For me, it began in the third grade. I wrote my first story, called The Haunted Meatball. My teacher, Mrs. Brennan, told me it was wonderful. So wonderful, in fact, that she was going to send it off to have it published in a children’s magazine. So off went my first story, into the world. And we waited. We waited for weeks. Then months. Then one day, she took me aside, put her arm around me, and explained that the magazine wasn’t going to publish it. I was heartbroken. Mrs. Brennan felt terrible and did her best to convince me that it was still a really wonderful story, and I should write more.
I was in college when I sent my first batch of poems off to a prestigious literary journal. I got a form letter back. Not even a form letter, but a small square of paper – more of a form note. Clearly I was not worth the full sheet.
Over the years, I sent many batches of poems out. I kept a submissions chart, and once I got a bunch back, I’d note it and the response (which was, more often than not, form letter) and then send the bunch out to the next place on the list. I had quite a few poems published, all in small literary journals that most people have never heard of. They paid in copies. Once, I actually got a weensy little check. But I wasn’t in it for the money, of course. (If it was money I was after, poetry was a sorry ass way of getting it!)
When I wrote my first novel, I got a response from an agent in my first round of queries (amongst 8 or 9 rejection letters). She asked for the first few chapters, then, a month or so later, she wanted the whole book. Weeks went by. I was sure she’d forgotten all about me. Then, she called, gushing. She loved my novel and wanted to represent me. I really believed it was now only a matter of sitting back and waiting for the offers to start rolling in.
Long story short, she shopped my first two books around, and had no success. (Generating a nice, thick stack of polite and regretful rejection letters.) I wrote another novel, shoved it in a drawer, then another (novel number four which ultimately became Promise Not to Tell). She read Promise, and sent me a letter saying that it was time we parted company. I was talented, but she just hadn’t had any luck selling my work. And the new novel wasn’t for her, as she was not a fan of ghost stories. Looking back, I understand that she just wasn’t the right agent for the book, or maybe for my work in general. And it was the right thing for my writing career to find someone new. But at the time it was just incredibly painful and made me feel like a worthless piece of shit – the ultimate rejection, not just of a piece of writing, but of me as a writer. I spent a few months sulking, then revised the book, did some research and started sending out query letters – and the rest is history.
I have said before that I think success in this writing thing is all about perseverance. But there’s more to it than that. It’s also about finding a good agent (I’d be nowhere without mine!). And developing a thick skin. You’re going to get rejected – by magazines and journals, by agents and editors and then, when you’re happily published, there’s the sting of bad reviews. For us overly sensitive types (I cry during heartwarming commercials on TV, people) that thick skin actually develops more like scar tissue.
But see, I’m proud of my scars. They remind me of where I’ve been, of how hard I’ve struggled to get here. Mostly, they remind me that the most important thing is to keep moving ahead, to believe in myself when no one else will. We can’t all have our own Mrs. Brennans there to put a comforting arm around our shoulder, and say in the most reassuring voice, “It’s a good story.”