Friday, June 10, 2005


Got out one of my boxes of rejection letters tonight to make an ego adjustment (whenever you start to feel it swell, it's good to insert a drain.) This is one I haven't gone through in years; all bounces from serious poetry publications back in the 80's, when I was going to be the next Sylvia Plath.

I can't imagine why none of them wanted to buy Raw Silk, the 4,000 line epic I wrote when I was 22. I mean, it rhymed and everything.

In this painfully polite pile -- poetry editors tend to be much nicer than their fiction counterparts -- I found sort of a rejection letter from Dominick Abel Literary Agency, dated September '83. Evidently I had written to them looking for representation for my monstrosity.

I guess the agency didn't want to waste their letterhead, as they sent back my original query to them with simply Not for us, thank you. DA scrawled at the top of my letter.

It burned twenty-two years ago, but now reading the query I'd say it was a good call; my pitch sucked. Hopefully Mr. Abel has moved up from using purple felt-tip pens and recycling queries.

Deeper down in the box was an ancient file I'd packed in with the poetry stuff because it was so fragile. In it was a copy of my first and only gothic romance, Sea Hold, typed on my trusty old Royal, and this letter:


Dear Miss Kelly:

We would be happy to look at your gothic romance if it is at least 400 manuscript pages long.

Nancy Coffey
Executive Editor
Avon Books

Avon had already rejected my first historical romance back in 1974, but this note gave me a lot of hope. It was personally signed. It was an invitation to try again. It made me feel like a pro. When you're 15 years old and still horribly bruised from your first bounce, that means the world.

I'm wondering if this editor is the same Nancy Coffey who's now a literary agent. If she is, I need to write a letter to her.

I've sworn someday to burn all this junk, but the older I get, the more sentimental I feel about it. This is my history as a writer. I remember how excited I was about the Nancy Coffey letter (Mom ran off copies at work and mailed them to every member of the family.) I didn't cry over the Abel letter, but the burn of that indifferent scrawl made me more determined to get into print. I never let anyone but the slushpile reader at Avon Books look at the manuscript for Sea Hold.

What of your history as a writer do you hold onto, and why?


  1. Anonymous2:08 AM

    Dramatic little poems of love and despair, written in college when I was gonna conquer the world. (insert snort).

    I also have every single request and rejection I've ever received. The requests keep me going, and I'm keeping the rejections in hopes that I ever DO need an ego adjustment. (insert BIGGER snort).


  2. Anonymous2:44 AM

    kept: some good writing I did in high school, the "yay, you're so talented" notes my creative writing teacher gave me, the notes for the novel writing course I took at night school, and the first rejection to f/sf and the tor rejection.

  3. Anonymous2:51 AM

    After having regretted burning some diaries in my mid-teens, I now keep everything I've written. Even the incredibly bad (and I mean INCREDIBLY) bad poetry and the stories that didn't quite work out that I am probably not going to get around to finishing.
    I think I've got all my rejection letters somewhere. Curiously, I seem to remember throwing out an acceptance letter. Hmm. Maybe I was just trying to cut Big Headitis off at the pass?

  4. Anonymous4:23 AM

    >What of your history as a writer
    >do you hold onto, and why?

    Nothing, except a few stories I wrote when I was very little. Any good ideas in my juvenilia are implicit in who I am, and will spring up again. As for the bad stuff - it's bad.

  5. I'm a habitual horder and I keep everything. The attic's full of dusty boxes with 'archives' scrawled on them in fading black pen. I've got dozens of printouts of the same manuscript, full of red pen; reams of handwritten rubbish, some of it in a terrible scrawl that even I can't decipher; a folder called 'no space rejections' of comic scripts sent to 2000AD magazine, which always came back with the same reply 'our lists are full at the present time'.

    It's all crap, but I consider it my gift to posterity, and should I ever become a famous literary figure I'll leave the lot to a worthy university in my will.

  6. I've kept pretty much most of everything I've ever written. There's some stories that I'd written longhand that I missed when I left WA, and some ancient fiction from when I was seven to twelve that my parents have, on the '92 Macintosh. (Amazing thing is, I'm pretty sure that computer is still functional. Just getting the information off would be a PITA, as I'm not sure how stable it is anymore.)

    I actually went through (part) of my mess of fiction that I still have; most of it saved in propietary file formats, so I needed to convert it to .rtf, as I'm not sure how long the disc for that program is going to survive. (It's about ten years old.)

