Friday, February 17, 2012

The Pain of Rejection

Ten years ago this month, my career hit rock bottom.  The wounds of 9-11 were still raw, the lingering malaise still thick.  I’d just been screwed out of a screen credit for the movie, Red Dragon (actually, I wasn’t screwed; I’d merely lost an arbitration, but when you’re living it, there’s precious little difference).  I’d been orphaned twice on Scott Free, my second book of a two-book contract with Atria, on the heels of Even Steven, on which I was likewise orphaned twice.  The publisher had lost interest in me, and they’d made it clear that they were going to ship a tiny number of books and do nothing to support them.

My book-writing career was in severe jeopardy.

I was able to keep it all in perspective, though, until I got a phone call from my film agent that no one—no one—even wanted to take a look at Scott Free, which to that point had everyone in my publishing food chain convinced that it would be an easy movie sell.  The call came in at around 6:00 pm Eastern time, and I remember Joy rubbing my shoulder as she read the body language of the call.  When I hung up, I felt like I had nothing left.  I tried to smile and shrug it off, and then she hugged me and I lost it.

I don’t cry much, but that one came from a deep dark place.

It wasn’t about how to make the mortgage payment.  It was the realization that I had all these stories inside of me that I wasn’t going to be able to tell because people who’d liked my books well enough to buy them no longer liked them enough to sell them.  It felt so . . . unfair.  Our own Mr. John Ramsey Miller took a lot of phone calls from me back then.  Thanks, John.

I make it a point not to dwell in dark places very long, so I went on to write a book called Living Wil, which I couldn’t give away, but really, that just kept me busy while I took a long look at where I was:

FACT: My bestselling books to that point had been written while I'd had a full-time job.
FACT: While “writing full time” I actually spent a lot of time hangin’ out and playing Dad.
FACT: The entertainment business makes no friggin’ sense.
FACT (and this one’s embarrassing): While I actually craved the normalcy of a Big Boy job, I resisted for fear that others would see that as an expression of failure.

When all was said and done, I reverted to one of my overarching philosophies in life—“fuck it”—and I forged ahead.  It turned out that no one was watching me as closely as I thought they were.  In fact, I was shocked to find that most of my friends who write full-time were envious of my Big Boy endeavors.

Funny what an adventure life turns out to be sometimes.

I write of this now not just because of the ten-year anniversary, but because it’s American Idol season again, and the sight of those devastated young people who’ve just found out they didn’t make the cut churns up memories.  When you want something so badly, the pain of rejection can be unbearable.  It feels like there’s no future.

But of course, there always is.  The problem is, too many of us work so hard to engineer the future that we lose sight of the fact that we’re powerless to affect it.  The best we can do is dream big and work hard and maximize opportunities. 

After ten years, you look back and realize how much better a person you are for the pain.


  1. Thank you for this post. This is very timely for me. Where I am right now is not as bad as your rejection sotry but I was feeling a lot of the same stuff and still am a bit. This really, really helped me!

  2. Very inspirational, John. Someone once asked what you call a writer who never gives up? The answer: published. As I mentioned in my post on this subject last week, rejection is an integral part of the publishing industry. Expect it, deal with it, then get over it and keep writing.

  3. Wow, John. Great post. Writing highs and lows can be a wild swing, but the lows can be so devastating because writing is a personal passion that seems so connected to who we are. Thanks for sharing your anniversary reflections.

  4. Fabulous post, John. By the way, that overarching philosophy in life which you mentioned is the short form of the Serenity Prayer. I say it each day. Several times. And one of the biggest truths in your post is that yep, the entertainment business makes no sense at all. You just gotta roll with it, and one has to be aware of that before jumping into it. Thanks so much.

  5. Man, John...thanks for baring your soul to us like that. Your willingness to tell it like it is, good and bad, is what makes TKZ one of the best writing blogs on the internet.

    It gives me heart to know that pros like you reflect the same feelings rookies like me experience.


  6. Thank you for this. It was very moving, honest, and raw. Dealing with disappointment and loss is the hardest part of this crazy life. I am so thankful for my friends and family who are there to help me pick myself up and dust myself off and get back to the keyboard.

  7. It's not whether you get knocked down; it's whether you get back up again.

    Nice recovery, John.

  8. What's the old cliche, "it's not the fear, it's your reaction to it . . ."

    Your tale is awesome and I've repeated it in shortened form to several of my writing friends who were on the ledge with a glass of purple kool-aid.

    I recently read a literary wordfest titled "Q" A man is about to get married when he is visited by his future self telling him he must break the engagement. He does and that changes the future. He spends the rest ofthe book being visited by unhappy future selves and trying to change things until there is no future left.

    That really hit home and dovetails nicely with John's "short verion of the serenity prayer. I've been working hard on adopting that attitude.

    Today I'm interviewing with a small newspaper and am going to do my best to convince them they need a fiction section - short stories, book reviews, contests, etc. I'd have never had the nerve or the skill to do that a couple of years ago.

    And if John hadn't been through the cauldron, we wouldn't have Digger Grave to save the world!

    Ever forward - Terri

  9. John,

    Really well said, and really good advice for everyone. I've been there a time or two myself and can heartily relate.

    You're an awesome writer, and I'm glad you're still putting books out there! :-)

  10. Glad you stuck with it sir.

    Motivates me to keep trying until I hit that magic chord with someone down the line.

  11. Thanks for writing this, John. It's like Winston Churchill said: "Success is not final, failure is not fatal; it is the courage to continue that counts."

  12. Thanks for the inspirational story, John. It's like a Behind The Music episode for writers. Hitting a career low isn't the end. Everyone wants the rocket ride to the top, but most careers are more like a roller coaster. It's heartening to hear that there's always hope even in the face of rejection.

  13. Oh, John. Do I hear you! My first manuscript went to Harlequin in 1983. Yes, 1983!

    They held it for nine months before rejecting it. That's like going full term in pregnancy only to lose the baby. (Okay, not that drastic, but you get my point.)

    Now, dig this. My first published Harlequin, WHERE IT BEGAN, was released this year: 29 years later!! I just found out the book sold out its print run.

    My point is that during those 29 years, I may have gotten distracted by life but I always kept writing. I NEVER gave up. Kept submitting, kept journals, kept fleshing out story ideas. I did sell a paranormal romance to a small press in 2000, but it only served to spur me on since it earned no cash.

    Now, as an empty nester with an open road before me, my writing career is finally established. I remember those cry yourself to sleep moments. I remember arguing with well-meaning family members that my writing was NOT a hobby. . . I remember deciding I would die before giving up. I've learned that determination and drive make success as an author, even more than talent (because we know a lot of not so great fiction that is being published.) My attitude every time I receive rejection? I look rejection in the eye and say, "One day, you'll wish you didn't say no." And, kept moving on.

    I'm just sayin'. . .

    So, I'm dreaming big, John and working hard at it. I look forward to seeing you at the top--and I'll buy the first round! :)

  14. Thanks, Gilstrap. You know I love you, guy. Although not in that special touchy way.