Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The Croton Rejection

By Joe Moore
I wrote my first novel over 20 years ago. I would get up a 4 AM, sit in a dark corner of my living room and type on something called a Magnavox VideoWriter. While my family slept, I worked away until it was time to shower and be off to my day job. For over three years I put in every spare moment, taking away from my family, friends, everything. The day came when I finished my masterpiece, an action adventure novel that I felt would knock readers on their butts. I could easily see my name on the bestseller lists just above Clive Cussler, Dale Brown, Jack Higgins, Tom Clancy, and all my heroes. It was just a matter of time before the critics would call me the next Clive-Dale-Jack-Tom guy.

I picked the biggest NY publisher of action adventure blockbusters I could find and spent countless hours tweaking my query letter. Finally, off it went. And to my amazement, I got a reply back from one of their editors asking to see my entire manuscript. Man, this writing thing was way too easy!

I printed the manuscript, packaged it up and sent it overnight costing me more in shipping than I could afford. Then I sat back, basking in the glow that my plan was on track. I was about to be rocketed into the action adventure stratosphere and worshiped far and wide.

A week went by. Two weeks. Three, then a month. I theorized that they must be passing my baby around to all the editors, marketing guys, cover artists, and publicists to see who wanted to work on the next major bestseller.

Then one day, I was working in my yard. I had thick crotons growing up against the front of my house, and it was time to trim them back. As I clipped away with the hedge cutters, I noticed a stained, yellowed shipping envelope shoved back behind the crotons. It was addressed to me and was from that big NY publisher. The mail carrier must have put it there to protect it from the weather. Checking the postmark, it had been mailed back to me less than a week after I sent the manuscript out.

I went inside, opened the package and pulled out my weather-worn, damp, rumpled, moldy pages. Written across the front of the title page in red were three words: Not for us.

I had spent 3 years working on that book and over a month fantasizing what I would do with that 6-figure advance. But with just three short words, my dreams ignited like a piece of magician's flash paper. It hurt. Even thinking back on it today, it still hurts.

Somewhere out there is a guy who decided to write “not for us” on the front of my manuscript many years ago. I’d like to thank him. Looking back, that book was not for primetime. And anytime I need a reality check, all I have to do is walk out my door and look at those crotons. They’re still growing and, hopefully, so am I.

What was your first rejection like? How did you deal with it? How long did it take to get over it and back on track?


Anonymous said...

That overlooked letter is like a tale from Thomas Hardy!

Nina Wright said...

Great post, Joe! I trust you share that story, complete with photographic proof of croton, whenever you speak to writer wannabes.

My first rejections came as a struggling actor in my early 20s. I contend that nothing is quite as excruciating as a face-to-face "NO" from a casting director eyeballing you from just a few feet away. Especially when he interrupts your monologue or song with "Thank you. Next!" and then talks about you to his assistant as if you were an insensate piece of meat. Sometimes I got the job. Most often I didn't. Perfect conditioning for the publishing world!


Candy Calvert said...

Incredible story, Joe!

My first rejection was for my first novel--a "fictional" re-hash of that ugly year my life became a bad country song: husband walked out, ranch flooded, broke my neck on a bucking horse. It was written with blood and tears, instead of ink, for sure--and Thank God no one bought it!!
I do remember paying WAY too much to overnight it to some newbie Vegas agency who'd only published how-to guides for gambling. I was betting that I would put them on the map. Crapped out on that one. ;-)

Mark Combes said...

I've got a story about "rejection revenge."

I was at a writers conference chatting with a newly minted author such as myself and he nudges me and says, "That agent reject my manuscript. She said it lacked punch. Keep working on it."

That agent catches us looking over at her and she comes over and introduces herself. My writer friend introduces himself and she instantly recognizes his name. She says, "Hows the writing going?"

He says, "Great, my book is on its second printing."

She gets this grin on her face like someone just farted and says, "Wonderful. Wonderful." Then walks away, head down.

We laughed long and hard after that.

The moral of the story? This crazy ass business is very subjective. It's not that the agent in the story is stupid - it just wasn't for her. So keep writing - keep plugging away. Someday you too will get "your revenge."

Bill Cameron said...

Lost Dog was my fourth finished novel. There were lotsa good reasons the first three didn't make it out of the crotons, not the least of which was the fact that the first one was, literally, "Moby Dick In Space." Let us never discuss the second manuscript again, but the third one was close. I was starting to figure some things out and I actually got some polite, encouraging rejections on that one.

My best rejection was the agent who rejected me via an order form for his own book on how to land an agent. I sent the order form back with a note on it, "Not for me."

G.M. Malliet said...

"Not for us." At least you got a personalized rejection, eh? Not the standard slip of paper that always contains some phrase like "doesn't suit our list at this particular time but good luck placing it elsewhere."

