Rejection, or getting to Yes

In the comments on my post about how not to get published, SteveC asks: “How many rejections did you receive before the eventual yes? And did you keep them? (Just being nosy.)”

How many rejections? I’ve lost count.

That’s because I’ve been submitting my work to agents and publishers since I was a university student — short stories, essays, feature articles and, finally, novels. And it’s because, in the writing business, you almost never get “the” eventual yes.

There’s never a single, defining moment when no disappears for good. God doesn’t touch you with a glorious spectral finger and say, Be Thou Forever Published. Ask any freelancer. Or print journalist. And even when your books line the shelves at B&N and Waterstone’s, you still have to keep your publisher, and readers, satisfied. Fail to turn in your manuscipt, fail to sell enough books, or run your life off the rails — pull a Joaquin Phoenix and suddenly become a hairy rapper instead of a reliable author — and your career can end up in a ditch.

I was extremely fortunate that the first short story I ever submitted for publication was accepted by the first editor I sent it to, at a university literary magazine. Since then I’ve experienced the typical ups and downs. I’ve pitched and written a magazine column. I had a short story win a prize and then be rejected by an agent. I’ve had articles commissioned, only to find out after I submitted them that the magazine’s new publisher had decided to drop the entire series… and that the editor had failed to tell me, because he was afraid I’d feel hurt. Or get mad. (I did.) Months later, when a new regime took over at the magazine, those articles saw print.

When I turned to writing novels, I began searching for an agent. At that stage, I got the usual mixed bag of replies. Not interested. It’s a tough market. Try again next year. Until I got a phone call from the late, great Giles Gordon, asking to take me on as his client. That was the turning point in my then-nascent quest to become a real novelist.

And Giles’s “yes” still wasn’t the end. He submitted my early work to editors and got a variety of responses: No. Maybe, if you revise the manuscript. Yes! Wait, maybe! No! Wait, I mean… wait! One day I opened a letter from him. It began: “I hope you’re feeling tough.” He had enclosed a brutal rejection letter. It went on for two pages, single spaced, in small type, excoriating my writing skills and worth as a human being and at one point comparing my work to the thousands of dirty chewing gum wrappers that litter the gutters of New York City — just so much trash to be ground beneath his grimy heel. Giles said: “Read it. Burn it. Then pour yourself a glass of whisky. And get back to work.”

Not long after that, I began writing China Lake. Giles sold it in 72 hours, to the first editor who read it.

And it took almost five more years before American editors stopped saying no to my work. Five years when I thought I’d never get published in my own country, until a new crop of editors got a big nudge, took another look, and thirteen of them decided in a big rush that they wanted to publish my books.

Yes is an eternal project.

And SteveC, to answer your original question: I don’t save rejection letters. I don’t repeatedly stab myself in the hand with a fondue fork, either. I don’t need the pain. Remembering is enough.

8 responses to “Rejection, or getting to Yes

  1. Thank you for this very honest post.
    One learns a lot about how tough the world of an author really is, and it is certainly a comfort for other writers who have not had any success yet.

  2. Pingback: For those about to be rejected, we salute you « Filling Spaces

  3. I remember reading that one of James Lee Burke’s earlier novels was rejected 111 times.

    It was eventually printed and nominated for a pulitzer.

  4. Thanks Meg. I love to hear about the inner workings of being a writer–it’s fascinating stuff to me.

  5. apologies if this is a repeat question, but i have been wondering … stephen king’s article in EW is what led me to track your work down via when i was living in the US – how influential (if at all) were his declarations of adoration in getting your books published stateside?

  6. Cath, Uncle Stevie’s column is how we found her as well 🙂
    Pardon my butting in, but there’s an old post at that might help with your question.

  7. gargoyle – thanks!! as you can see, i am a late joiner to the blog and (obviously) haven’t caught up on the back-posts. so glad to be here now …

  8. Pingback: If you want your writing to be published, accept rejections « Emma Lee’s Blog

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