Last year, I completed a heavily researched 95,000-word novel about an emerging pandemic that targets primarily children. I am a former scientist and current nurse and wanted to do teaching about what to expect if a serious pandemic emerges.

My novel leans heavily on actual historical incidences and LOTS of realistic action by multiple agencies: military, epidemiologists, politicians and, of course, average people caught up in quarantine. It also has many exotic locations as outbreak clusters are carried by unwitting healthcare workers.

I have submitted it to over 500 publishers and agents without success and rewritten it twice to tone down much of the science, yet even my few beta readers don't bother to give comments in exchange for my copious suggestions about their own work. I have an editor friend with a science background who tells me there is nothing wrong with my writing. She also has no problem with how I weave actual science into a realistic plot.

So, what exactly is my problem? It may be that I have a similar issue as Richard Preston's Hot Zone or Laurie Garrett's The Coming Plague, very didactic even though it is an action adventure. So, just rewrite the story some suggest. But that removes the very purpose of my writing, to teach about the real science and medicine that will occur during a pandemic.

I am well on my way into the second novel but after so many rejections, I question whether it is worth the effort to write a trilogy that obviously has little general appeal. I took a six-month break from writing and wish to return to my series even though I am sure it may never be published.

Above all else, I am an educator and only wish to offer readers a realistic portrayal of how containment of a deadly pandemic will be botched by world health agencies.

What is worse than a rejection of a manuscript? It may be apathy. For, if no one responds to your query, you do not even get suggestions about what to improve or where to edit?

I am just curious what keeps most writers writing, after multiple rejections?

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation with feedback and discussion of Richard's book has been moved to chat. Please continue the discussion and critique there, not in comments. Thanks. Commented Dec 25, 2018 at 3:10

6 Answers 6


Welcome to the world of writers. That isn't sarcasm, by the way, that's truth.

Let me tell you about my own tale, with a novel (series) called Altar of Warlords. This story has gone through a dozen major revisions, is being turned down right and left, and when I FINALLY have an agent that requests a full manuscript for her approval I'm so caught off-guard that I'm mid draft and the whole thing is a hot mess because of it.

Now, let me say that I have a nursing background, but not necessarily science (other than the obvious ties through nursing). Before nursing I was in management and IT projects (predominantly system analysis and system design). So a lot of my work reflects this, and I can make actual coding in-story look like a programmer wrote it (surprise, surprise). All the while making a death scene look like an actual death scene (not the Hollywood crap where you get stabbed in the heart and die twenty minutes later, after having relayed the plot relevant message behind the guise of plot-armour).

And yet, Altar of Warlords is turned down right, left and centre (as the saying goes). So why do I keep at it? Because I'm a writer. I have something interesting to say, I have lessons to teach, I have a story to tell.

So I will just keep on swinging until I knock it outta the park. I will keep improving my story, and I will keep improving my writing until I get that lucky swing and get an agent that will represent me.

Because I've heard stories of people getting an agent only after a decade of trying. I've heard stories of people choosing self-publishing because agents 'just don't see my genius'. There are options. But if the option you pick is traditional publishing, via an agent, and all that jazz? Then buckle up. You're now competing with the best for the limited seats available.

Riddle me this: Are you a writer? If you are, then you'll keep writing. Because that's kind of our shtick; to write.

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    Thank you. Yes, I am a writer. I know it by my growing folder of rejection notices. I recall that Stephen King was not the one to get 'Carrie' published. He failed so many times he finally tossed his manuscript into the trash and his wife rescued it and continued until she found a publisher. mentalfloss.com/article/53235/…. I try to recall other great writers who must have suffered greatly but continued. I hope this list helps others: lithub.com/the-most-rejected-books-of-all-time Commented Dec 18, 2018 at 15:41
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    BTW thanks for the inclusive 'our shtick' that means not only do I accept myself as being a writer, but others do also. Keep at it and good luck. Commented Dec 18, 2018 at 15:47
  • @RichardStanzak Look at the stories popping up on Twitter all the time. All the rejections and the acceptance announcements. We're going to get there, it just takes time. Be patient.
    – Fayth85
    Commented Dec 18, 2018 at 15:56
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    I'm sure there's some bias, because "everything worked great the first time around" isn't a useful anecdote; but I've only ever really seen writers talk about how hard it was to actually break into the field. I hear a lot about successful writers who go through the process of rejection and doubt. It seems like one of the fields where "constant rejection" is less of a red flag than most places.
    – JMac
    Commented Dec 18, 2018 at 17:45
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    > can make actual coding in-story look like a programmer wrote it — I must read this! Commented Dec 20, 2018 at 3:10

What keeps writers writing is the utter impossibility of not writing. Tolkien had no hope of ever publishing The Silmarillion, yet he kept writing and rewriting and editing and re-editing it throughout his life. Keats was receiving negative reviews, yet he didn't quit writing and turn to medicine, though he had the education for it. Writing is a fire in one's bones - it cannot be resisted. You write because you write.

