Filed under: Delicious, writing

Liz reminded me yesterday that, according to this blog, ten years ago this month I started to write a book that I titled Delicious, and that exactly nine years ago yesterday, on 21 March 2003, that book was rejected for the second time. (It had already been rejected once in August 2002.)

I don’t know how Liz remembers these things—she claims it’s because she’s secretly installed video cameras in my house*—but her comment sent me to my Rejections File to have a look.

My Rejections File is quite large. It’s yellow. It lives at the bottom of my desk, next to (ironically enough) my Publishing Contracts file. At this point in my life, my Publishing Contracts file is bigger than my Rejections file (largely, it must be said, because rejections consist of one page, and contracts consist of about twenty). But it wasn’t always that way. For a very long time, my Rejections file was by far the biggest file in the pile.

I’ve been rejected by publishers, by agents, by magazines, by contests I didn’t win. The weight of these rejections came from the time before I was published and agented, but I’ve had rejections since then, too. My last two rejection letters were for a short story and for a novella. They were both form rejections. They stung. I wish I could say they didn’t, but they did.

Rejections do sting…at the time when you get them. That’s why when you get a rejection, you have to rant and rave (not to the rejector or in public, but quietly, in private) and drink wine and eat chocolate until you are drunk and sticky. But they do something else too.

Today, I looked at my 2003 rejection for Delicious and it didn’t sting at all. It wasn’t a form rejection; it was a two-page letter detailing where I’d gone wrong and possibly the best rejection letter I’ve ever had in my life. And everything that was in that letter was exactly correct. That book didn’t deserve to get published. It wasn’t ready. I wasn’t ready.

Two years later, I rewrote that novel from scratch, using the advice I’d been given in that rejection, and I sold it.

My most recent form rejection, for the novella, got me thinking too.  I tried to think about why it had been rejected, even though the rejection gave no specific reasons. I gave the novella a thorough edit, to address the issue I thought it probably had, and sent it out somewhere else, where it sold.

Lesson number one: you can learn from rejections.

Some of the rejections in my Rejection File came from editors whom, later on my career, I ended up working with. Some of them came from agents whom I now know on a social basis, or whom I’ve run into in a social setting. A couple of times I’ve said, quite cheerfully and without rancour, ‘Ah yes, you probably don’t remember, but you rejected me ages ago.’ The reaction has either been polite forgetfulness or embarrassment, accompanied by a complete shift in topic. I’ve usually felt rather foolish.

Lesson number two: specific rejections are best forgotten, at least in public, even if you don’t care about them any more.

I’m proud of my Rejections File. Each rejection in there is proof of a time that I tried. It’s proof that I’ve been working hard and getting better. I don’t think that my fragile ego could deal with reading all of the rejections in one go, but I’m glad I’ve kept them. They still have things to teach me.


*If that video camera thing is true, I really feel sorry for poor Liz, because I am NOT a pretty sight about 98.4% of the time and sometimes I am also scratching my butt.

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  1. Great post! I think it’s important for people to know that rejection doesn’t stop once you get published! I also worry that with self-publishing some authors are putting their books out too quickly and missing out on the rejection process, which not only helps your craft, but it helps fuel the stubborn-beast inside you to keep trying harder.

    • Yes, I know that I thought that once I was published, all the rejections would automatically stop. I also sort of expected that manna would fall from the skies and flowers would spring up at my feet.

      One of the first lessons you learn once you’ve been published is that you’re still exactly the same person, the world hasn’t changed at all, and no one owes you anything.

      I agree that the ease of self-publishing can mean it’s tempting for writers to put their work out there too early. The whole problem is, of course, that how can you tell if it’s too early? When I sent out Delicious, for example, I thought it was perfect and ready to go. And it so wasn’t. But what if it had been, and the publishers had been wrong?

      (But in this case, it wasn’t ready and they weren’t wrong and only time, and rejection, could teach me that.)

  2. This is fab, Julie, and thanks so much for it. I always think published writers are vey generous when they come off their cloud and are open about the realities of the writing life; the rejections and disappointments as well as the triumphs. I wish you many more of the latter.

    • Likewise to you, Shelley—more and more and more triumphs, ever upward! Manna from heaven, flowers at your feet, etc etc (see reply to previous comment). Or maybe, come to think of it, just more ups than downs, overall. 🙂

  3. I absolutely agree with all that, Julie.

    Liz X

  4. I worked (briefly) in Fleet St in the days when a story was ‘spiked’ – ie literally stuck on a spike, which tore it through the heart so it could never be used. Then onto magazines where one editor used to write things like TBTF in the margin (Too Boring To Finish) or my story would be cut by 50% because the art department wanted to use the picture bigger. By the time I got onto the book world I realised that if anyone goes to the effort of actually saying why they’ve rejected you, then that’s a pretty big compliment to your writing. So I completely agree with you, and would say that over the years I think I’ve seen that the difference between becoming a published writer and staying unpublished is the willingness to listen to criticism and keep going after rejection. So many writers who pick themselves up after rejection, dust themselves down and then carry on seem to get published in the end, and deservedly so.

