Thursday, July 22, 2010

Testing the Invisible Fence

I've been writing fiction for more than 20 years now, and collecting rejections for nearly as long.

For me, the rejections really started flowing in 1993, when I applied to graduate programs in creative writing. I shipped writing samples off to six schools and somehow received eight rejections...

The University of Arizona just kept sending them, one after another, three in total. And naturally, the arrival of each subsequent envelope would lift my hopes anew: Maybe they changed their minds! Maybe it was a mistake! Or a computer gli

Oh…fine. Whatever.

No, it wasn’t a good feeling, but it was an excellent preparation for a writing career—perhaps even better than attending any of the programs themselves. Since then, I’ve been rejected another 200 times—by magazines, journals, literary agents, and publishers large and small—which averages out to one rejection every month for the last seventeen years.

I’m still not sure what to make of that information, whether I should be proud or ashamed. At the very least, it seems interesting that an utterly unnecessary behavior could persist for so long in the face of such unrelenting negative feedback.

The only thing I've been able to compare it to is a dog and an invisible fence. Most dogs learn within minutes that, if they cross a certain line, they’ll get shocked. But occasionally you’ll find one who just keeps at it, hurling himself into that fence again and again, getting zapped every time. Is it perseverance or stupidity? I have no idea, but after 200 shocks, it probably doesn’t matter.

Old School Rejection
I finished writing my first first novel (everybody has a few, right?) in late-1996 and began submitting it to agents and editors shortly thereafter. The publishing world hadn’t fully accepted e-mail yet, so my query process involved mailing out hard-copy letters with self-addressed envelopes, which would boomerang back to me with rejections two months later.

Thank you for submitting, blah blah blah… These rejections were form letters in the truest sense—crooked, fading, third-generation photocopies of letters that probably hadn’t been re-worded since WWII, no longer bearing any sign that human hands had been involved in their production.

I did get a handful of requests to see my manuscript though, and although these flirtations all ended in rejection as well, those letters were often personalized, offering something meaningful (or at least entertaining) about what had motivated the sender to stomp all over my dreams.

My all-time favorite rejection came from an editor at the SOHO Press. He'd asked to see my novel, The Projectionist, which I was learning fell into the rather unloved "experimental" category. The editor sent back a hand-written card, which I still cherish. (Click the image below to enlarge.)

There are just so many things I love about this rejection. Who ever thought you could use the words oblique, quotidian, and banal in a single sentence? I also love the unflinching certainty of that last line: we could not possibly publish this successfully.

To this day, I’m still not sure if Bryan always intended to include the sentence tacked onto the card’s reverse side, or if that had been an afterthought, something he added only after realizing how harsh his initial assessment sounded. (I almost missed it altogether.)

21st Century Rejection
Then the Internet came along and ruined everything.

These days, no sane editor or agent would ever write a rejection as honest or as helpful as Bryan's because they wouldn’t want to invite a retaliatory cyber-assault from some unbalanced writer (which most of us are at certain times of the night).

So even if someone has all kinds of colorful thoughts about your manuscript, they’ll reject you as politely as possible without saying anything at all. It usually boils down to three words: “Not for me.”

Thankfully, we writers possess a heightened ability to read for subtext, so we know exactly what our rejectors mean anyway. Below are some different types of rejections I collected for Here Comes Your Man, and what each of them meant to me:

The plain vanilla rejection.
You send an e-mail query, and a week or two later, you get a form e-mail back saying something like “Thank you for submitting. I have to be very selective in what I take on. Taste is subjective. Best of luck at finding representation elsewhere.”

Translation: Your book was so mundane in its awfulness that I'm unable to respond with anything but a form e-mail. Nobody else will like your work either, but I’m not going to be the fool who tries to break it to you.

The plain vanilla rejection, extended dance mix.
Similar to the above, except the rejection takes 2-3 months to come back with the same message. That delay speaks volumes though, further implying: I am so busy and important that I’m just getting around to rejecting you now. Frankly, I’m surprised you even bothered!

The no-response rejection.
You send an e-mail query to an agent and spend the next several weeks wondering what they’ll think and when you might hear back. After three months with no reply, you finally realize that they probably glanced at your query the day it arrived, hit delete, and were finished with you forever. Whereas you, even now, are still thinking about them and wondering where it all went wrong...

The instantaneous rejection.
Once in a blue moon, you’ll get a rejection that comes back within hours, or even minutes. And sometimes it’s even personalized!

