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On rejection and praise

This week, I received some incredible news. Deficient has been nominated for the 2024 PEN/Hemingway Award for Debut Novel! This award “honors a debut novel of exceptional merit by an American author who has not previously published a full-length book of fiction. The Award aims to preserve the novel as an art form and to support the longevity of the writer’s literary career.”

[Insert all of the head exploding emojis!]

Lately, I’ve been absolutely floored by the support I have received from family, friends, acquaintances, and strangers who are interested in Deficient. This feels so strange, because for years I experienced the exact opposite. Writing isn’t an activity for the faint of heart or thinly skinned. It’s an uphill battle that, for most of us, is defined by rejection letters, unanswered emails, track-changed documents, and critiques of all sorts.

Since 2008, I have written twelve books, and I have received countless rejection letters. The reasons, when they were provided, varied. Here are a few that come to mind:

  • “The manuscript is too long.”
  • “The manuscript is too short.”
  • “We don’t publish series.”
  • “I love the world building, but not the main character.”
  • “I love the main character, but not the world building.”
  • (Not for Deficient): “Your main character is an evil bitch.” (Ahem, that was the point!)
  • “You have a character who dies in a way we don’t like.”
  • For a memoir: “You don’t have a platform.”
  • Also for a memoir: “If your life was about something like drug addiction or incest, we might be able to sell it.”

The chain of rejections was disheartening, especially after all the time and effort that goes into writing a book. My ideas and sample pages seemed to pique the interests of agents and publishers, but I struggled to get past the full manuscript requests.

How come no one is picking up my work? I wondered. How can they not see what I’m seeing?

Over the years, I’ve learned that a core part of the writer’s job is to bring something into the world the best way we know how, within the realm of our abilities. And I questioned, constantly, if my abilities were good enough – if the combined efforts of my brain and fingers could make my writing work.

To be fair, many of the rejections I received were well deserved. In my earlier writing years, I had a terrible habit of querying literary agents and publishers with manuscripts that weren’t ready or didn’t meet the conventional standards. (If the recommended word limit is 100,000 words, for instance, don’t submit a manuscript that is 200,000 words. Duh, Michael!).

However, I felt that what I was submitting was the best I could offer at the time, and I didn’t have the disposable income to hire professional editors. I ended up editing Deficient over the course of a decade to get it to where it is now. I couldn’t have done that without people who read versions of the manuscript and, even when rejecting it, gave thoughtful advice for how it could be strengthened. And when I finally did start working with editors, I realized how a talented one can pick up on things that a writer’s eyes can no longer see, and how they can challenge a writer to polish a book into its most dazzling form.

I moved to Sierra Leone in 2015 to support the West African Ebola response. Six years went by of being consumed with work, and it was so intense that writing took a back seat. I had signed with a literary agency, but that fell apart after my agent left the profession (this wasn’t my fault, I swear!). I had nearly lost hope at that stage but decided to give publication another go when I moved to Kenya in 2021. I returned to my Deficient manuscript, giving it the time and attention it needed, refining it, strengthening it, reading all the books I could on the craft of writing, and filling it with new life. And that led to a YES from my publisher, BHC Press.

After so many years in this game, I have developed a skin that is as thick and impermeable as rhinoceros hide. I can absorb the critiques and understand that my writing will never please everyone. And I don’t want it to! Some people will not appreciate my writing style or genre. Others might even want to ban my books for featuring queer characters or challenging Puritan attitudes. While I don’t have the headspace to entertain cruelness or bigotry, I appreciate constructive criticism in all of its forms, as this has helped me improve my craft. I also recognize that I am not a perfect writer, I will never be a perfect writer, and there is no such thing as a perfect writer. (Except for maybe Toni Morrison… and Gabriel García Márquez… and… wait, no, I take it back. Perfectionism is not good!)

What I can do is try my best, and, dear readers, and that’s what I gave to Deficient. Love it, hate it, fall asleep while reading it, eagerly anticipate returning to it when you get home from school or work, it is what it is. When I do receive positive feedback on this book, I appreciate it because it warms my heart and reminds me, after so many years, that maybe I can do this writing thing after all.

And every once in a while, I receive a review like this that lets me know my work meant something to someone.

I have no idea how Linda, the reviewer, got my book before it released, but that’s okay. Does it matter that she (or perhaps they?) shortened my character’s name to “Al”? And botched Yalamba’s name completely? And that she/they seemed to really enjoy the fact that characters die? No, no, and not at all! I LOVE the genuine nature and energy of this review. Linda’s energy gives me energy. All of your energy does, and I thank you from the depths of my soul for taking the time to offer it up when you can. And it reminds me to do the same for others, whenever possible, wherever possible.

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  1. Tara Tara

    I love when my students get excited and proud of themselves after they notice that their writing has matured, even if it’s just after one revising lesson. I will remind them of your experience and how keeping an open mind as a writer makes for a stronger writer!!

    I can’t wait to hear more reviews after your book is finally released!

  2. Colin Skehan Colin Skehan

    Congrats Michael. The book sounds awesome (I’ve always been a bit of a sci-fi nerd myself)

  3. Darcey Darcey

    The Pen/Hemingway Award!!!!!!!
    What an incredible start to a book launch.
    I am so happy for you.
    And so proud of you.
    Can’t wait to read it.
    Keep shining your bright light and creative spirit into the world Michael.


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