A previous Rejection Survivor interviewee, Elizabeth Bell, suggested a long time ago that I write a post about coping with rejection while dealing with mental illness. I struggled to figure out how to address it on the blog, though, because the blog itself was born from my own process of therapy, and it’s impossible for me to separate the lessons and ideas and coping skills in this blog from what I learned about coping with emotional turmoil. Furthermore, while I wouldn’t exactly say my depression was “mild”, it was not as severe and life-threatening as it could have been; and the skills I acquired were very personal, developed through a lot of internal exploration, and I don’t assume they would work well for other people, especially people struggling with other forms of mental illness.
Recently, however, a friend pointed me to this Twitter thread by Kaelan Rhywiol about xyr rejection survival story. Kaelan, a native of upstate NY who currently lives in Southern Ontario, Canada, is the author of over a dozen books in the queer romance genre, most recently Blood-Bound (NineStar Press, 2018), and in the thread, xie protests the common rallying cry of the writing community: “Don’t give up!”. I have written about some of the problems with that advice before, but I felt that Kaelan got into it deeper than I’d been able to, because xie described how that advice made xyr push xyrself a lot harder than xie should have and ended up having a mental health crisis. I asked for an interview, and xie kindly obliged.
I’m hoping that this interview opens a door to a discussion about resilience and mental illness. There’s a whole lot to discuss here, and I hope to explore it further in later posts.
Before we begin, a couple content warnings: Mention of self-harm, in-depth discussion of mental illness, mention of suicide, mention of generational trauma, ableist language as self-reference.
Let’s start at the beginning: when did you first decide to become a writer? Can you tell us about an early piece you wrote that no one’s ever heard of because it stayed in the drawer?
Lolz, I’m not sure if I decided to become I writer. I’ve written since I turned 11. My mom got sick of me babbling about a vivid dream I’d had and told me I should be a writer, then gave me paper and pen and that’s where I started.
I’ve been writing since then, and to date have written 5 (almost 6) full-length novels, uncountable vignettes and short stories. I wrote custom kink stories for a few years before trying to write for publication.
I started writing for publication a little over 3.5 years ago.
Fifteen or so years ago I wrote a ghost romance set in Great Britain. It isn’t bad, actually, could probably use a good editing, but it was rejected because it was a really weird premise (for the time). This is before paranormal romance really took off. I often wonder if I’d kept querying it if I’d have been one of the leaders in paranormal romance by now.
Tell us about your first-ever submission. What did you submit, and to whom?
I submitted the ghost romance to Avon back when, but I don’t really count that one as the beginning of my journey because when it was rejected, I just went back to writing for myself.
My first ever submission (that I count) was my Ilavani. I submitted it to an agent at The Deborah Harris Agency after receiving a like in a twitter pitch event (I think it was Pitmad). The agent was kind enough to give me personal feedback: the book was too long (At 245k words, it was too long for a debut. It’s now a Hugo-nominated science-fantasy and has a ton of world-building in it.)
How did you feel when you received your first rejection, and what motivated you to keep trying?
I had been around the Twitter water cooler of writers for a while by then, so while it did hurt, I had sort of expected to be rejected a lot. There is a lot of advice about that in writer circles.
I did the thing a lot of writers do, I sent a “revenge query”. That’s not as awful as it sounds, it just means you send a new query to a different agent because you got a rejection. It has nothing to do with getting revenge on the particular agent who rejected your story (something that I’m horrified anyone would actually do but happens with disturbing regularity).
You are a marginalized writer in many ways: queer, autistic, and mixed-race with mental illness and physical disability as well as complex PTSD due to generational trauma and as a rape and trauma survivor. That’s a lot to unpack! The reason this blog exists is that the querying process is a grueling and emotionally taxing process even for people without any of the struggles added by those things. Can you tell us about the added layers of difficulty you experienced because of your atypicalities?
One of the things I noticed that neurotypical writers don’t seem to struggle with as much is doing the research before sending out a query.
When I send out a query, I do hours of research on that agent and their agency before I even start writing. I make sure both are people/organizations that I’d be content to work with. If I wouldn’t want to work with them, I won’t even send a query. Then I write a personalized letter to them. I don’t use a form letter, and I wouldn’t even consider doing a blind cc with a ‘Dear Sir’ sort of greeting. Querying is hard for me for a number of reasons, but the sheer amount of work hours I (and many autistic writers, I’m by far not the only one who approaches it this way) put into it is mind-boggling.
