doesn't think they can sell this book. That's all. Yes, it hurts because you want your book to sell and be loved by readers, and for that it needs to be loved and sold by an agent and then a publisher, and someone's just told you that they can't do that. That hurts like hell, but it's like breaking your ankle: yes, the ankle isn't working, but the rest of you is as functional and gorgeous as ever.
Hemingway was asked what it took to be a writer, and said, "You have to write a million words", which maps pretty neatly onto the 10,000 hours I was discussing a while ago, which is what it takes to achieve mastery of a craft. Does it help at all to know that the first book Emma got published was the seventh she'd written, and she's by no means alone? Sometimes it takes that long to learn one's craft, and I'd argue that writers who have a lot of work under their bed as well as under their belt are actually much better placed to survive as authors, for all sorts of reasons, than the ones who wrote a book for fun and found themselves offered a contract. The latter makes a much better story for the media, and actually, even when you do read the latter, it's often far from being the whole truth. Emma doesn't regret a word she's written: they were her million words, and when she did land a contract she had the confidence that she did and does know her stuff... which doesn't mean she doesn't often get it wrong or never gets rejections any more; all writers do, always.
One thing I would say is that many writers (Emma included) find that it dilutes the agony to send out in batches. First, because whether an agent thinks they can sell your book has two parts to it, "sell" and "they" - these things are personal and it's hopeless trying to second-guess a subjective reaction. And second, because although it feels as if all you're asking for is a louder and more comprehensive rejection, actually it helps: when SAEs do come flopping back through the door, or the emails ping into the inbox, each individual one hasn't got everything riding on it. And some take so long to get back to you that if you've got any sense (which you very clearly have) you're well on the way with the new, exciting project. You could also try sending stories to magazines and competitions. Although I'd never say short fiction is easier to write, you can write more and spread your net wider, and get a bit more used to doing your best to carry on when you've got work out there.
One last thought: I know I've just talked about carrying on, but please don't beat yourself up for minding so much. We all do: rejection is a kind of grief, and it takes time to get over. Let yourself be miserable, know that your self-esteem has taken a big bash and will need some TLC: that it may upset how you feel about the work in progress, and skew your writerly judgement for a bit. The day Emma's had a rejection she knows that every mirror she looks in will make her look fat, though she's not normally someone who worries much about her weight or shape. But rejections make you feel very harshly judged, and that judged-feeling spills over into everything else from your parenting skills to your parallel parking. Play very, very loud rock music, weep to the Verdi Requiem or your great music of choice, go shopping, eat chocolate, drink alcohol, whatever it takes. With a track record like yours you can be very sure that you'll get back on that writing-horse, and that submitting-horse, very soon.