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Why does it hurt more, the closer you get?

If you've been collecting standard rejections (wonkily photocopied, unsigned, spelling your name wrong) for your novel it's easy to believe that any squeak of interest would have you celebrating. And the maths and psychology of submissions (very well described here by Sarah Davies and Julia Churchill of the Greenhouse Agency) mean that you know you should celebrate - you DO celebrate - being asked for the whole manuscript. And you celebrate more if you get a long email about the novel, or are taken on by an agent, or hear a publisher is interested... Each step, if you've got any sense (and your fellow-aspirers will remind you of it even if you're weeping and kicking the cat), says more about just how good and saleable your novel is.

And yet anyone who's been through all that, only to hear that yet another acquisitions meeting has turned down their novel, will tell you that the closer you get, the more it hurts. I know people who say they'd rather be longlisted for a prize than shortlisted, because they find the pain of not winning so much harder to bear; I know people who wish they wouldn't publish longlists, for the same reason. It would be hard to explain to a Martian, or someone programming a computer to have feelings, wouldn't it?  So many aspiring writers feel that all they want is to see their book on a bookshop shelf, but when all they can see is one copy spine out, it hurts more than all those rejections put together. But surely hearing that your novel is one of the six best is better than hearing that it's one of the twenty best? How dare you be miserable or furious over something which all your still-aspiring friends would kill to be given? Has the struggle to write a book good enough and saleable enough to be published turned you into a selfish, ungrateful monster? No.

The obvious thing about rejections is that it hurts to have your work judged as not-good-enough. I don't think it's too strong to qualify (if not quantify) the underlying emotion of failure as humiliation: someone is telling you that you've failed to write a good-enough novel, and even if you know that the bar of good-enough (which must include saleable enough) is set extremely high, that was the bar you set yourself.

But what it's easy to forget is that a rejection is also a bereavement: you've had your hopes taken away. And the emotion that underlies bereavement is grief. While your work is out there you can hope to have what you're looking for. When it's limped home, unwanted, that hope is gone. Some people find the fear of having that hope taken away is so strong that they never actually send work out, as one of Jerusha Cowless's correspondents described. I'm sure that some (not all) of the writers who spend ten years writing a single novel are, essentially, doing the same thing.

And the closer you've got, the bigger the hope is in two ways. First, the numbers game means the odds are better as you get closer: an agent only takes one writer a year from a slushpile of 4000, but that one writer will come from the mere 150 full manuscripts she asked for. If you're one of two hundred Booker hopefuls it's relatively easy to be calm about it, and your hope to get on the longlist is important but not (on the whole) all-consuming. But if you get onto the shortlist the hope is one in six of actually winning, and even human beings know that those odds are really quite good. The further you get, the more wonderful is the thing you're hoping for. So, although to be judged as being worthy of a prize shortlist, say, or having your full manuscript read, is an accolade not a humiliation, the bereavement and therefore the grief, if the hope is taken away, is much bigger too.

There's a coda to this, I think. A friend whose first YA novel has just been published was describing how flat she feels. She works in publishing herself, so she knows perfectly well what goes on - or mostly doesn't - around publication. And so, she says, "I have no right to be flat really - I should be dancing with excitement that my first novel is finally on the shelf, so I probably just need a slap."

As you may have realised by now, I don't think that slaps, or scolding, do much good when it comes to how you're feeling. But how old were you when you noticed that Christmas Day wasn't quite the all-consuming glory that you'd spent weeks looking forward to? And I know people who mourned their pregnancy when it turned into a baby, in a similar way. Things have changed, even if it's in a good way, and you've had that state of hope and excitement taken away. Maybe it's part of the "to travel hopefully is better than to arrive" feeling - although that idea only works if you're reading the traditional meaning of "hopefully". Whether you've been sent a box of author's copies, or a wonkily photocopied rejection slip, the anticipation you've lived with for so long has gone. It's over. At some small level that is a grief, and the only way to deal with grief properly is not to scold yourself, but to allow yourself to mourn.

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