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Fiction, My Novel, Publishing, The Writer's Life, Writings

Anatomy of a Rejection

A month or so ago, a good friend—one who believes in my writing—was in New York and had an opportunity to approach the president and publisher of Farrar, Straus and Giroux (FSG Books), Jonathan Galassi, and present the query letter for my novel, Mr. Neutron. The next day Mr. Galassi emailed me to request the full manuscript. Me—a writer who doesn’t even have an agent.

A million to one shot was instantly reduced to a thousand to one.

I had to keep reminding myself that those odds were still ridiculously high. But come on, who among us wouldn’t entertain notions of breaking through, of finally, after seven years of effort and hundreds of rejections, of being able to tell the world he had a book with a major publishing house; of being able to say that he was not just a writer, but a successful writer. Who wouldn’t imagine screaming it to the people who have encouraged and supported him for so long, to family and friends, to strangers in the mall?

In dreams, sometimes in the movies, the magic phone call comes in the first few days. That did not happen.

There is a strategy to rejection. An art, almost, among agents, editors and publishers. They know how passionately we writers hold onto our dreams. For most of us, dreams are all we have, and these strange visions somehow sustain us through refusals and rebuffs that would make the average person stare in disbelief, as though we are not so much writers as masochists, obsessed with our own failures and begging for more punishment.

Rejection rarely comes quickly either. In cases of requested materials this invites charges of unprofessionalism. How could you reject my manuscript so fast? You barely had time to read it, let alone evaluate it. Instead, the clever literary professional allows the process to linger long enough so that rejection comes first from within the writer, so that he is ready to accept it.

A week, maybe two after the manuscript is submitted, the writer thinks: Okay, so he didn’t call. It’s the holidays, after all, and maybe he’s traveling. And surely he’s incredibly busy. Chances are he gave it to an assistant to read—an assistant who has a stack of manuscripts on her desk that graze the ceiling.

And when the phone call doesn’t come, the writer realizes the odds of acceptance have lengthened. Yes, an assistant, someone whose job it is to reject almost everything. The dream shrinks a little more.

Perhaps the response will be by email. The writer then checks his inbox with one eye closed, knowing that it’s not the way publishers usually say yes. He goes to the mailbox knowing that if there’s an SASE, it’s definitely a No. He barely wants to look through the stack.

While it’s tough enough to remain positive, the hardest part of this exercise for the writer is to endure the possibilities that clutter his head. It’s not knowing and wanting to know. It’s wanting to have it over with and yet not wanting to hear the verdict so that the dream will live one day longer. It’s thinking about it and thinking about not thinking about it.

Eventually, though, the voice of reason—or of negativity if you prefer—begins to overwhelm the dreams. They surely wouldn’t wait this long to accept. What’s one more rejection anyway? The writer tells himself it doesn’t really matter, that the writing will continue. As the days pass, scenarios of rejection outnumber those of success. And when that happens, the writer is ready.

The email comes. The writer opens it and barely reads the words.

He already knows.

The few people he’s told understand that this is how the business works. One of them will buy him a drink and together they’ll curse the gatekeepers. Work goes on, writing indeed goes on. Life, in general, continues as before, and he files the incident away under Opportunities: Unrealized.

Ah, but wouldn’t it have been something?


I’m going to take the rest of December off from this blog to think things through and evaluate where I’m at in my writing. I’ll be back in the New Year and hope to communicate with you then. Thanks so much for reading and participating. Please know how much I appreciate it.

Happy Holidays


About Joe Ponepinto

Co-publisher, with Kelly Davio, of Tahoma Literary Review. Author of "Curtain Calls," a featured Kirkus Review. Married to Dona. Dad to Henry, the coffee-drinkin' dog.


53 thoughts on “Anatomy of a Rejection

  1. Sorry to hear about the bad news. At least you got to his desk! Imagine how many writers never get that far. Why don’t you have an agent?

    Posted by jetepper | December 8, 2012, 2:05 PM
    • I think (I hope) it’s because I’ve been using a faulty pitch letter. But another friend helped me straighten it out about a week before this opportunity, or I might not have gotten even that far.

