• Nava Atlas
  • Literary Rejection: Overcoming the Hurt, Recognizing the Blessings (+ a Giveaway!)
Literary Rejection: Overcoming the Hurt, Recognizing the Blessings (+ a Giveaway!)
Written by
Nava Atlas
June 2014
Written by
Nava Atlas
June 2014

Let's put a positive spin on everyone's least favorite subject — rejection — with a giveaway. Win a signed copy of The Literary Ladies' Guide to the Writing Life, a look at the writing lives of twelve classic women authors. In their own voices, authors that most of us revere demonstrate the universality of the struggles and obstacles as well as the joys of the writing life. Learn how to enter for a chance to win at the end of this post!

Rejection, we’ve been told, is part of the path to publication — and beyond. We’re told to grow a tough hide and accept that most rejections are nothing personal. Even so, rejection still stings—even the bland “not looking at this time. That’s because it’s difficult to separate the rejection of one’s work from the rejection of one’s self.

Every “no” plants a seed of self-doubt. Occasionally, even in longtime relationships with publishers and editors, I’ve had book proposals quashed as not having enough commercial promise. Though I understood these to be purely business decisions, and not about my ability, my immediate reaction was always a resounding “Ouch!”.

While researching The Literary Ladies’ Guide to the Writing Life I learned that even among classic authors, the experiences of self-doubt, fear of failure, and rejection, are universal. A few of the Literary Ladies were spared the blows of rejection, while others were positively hammered by it.

Madeleine L’Engle’s early literary life was famously marked with rejection. Her most iconic classic, A Wrinkle in Time, beloved by generations of children and adults alike, was rejected by some forty publishers as being too dark for children. Her faith in the book held fast. After nearly giving up, it found a home and sweet vindication in the form of millions of copies sold and numerous awards. Surely her success in this genre paved the way for contemporary authors of darker and more challenging fiction for children.

Charlotte Brontë was as peeved as any author would be when her first novel, The Professor, met with continuous rejection, or cold silence as it made its way around the London publishing circle. Galling as this was to her, she didn’t sit idly by. Instead, she busied herself on her next project, which is what every sensible writer should do. When finally a publisher saw enough merit in The Professor invited Brontë to submit a different work for consideration, she had Jane Eyre at the ready. The publisher printed and published it in mere weeks, whereupon it became an immediate sensation, and a best seller.

L. M. Montgomery, best known for the Anne of Green Gables series, wrote in her memoir, “At first I used to feel dreadfully hurt when a story or poem over which I had laboured and agonized came back, with one of those icy little rejection slips. Tears of disappointment would come in spite of myself…But after a while I got hardened to it and did not mind. I only set my teeth and said, “I will succeed.” I believed in myself, and I struggled on, in secrecy and silence…” Gaining courage from eventual acceptance of shorter works, Montgomery began submitting her first full-length work, Anne of Green Gables.

Demoralized after a slew of rejections, she stashed the manuscript in a hatbox, and left it to languish. After a year or so, she steeled herself to try again. Though she struggled mightily with depression, Montgomery was clear in her mission to bring joy to others through her work, and that she did accomplish, not only with her most iconic Anne series, but her subsequent books as well. Years later, musing on her path to publication, Montgomery recounted how a book she wrote early in her writing life, but clearly not from her heart, was soundly rejected. Though and it hurt at the time, in hindsight, she recognized how lucky she was to have escaped getting locked into a niche that was wrong from her.

To be rejected for not being yourself, as Montgomery found out, can be a valuable gift to a writer, especially one just finding her voice. From Brontë’s experience it’s clear that it’s wise to continue working, rather than pining away for acceptance (in her case especially wise, as The Professor was published only after her death). And from Madeleine L’Engle’s experience we can take away a message that perseverance, coupled with faith in our work (accompanied by absolute honesty about its merits) is a path to eventual success.

For biographies of classic women authors of the past, literary musings, inspiration, and even a filmography, visit The Literary Ladies' Guide to the Writing Life.

Enter for a chance to win a copy of the Literary Ladies' Guide to the Writing Life by either:

1. Joining the Literary Ladies Facebook page, where you'll find literary posts both thought-provoking and amusing,or

2.Follow Ladies Who Write on Twitter, then:

Come back and comment here that you did so. But also, while you're here, if you have a good rejection story, or any other thoughts on the subject to share, please do so! Enter to win through Saturday, June 28, at midnight.

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  • Sandra Tarling

    Nava, I'm thrilled to learn that I won a copy of your book! And I look forward to reading it. Let me know what additional info you need. Thanks so much, & I look forward to hearing from you. Sandi

  • Nava Atlas

    Thanks for your fascinating comments, everyone, and for entering for a chance to win The Literary Ladies' Guide to the Writing Life. The randomly selected recipient has been chosen — Sandra Tarling. I'll await hearing back from her. 

    Julie, that's so kind of you, you've really been with me from the very start, with me wearing my other hat (actually one of several — I have quite a "hat collection"!) as a vegetarian, and now vegan cookbook author. 

