Friday, November 29, 2019

Being Thankful for…Rejections? Why I’m Grateful to the People Who Rejected My Early Work

On our writers’ blog, Ruth Harris and I say we made the mistakes so you don’t have to. And I sure made my share. Maybe more than my share.

I got an agent with my first query!
When I started querying agents, I scored the pot at the end of the rainbow with my very first query. I was such a newbie, I didn’t even know how impossibly lucky this was.

I was still a working actress in Southern California when I sent off a very early draft of The Best Revenge to an agent who was referred to me by a friend in the business. It was a prestigious agency in Los Angeles, and I didn’t think I had a snowball’s chance in Hades.

But a couple of weeks later, I got a phone call. Yes, an actual call, from a delightful man with a British accent who said he thought the book was hilarious and he wanted to “send it around.” No mention of a contract. That should have been my first clue.

And then I heard nothing. For weeks. And months. I’d read in Writer’s Digest that you’re never supposed to phone an agent, so I didn’t call. After about six months, I sent a “follow-up” letter. (This was long before email.)

Two months later—a full eight months after my “acceptance”— my manuscript, in its stamped, self-addressed manuscript box, landed back at my house. I can still remember the sound of “thump, thwack, slide” as it skidded across the concrete patio.

Inside was a scrawled note. “John has left the agency and we understand he has moved back to England.”


I was devastated. I felt hollowed-out and dead inside. It was like the time in 7th grade I found out that my first love, Chip Bessey, had asked Katrina Jagels to the Spring Hop instead of me.

I gave up writing for almost a year.

I Finally Get a Real Agent

Meanwhile, I wrote a play and had it produced and won some awards. I was having the success in the theater I thought I could never have in publishing.

But I also found the theater didn’t thrill me the way it used to.

And my itch to write novels was still there. I finally sat down and reread my manuscript and saw hundreds of flaws. I went back to my critique group and asked them to help me polish it up.
Jeff Herman's Guide was our Bible
I researched agents in a pricey copy of Jeff Herman’s Guide to Literary Agents—the only way you could find out about agents in the pre-Internet era.

I found one that looked good. Young, eager for new clients, and she had worked for the same agency with my sort-of agent from L. A.

She wrote back and asked for the full manuscript. A few months later I got the call. She wanted to rep me!

Meanwhile, I had a major tragedy in my life. My beloved Dad died. I also turned 40.

My mother reminded me that when I was small, I always used to say I wanted to live in a little cottage by the sea and write books.

So I pulled up stakes, sold my SoCal condo, and moved to the sleepy Central Coast. I bought a little 900 sq. ft house three blocks from the waters of Morro Bay.

I had an agent. And my cottage by the sea. I was going to be a real writer.

I started working on my magnum opus. This was the literary novel that was going to find me a place in the literary firmament.

You’re probably all laughing now. That’s not exactly how the publishing industry works.

Fear of Success…

Six months after I moved to the Central Coast, my new agent dropped me. Again, I was devastated. I managed to get some freelance writing work while I clerked in a couple of bookstores and sold antiques.
Photo of downtown Baywood by Paul Irving
I put The Best Revenge in a drawer and worked on that “big book.” And then wrote another, lighter one.

I started sending them out. And sending . I got rejections by the ton. Sometimes in return mail.

I did everything you shouldn’t.

·       I sometimes queried all three books at the same time.
·       I wrote my synopsis in a tiny font so it fit on one page—since so many agents asked for a “one page synopsis” in those days. (Who did I think I was fooling? I was only making it harder to read.)
·       I queried agents who didn’t represent my genre (s)
·       I didn’t even know what genre to say I was writing, so I improvised according to what the agent was looking for.
·       I wrote terrible query letters. Not enough hook & way too much about me and all the nonfiction articles I was writing.
·       I faked personalizations, once even saying I was going to a writers’ conference where the agent was slated to speak—even though I had no intention of going.

Is it any wonder the rejections stacked up?

I think I had a fear of success.

But I think that was because I knew, deep down, that I could do better. And that took time. I think my freelance writing helped me improve. Plus all the research I was doing on agents also taught me about the publishing industry and how it works.
I was collecting lots of rejections

Without that time to grow and learn, I don’t think I would have succeeded in this business. I was too naïve and would have got myself in all kinds of trouble.

