I always love it when I open up my email inbox and hear three little words “you’ve got mail”. It is even better when I realize that it is an author writing to me to say they are interested in doing something on my blog! This past month Paul Stansfield, author of “Dead Reckoning” published by Melpomene, agreed to do a two-part guest post about dealing with rejection. You can check out Paul’s blog here, but first check out his guest post!
Rejection: Part Two
Now back to numbers again. But before I do that, as a personal aside, I wonder, which is worse—an impersonal, “doesn’t suit our current needs” form rejection letter, or an agonizingly detailed personalized one, that goes point by point about why the editor didn’t like your story? The form one in some ways is easier on the ego—it’s not insulting, and you can comfort yourself that maybe it’s sincere, maybe they liked your story but it just didn’t fit. But, on the other hand, it is impersonal—it doesn’t give you any constructive criticism, or answer why they rejected it. In fact, you don’t even know if anyone actually read your story in depth. Whereas with the personalized reject, sometimes they do give good advice, that might help you change your story, and maybe get it published elsewhere. Plus, you know someone actually did read it carefully, gave it a chance. But it can still hurt way more than the form rejection, especially on the rare occasions when the editor is blunt, or even nasty.
When all is said and done, I prefer the personalized ones, but the explanation sometimes comes at a stiffer price. But here are the most rejections for a single author before their first sale, for multiple submissions.
1) 7000(!) William Saroyan. Evidently a stack of rejections 30 inches high (I suppose this could be tested, Myth Busters-style). Even allowing for exaggeration, that’s some damn dedication!
2) 22 years. Gertrude Stein. (No number of rejections given.)
3) 10 years. Pat Barker.
4) 6 years, 85 rejections. Steve Berry.
5) A bag too heavy for her to carry. Meg Cabot. She told how she saved every rejection in a bag, her thought being when she was successful and giving public speeches, she’d use it as a visual aid. But then she found she couldn’t lift it. So a vague total, but surely a lot, unless Ms. Cabot is pathologically weak.
6) Enough to tear down a nail. Stephen King. Mr. King stated he hung up his rejects using a nail, but eventually there were too many. So he replaced the nail with a spike, and kept at it.
7) Enough to wallpaper all four walls of his room. Lee Pennington. He doesn’t give the room’s dimensions, but still, probably quite a high total. Kind of depressing décor, though.
8) 500 rejects, of five novels over 12 years. Anonymous writer, told in Andre Bernard’s “Rotten Rejections” published in 1990.
As another personal aside, back when I was still snail mailing manuscripts (and I did so a good five to ten years after most writers had moved to their computers, due to my Ludditism, and paranoia about Skynet), I fairly stalked the mailman on weekends or during my usual seasonal layoffs from work. I would check the mailbox frequently, especially if I thought I heard a noise near the front door (sometimes it was a breeze against the mailbox lid, sometimes phantoms in my mind). Occasionally I’d even walk outside and look to see if his mail truck was on our street, or if I was driving through the neighborhood, I’d check to see if he or his truck was at least a street or two away.
Then, paradoxically, when it arrived, and there was a manuscript reply, I’d sometimes hesitate before opening, afraid of yet another rejection. I learned to be depressed if the envelope was heavy, indicating a returned manuscript instead of a one page acceptance letter. Of course, sometimes they did accept it, but send the manuscript back for minor edits, so that wasn’t absolute. Now that I submit almost exclusively online, that’s changed, and I have to act semi-crazy in different ways.
Two entertaining anecdotes:
1) A. Wilber Stevens, later an English professor at UNLV (and a respected poet), received a particularly harsh rejection. The editor torched his submission, and mailed back the ashes! Now that’s cold.
2) After E.E. Cummings’s (or e e cummings) novel “The Enormous Room” was finally published in 1922, he dedicated it, “With no thanks to:” and then listed the fifteen publishers who rejected it. That’s a deliciously bitter “screw you” to the editors.
Now to my personal totals. I tallied up my numbers, and kind of depressed myself. My total is 722 rejections, 20 acceptances, for a tidy .027 average. Ouch! It took me five years to get my first sale, and about 300 rejections (I didn’t figure that out exactly). My first attempt at a novel sadly could make the first list, as it’s been rejected 63 times (publishers and agents). But hey, I’m on the board, and I’m sure some writers have worse percentages, or even no acceptances.
So I hope prospective, or established writers can take heart from this. Even the most successful writers usually get their share of rejections, and pretty much every best seller was rejected at least a time or two. Keep plugging away. I’ll end this on a great quote by Kathryn Stockett.
“The point is, I can’t tell you how to succeed. But I can tell you how not to:
Give in to the shame of being rejected and put your manuscript
—or painting, song, voice, dance moves (insert passion here)—
in the coffin that is your bedside drawer and close it off for good.
I guarantee you that it won’t take you anywhere.”