Not Your Mother’s Rejection Story

by Noelle Sterne

May 2016

The rejection experience I’m about to relate was the kind of marvel you may read about and say, “Yeah, yeah, okay for you. It could never happen to me.” That’s what I used to think . . .

It All Started . . .

About ten years ago in late September when, with the usual mixture of anticipated glory and stomach-sinking trepidation, I submitted an essay about my love for the thesaurus to a top writing magazine. With the manuscript, I enclosed a letter listing some credits.

A month later, to my shock, I received a personal note from the editor-in-chief (I still treasure it). She rejected the essay with great grace: “I regret that we cannot make a place for it and I am returning it to you herewith.”

It was the second paragraph that bowled me over and incidentally saved me from the canyons of depression. She wrote:

I note that you have written a very successful book for children [my Tyrannosaurus Wrecks: A Book of Dinosaur Riddles] and perhaps you’d like to try your hand at a piece on writing nonfiction books for young people. If you do so and are willing to submit it on spec, we’ll be glad to give it a careful reading and prompt reply.

More than ecstatic at this invitation, I set to work. But all I knew about writing for kids was creating the riddles for the dinosaur riddle book. I’d never taken classes in children’s writing, didn’t subscribe to any newsletters, didn’t read any children’s lit blogs, didn’t natter in kids’ chat rooms. I froze.

Besides, how could riddles be considered nonfiction, as the editor labeled my book? Science fiction, maybe – I’d pushed the envelope, and almost ripped it, with puns in the book that belonged way beyond the grounds of Jurassic Park.

Ruminating on the editor’s invitation, and reading it more times than Mesozoic millennia, I realized – like a classic knock on the head – that I should write what I knew.

So, with new resolve, over many weeks I squeezed out a first draft about the techniques I discovered and invented for creating the 450 riddles (of which 146 were used). Over several more months, I carved a second draft, adding representative riddles. Then I dragged through a third, fourth, and fifth month. Six months after receiving the editor’s letter, in April, the piece was ready to send.

Repeating to myself that the editor had actually asked for the article, I sent the manuscript with a note reminding of her invitation.

The Judgment

Only a week later, a letter arrived. The return address was not the editor’s but one of her minions. Scanning the letter, I barely noticed the compliment, trying to fend off the deathblow: “While the piece is certainly well-written, we feel that overall, it’s too specialized for our readership.”

At first, I cursed the tunnel vision of editors. Hadn’t I included writing principles that could apply to many kinds of children’s writing? Hadn’t I given good (no, great), examples? Hadn’t I put my absolute all into the piece?

Then I sighed and stuffed all my drafts and the letter far back in my writing file cabinet (= morgue). And had no desire to resume any other writing projects.

But I couldn’t drag my pencils forever.

Mounting Up Again

Forgetting that lone piece, in the spring I climbed back on another, different horse, and then another. As I kept jogging out through the summer, more pieces, to my incredulous inbox, got accepted. Such results gave me the courage to jump on yet more writing steeds.

One of these newer works was my proposal to a major writers’ publication for an interview with the editor of a children’s writers’ magazine. Organizing my questions, I thought of that long-interred article on the riddles.

Holding my breath, I exhumed it. Now my more mature critical editorial eye saw the need for reworking, tightening, and polishing throughout. All manageable.

Heartened by this self-assessment, I recalled that the magazine I’d sent the article to those by-now many years ago had recently been sold. The publication had a new look, a new editor, and a new staff. So, the next September I mailed the spruced-up article and a note to the freshly anointed editor. And waited.

And waited. And eventually forgot about the mailing.

One bright summer day, ten months later in early July, in the mailbox I spotted a #10 with the magazine’s return address. Slowly I unfolded the letter. It was from a senior editor:

We discussed your article at a recent story conference and think it may have potential for us down the road, but we are not in a position to purchase it at the moment. We are keeping your article charted and on file and will get in touch with you if a slot opens up for it.

“Charted and on file”? What the blinkin’ syntax did that mean? “If a slot opens”? This was almost worse than an outright no. I was certain they’d contrived such elaborate rejective phraseology as tacit apology for having kept the piece for almost a year.

This time, though, slightly more toughened, I sighed and shrugged. Then I stuffed the letter into the writing morgue next to the drafts and earlier correspondence about the article.

And Then . . .

One day five months later, in December, among the bills and my own returned SASEd manilas, I spied a #10 with that same distinctive return address logo. Reading the letter, I almost fell off my pile of rejected manuscripts. The signature at the bottom was the managing editor’s, and the words I’d craved forever and had almost given up on sang out like a Broadway chorus:

We’d like to publish this piece in a future issue. Please let me know if you accept and/or if you have any questions.

If I accept? When I called him, I tried not to drool into the phone.

And so, the almost-defunct dinosaur riddle piece, which had risked fossilization in my dead-article writing file, emerged snorting with restored life and tail-thwacking, belly-laughing riddles. The article saw print – six and a half years after its first rejection by this very magazine.

Pardon the Pedantics on Persistence

Let this chronicle remind you that “No” doesn’t have to be permanent. Times, markets, ownerships, editors, and editors’ judgments and tastes can and do change. So dig into your own “morgue,” revise your pieces, and recycle them. Go for the same markets – remember my change of editors – and explore others. New writers’ online and print publications and blogs are emerging all the time.

One day, your piece, finally, will be accepted. You too will be able to encourage and spur despondent fellow writers with your own unbelievable, unlikely, implausible, and wonderfully satisfying “not your mother’s rejection” story.

Author, editor, writing coach, ghostwriter, and spiritual counselor, Noelle Sterne publishes writing craft, spiritual articles, stories, and essays in print and online. With a Ph.D. from Columbia University, Noelle assists doctoral candidates in completing their dissertations (finally). Based on her practice, her current handbook addresses these students’ largely·overlooked but equally important nonacademic·difficulties:·Challenges in Writing Your·Dissertation: Coping with the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles (Rowman & Littlefield Education,·2015). Excerpts·continue to appear in magazines and blogs. In Noelle's first book Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go·After·Your Dreams (Unity Books, 2011),·with examples from her academic practice, writing, and life,·she helps readers release regrets, relabel their past, and reach lifelong yearnings. Visit Noelle at

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