  • Just followed @ladieswhowrite!  The Literary Ladies' Guide sounds fascinating! I look forward to reading what these ladies have to say about writing.


  • Oh Nava! Vegetarian was the first vegetarian cookbook I owned. You introduced me to an extraordinary world of grains and vegetables and now here you are, filling my heart with hope that I'm going to get through this muddle of querying and rejections and deciding whether or not traditional publishing is the right path for me. 

    I was so happy to share this post with my Twitter followers and I've filed it away in my personal archives. I will begin the agent search this fall and I'm already bracing myself for the emotional rollercoaster. 

    Thank you for this perspective. 


  • Hello Nava ~ what a lovely idea of taking inspiration from the experiences of admired published authors, and finding opportunities to grow through rejections. I did follow your "Literary Ladies Guide" Facebook page and your "Literary  Ladies" Twitter profile. I look forward to a chance to read your book.

    In the meantime, though I have received my share of form rejection letters in exchange for magazine article subscriptions, there are 3 that stand out as different.

    1. One article about an historic figure from the Revolutionary War submitted to a children's magazine needed to be reworked.  I met with a staff member of a local history museum for fact-checking to make sure the creative story aspect balanced with the accuracy of the information I presented. The editor expressed willingness to look at my revisions. I needed to drop working on it for a while to deliver my daughter, parent, and work temporary day jobs. Not sure if I can pick it up again after so many years, but I am tempted to try.

    2. The second article I presented to a children's magazine editor also met with rejection due to it not being what they are looking for, but she sent me materials about what they were looking for and encouraged me to submit a story that fulfilled their criteria. I did not do that either, and perhaps I can make it up to myself. I think the time spent being a new parent and needing to work some hours at a "day job" took over to some extent, the important aspect is that I move on and learn from that mistake.

    3. The third article I submitted involved a little of the supernatural. The two mainstream magazines, though outwardly favored the subject, rejected my story with a form letter. There was one Canadian Catholic magazine who "bought" the article and sent me a check for USD $25. Wow. I had hoped to see the article published and to see my name in print, but that never happened. When I sent the editor a letter of inquiry, the editor responded personally and with kindness. She let me know that the editor who accepted my work had passed away and that their grant required them to print at least 80% of their articles by Canadian authors. They gladly gave me back my publication rights to the article and wished me well. When I received word of that, I promptly published the story on the HubPages site as An Angel in My Closet, and received glowing feedback.

  • Nava Atlas

    Thank you all for your very interesting comments, so far! I look forward to more. It's helpful to see that we all face similar obstacles no matter where we are on the publishing path.

  • Liked and followed!  I'm old enough to have paper rejection notes...and now, of course, electronic ones. You need to simply consider them a *membership badge* in the writer-for-life club, and move on. The book sounds interesting.

  • Sally P

    Enjoyed Suzanne's and Meg Dobson's post (and will look to buy her book when it's out). Supporting fellow women writers is very important to me. Currently working on a novel about a radical second-wave feminist in the early 70s (and her siblings). Researching it has made me aware that, through all life's rejections or acceptances, we still need to stand with our sisters these days!

  • I liked your Facebook page. My current novel was rejected by many agents, including one who wrote to me a year and a half later to find out if I was still unagented. She was still thinking about my novel, and had changed her mind. She is now my agent, and I am working on revisions.

  • Meg E Dobson

    Liked your Facebook page.

    In this day and age where it is rare to get a rejection letter but instead its the "if you do not hear from us in eight weeks (or longer) you may assume we are not interested." And they request an exclusive access.

    Only a few years ago, this was not the case. As a result, I stopped my queries to such agents. I have happily signed a two book deal with a small press. Chaos Theory (YA contemporary crime fiction) will be out Feb 3rd, 2015. It's been 12 years of hard work and worth every minute.

    SCBWI friends begged me to go with an agent traditional route, but this publisher is awesome and my editor hard working. Traditional house will have to drag me away.

    The advance was thrilling, but looking at the publishing world's future, I see opportunities we can't imagine: 3D e-format, game crossovers and virtual storytelling experiences, books with senses that we actually smell coming from a novel, surround sound in a book. The future will be incredible.

    I'm not convinced traditionBless the will be adept fast enough. But I do believe they should bother to click a form letter rejection email. It's simply polite guys. And exclusive? For a no response? Well screw that. Bless the agents who have softened their stance to "although the stated policy is no response, I endeavour to personally reply." I will not forget the others however. It is a small interconnected world. Authors have long memories.

  • Monica Lee

    I have a file of agent rejections. None of them were mean, but someday, those rejections will get into a book like yours (fingers crossed). Looking forward to posts on Facebook and tweets on Twitter. Or the other way around.

  • Lisa Manterfield

    Glad to see the ladies finally getting their say. I'm following along for more encouragement on FB and Twitter.

  • Got a lovely letter from an agent who praised my writing, and while she wasn't a good fit for this work, she closed with "I'm confident you will find someone who is." (This cancelled out the negative affect of the form letter I received from someone else.)

    Just "Liked" your Facebook page. Looking forward to learning more about Literary Ladies. Great idea!

