A Whole World of NO

I just saw the line “Sometimes published writers get rejected too” in a comment thread on Miss Snark. I nodded at the screen because yes, indeed, we certainly do.

That glorious day when you finally get accepted does not mean that from then on it’s all yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. I wish! I don’t know a single published author who hasn’t had rejections after their initial sale. Mate, I know New York Times Bestselling Authors who’ve had work commissioned for an anthology and still been rejected:

    “You are a writer of great genius, we love your work, write us a story set in a world with butterfly-based technology!” The writer does. The response: “Your story does not quite fit our anthology. Sorry.”

The writer is then stuck having to find someone who wants a story about butterfly-based technology. Blerk.

Happens all the time. Being a writer—published or not—is all about being rejected.

Editors say no, book clubs say no, prominent magazines or newspapers or journals say no to reviewing you, Hollywood says no, whole countries say no (why, Lichtenstien, why?), school boards say no when they ban you: It’s a whole world of no. I bet if most pub’d writers sat down and figured out the percentage of yeses in their life compared to the nos it would be rather teeny.

One of the best things about having an agent is that they can shield you from a fair number of nos. The ones I’m not aware of are fine by me. (Though I have seen a punter in a bookshop pick up Magic or Madness, read the back, read the first few pages, then put it back down again. No!!!)

So, sadly it takes a lot more than just one yes to make a career as a writer. You need many yeses and the ability to cope with an ocean of nos.


  1. scott w on #

    you, my dear, are the voice of all our neuroses.

  2. Jenny Davidson on #

    So true, alas! I was sure that nothing would ever again be as nearly-impossible as getting my first novel published; and then getting a publisher for my second one in a roundabout way proved almost as harrowing! Justine, someday when you have temporarily cleared the queue of excellent fiction projects you must really put together a whole book of writerly advice, that last post was excellent too….

  3. Diana on #

    back in the day when I was trying to decide if i wanted to try being a writer (it’s too late for me, save yourselves!), i was trying to make one of those dumb promises like, “and when the number of my rejection slips is larger than the number of my acceptance slips, I’ll quit” and then I realized that was rubbish and i’d be quitting right away.

    count me in as a person who likes the form reject. some of those responses were so ridiculous, liek the person who put together a form rejection and then said, “see how that stings?” (yes, but much less than a full page about everything they hated in your book) and the one who said:

    “My all time favorite (cough) was a copy which started with ‘Dear Writer,’

    “But they CROSSED OUT the “writer” part and wrote my name over it. Huh? So now I’m not even a writer? Nice.”

    Um, most people would think being addressed in person was a step up! people can take offense to anything, though.

    i’m not great with all the “nos” but I know I’ve signed up for it, what with my rubicon-crossing writing career and all…

  4. John H on #

    but at least the hypothetical writer of the butterfly-technology story would get a kill fee, no? it would be bad form for a publication to ask specific writers to write on a specfic subject and not compensate them, whether they use the story or not.

    it’s still a rejection, but at least not an unprofitable wasted effort…

  5. Shveta on #

    Butterfly technology. Hee, hee. 🙂

  6. cecil on #

    My whole speech at the Ann Arbor Book Fesitval to the teenagers who won the short story award was all about how there are so many no moments and so as artists we have to savour the yes moments. And most importantly, say YES to ourselves.

    Sometimes that’s the hard one.

  7. marrije on #

    Let’s talk about more important things for a spot: congratulations on getting through to the next round! What a game.

    Poked myself in the eye with the excitement of it (really, was miming Kewell’s, um, interesting tattoo for my boyfriend, and now i have this big scratch).

    And what a ref, oy, even i with my limited skills saw he wasn’t much cop. yay guus! hope you have time for at least a tiny party!

  8. Rebecca on #

    I think rejection letters are funny. Whenever I need a good laugh, I look at mine (one, I was too lazy to do any more my sophomore year, after which I decided the book was crap anyway) and just giggle. Dunno why. This sort of thing should be bad, right? I laugh at the weirdest things.

    On the other hand, it had never occurred to me to think about anything beyond the first acceptance. argh!

  9. Garth Nix on #

    Actually John H. it’s quite common practice for *anthology* editors to ask particular authors to submit a story for a themed anthology on let’s say “beardless dwarves” and then not like the particular story you submit and so reject it, without any kind of kill fee (kill fees are rarely seen outside of writing commissoned non-fiction for serial pubs). It’s certainly happened to me. However, you can usually sell the story somewhere else, sometime. It pays to keep stories on file and try them out again when a potential market turns up, or times/editors change.

    And for the neurotic record: I never sold my ‘second’ book, after my first novel was published. It languishes to this day in a secure location guarded by beardless dwarves . . . the lesson, as per usual, being not to give up, since I think I’m now up to published book #18 or something like that (twenty years later).

    Justine & Scott: Have fun at ALA and say hello to Margo and Jill from me.

  10. Jenny Davidson on #

    yes, not giving up is the crucial thing. even when it feels absurdly quixotic–especially with my first one, when it really took 10 years from first writing a draft to it seeing the light of the day, i increasingly (this is a ridiculous admission) came to think of myself as one of those fairy-tale protagonists–fairy-tales are in this respect nothing like life, in life you are made to feel ridiculous & stop doing whatever you thought you were supposed to whereas in fairy-tales they seem impervious to embarrassment!–janet in tam lin, or gerda in andersen’s the snow queen, who just has to hold on at all costs and it will all come right in the end.

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