Giving Up


A man of my acquaintance who’d just begun the process of sending his manuscript to agents told the world today in a blog post that he was giving up.  He’d received two rejections.  In the most recent one, the agent actually told him what she didn’t like about the novel, a plot point that could have been reworked with some effort.  It may be that in a few days he changes his mind, and since I’ve seen the first chapter or two of his manuscript, I really do hope that’s true.  He’s got a great idea and he’s a pretty thefty hand with a turn of phrase, so he’s a few steps ahead of the pack.  But for now his feelings are badly bruised, and he’s decided this is all too hard.

All of you who’ve been hanging around with us here at Magical Words for more than a day or two have already noticed this career is freakishly hard.  A writer has to be a creator, opening a vein and pouring his life onto the page every day.  He has to be a warrior, striding mightily into the fray that is present-day publishing, clad in armor that deflects the slings and arrows of agents’  and editors’ and readers’ opinions.  The writer has to be sensitive and tough, honest and discreet, convivial and wary, all at the same time.  Faith has a breakdown she sometimes shares with people.  It goes something like this: for every hundred would-be published writers, only ten will actually finish the novel.  Of those ten, four will submit to agents.  Of those four, two will get someone’s professional attention and of those two, one will sell a book.  (That’s not exactly it but you get the point.)   It’s no wonder that people just getting their feet wet in this business might be easily swayed away.  It happens to all of us at some point.  Look at the breakdown again.  Writing a book is easy compared to selling the damned thing.  It’s so easy to give up.

I remember one of my own give-up moments.  I’d been writing seriously for several years, and I decided to enter my first three chapters in a fairly prestigious competition, the prize of which was a publishing contract with Random House.  I wrote and honed and at last, the pages were ready.  They were perfect.  I was totally winning this thing.  There was no question in my mind that in a few weeks, I’d receive a fat envelope from the publisher, an envelope containing a congratulatory letter and a book contract.   A few weeks later, I did receive an envelope.  It was the SASE I’d enclosed with my contest entry, and inside it was a single sheet of paper thanking me for entering and wishing me luck the next time.  I had not won.  I fell to pieces.  How could someone else have appealed to the publisher more than me?  It was inconceivable.  I called one of the folks from my writing group, and wailed to him about how I should just quit.  It wasn’t worth all this emotional turmoil.  Luckily, I’d called the right friend.  He could have consoled me, told me how crazy the publisher was for choosing someone else, but he didn’t.  Instead, he said, “Yeah, go ahead and quit.  That’ll show ’em.”  It shocked me out of my pity party.  Within a day, I was back to work on the novel.  Maybe Random House didn’t want it, but someone else would, someday.

There are so many other creative outlets that offer quicker gratification.  I can sew a pair of harem pants in an hour, or construct a tribal bra and belt set in an afternoon.  I can learn a simple song on my psaltery in a day or two, and I can choreograph a dance in a week.  All of those are equally valid forms of self-expression.  We all have things we do that aren’t writing.  David takes gorgeous photographs, Faith crafts one-of-a-kind jewelry.  We could, I suppose, never write another word and still find some way to be creative.  But books are, and always have been, the shining treasure of our lives, and nothing compares with writing and telling stories. Hard as this career might be, I’d rather face rejection and criticism than a future in which I never sell another book.  I have so many stories inside me, just as every writer does.  No one can tell your stories but you, and we readers want to hear them.  It’s worth the suffering.  Every single writer you ever heard of was told “no” more than once.  So strap on your armor, and wade back into battle.  You can’t win if you don’t fight.


26 comments to Giving Up

  • Mikaela

    I actually had an aha moment last saturday. I was watching Melodifestivalen, the swedish qualifaction to Eurosong vision contest.
    What realisition?
    I realised that I was watching a slush pile. Two went immediately to the final ( = editor board), two got an second chance( = revise and resubmit) and four was rejected. And that’s the one considered good. Picked from the 3000 submissions….

    Did I freak out? No. I know it is tough. But I am used to rejections. So I am not giving up 🙂

  • What amazes me is how strange our rejection hides are. We writers develop a thick, thick skin — we have to in order to survive. When I get a story rejection, I shrug, pout for about ten seconds, then send that story somewhere else. And yet, there are times when I get a rejection that just floors me. It might even be just a form rejection, but for whatever reason, I was sure this piece, this market, this editor, everything was going to line up and I wanted it. No matter how thick-skinned we get, it seems we are still a fragile bunch.

