Get Some Rejection

by James Scott Bell

Van Johnson and Elizabeth Taylor in The Last Time I Saw Paris

The other day I watched an old MGM movie, The Last Time I Saw Paris (1954). It stars Elizabeth Taylor at her most gorgeous and Van Johnson at his most likable. Van plays a GI in Paris on VE Day. He gets kissed in the crowd by Liz, which is not something a GI would ever forget. When he sees her later at a party, he makes a beeline for her. Soon they are in love. Then married.

Van had been a wartime correspondent for Stars and Stripes, and lands a job in the Paris office of a wire service. But what he really wants to be is a novelist. He works diligently on his first novel, and finally sends it out.

It’s rejected at several houses. Van is naturally disappointed, but Liz talks him up, tells him to keep trying.

So Van spends the next couple of years writing his heart out. When he finishes the new manuscript he has Liz read it. As he looks on anxiously, Liz puts down the final page and gazes into Van’s eyes. “It’s even more beautiful than the last one,” she says.

Huzzah! He sends it out.

Rejected and rejected and rejected!

Marital strife ensues. Van spends another two years writing what is left of his heart out. But when he gets more rejections he nosedives into depression. He gets drunk, throws things around the apartment, and screams at Liz, “Let’s face it! I just don’t have what it takes!”

If you want to know about the rest of the movie, you can look it up on Wikipedia.

I mention it here because it captures what real writerly rejection felt like in the “old days” of publishing. Most writers born after 1990 haven’t experienced such a rebuke. They’re part of the participation-trophy, instant-gratification generation, and know all about self-publishing, be it on Wattpad or Amazon or blog or vlog or pod.

Well let me tell you kids something. Back in the pre-Kindle days—and especially in the 1950s and 60s—the walls of the Forbidden City were huge and ominous. “Serious” hardcover fiction (as opposed to pulp-style paperbacks and book-club mysteries) was the shelf “real” writers wanted to crack. Some—like Norman Mailer, Leon Uris, Herman Wouk, Sloan Wilson, Carson McCullers—made it, garnering critical or popular acclaim, or both. Most unpublished writers longed for same. And never got it.

Dreams died hard.

They still do outside the gates of the Forbidden City. Because of the great digital disruption and ensuing retrenchment in traditional publishing, there are even fewer slots for new writers. The City must depend even more on A-list blockbusters or celebrity debuts to sustain its Manhattan overhead.

In a private conversation with an agent friend, I was told that the market for new fiction writers is all but gone. From a business standpoint, that makes sense. The industry is understandably risk-averse. Yes, new deals are being made. But not nearly so many as ten and twenty years ago.

Which brings us to self-publishing, the greatest boon to writers since Gutenberg. No longer does rejection by the Forbidden City mean it’s all over, that you’ll never make it, that your dream of writing and finding readers is dead in the water.

Van Johnson would have been amazed by this.

So it may come as a bit of a shock when I tell you what I sometimes advise a new writer anxious to self-publish. Especially if it’s their first book. I say, “Get some rejection.”

Stay with me.

Before self-publishing became viable, when you got rejected it truly tested your mettle. First novels almost never got picked up by an agent or publisher. And most of the time they never told you why. Just something like, “Does not fit our needs at this time.”

This would sting for a few days. Maybe you’d throw things around and think, “I just don’t have what it takes!” But if you were a real writer you’d get back to work. You’d figure out (with help from others) what was wrong with your writing. You’d study the marketplace. If you were wise, you’d study the craft, too. Maybe join a critique group, go to a conference or two or three. Invest in yourself.

Most important of all, you would continue to write. And then maybe two or three or five years later an agent would take a chance on you. And another year or two later, you might land that first contract. And then eighteen months later, your book would hit the stores.

And you would discover the truth behind Martin Myers’ keen observation: “First you’re an unknown, then you write one book and you move up to obscurity.”