Jim Butcher, a successful modern writer with three book series to his name. He recounts how he wrote three novels, all of them not good enough. Then he wrote the one that was good enough, and spent three years sending it to agents, chasing agents, etc. Some rejected him. Some just ignored him. Then, finally, he got it published. That became the first novel of the Dresden Files series. (Source)

That is a normal process. You get rejected, again and again. It's extremely rare for an author to have their first novel published. It takes time before you acquire the skill to write a story that's really good. Then, when you've written that story, that is objectively not bad, it takes a combination of skill, luck, and a bit of chutzpah to attract the attention of an agent.

The only thing that can keep one going through all that is a passion for writing so strong, that it drowns out the disappointments, a passion that's stronger than all the rejections. You keep creating because you must create.

  • I am proud to be among the rejected who persevere despite certain obscurity. I came back into SE just because I see everyone here as serious writers who understand both the pain and joy of creative writing. Buena lectura. Commented Dec 18, 2018 at 15:52
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    I've read several notes, essays, books, etc., by famous fiction writers about the process of writing, and they almost universally write that they have no choice about being writers. They must write. It's just lucky for them that other people want to read what they've written and they can sell it. Although I wonder how much of it is luck and how much is the fact that their compulsion and perseverance is part of what makes their writing good enough to sell well. Commented Dec 18, 2018 at 18:16
  • 1% of it is luck. The rest is perspiration.
    – Mazura
    Commented Jan 29, 2019 at 15:03

There are three ways of answering your question:

  1. Professionalism: Some people recognize that frequent rejections are simply an intrinsic part of this particular job, and don't take them personally, or allow them to slow them down. I don't actually know anyone who has achieved this frame of mind, but it stands to reason people like this must exist --I aspire to join their ranks some day.

  2. They can't help it: Writers tend to keep writing no matter what --even if they don't want to, and gain no reward or affirmation for doing so. That's what makes them writers.

  3. Selection Bias: Nearly 100% of the people known as writers endured multiple rounds of rejection to achieve/maintain that status. All the people who gave up aren't known to be writers (except perhaps to their close friends and immediate family members).

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    I love these comments. I have decided being a writer needs its own psychiatric DRG. Hmmm, perhaps something like Masochistic Obsessive Compulsive Hypergraphia. The only known treatment is a prose act. Commented Dec 18, 2018 at 17:32

I suggest you find, buy and read the book "Get a Literary Agent" by Chuck Sambuchino; (on Amazon or Barnes & Noble) it is a good start and also a good antidote to much online advice. If your queries are not getting answered, there is something wrong with your query. Not necessarily something wrong with your book.

That said, it sounds to me like you wrote for the wrong reason, at least the wrong reason to get sold. That may come through in your query, as well. Agents want non-fiction if you are teaching, and only take fiction that is entertaining, because entertainment value is what sells books and (perhaps) movie tickets.

If you are pitching your book as a wake-up-call, agents will turn you down immediately. And if you have queried 500 agents, you shouldn't query them again.

No matter what your motivation for writing, you must pitch your book as an entertainment and nothing else, with a plot. Don't tell the agent how much you researched it, they don't care. You get about 3 lines for your bio, in which you can mention your qualifications to write such a story, that will help sell it and tell the agent you probably haven't made any ridiculous mistakes.

Your query letter text is 85% relating the plot (with a couple lines for setting if needed) and something about one or two main characters: a setup, the Act I inciting incident, the first complication, that's it! You don't reveal the ending or what else happens. This is much like jacket copy; it is a teaser to see if the agent wants to read further.

Sell your book as a story (and if need be rewrite to BE a story). All the research is "backstage", your plot and character actions should stay true to the research, but you put as little as possible into the book; you should only detail elements that directly influence the plot or actions or complications.

Do not query very many agents at once. Query 10, if you get no responses, work on your query again. Personalize the query to the agent.

Get the book and learn how to do it right!

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. Commented Dec 25, 2018 at 3:11

I see two questions in your question. One, why do writers write.

I don't need to write, but I do need to contribute to my society, in order to have a sense of meaning about life. Writing is how I do this now. In the past I have tried to contribute in other ways.

I also write as the latest in a string of 'lifelong learning' endeavors. It's been educational, and I enjoy this aspect. My normal working vocabulary has grown, my understanding of tricks and tools in storytelling is infinitely bigger, from beats to emotional resonance, etc.

Two, I see you asking what to do next with your story.

