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The other day, my friend, [info]justin_pilon, put up a post about submission blunders, which brought back embarrassing memories of my first ever query letter. 


I wrote it soon after I finished the first draft of my YA novel, Fur-Face.  I was keen to share my genius with the literary world and, since I’d already run it through the spell checker, I knew my book was ready


I’ll spare you the gory details of what was a truly dreadful pitch. Suffice to say it would look quite at home in any agent/publisher’s collection of  ‘How to guarantee no one will want to read your book, or ever hear from you again’  letters.  


I did at least know enough to enclose an S.A.E.  The response came back within a few days. I remember thinking this was a good thing, since it showed someone had read the three chapters I’d enclosed and was keen to take a look at the full ms before I offered my book to some other lucky agent. 


The rejection letter – I know, I was surprised too – was also a classic. 

An obvious bad photocopy of a bad photocopy of a bad photocopy, the paragraphs ran at a sloping angle from left to right, with the letters somehow smudging into each other at the end of every line, as if someone had moved the original document in mid-copy. The name, JOHN GUBB, was scrawled across the top in big red capital letters.


The wording, though a little hard to make out, was quite polite. It contained (what I later learned was) the usual, ‘Thanks for thinking of us’, ‘Not exactly what we’re looking for right now’ kind of stuff. Nevertheless, even with my limited experience of the publishing world, I couldn’t help wondering if there wasn’t a smidge of sarcasm about the whole thing.


As you can imagine, I felt pretty sorry for this poor John Gubb bloke. 


He must have done something awfully dumb to warrant such treatment. I rang the agency to let them know there’d been a mix-up. It was only when the nice lady who answered the phone explained that the rejection was, in fact, for me, that the truth sank in. 


 I remember feeling a complete fool. Later, my embarrassment turned to disbelief. I wasn’t hurt or offended, I was shocked. How could they not want my novel? 


Looking back, that first rejection was probably the best thing that could have happened to me. It made me realize that I had no idea what I was doing, and that if I ever wanted to be a writer, I’d better jolly well find out how it was done.


I’d forgotten all about that letter (and the ensuing rejection) until I saw Justin’s post yesterday. It made me smile. 


After all, it’s like my dear old gran used to say. “You might as well laugh at your stupidity, boy.  Lord knows, the rest of us do.”


How about you? 


Do you remember your first ever rejection letter? 


What was it for?  How did you feel?  Did you change your ways as a result?

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( 57 comments — Leave a comment )
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Jul. 11th, 2009 11:19 am (UTC)
My first rejection letter was absolutely lovely. It came from Interzone to whom I had submitted a short story. Looking back now, I think they must have realised I was 16ish and treated me with kid gloves as a result. Not everybody in this business is too busy to be friendly to N00bs :)
Jul. 11th, 2009 11:28 am (UTC)
I've only started pitching short stories this year, but from the replies I've got, I'd say that short fiction publishers are a lot more considerate when it comes to rejecting wannabe writers - that said I would hope my approach is more professional now too :)
(no subject) - peadarog - Jul. 11th, 2009 11:29 am (UTC) - Expand
Jul. 11th, 2009 11:42 am (UTC)

I'd forgotten all about those old photocopied replies.
Jul. 11th, 2009 01:48 pm (UTC)
Guaranteed to make the recipient feel worthless. How about your first rejection? Come on, spill those beans, woman :)
(no subject) - catephoenix - Jul. 12th, 2009 08:13 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jongibbs - Jul. 12th, 2009 09:37 am (UTC) - Expand
Jul. 11th, 2009 12:09 pm (UTC)
This made me smile. ;)
Jul. 11th, 2009 01:48 pm (UTC)
So how did your first rejection letter feel? :)
(no subject) - faerie_writer - Jul. 11th, 2009 02:52 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jongibbs - Jul. 12th, 2009 09:37 am (UTC) - Expand
Jul. 11th, 2009 12:24 pm (UTC)
My first rejection email wasn't that bad. They liked it but said it wasn't right for them at this time, but my second one was enough to make me crawl away from my computer and never look back. First he tells me what he lies about the story, then says this:

However, I couldn't get past the mechanical aspects (in this case, grammar, sentence structure, and style)...Other minor problems: inconsistent use of paragraph breaks; problems with punctuation / capitalization in sentences containing dialogue; some awkwardness due to the effort to conceal the sex of the intruder... I think the hiding-the-intruder's-sex factor may have also led you to use passive verb constructions where active ones would have been cleaner and more effective...

