A BRIEF HISTORY OF MY WRITING CAREER, or: WHAT LATER ARCHAEOLOGISTS CAN LEARN FROM SEVEN YEARS OF REJECTION
Hey. Hey, you. Yeah, you. C’mere. I want to show you something.
I know you better than you might think. You’re out there wandering, perpetually, in mind if not in body. You’re wandering through the American wasteland, the ruins of the British Empire, amongst the penal descendants and ex-pats of the Outback, and all those other places where English isn’t the center of the literary universe. You want to be a writer. You’re trying to be a writer. You are a writer. You spend every morning, lunch hour, and night dabbing a vein with your favorite quill in the name of creating something worthy of all the authors and works and words that have inspired you. More than that, something you can sell. You want to get your stuff Out There, desperately.
You probably think you suck. You’re probably right, at least right now. And even if you don’t, that seems to be the consensus everyone in a position to publish or otherwise enable your writing on a professional level seems to have reached.
Trying to take writing anywhere outside of your room/office/workspace is a hard thing to do. I’ve been doing it professionally for about five years now, actually making a fulltime, food-and-rent-living at it for slightly less (give or take a few lean and dry months here and there). Some people seem to feel I write well. A few, like the dedicated students who attend my monthly writing workshops, seem to feel I do it very well. Those who pay me to do it obviously feel I write well enough.
It’s a sliding scale, and it’s certainly debatable. What is not debatable is the route I’ve taken both creatively and professionally just to reach this slim waypoint.
So if you’re trying to write something worthy, or just something that sells, or both, and you’re finding it difficult, I’d like to submit the following for your consideration.
Mostly mine, really.
Behold. This is virtually every single rejection letter I have ever received as a writer. Agent rejections, publisher rejections, magazine rejections. Approximately seven years worth of rejection, comprising a period of my life from my late teens to my mid-twenties. Page upon page. Layer upon layer. They total in the high hundreds. Like penises, they come in all shapes and sizes and cause a wide range of emotional, psychological, and physical suffering.
Who are they from? The short answer is everyone. Every agent and agency in the infamous Guide. Midlist book publishers like Dorchester and imprints of larger publishers like DAW and Ace. The majority of them, however, are short story rejections. From high-end genre magazines like Asimov’s, Analog, Cemetery Dance. and Ellery Queen to fancy literary journals like The Paris Review, to dirt merchant small press and webzines that don’t merit naming; I was shunned by all, in many cases multiple, multiple times.
A lot of the time it was because I sucked. A lot of the time it was because my story sucked. This was also my writing education. Endless repetition. I didn’t go to school for this (or anything else), so I just wrote and wrote and lived and lived and submitted and submitted until I got better.
More often than not, however, it was because I simply didn’t get the right editor mammal at the right time on the right day.
That’s all that game was or is. It’s all it ever is.
You’ll notice toward the bottom that letterheads give way to the Gmail logo. Those are all e-mail print-outs and they compose almost the entire latter half of my folder.
That’s right, kids. I was submitting stories and collecting rejections for so long that the basic tools of communication itself experienced a complete technological paradigm shift.
This is the very first rejection letter I ever received. It’s dated a couple of months before my seventeenth birthday from a print magazine called Wicked Mystic that was published only a few miles from where I was eking out an existence at the time. Not long before this edict arrived I had dropped out of high school and scurried off to New York City to become, of all things, a professional wrestler. I was a fucking rebel, man, and I was going to become Legend. But writing was my first dream and I wanted that, too. I had no doubt when I dropped that story in the mail that it would be bought and I would soon be an ass-kicking Jack Kerouac.
Not so much.
The story was called “Mr. Bones” (I have no recollection of writing it and retain no copy of it, although “Mr. Bones” or just “Bones” was my maternal grandmother’s nickname for me when I was a kid). My favorite part of this one remains the coupon attached to the bottom of the form letter. It was my first taste of, “Now that I’ve rammed this mallet in your gut, you’ll no doubt want to buy my shitty magazine.”