I am guessing that people do not connect with your characters. This isn't based on your writing, which I've not seen, but your technical background. I have a technical background. I am trying to 'teach' through writing ("contribute") but am told repeatedly that no one wants to be 'taught' when they pick up a book.

Fair enough. For me, this means I need to make my characters more sympathetic, easier to connect with, more real. It means making my story less about the external threat (in your case, the pandemic) and more about the internal change in the characters.

Sidenote: I taught the 1918 flu epidemic in a unit about RNA viruses. This was a few years ago, so my memory is hazy on it. The college students in my class were not interested in the fact that this virus killed X number of people or that it used RNA as its genetic structure. They had little inherent interest in learning the structure of the capsid proteins or what have you.

But, within that unit, I found a way to help them connect with the flu epidemic. I included the idea (which I read in a book called Ten Diseases that Changed the World) that President Wilson (I think) was sick with that very flu when he signed a treaty (?) in France, and that he gave concessions--possibly because he was sick with that very flu--and that those concessions led in an arguably straight line to the rise of Hitler and World War II.... And suddenly the story of the 1918 flu epidemic had teeth for the students.

Of course, I needed them to learn about RNA viruses and how they replicate, not global politics. :-) But you get the idea.

So the answer to what I think your second question is, is to look at your characters. Does a reader want to get inside their head and wrestle with whatever ethical or emotional dilemma that character is dealing with? It will require the character to be sympathetic and relatable and to have a thorny internal problem in addition to dealing with a global pandemic.

  • My story is based on a real event few have heard of, yet were affected by, the 1976-77 Russian flu. It is the first known manmade pandemic. Russians or Chinese thawed old freezer stocks of an extinct H1N1 in response to an outbreak of Swine flu at Ft Dix. They were convinced we were engaged in biological weapons research. Someone got sloppy and the lab accident infected millions killing many. My main characters are dark and shady to reflect their real counterparts. But I hoped to soften this by using a nun/pediatrician who helps dying children but that requires reading. So, you may be correct. Commented Dec 18, 2018 at 17:47
  • @RichardStanzak The shady characters in real life may well have had noble reasons for what they did, from their perspectives. Finding (or imagining) those motivations and adding hints of them to the story might make your characters more interesting. When a character grapples with good/evil, finding the moral path, readers sometimes become more invested--both in the thought process that the character will use to make a decision, and what the ultimate decision will be. I wonder if starting with a 'good' reason for the Russians/Chinese to thaw those stocks would draw the reader in more easily?
    – SFWriter
    Commented Dec 18, 2018 at 17:56
  • Unfortunately, I once worked as one of those shady characters, it is why I left science and became a nurse. Scientists can be just as petty and corrupt as any profession but their errors from hubris can have a global impact. Think of James Bond. Maybe initially he had noble causes but read the Spy Who Came in from the Cold and you will see as body counts rise, alcohol is often used to dull conscience. The world doesn't really want to know how they are kept safe, it is why we give a pass to tyrants who are allies. Every character in my novel is based on an actual person, only fictionalized. Commented Dec 18, 2018 at 18:05
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    If I wanted to learn I'd read Wikipedia. +1
    – Mazura
    Commented Dec 18, 2018 at 19:19
  • Oh, trust me, my novel goes far more in-depth than a wiki and is far more engaging. The problem is, most people are not interested in medical issues until it personally affects them. My greatest advocate is the head of a CDC Emergency Response team who encourages me to teach others so they will not panic. The CDC has done a graphic novel of something similar, but in my opinion, it is pretty lame:cdc.gov/flu/resource-center/freeresources/graphic-novel/… Commented Dec 18, 2018 at 20:02

What keeps me writing – and I think it is what keeps other artists working despite rejection, too – is an inherent need to be creative and to express oneself. I simple couldn't not write.

Rejection is painful, but what I have learned is that it is a sign that one isn't yet accomplished enough to be published. I found it very difficult to accept that my first writings weren't as good as I though them to be. It took me many years to come to terms with that and to find a more professional approach.

To me my newfound professionalism lies in writing the next book. Once I have revised a book and submitted it to a number of publishers, I put that project away and begin the next one. I know that I am learning to write and that with each book I will get better. And eventually, I believe, I will get published. And then I will rewrite all my old unpublished projects with the skill I have acquired by keeping on writing one book after another. Because it is my strong belief that you can only learn so much by revising, and that you learn much more by writing the next book.

  • Amen, it is the very reason I am working on my next novel in the series. I decided just keep writing and once the trilogy is complete, worry about publishing. On a positive note, my son and a friend both commented about seeking non-traditional publishing. Not self-publishing but submitting to video game developers. They said they love this sort of thing, not all video games are mindless shoot em ups. Some actually have a story (Okay maybe Resident Evil is an exception, hahaha) Commented Dec 18, 2018 at 18:11

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