Two more Agents!

Finally  I started doing some things right.

·       I went to writers conferences,
·       Joined a local critique group
·       And a writing club.
·       I kept learning from what I’d done wrong the last time.
·       I placed short stories and poems in literary magazines.
·       I even won some contests, one for a story and one for a poem.

Finally, it worked! I got another agent.

She sent my “big book” out on submission for a year.

She couldn’t sell it. In fact, she couldn’t sell much. She ended up leaving NYC and gave up agenting altogether and moving back to Texas.

But I was better at getting agents by now. So I got another one.  She liked Food of Love but made me do lots of edits to dumb it down and make it more of a romance.

I Fire my Fifth Agent

While my romanced-up version of Food of Love was making the endless rounds with editors, I got an email from one of the magazines that had accepted a story months before. The editor said the magazine was going under, but he had taken a job at a small press in the English Midlands. He was in charge of acquisitions— did I have any novels looking for a publisher?

I sent him Food of Love. A month later I got a call from the managing editor of the company—a former BBC comedy writer—with an offer of a nice advance. He also offered me a place to stay if I wanted to come to England to launch my book.

Do I have to tell you how fast I bought a ticket to London and fired my agent?
I was off to England!

I’m not going to tell you that everything was beer and skittles after that. (Although there was a lot of beer involved.) But I embarked on the adventure of my life (which inspired my comic mystery Sherwood, Ltd.) And got to see two of my books in print. I got to go on a book tour and live out my fantasy.

But I also had to deal with some strong criticism and major changes from my UK editor. I was finally mature enough as a writer to understand what he wanted and why my book needed the changes.

A few years before the edits would have made me sad. So would the book signings where only three people showed up. But I finally knew enough about the business to take it all in stride. All those years of rejection had taught me a lot.

And so, in a way, I’m grateful to them. They gave me the time to learn and grow into a confident, professional writer.

Did my magnum opus make it? Nope. It took another, fiercer editor to whip that puppy into shape…but that’s another story.

What about you? Did you collect a boatload of rejections before you found a publisher? Are you still on the query-go-round?


SHERWOOD, LTD: Camilla Mystery #2

Suddenly-homeless American manners expert Camilla Randall becomes a 21st century Maid Marian—living rough near the real Sherwood Forest with a band of outlaw English erotica publishers—led by a charming, self-styled Robin Hood who unfortunately may intend to kill her.

When Camilla is invited to publish a book of her columns with UK publisher Peter Sherwood, she lands in a gritty criminal world—far from the Merrie Olde England she envisions. The staff are ex-cons and the erotica is kinky.

Hungry and penniless, she camps in a Wendy House built from pallets of porn while battling an epic flood, a mendacious American Renfaire wench, and the mysterious killer who may be Peter himself.

Available in ebook from:
Available in paper from:


  1. Thanks Anne. Another great read. I love your on target humor, and often feel encouraged and inspired by you. You bring a good point to light. Constant personnel changes of publishers, marketing directors and agents can leave us scratching our heads and wondering what went wrong. From now on, I will keep tabs on personnel or make an anonymous call. Case in point-I wouldn't be freelancing again if I hadn't had the sudden urge to check a newspaper's list of current editors on a whim. Thankfully the only editor I ever had a problem with either left or got fired creating an open door for me to sign a new contract. Although writing feature stories is not as big a thrill as publishing another book, it does keep me focused on writing with my finger on the pulse of the community and a connection to locals that can actually be fun! P.S. Too bad poor Chip missed the boat :)

    1. I think we writers do each other a disservice by elevating the novel above magazine features. Often magazines pay better and you get a whole lot more readers. So keep doing what you're doing. I think it's awesome. And if my posts are encouraging you, I'm happy to hear it!

  2. Terrific post, Anne. Maybe the uber message is that no experience is ever wasted, maybe especially failure; it's just waiting to be used. While reading this I tapped into your "fear of success" link. . .and saw myself. Oops.

    1. SK--Fear of success is certainly what kept me treading water for longer than I needed to. But I did need to give myself more time than I consciously realized--to learn from my failures. Failure can often be our best teacher.