This is wonderful because it temporarily bats down your suspicion that the publishing industry—and maybe the whole world?—is controlled by androids and that you’re the only real human being left in the universe. This is almost as good as an acceptance. (Or so I imagine...)

Although, I did encounter one ugly variant of the instantaneous rejection: an agency read the first chapter of my book, requested the rest with great interest, and then form-rejected me less than two hours after I'd e-mailed it over. And still I wonder: what was so freaking awful about Chapter 2?

The delayed response rejection.
Occasionally you’ll get a rejection that initially masquerades as a no-response, but is actually something far more sinister. You send a query and don’t hear anything for a while, and then nine months later, when you no longer even remember who this person is, they send you a rejection out of the blue. It’s like having a total stranger run up to you in a crowd and punch you in the stomach.

Translation: I just found your query kicking around in my mailbox, and I was so offended by it that I couldn't help but respond!

Rejected No More!
But I’m done with all that now. Having published Here Comes Your Man in April, I’m enjoying the first rejection-free period of my adult life.

Let me expand that timeline for you, just so we're clear:
  1. I finish college, apply to grad school, and the rejections start rolling in.
  2. This continues for the next seventeen years. While I’m working for three different companies, getting married, buying a house, having a child, and giving my diabetic cat twice-daily insulin injections, the one absolute constant in my life is literary rejection.
  3. April 1, 2010—yes, April Fool’s Day—the rejections stop.
I can't express how much my life has changed, post-rejection. These days, people even e-mail me out of the blue to tell me how much they enjoyed my book. People I don’t even know! No, I’m not "high or something," thank you very much—that’s just how I smile, which is something I do more often now!

And honestly, I wouldn’t be bothered if someone e-mailed me to say how much they hated my book, because that would still mean they’d read it. And that’s really all I ever wanted—to write something and share it, and have people respond to it and maybe even derive a little enjoyment from it.

And then of course to have it adapted into an Academy Award-winning film directed by Noah Baumbach, Sofia Coppola, Richard Linklater, Mira Nair, Krzysztof Kieslowski (deceased), Terry Gilliam, David O. Russell, Wes Anderson, or Jonathan Demme.

That's next on my To Do list anyway. But I’m confident that there won’t be any rejection involved with that process.


  1. Man, Arizona just had to grind it in, didn’t they?

    Love the dog shock comparison, and that knife in the back from SOHO? Ouch. I would've told them they could stuff their quotidian up their banal.

    Sorry to hear you've had it so rough on the rejection front, but thanks for outlaying the territory so well, and congrats on finding a route you enjoy.

  2. Oh, I'd take the SOHO Press rejection every single time over a form rejection or a no-response. You just can't buy that kind of honesty & eloquence today--it's brilliant. (And I sorta agreed with it.)

  3. Thank you for this!

    You've captured all my favorite interpretations of my own rejection collection, while still offering me hope. That's talent, sir.

  4. Only on a very strange day does seventeen years until an acceptance letter seem like the light at the end of the tunnel.

    Now I just need to find more agents that accept sci-fi!

  5. Glad to be of service, Sarah!

    @J.A. - Just to be clear: I self-published my book but was too lazy to send myself an acceptance letter. So it's 17 years and counting, but I still consider that a very happy ending. Or a happy middle, hopefully.

  6. Hello, fellow Author-Friend! I came here via The Rejectionist, and I just wanted to tell you how much I truly enjoyed reading this. I love your rejection classifications, and I really appreciate your decision to share your personal experiences--the SOHO Press rejection is a real gem. Thanks so much for sharing.

  7. Quotidian and banal? Yikes. I can only hope to crash and burn one day in such a monumentally hilarious fashion. Thanks for sharing that SOHO rejection, it's priceless. You should frame that and hang it in my house.

    I still say the most ferocious, mean-spirited rejection letter is still better than no response at all. That way madness lies.

  8. Correction: Your house, that is. :P

  9. It would probably look better in your house anyway, Kellye—our place is always kind of a mess.

    Thanks for stopping by!

  10. Merci, Le R! I enjoyed the assignment!

  11. Well it took Edison a lot more tries, right? While harsh, it shaped you into the writer and man you are today or some sympathetic response like that.
    Keep writing and I am hunting down your book today, it sounds interesting but more importantly, DIFFERENT than the vampire crap we are being forced fed lately.

  12. Thanks "Me"--if you do end up reading my book, I hope you enjoy it! (I've never developed a taste for vampire crap either.)