The Debutante Ball Welcomes Laurie Halse Anderson!

Laurie Halse Anderson

Congrats to contest winner Leslie Nagel!

It is an extreme pleasure for us to welcome the incomparable Laurie Halse Anderson to The Debutante Ball.  While we could rave on and on about her and her incredible body of work, we’ll let her speak for herself.  As she says on her website:

Laurie Halse Anderson is the New York Times-bestselling author who writes for kids of all ages.  Known for tackling tough subjects with humor and sensitivity, her work has earned numerous national and state awards, as well as international recognition.  Two of her books, Speak and Chains, were National Book Award finalists.  Laurie was honored with the 2009 Margaret A. Edwards Award given by YALSA division of the American Library Association for her “significant and lasting contribution to young adult literature…”.  Mother of four and wife of one, Laurie lives in Northern New York, where she likes to watch the snow fall as she writes.

Today Laurie takes a spin on our dance floor to weigh in on this week’s topic, Rejection.  Keep reading at the end of the post for your chance to win an autographed copy of Laurie’s latest book, Forge.

(Photo Credit: Joyce Tenneson)

Triaging Rejection Pain

You know the dream, right?

You steal the hours before dawn or after midnight to scribble the stories that won’t leave you alone.  You write possessed by the spirit of the Muse.  You are driven by the need to be published and maybe by the idea that being published will change everything.

After years of work, you submit the manuscript.  Maybe you say prayers, or light candles, or visit shrines like Mark Twain’s house and leave small offerings of cigars and pots of ink.  And then you wait.  For days.  Weeks.  Months.  Sometimes years, all the while explaining to your skeptical family and friends that really, this is the way the publication process works, and you expect to be hearing from the editor any day now.

Finally, the news arrives.  Not the phone call from the delighted editor.  Not a bouquet of flowers from your agent.  Not a marching band led by Steven Spielberg who wants to option your story for his next blockbuster film.

You receive the Rejection Letter.  It says something like this.

“I’m afraid we’re unable to make you an offer to publish as your story does not meet our needs.  We appreciated the opportunity to consider your work.”***

Ouch.  Who knew that such bland words could be so devastating?

Rejection often leads us to cycle through the stages of grief:

  1. Denial – you double-check to make sure the letter was sent to the right person.
  2. Pain – you cry.  You curl up in the middle of the floor and sob.  That letter is an acid-tipped shard of glass thrust deep into the heart of your dreams.  When you finish crying, you make a cup of tea.  When the mug is empty, you cry some more.
  3. Anger – you plan out an exposé for Harper’s on the sham that is the publishing world.  You post furious blogs and snarky Facebook status updates.  You try to use your rage for something constructive so you shovel your neighbor’s driveway and throw out your back and wind up in traction.  And then the next stage hits.
  4. Depression – the sad, lonely black dog creeps in between your ribs and gnaws, slowly, on your liver.

I know your pain, my friend.  We all know this pain.

The nice people who encouraged you to follow your dreams vanish when the dreams are shattered, don’t they?  And that university where you earned your MFA does not offer a money-back guarantee when the rejection letters outpace your student loan payments.

All of this is the bad news.

It is also the good news, too, in a strange and twisted way.

Because rejection is a constant in writing.  Even when you get to the stage where you have an editor who regularly publishes your books, you will still deal with rejection in the form of nasty reviews, or bad sales figures, or non-existent marketing budgets.  The fantasy that we have of everyone loving our books, and praising them to the heavens, and buying a bazillion copies is a lovely fantasy, but it is hardly the material for you to build a career upon.

Even J.K. Rowling has bad days.  Seriously.  She does.

Do not say to me that you would be willing to have her bad days as long as you could have her income.  You didn’t become a writer to be rich.  She didn’t, either.  She had a story in her heart and she wrote it.  She controlled what she could.

You have control, too.  You have total control over the quality of your work.  My Fever 1793 rejection letters?  The manuscript deserved them.  It was bloated and not well-crafted.  Frankly, it sucked.  I thought that an editor would see what a good idea it was, and then, you know, edit, and help me make it better.  That’s not how it works.  Don’t send out your story until it is perfect.

You also have control over where you send your work.  A couple times I sent Fever 1793 to editors who hated historical fiction, because I did not research the kind of books they worked on.  A considerable part of being a professional author means understanding the business aspects of our world.  That includes knowing which imprints at which houses will appreciate your story.  It also means staying on top of the dizzying changes that go on in publishing, including where editors work and when they move.  (Harold Underdown’s website is a great resource to help with this.)

