Wednesday, November 10, 2021



Stephen King’s home in Bangor, Maine (Shutterstock/Nagel Photography)

I'm barely recovering from the trauma of last week, so, for totally selfish reasons designed to help myself feel better, I'm going to quote some favorite rejection letters to world-renowned authors who became the best/richest/most successful writers of all time.

Of course, though, now that I've piqued your curiosity, I must explain my “trauma." After I received my editor's notes on my next novel, LAST SEEN IN LAPAZ, which was originally planned to come out June 22, 2022, the more I read, the more I realized that in its present form, this work is a piece of crap. Horrible continuation errors, timeline issues, waaay too much backstory and not enough investigation, fuzzy characters--I needn't go on. The bottom line is that it's a train wreck/dumpster fire/whichever metaphor you wish to use.

The good news is that I've fixed a little bit of it, the bad news is that it's going to take a while to fix the rest, so much that the pub date will be pushed to early 2023. I am now even more in awe of writers (some of them in this group too) who produce a book or more a year. Do they submit an almost-perfect first draft, challenging Hemingway's declaration that "the first draft of anything is shit?" What's wrong with me, then? Self-critical as I am, I’m still beating myself up, which needs to stop at some point.

Famous rejection letters

On now to those rejection letters. I took sections of the complete letters from Literary Hub, where longer letters are quoted instead of the usual one-liners, some of which are made up.

1. Robert Galbraith

Thank you very much for giving us the opportunity to consider with interest. However, I regret that we have reluctantly come to the conclusion that we could not publish it with commercial success.

2. From Donald A. Wollheim at Ace Books to Stephen King, upon receipt of Carrie:

We are not interested in science fiction which deals with negative utopias. They do not sell.

3. To Gustave Flaubert after showing of Madame Bovary to the managing editor of the Revue de Paris:

You have buried your novel underneath a heap of details which are well done but utterly superfluous; they hide the essentials, and must be removed—an easy task. We shall have it done under our supervision by someone who is experienced and clever; not a word will be added to your manuscript, it will merely be cut down; the job will cost you about a hundred francs, which will be deducted from your cheque, and you will have published something really good, instead of something imperfect and padded.

4. To Marcel Proust, 1912, upon receipt of Swann’s Way:

My dear fellow, I may perhaps be dead from the neck up, but rack my brains as I may I can’t see why a chap should need thirty pages to describe how he turns over in bed. I clutched my head.

(Apparently, Proust sent back a blistering letter)

5. To Ernest Hemingway (he of above quote)

If I may be frank — you certainly are in your prose — I found your efforts to be both tedious and offensive. You really are a man’s man, aren’t you? I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that you had penned this entire story locked up at the club, ink in one hand, brandy in the other. Your bombastic, dipsomaniac, where-to-now characters had me reaching for my own glass of brandy.

(He might have been right about the brandy in one hand--or whatever Hemingway drank)

6. To H.G. Wells on The War of the Worlds:

An endless nightmare. I think the verdict would be ‘Oh don’t read that horrid book. 

I have my own memorable rejection, although it was a verbal one by phone call to a UK literary agent after submitting my first novel, WIFE OF THE GODS. He said, “There are two areas in the world no one wants to read about: Africa and Afghanistan.”

Clearly, he had not foreseen two mega best-selling authors called Khaled Hosseini and Alexander McCall Smith. 


  1. Writing with one hand, brandy (preferably cognac) in the other sounds wonderful. Also, for me, this approach would take rejections out of the equation because my handwriting is largely illegible, often even by me. The MS would never get to someone who had the power to reject. Meanwhile, don't be soo hard on yourself - just look at the company you're in.

  2. Let's start from this premise, Kwei. YOU ARE AN EXTRAORDINARY WRITER. Period, end of story. Moving on from there, we all have moments (or longer) of self-doubt that often surface as we read the comment letters of our editors. Who among us can (honestly) claim otherwise? But no one's perfect -- be that writers or editors. Together they find their way through the woods, fog, quicksand, what-have-you until, voila, the finished book emerges in a better state....and author and editor now together await the reviewers' takes on what they've wrought. There's no way out of it. Everyone's a critic.:)