Sometimes, I think, we are under the magical assumption that a writer has an idea, writes a story, then an editor at a publishing house acquires it, and it is published. Four clean, clear steps in a straight forward-moving line.
Sigh. Maybe I should revise that we to an I.
I am a fiction writer. And my process is - well - kind of different from the one above. I get an idea for a story. But then I write part of it, get stuck, cut half of it, write it again, give it to a critique partner to read, take her extensive notes, cut half of it again, then revise what is left. I repeat this part of the process until the story is done. Then my agent sends it out to an editor. I get a rejection. Then another editor, and I get another rejection. I repeat this until the story is sold, or put in a drawer. And if it is sold, then it has to go through the whole process of getting published...
The reasons for novels getting rejected are varied, of course. For example, it took B. A. Shapiro eight years to get The Art Forger published. She had already written and sold five novels at that point, but still, she could not find an editor who could and would acquire it. As she says in an interview with Jan Brogan on the blog Jungle Writers Red: "The support of my family and my friends as well as a driving desire to tell stories [kept me going during this dry spell.] It wasn't easy...after five published novels I wrote four more that couldn't find a home. I was thinking about a career change when The Art Forger was acquired by Algonquin Books after many, many rejections by other publishers. I immediately bagged the change idea and started writing a new novel. As far as advice goes, all I can say is that sometimes – not always – but sometimes when you want something badly enough, it can happen. You've just got to get your butt into the chair so that you're there when it strikes."
For Shapiro, the reason editors didn't buy the book was because they couldn't easily categorize it. Many of them loved it, many of them thought it was well-written and well-paced and an interesting story, but they just didn't know where it would neatly fit in their list of books. Some are rejected because their form or subject matter is too challenging for the times. Some are simply rejected because they are too similar to another book on an editor's list, or they are not a style of book that the publishing house leans toward, or, of course, they need one (or two or three!) more goes at revision.
Whatever the case, many now-famous, best-selling books were rejected many times before they were sold:
- J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone was rejected eight times before Bloomsbury acquired it. And even then, it was only because Alice Newton, the 8-year-old daughter of the publisher's chairperson read the first chapter and loved it. Most editors felt the book was too long for middle grade readers.
- Animal Farm by George Orwell was rejected four times before it was sold. T. S. Eliot actually wrote one of the rejection letters, offering this: "We have no conviction that this is the right point of view from which to criticize the political situation at the current time." (This was during WWII and the USSR and the UK were allies.)
- Called "tired" by one agent and "[not able to] sustain my interest" by another, Kathryn Stockett received SIXTY rejections for The Help. As Stockett says in More: "But letter number 61 was the one that accepted me. After my five years of writing and three and a half years of rejection, an agent named Susan Ramer took pity on me. What if I had given up at 15? Or 40? Or even 60?" Three weeks later, Susan sold The Help to Amy Einhorn Books.
- Even Dr. Seuss' And to Think That I Saw it on Mulberry Street was rejected 27 times because it was "too silly" for children.
And don't forget about bad reviews once a book is actually bought and published.
So what am I to do? What is a blossoming writer to do? And truly, what is any person who is following his or her passion to do? I leave you with this advice from Kathryn Stockett: "The point is, 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 could do what this writer did: Give in to your obsession instead."
Here's to our obsessions.
Tamara Ellis Smith received an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults in 2007 from Vermont College of Fine Arts. In addition to reviewing and editing for BookBrowse, she writes middle grade novels and picture books and received an Honorable Mention for her middle grade novel Marble Boys in the 2008 PEN New England Discovery Awards. It was also runner up for the 2008 SCBWI Works-In-Progress grant. She can be found online at www.tamaraellissmith.com and www.smithwright.blogspot.com. She is represented by Erin Murphy Literary Agency.