by Susan McBride
It feels as though I’ve spent my whole life writing (and I have, in one form or another). I’ve been a published author for 11 years this month, starting at a small traditional press and ending up at two very big NY houses. For as many years before that I was struggling to get published, composing a manuscript a year and following all the advice laid out in Writer’s Digest in order to achieve my dreams. As you can imagine, in that decade-plus before I signed my first contract, I suffered plenty of rejection. Maybe I’m a bit of a masochist, but I saved every letter. If I’d wanted to, I could’ve wall-papered the small guest bedroom I just re-decorated with those rejections, probably with some to spare.
I know I’ve said it before but it’s worth saying again: the publishing biz isn’t for sissies. Most of us don’t have insider contacts or celebrity names (hello, Tyra Banks, Lauren Conrad, Tori Spelling, any of the Real Housewives, etc., ad nauseum), so we have to go about things the slow and arduous way: write, rewrite, polish again for good measure, research agencies that represent our genre of fiction, submit a query, wait for a response, submit chapters or a full manuscript upon request, and wait some more. More often than not, we’re told “it’s just not right for us at the moment.” We’re instructed not to take rejection personally. It’s all about sales and numbers and branding and platforms. We shouldn’t take “no” to heart. As if!
Writers are kind of like Tootsie Pops: hard shell on the outside but with a softer candy center. After pouring our hearts and souls into our novels, they mean more to us than mere words on paper. They’re part of us, our children, and we want everyone to adore them as we do. When we’re doing the Hopeful Dance of the Unpubbed, we try anything to get a leg up, often turning toward published authors for advice (something that was much harder to do before the Internet). A few times, at book signings or at an RWA meeting, I sucked it up and asked for help. Yes, I was one of those, pulling out a manilla envelope with three chapters inside, begging, “If you have time, could you maybe take a look at this and see if I don’t suck.” If Poor-Put-Upon-Author agreed, I was thrilled. If I got an encouraging note returned in the SASE I’d enclosed, I practically wept with joy. Only no one ever said, “Hey, can I forward these fabulous chapters to my agent?” Dang it. But I kept plugging along, ultimately winning a small press contest that resulted in publication. When I had modest success with that first published work, it gave me the confidence to get out there, do lots of public speaking, and meet more and more people. I made wonderful friends who didn’t even flinch when I asked things like, “Is your agent taking on new clients?” and/or “Might you consider blurbing my next book?” Happily, I found the support I needed, but not everyone said, “Yes.” No matter if it stung a little, I couldn’t let those rejections deter me any more than the stack of letters. It’s the nature of the beast; and if we let it beat us, we lose.
Fast forward a few years to when several of my Debutante Dropout Mysteries sat on the bookshelves and I’d ultimately signed with an agency I adored, one that was interested in my career, not just one novel. I worked harder than ever, promoted like a demon, wrote the best stories possible, and kept building on my foundation of readers and colleagues and honest-to-God friends, all of which propelled me forward, if not by leaps and bounds then at least by baby steps. I watched as publishing houses merged and restructured, creating a scary ripple effect throughout the industry. I realized then that just staying in the business isn’t always easy. Times change, markets shift, trends come and go, and sometimes survival isn’t based on talent as much as adaptability. It’s like being Madonna and adjusting your image. If she’d stayed in the ’80s like a virgin forever, we probably wouldn’t care about her latest boy-toy or wonder about her age-defying plastic surgeries. We would’ve forgotten her already.
Recently, I read about a book edited by Bill Shapiro called OTHER PEOPLE’S REJECTION LETTERS. (Oh, Bill, you should’ve called. I could’ve given you a dozen of ’em. Er, make that a gross.) Here are few prime examples contained within:
Have you seen the letter Andy Warhol received from the Museum of Modern Art rejecting his gift of a drawing due to “severely limited gallery and storage space”? What about the 1962 letter from Jimi Hendrix’s commanding officer recommending that he be immediately discharged from the army because he “can’t carry on an intelligent conversation”? The gifted writers who penned the screenplay for Casablanca were told that their work wouldn’t make the cut because it was “unacceptably sex suggestive.” Gertude Stein received a mocking rejection letter from a publisher that read, in part, “Only one look is enough. Hardly one copy would sell here. Hardly one. Hardly one.”
Did you know that Kathryn Stockett, international best-selling author of THE HELP, received over 45 rejections before her book was sold? Or that Jasper Fford suffered 76 rejections for THE EYRE AFFAIR? And Judy Blume received “nothing but rejections for two years?” (For more enlightening stories of famous authors who were told “no” a ton before they succeeded, check out this bit on Inky Girl.)
Just out of curiosity, anyone want to share the most memorable rejection they ever got? The one that stands out in my head was a returned query letter that had “NO!!!” scrawled across the bottom in red pencil. Ah, yes, I remember telling myself the poor sod probably had a rotten day (and then I quietly wished a heart attack upon him).