      Posted by jpon | December 8, 2012, 2:08 PM

    Some famous guy said that. I live by it. But not just to be annoyingly persistent, but because I—like tons of other writers out there—write. Whether or not we get positive results, or book contracts, we WRITE. Another famous quote:


    I follow this as religiously as my non-religious being can!

    If what you really want to do is review books, review books. If you want to write—write. If it allows you to continue writing, call it a “hobby,” but keep at it, my friend! I’ve been writing since I was six years old. I’m now in my early 50s. I self published ONE novel, have a handful of shorts published, and I have an agent who’s pushing THREE mss of mine, and I’m working on a new series [attempt] for an editor who actually came looking for me at a conference (we know each other from conferences). Yes, there are times I’ve questioned myself, but, in the end…I’m still out there merrily swinging (ho-ho-ho)!

    Don’t let the naysayers beat you down. Stew, swear, throw fists at the air, but keep at it—but only if it’s something you’re really interested in and enjoy doing. Consider self-publishing. Music and film industry folk call it “indie.” YOU have a PLATFORM. YOU’D probably do well.

    Just enjoy what it is you’re doing. Life goes by fast.

    Here’s another quote:


    Posted by fpdorchak | December 8, 2012, 2:28 PM
    • Thanks, Frank. It’s a setback, but a temporary one I assure you. I always tell other writers that when they receive a rejection they should take a moment of reflection, curse the sender, and then send out two more submissions. That’s still the plan. And even when it’s over it may not be over. I’ll instruct my widow to send out submissions, just to annoy publishers.

      Posted by jpon | December 8, 2012, 4:24 PM
  3. All I can say is I feel your pain. But I’ll tell you what I keep telling myself– keep turning those doorknobs and believe in yourself! It will come if you continue to persevere. If you do have a faulty query letter, fix it! The right person will come into your life just at the right time to keep you on your path. Strength. xx

    Posted by Loriann | December 8, 2012, 2:36 PM
    • Thank you, Loriann. This process is far longer than I ever imagined. But I am nowhere close to giving up.

      Posted by jpon | December 8, 2012, 4:25 PM
  4. I know that journey so well – best wishes.

    Posted by unpub | December 8, 2012, 2:44 PM
  5. Looking forward to the return of your blog in the new year! Until then, Frank’s advice is best.

    Posted by Marc Schuster | December 8, 2012, 2:56 PM
    • Thanks, Marc. I was actually thinking about taking a few weeks away from the blog. Now I have good reason.

      Posted by jpon | December 8, 2012, 4:26 PM
  6. Dear Joe, I’m so sorry that December sucks for you (and I hope that this is the way you can look at it, that December, and not the actual encounter, sucks–because there’s January, and February, and etc., and knowing how cogent and forceful a writer you are in your posts, I feel sure that each of these further months will have their opportunities and yes, their challenges, as well). Enjoy your time off, but please don’t let it infect your overall viewpoint. Just now, I’ve recently received two blog award nominations, and I have to turn them both down, because I’m not working as I should, and I can’t get them done as they should be, and I have some headspace housecleaning to do, which should be up on my site by this afternoon. I’m like a pouty baby, who can’t get work done because I’m still angry that life isn’t fair and perfect: don’t let this happen to you. I feel sure that you have the maturity which I am currently at least lacking in, and that you will overcome your temporary hurdle–for one thing, you don’t know just how much I look forward to every Saturday morning and reading your column when it comes through over the ‘net. You’ve got to keep writing, even if it’s just for the sake of selfish people like me!

    Posted by shadowoperator | December 8, 2012, 3:01 PM
    • Thanks for the vote of confidence. I learned rather early that life wasn’t fair. But I’m already up off the canvas. Give me an 8 count and let’s get back to it.

      In the words of a famous automaton, I’ll be back.

      Posted by jpon | December 8, 2012, 4:32 PM
  7. Ah, but wouldn’t it have been something? Yes. It would have. And it still can be. This was a great way to write a piece on rejection, Joe, an artful way to write it. The hope, the honesty, the reality. Loved it.

    In the immortal words of Howard Junker: Onward!!!

    Posted by Teri | December 8, 2012, 3:35 PM
  8. No words can make you feel better. So I won’t try because I know how much rejection hurts. But consider attending lots of writers’ conferences where you can pitch agents and publishers are roaming around. You may only be one martini away from meeting the right person. So get out there. And when you have time, I’d love to learn more about your novel.