I would work 8-hour days and often send only 4 or 5 queries in a day. Many writers do a slapdash job on the research, use a form letter and send it off in a matter of a few minutes. I’m not judging, but I have *no idea* how they can possibly do that.
Why might be asked… well, it’s important to me that I get it right. From the agent’s pronouns, to whether they’re open to submission, to what they’re currently looking for with regards to potential authors to represent. I freelance as an editor for small press, so I know how grueling, unappreciated and unpaid reading queries can be. The very least I can do is get my part of things right.
Just to set the record straight–I do this too, and I’m neurotypical! Do other writers really just shoot them off?!
I’ve talked to a lot of writers about how they do queries, and some are more like you and I, but most just do a quick look-see and then send a form letter. I have no idea how they can do that. But to each their own. I read a lot of queries for my freelance work, so it’s obvious people don’t do a lot of research.
You spent 4 years researching agents and sent over 500 (!!!) queries during that time, but didn’t find representation. During that period, you experienced a downturn in your mental health. Can you tell us about what happened?
Many of those 500 queries were sent to the same agents for different projects, to be fair, but yeah, I stopped counting at 500.
I was, honestly, a hardheaded, stubborn fool. I kept listening to a common bit of advice from other writers and agents. The “keep going” mentality. I had mentors and other writers, even a few agent friends (that don’t rep what I write) saying things like they didn’t understand why I wasn’t being picked up. That my prose was so gorgeous and that I wrote about such important topics that surely my time was just around the corner. Just a few more queries…
Except my mental health broke before I could find my “yes”. I’ll never know if the next query I might have sent would’ve been “the one”. My mental health couldn’t take it.
“My mental health broke before I could find my ‘yes'”
I’ve struggled with mental illness most of my life. I’m an autistic, mixed-race child of impoverished people. I’m the first person in my family to graduate from 4-year university. There is a lot of generational trauma that goes on in families like mine, and I don’t know if I’ve ever had any mental “health” or if it’s always just been one form of mental illness or another.
I don’t talk to people about my early life anymore, because the answer is always, invariably, “How are you even alive?”
I’m alive because I’m too damned stubborn (and stupid) to quit. I just… don’t seem to know how to quit. Even with everything querying did to me, I still look up agents once in a while, hoping to perhaps find someone who might give me my “yes”.
Because some doors will always remain closed to me without an agent. It’s a sucky part of this publishing business, and it’s the truth. Many Big 5 houses won’t even think about looking at an author’s work without agent representation.
As for the nitty-gritty of what it did to me?
In my twenties, I went through years of therapy to sort of learn how to live as a healthy human adult with decent inter-personal and self relationship skills. I naively thought it had ‘cured’ me of my mental illness.
Basically, what querying did to me is that it made me relapse into most of the self-harming behavior I’d done as a child and a teen. It made me start thinking about cutting myself again, it made me want to drink too much, it made me neglect my diet and exercise routines, it made me slide down what was an incredibly slippery mental illness slope until I almost hit rock bottom.
I managed to catch myself before that happened, I went back on meds and back into therapy and I’m climbing back up that hill now, but because I just wouldn’t quit, because I kept listening to people who, in well-meaning hope, told me to ‘keep going’, I self-harmed again and almost started cutting again.
If I’d kept on going in the face of all that, hoping for my one “yes”, it isn’t beyond the realm of possibility that suicide might have occurred to me. Being what and who I am, it doesn’t take a lot to make me think of ending it all. I live in physical pain every second of every day, that takes a toll all on its own. When people are asking for own voices stories, they are asking us to relive things that may be painful to us. That is bound to take a toll on mental health. It certainly did on mine.
At a certain point, you made the extremely difficult and brave decision to move on from your dream of finding an agent and pursue a different path to publication. What helped you make that decision?
I found myself assembling my cutting kit again. For those who don’t know, a cutting kit is the tool one uses to cut with and medical supplies. I’d gotten rid of mine as part of my previous therapy, and it scared the living hell out of me to find myself so far down the pit of mental illness again that I was even thinking about doing that.
