Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Failure Pile

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I’d like to talk about rejection today because I am a veritable expert on the subject. I’d wager that most writers are. Still, it’s not something that most of us talk about. I think we all harbour the fear that if we confess how much and how thoroughly our various manuscripts have been rejected, we’ll only manage to convince people that it’s being rejected for a good reason. Whenever someone gets an award or a publication they shout it out on Facebook, but we’re all a lot less likely to post about our private humiliations and rejection-fed insecurities.

Sending a manuscript out to the slush pile is a lonely proposition. When Sweet Devilry was being considered and variously rejected from just about every publishing house in Canada, I walked around hearing Patton Oswald’s voice in my head -- his routine about the Famous Bowl from KFC felt like my life -- I was a “failure pile in a sadness bowl”. (

It was damn hard to get that parade of rejections. I was lucky that I had a community who supported me (my writing group, the writer in residence at Queen’s, Helen Humphreys, and my partner). No matter who you are, or how confident you are in your manuscript, it’s damn discouraging to see a pile of written rejections stacking up.

What got me through was knowing that the writers I admired most had gone through the same devastating process. I have a friend, Tyler Perry, author of Lessons in Falling, who was shopping around his manuscript at the same time as me. This saved my sanity. I am a huge fan of his, and I knew that his book would get picked up. Tyler and I made a pact to use our rejection letters as stationary. Every time I got a rejection, I would turn that baby over and write Tyler a nice, long letter on the other side, and he would do the same. It helped me to not only get those rejection letters out of the house (which means you can’t go back and read it again and again) but it was also strangely heartening to know that I wasn’t the only one getting rejected. Also, it’s just nice to get mail from an author you admire.

So if you’re contemplating your first foray (or your third or seventh) onto the slush pile, may I suggest finding a friend to do it with? Someone at Humber College related to me that to have a book published you need 2 of 3 things: a good book, luck, and perseverance. Any of these 2 in combination will pay off. Work at what you have control over: a good book and perseverance. Cultivate a skin so thick you’re bullet proof. Be hard of listening. When an editor tells you “No,” make sure you hear “Not yet” or “Not here.” Know that every writer who has a book published has likely felt like a failure pile in a sadness bowl at one time or another. And if all else fails, eat KFC with the lights out at 2am while watching an infomercial and listening to Pink Floyd. Then edit that manuscript and send it out again.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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Sarah Tsiang

Sarah Tsiang is the author of A Flock of Shoes (Annick Press, 2010), Sweet Devilry (Oolichan Books, 2011), Dogs Don’t Eat Jam and Other Things Big Kids Know (Annick Press, 2011) and Warriors and Wailers: 100 Ancient Chinese Jobs You Might Have Relished or Reviled (Annick Press, 2012). Her latest picture book, Stone Hatchlings, will be released in fall, 2012.

Go to Sarah Tsiang’s Author Page