    Basic reaction as I went through the files: "OMG! I submitted some of this shit!?!? WTF was I thinking!?!?!?"

    What I'm even more amazed at is that on some of those horrible stories I submitted, I actually got comments. First rejection I ever got, from the Writers of the Future contest, someone had scrawled, "Keep going!" on the letter. I was fifteen, and this meant a lot to me. (Since it was a contest, I don't know if it was something that was meant specifically for me, or if the administrator for that quarter did it for everyone, but it really doesn't matter.) I'm not sure I would've jumped into submitting quite so much as I did had I not gotten that scribble. Sometimes the little things can mean a lot.

    That said, I think I garnered somewhere around 80 rejections for some truly crappy stories. What I find interesting looking back is that, as my writing improved, personal rejections became more frequent. Some editors took the time to make suggestions for the stories that had potential, but didn't quite cut it, even then--it's why I recommend people who write adventure-based fantasy to go ahead and submit to Black Gate, because they gave suggestions that proved invaluable in rewriting those stories, and, let me tell you, the originals sucked like a ten cent whore.

    That said, I'm very glad I stuck with it and didn't give up like so many others did. That's not to say I didn't get distracted--I have one rather bad relationship to thank for that, but it's partly my own fault; I went ahead with it even though I had doubts and didn't stand up for myself when I should have. I don't think I did any submissions in 2003, and I didn't do any in 2004 till end of summer. (Then breakup happened, then I moved, and I'm just now getting back to things. Feeling a lot better now that I am, too.)

    *looks over message and blushes* Apologies for the babbling... I should know better than to comment on anything when I first wake up. :P

  7. Anonymous7:56 AM

    What have I kept? Enough that at least once a year I tell myself I'm going to go through and clean it all out.

    I'm down to only 2 notebooks of poetry I've written (all wretchedly bad), and the copy of the "novel" I wrote in 9th grade that I had given to my grandmother for Christmas that year. Those are buried in the bottom of my desk drawer where no one else will see them, and whenever I need a laugh, I pull them out and read them. *-*

    All of my rejections are organized into 3 folders hanging on my wall (form letters, form letter with a note, and personal rejections), but I don't usually look over those - though I do keep a tally of how many I have.

    And all of the short stories and novels I've written from college on are saved onto mini-CDs tucked away in my desk - not quite forgotten, but certainly not going anywhere. Those provide me with the best example of how far my writing has come.

  8. Anonymous8:20 AM

    Not everything, but a lot. The spiral notebook novel I wrote in High School. Several partials on floppy floppies for computers and and software that don't exist anymore. Pin-fed paper printouts I did at work when no one was looking. Character drawings, doodles, and background information. The one query package I sent when I was pregnant (that promptly got rejected - thank God) and its completed manuscript. All seventeen of my rejection letters for Ghosts. Some hand written snippets, silly little experimental pieces...

    And a single hard cover actual book of Ghosts' original Epic Fantasy doorstop that a friend made for me. It's not packed away, though. It's in the living room bookcase. :)

  9. Anonymous8:28 AM

    I have my poetry journals I started about 15 years ago. I was so overly dramatic in those first few years - it makes for a good giggle.

    I also have short stories I've written, as well as novel ideas.

    I like to see how my thought process and writing style/skill has developed and matured over the years. It helps me feel like I'm always moving in a better direction.

  10. I've kept everything, my previous two manuscripts, old short stories, rejection letters which got increasingly more encouraging. I've noticed that with each manucript I get more and more nibbles. I only got one nibble with the first.

    It shows that I'm learning, getting better. I've got a couple of kind rejections up on my office wall above my computer so that I can look up at them and read the encouraging words over and over when I feel like quitting. But I've kept every single rejection letter. Some in a cabinet in the office, stuffed in there with old drafts of manuscripts. Others in folders on the computer.

    My mother has my really old stuff. My very first attempt at a novel when I was 17. My bad poetry. Really old short stories from highschool. She wouldn't let me toss them. Bless her heart.

  11. I've kept all of my submission and rejection letters. I'm sentimental and, as you said, they are a history of my journey as a writer. I've also kept copies of every story I've ever written and also story ideas. Contest comments, reader feedack, thank you cards... Oh, jeez. No wonder my writing room is exploding!

  12. I keep everything I write now, on my computer. I lost a lot during various hard drive crashes, so now I save it in different places as well as online backup copies.

