Happy post-Halloween to creative souls far and wide. If you enjoyed yesterday’s rejection stories, you’re going to love today’s batch of six terrifying (and longer-form) true tales.
Here’s to surviving the dread of the decline—and the end of a candy stash.
Rejected for Somebody Else’s Mayonnaise
I was twenty-six and I was finally ready to admit to myself and the world how badly I wanted to become a writer, a good writer, one who produced special novels in which careful observation led to soul-shaking revelations. And yet understatedly so. And perhaps against a complex backdrop of history’s most romanticized eras, which my observation-bombs would explode, proving we are all alike underneath.
So that was my plan. A little confused and perhaps too ambitious, but it was my plan, and I’d published a few pieces in teeny-tiny journals that gave me the hope and confidence I needed to put myself forward.
I’d been scraping by as a freelance copy editor in an expensive Southern California city. I had to be careful about choosing the schools to which I’d shell out fifty to a hundred dollars for the privilege of applying. And at the top of my list was a school in upstate New York, the school where one of my utmost admired authors (a truly canonical person) once taught. The school where one of my then-current-favorite novelists still taught. I gathered the best work that I had, which was a novel-in-progress about the untouchables of the SoCal surf scene, and sent it in with my application and a check for seventy-five dollars.
Long story short, the long wait seemed interminable, and yes, I got rejected. With one of the nicer form letters that acknowledged how difficult it is to apply, how even more difficult it is for professors to choose among applicants (and I know this to be basically true albeit somewhat exaggerated, having agonized over admissions to a selective MFA program for over a decade). And the school sent back my manuscript with thanks for the opportunity to consider my work.
Only… it wasn’t my manuscript. It was a short story called “Last Afternoon with Duane.” (Actually, the title was something similar; I am modifying details here just in case the author is out there moving around. I wish them well.) The writer had used minute observations to make subtle metaphoric points about a crumbling relationship, but the story didn’t work. I’d even venture to use a word that we never apply in workshops: it was bad.
In “Last Afternoon with Duane,” one young man helps another pack up his apartment after a breakup precipitated (remember that word) by the narrator’s affair with the guy’s girlfriend. The betrayal is just there in the background, never discussed, apparently never suspected—a sort of “Hills Like White Elephants” approach without the finesse. It spins swiftly into the absurd as the guys talk about an old jar of mayonnaise they find in the fridge. One character explains to the other that mayonnaise emulsifies out of oil and egg, and the two of them debate whether what’s left has spoiled or they might be able to eat it. In the end, the narrator takes off before they open the jar. As he bids his friend and the reader adieu, he concludes, “I guess I just don’t know anything about mayonnaise.”
That wasn’t my story. Not even close. But my insecure twenty-something self was afraid that “Last Afternoon” was better than the long novel I’d submitted. And where, incidentally, did my novel go? Did the author of “Last Afternoon” get it? Did the committee throw it away in disgust? Maybe they’d sent me “Last Afternoon with Duane” as a pointed message that this was not good but I was worse.
“Last Afternoon with Duane” became famous among my friends, passed around from hand to hand and read carefully and always with a bit of pity for me, the person who denied writing it. Poor Sooz, I imagined them saying behind my back, Let’s hope she learns from this. If only she knew about mayonnaise.
I got into a different program and was very happy there, with caring professors and a big group of chums dedicating themselves to art. But that mayonnaise story haunts me to this day like a doppelgänger character from Poe.
It hurt to be rejected from the school at the top of my list, the one with the writers I admired so much. And if I’d been a more confident and enterprising person, I might have contacted them—I would tell an applicant to do so if it happened now—to make clear that if I were to be rejected, it should be with my own work. I was afraid to ask. I almost hoped that they’d left my manuscript like an unopened jar. A series of further mishaps has meant that I don’t have a copy. I know now that my lost novel wasn’t great, and I’m usually glad that it’s gone, but maybe I can’t be blamed for hoping it was better than I remember… perhaps even the basis for someone else’s admission?
I imagine the author of “Last Afternoon” wandering over that hilly campus, sitting down black-turtlenecked in a workshop, fulfilling an ethereal promise without even realizing that our samples were switched. This scenario is actually fitting, given the work of the great writer who’d first attracted me to the place—but to be honest with myself, I’m sure there was no impostor student making a name with my novel there.
The point is that the right things did happen for me, if not for the boys with the mayonnaise (which, incidentally, they never opened and used, so that loaded gun didn’t go off). And I will always have that “Last Afternoon” to remember.
