For ten years, she’d stuff the manila envelopes, address them to agents or publishers, plaster them with postage, then step outside the door of the four-hundred-square-foot hovel she shared with her husband, and say so long to another manuscript.She called it putting hope in the mail.

For ten years, one rejection after the other would land in that rusty mailbox. Despite that, she continued her tilt against the windmills of success. Why? You’d think after ten long years of putting hope in the mail, she’d have gotten the message.

Hardly.

In fact, she described her continued dispatches of those envelopes filled with hope as “cushions” against the inevitable notices of failure she would discover sandwiched among the utility bills and the ceaseless loads of junk mail.

For ten excruciating years, math and computer science teacher Wendelin Van Draanen kept sealing her envelopes with hopeful kisses without a tinker’s clue as to whether any of her efforts would lead to a publishing deal. To keep track of all her submissions, she even manufactured a spreadsheet as a way to better organize and chronicle her efforts—and subsequent failures.

Thank God Wendelin didn’t quit. Otherwise, millions of middle-schoolers would’ve been left out of reading about teenage sleuth Sammy Keyes, or the adventures of her Shredderman character, or the bestselling teen romance Flipped, which was later turned into the Rob Reiner-directed feature film.

Strange virtue this stuff called hope and/or faith. Some of us are born with it. Others learn it. Sadly, even more don’t believe in it. Yet in my experienced opinion, what’s a better buttress against the darkness and cynicism when trying to overcome the tall odds of success?

Think about it. What did Wendelin have but her hope and faith in her abilities? A supportive husband, to be sure. But what else? The only pedigree she possessed was the will to forge ahead, knowing only that by posting manuscript after manuscript via U.S. Snail Mail and moving on to her next writing project, the only reinforcement she was likely to receive was the personal knowledge that she was improving at her craft—something, by the way, she was only able to scratch out in the early dawn hours and in the evening darkness after she’d finished grading papers.

Last week I waxed on about receiving a moment of inspiration amidst all my pre-career struggles. But my drought had lasted only about twenty months. So I admit, comparatively speaking, there may have been a fair measure of luck to my story. Could I have lasted ten years? Especially with my mother and father looking down their noses at my chosen endeavor? I’m not so sure. Besides hope, all I had going for me was an unwillingness to take no for an answer.

Wendelin Van Draanen heard no for ten years. Talk about moxie.

Whenever I field a question of how long someone should expect to work at something before they succeed in their chosen field, my default story was always the one I heard from a movie star’s one time nanny. She was still young and had left the actor’s employ to pursue her dream of becoming a screenwriter. Some time passed and the thoughtful movie star decided to check in with the former nanny and ask how the new career path was going.

“It’s disappointing,” she said. “I’m trying and trying and getting absolutely nowhere.”

“What?” asked the movie star. “You thought you were going to break into showbiz in six months?”

Six months! I still love that story. What impatience. What chutzpah. What utter naiveté. The point of the short tale was to encourage whatever wannabe was asking “how long should it take” to buckle up and get ready for long, hard ride.

A few months back, I was participating in a keynote panel at a writers’ conference. Sitting to my right was Wendelin Van Draanen. Just prior to my own introduction, she’d been on stage accepting an award. What for? I don’t exactly recall. Probably for being both inspiring and cool—because WVD is indeed inspiring and super cool. Upon receiving her prize, Wendelin gave an emotional little speech about her ten years of putting hope in the mail. Though I was backstage at the time and barely able to hear, her message somehow it came across loud and crystal clear. I instantly knew a: I would want to get to know Wendelin. And b: one day I was going to scribble out something about her wonderful missive.

Some paragraphs back, I wrote about Wendelin’s four-hundred-square-foot house and that rusty mailbox. I asked her about the day she finally went out to her mailbox and received the letter with the good news that she was at last going to be published.

“Oh I didn’t get one of those letters,” she said. “It came in a phone call.”

“That’s right,” I laughed, remembering my own moment. “They don’t write you to say congrats. They phone you up.”

Now here’s me hoping you click the link and give 99 PERCENT KILL a chance to give your world a crime noir thrill.

Doug Richardson
Doug Richardson
Author and screenwriter. Books: THE LUCKY DEY THRILLERS: BLOOD MONEY, 99 PERCENT KILL, AND REAPER, THE SAFETY EXPERT, AND THE SMOKING GUN. Movies: HOSTAGE, BAD BOYS, DIE HARD 2.
  • Here’s one to think about. I started writing stories when I was ten years old, sending lame science fiction tales to pulp magazines, and collecting the rejection slips. They continued to come, through college and beyond. I moved out to L.A., snagged a development deal and got in to the WGAw … but never got a movie made. So I fled back east, kept scribbling, trying to sell my books with the help of various agents. When the last one gave up on me, I looked for publishers that didn’t require an agent and I found Poisoned Pen Press. I sent my most recent book (a mystery, fortunately, since that’s all they publish), Eight months and five revisions later I had a book contract. #2 came out this year — #3 is due in the spring. The point? If you had told me at 20 — or 30, or even 40 — that I wouldn’t get my first book published until I was 61 years old, I would probably have quit in despair. Instead I just worked day by day, taking my hope in small doses, always sure things would work out eventually. The trick is to keep your head down, move forward and stay relentless. It worked for me.

  • George T

    Awesome story – I always love hearing those. I’ll never forget John Wells’ story when he spoke out our USC graduation – suffice it to say, overnight success stories often leave out the years it takes to make it to that night. 😉

  • For me, it was 14 years of rejection and “no’s” before my first book got published. Moral? Don’t give up.