In which I answer a question (Updated)

Lotti asks:

I would be rather happy right now to get a rejection letter. It would at least be a start, because I have never plucked up the courage to go down the publishing road. What inspired you to get published?

The answer to this question is long and requires backstory.

My earliest publications required no courage at all. The first one came when I was nine because my mum sent a poem of mine to the local newspaper. I have mentioned elsewhere that this kind of horrified me because kids at school teased me for many weeks afterwards demanding that I show them how to fly. The poem was called “I can fly”.

But I also loved seeing my name in print and the approbation I got from the teachers. As a kid I was more often in trouble than not so it was a refreshing change.

After that I was published in school magazines and lots of other youth publications. My parents or a teacher would send my stuff in. Or I would be asked for something cause I now had a reputation as the kid who wrote. The pinnacle of my juvenile career was having a poem in a great big hardcover book called Our World by the kids of Australia, which was published for the International Year of the Child.

As you can see when I was first being published I never had to pluck up any courage except to deal with teasing from my peers.1 Thus the transition to me actually sending my own stuff out did not seem like a big deal. I also fully expected to be published. Because that’s what had happened up till then.

I was not.

From the time I first submitted to an adult market until 2001 I did not have a single story accepted. Every rejection was a crushing—and in the beginning totally unexpected—blow. I was too stupid to realise that some of those rejections were quite encouraging and asked to see more work. All I could see was that my work was being rejected and they clearly thought I sucked too.

That’s when I learned to dread sending stuff out. Indeed, for large chunks of time—years even—I didn’t. The only people reading my writing were family and friends and no one was reading my attempts at writing novels until I got talking with a relative stranger many many many years after I first started writing novels.

So I kept writing, but only rarely sent my stuff out. Sometimes a friend would push me into. Sometimes I’d come across a new magazine that I thought was cool and that would fit my stories.

Every single time I sent a story out would require a ridiculous amount of courage. And the whole time that story was out there I’d be thinking about it and worrying about it and waiting for the rejection and finding it really hard to write something new. Or, you know, sleep.

To be honest I’m still a bit like that and I still get rejected. How to Ditch Your Fairy was sent to many publishing houses. Only two of them made an offer, which means all the others rejected it, which is obviously MUCH better than none of them wanting it, but there’s still a sting. And to this day no publisher in Spain or any other Spanish-speaking country has wanted any of my books, which breaks my heart because it’s the only language other than English that I can read.2 Not to mention Lichtenstein. I don’t know what it is with Lichtenstein hating me so much, but I’ve noticed, guys, and it hurts.

Rejection is a huge part of this business whether you’re published or not. I know some people say that if you’re neurotic about rejection you shouldn’t try to get published. But I can’t think of a single writer I know who isn’t neurotic about it. Obviously, some more than others, but we all feel the sting of rejection. We all fear it.

It’s just the way things are.

I hope that answers your question, Lotti.

I have shifted the FAQ stuff to its own post as it was getting lost here.

  1. Which is a LOT of courage. You all know what that was like! []
  2. A little. Not that well. []


  1. lotti on #

    Thanks, Justine! It helps to hear that other writers are neurotic about rejections too…

  2. Bill on #

    Once again, encouraging to hear about the human side of writing, not just the “it sold a million copies and Ian McKellan will play the villain in the movie version” part that is so depressing to those of us it’s not about. 🙂

    I’m currently sitting on a manuscript I’ve gotten a lot of good feedback on, wrote (I think) a kicking query letter for and even have an agent in mind to submit it to, but I’m pathologically incapable of completing the synopsis so I can send it off.

    I feel like a little kid on the edge of a swimming pool and everyone who loves me is standing there yelling “jump in, it’ll be OK!” while I stand there shivering. I want to swim, I really do, but my feet… won’t… move.
    It’s demented.

  3. AndrewN on #

    I love the honesty here. There is no doubt in my mind at how hard it is to face rejection letter after rejection letter. Perseverance in the face of knowing the hurt that will inevitably follow is true courage. You are doing young writers a great service here in explaining it clearly.

    I followed the “I was not” link, everything there should be mandatory reading at high school. It applies to all writing where you need clear communication, except blog comments. I learnt to rewrite everything two or three times – emails, papers, letters – to cut out the irrelevant and tighten up the language. It has served me well in my career.

    Rejection in a business communication does not come with a nice letter, it comes in the form of your last pay check.

  4. John Cash on #

    Robert Heinlein (I believe) listed 5 rules for getting published. (1) Start writing. (2) Finish writing. (3) Don’t then go back and make corrections. (4) Send it to a publisher. (5) Keep sending it out. He was a true but practical optimist, and knew each of these — especially that last one — was an emotional hurdle, and delayed the would-be author. He noted the percentage of those who followed all the steps, each time, was near-equivalent to the percentage of people who manage to make a living writing.

  5. Bill on #

    I’d bet Heinlein’s 3rd rule is making every editor who reads this blog break out in hives. 🙂

    I understand the practicality of not getting bogged down in years of revisions, but I know my first drafts aren’t good enough to publish.

  6. Carrie R. on #

    Just the idea of sending out any work without going back and making corrections makes me break out in hives. I’m a big fan of revising and polishing, but there is a point at which writers revise and polish as a way of avoiding sending out… I was guilty of that until a friend “nudged” me.

  7. Kelly McCullough on #

    Yeah, 1, 2, 4, and 5 are great advice. 3, not so much.

    AndrewN @ 3, I promise you that not all publishing rejections come with a letter that is nice. Also, if you get the writing rejection, you don’t get a first pay check, much less a last one, at least not from that particular editor for that particular piece.

  8. Corey J Feldman on #

    It’s tough, on the one hand I know it is silly not submitting for publication for fear of rejection, on the other hand I don’t think my fiction is ready for publication. What I need to do is give it to some first readers that I trust but I worry more about rejection from them them I would from some random agent or publishing house…

  9. claire on #

    I don’t know if i’ve mentioned this here before, (you have talked on this subject before) but i do a little thing that makes rejections less rejecting: i buy fancy, expensive return envelopes with clouds and bunnies and stuff on them. Or just nice colors.

    Then, when i get one back in the mail, i know instantly that i’ve been rejected, but i also get to open a cool envelope and possibly get a personalized message inside it. yes, it’s neurotic, but if you’re going to be neurotic about rejections, you should at least be able to make it work for you.

  10. lotti on #

    lol. That’s one of the best ideas I’ve ever heard!

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