Sunday, May 16, 2010

On 23 Years of Rejection - A Retrospective

I asked my husband when he thought I started writing seriously and we agreed that it was some time in 1987. I did make an attempt in high school, working on my old toy (but perfectly functional) typewriter to write a time travel novel. I soon gave up, having come to the conclusion that writing was hard, and that I need to read more quality authors.

My first submission was a story called, "Lady Forest Maid", and I sent it to a then-new fantasy magazine. It was definitely an apprentice-level effort. The rejection was so brutal and cutting that I never sent anything there again. I always wondered why the author/editor saw fit to type out such an awful letter. It was my very first rejection.

But I did continue to send to other places, where the rejections were bland and inoffensive.I didn't write short stories very often -- I was working on my trunk novel -- but when I did, I dutifully sent them off. The only non-form letters I ever got (until very recently) were from Fantasy and Science Fiction. I have a nice stack of personal rejection letters from them. Some of them said, "nice writing, but . . ." But not very many.


During this time, I read a great many classics. I figured that they were the people to study if I wanted to become a successful writer. Unfortunately, I didn't realize that the writing styles people used back then weren't in use today, and the books I really needed to be reading were current bestsellers. I also hit upon the idea of reading debut novels, because I figured the novel that got an author noticed must have been pretty good. So my reading time wasn't entirely wasted, and the foundations of storytelling can still be gleaned from the classics.


In the early 90s, I made my first nonfiction sale, to the first editor to whom I pitched an idea. I made a hundred and fifty dollars. And then I went back to school and writing went on hold for a while.

After I finished school, I finished my novel. It took me ten years to write (including some non-writing gaps), and ended up 230,000 words. I sent it to one agent, who rejected it with a brief note. I then trunked it. It was a mess. I had a terrible time writing the synopsis because the story wandered in all directions without reason, and the synopsis made that glaringly obvious.

Then, I had a baby. While she was little I did a bunch of nonfiction work for the Bathroom Reader. I wrote articles with titles like, "Port-a-Fortress", "The Cosmic Speed Limit", "Good Vibrations", "In One End and Out the Other", and a bunch others. It was all work-for-hire without a byline. But it paid good. They used the articles in subsequent editions for years.

I started querying again with my second novel, Forging a Legend, in late 2006. I started querying Starcaster in 2009. Rejection, rejection, rejection. I had a few short stories that I was circulating. Rejection, rejection, rejection.

That's right. Not a single sale. I only went for the top markets (which included quality semipros like Weird Tales), because the one time I strayed from that restriction, I had an almost-published story with a fledgling magazine that only operated for about six months. It was never rejected, but the editor at one point (and after much prompting) said that she had it on her table of contents for the next issue. Which never happened. That almost-published story was "Spin", an early version of The Sevenfold Spell.

And over the years, I've come to realize that writing a salable story is hard. Damned hard.

I set a deadline for myself:  if I had not sold any fiction by the time I was 45, I would shift my focus to nonfiction and freelance writing and pursue a much easier writing career there. I am now 44.

I would have written this retrospective no matter where I had sold my first story. I sent The Sevenfold Spell off without any real hope that they would want it. One gets so inured to rejection that one is utterly shocked when it fails to happen.

Thanks for taking this trip down memory lane with me. Have you sold a story? If so, how long did it take for you to make the sale?

7 comments:

  1. I really enjoyed this post because it shows how different, yet how similar our journeys are.

    I gave myself seven years to get a book published. It happened in three, which was miraculous because my understanding of writing and publishing was UNDER the basement when I put myself on this road.

    Thank you for posting this. It was very inspirational.

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  2. My only publication so far were some articles for minimal compensation, but they really written to help a friend out, not for money or furthering a writing career. {Smile}

    I can't shake the feeling that when I'm satisfied that a story is good enough to be seen with my name on it, I'll have won at least half the battle. {lop-sided smile}

    Anne Elizabeth Baldwin

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  3. Thanks, Maria. Seven years is pretty good! There was definitely a dearth of information back in the 80s compared to what's available today. Plus, I really didn't improve much until I read Donald Maass's Writing the Breakout Novel. I reread it between novels (and yes, I'm due a reread now!)

    Anne, I think that's a good approach!

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  4. I've never sold anything, or published anything (unless a few chapters of a really bad fantasy story in my town newspaper counts)! But I hope to publish one day.
    Do you think you will stand by your deadline at 45? Maybe this is naive coming from someone who's never gotten a rejection letter, but I don't think you should ever stop Trying. Maybe 46 will be your year.
    I wish you luck. :)

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  5. Mel, I was unclear. I meant that if I had not sold any fiction by the time I turned 45, then I would shift the majority of my efforts to nonfiction. However, I appear to have met this deadline, although we still need to finalize the contract.

    So happily, I will keep writing fiction!

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  6. Haha, yeah, sorry about that Tia. I guess I didn't understand when I posted that comment coz all I had read was your last blog entry... and probably not as carefully as I should have! Thanks for explaining though, and again, good luck, though it sounds like that contract is a done deal anyhow :)

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  7. yup, alot of competition out there, hard to get noticed. Shame really, you have such great ideas.

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