Yet all that rejection and heartache and sticktoitiveness made you a better writer. Which, in turn, increased your chances of having an actual career.

So if you’re a brand new writer with a brand new novel (and a lot of you will be at the end of this NaNoWriMo month), go out and get some rejection. Use the beta reader grinder system. Seek open and honest opinion. Take the chip off your shoulder. Consider hiring a freelance editor. Start thinking like a business. Set up quality controls.

Heck, spend a month studying our library of first-page critiques. Talk about a concentrated course on storytelling!

Sure, you can skip all that and toss your novel up on Amazon, where it will get rejected by the people you most need—readers.

Or you can be a little patient, work hard, listen and learn and improve, and greatly increase your chances of success.

So go get some rejection. Just don’t get drunk and throw things around your apartment. Especially your keyboard.

So what about you? What has been your experience with the R word?



Oh, and for those of you who saw last week’s post and wanted to know when the print version would be available, well, it’s here.

32 thoughts on “Get Some Rejection

  1. Respectfully, oof. I usually parrot your posts far and wide, but I’ll allow my own readers to find this one on their own, or not.

    It’s still fairly easy to find a traditional publishing contract as long as you’re willing to sign over ALL rights for the life of the copyright in exchange for a minuscule advance. And writers don’t have to pile up rejections in order to practice.

    I am a 65 year old writer with 27 novels (western, mystery, action-adventure and SF), 4 novellas (all action-adventure), and over 180 short stories (and the attendant collections). I also have 16 nonfiction books on writing. Finally, I’ve also written well over a thousand poems, formal and otherwise. Two of my collections garnered nominations for national prizes, and one of my nonfiction books placed 4th in the Education category at the BEA Book of the Year Awards in 2007.

    Some of the above were with traditional publishers. Today I have all rights to those back and publish all of my own work independently.

    My work has been rejected many times. Each time it served only as a deterrent, never as a stimulus. It took me years to learn that rejection at the hands of some agent or traditional publisher is still rejection by only one reader. I’d rather put my writing out there and let the broader scope of readers be the judge.

    Today I don’t use (or pursue) an agent for the same reason I don’t give the gardener who drops around once a month 15% ownership of my home and control of all monies in and out for tending my lawn.

    Today I won’t seek a traditional publishing contract for the same reason I wouldn’t hand over the deed to an apartment to one renter for paying one month’s rent.

    I do continue to learn and apply new techniques, but like the old pulp writers so many of us admire and of whom you wrote recently, I also actually practice. I don’t hover over one work in a rewriting stasis, and I don’t allow others into my work as I’m writing it (“critique” or “peer” groups).

    Rather than advising other writers to go begging a traditional publisher for a horribly lopsided contract, I advocate developing a work ethic. If you’re a writer, I say, then write.

    • Wow, Harvey, you certainly have the output, and good for you for getting those rights back.

      Thanks for the point about not “allowing” other into your work “as I’m writing it.” That’s a good clarification. Write the thing first, do the best you can, revise it once yourself, then get the feedback.

      And yes on the work ethic. Above all things, yes.

      • Nice positive reply, JSB! As a writer and editor, I applaud the advice you give in this post about publishing and rejection. It’s never pleasant but it does test and refine us all. I’ve heard many readers object to the quality of published works they’re finding online these days and declaring they’re going back to only books pubbed by the major houses (actually they said professionally published – but that’s another story). Thanks for the advice you give. I find it honest and real – and hope many readers out there will heed.

        • Great point about how readers do notice quality over time … or lack thereof. Like typos! Man, they are sand fleas. I just found ONE in a book of mine published back in 2000. Sheesh!

  2. I could wallpaper a small room with all the rejection letters I’d received over the years. Great advice, Jim. If I were to start over, I wouldn’t change the rejection process. It helps to thicken our skin, and drives us to hone our craft.

