Not For Us!

By Joe Moore

I wrote my first novel over 20 years ago. I would get up a 4 AM, sit in a dark corner of my living room and type on a device called a Magnavox VideoWriter–a word processor, keyboard and printer all built into one. While my family slept, I worked away until it was time to shower and be off to my day job. For over three years I put in every spare moment, taking away from my family, friends, everything. The day came when I finished my masterpiece; an action adventure novel that I felt would knock readers on their butts. I could easily see my name on the bestseller lists just above Clive Cussler, Dale Brown, Jack Higgins, Tom Clancy, and all my heroes. It was just a matter of time before the critics would call me the next Clive-Dale-Jack-Tom guy.

I picked the biggest NY publisher of action adventure blockbusters I could find and spent countless hours tweaking my query letter. Finally, off it went. And to my amazement, I got a reply back from one of their editors asking to see my entire manuscript. Man, this writing thing was way too easy!

I printed the manuscript, packaged it up and sent it overnight costing me more in shipping than I could afford. Then I sat back, basking in the glow that my master plan was on track. I was about to be rocketed into the action adventure stratosphere and worshiped far and wide.

A week went by. Two weeks. Three, then a month. I theorized that they must be passing my baby around to all the editors, marketing guys, cover artists, and publicists to see who wanted to work on the next major bestseller.

crotons Then one day, I was working in my yard. I had thick crotons growing up against the front of my house, and it was time to trim them back. As I clipped away with the hedge cutters, I noticed a stained, yellowed shipping envelope shoved back behind the crotons. It was addressed to me and was from that big NY publisher. The mail carrier must have put it there to protect it from the weather. Checking the postmark, it had been mailed back to me less than a week after I sent the manuscript out.

I went inside, opened the package and pulled out my weather-worn, damp, rumpled, moldy pages. Written across the front of the title page in red were three words: Not for us.

I had spent 3 years working on that book and over a month fantasizing what I would do with that 6-figure advance. But with just three short words, my dreams ignited like a piece of magician’s flash paper. It hurt. Even thinking back on it today, it still hurts.

Somewhere out there is a guy who decided to write “not for us” on the front of my manuscript many years ago. I’d like to thank him. Looking back, that book was not ready for primetime. And anytime I need a reality check, all I have to do is walk out my front door and look at those crotons. They’re still growing and, hopefully, as a writer so am I.

What was your first rejection like? How did you deal with it? How long did it take to get over it and back on track?

17 thoughts on “Not For Us!

  1. I don’t know if this is good or bad, but I don’t remember my first rejection. By the time I started querying, I had prepared myself for the fact that it wasn’t going to be easy.

    Some rejections hurt more than others. I think we all have an ideal agent or publisher in mind and when that falls through, it stings.

    I have to admit though, I thought it would be easier signing with a second agent after parting with the first one. I’m still looking. And still writing.

  2. Before I sold my first novel I had collected over 150 rejections on three novels from the best and worst editors in the business. I never took them to heart, and maybe that was because of my time in advertising, and experience dealing with rejection of my work. I never took it personally, and the few worthwhile criticisms the editors added to the form rejections made me work and think ever harder. I saw rejections as a wall I had to climb over and eventually I did.

  3. Joyce, good luck finding that agent. It’s hard not to let rejections get to us. That includes bad reviews. But the one constant piece of advice that we all must take to heart is to never give up.

    Great advice and attitude, John. Like you, I have a thick file containing all my rejection slips over the years. I like to brag that I’ve been rejected by some of the biggest names in the publishing industry. πŸ™‚

    As the saying goes, there’s a word for writers who never give up: published.

