Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Rejection in Antwerp

August 15, 2012 – Rejection in Antwerp

It seems only fitting since I’m in Belgium that I go get a Belgium ale. If not for my own liquor needs than certainly in honor of my dad who is a connoisseur of good brews. I’d asked the Flemish pilot for some suggestions and he’d given me two; Jupiler and De Koninck—I’d had him write them down for me so I’d be sure to get one or the other of them right.

With the names in my bag and a mission I’ve chosen to accept, I go in search of a place with Wi-Fi and ale. I’ve been offline for ten days. This wouldn’t be such a big deal except that I’ve been waiting to hear from an agent who asked for the full manuscript of my book. She’d responded to my query in May with a request for the first 100 pages and then after a six week wait on my part, she’d asked for the full. As my first non-rejection, I’d vacillated between a defensive “don’t get your hopes up” attitude and a hopeful “this is it!”

Her request had felt like my validation as a writer. For three months I’d been able to say, “No, I’m not published yet, but I have an agent who’s reading my manuscript.” It sounded so real. I’d avoided the artistic doubts that come from time to time to tell me everything I do is crap. For the duration of this wait, I hadn’t been visited by those niggling insecurities that mock me and tell me I’m an embarrassment to myself and the writerly world. I’d even received several rejections from other agents that hadn’t phased me. It had been a glorious and anticipative three months.

I’m strolling down the streets of Antwerp looking for a WI-FI window sign with these thoughts going through my head. I’ve been up off and on since 3:00 (to see the lights of Dover) and I’m feeling the weight of sleepiness and long hours of excitement pressing my steps heavy on the stone walkways. You don’t have time to be tired, I tell myself. There’s just too much you have to do and see.

I know, I reply, and suppress a yawn.

Then, there it is. That quested for sign. WI-FI. It’s in the window of The Irish Times Pub. Heck, that’s good enough for me. I’m Scot-Irish from somewhere in my ancestry and if I can’t Belgium it, I can always go the way of Guinness. I can drink that in honor of my dad too, no problem.
It’s a glorious day and I’d like to sit outside on the patio, but I know I’ll probably need to be near an outlet; I’ve got a lot of catching up to do. So I go inside and look for a suitable table. I find a good place that’s out of the way and has a modicum of privacy to it.

With the scrap of paper with the ale names written on it, I go up to the bar and ask the bartender which of the two is better. He taps out the De Koninck for me and gives me the internet code. “Most people call it ballicker,” he tells me with a genuine Irish accent.

Ball licker? I think, okay. What the heck am I about to drink? “Thanks!” I say, and go sit.

I’ve got a slew of emails. Most of them are impersonal; updates from Goodreads, B&N’s Nook book suggestions, or Facebook frantically reminding me that I have notifications pending. “Yeah, yeah,” I say, and sort and delete.

Then. There it is. The answer from the agent.

I hover the arrow over the email and take a breath. “Please say yes,” I say in a whisper. Bravely, I open it up.

Dear Amanda, it starts.

I’ve reviewed Bull Ring and I regret that after careful consideration I don’t feel it is a match for me. I hesitated in this decision because the novel has a lot going for it – pace and plot are good, your writing is solid and characterization is nuanced. However, there were often times when dialogue and language felt forced or contrived. It’s nearly there and another agent may respond differently. Thank you for your patience and I do wish you success in your search for representation.

Kind regards, she says, and signs off with her name and agency.

That’s it then.

I don’t see much after “I regret.” But “forced” and “contrived” stand out like bolded and red flashing, disapproving warning lights.

That hope I had feared to nurture shrivels up and dies inside me. I’ll have to pluck it and throw it out when I feel a bit stronger. For now it sits like a rock next to the weed of artistic doubt that grows half an inch taller and sneers at me with a mean, “I told you so.”

That’s it then. I’ll have to start over. Find another long list of agents to query. Probably rewrite the entire book. But I can’t think of that now. It’s too much. So I answer some emails, catch up on posts and my friends’ lives, and tuck the pain of rejection away into a closet of my mind. I don’t close the door tightly enough though. I see a skeletal hand, a skull, a bony knee.

The De Koninck isn’t the salve I want so I call my mom via Skype.

Just as the call connects some music starts up loud. It’s now the more regular bar hour and to prove it, a group of guys come in to celebrate a last hoorah before one of them gets married. They’re wearing shirts that say “Tim’s Bachelor Party” and I have the feeling this isn’t their first stop. “Sorry!” I shout into the computer’s mic at my mom. It’s no good. “I’m at an Irish Pub and some music just came on really loud, I think it’s live, and Tim’s bachelor party is going on. I’ll try and call you again soon when I find another place with WI-FI.” I can’t hear her response, but I wait a second anyway before I hang up.

