If You’re Feeling Down and Out About a Rejection Letter …

BurkeConsider James Lee Burke.

Sure, his novels are everywhere these days. Bookstores. Airports. Bestseller lists. But here’s how they got there.

As Lindsey O’Connor detailed in our profile of the author, Burke published his first story when he was 19. It did not earn him instant fame.

He worked the oil fields. He drove trucks. He taught.

He’d sold a couple of books, but they never really broke out.

And then he hit a mind-bending snag. He’d written a novel called The Lost Get-Back Boogie.

He submitted it. He got rejected.

111 times, over the course of nine years.

He battled alcoholism.

He applied for a Guggenheim grant. He got rejected.

Fourteen times.

And then, finally, almost a decade after he’d first submitted The Lost Get-Back Boogie, LSU Press bought it.

It was nominated for a Pulitzer.

He got his Guggenheim.

He wrote The Neon Rain (1987) and created his famous Dave Robicheaux character.

Black Cherry Blues (1989) sold for six figures.

He’s now written more than 30 novels; he’s an award-winning bestseller; he’s a mainstay of his genre—and that’s the half of Burke’s story you’re used to hearing. But like most writers, the “Yes” that eventually built his career was built upon the foundation of a thousand “Nos.”

Never give up.

* * *

Here are some of Burke’s insights that he shared with Lindsey O’Connor in WD:

“I started writing and attempting to publish when I was 19. And by age 20 I worked briefly offshore, 10 days on the water, back on land for five days, and during those five days I would write, write, write. I rented a mailbox, and I would send my stories, and I guess some poems, to magazines all over Canada and the United States. Then I would go back on the quarter boat, and come back 10 days later, and my rejections would be waiting for me in the mailbox. But I learned a system and I’ve followed it ever since: Never let a manuscript stay at home longer than 36 hours. It’s that simple. You keep it in the mail, and if you do not you are ensured to fail.”

How did you get through the long period of rejection in the middle of your career?
“Rejection’s not easy. I mean, it’s like somebody, every day of your life, saying, ‘You know, you’re a real loser.’ And you wonder if he has a point. But the truth is that you don’t care. And I never did. I was never bothered by letters of rejection. I never believed one of them. And I received them by the hundreds, over many years.

“You do it a day at a time. You just put your rejection slips in a shoebox and tell yourself one day you’re going to autograph them and sell them at auction.”

If you had stopped with all those rejections over the years, how would that have changed your life?
“Well, I would have resented myself, I suspect, the rest of my life. But my point is an artist will not quit. He doesn’t have a choice. An artist is not going to do other things. It isn’t a matter of being brave. That’s like saying, ‘Well, I was brave because I got up this morning.’ It’s something in your spiritual tissue. You never stop. Why stop? Another thing a person has to remember: If he’s successful, it’s temporary. It’s going to go away.”

What’s the most challenging aspect of the writing and publishing life to you?
“Every writer has a nemesis. For me it’s fatigue. You can do lots of things well if you’re tired, but writing is not one of them. Maybe there are people who can write well when they’re tired, but I think almost any artist would say that it’s very hard to work at a full-time job somewhere else, and then write before you go to work, and write when you come home. That’s when it really takes courage.

“Write for the love of your art. Someplace down the road, the money, the fame, they’ll come, but by that time you won’t be thinking in terms of money or fame.”

What’s your advice for writers inspired by your example of literary longevity and success?
“Don’t ever quit. Never quit. Never show anybody you’re hurt. Grin and walk through the cannon smoke. It will drive them up the wall. You always stay true to your own principles. You always believe in your gift. God doesn’t make mistakes when he presents someone with a gift like that. It’s there for a reason.”


zp7Zachary Petit is the senior managing editor of Writer’s Digest magazine. He finally caved in and joined Twitter, and is now hopelessly distracted: @ZacharyPetit. 

For more, check out a copy of the latest issue of Writer’s Digest.



Need some help surviving and thriving in the writing life? Check out James Scott Bell’s The Art of War for Writers

Successfully starting and finishing a publishable novel can be like fighting a series of battles—against the page, against one’s own self-doubt, against rebellious characters, etc. Featuring timeless, innovative, and concise writing strategies and focused exercises, this book is the ultimate battle plan and more—it’s Sun Tzu’sThe Art of War for novelists.


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5 thoughts on “If You’re Feeling Down and Out About a Rejection Letter …

  1. Scorpiaux

    I have read other stories about how a persistent individual eventually hit gold after sifting through the mud of rejections. We can all cheer for the successful author. I do. However, what I would like to read is a book about those who rejected the book and why they weren’t intelligent enough to recognize what they had when they had it. I wonder how many would submit to an interview?

  2. jevon

    100s of rejections, wow. I like the concept of autographing them. I better get started with my rejection collection.

    I agree the nemesis being fatigue. Working full-time and writing at nights can be real tough. But you can make a routine that matches your lifestyle to work around it.


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