I once received a rejection for someone else's novel - I don't know too many authors who can claim that distinction.

My most puzzling rejections were the ones where I got no reply whatsoever, even though I of course included a SASE for reply. I didn't think to search the plants in the yard ... maybe the reply was there? Or was the agent so poor he was reduced to steaming stamps off the reply envelopes? Did he just hate the manuscript so much he couldn't bear to communicate with me?

We've all been rejected, I'd imagine, but...we didn't quit! That makes us all superheroes.

p.s. Joe, you brought back such "fond" memories of my Radio Shack Tandy computer - the "memory chip" in those days was actually a cassette tape. It was the most aggravating machine ever invented.

Rick Bylina said...

Maybe I had lower expectations. I was not the least bit surprised that my first novel submission was rejected, but the 430rd is a bit numbing.

However, my VERY first rejection was a sf story to "Playboy" in the early 1970s. The editor wrote back that the story made no sense because there was no such thing as binary stars (or as I had it in the story one star revolving around another which cast an odd shadow when they eclipsed). I should have recognized that the story was otherwise fine and that for the editor to spend much time commenting on my "lack of scientific knowledge" was a good thing and I just had an unenlightened editor. Twas a good story.

Live and learn and move on.

Cricket McRae said...

What a great story, Joe!

I can honestly say I don't remember my first rejection. By the time I started sending out queries and manuscripts, I'd talked to so many other writers that I figured I'd have to put in some dues. So I just kept researching agents and houses and showing up at the post office. I figured being stubborn would work in my favor, for once.

And of course, once one agent offered to represent me, I contacted the others who still had my queries in hand, and I suddenly had three other offers on the table. I investigated all of them, but went with the original offer and never regretted it.

The weirdest rejection I ever got was my query letter returned, folded into a little square and placed in a regular-sized business envelope -- without a single word of explanation or response on it at all.

Joe Moore said...

Someone once said that all writers start out as amateurs. It's the professionals that never give up. You guys are pros. Thanks for your comments and rejections stories. Now I'm headed out to fertilize my crotons.

Mark Terry said...

I may have blanked the first, first rejection. It may have been for a SF short story called "Panic Grass." The editor, was it SF& Fantasy or Isaac Asimov's? Don't remember. Anyway, their rejection slip was a full-page with a list of reasons they rejected it and they check off the box next to the various reasons that applied. The editor also wrote a personal note. It all seemed very reasonable at the time until I came to understand that was a "good" rejection.

My most-hated rejections are the black holes, where your manuscript just disappears, never to be heard from again.

Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

My favorite rejection is the basis of my story in the recently released "How I Got Published." It wasn't a publisher but my agent at the time who, after reading Too Big To Miss, told me "no one wants to read this crap." That crap is in its 2nd printing and going strong. (By the way, the books of mine she DID LOVE, she was never able to sell.)

Neener, neener, neener!

Julia Buckley said...

An interesting story, Joe. I have never heard the word "crotons" before. (And I like Bill's new idiom: the work that never 'made it out of the crotons.' :)

I've been rejected endlessly. You would think I would have a major complex by now. But my favorite was when a publisher sent me an e-mail rejection for ANOTHER WRITER. I wrote back and said that I was not Dawn Smith, or whatever her name was, and the publisher wrote back to say that I was rejected too, she had just sent the wrong one. Real classy.

But remember that great quote "I know we grow more lovely growing wise." We are all incredibly lovely by now.

Mark Terry said...

I've decided that rejection is just part of being a writer, fiction and nonfiction. If I get rejections, it mostly means I'm out there pitching.

And as Nina suggests, I have often said that I'm reasonably glad I'm not an actor. When a writer gets rejected it's his or her work that gets rejected. When you're an actor, it's YOU that gets rejected.

That's gotta hurt.

Felicia Donovan said...

Joe, I honestly don't remember the very, very first rejection because there were so many, but I do remember when I was in my early 20's that I finished what I thought was sure to make me the next Agatha Christie. I sent a query letter to a well-known agent who requested the full manuscript.

Like you, Joe, I bundled it up with care and trepidation and sent it on its way. My reply letter did not get lost, though. It came back a few weeks later and said, "I'm going to pass on this one, but send me anything anytime." What did I do? Nothing. All I focused on was "I'm going to pass" and sunk into a deep funk.

I kept her letter (along with many, many other rejection letters) in a drawer. Years later when I got serious about submitting my work again, I pulled that letter out, made a copy, and sent it off to her with the reminder, "You said I could send you anything anytime. Is twenty years too late?" It was. She nicely wrote back saying she had since retired and wished me luck.

Candy Calvert said...

Felicia--your "too late" story
reminded me that one of my queries came back with an aplogetic note explaining that the agent had died!