    I have a black spiral bound notebook of all my angsty genius (ha!) teenage poetry and random thoughts. Most of them are garbage, but a couple I still remember fondly. I never tried to have them published.

    I did try to get a short story published (and may try again) but it was rejected. I didn't keep the rejection letter.

    I got two articles published in a local newspaper, but I didn't keep either of them.

  13. I've kept all my rejections. (I think: I seem to only have half of the pile on hand at a time, with the other half being lost somewhere. Right about the time I find the lost half, the first half goes missing. Maybe this is a subconscious ego-soother for me?)

    The one thing I will keep always and treasure for what it says about both me and my husband are the notes on a book idea that I scratched out on hotel stationary while on my honeymoon. If I ever get frustrated with my honey, all I have to do is look at those notes and remember that he has the patience of a saint and puts up with a lot for my writing. :)

    And the one thing I will always regret not keeping is the diary in which I wrote my very first story at some point in junior high. At some early point in college, I flipped through it and couldn't get past all the mushy, icky, mooning over every boy crap and pitched the thing. Won't ever do that again.

  14. Anonymous10:04 AM

    I don't keep the early rejections, but I might as well have taken a wood-burner and seared them on my flesh, because I remember every word. My first rejection began, "Dear Mr. Clegg, You obviously have a lot of talent, but I could not understand a word of what you wrote. Perhaps it's me." Okay, the editor went on for a couple of paragraphs. She's still in the business, but I think she's gone more to nonfiction in recent years. I have to admit, given the publisher that bought the first book (Pocket) and the way it was published, I was really happy that the first editor who saw it rejected it, because I think my book would've been sunk at that house.

    Recently I sold a book to Penguin's Berkley/Ace division, and it went at auction (blah blah blah), but I wrote the first 150 pages of the book in about '93 and submitted it to two divisions of Penguin by '94 or so -- and both rejected it. So, ultimately, the same house that rejected the book ten years before, bought the entire series last summer. I didn't even know that could happen until it did. I hope this gives hope to writers who are new at dealing with getting passed over by a publishing house or two.

    Been there, done that.

  15. When I quit writing in 1985 (in a huff, of course -- or maybe it was an hour and a huff) I tossed out all my rejection letters, even my acceptance letter with Bill Thompson's signature on it.

    When I started writing again (an addict can never really quit) I felt like I was starting from scratch.

    It's weird to miss those often cruel rejection letters, but they formed the pedestal.

  16. Anonymous11:00 AM

    All the paper stuff is stacked around me, for no great reason except to make my "history as a writer" a history of clutter. The one thing I "look at" most often is a memory. Before I'd published a thing, I had a two-minute conversation with a top Canadian editor. A full two years later, she approached me at a book event to ask "Where do I know you from?" In answering, I mentioned that I'd just received my first acceptance from a respected magazine. She asked me to send her a copy of the story. (I calmly agreed, then walked away and burst into tears.)

    I mull over that memory because I'm amazed by the luck. It was the first domino in a short chain reaction that led to my first novel begin published by Penguin.

    Has luck played a role in your history as writer?

  17. Anonymous12:01 PM

    I've never deliberately thrown any writing out. But I've moved a lot since I grew up and moved out and some of my early writing has disappeared. But I've kept everything I could, including a story about a juvenile delinquent named Clarence, complete with bad art and lots of red letters (thanks to the old switchable between red and black ink typewriter ribbons), my cousin and I cowrote when we were bored one day. Now, I keep everything on my computer, with backups, since I don't have space for a lot of paper.

    The one piece I regret not having is a story I really liked that I wrote in the 6th grade. It was a mystery. (And it still took me about 30 years of trying to write sff and romance to realize I really should be writing mysteries. DUH!) It was called "Behind the Stove". Shades of my love of mysteries, secret passages, and cooking were hidden in that title. lol My teacher never even graded it because he lost the whole pile of assignments after we all turned them in. I got the "never have only one copy of your work" lesson very early in life.

    Why I hold onto it? Hmmm . . . Because there's something good about all of the memories behind what I've written. Whether the writing is uneven or bad or really good, I have good memories of doing it. So, I guess I hang onto it partly for sentiment.

    The other reason is to see my growth or lack thereof. If my current writing is as bad as my writing of 25 years ago, it tells me what I need to work on. If I see things in that old writing that are good, it gives me hope that I can bring the rest up to snuff.

