Tuesday, September 2, 2008


On the back cover of the book on my nightstand, it says, "If you're tired of rejection, this is the book for you." No, it's not a manual on how to pick up chicks; it's Noah Lukeman's The First Five Pages: A Writer's Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile. The premise of the book is that an agent or editor will make up his mind about a manuscript in the first five pages -- so you'd better make them count. And for an unsolicited book by an unpublished author, he'll usually make up his mind after reading the first five sentences. Professional agents and editors read with the goal of getting through the huge pile of paper on their desks, so they'll look for any reason to dismiss a manuscript. The sooner they find this reason, the better, so they can reject it and move on to their next task.

I'm spending the week in Newport Beach, so I haven't been doing much writing, but as I prepare to submit my first 15 pages to my writing class, I've been thinking about rejection. Here are some of my favorite rejection stories, most of them blatantly lifted from Lukeman's book or from Pushcart's Complete Rotten Reviews and Rejections.

Stephen King's first four novels were rejected. When King sent his first manuscript, Bill Thompson, an editor at Doubleday, sensed he had something, but he still rejected the next three. King stuck with it, and Thompson finally bought the fifth novel, despite his colleagues' lack of enthusiasm, for $2500. It was called Carrie.

John Grisham's first novel, A Time to Kill, was rejected by 15 publishers and 30 agents. He ultimately published it himself, selling copies out of the trunk of his car.

In 1969, Jerzy Kosinski's novel, Steps, won the National Book Award. Six years later a freelance writer named Chuck Ross, to test the theory that a novel by an unknown writer doesn't have a chance, typed the first 21 pages of Steps and sent them out to four publishers as the work of "Erik Demos." All four rejected the manuscript. Two years later, he typed out the whole book and sent it to more publishers, including the original publisher of the Kosinski book, Random House. Again, all rejected it with unhelpful comments -- Random House used a form letter. Altogether, 14 publishers and 13 literary agents failed to recognize the award-winning book, and rejected it.

John Kennedy Toole wrote a comic novel about life in New Orleans called A Confederacy of Dunces. It was so relentlessly rejected that he killed himself. His mother refused to give up on the book. She sent it out and got it back, rejected, over and over again. At last she enlisted the help of writer Walker Percy, who got it accepted by the Louisiana State University Press. Eleven years after Toole's death, his book was finally published, and it went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

Ultimately, it comes down to persistence. As Lukeman writes, the answer to getting published is how much it means in your life. French novelist Jean Genet was forced to write on toilet paper, as that was all he had during his many years in prison. When the guards found and destroyed his life's work, he began again, recreating it from memory. Dostoyevsky spent many years in a prison camp in Siberia, where he wasn't allowed to read anything but the Bible and was not given any writing materials. But he continued to write when he got out, despite the fact that Russian law prohibited a former prisoner to be published. When the czar read Dostoyevsky's House of the Dead -- given to him by friends -- he cried, lifted the ban, and allowed the book to be published. Joseph Conrad, a Polish refugee, taught himself English while working on a ship. Despite the fact that he didn't speak a word of it until he was 20 years old, he became one of the greatest masters of the English language.

These stories give me hope and will surely inspire me to work harder once I get home. In the meantime, if you'll excuse me, the waves are calling.


  1. Hopefully you'll also remember... It's not what you know, it's who you know. Drop me a line when you are done I know a few publishers...

    Go Bruins!

  2. I used to be a reader for Tin House Magazine. I was one of several folks whose reading style the editor knew and then we'd winnow down the number of manuscripts that the editor read. I gave most manuscripts from the HUGE stacks that we had a page to win me. After the page I would read a paragraph at random for the next several page and if nothing redeeming showed up it was curtains for that author.

  3. Sorry BC, don't know any publishers BUT I am glad to hear that you got a chance to see some SoCal Bikinis once again....Whew, one more item off the list!

  4. This posting was so apropos I had to react with a smile -- I've had so much job rejection this summer that I'm starting to put serious consideration back into a move to Bogota. At least I'd be able to squeeze out a few more giraffas before I go broke. So thanks for the grin, and I'll start sniffin around for publishing leads!

    Let's do lunch Tuesday.

  5. well, i'd been meaning to comment for awhile. i laughed out loud reading doggy daycare; poor chester! but this one really struck a chord. thank you, i'm gonna write my heart out. (and in response to an eons old comment, sofia bush is truly underrated as a beauty....oh, and the blindness movie comes out next weekend!)