My Carrie Scary Horror Story
In 2016, a Hollywood film director and group of producers turned my first novel, published in 2003, into a romantic comedy film that’s currently streaming on Netflix. It’s called Carrie Pilby and stars Nathan Lane, Bel Powley, Vanessa Bayer, Gabriel Byrne, Colin O’Donoghue, and other respected actors. But because one male editor confused the manuscript with the horror novel Carrie by Stephen King way back when, it almost didn’t get published.
In the 1990s, I was a twenty-something single girl with a dream to publish a novel. Living in a walkup apartment in Hoboken, I wrote a few young adult manuscripts and mailed them out, on paper, to agents. Eventually, I wrote a funnier, more quirky book about a nerdy single gal who graduates from college at nineteen, comes to New York to work, and doesn’t really know how to date or make friends.
I landed an agent with the novel, and she started sending it out. Some editors liked it, some did not. One male editor at a small publishing house told her that he wasn’t taking it because “It was too scary.”
She asked him what he meant.
“Well, it’s like Carrie,” he said.
Actually, there’s nothing scary in my novel except dating in New York. Regardless, after all of these unkind cuts, two editors did want to buy the book. Luckily for me, the tide was turning and people were hungry for “chick lit” novels about smart women dating.
The book was published in 2003 by a new imprint called Red Dress Ink, ultimately sold 85,000 copies, and was published in six languages. It was optioned by a few film companies over the years, but was ultimately adapted through the gumption of a group of indie filmmakers, especially Director Susan Johnson, who then went on to direct the megapopular To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before.
The Carrie Pilby movie premiered before an audience of 1,500 at the Toronto Film Festival in 2016, then began airing on Netflix in 2017, where it is today. Rejection is always scary, but sometimes there are happy endings. So don’t give up! And don’t judge a book by its title. (Because… if you do, you might get hit with a pail of blood. Mwa ha ha!)
No Cigar (2009)
There it was. The job I had been searching for. It was 2001 and people still had jobs and could get mortgages. I had been ritualistically searching for a new job for ten years. I didn’t hate my job. I was just bored. So every Sunday I’d scour the classifieds but rarely did I find anything that motivated me to even create a cover letter. Then there it was. Right there on page twenty-seven. A little box surrounded by dozens of other little boxes describing opportunities for job seekers. There stood mine, sandwiched between “shipping clerk” and “special education teacher.” In block letters spelling out “SOCIAL SERVICE”, the ad went on to describe a position running the office of older adult services for a suburban town. This was just what I was looking for. I knew enough about job searches not to get my hopes up, but this was a job I wanted and could see myself doing until I retired. Trying to keep my expectations low, I sent in my resume and promptly tried to forget about it.
They say that the best time to look for a job is when you have one. Well I had one, the same one for fifteen years. I knew I could hold onto it as long as I wanted to, but it had become progressively harder to be enthusiastic about it. Now I was 50 and starting to feel like I needed to make a move before my age would be held against me by prospective employers. I had almost made myself forget this new possibility when I received a phone call in response to my resume, asking me to come in for an interview. At that point it became impossible to think of anything else. I did all the usual preparation: researched the organization, checked out their programs and their board of directors. I even drove to the offices so I’d be sure not to get lost on the way to the interview.
At the appointed day and time, I showed up in time to walk in appropriately (but not too) early. I was called in and found myself at a large conference table with the outgoing director, the town supervisor, two board members, and a volunteer. All were at least my age if not older. They greeted me with the fake smiles I knew only too well, because let’s face it: no one likes to hold interviews. It means something is changing and usually not because you want it to; it means a lot of people will be disappointed; it means everyone involved has to stop doing their jobs and take part in this ritual; and of course it means asking the same questions repeatedly. Their questions were expected: Why did I want to change jobs? What were my strengths? Why did I want to work with this population? The interview seemed to go well, though the group seemed polite but unenthusiastic. Before I left, the supervisor told me there would be a second interview for the three final candidates. Then, as I was leaving he said, “By the way, did we tell you the starting salary? I don’t remember.”