  • Misty, you are so good at being all nurturing and encoruaging in moments like this, so good in fact that I’m going to take the opposite tack.

    Quitting after 2 rejections? Please. That doesn’t even begin to stir my pity glands. Let’s hope that this was a moment of despair that the writer will quickly get past. If not, I guess he just didn’t really want it, and that’s not something you can fix. Yes, rejection is hard, and yes you have to get used to it, and not just in writing. It requires a particular sense of entitlement to assume you will be instantly successful when you know no one else is. Quitting after 2 rejections??? I’m going to stop now before my irritation gets the better of me.

  • If not, I guess he just didn’t really want it, and that’s not something you can fix.

    AJ’s right. Especially because the rejection doesn’t stop after you sell a book. There will still be reviewers and readers who stomp all over your work. If you can’t believe in yourself enough to keep trying, if you don’t want it enough to grow that thick skin of armor, commercial publication is probably not the right goal for you.

  • I think the fact that he even got a personal response with suggetions is amazing and should tell him that he is close – REALLY CLOSE.

    As for me, I get that way too sometimes, but I can’t ever see myself NOT writing. So I take the attitude of, “I’m going to write anyways. If I get paid for it, great. If not, it is no skin off my nose.”

  • This really hits home. I had a few moments like this. But I know I can’t give up, and what keeps me from ever doing so is the knowledge that writing is what keeps me going. Criticism can be painful, but it’s a necessary sacrifice on the altar of improving one’s work. It’s part of the journey. Even if it takes me another ten or twenty years, I can’t give up now.

  • I love this post (although I agree with A.J. — if two rejections has this impact your friend might not be cut out for this line of work). And I think it applies to lots of professions. When I was still in academia, applying for teaching jobs at universities, the job market was incredibly tight. I got lots of nibbles – conference interviews, on-campus interviews (and granted, for two years I was applying for positions with my dissertation still unfinished) but before I was finally offered a teaching job, I was turned down 75 times. 75! I still get rejections on short stories; I still haven’t sold an urban fantasy that I’ve been shopping for some time now. Rejections suck, but they’re part of the business; part of most businesses. If you want it badly enough, you’ll shake them off and move on.

  • I must ask. (I HAVE to ask.) Was it Norman? Dear King Norman???? I miss him!

    As to the two time rejection — AJ is dead on. If your writer pal doesn’t have the … mmm … man parts to take a rejection, he dosen’t belong in this business. Let him go whine under his pillow. Or get up, grow a pair, pull his boots on, put his butt in the chair, make the freaking changes, repolish, and resubmit. No sympathy. (She said as she remembers the stack of ancient rejection letters and the tears for the book that never sold. YET!)

  • Misty> Excellent post! I tend to agree with the folks who say “two rejections? Feh!” But maybe I’m too harsh. (Does it say something that of the people who responded that way, 3 of whom have been in acadamia? Does it make us less sympathetic?)

    And David> those are about my numbers. I went on the market twice, once w/o the diss finishes, and got nibbles, but yeah, I’d say about 75-100 rejections. Funny, though, I didn’t really remember them that much at this point. I just remembered the acceptance.

    I wonder if that is true for writing. Do the acceptances make us forget all the pain? Kind of like hitting a golf ball badly 100 times and then hitting right once, and so we’re willing to hit it another 100 times badly (or, hopefully 95, then one right).

  • Pea,
    I don’t forget the pain, though you are right that past rejection looks different when you find success: it looks like apprenticeship, not failure. But if I sound harsh on this subject it’s not because of my academic background (in which publication is, I think easier to achieve than in fiction). It’s because I was rejected hundreds and hundreds of times for 20 years, and because I stuck with it because writing is a fundamental and inextricable part of who I am. A couple of rejections can make you discouraged, sure, but they should then make you work harder. If they don’t, you’re not really a writer.

  • Deb S

    It’s funny, but for me the standard “this one didn’t grab my attention” short story form rejection is often less painful than a personalized rejection. In sports terms, it’s like playing a close game vs getting blown out. The close games take longer to process and get over.

  • tiffany

    WHen people apply for college, the idea is to apply to several, with the knowledge that one will not be accepted at every institution. Same with medical school, law school, graduate school, prospective employers, etc. That is life. HOWEVER, I can see a rejection being quite devastating if a writer has such a niche that the two rejection letters were from the only two agencies in that sub-genre. In which case, the writer should rewrite his work to be more marketable, give himself more opportunities for success. IF he wanted to be a career writer in the first place.