    Posted by Darrelyn Saloom | December 8, 2012, 4:16 PM
  9. P.S. I am really going to miss you while you’re gone. xo

    Posted by Darrelyn Saloom | December 8, 2012, 4:20 PM
  10. Like all good tales of battle, we all reach up and touch our own scars as we hear about your wounds.
    I remember, in the days of snail mail, the stomach knot on the way to the mail box when a story was pending. I’d start looking the week after a piece was sent, knowing it was not even opened yet. And then again daily for months.

    Posted by Jon Zech | December 8, 2012, 5:40 PM
    • This is actually one of the reasons I couldn’t continue with an online journal I tried to produce right out of MFA school a few years ago (yes, little known fact–it’s where the name Third Reader comes from). I didn’t want to have to put writers through this anxiety. I felt a journal should be a two way thing, a conversation, and so I and my editors tried to comment constructively on every piece submitted to us, whether we accepted it our not. Quite a naive approach. After two issues we realized it was simply too much work. There’s no satisfactory answer here. Writers can only write and hope. The publishing end is it’s own universe.

      Posted by jpon | December 9, 2012, 2:40 PM
  11. You are merely foolowing in the footsteps of all the greats who received many rejections before the very same manuscript was finally published to great acclaim. Go get them, and never give up. I’m a fan of your work.

    Posted by Nadia Ibrashi | December 8, 2012, 9:58 PM
  12. Well, you’re singing my song now. Sing it, mister. Always good to know I”m not “enduring the possibilities” alone. (And have a wonderful break.)

    Posted by girl in the hat | December 9, 2012, 12:44 AM
    • What a great post, Joe. Thank you for your honesty—-we all feel it with you. I believe in your grit, and in the quality of your work. You will succeed.

      Posted by miriamagosto | December 9, 2012, 2:04 AM
    • That song is sung by a chorus, a multitude of voices. And Anna, you’re never alone in this business unless you choose to be.

      Posted by jpon | December 9, 2012, 2:30 PM
  13. Chiming in super late, after posting a hugely long comment, which got blown up in the login process.

    so briefly: Mr. Ponepinto, you are a supremely brilliant writer with an incredible voice and level of perception that few writers possess. But you are also equipped with a greatness of spirit and generosity that keeps the REST OF US going. I personally have been encouraged by you more times than I can count. Your description of the rejection — one hesitates to call it a “process” — is poignant and spot on. It takes alot of guts and humility to be able to cut to the bone of your own experience so that others can feel solidarity and comfort. thank you. we love you, respect you, and believe in you and in your writing. respect!

    Posted by Stephanie Barbé Hammer | December 9, 2012, 11:01 PM
    • Thanks, Stephanie. Accepting and rationalizing rejection is a process too. (You should have seen the first draft of this blog :-) There was a sleepless night right after, as I couldn’t imagine a future path after such a failure. But in the days that followed I realized that I’m already on that path, and the fact that a quick detour didn’t work out shouldn’t make me change what’s already in place. And the support of all these great writers who take the time to comment help me see that I’m doing it right.

      PS: Always log in first

      Posted by jpon | December 10, 2012, 3:56 PM
  14. “They know how passionately we writers hold onto our dreams. For most of us, dreams are all we have…”

    I think it’s here that you have to give yourself a little shake, Joe. A gentle shake, but a shake nonetheless. Dreams are not all you have. I don’t know you particularly well, but I know that you have a full life. You have a wife and many, many good friends. You have a passion, a driving force. You have a home. You have a job. You have a coffee-drinking dog. You have your health — not least. You have numerous publications under your belt. You have a manuscript complete — something many writers would kill for. I know this seems like cold comfort in the face of a tough rejection, but it is the reality. Recognize all the good things you do have. That’s my advice. Easier said than done, I know, but it’s probably necessary work.

    Posted by Meg | December 9, 2012, 11:06 PM
    • Thanks, Meg. It’s tough when something so big is within your grasp and then gets pulled away, but as I mentioned to Stephanie (above), accepting rejection and moving forward from it is it’s own process. It’s a few days later and I’m well beyond that particular event. Today’s agenda calls for lining up at least 5 more agents to pitch Mr. N to. Hope you’re doing well up north. Come see the group if you can during the holidays.