So I stepped back and asked myself what I really wanted out of this writing thing. I came so close to quitting the whole thing right then and there, because what author, in their heart of hearts, doesn’t hope they’ll be one of the ones chosen to have the marketing push put behind their books?
Which of us doesn’t dream, just a bit, of seeing our books on major chains shelves, or in the supermarket, or being asked to sit on panels at conventions?
I sure did. I dreamed of all those things. But I found that’s not really why I write. I’ve said it a few times, but I could write monogamous, M/F romance with white characters and probably get an agent and a book deal with a bigger house. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with my writing skill.
“The reason I write the things I do… is because there is such power to seeing yourself on the pages of a book”
But I’m not those things. I’m queer, I’m mixed-race, and the reason I write the things I do, own voices, is because there is such power to seeing yourself on the pages of a book.
It hasn’t happened often for me, and it’s made me cry every time. (My therapist is appalled that I don’t cry much. I really don’t, I think I shed all my tears a long time ago.)
That is why I write. I write to give people like me, the outcasts, the autistic, the fat, the chronically ill, the mentally ill, the rape survivors, the trauma survivors, the queer peeps, the polyamorous peeps, the kinky ones, the mixed-race ones… I write to let those people see themselves on the page, finally.
I can’t do that sitting on shelved books while I keep chasing the chimera of an agent willing to represent me.
I can do that by turning to small press and marketing the hell out of my books. I can do that by self-publishing some of my titles.
It doesn’t and won’t lead to fame, and I’ll never be rich this way. (It surprised me that most authors actually make less than 10k a year, the wealthy ones are few and far between.) There’s some chance of becoming wealthy with a Big 5 deal and movie rights and what not. There isn’t with where I’m at. I’d be lying if I said that didn’t suck. It does.
By choosing to go hybrid with small press and self-pub, I’m acknowledging that I will struggle to even get to the point of a living wage. I will never get an advance, marketing will be whatever I can do, and the press can put behind me (which isn’t nothing, but it’s not at the level of what a Big 5 publisher can do.)
I’ll be thrilled if I can reach *livable monthly wage* between my writing royalties and my Patreon. If I can do that, I’ll be ecstatic.
It’s a bit of a letdown, but it’s a more realistic picture for many marginalized writers. Especially if you’re as marginalized as I am with so many things working against me.
On the Twitter thread that led me to you, you wrote that at first, you had an old-fashioned idea that you had to have an agent to be a Real Writer, but that eventually you learned that that’s only one path to becoming an author. Can you tell us about that learning process? What changed your mind?
*Chuckles*. I was such a doofus. I thought that to be a “real author” you had to have all the trimmings, the agent, the big five book deal, etc. etc. But I entered a contest, and as a way of giving back, I bought one of the judge’s books. It was from an author I’d never heard of and put out by an indie press. I was honestly not expecting much, and I’d never read a self-published or indie author’s work before. (I was a bit of a snot. I learned differently.)
That book blew my fucking socks off. It was so well written, the editing was top notch, and it made me laugh, it made me cry, it ripped my guts out in all the best ways. It repped what I’d lived with, a genderfluid *girl* in the 80s.
I loved it. It opened my eyes to the sheer quality that is available in the small press and self-pub markets. I haven’t looked back. To this day I read far more indie and self-pub than I do big 5 titles. I think I still buy maybe 5 or 6 Big 5 authors, they’re authors I know from experience write stories I love to read. For me to risk a new author who has a big-5 deal? It really takes one of my indie authors saying it’s good (or that I know the author/we’re friends, I try to buy my friends books regardless of who pubs them).
“You don’t need all the trimmings to be a damned fine author”
Without that vote of confidence? I don’t buy a Big 5 author. The editing is usually a disappointment to me, the stories are all the same old same old, and I’m so fecking bored with monogamy in romance.
I can find what I need better and faster and written with so much more skill in the indie market.
It’s quite a massive turn around. For a snot like me to realize you don’t need all the trimmings to be a damned fine author.
That book, by the way, is one of my most recommended, it’s Ashby Holler, by Jamie Zakian, who I’m now honored to call friend and critique partner. Jamie is one of the most kick-ass authors I’ve ever read.
You wrote on that thread that you felt the message “Don’t give up!” was ultimately harmful to you. Can you tell us more about that?
