The Worst Rejection

Posted on 20 September 2010

Someone recently asked which rejection was the worst I’d ever received. I had to think about that for a little while. Over the years, I’ve collected a multitude of rejections. Many of them, especially the lit mag rejections, didn’t faze me at all, while others stung for all sorts of reasons. But I kept coming back to one rejection that I remember with perfect clarity.

A literary agent had taken an interest in my first novel, Developing Olivia. She called me at home to discuss that novel, and while she ultimately passed on it, she encouraged me to send her my next book. She was an advocate of my writing, and during that phone conversation, her praise and her encouragement led me to believe that I was a published novelist just waiting to happen.

When I contacted her about a year later to let her know I had a new manuscript, she immediately asked me to email her the entire thing. At the time, I was blinded by her previous encouraging comments and hadn’t yet discovered that this second novel was an utter failure, so I sent it off with high hopes.

I remember thinking, at the time, that this was how it would be for me — that even though I didn’t get an agent for the first novel, that process led me to the agent who would snap up my second. And this agent was the agent.

A few weeks later, she sent me a brief, form rejection email. She claimed she saw potential in the novel (she was kind enough to tell that little white lie) but that “she wasn’t taking on new clients at this time.” Obviously that was just her polite way of bowing out. I knew that, and I knew that it meant she didn’t think this novel was worth another personal response like the one she gave me when she called about Developing Olivia.

It was winter. It was also evening, and it was dark. At the time, I lived in an apartment about a mile away from my then-boyfriend (my now-husband) and I’d planned to go see him. So I bundled up and slowly walked over, freezing and feeling utterly depressed that this agent, my one big hope, had sent me a form rejection. I stopped at an elementary school on the way and sat on the cold playground equipment to wallow and think about it. I had made so much progress with my first novel and my agent hunt, and now I was backtracking. What did this rejection mean for my future as a writer? I felt absolutely, positively wretched.

I think this rejection stands out so much in my mind because I connect it with that sad cold walk and the deserted playground. When I look back on it now, feeling that distressed over one measly agent rejection seems ridiculous. If anything, I think I was so upset because I was starting to realize that the second novel wasn’t going to cut it, and I’d have to 1) abandon it and all the work that went into it and 2) do all that work and more to write a new novel. (And while it took about five years, #2 finally happened.)

Other fun rejections include the lit mag editor who essentially told me to never submit to his publication again; the extremely warm and fuzzy personal rejection of the highest order with a request for another submission, which the editor responded to with the coldest form rejection I’d ever received; and a very nice personal rejection from a top lit mag that went on to lecture that they do not accept simultaneous submissions (how did they magically decide I had submitted simultaneously?).

I could go on and on, but frankly writing out the details of one rejection story is enough for one day.

Photo: Caro Wallis

6 responses to The Worst Rejection

  • lisahgolden says:

    Ouch. I keep reminding myself that this is a business and the agents are overwhelmed and they mean well and we have to trust them, they don’t mean to be hurtful. But ouch. I guess this is part of the process. No wonder I keep dicking around with endless revisions. If I don’t put myself out there for rejection, I can maintain the illusion that I have a chance.

    Keep at it. How many times have we read that the people who make have done so because they stuck with it while so many others gave up.

  • Chris Danor says:

    Just found this article whilst looking for consolation after my latest rejection (can’t decide whether it’s form or not) and thought you might appreciate what I think is the worst rejection I’ve ever received for a short story. It’s in limerick form…

    We know that it might make you cuss,
    or compelled to kick up a fuss —
    but we can’t tell a lie,
    we gave it a try,
    and the story is really not us.

    • Ha. That’s great. But sorry about your rejection.

      • Chris Dabnor says:

        Cheers. It’s one of those things, I suppose. I’d intellectually resigned myself to the fact that, when sending out my first book, there would probably be some rejections (despite my book being ace, of course…), but it’s not quite that easy when you first get them (although the fact that I’ve not always been successful with my short stories prepared me somewhat).

  • Erin O'Brien says:

    Miserable bastards.

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