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Original Essays

Rejection: A Beginning

by Laurell K. Hamilton
 
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    Strange Candy

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Every writer has fantasies, especially at the beginning of your career. You dream of an editor loving your stuff so much that they make you their golden girl. They'll buy anything you want, and ask for more. We all have fantasies about having our folks over for that first holiday meal in our own place, where we prove once and all we are grown-up, and they acknowledge it. If you've never had this fantasy then you are either a sociopath, or mentally healthier than I will ever be. For the rest of us, let me tell you a Thanksgiving story. The first holiday in my new apartment.

My then new, now ex-, husband and I had welcomed my grandmother, who raised me, and my Aunt Bonita who had driven her several states to be with us. I'd cooked a turkey, stuffing, potatoes, pies... the works. The food had all turned out eatable, yea! Our small table was set, my relatives and husband were sitting down, and I was about to bring out a huge turkey cooked to a turn. The phone rang. It was an editor. An editor that I had sent the story, "Those Who Seek Forgiveness," to. A thrill went through me from my head to my toes. I thought, oh, my God, this is it. I'm going to sell my first short story ever on Thanksgiving, with my family here to witness it. It couldn't have been more perfect. The editor waxed poetic on how much he loved my story, how well written it was, how interesting the world and the characters were, then said, "But I can't buy it."

I thought I hadn't heard him. "Excuse me, what did you say?" He repeated it. I thought, you call me on Thanksgiving, in front of my family, to reject me "in person" on the phone. What was this, sadistic editor day? I said none of this out loud. The editor went on to explain that though he loved the story, it wasn't right for his zombie anthology because my zombies had a reason to rise from the grave. If I would rewrite the story so that my zombies just inexplicably rose from the grave, then he'd buy. I said I couldn't do that; it would go against the magic system of the world. Then, could I write him another story where the zombies rose from the grave for no reason, and it never gets explained? He'd send me the first anthology he did of zombie stories so I'd have a better idea of what he wanted. Great, I'd said. We hung up, and I was left to face a cooling turkey, an embarrassed silence of family, and my first hint that fantasies belong on paper and don't have a thing to do with the job of writing.

"A Lust of Cupids," my take on a world where cupids are all too real, was another story that got loving rejection slips; at least they didn't call me "in person." One editor finally admitted the awful truth, since they only bought one story per month; I wasn't a big enough name to help sell their magazine. It was meant to be comforting that the story was amazing, but because I didn't have a track record no one would buy it. I felt like a new job applicant that's told they'd love to hire you if you had more experience, but no one will hire you because you have no experience. How the heck do you get the experience?

"The Edge of the Sea" got rejected because an editor thought you still had to keep your powder dry. That hasn't been an issue for most of the last two centuries. I wanted to write back to the editor and explain hand guns to her, but I didn't. I took the rejection on the chin, and the story went into a drawer. You will be the first readers to see my dread and love of the sea. I've almost drowned four times, yet I love the sea. Go figure.

"A Scarcity of Lake Monsters" was rejected because of the last two lines. But I researched what real forest rangers do, and how their job works. I've got a degree in biology. The editors thought the ending wasn't quite right. Why didn't I change the ending, because the ending was true to the job, and the real world. I had dropped my lake monster into the real world; the world had to stay real.

"Selling Houses" is the only story I ever wrote set in Anita Blake's world that has none of the main characters in it. I don't think I even tried to send this one out. By the time I wrote it, I was deep into the first three of the Anita books, and short stories just didn't pay enough to make the rent.

