Wednesday, July 25, 2007


By Barbara D'Amato

English author John Creasey is said to have received 743 rejection slips before he got an acceptance and a publisher. He is famous for his productivity, publishing 564 books in the years following, using thirteen pen names.

How do you take 743 rejections? It is often said that being told your novel is no good is like being told your baby is ugly. Well, maybe. But usually when that happens you usually keep the baby. A writer may just give up.


Libby Hellman has a rejection story:

‘After finishing my second novel, I got an agent. A reputable, solid, NY agent. He took the mss and submitted it to everyone. It was roundly rejected by everyone (in retrospect… it should have been. It wasn’t ready) But I didn’t know that at the time. Six months later he called and said, “Libby, I haven’t been able to sell your mss.” I replied, “Oh, that’s okay. I’ve been working on a sequel, and it’s better. The characters are more developed, the plot is tighter, everything’s better.” He said, “No. I don’t think you heard me. I don’t think it will sell. In fact, I think you should change your stories. Change your characters. Change your voice. And change agents too, because I don’t want to represent you anymore.”

‘After I picked myself off the floor, I ended up doing what he suggested. The result was “An Eye for Murder.” I got another agent once I completed the mss, and she sold it 10 weeks later.’

Sara Paretsky says, ‘I had 37 rejections before I sold my first novel. Most of them were oral to my agent, but 13 put them in writing to me..."wooden, talky, derivative, Chicago setting of regional interest only" are a few that I remember. As for how I handled it--and how I handle current rejection of new story ideas, or bad reviews--Oscar Brown, Jr's "But I was Cool," pretty much sums it up.’

Kevin Guilfoile says, ‘I don't know if this counts but when John Warner and I agreed to write MY FIRST PRESIDENTIARY (which had to be produced in less three weeks following the 2000 election) we basically told the publisher that we could illustrate it because we didn't want to split the money with a third person. Unfortunately, neither John nor I had ever drawn anything in our entire lives except for Chemistry notebook doodles of Asia album covers. We basically flipped a coin and I lost and so I ended up illustrating the book. Or doing my best anyway.

‘After MFP made a couple bestseller lists I received a call from an editor at a major national political magazine. He said their Pulitzer-winning cartoonist was moving on to a new gig and they were looking for someone to take his place. He asked if I would be interested in auditioning for the job by submitting a handful of cartoons.

‘Figuring he had been impressed by my work in the book, I was suddenly very full of myself. I put together a few single panel gags and sent them off. The next day the editor called me back and he said, "Um, this is an embarrassing question but do you not know how to draw?"’

Sure, these are people who went on to publish. But suppose they’d given up at the first, or seventh rejection? Oh, maybe we could have survived without Kevin’s drawings. My good friend, the late Hugh Holton, had written seven seven-hundred page novels before he sold on – it was number five. Then he sold six and seven, but not the earlier ones. As he said later, “They weren’t polished.”

So, bottom line. We aren’t born knowing how to write a novel. How do you get published? Persist.

Although I kind of grieve for those unpublished Guilfoile drawings.


Bryon Quertermous said...

This is just what I needed to hear right now. I'm 70 rejections into the submission process of my second novel and it's getting discouraging. It doesn't help that I'm just now realizing that my manuscript needs even more work. I'm glad to know I'm not the only one and I NEVER tire of hearing these stories. Thanks for sharing.

Barbara D'Amato said...

I'm glad. It's just very hard. After years of writing, I had two books published and then the publisher decided not to do more mysteries. It took me seven years to find another publisher, and I was sure all that time that I'd briefly found the magic and then lost it again.

It sounds like you've made real progress if you realize that your ms. needs work. Keep at it.

Marcus Sakey said...

Great post, Barb. I didn't get a chance to email you about my own rejections, but I definitely racked up my fair share.

The thing is that it's such a subjective business. I had a really well-known agent request my novel, only to tell me that it had no tension. I had another, of equal stature, say it had tension but that the characters were weak. Some agents took months to reject me. The one I signed with requested my manuscript on a Thursday, read it over the weekend, and called me Monday morning to say he wanted to rep me. There's just no standard.

All you can do is keep at it, and keep trying to do it better.

Maryann Mercer said...

Thanks Barb. I'm still working through an edit on my first story, and although at times I want to throw the dang thing out I know it has to be done. I'm working on another story too, totally different. Somehow that gives me a balance and a place to go when one or the other gets frustrating yet again. I think I'm hanging this post next to my PC just for inspiration.

Jude Hardin said...

I was extremely lucky. I found the agent I wanted, submitted the complete manuscript, and he called me the same day he got it in the mail.

I know. It just doesn't happen.

The book hasn't sold yet. We've gotten one rejection, but two of the editors currently reading it have said they "love the author's voice."

So I figure maybe I have a good chance.

Mark Combes said...


Just like I never tire of hearing that someone enjoyed my work, I, like Bryon, never tire of hearing these stories of dogged persistence. As Marcus said, this bloody business is so subjective - you have to believe in yourself and keep plugging away.

Sean Chercover said...

Great post, Barb. I was lucky and it didn't take long for me to get an agent, but I collected a bunch of rejections in that short time.

A memorable one: An agent responded to my query letter and asked for the first 100 pages of my ms.

A month later, she sent me a very polite email, explaining, "the storyline and characters lacked suspense and intensity..." She concluded by suggesting that I read some books about how to write, and recommended a few titles.

Flash forward to this year's Thrillerfest: The same agent and I are chatting, she looks down at my nametag and a lightbulb goes on over her head. "We corresponded some time ago," she says. "How's the writing coming along?"

"Pretty good," I say, determined not to say 'nah-nah-nah-nah-nah!'

"It's a very tough business, she says, so don't give up."

"I signed a two-book deal with William Morrow and the first book just went into a second printing, so I won't give up," I say cheerfully, careful to keep any attitude out of my voice.

Her face falls, then she puts a smile on it and hands me her card. "If you're ever looking to change agents..." she says.

The rejections sting a bit, but like the lady said, "don't give up."

Barbara D'Amato said...

Thanks, Marcus, Maryann, Jude, and Mark.

Actors pretty much expect to audition for many, many roles to get one. It's like that--all you need is one editor who loves your work.

And Sean---heh-heh-heh! I love it!

David Terrenoire said...

I tried to post this yesterday but blogger kept kicking me to the curb. I hope I'm not too late.


I got an agent for my first novel.

It didn't sell. She read my second novel and suggested I get a new agent.

On the third novel I got a call from Bantam. An editor had pulled my first ms literally out of the trash. He wanted it. He found me an agent. That agent loved the ms but was quitting and going to St Martins. He said that if his friend at Bantam passed, he wanted it.

Neither could sell it. My replacement agent quit returning my calls.

Third novel didn't sell.

I sold some shorts to EQMM. That landed a contract to ghost-write a thriller.

That got me a new agent who finally sold my first novel after several massive rewrites and a title change to Beneath A Panamanian Moon.

I'm still working on the next book.

Publishing isn't for weak sisters.