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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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."
and publishers tell writers to go away. You don't go
away. It's that simple.
-Copyright 1999 by Scott Nicholson. Contact for reprint permission
Scott Nicholson copyright 2001-03ŠAll rights reserved