“No” I replied, as if it couldn’t matter less. The figure he quoted stunned me as it was about forty percent more than I was currently making. “Oh that’s great,” I replied, trying to register as little shock as possible. That was the clincher. Now I really wanted this job. Where I was ready to take a job I wanted with the same or even less money, I would no longer have to make that compromise. I went home and prayed for my phone to ring. After only one day my prayers were answered when the administrative assistant called to set up a second interview, this time with the board of directors. Before I hung up, I asked how many candidates were being interviewed. She replied, “Well, there’s three people coming in that day, but (and here she paused) I really shouldn’t tell you this but you’ve got the job.” I was stunned, and could only muster in reply “Really?” without it sounding like too much of a question, like “Are you kidding me?” I thanked her and said I wouldn’t be late.
I spent the next week planning the exit from my job, agonizing over how to tell my boss; thinking about what kind of party to have; wondering where there were places to have lunch at my new job. The second interview, strangely enough, felt more light-hearted than the first. There were a lot of positive comments about my experience. Meanwhile I tried to figure out where my office was located. They wanted to know how soon I could start. I began making the guest list for my going away party. I left the interview feeling great. I drove home barely conscious of where I was driving. It was finally going to happen. The next week I found myself more concerned about my departure than getting the phone call that would officially offer me the job, because after all, it was a “done deal”.
The phone didn’t ring, and after a few days I started getting a bit concerned. I checked my phone every two hours to see if it was working. I started inventing reasons why I hadn’t been notified yet: the supervisor was called out of town on a family emergency; they were all busy with some big event; there was a tick epidemic and the building had to be evacuated. As the week wore on I feared the worst. Finally, a letter came.
With my last ray of hope I thought, maybe they have to put the offer in writing. But I didn’t believe it. It was with that last fading hope that I read, “…while your qualifications were excellent we decided….” and so on, including the usual platitudes. All I could think was “How could this happen?” The shock quickly became crushing disappointment. The only saving grace was that the only person I had told about this was my fiancé. Looking back, I wonder if I knew better than to talk about the job before I knew for sure that I had it.
It’s been eight years, and I’m still at that same job. I’d like to say that in retrospect I’m glad I didn’t get the job and it all worked out for the best—but I’d be lying. I always wished I’d gotten that job. I have, however, learned that nothing is certain—until it is.
The Ghosting Agent
I received an email from an agent who asked when we could schedule a phone call. As an author I assumed that this was the call, that she was going to offer representation. I eagerly replied and offered some available times, and we scheduled a call.
The day of, she emailed me saying that something had come up and asked if we could reschedule. Totally understandable; things happen. We rescheduled and for the next several days, my heart was pounding up my throat, eager for our call.
Once again, the day of, she wrote to me saying that she was in the middle of a deal and could only schedule their call at the same time as the one we had we scheduled. I totally understood this; as an agent, your current clients come first.
However, how she continued the email baffled me. She said something to the effect of: because of my schedule this week, and the fact you have other interest on this project, I’m going to step aside. I wrote back to her saying that I’d be happy to reschedule the call again. Just because there was interest in my project didn’t mean I had an offer that was a fit for me, let alone any offers at all. I would’ve much preferred to delay the call and get a formal offer than to remain offer-less.
Even so, she never wrote back to my email. Later I told her I was querying someone else in her house because of her lack of response, and she still didn’t write back. I found this extremely ironic, considering she insisted on how much of a “huge fan” she was of me and my work, and that “should anything change, please let me know.”
The Insufferable Music Magazine Editor
In the early 1990s I was an aspiring freelance writer, as well as a high school teacher and graduate student. Writing for music and entertainment magazines was my biggest thrill, but I was also happy to write for the local teachers’ union newspaper (and they paid nicely).
I wrote for two music magazines located in nearby suburbs but they paid little: one only got me comped to shows, the other gave me a not-so princely monetary gift for Christmas. And a third magazine, in Philadelphia, sent me a $5 kill fee for a record review! Woo! But then I heard that a certain hip music editor was starting a new music magazine, and I wanted to join on.
I forget if he assigned me a review or if I pitched it to him (his name was Brad… no last names uttered) but I’d seen his name around and figured that if I could get at least one piece into his new magazine, I’d get many more offers. So I wrote and typed up this music piece and phoned him to mail it in.
But no, he wanted me to bring it in, in person. Email was not common yet, and he was located a good 30 minutes north of my job. But yeah, I drove up there, battled traffic, hand-delivered it.
I recall that he read it over in a disinterested manner, and then asked me to sit at his typewriter (not computer) and make corrections. I wanted to walk out but I did as he asked.
Follow-up phone call a few days later: he wanted me to make more updates, at his office, on his typewriter. I asked him if I couldn’t just do it at home, and bring it in, but no.
Why did I agree to go back to his dumpy apartment-office and do the rewrite? I don’t recall. But I did it.