You are the one in charge of your life plan, too.  Were you hopeful that this novel would earn you a five million dollar advance and free you from your day job, your debt, and your worries about the future?  Did you have your Caribbean island picked out?  Most successful authors live frugal lives because they understand the financial realities of the publishing world.  Being published is an amazing experience, but it contains no guarantees.  I think a part of the pain of rejection is that it crushes some unrealistic financial hopes.

The way to pull yourself out of the slimy pit of Rejection Depression is to go for a very long walk.  Bring a notebook and a pen.  Write down all of the financial goals that you had attached to the sale of your book.  Make a note that in a week, you will come up with a different plan to achieve those goals.  This allows you remove financial pressure from your writing dream.  Removing the financial pressure will go a long way towards allowing you to be clear-headed about the quality of your work.  It usually leads authors to take the time to do another draft – or three – before they send their stories out again.

After the walk, read the last five books edited by the person who rejected your story.  You may realize that your story is way outside of what this editor enjoys.  But if you feel even more strongly that this is the perfect editor for your work, then you are left with a somewhat painful, but ultimately very useful lesson.

Your story is not good enough.  Yet.

This is truly good news.  Because you’re a writer.  You’re a reader, a creative, open-minded person.  Your task is to figure out how to make your story even better.  And you will do this.

You might consider taking some time away from the story.  You are probably too close to see the forest for the trees.  Draft another novel.  Set a goal of writing six picture books.  Read outside your favorite genre for three months.  Write some poetry.  Draw.  Take voice lessons.  Dig other creative ditches and then return to the manuscript that was rejected.

That’s what I did.  I set aside Fever 1793 for a year and wrote Speak.*****  After writing Speak, I returned to Fever 1793 and was able to see all of the weaknesses of the story.  I revised and revised and revised some more.  The book became much better.  The next time I sent it out, the editor called me, and in a very pleasant voice, explained that Simon & Schuster wanted to publish it.

The last stage of grief is Acceptance.  Yep, your book was rejected.  But you are alive.  Your creativity has not diminished.  You are capable of learning more and writing better.  Rejection, in all of its forms, is part of being a writer.  Take it as an opportunity to become more professional, and to lift the quality of your work to the next level.

And don’t forget to take a trip to Twain’s house.  A little homage to one of the masters never hurts.

***Quote is from one of the thirteen rejection letters I received for my historical novel, Fever 1793, that went on to earn a place on twenty state reading lists, become a BBYA title, and has sold nearly one million copies.

***** For the record, Fever 1793 sold before Speak was published.

Thank you so much for that inspirational post, Laurie; we’re thrilled beyond words that you joined us here at the Ball.

If you’d like to win a signed copy of Laurie’s latest book, Forge, just leave a comment below. The winner will be drawn randomly and announced in next week’s News Flash.  Good luck — we can’t wait to hear from you!

89 Replies to “The Debutante Ball Welcomes Laurie Halse Anderson!”

  1. Thank you. It is strangely encouraging to hear the rejection stories of successful writers. Gives one hope. 🙂

    Actually, one of my coping strategies for rejection is to tell myself it would be a shame if, when I’m the successful writer I aspire to be, I didn’t have any of my own rejection stories to share. Of course, it wouldn’t bother me much if I didn’t add too many more to my rejection collection.

  2. Laurie, thank you so much for taking such an inspiring and insightful turn at the Ball. I’m currently having the same experience you described with Fever 1793. In thinking about possibilities for my second book, I dragged out an old manuscript I’d loved, but had been rejected several times and I couldn’t fathom why. Now that I’m back inside it, I know EXACTLY why — it’s nowhere near ready. The germ is there, but I really need to knock it down and build it back again before I’d feel comfortable sending it out once more. Hearing your experience helps me take a deep breath and think less about the time-monster breathing down my neck (I need to get them something NOW), and more about the story I love, and how best to tell it.

    I’m a huge fan of your work, and it’s truly an honor to have you here.

    As for anyone out there hoping to win Forge, I just finished reading it, and can personally vouch for its excellence. It’s a sequel to Laurie’s book Chains, which is also a must-read.

  3. I really appreciated your insights on ‘rejection’ – how do you not take personally something that is so much ‘you’?

    I’m reading more and more YA to pass along to my nieces; I’d love to win this book! Thanks!

  4. Laurie – Thanks for stopping by the Ball, and with such good advice! I think these ideas hold true for all kinds of rejection – retreat, re-center, re-assess, re-attack.

    In my former life as an English teacher, I was thrilled to be able to teach Speak to my 7th graders. It was their favorite book every year, and we had such a wonderful time unraveling the beautiful writing and talking about the story and what it meant to us. Thank you for giving us that opportunity.

