Writers: Learning from Rejection

I wrote this article nearly six years ago. I have one major thing to add, which I'll place as point 3, modifying what I said back in 2015:


1. Read the list below of works that met with rejection long enough to kill them, except that they persisted.​

2. Always have something you’re writing -or several things you’re writing- that have nothing to do with the piece that you’ve just had rejected. And carry on writing.

3. Years ago, I wrote 'Don’t bother trying to "learn" from your rejection. Publishers, editors, even the close friends to whom you show your work, will all have different viewpoints, many of them contradictory. If you learn one thing from one, you’re likely going to have to learn its opposite from another.' This is true, but there is one important caveat: there is a set of principles which underpin ALL successful fiction, and a writer's task, in the quest to become successful, needs to be to learn those principles. Deviation from them will lead to obscurity and frustration; adherence to them, even partially, will open the door to widespread readership. What are those principles? I cover the basics in my book How Stories Really Work - basically, I have done most of the work for you by reading the great classics of literature, watching the great plays and films, observing the most successful TV shows, and then summarising how those things all actually work. For a small investment of time and money, you could save yourself years of disappointment and failure. End of spiel.

In the meantime, take consolation from looking over this list:

Dune by Frank Herbert – 13 rejections. As of the year 2000, it had sold 12 million copies.

A Time to Kill by John Grisham – 45 rejections. 13 million copies sold.

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle – 29 rejections. 14 million copies sold.

Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell – 38 rejections. More than 30 million copies sold.

Carrie by Stephen King – over 30 rejections. Sold one million copies in the first year alone, with King going on to sell over 350 million copies as a writer.

Jonathan Livingston Seagull – 18 rejections. Over 60 million copies sold.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone – 14 rejections. Harry Potter books went on to sell 450 million copies world-wide.

Louis L’Amour, author of over 100 western novels – over 300 rejections before publishing his first book.

John Creasy, author of 564 mystery novels – 743 rejections before publishing his first book.

Ray Bradbury, author of over 100 science fiction novels and stories – around 800 rejections before selling his first story.

The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter – rejected so universally that the author decided to self-publish the book, which has now sold 45 million copies.

Rejection as a writer is a bit like bad weather. It happens. Do what you can to shelter from it. Don’t let it stop you doing what you have to do. And recognise that, like weather, it changes.

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