Needless to say, I've improved since then, but I don't know if I planon sending in another short to them. I'm still too embarrased. :(
Jul. 11th, 2009 01:49 pm (UTC)
Ouch :( Helpful, I'm sure, but... ouch :(
Jul. 11th, 2009 12:48 pm (UTC)
My first rejection was back in the 80s from my first stint of playing around being a writer before I got serious a few years back. It was from George Scithers when he was editing Amazing. He actually took the time with new writers to tell them what they were doing wrong. That's when I learned the phrase that I was "touring a world." Yes, I had some fairly interesting (for my first youthful endeavor) worldbuilding, but I didn't have the protag interacting with the drama. In my god-awful tale, the only point of the protag being there was to wander around and look at the "cool" world I'd built. That rejection was quite helpful as it made me sit down (and read books on the subject) and figure out exactly what a story (usually) is: a character with a problem who struggles throughout the story and then win, lose or draw comes to some sort of understanding of himself and the world around him. I don't make that mistake anymore. At least not so blatantly. ;-)
Jul. 11th, 2009 01:51 pm (UTC)
Seeing our work through someone else's eyes is a great help, especially of we do it before we send it out :)
Jul. 11th, 2009 01:54 pm (UTC)
I don't remember my first, but I do remember one of those slanted copy of a copy letters. If I looked, I'd probably find my first. I used to keep all rejections (and those couple acceptances) in a folder. I've enough rejections now to happily toss them. I guess the shock wears off a bit, with time, but that sting of disappointment is still there.

A writer once offered a tip on making rejections easier. Always have multiple stories out there. Then when you get one back, you have hope still for the others. And you can get that one revised or resubmitted before the next rejection comes in. I think it actually helps. Either that or there are some things you just get used to and move on. :)

After all, it’s like my dear old gran used to say. “You might as well laugh at your stupidity, boy. Lord knows, the rest of us do.”

I love this. I apply it all the time (though it's probably unfortunate that it's needed so often).
Jul. 12th, 2009 09:38 am (UTC)
It's nice to know that you laugh at my stupidity too ;)
(no subject) - clarionj - Jul. 12th, 2009 06:04 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jul. 11th, 2009 02:10 pm (UTC)
Ah, your gran--how I loves her. You need to compile a book of all her famous quotes and market it as Wisdome for the Ages--sort of like they did for Jesus and Confusius. :)

I don't remember my first rejection letter, but I do remember the BEST one I ever got. The man tore my manuscript to shreds, bit by little bit. It was, without a doubt, the most helpful thing that's ever happened to me as a writer. I got a three page letter back from him, detailing everything I did wrong--and that was only for the first 50 pages! I learned so much about what I didn't know about writing from those three pages. It hurt to read--but I learned, I fixed. It was a turning point for me.
Jul. 12th, 2009 09:43 am (UTC)
A constructive, rejection letter is worth it's weight in gold. I suppose it's because, even though it hurts, someone's come into our dark cave and pointed us in the general direction of the exit.

As for my grans and their pearls of wisdom, I'd say they were more like Mother Teresa and Ghengis Khan (sorry Nanny Greta) :)
(no subject) - bogwitch64 - Jul. 12th, 2009 01:50 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jongibbs - Jul. 12th, 2009 04:19 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - bogwitch64 - Jul. 12th, 2009 05:49 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jongibbs - Jul. 12th, 2009 07:33 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - bogwitch64 - Jul. 12th, 2009 08:02 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jul. 11th, 2009 02:25 pm (UTC)
My first was from George Scithers back in his Asimov's days in the early 1980s. I was maybe twenty at the time, and making my first fumbling attempt at being a writer.

George sent me this nice rejection, letting me know that a good idea did not a story make. On the second rejection he compliment the concept and explained about serial commas and run-on sentences.
Jul. 11th, 2009 03:34 pm (UTC)
Our situations are quite similar, with George Scithers saying a good idea does not a story make. Interesting. I do think discussing serial commas in a rejection is taking it a bit far, but it shows his "passion" about such things. I understand the debate on either side and change from story to story, from fiction to nonficton. And I have the icon mostly because I find it amusing. ;-)