  • I just joined your Facebook page and sent invitations to three friends who are women writers.  I don't do twitter at this time.  Dealing with rejection is a life issue but we often don't feel it as painfully as when we risk sending out our work to potential agents or publishers.  Friends will often say they love our work even if they don't so they are not really good gauges by which to judge our work - I even found that writers' groups were not as "honest" as they might be.  It is good to know that being rejected puts one in good company.

  • Patricia Robertson

    Just joined your face book page and twitter - looks interesting.

  • Tyra Brumfield

    So glad to know of these links on Facebook and Twitter. I am a freshman in the publishing world. I've had one short-story published with an online magazine. I was elated, but not for long, finding fault with my writing (the e-zine did not publish the revised piece, like I asked) and with the publisher (they're a fine online source, but relatively unknown). Glad to say there wasn't a bottle of wine close by when I shot my success full of holes. My novel was recently rejected by a local, new writing contest (How did THAT happen?) not to mention other rejections by other publishers.

    I would very much like to have the novel highlighted above. Currently, I'm reading a similar novel, Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Ann Fowler. In this novel, the reader gets a detailed account of the life of F. Scott Fitzgerald and, of course, Zelda. It's a fascinating read, full of its own brushes with rejection and poverty. To read what these great authors experienced inspires me to keep going and, inadvertently, to stay away from alcohol when depressed. The Literary Ladies Guide to the Writing Life sounds like the power surge this tired writer needs.

  • Sandra Tarling

    Just signed up to follow Literary Ladies on Twitter. You've completed a project I've dreamed of -- telling the stories of the struggles and obstacles so many revered women writers have encountered. These are the stories we need to read over and over to encourage and inspire us to persevere. I certainly need to be reminded often. Thank you, Nava.

  •  Following on Twitter and Facebook. Thanks!

    I finished my first novel six months after graduating college. Got an agent, but the book didn't sell.

    It took me ten years to finish a second novel. Day  job.  After five months of querying, the (approximately) 60th agent I queried signed me. This is it, I thought. Because I've paid my dues.


    After more than a year of trying to sell the book, my agent emailed explaining that he'd continue to send the book out when he heard of new possibilities.  I read this at the end of the work day and left the office wanting only to sit down on the nearest curb. But since this is not a good idea at rush hour in Manhattan, I did not.

    I did, not long after, start a new novel. It took five years to finish it.   

    After 7 months of querying and about 68 rejections, I signed with a new agent. We edited the book together for months, and on February 21 2014, she sent it out to editors. In two weeks, I had a two-book deal.

    THE ASHES OF FIERY WEATHER is due out in Fall 2015 from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

    I was going to finish this with 'The End" and thought no, "The Beginning" is better.  But then I realized that neither is accurate.  For any writer, rejection-acceptance-publication (hopefully)-success (maybe)  is of a whole, all part of the same story.  

    I've learned that the only certainty in writing, ever, comes from quitting. 

    Don’t quit.

  • Rita Arens

    I read your book when it first came out and got so much out of it, especially Madeline L'Engle's story. Well done!

  • Yehudit Reishtein

    Following you on Facebook--it's the kind of encouragement many of us need, to know that if you have faith in your writing and it is truly good or unique, it will eventually find a publisher. And that the first editor or the first 40 editors, the ones who reject your work, may not be right.

  • Cynthia G. Neale

    I just followed on Twitter. I have three published novels and have had three small press publishers. The first and third manuscript submissions brought in numerous rejections. The first book was the most difficult and I could plaster the walls of my house with rejection letters. I continued to work and submit, but the weight of rejection was becoming too heavy. I then threw the hard copy all over the room, stomped on it, and then quit. It felt so good! But only for a couple of days because it feels like hell later. And then I received an order of books in the mail from a book club I was a member of. One of the books was about an entire estate in County Wicklow sent packing to N. America during the Irish Famine (my first book takes place during this event). In the index, there is a list of the ships some of the families traveled on. One of the ships, The Star, was the same name I had chosen for my novel not knowing there was a ship with this name that carried immigrants from Ireland. And on this ship a family was listed with the last name of 'Neale,' my last name. And on The Star, there was a girl the same age as my protagonist in my book. I started submitting again and eventually, The Irish Dresser, was published in 2003 and is still selling. I haven't stomped on another hard copy of a manuscript, but I do a lot of lighting candles and going wild dancing when I have rejection. The authors that Nava Atlas has mentioned in the blog are a few of my favorites. I knew about' A Wrinkle in Time,' but not the others. What an inspiration this book would be. And I hope my little story is an inspiration here! I don't often have time to participate in this web site, but it's a worthy one.

  • Kristin Booker

    Followed on Facebook and Twitter. Just getting started again in the manuscript phase and find myself regularly paralyzed with fear. Thank you for this piece. It's soothing and confidence boosting, which is a grand balm for what ails those of us who need a dose of confidence salve. :)

  • saturnbull

    Thanks for the opportunity! Followed on Twitter.

    One of my earlier rejections (and there have been many) from an editor said, “the sample pages put me in mind of Dicken's Great Expectations” which I took as a great compliment, despite the rejection.