  • Rejection’s never been hard for me to take, because no one can *begin* to approach how critical I am of my own work. When it comes to cutting me to ribbons, everyone else is just a rank amateur.

  • “Yeah, go ahead and quit. That’ll show ‘em.”

    There’s no love quite like tough love, is there? I think every writer should put those eight words up on a wall someplace and read them every single damn day.

  • Faith, it was indeed our beloved Norman. I don’t even know what made me call him that day, unless it was just that I subconsciously knew, of all the writers I knew, he’d be guaranteed to smack the pity party right out of me.

    Emily, the acceptances don’t make us forget the pain, but they make it worth suffering. Sort of like childbirth, but without the mess. 😀

    Tiffany, the novel wasn’t so tightly niched as that. It’s a dark urban fantasy, so he’s got loads of possible agents to submit to. Which is what makes it so frustrating that he’s quitting so soon.

  • Liz

    Two rejections? Your friend must not talk to other writers often and must never have looked at advice websites and such. But maybe he felt that yes, he was due the “prize” because he had completed his novel?

    It is sad. No creative endeavour is ever easy to put before others and to have it turned down does hurt. I’ve shelved my first offering when I realised some home truths and subsequently wrote a second novel. And even I can tell how much difference there is between the two manuscripts. I have learned SO much – the process, plotting, the works. It is far far better than the first – can still improve massively during edits and such but wow, what a rush.

    And it’s made me want to be pubbed even more than before. Maybe that is what your friend is lacking? The want, the need?

    Maybe he’ll come round and decide to give it another go?

  • My rejections are my battle scars. Their my proof that I’m doing something about my dream, not just talking about it. For every certain number of rejections, as I hone my skill, find the right markets, and land the right agent, my stories will be accepted. I tape them to my wall–evidence of my hard work and a reminder to persevere. Eventually, the acceptance side will gain dominance.

  • Yeah, then I misspell They’re. Way to start a post…:-)

  • Lance Barron

    Misty, excellent perspective. I haven’t been in that position, yet. I will be starting the query process soon, but I don’t know how well I will accept the rejections. I’m not planning on putting a spike on the wall to hold all of them, but I hope I can take more than two of them. After reading your post and people’s comments, I anticipate them. Thank you.

  • Sarah

    Hear hear! Yoda was wrong – there is lots of try, lots and lots and lots of try. And then more try. Some of those tries result in publication. Lots don’t.

    Add me to the list of academics who say “feh” to quitting after two rejections. If I have any regrets when I die, the fact that I let early rejections (and worse the mere fear of rejection) keep me from finishing work and submitting it for so many years. If I had a dime for every half finished story in my youth…

  • *stands up and applauds wildly* I am so proud of all of you who refuse to quit, and I can’t wait to read all your stories someday.

  • I’m reading a pile of rejections slips to honor this post and ensuring they’re all logged in my Sonar program (which is for tracking subs, naturally).

    Besides, I’ll take a writing rejection over a girl rejection any day of the week. That said, I’ve probably collected more of my fair share of those too. lol


  • Put my in the non-academic column with my “Feh!”

    I have 14 published short stories out of 70+ written and submitted, 4 published poems out of 40 submitted, ZERO published novels out of three finished, and (count ’em folks) 327 rejections.

    I may never sell another word – won’t stop me from writing them or submitting them, though.

  • Misty,

    I just re-read what I posted. Gah, it sounded completely muddled. Sorry about that. I was really sleep-deprived last night and I guess my coffee hadn’t kicked in. o__o

    What I meant to say was something more along the lines of: I’ve felt like your acquaintance did in the past and I can relate, but it got easier after awhile. Now I’m at the point where I recognize that facing criticism isn’t just necessary, it’s vital. How else can a person improve unless they know what they’re doing wrong?

  • Dave Carlile

    There’s a bar near where I live that will give you a free drink for every rejection letter. Generally this is for employment rejections, but I’m sure they’d do it for publishing rejections as well. My point is, don’t let rejection get to you, in any form. Go have a drink, or do something else you enjoy (probably the better choice), then move past it and try again.

  • L. Jagi Lamplighter Wright

    >he was giving up. He’d received two rejections.

    The mind boggles. I’m…boggled!

    >“Yeah, go ahead and quit. That’ll show ‘em.”

    LOL That is a wonderful reaction!