That message was definitely harmful to me. It’s a message that doesn’t take into account who the listener is. So many marginalized writers are mentally ill that I think it behooves everyone to be a bit cautious with the types of advice they put out there.
“[‘Don’t give up’] is good advice, for some people. For me? It almost killed me.”
It is good advice, for some people. For me? It almost killed me. It definitely caused a lot of pain. Maybe if I’d been smarter, I could’ve realized I was sliding down Mount Mental Illness a bit sooner. But mental illness is insidious, and it’d been almost 15 years since I’d coped with it to the level it rapidly descended to.
It took me by surprise.
I think in this business it’s a good thing to remember that, there are two parts of it, the creative part where we pour our hearts and souls into our work, and the business part where we query strangers to see if they want to represent us and our work. But that it’s nigh impossible to truly separate the two.
We can try to regard querying and contracts and all that jazz as something separate and unrelated to how good our books are, but in reality, some part of us is always wondering at each rejection, “What is wrong with me that I can’t get a yes?”
It’s impossible to not take it seriously, even if it’s only a little bit with each rejection.
That can build up and take a toll.
In retrospect, do you think there’s something else that people could have said that would have been more constructive for you, and would have helped you take care of yourself better?
I’m honestly not sure. As I’ve said, I’m too stubborn for my own good, and I’m competitive. If I had the backasswards opinion that the only real writer was an agented one, perhaps the school of hard knocks was the only thing that would’ve reached me.
*Shrugs* It might have helped to have someone say, “You don’t have to have an agent to be a real writer.”
I think that’s why I try to say it often. Everyone who writes is a writer, if people are somehow paying you for your work? You’re an author.
One thing that someone did say that helped me, (I wish I could remember who said it) was that I should take the “aspiring writer” tag out of my profile. They told me that if I wrote, I was a writer.
That helped a lot.
If you could go back in time and start over, do you think you would do anything differently? What advice would you have for the you who was just starting out in the querying process?
I’d sit myself down and point out the sad fact that someone who writes as much diversity into my work (I’m just writing my me after all) is likely never going to find representation. There’s a lot of lip service being paid to diversity right now, and has been for as long as I’ve been writing for publication. But when you walk into a bookstore, how many diverse titles are truly out there? How many marginalized writers are actually finding representation? More than there used to be for sure, but not many.
Statistics don’t lie, and the statistics prove that most titles are by far and away still written by white, straight, monogamous, neurotypical writers.
Publishing is slow, but we should really be seeing a difference in shelf stock by now, if the gatekeepers were walking the walk as much as they’re talking the talk. I can’t name the number of diverse titles I’ve backed with what little book buying money I have, ones that I’ll never likely read, just so that I can send the message to the gatekeepers that THIS is what I want to be spending my book money on. I don’t want another white-savior fantasy. It’s been done! I’m bored… give me something new!
There just isn’t a market demand yet for people like me who write books like I do, not at the higher levels. I’m too unrelatable to most people. I’m autistic, so I have an autistic writing voice, which people either love to the moon or hate to the depths of hell. I’m queer, and most people aren’t. I’m polyamorous, all my characters are too. I’m bi/pansexual, grey-asexual, grey-aromantic, kinky and mixed-race. I’m mentally ill, and all of those things come through in my writing.
If I want to write all of that, and I do… I need to be content with small press and self-pub. Small press can and do take risks the Big 5 either won’t or can’t (I think it’s won’t.) In self-pub, I have all the control so can really write pretty much whatever I want.
Big 5? It’d try to change so much of what I’m writing (for who I’m writing for) to make it ‘relatable’.
I won’t say that seeing authors who did get the marketing push for things like writing an autistic heroine or a mixed-race hero, or a fat bi character, or a mentally ill one… (cause I did too, you know?) getting the marketing push doesn’t hurt… it really does. Rather a lot in fact.
“Books have saved my life more times than I can count, so if my words can do that for someone else? I’ll be very happy with that.”
But I try to comfort myself that if I keep working, if I keep writing my stories and getting them out there, I’ll hopefully hit my goal of making a living wage at this, because without that goal met, and soon, I’ll have to stop doing this and try to re-enter the workforce. I can’t afford to keep doing this forever without reaching a living wage in some combination of Patreon and royalties. Doing it in a way that lets people like me see themselves on the page is so important to me, but my reality is that we’re broke, and I need to have an income. As disabled as I am, there won’t be enough of me left to write if I’m working a job out of the house.
