Friday, September 21, 2007

That Rejection Thing

from Jacqueline

One of the closing sessions at the Book Passage Mystery Writers Conference is on setting some writing-related goals for the coming year, yet at the same time, realistically taking in aspects of life such as the day job, aging parents, demanding teens, the kitchen remodel, etc., etc. Its important to bring in the reality check, because we can get so gung-ho at times, we set unattainable goals and then throw up our hands in despair when it doesn’t all go to plan. But that’s not the point of this post, thrilling though it might seem ....

Having the courage to send out your work to agents and editors is something we look at in the session, and it’s at this point that I tend to bore everyone with the story of how a riding accident led me to finish the book I’d been lingering over, and within a year that book was contracted and in production. I tell that story, not just because I present that session, but because, having gone through an arm-threatening accident and surgery, I had absolutely no fear of an editor telling me my book wasn’t any good, or an agent sending me the “it’s a subjective decision” letter. As I say to our attendees, what the heck could those agents and editors do – find me and crush the other arm if they didn’t like what I’d written?

In telling this story, I try to take away some of the awe with which we hold those decision-makers. Sure, agents and editors are important people, but they aren’t the last word on your destiny as a writer. That’s up to you. And as we all know, they don’t come knocking at the door asking if we’ve got a book (OK, OK, so they do if you’re Dan Brown, John Grisham or a literary luminary), so it’s up to you to take the leap.

Just can’t help it – love the horse pics. Now then, moving on ....

I always found the challenges endured by the most famous authors when taking their creative wares to market to be pretty inspiring, in a Warped Winspear sort of way. The first time I visited Jack London’s home on his Valley of the Moon property in Sonoma County, California, I was more than interested to read some of his 600 or so rejection letters. And the guy just kept on writing and writing and sending those stories out. Ah-ha, I thought, this is just like working in sales – it’s a numbers game. Keep on hitting those agents one after the other with your work and something will stick soon and you’ll be in the game. And I still think that, but you have to keep hitting your work with the same energy, learning as you revise and rewrite, so that you are going out there with the best writing you can possibly forge.

So it was with a degree of mirth that I read this week another article on revelations from the archive of Alfred A.Knopf, considered one of the great literary publishers of his time – and, it turns out, a pretty interesting rejector of promising manuscripts. At the University of Texas at Austin, where the Knopf archive is held, there is a veritable treasure trove of copies of rejection letters sent out between the 1940s and 1970’s. Here are a few authors, and the key reason for rejection of their work:

SYLVIA PLATH: 'There isn't enough genuine talent'
JACK KEROUAC: 'Frenetic and scrambling'
ANNE FRANK: 'Very dull'
GEORGE ORWELL: 'Impossible to sell animal stories'
JORGE LUIS BORGES: 'Utterly untranslatable'
ISAAC BASHEVIS SINGER: 'It's Poland and the rich Jews again'
ANAIS NIN: 'No commercial advantage in acquiring her'

The good news is that in each case, someone, somewhere in a publishing house, saw the literary light and took a chance. Remember that. Remember Jack London’s hundreds of rejection letters. Let that be your call of the wild. And if at first you don’t succeed, try and try again.

And in closing, I am sure at least one of my fellow Naked Authors has written on this subject before – there’s bound to be a bit of overlap somewhere – but it was worth giving it another crack of the whip.


  1. This was exactly what I needed to read today. Thanks for your insights.

  2. from Jacqueline

    You're welcome, Stephanie - have a great weekend!

  3. Luverly post, Our J. Whenever I speak at writers' conferences I like to quote from a book called ROTTEN REJECTIONS, edited by Andre Bernard. Here are a few of my favorites:

    "...he hasn't any future." John Le Carre for THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD, 1957.

    "I'm sorry, Mr. Kipling, but you just don't know how to use the English language." Rudyard Kipling, 1889.

    " contributes nothing new to either language or form." John Irving for THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP, 1979.

  4. Ooooo, Thelwell!!! You know the way to my heart, Our J....

  5. Thanks for this. And I think I'm going to buy the book of rotten rejections. That is incredibly funny.

    Something to add is that with my first publisher, I submitted my third manuscript--feeling excessively pleased since it was the best work I'd turned in and they rejected it. I spiraled into despair for a few months before I thought, "those morons!" and submitted elsewhere. The book ended up being picked up by a much bigger publisher. Sometimes rejection is a doorway to a new and brighter world.

    At least this is what I chant when I find myself binging on twinkies, Dr. Pepper, and rejection letters.

  6. I teach a class on rejection and use some of my own letters. Unedited.

    It's funny now but how it did hurt when I was trying to find my first agent. The students love it and laugh out loud at some of the comments.

    Good post Jackie.

    Jim B

  7. I believe this is a true story. When Tony Hillerman's first Joe Leaphorn book was submitted to a publisher, the editor told Tony's agent he LOVED the book. "But can the author just get rid of all those Indians?"

  8. from Jacqueline

    Thanks, all for your comments - I love some of the rejections recounted here (and Rotten Rejections sounds great, Patty). I think Paul's comment about Tony Hillerman really takes the biscuit. This all goes to prove that one person's literary pleasure is another's poison, and that, along with reviewers, you can't let it get to you. Like falling off a horse - you've just got to get back on that thing and ride like you mean it!

    Thelwell would have a field day with that one ...

  9. J,

    Your post made me pull out all my Thelwell books ... o those Pony Club days!

  10. There's nothing like Thelwell to lift the spirits!

  11. I enjoyed your article. I need to remind myself of that every day as I check my mailbox for more rejection letters. I really like your philosophy though and I tell myself all the time, "I'm determined and if I keep sending out queries long after some others give up, I'll get published."

  12. The upside of rejection letters is that you are eliminating publishers who are not a match for your work. Like finding a partner - takes kissing a lot of frogs before you find you prince or princess - only the lucky few find their soulmate on their first ever date! Jack London just kept on writing, getting better, trying new avenues of publication -- and he didn't do too badly.