    Lastly, I'm going to admit that I have a writer's ego. I refuse to say that everything I write sucks or that everything I wrote ages ago sucks. It doesn't. If it did, I'd stop writing. Some of it sucks. But some of it is good and I like rereading the good parts. They inspire me to bring the rest up to that quality.

    I don't have rejections to hang onto yet. Maybe next year. After my mom and I aren't living together and I can sink into the draft and finish it. :)

  18. Anonymous1:00 PM

    My very first attempt at a story was a "Wild, Wild West" fanfic written when I was about 9 years old. It's on yellowing notebook paper, and it's probably the most atrocious thing I ever wrote, but I keep it on my corkboard, where I can see it when I write. It reminds me of how far I've come, and of how important writing has always been to me.

    Not to mention it's funny. *grin*

    :) Misty

  19. Sadly, I don't tend to hang onto much of my writing history (beyond bad stories). I have a letter from a publisher accepting my first book, a certificate for placing in the Daphne du Maurier contest, and a letter from my agent accepting me as a client. That's it. Pretty pathetic really. I should celebrate the minor victories. It would probably counteract some of the defeats.

  20. Once, a long time ago, I had my first rejection from Marion kept in a special shoebox. The box went from under my bed to inside a closet to gathering dust on the floor in the garage. But then there was a flood, and....

    I've moved so much in the last sixteen years that nothing survives long. Mice and my inner Hindu take care of the material things. Time and upgrades outmode my old media. I do still have the first (and terribly wonderful, let me assure you) book I hand-wrote when I was twelve, complete with illustrations, dramatis personae, and maps. I even put up some of the illustrations on my website. They make me smile.

    Sitting on a table, collecting dust, is my most recent novel rejection. The cats have been gnawing on the box corners and playing with the loose strands of tape that the editor sealed it up with. It's waiting for me to write a summary and send it out again. Which should be, hm, this weekend. Such is life.

  21. Anonymous4:43 PM

    Interesting to see how different writers archive, or not.

    I've got the first acceptance letter framed, for a poem written when I was 19. And it's from Adrienne Rich, so of course it's precious.

    I don't keep rejections. Just not enough space in the house. But I keep all the acceptance letters. I suspect it's because the latter are more of a rarity than the former.

    As for old work, I've got a poem that was published in the school newspaper when I was 7. And journals going back to junior high. Re-reading them is a good way to snort coffee through my nose on a day when I'm taking myself altogether too seriously.

    BTW, I'm really enjoying this blog.


    Kel Munger

  22. I hold onto everything. I believe I have a few things locked onto 5.25 floppies--some Commodore 64 format and some DOS--that I have yet to rescue. The Commordore 64 files would be easier, since hubby still uses one, but the 5.25 DOS format might require computer modifications to get out (have to see if the old 486 still has one...).

    All the old typewriter stuff is still around somewhere as is paper notebook stuff.

    It's fun to read sometimes. I still like some of it and should consider doing something with it, but I'd most like to re-read something hubby and I began co-writing before we got married. Many things to be learned from that collaboration--I think he was writing science fiction chapters, and I was writing...something else.

  23. LOL I've got a recycled rejection too! Funny thing is I'd already signed w/an agent when I got it but I still thought "HOW RUDE"! Esp since there was also a coffee cup ring on my query letter!

    I save all my rejections (I just know the IRS is gonna come for me some day soon), and all the really bad early writing. I even have the short ghost story I wrote my Jr year of HS (written at the last minute I got an A minus htank you very mucha nd she read it to the whole class LOL).

  24. Coming in late and it's amazing how many people MZB touched :). I write fantasy in both short and long form because of her. I was a science fiction writer but she was my idol and she only published fantasy. That said, learning to write fantasy takes time and what with my break for about 8 years, I never got the chance to get past the several "close"s and a couple "how could you"s I got from her. My most treasured rejection is a note from MZB's then reader who said MZB typeset my story before deciding as much as she liked it, it didn't fit. Hmm, I now have several of the "doesn't play well with others" final cut rejects.

    My most interesting reject is one where the editor asked if I was the same Margaret from Santa Cruz, right after I'd moved. WOW! I just don't see that level of personalization nowadays, but they didn't get as many manuscripts back then either.

    I also have several recycled query letters, both old and recent, and from agents I'd like to have. Didn't really think of it as a bad thing. Gives me a good record of which version of the query was rejected.

    On the writing side, I have most of what I'd written, including tons in smudged pencil on lined yellow legal paper (loose leaf) that I'd love to be able to decipher one of these days, but haven't the time.


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