It’s not easy being a writer. Toiling in obscurity, hoping for that big break, struggling not to give up as you face rejection after rejection. But take heart, aspiring authors! Many rich and famous writers were once in your shoes — but they kept trying (and trying and trying) and eventually, against enormous odds, they kept trying some more. And you can, too! We hope these stories of well-known authors who achieved success by overcoming great adversity and ambivalence will inspire you to keep reaching toward your own probably impossible goal.
Our first author has received some harsh rejection letters in his day, but they never broke his spirit or dissuaded him from trying again.
“One editor’s letter informed me that he’d read the first paragraph of one of my stories to his pet goldfish, and it died,” he said. “Another editor enclosed a knife in my SASE and asked me to stab myself in the face for being such a terrible writer. That one hurt,” he admitted. “And not just from the stabbing.”
Throughout the years as he continued doggedly writing and submitting his stories, his life and the lives of his family members were threatened on a regular basis, and he endured thousands of dollars in property damage at the hands of irate editors in the form of the egging and toilet-papering of his home and car. Rejection letters were frequently tied to bricks and thrown through his picture window.
“I don’t really understand why, but some people just really hated my stuff,” he said. “Like, with a blind, terrible rage that is difficult to comprehend. Several people hated it so much that they said they didn’t even want to live in a world in which a person like me existed who was so awful at doing something. One intern apparently jumped off a building after rejecting one of my submissions. He blamed me in his suicide note, which was enclosed with his rejection slip.”
But this writer didn’t let these obstacles get him down. He kept on trying, even as the threats escalated and he was forced to hide his identity and relocate across the country several times. Eventually he managed to secure a contract for a lucrative thriller series with a venerable publishing house. You may have heard of the first book in the series: it was called The Da Vinci Code.
Our second author’s story is especially inspiring. She struggled for over a decade to complete her first novel, pouring her heart and soul into it, forsaking family and friends to spend years in a locked room, writing furiously, months behind on her rent and subsisting only on ink fumes and eraser dust. Yet when her opus was finally ready to publish, she was unable to find an agent who would agree to represent her. She submitted her manuscript to hundreds of agents, but after another decade of rejections, during which she subsisted only on the glue from licking stamps and envelopes, she gave up. Deep in despair, she decided to destroy her life’s work.
The author was in the act of flushing her manuscript down the toilet during a drugged out and drunken haze in a nightclub bathroom, when an agent who happened to be tripping her face off in the next stall saw several sheets of it flutter to the ground near her feet. Upon reading them, she told the author to stop what she was doing, and immediately signed her. The agent sold the book two hours later, and within a week the previously broke and obscure author was a millionaire with a private jet. The author’s name was Louisa May Alcott, and the book was Little Women.
This author wrote his first novel when he was only fifteen years old. He submitted it to every single publisher he could find — and received only rejections.
“I know I must have piled up thousands of rejection slips over the years,” he once said in an interview. “At first I papered a wall in my back bedroom with rejection slips, but the papering became so thick that soon it filled the entire room, so I had to move on to other rooms as well as the floor. Eventually there was no room to walk around in my house because of the encroaching mountains of rejection slips. It was great insulation during the winter, but ultimately it became too much, and I had to move.”
But he never gave up. Instead, he continued to amass tens of thousands of rejection letters from publishers all over the world. “I started collecting rare and foreign stamps at the same time,” he said. “It was a fun hobby that kept me going through the hard times. The years and years of hard, hard times. So hard. So many years.”
When he finally found a publisher for his book, it sold a million copies across the globe on the day it was released. Some fans buy a new copy every single day. This author’s book has remained on the New York Times Best Sellers List for over five thousand weeks. The name of his book is The Holy Bible.
Our final author grew up in a world of wealth and literary privilege. His father was F. Scott Fitzgerald and his mother was Toni Morrison. As a second grader, he penned an essay that was published in The Atlantic. Instead of attending scout camp, he spent his childhood summers as an associate editor at Penguin Books. After graduating from Harvard with a minor in Yale, he worked his way up the ranks to become the editor-in-chief of both The New York Times and The Paris Review, at the same time.
Despite the fact that he owned the majority of publishing houses on the East Coast, he was unable to find a home for a collection of vignettes he’d written about his time working as an aide in the White House, where he’d been a close personal friend of President Nixon’s, and was standing right behind President Reagan during his famous speech about the Berlin Wall.
This author has actually not yet found success and is still struggling to find a publisher for his collection, so you will likely not recognize his name, but we’ve included his story just to prove that it isn’t always only about who you know.