      Posted by jpon | December 10, 2012, 4:00 PM
  15. Hey Joe,
    I experienced a host of rejections and several rewrites before St. Martin’s bought my first novel. You’re looking for that one person willing to go to bat for your work, and one person is really hard to find, but I know that person is out there for you. Don’t be gone too long, okay?

    Posted by Sophfronia Scott | December 10, 2012, 12:53 AM
    • Thanks, Sophfronia. I’m still confident the novel will find a good home. And as for coming back, I’m already working on several blog ideas for the new year. Best to you, and thanks for all the support on Twitter.

      Posted by jpon | December 10, 2012, 4:01 PM
  16. My heart broke when I read this–honestly. I’m going to spare you the cliches and tell you that FSG will be sorry. I don’t know of that will be true or not. I DO know, however, that you gave me some sage advice recently on my blog. YOU told me to follow my bliss. I’d say the same to you. In the end, if not with this novel, then with the next. But in the meantime, there is the joy of making shit up. I wish you much joy for a long time to come.

    Posted by the circular runner | December 10, 2012, 2:48 AM
    • Thanks, Gabe. Yes, I guess I should practice what I preach. In fact, I’m still quite committed to making this writing thing work. I’ll just have to take the scenic route instead of the shortcut is all.

      Posted by jpon | December 10, 2012, 4:04 PM
  17. You told the story well for all of us. It’s not an easy thing for anyone and I’ve also had the conversation of where my writing fits in life. It’s a continuing conversation.

    Posted by The Writing Waters Blog | December 14, 2012, 2:57 AM
    • Perhaps it’s a testament to writing and the power of self-expression that so many of us experience something like this and yet keep on writing. We refuse to stop believing in ourselves.

      Posted by jpon | December 14, 2012, 10:30 AM
  18. Congrats on getting a request from an editor! That’s huge. I’m sorry to hear it resulted in a rejection, but it’s another big step taken. I think the break is a good thing. Hope it helped!

    Posted by Kourtney Heintz | July 1, 2013, 4:22 PM
  19. Stumbled on your post and liked it. Nice analysis of rejection. And 48 (I’m 49) replies? I’m lucky if I get 20 views on my posts. See, there are always those writers worse off. I try to figure out how I wrote the stories that were published, how they were, maybe, different. I can’t figure it out. I did it, somehow. It’s mysterious. And, meanwhile, I have stories out that might never find homes, that I feel are powerful. Writers don’t quit. Hope you secured an agent. Hope I do, too.
    Visit me, if you think of it. I blog about my WIP, etc.


    Posted by Elizabeth Brown | March 22, 2014, 11:18 AM
    • Thanks for commenting, Elizabeth. I know how you feel about getting stories published. I have one that won a writing contest 3 years ago and still has received nothing but rejection. And still no agent, too. I’m not quitting, but this is no business for pessimists.

      Posted by jpon | March 22, 2014, 11:38 AM
      • Yes! I agree. Upswing followed by downswing. Life. A mysterious force pulls us forward. : ) I try to keep a few things in the works. Makes me feel better, more optimistic. GL

        Posted by Elizabeth Brown | March 22, 2014, 12:41 PM
  20. Hello! Would you mind if I share your blog with my zynga group?
    There’s a lot of people that I think would really appreciate
    your content. Please let me know. Cheers

    Posted by Kelly | August 20, 2014, 11:32 AM
    • Kelly,

      You can send them to this URL. Please do not reproduce this blog, or any other of my (or anyone elses!) published writing in any form. That is a violation of copyright law. Sorry to be so uncooperative, but your email and whois info don’t turn up anything when I search, and I don’t see how this post connects in any way to a zynga group.

      If you are a real, sincere person and not a spammer or a scammer, please provide more info about yourself and your group.

      Sorry, but authors have to be very careful these days.

      Posted by Joe Ponepinto | August 20, 2014, 1:09 PM


  1. Pingback: Anatomy of a Rejection « The Saturday Morning Post - December 8, 2012

  2. Pingback: Writer Down, Mayday Mayday! « running in circles - December 10, 2012

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