The Big Brush-Off

JT Ellison

Rejection. The word connotes so many things to so many
people. Unrequited love, bad break-ups. Broken hearts, missed opportunities.
Unattainable goals. But to a writer, it means only one thing. Someone has
decided that your hard work and effort isn’t enough. Ouch. The good news is
we’ve all been there. Show me a writer without a rejection and I’ll show you my
three-headed monkey, Jacques, who does tricks for tequila shots.

Rejections come in all shapes and sizes. Most commonly for
Newbies, they are the purview of the dreaded SASE, the self-addressed stamped
envelope that accompany every submission. Newbies fret about SASE’s. We fret
about return addresses, postage, fonts. We fret about, well, anything and
everything that might turn off a prospective agent or publisher. The world of
publishing can be a mystical place when you aren’t familiar with the inner

I’ve got news for you. Sometimes, the rejection train
continues through the station. There are requests for partials that are
rejected. Entire manuscripts that are rejected. There is an ongoing process of
refusals and eliminations as a new writer searches for someone, anyone who will
say those magic words – “I’d like to represent you” and “Here’s your three-book
multi-million dollar pre-empt.”

Don’t forget that agents get rejections too. I imagine it’s
just as hard for an agent who falls in love with a project and can’t place it.
Just because you have an agent doesn’t mean that the train will never leave the
station again.

And I know you’ve heard it. We’ve all heard it. You aren’t a
real writer until you get a rejection. Okay, I’ll buy that. But I also believe
you aren’t a real writer if a rejection stops you from continuing to write.
There is nothing like your first rejection. Your fifth isn’t any easier. The
trick is – NEVER GIVE UP. Keep writing. Keep submitting. You must adapt and
conquer. You can’t let a rejection derail your process.

Two and a half years ago, I’d just finished my first book. I
was cocky, arrogant, certain that it was the best book ever written. I sent out
a ton of queries and received a ton of rejections. Ninety percent were form
letters – to which I sent a thank you note. Eight percent were directed to me
and addressed the manuscript directly – to which I sent a thank you note. One
percent were handwritten notes that really touched me – to which I sent a thank
you note. I figured that the least I could do was be polite, even if they
weren’t. Gave me a sense of having the upper hand, left me in control. Dumb,
but effective.

There was one yes. I danced in my kitchen, tears running
down my face. I called hubby, who didn’t answer. I called my parents and did my
Sally Field impression. Hubby called back. I married a practical man. He
promptly Googled said agency and informed me that they had issues. Like,
possible Preditors and Editors issues. The more we looked, the less enticing
the company seemed. Yes, they charged fees, but they were simple ones, copying,
etc. No, they weren’t a member of AAR, but they had an application in. No, they
wouldn’t let me see a list of writers they represented. I hemmed and hawed and
decided that as much as I wanted to have an agent, maybe they weren’t right for

They did one great thing, though. They read the manuscript
and told me, flat out, that while the writing was great, there was nothing in
the story that set it apart from the rest of the market. Major ouch. Once I got
over the sting, I had to admit they were right. I was reading voraciously then,
getting into new writers and series. I realized that nope, I wasn’t the
greatest. But I could work hard and try to be the greatest. I scrapped all but
the opening scene and wrote a new book.

That got a couple of whopper rejections too.

I’ve been very lucky. I haven’t had a major rejection in a
while. Several small ones, but the last real doozy was right before I landed my
agent. A friend got that 2nd manuscript in front of a major NY
editor. Noises were made that said editor really liked the way it was going. I thought
I was in, that this was the one. NOT. I received a kind, flattering note that
explained, in real terms, why the manuscript didn’t work. I was, as I always am
when I receive word like that, heartbroken. I went through all of the
appropriate emotions. Pity. Bleak, melancholy periods of cheerless funk.
Peeved, persecuted, unwanted. Unloved.

Okay, so it wasn’t that bad. Yes, it smarts when someone you
really want to work with says no. But there’s usually a reason. Once I was over
my fit of pique, I re-read the editor’s suggestions. I realized that they were
spot-on. They addressed a couple of issues that I too had with the manuscript.
So I rewrote it. I worked hard on the issues the editor raised. I found my
independent reader and got her perspective, then edited some more. I redid my
synopsis, my elevator pitch got tightened, I made the manuscript and its
presentation the very best it could be. And I landed an agent. Who promptly,
enthusiastically sent the manuscript out – and received a handful of rejections.
It seemed that this particular manuscript just wasn’t meant to be.

So I wrote a new one. Same characters, a continuation if it
became a series, stand alone if it didn’t. Jury’s still out on this one.

My point is, while you must never give up, sometimes, you
have to start over. If you’ve gotten 40 rejections on your manuscript, all form
letters, no requests for partials, something may be wrong with your query. If
you’ve sent out a 40 partials and are still getting rejections, rethink what
you’re sending. The first 30 pages have to grab the reader. Hell, if you can’t
catch their interest within the first five, you’ve got problems. If your
partials, or fulls, are being returned with regularity, you might just have to
start over.

