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World's Greatest Rejection Letters, a Few Catch 22’s of the Trade and One Glorious Ride
I’ve been writing stories for 35 years—ever since I started writing for the school newspaper as a kid. In honor of my 150th book, due out this year from my publishers, I’m taking a look back at where I began. I never stopped writing once I started all those years ago, I got really serious about the craft in Summer 1983 but it wasn’t until 1986 that I finished something I no longer considered a draft or an unfinished work—that being my first full-length novel. A done-novel and not a draft-novel. At the time, I was in the military and stationed in Japan. When I left Japan at the beginning of 1989, I had four finished novels and was on my way to Survival Training, followed by Air Combat School, and finally to a posting in Germany as a combat flyer.
Somewhere in there I met and married my wife of 22 years. Germany though was a tough posting for newlyweds as I was deployed somewhere or on temporary duty elsewhere most of the time, including two tours of combat in Iraq. I did manage to write from time to time, finishing a 5th novel by the time I left Germany in the fall of 1991 for a new posting in Hawaii. It was in Hawaii that I decided to get serious about my job/career path. I enrolled in college as a full-time nights/weekend student and also started educating myself about how to get my work published.
1993-1995 were my years though, and years of many firsts. I sent out my first queries for publication. I learned about the rejection letter—that dreamkiller, that insensible article, that form letter often given out without a care (or even a manuscript ever having been read).
I learned all about how multiple submissions were frowned on because you should preferably send a manuscript only to one publisher at a time so you could wait 3 to 6 months for your form letter rejection instructing you your manuscript wasn’t read/wasn’t what they wanted or that you needed an agent to even make it out of the slush pile—the slush pile being the giant mail bins where manuscripts are/were dumped until someone took a manuscript out of its envelope and put it (typically) unread into the obligatory SASE (self-address stamped envelope you provided) for return.
I learned all about the Catch 22 of have agent / get published. You needed an agent to get through the slush piles (or so I was told quite a few times) only to be told by agents that I needed to be published to be considered by the agency so that I could get published. Neither publishers nor agents ever seemed to get the irony of that.
I learned all about fee-charging and non-fee-charging agents too. Some agents charged a fee simply to agree to read your work so they could—drum roll please—send you a rejection letter. They never seemed to get the incongruity of such a thing either.
I also made it through the slush piles at multiple publishers flying solo (er, having given up on agents… though not completely… ;-). Del Rey wanted to see my full manuscripts and the full series synopsis (this was for Ruin Mist Chronicles), so did Tor. Both the Del Rey and Tor requests came from executive editors. The one I was most hopeful about was from Betsy Mitchell, who would go on to become Editor-in-Chief at Del Rey.
It was a breathless sort of wait during the weeks that followed, only to end with dashed hopes. Betsy Mitchell’s letter was nicely written saying "The fantasy world you have created is truly wonderful and rich. Your characters seem real and full of life. It's a creative, provoking, and above all, thoughtful story! ... Unfortunately, your book is not the right fit for Del Rey."
The rejection letter from the executive editor at Tor was equally as fun: "The writing style is strong... the ideas are interesting and the writing good! ... The story isn't right for our line of books. We feel it's too hard to launch a new series by a new author at this time."
I didn’t buy into the idea that it was too hard to launch a new series by a new author. There were new books by new authors being published all the time. Undaunted, I made the rounds again, sending out samples and queries. A few months later when both Ace and Bantam asked to see my full manuscripts and series (Ruin Mist Chronicles) I completely forgot about the boatload of form rejection letters from all the other publishers I’d sent my queries too... ;-).
While I waited for responses, I also started looking at new areas to write in and how I could tie that into the career path I had chosen: Computer Science. I completed my Bachelor’s of Science in Computer Science degree program in 1994, and was working to complete my Master of Science degree program. In my job in the military I was working deep in mainframes, Unix computing and this thing called the World Wide Web. The Web was new at the time and relatively few outside the military and academia had ever used it.
Cramming 6 years of school into 4 years while working full-time hadn’t left much time for breathing let alone writing, so by this time I was rather exhausted of the whole affair. I could’ve easily thrown in the towel. It’d been a long journey. It’d been an eventful journey.
On a whim, I drafted an outline for a book about publishing on the World Wide Web. I found the name of an editor at a publisher called Macmillan and sent the outline along with a query. I’m not sure why I picked that one editor at that one publisher, but I did. I expected it would be months before I got a response. I focused on completing my courses so I could graduate from my Master’s program.
Unexpectedly, I got a response from the editor almost immediately. A phone call, received by my wife, that I was to return. This was right before Thanksgiving (November 1994). I’d come home from a swing shift so it was about 2 AM when I got the news. I don’t recall sleeping that night, if I did I don’t remember. What I do remember is the phone call the next day—the call that changed my life.
Within days of that call I had a contract in my hand and a week later I was writing a “little” book called Electronic Publishing Unleashed. Originally, I was supposed to just be a contributor to the book but the publisher liked my work so much I ended up as the lead writer, writing ~800 pages of the 1050 pages.
The book was written and published to a break-neck schedule. I started in December finished by May and the book was published in September. Before I had even finished, the publisher signed me to a second book, Web Publishing Unleashed—a 950-page monster. I wrote right through graduation and into the fall, finishing ~750 pages by late October. That book was published in March 1996. Both books were huge bestsellers.
Web and Internet technologies moved, so fast that by the end of 1997 I had 10 published books to my credit. I never had time to breathe in those years, but I know one thing for certain. I know none of it ever would have happened if I’d given up. If I’d thrown in the towel back in 1994, I’d’ve missed out on the ride of a lifetime (and all the great rides that followed too).
Hanging in there for a decade is not something everyone can do. For many it’s simply not practical, but you have to believe in yourself, even if no one else does. Not everyone will make it. But if you love the craft, even if you never make a living at writing, it should be time well spent.
So, if you're a writer, enjoy the writer's ride. Triumph in the small joys. Words written. Pages finished. Characters and worlds created. A reader reached. A world changed, if only in the smallest of ways.