The Road to Publication, Act II: Rejection

Where did we leave off?

Ah yes. I’d thrown in the towel.

Act II: Rejection

Well, here’s the incredible thing about dreams – they never really die, not even when they’re squashed into the ground. They retreat into a hole, and lick their wounds, and maybe even try to convince you to grieve and move on, but they’re still there.

In college, my boyfriend (now husband) was a bit of an athlete and so for a while I was swept up into the world of sports. Watching the camaraderie of his teammates inspired me, and one day I found myself scribbling down notes – bits of dialog and character descriptions. Soon, I was writing again. I hadn’t realized how much I’d missed it. From my furiously typing fingers came a story about a college basketball player diagnosed with cancer (at the time I was working as a secretary in a doctor’s office).

I wrote that story for my husband and when he loved it, I cried. I hadn’t let him read my first novel – I had some fantastic notion that I’d hold off until I could present him with a shiny, hardcover book. Then he’d see that all those hours locked away in front of a computer screen had actually been worth something. Worth something! As though I’d written that terrible story for a pat on the back, rather than because I’d needed to write it, been compelled to write it, not felt whole unless I was writing it. My husband’s positive appraisal reminded me of something absolutely crucial: yes, I wanted to be published, but as Anne Lamott says, there are other reasons to write.

Despite this awakening, he suggested I try again to find an agent. Eek. The experience of 28 rejections was still a pretty fresh wound, but I agreed, because hey, one person liked it, right? The second I’d made the decision to resubmit, hope arrived in full force. My last story was junk. This one though, this one was exactly what the literary world had been waiting for.

I submitted three rounds of query letters for that story. I received 94 rejections. I didn’t get one request for a partial, not one request for a synopsis or sample chapters.

They say insanity is doing the same thing over and over, expecting different results. Well, I can tell you it’s true. My brain must have a short somewhere, because I did the same thing over and over, expecting different results.

I swore off writing. Nothing but pain. Nothing but embarrassment. What I didn’t know then is that I never really put myself out there. I did all I knew how to do, but I was too afraid to take a writing class, or try to make a contact at the university’s department of Fine Arts. I was scared they’d laugh at me, the way I imagined the people who had sent my rejection letters laughed at me.

I worked a lot during those years. Domestic violence shelters, crisis hotline counseling, group homes for teens. I started in a master’s program in social work, and met this professor who was so inspirational, so wonderfully brave in everything. When it was time to do a final project, she let me do a theme analysis of the presence of Dynamic Systems Theory in a middle grade adventure novel – a novel which I had written.

I was pretty proud when I presented that project to my committee and my classmates. And then, like an addict, I thought, “if anything I write will get published, this will.” Several people had helped me revise it, after all.

I sent out two letters. I received requests for partials of the manuscript. Then I received two rejections.

(If you’re keeping count we’re now up to 124.)

There was one more story in the years after. It was my first young adult book – a trilogy actually (but I submitted it as one ginormous piece) – and over two rounds of submissions I received 40 rejections. Several people read partials. No one felt it was a good match.

(Now we’re at 164.)

So at this point I was pretty hurt. I may have even taken this rejection personally (Haha). But the truth is this: Agents get something like fifty bazillion query letters a day, which is kind of like doing fifty bazillion job interviews a day. In a query, the author has one shot to grab their attention, and if they don’t, well, they don’t. I also know now that agents are trying to find a match, work they feel connected to, so they can advocate the hell out of it when the time comes. Maybe it’s less like a job interview. Maybe it’s more like speed dating.

Anyway. More depression, more self-pity, more self-loathing. Another break from writing. And then we moved to Kentucky and I found myself staring at the laptop once again, thinking, I know it’s wrong, but I just can’t quit you. I had worked up this setting for a story after seeing a demonstration protesting the release of a book about “witchcraft.” I was shocked – I knew these things happened, but I’d never seen one up close before. It got me thinking, what happens next? What else could be taken away because it clashed with someone’s belief system? Music? How about divorce? How about having a child out of wedlock? And what would that mean for the Bill of Rights? I finished the first draft in less than three months.

ARTICLE 5, I called it. My last chance. If this didn’t get published, I wouldn’t try again. I sent out 25 letters, and of course, the rejections started coming in. Then something happened – a local writer was published, and a friend (who secretly knew of my plight) brought me the newspaper article about her launch. Turns out this author had a website, and against everything inside of me, I emailed her and asked for help.

I couldn’t believe it. She asked to read my query. She responded that my hook needed some work (like, I should scrap it and start over), and wished me luck. I revised that hook a hundred times while the rejections kept coming in. I sent out 10 more letters (up to 199 letters now) with the revised hook line. From that letter, I had five requests for pages.

I emailed a lot, and even talked to a few agents, but the one I really wanted to work with wasn’t entirely sold. One of her biggest concerns? ARTICLE 5 was over 150 thousand words. I didn’t even know that was absurdly long for a YA novel. Still, she offered to help me revise under the assumption that she would have first rights to read the finished product, but made no guarantees for representation.

We went through three rounds of revisions over the summer of 2009. I wrote all the time. I was cranky, and scared, and sick on a regular basis. She never said so, but it couldn’t have been easy for her either – she was spending a lot of time helping me shape up a manuscript she might never represent.

We had agreed, before I submitted to her for a third time, that we would part ways if it still wasn’t working. When I sent her the final draft, I figured it was over. I boxed up the manuscript and my notes and threw it in the back of my closet with the others. I tried to remind myself of all I’d learned – her feedback had been invaluable – but I knew it was over. I had gotten so close, only to fall an inch short.

And then she called and offered me a contract.

We complete this broadcast next week. Thank you for visiting!

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