Thursday, November 13, 2008


I don’t save all my rejections to use as wallpaper or memorabilia. I read them, remember what’s worth remembering, and pitch them. Saves a lot of space for the TBR pile.

Three stick with me, which is probably why I don’t get too worked up over any of them. The first two are related. Several years ago I wrote a short story about a man who constantly feuds with his wife. They have their argument du jour and she goes upstairs to take a bath. He hears a bump from upstairs while he’s eating dinner, hollers up to ask what happened. She doesn’t answer, he goes up, and she’s dead. Classic bathtub accident.

He doesn’t think anyone will believe it was an accident, so he takes action he thinks will make the time of death seem later than it was, then goes to the local pub for his regular Monday night of football. Makes sure he’s seen—especially seen leaving—goes home, “finds” her, and calls it in. Of course, he doesn’t think of everything and winds up essentially framing himself.

Or did he do it? All the reader knows is what he tells someone who doesn’t reply, the entire story told through the husband’s words, ending with, “and you don’t believe me either, do you, Father?” I sent it to Ellery Queen, whose rejection said the story was too self-contained, it needed someone else at the end for him to play off of.

Easily done. I added a guard to walk him down Death Row and exchange an innocuous comment; the priest actually speaks. I sent the revised story to Alfred Hitchcock, who also rejected it, saying the added characters detracted from the atmosphere. I should have left it all in the guy’s head.

As Homer Simpson would say, “D’oh!”

My other fave is for a novel my agent is still shopping. We got the following reply from an editor who passed: “It’s too good to go straight to paperback, but not original enough for a hardcover series.”

My threshold for insult is pretty high; I would have swallowed my pride over even a paltry paperback offer.

So what’s the point? No one knows. No, not “no one knows the point;” no one knows what will sell and what won’t, or why. People have guesses. Thanks to experience and instinct, some are better guessers than others. J.K. Rowling took forever to get published. Elmore Leonard, already established as a top writer of Westerns, had something like a hundred rejections for his first crime story. James Lee Burke had two literary books published as a young man, then couldn’t get published again until he turned to crime. Meanwhile, every year high six-figure advances get paid to authors who will have more copies in recycling plants than on bookshelves.

So what is the point? Don’t take it personal, and don’t get discouraged. No one knows anything, not for a certainty. The only hard and fast rule to being published, observed by greats from Faulkner to Tolstoy to Dickens to Steinbeck, is to finish the book. Sure, lots of finished books don’t get published; no unfinished ones do.

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