My feeling is you can always go back to an earlier
manuscript. Forward momentum makes a writer, not the number of rejection slips

Time for the amateur psychology.

To that end, revel in your rejections. Recognize that they
aren’t a reflection of you personally. Most times, they simply represent
material that an agent or publisher hasn’t fallen in love with. Write them
something new that they will.

Rejection Do’s and Don’ts

Do – Give yourself permission to be upset when a
rejection comes. If a piece of chocolate or an ice cream cone will make you
feel better, then have it. Enjoy a drink with friends. Be social.

Don’t – Comfort yourself with destructive behaviors,
like going out on the town and ending up blowing in a tube. It’s just a
rejection letter, not the end of the world.

Do – Go for a walk.

Don’t – Burn your manuscript, shred your notes, and
delete all the files on your computer. Seriously.

Do – Take a day off from writing and read a book.

Don’t – Call all your friends and tell them you’ve
decided not to be a writer anymore.

Do – Step away from the computer for a few hours,
allow yourself a break from the cycle.

Don’t – Call the originator of your rejection to ask
why they didn’t like your project. Really, that’s just not a good idea.

Do – Reorganize your office.

Don’t – Quit writing.

Do – Something productive that will allow you to feel
better. My personal favorite? Staples therapy. New pens always put me in a
better mood.

Don’t – Give up. We’ve all been there. Commiserate
for a day, then get back to it.

There will be more rejections in your life. But if you
persevere, there will be bigger triumphs in the end.

Wine of the Week – Straccali Chianti DOCG

PS — Check out Demolition’s Spring 2006 Issue featuring "The Females of Noir" and read my short story,  X .

14 thoughts on “The Big Brush-Off

  1. Sandra Ruttan

    Congrats on the story JT – it’s excellent.

    What gets exciting in rejections is when you start getting good rejections. First it’s form. Then it’s a personal rejection that comments on things of merit. Then you start getting suggestions for where you could take this to improve. Sometimes, a rejection comes with a “would love to see anything else you’ve written.”

    It’s all part of the journey. One thing about rejections, they can be subjective. It comes down to taste in some cases, or the fact that the client list really is full and there are a thousand queries on the desk. But they help you toughen up for the inevitiable repercussions from success: reviews.

  2. J.B. Thompson

    You continue to bless the world with your wisdom, JT! Excellent – and “spot-on” – advice.

    And Sandra’s right – it’s a subjective business. Keep looking until you find someone who shares your taste and enthusiasm and has room for you on their list. That person is out there somewhere.

  3. Brett Battles

    Great post and wonderful advice. I’ve always tried to think of rejection as a reminder that I’m doing what I love. My favorite rejection was my query sent back to me with a tiny stamp up in the right corner that said “Not For Us.”

    JT…loved ‘X’…very distrubing (in a good way.)

  4. JT Ellison

    Thanks for all your input, guys.I have two favorites — one that pointed out I was missing page 27. Nothing else. I guess that sufficed as a rejection.The other — I used to send all submissions priority so I could track them. From the delivery time stamp to the return mail stamp — 5 minutes. It was also noon the Friday before the 4th of July three day weekend. Hmmm…. I remember the thank you note praised their efficiency. Okay, it was a little snarky:)

  5. Brett Battles

    Crap! You found me out…Busy? Absolutely. But I’m also a victim of slipping into a “is this blog-worthy” frame of mind every time I come up with a topic…ugh!

    No fears. I’ll get right on it. Thanks for giving me a swift kick in the…eh…writing zone thingy…

  6. JT Ellison

    Glad to know I’m not the only one. Great opportunity for a segue, Brett, thanks.I’d love to hear from you guys, is this what you’re interested in hearing about? Do you want more? Would you rather Jacques and I go get drunk on margaritas and leave you alone???

  7. Bryon Quertermous

    I think you bring up a very good point about the progression of rejection. Yes, rejection is a huge part of this profession and you have to deal with it at every level, but if you don’t *ever* make it past form rejection letters than you need to re-evaluate your project, your query, your partial, etc. Smart writers adapt and learn and develop through the rejection process. It sounds like you’re doing just that and I wish you best. Thanks for submitting to Demolition, btw. Great story.

  8. JT Ellison

    I think we all owe Mr. Quertermous a giant round of applause for putting together the definitive pulp magazine. Three cheers for Demolition, long may she reign!

  9. Elaine

    Whenever I got a rejection letter, I tried to remember that ‘Catch-22’ was rejected 22 times, thus the title – and The Godfather had something like 50 plus rejections. Not that I considered myself equal to that company (!)-but it did make me feel a tad better. Well, sort of.

  10. Rob Gregory Browne

    Funny you mention agent rejections. I think my Hollywood agent and manager were more frustrated by my lackluster movie career than I was. They couldn’t understand why other clients sold dreck, while my perfectly good scripts were being ignored.

    Truth is, I think they thought I was better than I actually was. I’ve come to the conclusion that my screenplays were entertaining to read, but not quite the star attracting material that screenplays have to be in order to get made.

    So the switch to novels made a lot of sense. Wish I’d done it much earlier…


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