I’d just needed to tell her about the fun I’ve been having and the disappointment I’m feeling. I’d needed to hear a friendly voice; my mother’s voice. Without that option I just want to go back home to my ship and go to sleep.

I buy a train ticket from Germany to Sweden instead.
It’s getting dark. Inside and outside. I’m squinting into my computer screen and thinking of just shutting down, hoping I converted the cost of the ticket correctly to US funds (it seemed cheaper than I’d anticipated), trusting that the ship will sail on schedule and that we’ll get to Hamburg before the 30th and hoping I can manage the train transfers when one of the bartender squeezes past my table and puts a bulb into the socket. It’s suddenly much brighter. He turns to me. Smiles. “Just like God,” he says.

I laugh.

I drain the last of my drink and am about to pack up when another bartender walks by. “You want another one?” he asks me.

“Sure,” I say. Why not? Besides, how much is too much honor for one’s father?

After the second ballicker, I ask the Irish accented bartender if he’ll call the cab company for me. He’s good enough to do so, and I go wait outside on the patio for the driver to arrive. The air is cool. There’s a multitude of people to observe. There’s me, sitting on an outside patio in Europe. It’s fantastically unreal. I can’t believe it. I’m a melting pot of emotion. Exhaustion from my strenuous “don’t want to miss anything” watch schedule, joy of being where I am, sadness at the death of one dream, amazement at my life, disappointment in my life, and a sudden missing of my crew friends.

A car pulls up and the window goes down. “To Rickmers DALIAN?” he asks. I nod and get in. This driver drives just as fast as the one who’d taken Josh and me to immigration, but he’s got less road rage. We talk about things to see in Antwerp and then before we run out of conversation topics he maneuvers up to the gangway. I pay him and thank him. I get out and look up at the ship.

I’m home.

There’s a comfort in that. The guy who’d told me “I like you very much” at the party and whose name I never learn is on duty at the gangway. I pat him companionably on the arm. “How’s it going?” I ask.

“Good,” he says. “You were outside?”

“Yeah, it’s nice,” I tell him.

We stand together in silence for a half second. “Okay, goodnight,” I say. “See you later.”

The hall is quiet. The stairwell is quiet. The captain’s door is shut. Josko’s door is shut. My door is shut and locked. That’s how it is in port. Everything locked up tight. I use my key and let myself in.
I sit on my bed and mourn. My dad had once told me it was okay to be sad. To acknowledge the pain and sort it out. I do my best.

Words are my outlet so I write:

Disappointment swells my ankles
It’s a long time to hope
only to realize
your disclaimers, your second guessing
was actually
what’d you’d lean on.
Now you have no ace in the hole.
Nothing to say
to fend off the pain
of being unpublished.
Times like this you think
that perhaps
doesn’t go your way
after all.

Don’t be a silly goose, I chide myself. Self-pity has a short half-life in my world.  Just go to sleep. You’ll feel better in the morning.

After all, I’m in Belgium. There’s chocolates to try. Ales to drink. Streets to wander. Cathedrals and museums to visit. People to watch. Languages to listen to. Diamonds to seek out. And lace, I’ve heard about the Belgium lace. What I’d do with it, I have no idea, but hell, when there’s nothing else, there’s always lace.


  1. I'm so sorry to hear that Bull Ring got rejected. It's a wonderful story with powerful characters. I have it on my Nook and I can't wait to re-read it as soon as the craziness of the CSFWG anthology gets over with.

    I want you to look on the bright side of things. The agent gave you personalized, specific feedback on what she thought of your story. That almost never happens unless the agent really did fall in love with the great parts of your book. You impressed her with your writing, but she felt she couldn't champion it strongly enough to sell to an editor.

    Keep trying! That agent wasn't the perfect one, but you'll find one that is. In the meantime, keep writing! Keep editing! Keep traveling! Keep blogging!

    PS: I miss our small-talk chats that we had before the Monday groups when no one else was there (yet) but us. I hope you're having a great time in Europe!

  2. I was at a restaurant a few days ago and an old friend came up to me. We chatted a bit, then she said, "I have an author at my table, you should come say hello."

    I followed her over.

    I asked the author what kind of books she wrote, she asked me the same. Then I said, "I'll have to look up your books."

    With an exuberance that broke my heart, she said, "Absolutely! An agent just asked me for a synopsis, so it shouldn't be long, now!"

    I smiled at her and wished her the best of luck. What else is there to do?