    • I love that, Nina. What a dose of perspective. A form rejection is so, so much kinder than TBTF!

      You’re right. You have to be tough.

  5. Thanks so much for this post!
    I found it via a retweet fom Essie Fox, and timing is perfect. I’m in an on-line writing group that is full of talent but just recently it has been really weighed down by rejections. I’ll be posting up a link to this blog (hope you don’t mind!), because I know a number of very talented writers will be encouraged and mollified (in a good way) by your words.


    • Brilliant, Andy. Thanks so much. That’s exactly why I post stuff like this…to remind other writers, and myself, that sometimes you just have to keep going. (See Nina’s comment above.)

      I hope your writing group goes from strength to strength and that the acceptances start rolling in soon.

  6. Great post Julie, and so true. I too have a rejections file (it’s called something ruder on the spine) which is mostly full of form rejections, which are mostly deserved. I cringe to think I actually thought those books were ready to be published back then. Thank God there was no such thing as instant ebook self publishing at the time, because I’d probably have done a lot of damage by putting those books out when they just weren’t ready.

    I can count the personal rejections I’ve had on one hand: the ones which actually told me why they were turning the book down and gave me something to work from. Whilst, obviously, I’d have preferred a contract and a six figure advance, these were much better than the form rejections, which made me think there was so little of redeeming quality in my work that the reader couldn’t find anything nice to say!

    That said, my all-time favourite rejection was from an agent who loved my book, thought it was fresh and unusual and wonderful and brilliant and when it was published she definitely wanted to buy a copy…but she still wasn’t going to represent it. I’m still scratching my head over that one.

    (Said book was short listed for the Contemporary RoNA this year, however, so I’m not crying into my pillow about it!)

    • I wouldn’t cry into my pillow about that one! And I’d keep that agent in mind for a future book if you’re looking for one, maybe? Sounds like you have a fan, talented lady.

      But it does go to show that not all rejections mean your work isn’t good enough…sometimes it just means that the agent doesn’t think she can sell it, or that she doesn’t feel personally enough invested in it.

      I think I would have done my career some damage by self-publishing my earliest work. The first book I ever wrote is definitely never going to see the light of day. I still have some belief in my third book, but I might lose that belief if I were ever to actually read the manuscript. I do believe in an apprenticeship away from public eyes. But as I said above, it’s difficult to judge for yourself when that apprenticeship is over. I’m glad I didn’t have to do it.

  7. As someone with a growing rejections file and and empty published file, this is a heartening read. It’s a slog sending out to agents, it’s the wait times that kill me. But then someone sends an encouraging full request and it feels all better again – until they send an equally encouraging rejection, lol! One day i’ll be able to balance those files.

    • Yes, one day you will, Jo. And as I said before, publishing contracts are MUCH thicker than rejections so that file will fill more quickly. 🙂

  8. I secured an agent a few weeks ago and I had a short story rejected last night. I think it’s rather healthy to stay humbled. Lovely post, btw.


    • Congratulations! And commiserations. It’s an up and down game, isn’t it?

  9. Absolutely, absolutely! What an excellent and truthful post. Like others here, I had a novel a few years ago that I sobbed over because it kept getting rejected, and I thought I’d made it the best it could be. Had e-publishing been as highly developed then, I’d undoubtedly have gone that route… and I’d have regretted it forever. Was it as good as it could be? Whoa, no. Like your Delicious, it wasn’t ready. It wasn’t anything like ready. Many years and many rewrites later, I AT LAST got it right, and it was accepted. I completely understand when writers get frustrated, and I have gone the e-book route myself with shorter works, but I always want to grab some e-authors by the lapels and beg them ‘Wait! Just wait! Give it a year or two, and you’ll see…’

    But in the current climate I too often feel that they’ll misconstrue my motives, that I don’t want to see them published and I’m being deliberately discouraging.

    • I’ve never met a published author, though, who didn’t want to see other writers get published. It’s a strange accusation, if it’s made to you. Maybe there are mean, dream-killing authors out there who don’t want to see anyone else succeed, but I haven’t come across them yet.

  10. Thanks so much, Julie: warm and encouraging for new aspiring authors (like me!). Two form rejections so far for my first novel: I’ve never tried to get anything published before, and the effect of the rejections has been weirdly positive, in that it has made this writing lark a reality for me rather than something I just fantasised about doing year in, year out. I’m looking forward to having my writing eyes opened further over the coming months or years, whether it be through rejection or success. It just feels great to be learning new stuff!

    • What a brilliant and inspiring attitude, Susan. Good luck with your submissions!

  11. I’m in the middle of a very different book, Julie, and I think of you every day. I remember you writing your first longer WF and all your self-doubts and struggles and in the end YOU DID IT. It keeps me going every day, because I know you were where I am now and it’s okay. It’s probably even GOOD for me to be unsure because at least it means I’m not blindly convinced that all my words are brilliant.

    I do hope you know how you continually inspire people (me included!) just by being you – funny, honest, and utterly lovely.


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