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.