Edited at 2009-07-11 03:35 pm (UTC)
(no subject) - jongibbs - Jul. 12th, 2009 09:50 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jongibbs - Jul. 12th, 2009 09:47 am (UTC) - Expand
(Deleted comment)
Jul. 12th, 2009 09:51 am (UTC)
Almost like a mentor. That must have made a huge difference.
Jul. 11th, 2009 02:43 pm (UTC)
My first rejection came from Asimov's in Nov. 2007. I didn't keep it so I don't know if it was the famous Asimov's form or not, but it began with "Dear Author." I was devastated - not because I had hopes of selling it to Asimov's, but because it was a form rejection. Luckily for me I thought I knew the perfect market for it (the Warrior Wisewoman anthology), so I wiped my tears away and sent it out again. Roby James wrote back within a month with about a page of criticism, praise, and a rewrite request. If I am still submitting today it is because of that kindness, and I will forever be grateful for it.
Jul. 12th, 2009 09:53 am (UTC)
Isn't it great how random acts of kindness can have a huge impact on complete strangers :)
Jul. 11th, 2009 03:14 pm (UTC)
My first rejection letter was a form rejection.

This was when I was still in high school and I had to use Writers Market. Needless to say there really wasn't all that much in the way of Fantasy Markets, so I mailed it off to F & SF, because I thought they would be more likely to accept a fantasy story than Asimov's.

For some reason I think it came on light blue paper. It had a list of reasons why they rejected stories. Mine had an ( X ) in two spots. I think it was Does not stand above the other submissions at this time and something else which I forget. May have been a comment about the POV character being an antagonist.
Jul. 12th, 2009 09:56 am (UTC)
That 'tick the relevant reason' rejection form sounds like a great idea. Better than a vague, 'sorry, not for us' letter anyway.
Jul. 11th, 2009 04:15 pm (UTC)
Mine was for a short story, from Asimov's. Form letter, although one of those very professional-looking Asimov's ones - I still have it, and consider it a major milestone!

Sadly, I didn't recognize my own stupidity back then (despite this same story coming back from another market with the comment "too slow, not enough story"), and the story later sold with no changes. And then it sold again, and again, and is the title story of my first collection, due in late 2009...

After that, I stopped reading too much into rejection letters, even sarcastic ones. Different things will appeal to different people.
Jul. 12th, 2009 09:58 am (UTC)
It's no coincidence that smart people like yourself, who don't give up on a story after one or two rejections also sell so many :)
(no subject) - bondo_ba - Jul. 12th, 2009 04:12 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jongibbs - Jul. 12th, 2009 04:25 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jul. 11th, 2009 04:25 pm (UTC)
That's hilarious. Thanks for sharing! :)
Jul. 12th, 2009 09:58 am (UTC)
Thanks :)

Care to share your first rejection story?
(no subject) - reneesweet - Jul. 12th, 2009 01:50 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jul. 11th, 2009 08:50 pm (UTC)
My first rejection was better, because I had an in--a fellow alumna had moved up nicely in the editing world and other connections gave me her address. So I had a personal response, but it more or less said the same thing as the photocopy of the photocopy of a photocopy jongibbs received.

My favorite rejection story to date is my mother's. She has written a series of stories about growing up in rural Vermont in the 1930s, which have been published monthly in a local paper. The readership and feedback has been good, so several years ago she decided it was time to collect them and turn them into a book. She did all the right things--sent samples and wrote a cover letter, etc. She was completely devastated when she received a very nice personal rejection letter on her very first submission. It basically said, this is an interesting concept, one that has merit, but as it currently stands, it isn't a book. (It wasn't.) It was the sort of rejection letter I would have been thrilled to receive at that point in my career.

P.S. She is now shaping the columns into a book. We'll see what happens this time.
Jul. 12th, 2009 10:00 am (UTC)
Your mom's book sounds like a good idea :)
Jul. 12th, 2009 05:57 am (UTC)
I was trying to remember mine, but they all just kind of blur into each other as a big ball of fail. Seems like it was a form letter of some sort, but that was back in the 90s . . . since I've taken up writing again, I've certainly received some brutal ones, along with some encouraging ones, and a handful of very confusing ones. :D I still struggle a bit with the "once it's spell checked it's ready' syndrome, but have learned to take a deep breath, and put it away for a bit.

Jul. 12th, 2009 10:04 am (UTC)
Ah, the old spellchecked = story finished thing. I have to fight that urge too :)

I think the feeling we get from finishing a story, is similar to the one we get when we hear some great news. It fills us with a desire to share it right away.
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