I’ve talked to a lot of young writers recently at school visits and online workshops about the long, hard journey of becoming a pro writer. My story isn’t unique. And there are many who’ve had it easier and many, many, many who’ve had it harder. I’ve seen so many writers get discouraged after just a few rejections. Like 6, 10, 20 even. I’ve seen writers give up the dream of traditional publishing and leap into self pub, thinking it was the only way to become a writer if they were already hearing so much no. (Side note: this isn’t a post to slag of self pub — I’m merely acknowledging the fact that for these writers the dream was trad pub, and maybe they gave up too soon. It may or may not have worked out for them. Who knows?!)
We’ve all seen the hilariously nasty letters that the likes of Hemingway, Dickinson, and Steinbeck received. There is a whole tumblr dedicated to lulzy rejections. But I think that the contemporary writer identifies better with her peers. The people she’s reading and idolizing and even befriending now. Which is why I want to share the stories of some of the other writers out there — the ones who are now agented and published, who made it through. Today I want to hand out a little bit of good juju. I hope you enjoy it.
I wrote 8 novels over 15 years before I got my first publishing contract. For novels, I lost count of how many rejections I collected, but I know I have about 300 in paper rejections. That was before email. It probably includes a few rejections for poetry, too. Let me back up.
I started writing novels when I moved to Ireland in my very early 20s. I wrote my first three novels on a typewriter. My fourth on one of those annoying half-assed word processor things that pretended they were computers when they were clearly not computers. I stopped writing novel-length fiction between books 4 and 5 because I have always been a lover of poetry and I wanted to write some. So I did. Then, I got the beginning of novel #5 in my head and couldn’t stop myself from writing. By then we had a desktop computer. It had 2 whole MBs of RAM.
Anyway. I can’t remember the beginning of learning about publishing. I think I sent my second novel off to a few Irish publishers who a magazine-editor friend knew. There was only one Irish literary agent at the time, and I was writing American stories, so I knew I really wasn’t going to find luck, but I tried anyway.
Sending manuscripts abroad was expensive business from Ireland. Once I started querying literary agents in the UK, it would cost me far too much to do mailings of ten at a time. And then if I got requests, it was crazy expensive because I would send a SASE for return of the book. By book #4, I had queried a good bit, but not that much. There weren’t many outlets. By then I was living self-sufficiently on our farm and who had money to photocopy a book for 40 quid? That’s a lot of dough, man. Especially when you add the postage and the SASE to it.
But I wanted this. So after a break, I started to query US agents. Now, we had computers, yes, but still no Internet. Back then all we had for resources were the Writer’s Market books. In one of those books I found the name and address of an agent and I sent book #4 to her and she was all, “I want to talk to you ASAP on the phone.” And I was all, “Um…do you know I live abroad?” And she was like, “I don’t care.”
Turned out she was a scammer. I was lucky I trusted my gut about her because she said some really weird stuff on the phone. Anyway, then I took a few years off because I wanted to read and write poetry only.
I meet a lot of aspiring novelists who are in a huge hurry to get published.
I was not one of those.
I was in a huge hurry to become a better writer and to enjoy the life of an artist. Dirt poor, but in good company. Painters, poets, sculptors, craftspeople. It was a fantastic time in my life. I wanted publication, yes. Of course I did. I wanted to answer “Yes” to that ubiquitous question, “Are you published?”
But I didn’t want that to eat me alive. The fun is in the journey.
I know. You totally want to shoot me now.
But it is.
My first publication credit was a poem in a US University Journal called Natural Bridge. I was so proud of that poem. I remember finally receiving my contributor’s copies in the post at the farm and just beaming.
So then I wrote novel #5. And #6. I think I had a baby in there somewhere. Yes. Mid #6. And as we decided to move to America and put the farm up for sale, I started a massive query campaign on #6, a book called The Dust of 100 Dogs. It was a weird book, but it was historical and international and I thought that maybe someone would be interested.
I queried close to 50 UK agents. A few close calls but ultimately, all rejections.
Then we moved.
Then I wrote book #7.
Then I revised #6 for the millionth time and queried about 100 agents with no luck.
Then I queried 130 US agents with #7.
I found my agent on #94.
The count so far? 12 years, 7 novels. Too many rejections to count.
My agent went out with #5 and #7 and neither sold. And then #6 did its magic and sold mere weeks after I had my second baby.
Stats: I started writing novels at age 24. I was 39 when The Dust of 100 Dogs showed up on bookstore shelves. The journey was awesome, though heartbreaking at times. (Ask me about that time I raised two broods of chickens and sold them in order to afford a huge query and sample mailing to the USA only to find all unsolicited mail had been destroyed due to the Anthrax scare over here.)