  4. Love this post, Joe! My fave rejection note was an email from an agent who had 1) asked me for my manuscript without seeing a sample of my writing, only a query letter, and 2) asked for an exclusive before reading it. After three weeks, she sent me back the most snotty, patronizing rejection by email. It started along the lines of, “Kathryn, I REALLY wanted to like this manuscript. But I just didn’t like the character. Or the story. Or the writing.” From her rejection, I got the sense that not only did she not like the story, she REALLY didn’t like me!
    While she had the manuscript, though, a really nice agent responded to an earlier query letter I’d sent out, and patiently waited for Miss Exclusive Snark to release me from her clutches. When I was free, I signed with her and my wonderful NEW agent got me a contract with a major publisher.

  5. I don’t remember my first rejection, but I remember my favorite:

    Too good for paperback, not original enough for a hardcover series.

    They could have insulted me with a paperback offer; I would have got over it.

  6. Although most of my rejections have been what we call “good rejections,” one of the more snotty ones I received said, “I thought it would be better.”

  7. I’ll let you know as soon as I finish editing mine, sending it off to the agent that wants the next Clive-Jack-Dale-Tom guy, and get my first rejection.


  8. For my first two (unpublished, thankfully) novels, I received upwards of 80 to 100 rejections each. Now this was mostly on queries, but there were a few who had requested full or partial manuscripts.

    The one rejection I remember most is very much like yours, Joe, only it was a rejection to a query. The agent (I think it was an agent) simply returned my query letter to me in my SASE, and in the upper right corner was stamped the words “NOT FOR US”. STAMPED! So this was obviously a method they used a lot! I actually laughed out loud at that one.

  9. Thanks everyone for your comments. From time to time I like to take a look at my collection of rejections, if for no other reason than a reality check. It’s amazing how they range from personalized and informative letters on company letterhead to generic slips that have been photo copied so many times it would take the NSA decryption experts to reveal what the original wording might have been. I have one prized slip with a circle coffee stain on it. Now that’s class.

  10. My favorite rejection was an emphatic “NO, NO, NO” from an editor of some note. A year later he took the helm of one of the Literary Book Of The Months Clubs. When my book was a main selection I got a letter from him saying that my book was one of the most “exciting reads” of his life. I stapled those two letters together to remind me, and to illustrate to other authors, that rejections don’t necessarily mean anything. In fairness, THE LAST FAMILY had 30+ rejections, and only one offer, and was a “successful” novel.

  11. John, I have a similar “what goes around comes around” story. Back in 1993, I was rejected (nicely but firmly) by a NY agent. I had no contact with her again until 2003 when she became my agent and still is. When I showed her the 20-year-old rejection letter, we had a good laugh. The way I see it, she was right both times.

  12. I carry some around with me, to show my writing students.

    There’s the one that’s a form post card with SORRY?written in huge red letters across the printing. Apparently he wasn’t, and even my mailman knew.

    And there’s one that is exactly 8 1/2 inches long and 1 inch high, a slip of paper that was obviously one of 11 printed on the back of scrap paper.

    It’s always good to hear others’ stories — thanks Joe.

  13. I carry some around with me, to show my writing students.

    There’s the one that’s a form post card with SORRY?written in huge red letters across the printing. Apparently he wasn’t, and even my mailman knew.

    And there’s one that is exactly 8 1/2 inches long and 1 inch high, a slip of paper that was obviously one of 11 printed on the back of scrap paper.

    It’s always good to hear others’ stories — thanks Joe.

  14. It is encouraging to hear these rejection stories followed by success. I am now passing out of year two of the rejection trend, and praying it is the year to break the cycle. The difficult part for me is that so far most of the rejections who had something to say said they thought my books were good, but not what they needed at their agency at this time. That hurts more to me more than a “You Suck” would.

    In the meantime my podcast audience keeps building and with it the confidence to keep trying.

  15. I’m late to the party on this one, but I had to share my favorite rejection from among the 27 I received for Nathan’s Run during the query stage.

    A B-list agent from New York sent me back my own letter with a stamp–you know, one of those things that you hit on the ink pad and then pound on the paper–that read, “No.”

    I mean, really. How hard would it have been to write that? Some agents, I think, groove on inflicting pain.

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