  5. always a pleasure to hear from Laurie.
    such good words.

    my husband has used the novel Speak many, many times.

    I would love to receive autographed copy of Forge.

  6. It’s always strangely comforting to know that even the best of us submitted wonderful stories that got rejected, sometimes many times, before their final acceptance. When I read tales like Laurie’s, I sit back down at the keyboard. Usually, before that, I avoided the writing room entirely, unless a vacuum cleaner was involved.

  7. My favorite part about this post is that you realized your book needed work … and you put in the work necessary to make it publishable. Sometimes that’s all a story needs – to be put away for a while. Work on something else and then go back to it. Every time, you’ll see its flaws and, sometimes, you’ll even understand why it was rejected … I know I sure did. Thanks for writing this, and for the contest 🙂

  8. I love this post. You have to keep strong and carry on because the book isn’t going to perfect itself— you’re the writer! Thanks for the encouragement and thank you all for creating a blog dedicated to a writer’s quarries!

  9. Thanks for the words of wisdom, Laurie! I know I have to fight the urge to send out my work before it’s ready. And I’ll know it’s ready when I read through the whole thing without picking up my red pen and changing something.

  10. I truly appreciate you writing this post. I’ve spent the past 2 1/2 hours pounding out a scene revision that is so far away from being “done” that I could just could weep. At times like this, it is hard for me to imagine that everyone else doesn’t produce wonderfully finished work on their laptops the very first time. Your transparency about Fever, and its revision/rejection process, gives me a much needed glimpse at the hard work other writers face. Thank you!

  11. Very helpful post. Sometimes getting past the rejections is hard, but if you’re not willing to take them, then you’re stuck. You can write only for yourself, I guess, but where’s the fun in that?

  12. Great post!

    Especially the bit about the fact that once you’re published, not everyone will love your book.

    I recently finished my first novel (I have 3 more in the oven) so I haven’t experienced too much rejection—guess I’d better add “yet” (-; but I’ve been a performing singer songwriter for years and years so trust me Writers, rejection letters are NOTHING!

    Try this: Get yourself a guitar. Play for a day or a decade, doesn’t matter, when you book that gig (if you can get it)
    and climb onstage, chances are your guitar will become a stranger no matter how well you know it.
    Now look into the audience. See the guy from the record company with the folded arms? Yeah him. Nervous yet?
    Can you remember the lyrics of the song that you spent an hour, a day, a year writing?
    But wait.
    It’s a rainy night. Your hair is frizzy. Your boots aren’t right, you suddenly feel off balance.
    The lights are in your eyes.
    Your best friend didn’t show.
    The guy who booked you looks pissed . . . why?
    You need a throat lozenge.
    A beer.
    To get out of here.

    Are we having fun yet?


    So Writers, I ask you,
    how much can that little old rejection email hurt, really?
    Just keep writing . . . that’s what’s important.

    With love,

  13. Like you, I set aside a story for two years after it was rejected. Then an agent told me to rewrite it in third person and I have finally decided to do so.
    Forge sounds like an interesting book. Thanks for running the contest.

  14. I was fortunate enough to have a lovely and reputable agent offer me representation on my first novel. Now she is (slooowwly) forwarding the rejections. Some of those rejections have been AMAZING in their praise–enough that it is almost MORE frustrating! I am currently struggling with feelings that IT will never happen for me. I am a late bloomer and began this adventure late in life. I literally don’t have a lot of time to build my career and the whole thing makes me feel tired and discouraged.

  15. I think that bit about how an editor might see the spark and edit the book into a more reasonable form is something everyone thinks when they just can’t look at their book anymore. Good to see it debunked 🙂

  16. As a middle school special education teacher I’m grateful for books like Fever 1793. They allow students to learn about history, make new friends in your characters, and most importantly realize that even if you think you ‘hate to read’ (as, unfortunately, many of my students do) you can LOVE good books!

  17. Thanks for sharing your inspirational insights Laurie! Now I am revved up to get back to my writing–and to pull out the old manuscript that has been sitting there! (while researching along the way)

  18. Ahhh, rejection. It’s so nice to hear that even the masters, like Laurie, have dealt with it. For me, it’s inspiration to go back with new eyes and rework my piece. I’ve learned to covet those few helpful rejections. You know, the ones that give just a tid bit of direction on how to fix your masterpiece.

    Thanks, Laurie, for this great post.

  19. Fabulous! I’m sending the link to the critique group I run. I loved Fever, 1793, especially because I’m from Philadelphia. I’m so pleased to read about the 20 state reading lists and a million copies. Yowza!

  20. Very good post, with a good message: all professional writers get rejections, at all stages of their careers. It’s not something that goes away. So beginners just have to get used to it. Period.