This one is very near and dear to me still. It is the first personal rejection letter I ever received. It was the first time anyone, let alone anyone in the publishing industry, said anything, positive or otherwise, about my work to me. It was from Tom and Elizabeth Monteleone, who at the time edited my favorite short story anthology, Borderlands. It meant more to me at the time than I can put into words. It’s like the world suddenly existed. It was something I imagined, and tried very hard to believe was real even though I knew better. Then I reached it and it was tangible and accessible and real.
I submitted a story titled “My Caroline” that they liked a lot, even if it wasn’t a “Borderlands” story (they also wrote that they were certain I would sell it… just not to them. Never happened. Although I did include it in my first short story collection years later). Son, it was like blood in the water. I mailed my next submission off the next morning. I tried three more times after that to get into that same edition of Borderlands and three more times I got very nice, encouraging notes from the Monteleones that ended with, “it’s not a Borderlands story.”
This is possibly my favorite rejection letter of all-time, and I mean that sincerely. It’s a form, but the editors took such care and time and craft with it that I have often considered framing the page. It was from a lit magazine called Orchid that I doubt exists anymore. I don’t remember what story I sent them and the form doesn’t say. It begins with a beautiful quote from Charles Baxter’s Letters to a Fiction Writer and goes on to summarize the toils of authors like C.S. Lewis, Ray Bradbury, and F. Scott Fitzgerald as they faced a seemingly endless torrent of rejection of what became their most seminal and famous works. It ends with a brief message of hope and encouragement that actually manages to sound sincere instead of like a verbal handjob.
Would that the whole of the publishing industry adopted this attitude.
I stopped collecting (although I did not stop receiving) my rejection letters not long after I actually started selling stories. You’ll find they don’t mean nearly as much. But before someone validates you with that Godspeak that is “yes” these are all you have. They are your friends. Whether you hang them like idols or wear them like badges or pick at them like war wounds, you cling because there’s nothing else to feed you that way.
And now, ladies and gentlemen, let’s flip the switch.
To provide you with a sense of scale and perspective, these are the acceptance letters I received during that same time period (nearer the end, obviously). They’re gathered on the same surface as the rejections and fail to match even a quarter of that pile in size. Warren Beatty once said of trying to nail every woman he met that you get slapped a lot, but you get fucked sometimes, too.
Looking back, I’m honestly not sure which pile is which in that analogy.
This is my very first acceptance letter (or e-mail). My very first fiction sale. This was the first time anyone ever paid me for my writing. The story was a thoroughly moody, mediocre horror fable called “A Children’s Story” and it was purchased by a web-only ‘zine called Dredd Tales that obviously doesn’t exist anymore. My mother still has a print-out of the website’s splash page the month my story ran framed in her living room.
I was paid ten dollars American.
Ten. Whole. Dollars.
This e-mail is dated March 29th, 2006. I was living in Dallas, TX, and grinding through the final days of my pro-wrestling “career.” Six years, nine months, and twenty-seven days after I received my first rejection letter. This e-mail was one of the key components in my decision to retire from wrestling, move to Nashville, live penniless with my mother, and focus on making writing my career. It was also one of the things that inspired me to stop submitting and trying to sell my fiction, especially as any kind of primary focus. It taught me that I could do this, but that I could do so much better.
It’s always a strange feeling to get exactly what you’ve wanted for so long and realize it’s nowhere near enough in the same thought.
Less than two years later my first hardcover book was published and my first short story was optioned for film. Around that same time I cashed a $9,000 check for my first real screenwriting assignment. And I’d never seriously considered becoming a screenwriter. I now live in Los Angeles, where I’ve been gradually carving a substantive existence from the bare rock for the last couple of years. I make shit up for a living. I very rarely wake before noon. Occasionally I get to do insanely cool things like write dialogue for Liam Neeson.
It’s still a work-in-progress, but I have no complaints.
Did it all start with that first acceptance letter, or did it all start with that first rejection letter?
I’m reasonably sure there’s a lesson there if you can answer that question (I can’t).
