138 rejections and 870,000 words

It was 17 years ago this month that I first got it into my head that I wanted to be a 4 Real writer. As in, paid. As in, professionally paid. I am thankful nobody told me then, at age 18, that it would be almost two decades before I’d get my first taste of bona fide pro success. And while I am not — yet! — permitted to speak on that success, I do want to reflect a little on what went into achieving the milestone.

138 rejections and 870,000 words.

The bulk of those rejections and those words have fallen in two periods: 1995 to 1998, and 2006 to 2009. Two four-year bursts of short production activity, in between which I fooled around with several novel projects, the largest of which went 100,000 words before I realized it was a hopeless, bloated mess, and stepped away. So I can’t really say that it’s been 17 years of constant, arduous effort. More like, surges of activity directly followed by long troughs of relative inactivity.

During which I wasted a hell of a lot of time. Oh Lord, so much. A whopping amount. If I’d had more discipline when I was younger, I am sure I’d have reached this point much sooner. Lack of discipline is still my #1 concern, as I now climb over the top of The Wall and survey the new series of obstacles that I have to climb en route to the next goal. Because The Wall is not the end, it is the beginning. Just like making your first basket as an NBA player must feel good, but you have to follow the first basket up with countless others in order to make a career for yourself.

My historical lack of discipline frightens me, because without significant effort on my part to change my own behavior, I risk becoming a one-shot writer; the kind of person who gets one or a handful of credits, then disappears into obscurity.

Still, I can’t feel too bad. Nobody gets to 870,000 words without some kind of effort. And even though almost all of that remains unpublished — and, probably, upublishable — it did get me where I am today. As practice. Practice with the goal of selling, yes, but practice all the same. I couldn’t have reached 500,000 words without first writing 250,000 words, and so on and so forth. Sometimes I despaired over the quality, and other times I felt totally lost, as to what editors frakking wanted in a manuscript, beyond having a Big Selling Name in the byline.

But I made it. And everything I did up to this point, helped get me here.

So don’t give up, all you aspirants out in Aspirantland. 138 rejections and 870,000 words are what it took for me to climb over the top. If you’re more mature and disciplined than I was — am — then it might take you half as many rejections and half as many words. If you’ve got a clearer picture of what it is you aim to achieve — something I am not sure I had in earlier years — you probably are again liable to get to that first pro milestone more quickly and with less heartache than I’ve experienced.

Because it’s worth it. Oh my goodness, it is worth everything!


  1. Way to go! A rewarded effort you should well be proud of.

    Now, not to rain on your parade — think of this as the “memento mori” whispered in the ear of triumphant Roman generals – but to encourage you to keep moving, remember the bathtub model and that you’re not at a million words yet.

    I know personally that it’s easy to get cocky. I sold a story to Analog and in that same week wrote a story — that I thought was great — for WOTF. I was convinced that story would be at least a finalist, especially after two Honorable Mentions and a Semi. Nope, it didn’t even earn HM. (Rereading it in the cold light of three months of time passing, I’m not at all surprised.) You will get more rejections. (Intellectually you know that, because every author tells us that.) As you said, this is the beginning.

    But what a beginning! I’m sure you already have, but go out and celebrate again. You earned it.

  2. Oh, absolutely, Alastair. In fact, I think things will be harder now, not easier, because there is an expectation of quality — on the part of myself, perhaps on the part of editors too — so I imagine I’ll have plenty of rejections rolling my way in the next few years. Hopefully they’ll be a bit more personalized than they’d otherwise be, giving me a clue as to what got the story kicked. That in itself would feel like progress.

    But at least the glass ceiling has now been cracked. I kind of feel like I get to pull myself up and look around at The Next Level, to see what challenges await.

    I think the key is to not get complacent or let production slack. I really want to try and follow up on this break-through with some additional pro sales in the next 24 months. Start building a bona fide track record.

  3. Sweet mother of speculative fiction! That is a lot of words, and a lot of rejections.

    Say what you will about your discipline, but you did not stop, I guess that much must be key.

    I recently restarted writing and am coming up on 100,000 words for the year, some 6 flat-out rejections, and one liked-it-but-not-quite rejection.

    It’s official, no more complaining, I’m just going to keep writing and submitting.

    Brad, thanks for laying it out there, I look forward to hearing more about your success.

  4. Congrats are in order, Brad. You started at the Game a lot earlier than I did. That is a hell of a lot of work.

    Welcome to the Club.

    On the Outer Marches

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