It’s so important to me that perhaps my words and stories provide a few hours of escape to someone who needs it. Books have saved my life more times than I can count, so if my words can do that for someone else? I’ll be very happy with that.
What, in your opinion, are the unique challenges faced by creative people who struggle with mental illness? Do you think we also have unique advantages or strengths?
The challenges are obvious, I feel: We need to balance what we want from creativity, what we need, with what we’re willing to deal with to get to where we envision ourselves as being, all while being aware of the personal cost to our mental health.
It’s a huge challenge to do that. I think each of us really needs to buckle down and ask ourselves what we need from this, and if it’s possible to get there.
“Although my stubbornness cost me, it’s that stubbornness that has allowed me to keep living, to keep writing in the face of all of this.”
I think we do have unique advantages and strengths. Although my stubbornness cost me, it’s that stubbornness that has allowed me to keep living, to keep writing in the face of all of this. It’s that stubbornness that let me send out the final queries (without much hope, I’ll add) to small presses. By the time I did that, I was certain it was my writing that was the problem. That I was fooling myself with all this.
And obviously, we have extremely unique stories to tell. Tales that let people who aren’t like us glimpse what our lives are like through the window of own voices fiction. We also have the amazing ability to allow others like ourselves see themselves on page.
What do you have to say to fellow writers and creatives still drowning in “nos”–especially those who struggle with mental illness?
Stop and ask yourself what you need from this. Are you perhaps (like I was) laboring under the delusion that small press and self-pub books aren’t good? (They are, they’re often better written and edited than many Big 5 titles for a variety of reasons.) Are you listening to well-meaning advice that is costing you too much? Is your mental health suffering in the face of all this?
“The important thing for each of us to do is to figure out which path works for us”
I’d also tell them it’s okay, that they’re a real writer if they write, and that the most important thing in this writing business is to get what you need from it, however you go about doing it. Writing is so hard that we really need to be aware of what it’s costing us. Being an author is worth it, absolutely, if it’s something you want and/or need to do, but this isn’t 20 years ago, you no longer need an agent to even think about being published. There are many paths, and the important thing for each of us to do is to figure out which path works for us. The creator.
I won’t deny the fact that I dream of the day when agents query authors to see if the author wants them to represent us. I can see the market shifting towards that, but it’ll take a while to get there.
I think I missed my calling as a revolutionary. XD
Kaelan Rhywiol’s Rejection Survivor Skills
Here are a few things that jumped out at me from Kaelan’s interview:
- Xie believes in xyr work: “There’s absolutely nothing wrong with my writing skill.” More on the importance of believing in your work on The 5 Words That Keep Me from Giving Up After 15 Years of Rejection.
- Xie has learned that being a Real Writer™ doesn’t necessarily mean taking the traditional path: “I thought that to be a ‘real author’ you had to have all the trimmings, the agent, the big five book deal, etc. etc. But… [I realized that] you don’t need all the trimmings to be a damned fine author.” More on who is the real authority when it comes to your work in the Creative Resilience Manifesto, item #3.
- Xie realized that things had gone too far and was able to put xyr mental health first: “It scared the living hell out of me to find myself so far down the pit of mental illness again that I was even thinking about doing that.”
- Xie freed xyrself from a narrow definition of success: “I stepped back and asked myself what I really wanted out of this writing thing… I write to let those people see themselves on the page, finally.” More on freeing yourself from a narrow definition of success on Stop Telling Me Not to Give Up.
- Xie owns xyr story and knows that telling it is beneficial to others: “We have extremely unique stories to tell. Tales that let people who aren’t like us glimpse what our lives are like through the window of own voices fiction. We also have the amazing ability to allow others like ourselves see themselves on page.”
Many, many thanks to Kaelan for sharing xyr story with such honesty and detail. You can reach xyr through Twitter at @KaelanRhy and buy xyr books on Amazon (here’s xyr author page). You can also support xyr through a donation via Patreon or Paypal, or by buying xyr coffee through Ko-Fi.com or a gift from xyr Amazon wishlist.