  21. Absolutely brilliant post that should be required reading for every writer, aspiring or published. And speaking of required reading, my daughter’s 8th grade social studies class read FEVER 1793 this semester and she was utterly enthralled, then thrilled to find so many of your books on my shelf. She is currently glomming your body of work.

  22. Laurie~ My son loved Fever 1793. Thanks so much for not giving up on your manuscript.

    I don’t handle rejection well. LOL But I’ve had my fair share. I had a book rejected last year, a book I love. I set it aside. I’ve written 3 since. After a year of thinking about it, rereading the rejections, and reviewing the ms., I’m ready to go back to the drawing board. This post was an inspiration. Thank you.

  23. The same is true of academic writing. My dissertation was “rejected” five times (OUCH!!) before I heard some of the most beautiful words ever, “You’ve done your committee proud.” Totally worth every minute.

  24. Thanks for the reminder that not only do our favorite authors suffer rejection, but they continue to face it even after they get that first acceptance. It may not make waiting for “yes” any easier, but it helps put things in perspective.

    I loved “Fever 1793” and can’t wait to read “Forge.”

  25. Hi Laurie,

    Oh what relief… I was ready to donate my thesaurus to the Salvation Army and start decorating snowballs. Seriously, I think I hit the “depression” part of rejection and dejection and thought if I didn’t just stick with my manuscript that I’m a failure. But taking an art class this winter is sounding very appealing and I think will be sneaky way to feed my creativity until I’m ready to peak at my manuscript again. Thanks for your inspiring sharing. I can’t wait to ready some of your books.

  26. Dear Ms. Anderson,

    Thank you for taking the time to share an important life lesson for you. As a Children’s and Teen Librarian, I am grateful for the perseverance you showed in working on Fever until it was the perfect story. It has been a well-received and much loved book at my Library and I have been able to use it as a “gateway book” to put _Chains_ in others’ hands. Best wishes for continued success, enjoyment and discovery in your writing.

  27. I’ve read lots of posts on dealing with rejection, but this one is the best by far. Laurie Halse Anderson rocks. Tough love with encouragement, too. Love this.

  28. I love the raw honesty with which Laurie Halse Anderson writes. Regardless of what she is writing, the voice of the person- be it herself or a character- comes across clearly and effectively. This article echos what my high school English teacher said to me years ago- “As a writer, I deal with rejection regularly. It’s a part of writing. I keep doing it anyway.” He said this with a smile and encouraged me to continue to write. Posts like this encourage me to keep determined and reminds me that I write for the beautiful passion that is creativity, words, and ideas. What a wonderful read!

  29. Splendid and gorgeous. Perhaps, Laurie, you could craft some lovingly phrased rejection postcards for publishing houses to send out in place of the vanilla poison-tipped arrows in their quiver now–a little encouragement to go with the devastation. I really loved this article. Thank you.

  30. I don’t know if it’s because misery loves company, but I suspect it’s more because it’s nice to know it happens to other people. Rejection that is. You make so many good observations, and they’re all important things to keep in mind during the submission process. Thank you ^_^

  31. Great post, Laurie, and perfect timing for me. I’m about to start the seventh draft of a novel I hope will go on submission in 2011. Thanks for the reminder it’s not ready yet. It will be, but it’s not yet. And, when it is, that will be reward enough. Everything else, is indeed, icing on the cake.

  32. The biggest myth of all is that rejection ends once an author is published. I think we all want to believe that, even when we know deep down it isn’t true. We believe this big day will come when we’ll get published and from there on out, life will be sunshine and roses.

  33. Thank you for the background on FEVER 1793. I shared your book with a summer book club of 5-7 grade girls two years ago, and they loved it. They even put together a bizarre (but memorable!) presentation of the stages of yellow fever (I was lucky enough to get the yellow eyeball prop).

    They also enjoyed games where I’d ask questions about the book, and the loser of each round would get one step closer to their own yellow fever demise. Macabre, goofy, and fun.

  34. I was prepared for the rejection letters. I had researched the market for awhile and realized there was a learning curve and I was at the bottom. The rejections hurt, but they didn’t surprise me. Hopefully 2011 will hold twenty more rejections and one phenomenal agent willing to tell me exactly why my book won’t sell. (:

  35. Wow. Thanks for sharing your story with all its ups and downs. If an amazing writer like you can grow and learn from rejection, I certainly can. Your honest, no-nonsense words were just what I needed to hear. Wishing you all the best for 2011!

