I recently received a rejection letter. Well, letter is an overstatement. I received a rejection slip. It wasn’t even a full sheet of 8 1/2 x 11 paper. It was half that. A blank had been filled in with my name. “Dear Blank, we’re sorry we can’t use your work at this time, but thank you for letting us consider it.” I was thrilled.
You see, getting an actual response has become a rarity. Stephen King used to save rejections on a nail in his bedroom. Lots of writers do. In my fantasies of living the writer’s life, an entire wall of my office was wallpapered in rejection slips — the sign of a working writer. But now, many publishers are so inundated with unsolicited work they don’t even bother to say, “Thanks. But no thanks.” Nowadays, no news isn’t good news — bad news is.
So to me, no response means no. And you better believe, I’m keeping track. Today’s writers may not have the form-lettered proof, but rejection still reigns. Famous authors seem to know precisely how many times their manuscript was rejected before being accepted. J.K. Rowling submitted Harry Potter to 12 publishing houses before it came out in print. 18 publishers thought Richard Bach’s book about a seagull was absurd (Jonathan Livingston Seagull.) Even John Grisham, who seems to have mastered the art of selling novels (and movie rights,) had his first book, A Time to Kill, rejected 28 times.
The Help the movie came out last week. My expectations are low. Aside from a few notable exceptions (The Godfather, Gone With the Wind, The Shawshank Redemption, to name a few,) the book is always better than the movie. The Help author, Kathryn Stockett, was turned down 60 times. 60. After rejection number 40, she started lying to her friends, even her husband. She was rewriting and resubmitting on the sly. She felt ashamed for not letting it go.
As persistant as that sounds, Robert Pirsig racked up twice as many rejections for Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Imagine continuing after being turned down 121 times. Consider that Madeleine L’Engle received 26 rejections before A Wrinkle in Time was published and won The Newbery Medal. Or that Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen were rejected again and again when submitting their idea for Chicken Soup for the Soul. I’ve submitted to the series twice. The first time, I received a postcard telling me publication of a particular title was suspended until a future date. The second time, I never heard back. I’ll take that as no. Both times.
So, how do you keep going? Kathryn Stockett says this. “I can’t tell you how to succeed. But I can tell you how not to: Give in to the shame of being rejected and put your manuscript — or painting, song, voice, dance moves, [insert passion here] — in the coffin that is your bedside drawer and close it for good. I guarantee you that it won’t take you anywhere. Or you can do what this writer did: Give in to your obsession instead.”