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What I Learned From 100 Rejections in One Year

12/19/2013 02:58 pm ET | Updated Feb 18, 2014
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The first submission, buoyed by all your hopes and dreams of success, practically floats out of your inbox.

The 99th doesn't float. It reluctantly crawls towards rejection.

Like most modern heartbreaks, it started with an email. "You're really funny," said the author I had contacted. "Are you a writer?"

As much as I would have liked to answer, "yes," I didn't. Writers were published. They had thick books embossed with their name lining expensive built-in shelves. I had a dusty manila envelope under my bed containing a horrid screenplay about the quarterback of my high school -- I mean, a fictional high school -- and a folder of red ink-massacred short stories.

But Susan, the author I wrote to, sensed something in the email I sent. There was a writer inside of me. A depressed, overweight, possibly alcoholic writer (the best kind). Over the next few months, she became my mentor; encouraging me to send essays and articles to online magazines, introducing me to writing communities and motivating me to start something I'd dreamed of doing since I was a kid -- write a book.

During the four years I worked on my manuscript, small victories kept me going; an article shared thousands of times on Facebook, a favorite author tweeting an essay I wrote, accumulating my first thousand "likes" on a Huffington Post piece.

Then, it was done. It survived two workshops. Thousands of edits. A lecture from my scary, tiny editor Lynn, who I once ran from when I saw her at the grocery store.

I had written a book.

But writing a book isn't what made you an author. You only got to call yourself a "real" writer if someone else thought you were good enough. So, I set out to find someone, anyone, who would give me the title I wouldn't dare claim.

I gave myself a deadline -- one year, or 100 rejections. If I reached either of those without getting an agent or publisher, I'd give up.

The first query was sent by Susan to her big-name agent who represented most of the authors I read and loved. A week passed, then two, then a month. No answer.

After waiting three months I gave up on Susan's agent and started building a list of people I thought would be interested in my book. The catch was, what I wrote didn't exactly fit into a neat category. It was a memoir about the church and Christianity that focused on the experiences of my gay friends. It's not easy finding an agent that caters to LGBT writing who won't shy away from Christian themes, or a Christian agent who won't respond to your query with a lecture about Leviticus.

But slowly, my list grew. I sent queries to agents I found in the "acknowledgements" section of my favorite New York Times best-sellers. Agents whose websites look like they hadn't been updated since geocities went out of style. Agents who quoted Bible verses on their publishers marketplace pages.

Every week, I'd send 5-10 queries, and every day I'd obsessively check my email, hoping and praying for a response.

The first one I got was this:

Dear Ms. Timbol,

Thank you for querying [redacted] about your book project.

We have evaluated your materials and regrettably, your project is not a right fit for our agency. We currently have a very full clientele and must be highly selective about the new projects we pursue.

Thank you again for thinking of us. Please know that we wish you much success in all of your future writing and publishing endeavors.

I was overcome with a feeling of accomplishment. They "evaluated" my materials! I had gotten my first "no" out of the way! Not a drop of hope left me.

My next rejection was similar, and not as thrilling. But it had only been three months. I still clung to the belief that my submissions were actually being read by people who were genuinely looking for new talent. It was only a matter of time.

Then I got this response:

"Pass, but God bless."

I read it four times, which took about four seconds. Pass, but God bless. What was that, Christian agent code for, "Pass, but screw you?"

The thin wall of confidence I had been bracing myself against began cracking. All of the doubts and anxieties I'd tried to dam up and keep away started seeping through.

What if I actually make it to 100 rejections, or one year, without finding an agent? What if I never find an agent? What if I can't handle all of the rejections? What if I'm making a huge mistake?

What if I'm just not good enough?

Then a miracle happened. An agent requested my full manuscript.

Waiting to hear back from agents I had cold-queried was stressful. Waiting to hear back from an agent who I knew actually had an interest in my writing was torture. It was impossible not to think about that phone call, the one where they offered to represent me. The glossy cover flashed through my mind, and I could almost hear the people at the bookstore clapping as I finished reading an excerpt at the signing.

But then, after months of fantasizing, I checked my email and saw this:

Dear Emily,

Thank you so much for sharing your work with me. I think this is a very important topic and one that I know means a lot to a lot of people. But I couldn't shake the feeling that happens sometimes when I read non-fiction. There can be great writing and an interesting story, but sometimes the subject matter is not a book. Sometimes it's only a magazine article. That doesn't mean the subject is unworthy; it just means that there might not be enough quantifiable interest in it to convince publishers that enough people will be willing to pay $15-25 dollars for a book. This is where art intersects commerce in publishing, and it's not fun to reckon with. I'm sorry not to have better news.

Of course, this is just my opinion, and others may feel differently. Best of luck with all you do.

When you get that kind of email, your wall of confidence doesn't crack; it crumbles. My book wasn't worth $15. That's what it came down to, above all else. Yet amid this disappointment, I tried to look on the bright side. An agent had been interested in my writing. If I could find one agent, surely there would be more.

I sent out more queries. And more. Every week, sitting down with a calendar to see how many weeks had passed between submissions and the deadline the agent gave (if they gave one at all) at which point I should consider myself rejected.

Six months passed, then eight. Many tears of frustration were shed. By the time two more agents requested my manuscript I was up to 81 rejections. Or rather, 81 deadlines that had passed with silence.

While racking up rejections I learned that, to most agents, I didn't matter. Not enough to send an actual email or letter, letting me know I'd been passed over. I might have thought my book was the best thing that had been written in years, but so did every other writer filling the agents' inbox. I was one in thousands. What took years to lovingly, painstakingly craft, took them seconds to skim.

What surprised me was the lack of animosity I felt towards the agents holding my future in their hands. Instead of picturing them laughing maniacally while burning copies of tear and sweat-stained manuscripts, I felt compassion for the ones that truly loved books. It must have been hard to wade through all the queries, seeing ones they might actually want to represent, but knowing at the end of the day they had numbers that needed to be hit. Profits to be reached. Bosses who worked for bosses who cared more about the bottom line than the hopes and dreams of an unknown author in Jacksonville, Florida.

When the day came, I didn't even notice. It wasn't until three days later that I realized a year had passed since Susan sent my first query. I made it. I survived an entire year of rejection.

In the end, I only had 55 actual, tangible rejections. Half. Half of the people I had spent hours and hours researching and querying took the time to reject me, and out of those, only a handful wrote personalized rejections.

When the end came, I didn't cry or slide down a wall like all the women in my favorite movies do when they get bad news. I wasn't even that upset. Because even though I got my 100 "rejections" and reached one year of submissions, I didn't feel any sense of closure. I had promised myself I'd give up, but I didn't feel like I lacked the honor of being called a "writer."

Instead, I felt like it was stupid for me to think I needed to have someone else validate me in the first place. I was a writer. I had written a book. A book that might not be what 100 agents out there wanted to represent, but a book that could still reach people and make an impact.

The most important thing I learned while racking up rejections was that rejection didn't define me.

Not fitting into an easily marketable or profitable niche meant I wasn't getting traditionally published. I wasn't going to get a fat advance, book tour, or review in the New York Times. But those weren't the things I cared about most. Those weren't the things that made someone a writer.

In the end, I put enough words on a page to fill a book, and that book was edited, crafted, and turned into something worthwhile.

That's what getting 100 rejections in one year taught me. That I'm a writer because I write.

Oh, and I also learned that when you self-publish, you can charge $2.99 for your book, instead of $25.00. Which seems like a much better deal.