Rejection Reality

Here are some of my favorite rejection stories, culled from the authors I’ve interviewed:

Polly Horvath, who won the National Book Award for The Canning Season, was living in a small, somewhat dilapidated apartment while trying to sell her first novel. The kitchen of this apartment was particularly in need of repainting, something Horvath was unwilling to do herself. As the rejection letters streamed in, Horvath used them to cover the peeling paint in her kitchen. “I was glad for them in a way,” she told me. “Each letter meant I got to cover another hole.”

Richard Bach assumed that as a beginning writer he was going to have to be rejected a certain amount before becoming established. And he was. Then he met Truman Capote. Capote did not share this belief about the required rejections for a beginning writer. Capote, Bach said, had never received a rejection letter in his life.

Jonathan Evison, kept his rejection letters stored within reach of where he wrote every day. He had it in mind that the letters served as a reminder or motivation or log—until one day he asked himself why he was devoting so much attention to his failure. He burned every letter, and soon stories he’d been submitting for months and years began to sell.

When Jeffery Deaver was submitting his first novel to publishers, one helpful editor included a personal note on his rejection letter. It read: This novel is unpublishable. A few years later, Deaver had published a novel and was working on his next. He was late with it, however, and so decided to hand in the “unpublishable” novel, let the publisher reject it, and then, having bought time to finish it, hand in the one he was actually writing. The publisher took the unpublishable novel without changing a word. It was the same publisher (though different editor) that had labeled it unpublishable years before.

Reality is as malleable as water. We can waste as much time as we are willing to spend searching for reality’s fixed core—a will-o’-the-wisp our minds dreamed up centuries ago. Just as our eyes don’t see so much as send information to our brain to be interpreted, so too reality is merely a stream awaiting the glass of our choosing. This is quite the responsibility, admittedly, but consider the alternative. Whether it’s rejection letters, or love, or the economy, what is can change from black to white in the time it takes you to change your mind.

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I’ll Know When I Get There

I believe I have been thinking about outlining so much of late because I am right in the thorny middle of a new novel.  This is a big novel (big for me at least), much bigger than anything I’ve written recently.  As I have said, I don’t use outlines, and so, while it is chugging along and taking shape and I think I know where I’d like it to go, there is no denying it is a beast at the moment with a dozen dangling tentacles waggling nowhere. 

So it must go for me, apparently. Jonathan Evison, who, like myself, doesn’t do much outlining, advised me to, once I know something I have written must be changed, go back and change it immediately. “All right,” I told him. “By Jingo, I shall.” But I couldn’t. I simply must get to the end to know why I started writing the book in the first place. And though I only just told you that I think know where this book is going – I don’t. I never do until I get there. But when I get to the end I think, Yes, this is where I wanted to go. And then I go back and change everything around so the story actually leads where it’s supposed, namely in one direction. 

This is why my advice to new writers is always – finish the first draft. Even if you do outline, you won’t know what the book is really about until you get to the end. Even if it’s a murder mystery, you might get to the end, only to realize the cat burglar didn’t kill the heiress’s cousin, it was the heiress’s cousin’s cousin. You never know until you get there. 

As if you ever can with anything anyway. I’m as guilty as the next fool of trying to plan out my future.  I am always wrong, and, like it or not, the future is always surprising.  All the better, I say.  Would you buy modeling clay that came pre-shaped? What would be the fun in it?  No, the blank page of our books, of our days, of our lives, is as it should be.  The nothingness, the absolute entirety of possibility, is the wellspring of all creativity. 

Dive in. 

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