  36. As someone who has faced A LOT of rejection, I SO appreciate this. Although I don’t wish hardship on other writers, I am always inspired when I read stories of those who had difficult journeys but then made it. I was at the Rochester Teen Book Festival back in May and the HUGE lineups that led to Laurie were evidence of how loved and respected she and her books are. Laurie, thank you for this honest account of your own journey and the reminder that: A. all writers face rejection, B. not to hang hopes and dreams on unrealistic expectations and C. Everyone starts somewhere.

  37. I started talking about how wonderful it is that Laurie Halse Anderson was chosen to talk on overcoming rejection, but it kinda devolved into gushing praise.

    Let it be said that I appreciate the privilege of reading this, I’m a huge fan of the author, I can’t wait to read more of her books, and I look forward to the day when I can tackle devastation and recovery half so well as she does in my own writing.

    I’m also sharing this with my writing fans. Excellent words!

  38. Hope I’m not too late to enter the contest. Laurie Halse Anderson’s work is breathtaking. I’ve had several of my female high school students soften and change after reading Speak. It’s an unspoken balm for so many of my pained little ladies. In a perverse way I’m kind of glad Ms. Anderson had to suffer through so many rejections since it seems that it’s often what it takes to push deep enough to write something that really matters.

  39. If it’s any comfort, I had seven yrs of rejection prior to contracts from Berkley, Dell, Harlequin, and Dell. Back in the day, we did not have Internet resources or access to so much info, and it took a writers conference and an agent who read the same material to jumpstart me. Same material, but took an interested agent. My arrow-thru-the-heart rejections put me onto the couch, wrapped in an afghan and groaning as if a death blow. Same material, tho. Just took that one agent to click.

  40. What a wonderful post. As a reader, it makes it so much better to read a great book and know that it once, well, wasn’t. It’s like life. It takes time to grow up, mature, and be ready to actually live a life to your standards. It provides hope that maybe Some people, who just can’t seem to get it together, can receive help and get their ducks in a row. It adds another dimension to the book, shows how much you really care about the finished product, and how each word is really strategically placed. Which, of course, that notion leads to off the wall theories and assumptions that make reading the work all that more entertaining.

  41. thank you so much for this article. rejection sucks & this takes some of the sting out of it. it gives me hope knowing i’m not alone.

  42. I hate word count. First draft: 210,000. Fourth draft: 153,000. Sixth draft: 135,000.
    Currently paring my way through Draft #7. This part of the process sucks. The good news is that I have pulled out some chunks of story that may see the light of day in another book (if I don’t give up before then).
    Misery loves company. Glad I found this blog before I fed my laptop to the wood chipper.

  43. Excellent advice. I especially think that divorcing writing from financial pressure is a great idea. I write because I can’t help it. If I get paid for it, that’s a bonus. Maybe it helps that I have a day job I love, but (at least for me) the point of writing isn’t the money. The point of writing is the story.

  44. Already commented, so don’t enter me twice in the drawing… Actually, Forge is available at my local library, so don’t enter me at all! I’d rather someone who can’t otherwise read it get the opportunity, 🙂

    I just remembered a TED talk I saw that offers scientific support to Laurie Halse Anderson’s recommendation to separate financial pressure from your writing: (video) (transcript)

    It was after watching this video that I dropped those “write lots of books, make loads of cash, and never worry about a day job again” dreams.

    What good is having tons of free time if I end up too focused on the money to write?

  45. What a fantastic post. Honest, inspiring, terrifying and full of great advice for a writer struggling to get my first MS to the point I feel it’s “ready” to send out. Thanks.

  46. Taking a walk is always a good idea, especially after an emotional blow. My question is: should one save rejection letters? I have had a spotty track record on this (mostly based on how badly it smarted to receive the letter…)

  47. What a timely message for me. Last night I began reading my copy of FEAR which you autographed at the Rochester Teen Book Festival. I’ve been submitting, rewriting, and getting rejections on an historical novel for too many years. In November I attended an SCBWI Novel Revision Retreat in Syracuce that helped me see the flaws in my oft rejected story and gave me clear instruction for eliminating/correcting them. I accepted the reality that the story was not well written and committed myself to doing what it takes to make it so. Your essay has reenforced that determination and will help me move to that day when acceptance comes from the publisher whom I most want to publish my story, the one who sent me the first rejection. Thanks for the encouragement.

  48. Thanks for the great – and humourous – advice. A run usually clears my mind so that’s where I’m headed. On the first day of a new year, here’s to continued hope for that acceptance letter in 2011!

  49. So well said! Mahalo for this tidbit of wisdom!

    “…all the while explaining to your skeptical family and friends that really, this is the way the publication process works…” This especially struck a chord! (smile!)

    Thanks for the inspiration!

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