"A Token for Celandine" was rejected because the editor, Marion Zimmer Bradley, thought I'd "pastiche" Tolkien, and that elves should be left to him. After I looked up pastiche in the dictionary, I put the story in a different envelope and sent it out. The story would sell next time out to Memories and Visions, an anthology edited by Susana Sturgis. The rejection note from Ms. Bradley did ask me to send my next story, though. I would send her that next story, "Stealing Souls," and it would be the first story I ever sold. Ms. Bradley would buy three other stories from me: "House of Wizards," the first story I ever saw in print (I still remember running my fingers over my name in print — God, that was amazing); "Geese," the only story I ever wrote in one setting by inspiration alone, and "Winterkill," the first story I ever wrote about assassins and magic. "The Curse-Maker" sold to Dragon Magazine, and continued my mercenary band from "Stealing Souls."

"A Clean Sweep" was the first time someone approached me to be in their anthology. Like "House of Wizards," it would explore on paper my continued puzzlement with housework, and how I wish that superheroes and magic could fix it.

"Here Be Dragons" is my only solidly science-fiction story, but it's also a horror story. It got one of my favorite rejections slips. The editor wrote that reading the story had made her feel unclean. This was another story that a lot of people liked, or had a very visceral reaction to, but no one bought it. It is one of my darkest visions, I guess. Sometimes it's hard for me to tell.

The last story is "The Girl Who Was Infatuated with Death"; it was commissioned for an anthology that my book publisher was doing. They wanted to widen my audience, and it worked. This story is Anita Blake, animator, vampire executioner, sometimes-girlfriend of Jean-Claude, Master Vampire of St. Louis, in the middle of a mystery. She's trying to save the life of a teenage girl, and the life of the vampire that the girl is dating. But who gets saved, and exactly what death means, is a little iffy, in Anita's world.

I am now happily writing two New York Times Bestselling book series, Anita Blake, vampire hunter and now federal marshal, and the Meredith Gentry series. Merry is the first fairie princess born on American soil, and an L.A. private detective. She's also trying to find a husband among her royal guard, which has put a whole new meaning on finding the "shoe" that fits. It's all I can do to keep up with two book series; I do not write short books, as a rule. So these short stories are, perhaps, all you will ever get from my imagination. Sometimes that makes me sad, but most days, I'm too happy playing with my imaginary book friends to be sad about it.

I am successful beyond any dream or fantasy I ever had as a beginning writer, but I thought it might be helpful for everyone to see that there was a lot of rejection before there was any success. I was stubborn enough to believe in myself and my work when there was nothing to prove I'd ever sell a word. I was also stubborn enough to not change the ending of a story that might have sold. I thought it compromised the story and I would not do that. I was offended by the thought of writing in a world where zombies rise from the grave for no reason, and kill people for no reason. In my world there is a reason for everything. It is a messy, chaotic world, but zombies rise because a psychically gifted person calls them. They rise from the grave because their lawyers are arguing over which of two different wills is the right one. They rise because a therapist thinks one last confrontation with an abusive parent will ease a patient's pain. They rise, and then they get put back into their graves neat and tidy. Having said that, "Those Who Seek Forgiveness" is a story where the zombie raising goes horribly wrong. But there's a reason for that, too.

I write, in part, to make sense of things. To make sense of my inability to organize domestic arrangements: "A Clean Sweep," "A House of Wizards." To make sense of my fear of water and my nearly seductive attraction to it: "The Edge of the Sea." To explore a world where shifting shape can lead to new discoveries: "Geese." To explore a family of choice, not one of birth: "The Curse-Maker" and "Stealing Souls." If I'd gotten a biology degree in one of my own worlds: "A Scarcity of Lake Monsters." To explore pieces of my own world that the books don't allow me: "Selling Houses." Understanding that you can't ever go home again: "Winterkill." What does it truly mean to be good: "A Token for Celandine." My own irritation with people always asking Are you married? of my single friends: "A Lust of Cupids." Exploring your darkest impulses, you worst nightmares, and no one gets hurt: "Here Be Dragons."

The Thanksgiving Day when I got that memorable rejection was the beginning. The beginning of creating my own worlds, places I wanted to play, characters that I now think of as good friends, old friends. A rejection isn't an end, it's a beginning. spacer

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