They’re both offers to buy and publish The Failed Cities Monologues (a series I originally released as free serialized podcast fiction in 2006 and still one of the things I’m better known for by the select cadre of people who know me) as a novel.
The first is from Geoffrey Girard, himself a fine author who was at the time working for Apex. I knew him from hanging out at Hypericon in Nashville, where I was living at the time (with my mother). Geoff liked me (I think he still does, but who knows), liked my stuff, and when Apex put him in charge of building their new book division he basically offered to publish anything I wanted to give him. He suggested, as you can read in the e-mail, the “Failed City Monologues” (no one ever gets that right).
The second letter is from an associate editor for Harper Collins Australia who was working on their Voyager line. An independent film producer in Sydney for whom I was writing gave his partner my manuscript, who gave it to a Harper Collins publicist, who gave it to the editor. She loved it, wanted it, but told me flat-out it wasn’t publishable in its current form.
The truly amazing thing about these acceptance letters is that I ended up turning both of them down.
In the case of Geoff’s offer, Apex was a small publisher offering small money and they were just branching out from ‘zine publishing into books. The Failed Cities was and is an important work to me that took a lot of time and energy to produce. I also don’t just shit novels like some authors seem to have the ability to do. I’ve always been more of a short story writer. Although I did end up publishing a short story collection with Apex called The Next Fix, I didn’t feel giving them a novel was a worthwhile investment.
In the case of Voyager I simply wouldn’t do what was required to the manuscript in order to get them to publish it as a novel. The editor was a very nice lady, but she wanted too much added and too much changed. I could’ve done it. Easily. It would’ve been bullshit. Story added for the sake of length, and such fundamental changes to the construction of the whole thing it wouldn’t have been the Failed Cities anymore. It wasn’t worth it to me, not even for a nice check and what I thought I’d been working toward when I started this whole thing.
It comes down to what you truly want from your career and for your work held against your pride, your ego, and your perception of what a writer is. I had no interest in publishing midlist novels for a non-living wage and reaching a perpetually marginal-at-best audience while whoring myself at con after con and wearing a sad hound dog expression most of the time. All so I could point to a book on a shelf and feel legitimate and have other authors in the same leaky, dead-adrift boat count me among them.
By then I’d seen way too much of that, often perpetrated by some truly talented writers. It kind of made me sick. Still does.
I don’t regret either of those decisions. Saying “no” is just as important, often more so, than saying “yes” and it’s a very hard thing for most writers to do because we’re so undervalued as both a skill and a profession. We starve for a check and a back-slap and the allure of anyone with “editor” or “producer” on their business card often overwhelms our common sense and sense of self and purpose.
You can do better and more and bigger. If you want it.
So what can we take away from all of this? Persistence, obviously. We also need some Human encouragement somewhere along the way, even the hardest hearted of us. Hopefully you’ve learned not to waste seven years pumping your blood into a dead market, however it might build character.
Most of all, take away a sense of the possible. That’s what I’m seeing. I’ve labored long and arduously to become a good writer. I’m still laboring to become, not only a successful writer, but the kind of professional writer I want to be. And I know it’s all there. The audience, the access, the stage, the money, the resources. It’s all there. Technology is only going to enlarge that truism.
Every writer has a version of the above timeline. A lot of them have bigger trunks filled with broken dreams. A lot of them have worse beats. A lot of them have bigger victories. Some of you will write one story or one novel or one screenplay and see instant return. Many of you will never see your name in print, let alone make a living writing. Most of you won’t attain the goals you harbor in your deepest heart where writing is concerned.
Why put up with it? Why deal with any of it? In my case it’s the only marketable thing I do well that I enjoy doing every day, and even that’s a lie. Some days I fucking loathe writing beyond the worst torment suffered by man, woman, or angel.
But, man, when you get it right, when you win, when you get to do exactly what you want to do and create exactly what you want to create on your own time and compromise nothing for either and it comes out well… on those days it’s the best you’ll ever feel without a warm body pressed against yours.
All right. Get back to work, you.