This piece went a lot longer than I’d planned but here’s the deal. I want to be a writer. Before I was ever published I was a writer. I would write no matter if they’d get published or not. I still write my books with that mindset. I am here to write, not to publish. The joy is in the writing, anyway. The joy is in that moment in the middle of the night when you can’t stop thinking about what tomorrow’s writing will bring you. And when it comes to publishing, the only wisdom I’ve got is: Don’t give up. Ever.
For more on my publication story, read my Writer’s Middle Finger series. Here’s Part Two, which may be particularly on point: http://redroom.com/member/a-s-
I wrote a middle grade novel, queried it, took it to conferences for critiques, had some editors request it, but ultimately, they all rejected and I knew it wasn’t good enough. I’m guessing I got 20 rejections on it?
So I wrote another middle grade, had it critiqued, revised, sent out queries, and got even more rejections this time.
I wrote a third middle grade, thought this one was the one, sent out queries, and received many rejections again.
I’m guessing over the course of those three novels, I got 70-80 rejections, from both agents and editors.
It was my fourth novel, a YA, that landed me my agent. Even on that book, I had ten rejections or so from the query alone, but I had one agent request to read it, and that was the agent who shortly after, offered to represent me.
It’s so important to keep writing. If you write a book and get discouraged over a few rejections, this business isn’t for you. I now have six books published, and three more contracted, and I STILL get rejected. It’s part of the business.
I’ve always said – writers write. I keep writing, and keep learning and growing because if I’m a writer, that’s what I must do in order to survive in an extremely competitive business!
Regarding agent queries, it took me 2 years, 30+ queries, maybe 15 full manuscript requests, and 3 revision requests (2 on exclusive) before I signed with Ammi-Joan Paquette of EMLA.
It was the summer of 1997, and I was excitedly anticipating the Romance Writers of America annual conference. One of my romance novels, the fourth book I’d written, was a finalist in the Golden Heart, RWA’s annual contest for unpublished authors. I’d been rejected by so many editors, I lost count, and was feeling less and less confident of myself as a writer. Being a finalist in the Golden Heart gave me hope that things were starting to turn around for me.
But I had more on my mind that summer than a writing contest. My mother, who had been battling lymphoma, took a turn for the worse. I didn’t know if I would even be able to fly to Dallas for the conference. My mother was so dear to me, and the prospect of losing her was almost too much to bear.
She did pass, about two weeks before the conference. Because some family members weren’t immediately available, we scheduled her service a few weeks into the future. I went off to the RWA conference with a heavy heart.
It would have made a lovely finish to the story if I’d won the Golden Heart. But I didn’t. And the editor who had read my entry didn’t request the complete manuscript. So I was back where I’d started, an unpublished author without prospects.
Terribly discouraged, I told my husband that unless I sold a book sometime before the next RWA conference, I wouldn’t bother to attend. What was the point when it was so expensive, and I wasn’t even a “real” writer?
Within a month of my conversation with my husband, I got a call out of the blue from an editor at Kensington books. I’d completely forgotten that I’d sent her a proposal some time before. The editor wanted me to send the rest of the manuscript. A few days later she called again to tell me that she wanted to buy the book for their Precious Gems line. When I mentioned I had another short romantic comedy, she requested that one as well and ended up buying it.
I did go to the RWA conference the following year, and I proudly wore my “first sale” ribbon. It was bittersweet that my mother never saw my first book published. But who knows? Maybe it was her whispering into that editor’s ear, “Buy this book.”
I queried 11 agents with Twenty Boy Summer before finding mine (he was #11), which I realize is not many, and I’m grateful for that every day. But I always like to remind authors that it really is SO subjective. I had one agent tell me straight out, face to face at a conference, that Twenty Boy Summer was slow and boring. I had another agent reject me after reading the query, then, several weeks later (after I’d already found an agent home), she emailed to say that the query sounded wonderful and she wanted to see the manuscript (she’d forgotten that she’d already rejected it). Another queried ME via MySpace after I’d posted a little bit about the story, but she ended up rejecting the manuscript, calling it “disappointing.” None of these examples is to be snarky or “I told you so” — they’re simply to illustrate just how subjective this business is. In two cases, the novel just didn’t resonate with the agent (and probably still wouldn’t if they were to read it today). In the other, it didn’t connect with her at first, but when she read the same query on a different day, it did.
Twenty Boy Summer went on to sell in a pre-empt in a two book deal from Little, Brown just days after going on submission to publishers, and it became a bestseller. But even then, it gets plenty of one-star reviews on Goodreads — another form of rejection — just like every book does. One reader hated it so much that he led the charge to get it banned from a school in Missouri. Agents and publishers are no different than readers in that respect. What works for one won’t work for another, and it’s not personal toward the author, and it’s not a reason to lose hope or give up.