If you think writers are born rather than made and brilliant writing is recognized immediately, those rejection slips for your novel—or story or nonfiction query, or (heaven help you) letter to your own mother—can seem a daunting thing. The truth is getting started as a writer takes hard work, persistence, and a bit of luck.
No one will ever see Ernest Gaines’ first novel. He sent it off to New York, and got it back with a rejection slip sometime later, and took it to the incinerator and … yes, I’m afraid so. He was young, maybe that’s an excuse. He did keep writing, though. He eventually won a prestigious Stegner Fellowship at Stanford—and then supported himself doing menial work for another seven years before his first novel came out. He went on to write The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman and to win the National Book Critics’ Circle Award for A Lesson Before Dying. Makes you wonder what might have been in that manuscript that went up in flames, doesn’t it?
Scott Turow, in and interview with Jeffrey Cole of Litigation, said, “So, yes, there were lots of rejection slips. More than I can remember.” And despite, like Gaines, getting a writing fellowship at Stanford, he felt his early writing career was “not going well.” His solution? Law school. But he vowed to keep writing, and did so, writing One L during breaks from his first year law books and Presumed Innocent (published eight years after he graduated) on the train to and from work.
Sue Grafton’s A is for Alibi was her eighth novel. She didn’t burn the first three; they’re in a drawer somewhere. The fourth and fifth were published. The sixth and seventh were not. Now she’s working her way toward Z. She calls her first attempts amateurish, but says, “I was teaching myself three vital lessons about writing: persist, persist, persist.”
Even William Faulkner, regarded by many as the finest American writer of all time, struggled. The first novel he set in his Yoknapatawpha county—the now-famous fictional setting for many of his novels—was rejected not only by his own editor, but by pretty much everyone in New York. His literary career was as good as over. Or so he thought.
And don’t you love the taste of envelope glue, anyway?