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REJECTED!
By Scott Nicholson

Good times are always too good to last.

There you are, up on that cosmic wave, riding the karmic surf. You're balanced, head held high, your face in the wind and the stars in your eyes. There's no NO anymore.

Then along comes a shark, or a riptide, or a reef hidden just beneath the surface. And you crash.
I had a good string going at the end of 1998, selling some stories to good markets, getting some positive feedback, and generally feeling like I ought to sell everything I write. I was tackling the blank page with confidence, taking my skills to the (argh) "next level."

Then the postman comes round. Reject. Reject. Reject. Maybe twenty or thirty in a row as of this writing. You ever been slapped with a cold fish? You ever had one of those dreams where you're at school in your underwear? You ever interviewed for a job that the boss's son also applied for?

Just as the road to hell is paved with good intentions, the road to a writing career is paved with rejection slips. That metaphorical comparison may be more apt than most writers care to admit. You must be willing to sell your soul a little bit to break through that barrier that separates you from the things you want. This isn't true only for writing, of course; anything you want badly enough requires sacrifice.

Writing is one of the hardest jobs in the world. Note that I say "job," whether you are doing it for money or for love or for art. The reason I call it a job is because it is part of a life's work. You must love it enough to do it without pay for many months or years or even decades.

Anybody can nail a noun to a verb, then duct-tape a prepositional phrase and superglue a conjunction onto the result. Anybody can write. It is not rocket science, and it is not the sole domain of the "chosen." The act simply requires putting down one word after another. There is no college degree that will guarantee best-selling success. Muses don't grant mantles of genius.

In fact, I don't think literary genius exists at all. Calvin Coolidge said that geniuses are a dime a dozen, and worth about as much. What good is a genius if he or she never turns an idea into substance? Similarly, what is a writer who doesn't write?

I get into trouble with other writers sometimes, simply because I don't think that writers have any special intuition or even talent. About the only character trait necessary to be a successful writer is obstinance. The stories already exist, they float in the air, they are the spiritual by-products of human thought and evolution. All a writer has to do is steal those stories from the collective unconsciousness. I think that the less the writer is involved and the less that the strings show, the truer and more resonant the work will be.

Unfortunately, your work may not resonate with editors, publishers, and agents. Their job is to say "no," and contrary to what some believe, I don't think they relish the task. I'm positive they read everything with the hope that, in those first few paragraphs, they will discover another Twain, Hemingway, O'Conner, or Steinbeck. I've seen some "slush pile" material, and I've even written a good bit. I can honestly say that you would have to pay a lot of money to get me to read it for a living.

So, now we get back to my rejection slips. I knew that was part of the game when I started. In fact, only the first five or so rejects gave me that cold fishy slap. After that, I realized that the editor was not out to personally ensure that I never dare duct-tape another prepositional phrase.

Some writers quit at those first trembling blows to the ego. I pinned my slips to a bulletin board, until the piles were so thick that the thumb tack wouldn't penetrate. Sometimes I would look up from my keyboard to my awesome shrine of belittlement. Then I would type some more, and some more, and duct-tape another prepositional phrase.

I had over 100 rejection slips before an editor called me wanting to buy a story. I took down all my rejection slips and put them in an envelope. Then I started over, and had maybe twenty or thirty more before the next sale. Then it was getting down to ten rejects for every sale, or less. Then, boom, a little hot streak, some sales, and the dreaded rise in self-confidence. Heck, I'd even go so far as to say my ego was expanding.
I was hot. The editors retaliated like an arctic air mass. My bulletin board is now full again. Yet I am still at my keyboard, duct-tape in hand.

Famous rejection stories: C.S. Lewis, over 800 before a sale. Ray Bradbury, also around 800. GONE WITH THE WIND, rejected by more than 20 publishers. Jerzy Kozinski's THE PAINTED BIRD, rejected three times by the same publisher, one of those times AFTER that same publisher had accepted it. A high school basketball coach once cut Michael Jordan. Bet that coach is in the Hall of Fame, don't you?

Stephen King almost made a multi-million dollar mistake when he threw his CARRIE manuscript in the garbage because he was tired of the rejections. Luckily, his wife fished it out. An editor once told Nabakov that his LOLITA manuscript should be "buried under a large stone." Now that editor is buried under a stone and LOLITA still titillates readers around the world. An editor once told F. Scott Fitzgerald, "You'd have a decent book if you'd get rid of that Gatsby character."

Editors, agents, and publishers tell writers to go away. You don't go away. It's that simple.

You slap me with a cold fish, and I smile. Is that all you got?

-Copyright 1999 by Scott Nicholson. Contact for reprint permission

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