  3. Hooray for the print version. Will order today.

    When I started writing fulltime about thirty years ago, submissions went by snail mail with an enclosed SASE (self-addressed stamped envelope) in which actual paper rejections came back to you. At a conference, novelist David Cates advised, “Make it your GOAL to achieve 100 rejections.” IOW, turn the process into a contest where you send out many stories to publishers, thereby adding to your tally of rejections. They didn’t seem to sting quite so much if they brought you closer to your goal of 100.

    Funny thing about that. I learned if I submitted frequently, while my rejection score went up…so did acceptances! For every ten stories submitted, one was accepted.

    Yeah, it was a mind game, but it helped to focus on the goal rather than the rejection. That taught me an abiding lesson. The more you submit, the better your chances of success.

    Unfortunately today, editors rarely send rejections–you just never hear back. Sometimes I long for the old days of rushing the mailbox to see if any SASEs were in it.

    On second thought, naaah.

    • Yes, Debbie. There’s an old business maxim: To succeed, increase your rate of failure. IOW, have a bias for action and trying things, keeping what works and discarding the rest.

      I do not miss SASEs in the least.

  4. When we moved cross country, I left my “enough to wallpaper a room” rejection letters behind. Advice said to look at them in a positive light. Was it addressed to “Dear Author?” Hell … that meant you were an AUTHOR!
    Some just had “NO!” scrawled in big letters at the top. But this is my all time “favorite.”

    “We did review your proposal, and for some reason we don’t feel we can represent it. Some of them come close, and yours may well be one of those, but we do have our reasons for declining.”

    “Rejection is s speed bump, not a brick wall.”

    • There’s a great little book called Rotten Rejections which collects the turn-downs for some notable authors:

      To George Orwell re: Animal Farm: “It is impossible to sell animal stories in the U.S.A.”

      To Tony Hillerman: “If you insist on rewriting this, get rid of all that Indian stuff.”

  5. Jim, you’ve had two writer get your ‘rear in gear’ blog posts in a row. I have taped to my monitor the title of last week’s blog post and it kept me in my seat producing 12K words this past week. THANKS!! It was what I needed. I’d stalled in the writing of my tenth novel, writing 19K words in 3 months. Now I’m back in the form that produced the previous 9 books. I’m one of those self-pub writers with no external deadlines and I debated this week putting a pub date on Amazon to keep the pressure on, but I decided I just needed to “get her done’ by being persistent, productive and professional. I think I’ll be leaving your blog title up for months on my monitor. Cheers!

    • Alec, that’s so nice to hear. 12K is fabulous!

      I know I need a SID (self-imposed deadline) or I can let myself skate. I used to print out a calendar month and X in the SID and tape it to my door. Thanks for reminding me that I need to keep doing that!

  6. Your post is just what I needed. The R word. I’ve stated on this site that grandchildren get me motivated to write. Well, just yesterday one of them handed me rejection with a kick in the mouth. I wrote a short story for my granddaughter. Since it was a medieval fantasy, I took the time to make a scroll for the story. When I gave her the present, she proceeded to get the paper unrolled and tangled, then declared in anger, “I never want to read this story again.” She hadn’t even read it the first time. Tough beta reader.

    I enjoyed your book, How to Write Pulp Fiction. Read it this past week. I put the print version on my list at Amazon. I’m eager to play with the plot generator machine.

    Thanks for all your posts…and the motivation!

    • Boy, Steve, that is one honest rejection! And what a great lesson in understanding our audience and their expectations!

      Now you have the fun of figuring out how to something different to please your granddaughter. Have at it!

  7. Hi, Jim

    I never rode the novel query-go-around. But I did submit short fiction to the magazines for many years, starting when I was in college in 1983, getting my first form rejection from The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. A few years later I received a personal rejection from Ellen Datlow at OMNI and that sustained me for a long time. Eventually, in 2009, I made my first sale, to a tiny, online magazine. Rejection stings, but enduring it makes you stronger as a writer, and more true to yourself.