Another follow-up phone call a few days later: he still wanted more edits, and they had to be done at his office, and he even requested a specific day which was not good for me. I told him so, and he said in that case, he couldn’t run the piece.
Now I was disappointed and tired of his game, and he hadn’t even discussed how much I’d be paid. I dared to ask that, and he said there was no pay.
So I said forget it, and he said he wouldn’t run the story.
But then several weeks later he did phone me and asked if I would be willing to update the story because he had room for it in the upcoming issue. Would I need to go to his dumpy office and use that typewriter? Yep. I declined, and he chewed me out for missing a great publishing opportunity.
I just Googled him and he has amassed some impressive credits since then: but I have six published books, four still in print, and he doesn’t. SO THERE, Mr. Bigshot Brad.
After 15 years of writing, revising, and querying, the phone finally rang.
“Are you sitting down? I have some good news for you!”
It was the publisher calling to tell me that my novel had won first place and would soon be published. He seemed more excited than I was, barely letting me say a word.
I called my family, emailed my friends, posted a celebratory status update on Facebook. My husband uncorked the 20-year Tawny.
Between emails, calls, and sips of Port, I pinched myself. It was really happening.
The publisher was barnstorming my state with a sister publisher from New York and we made plans to meet at the local bookstore.
A handful of people showed up for the reading. Though two authors, one from each press, had been scheduled to appear, one (the NY publisher’s spouse) didn’t show. After reading his bio from her phone, the NY publisher read a long excerpt from her absent husband’s book. A tiny, faintly pink pennant fluttered in my periphery. Was hers a vanity press?
The other author, the one represented by my publisher, seemed shy, reluctant to say much at all. The publisher, let’s call him Mr. McCon, was anything but shy. He was the life of the party. He waxed poetic on everything from types of glue used in paperback binding to the methods he used to arrive at perfect book titles.
After the reading, Mr. McCon and I met. We shook hands and set a time to talk by phone when his book tour concluded.
The next week, he called and we talked and talked. Rather, he talked and talked and I listened. When he brought up publishing legalities, I mentioned that I had been in the business for 20 years and had always relied on the Authors Guild contract. He was not interested in my experience and said we needed a release form since my novel was based on actual events. Because I had published the Bar Association’s centennial history, I knew many attorneys and had taken care of that detail already. He said he’d call his lawyer and have him draft something different. A banner the color of Pepto-Bismol flapped in the breeze, demanding attention.
He promised to send a contract soon.
A week went by. No contract.
After emails to the publisher went unanswered, I called and was connected with a senior editor who couldn’t help me. “Mr. McCon,” she said, “takes care of the contracts.”
I waited another week. Finally the paperwork arrived.
The first clause: Author agrees to sell copyright to publisher for $1.
Flags the color of blood strained against gale force winds.
Reading the contract was like being in a horror movie, descending rickety stairs into a cellar of doom while the audience screams from their seats, “Turn around! Get out of there!”
Cue the bone-chilling organ music; add a few Vincent Price voice-overs as the unsuspecting heroine reads on.
Though there was a clause re: author’s advance, there was another clause about royalties kicking in after the (undisclosed) costs of producing the book were recouped.
Signing this contract would mean that I, as the author, was selling my work for a buck, then paying for the pleasure of having it printed. In addition, I had no rights to republish, revise, or profit if the book were adapted in any format.
I emailed one of my attorney clients. I spoke with another on the phone who advised me to send the contract I used with my writers, the Authors Guild contract. “Sign and send the contract your press uses,” another advisor said. “There’s a fifty percent chance no one there will even read it.”
Mr. McCon did, however, read it, and his rage was something to behold. More than one “How dare you!” came hurtling through the phone. I apologized for making him angry and proposed we try to find a compromise between his contract and mine.
Mr. McCon claimed he had a friend on the Authors Guild board who told him that the guild’s contract was misleading. “No publisher uses it. It just gives writers false hope.”
I said, “I want the copyright page of my book to read © Avery Caswell.”
“Oh,” he said, “it can still say that.”
But how could that be?
I was confused, but stood firm.
He offered to strike the recoupment clause, meaning that royalties might kick in before the costs of printing the book were recovered.
Other than that, his contract was non-negotiable. It was his way or no way.
I rejected his offer.
The McCon contract was clearly contrived to prey on vulnerable, naive writers, desperate to be published. Still, the possibility that I may have made the wrong decision by killing the deal haunted me for days.