    As a novelist, I’ve gone “fully indie.” I had a developmental editor for my first two published books, and a great team of beta readers, which I depend on still to help me do one of the hardest things a writer can do (as Nancy Kress observed): namely, get outside of my own head and see the book as readers do.

  8. Jim, I happily looked down at those who didn’t have a contract with a “traditional” publishing house while I had ten of my medical mysteries released by one. I dipped my toe–er, pen–into agent-assisted publishing when I was waiting for the slow-moving wheels to grind, and found that those novellas sold fairly well. Then, through a confluence of circumstances, I was left out in the cold without a contract, so I indie-published my next novel, and have another in the pipeline plus a novella. The results? We’ll see, but I agree with you on this–you can bemoan the circumstances or take a new tack.

  9. I finished reading ‘How to Write Pulp Fiction’. Loved it. Those writers are some of my heroes.

    I’m in the middle (I hope) of getting nothing but rejections. When I write I put my heart and soul in it (like most of us) and the rejections seem so personal, so painful. I imagine some spiteful evil librarian type who looks like a wicked witch cackling over a slush pile and stamping a huge red ‘REJECT’ on manuscripts one after another.
    The flying monkeys bring manuscripts to the writers. After reading REJECT, the manuscript bursts into flames. The writers are left to sweep up the ashes.

    I alternate between giving up and suicide. But I keep writing instead. This blog is an important source of courage. I’m betting I speak for more than just myself. Oh well, I’ve got a short story to write. Its about a werewolf who’s a private detective…

  10. Forty four agent rejections so far. Queried three more today with same work. I’m stopping at 100.

  11. Good advice…what I’ve been saying to well-meaning friends who ask why I don’t simply self-publish is that all these rejections are forcing me to become a better writer. The rejections still hurt…every damn one of them…but a few minor breakthroughs offer encouragement. What I also tell myself is that my persistence (currently on 2nd draft of 4th novel) doesn’t mean I’m eventually entitled to anything. It simply might not work out. But I’ll never quit.

  12. After churning out a 120,000 word first attempt at a novel, I sent out 5 query letters for giggles. Naturally I received 5 quick form rejections. I had not realized that I sent one query to a big time agent. His form rejection had a hand-written note to me. It read (to paraphrase) Alas, not for me but when you finish that other mss, a baseball story, please send me a query. That little encouraging note carried me through 6 years of writing my baseball novel. I sent the query and received his rejection form again with a handwritten, “Alas, subject not for me.” By then I was routinely getting full manuscript requests for my query letters about the baseball manuscript. I happened to see an interview in a magazine with this same agent. I was surprised because 1) I had no idea he was so big-time and 2) he said he was desperate to feed his private desire for a novel about baseball. He was whining that he never got queries about baseball books. So I sent him back his rejection note with a hand-written, respectful note calling him out, with a photocopy of his hand-written note to me about wanting my baseball manuscript. He shot back a reply apologizing and requested I send him the query again. By that time I had interest from an agent and was making her suggested tweaks to the manuscript so, feeling loyalty to the agent who did want to look at my manuscript, I didn’t reply to him. (that was unprofessional of me, I know) It wasn’t spiteful but I did get a feeling of “you could have had me back then” but now I was busy. About two years later, I was reading the writing news and there was a big article about the death of a big-time agent—him.
    I learned a few things from that. There’s no time like the present, always reply to a reply—be professional, agents are busy people, there is probably a sea of people just like me out there, and now I understand how Agatha Christie can be continually rejected for 5 years before someone at a publishing company woke up. My unique baseball plot book is now on an almost forgotten back burner and I soldier on with my next manuscript, still rejected but better at my writing craft.

    BTW, Plot & Structure is my bible.

    • First off, Greg, thanks for the kind word about Plot & Structure. I’m immensely gratified it’s helped so many writers over the years.

      And man, a baseball novel! There are not many of those … ever. Maybe someday you’ll self-pub it. Like next year, when the Dodgers win the World Series.

      Keep writing.

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