Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Rejecting Rejection – A Survival Guide

Being rejected isn't fun. Now, that sentence may seem like a great one for the “No Duh!” Files, but rejection is something that the vast majority of writers who try to get published deal with regularly.

We've heard the famous stories. Frank Herbert's novel Dune was rejected by twenty or more publishers before it was picked up by Chilton, a publisher that you may know best for their automotive repair books. Before The Firm and his other best-sellers, John Grisham saw his first novel (A Time to Kill) get turned down dozens of times. A Wrinkle in Time by Madaleine L'Engle is another classic which was rejected over twenty times before being published.  Still, knowing that well-known authors and their works faced repeated rejection doesn't remove the sting when it's our own work being turned down.

The disappointment can be exacerbated by the fact that many rejections come as form letters with no hint as to the reason(s) why the work was not accepted. The use of form rejection letters by publishers is understandable. Some publishers get hundreds or thousands of submissions per month and can only use a tiny fraction of them. Also, there are some writers out there who will be more than happy to argue any point brought up in a personalized rejection in an attempt to convince the publisher they were wrong to not accept the writer's work. The cost-benefit equation for most publishers doesn't justify the extra time and risk of conflict which personalized rejections incur.

So, as writers, we realize we're going to hear “No” lots of times and many of those times we won't really know why. What can we do to deal with these facts of (writing) life?

  • Remember That It's Not Personal – It's not You, the person, that has been rejected. It's the words on the page (or screen). Admittedly, we get attached to our words, but it's important to keep this separation in mind. You can get 100 rejection letters this month; you're still the same person you were before those rejections.
  • Use it As Fuel For Your Creative Fire – Take your frustration and channel it right back into your work, like a baseball player who's had an 0-for-4 night and takes extra batting practice after the game. Make yourself do that extra round of revisions on your new story that you thought maybe you could get by without. Find a local critiquing group and start meeting with them; you can learn a lot not just from what they say about your writing, but what you see in theirs. Do the research to find a new potential publisher for your work – that next market might just be The One for you!
  • Don't. Give. Up. – You've told yourself “It's not personal” so many times that you feel it's become your mantra. Your creative fire feels completely burned out. Fine. But don't give up! Find a way to keep your writing dreams and goals alive while adjusting your focus. Maybe you're an aspiring novelist. Take a break and try your hand at some poetry. You write gritty noir stories? Trying your hand at another genre could give you a boost. This sort of thing can be a great way to take your mind off your frustrations at your primary writing pursuit. And, if it doesn't turn out well, you can chalk it up to having reached outside your comfort zone temporarily.

Finally, keep this in mind. When you get a rejection letter it means that – in one way – you've succeeded. You had an idea. You started the process of getting your idea into written words. You finished your story or poem or novel. You researched possible publishers. You read the publisher's submission guidelines and prepared your work for submission. You submitted it.

Each one of those things that you did is something that you succeeded at doing. Each one of those was a stumbling block for thousands of other would-be writers who balked at submitting their work, or made a half-hearted stab at writing but never finished what they started, or even had ideas but never actually did the writing. Yes, your work may have been rejected today, but that rejection is a symbol of many successes that came before it. Take those successes, set aside the rejection, and write on!


  1. If everyone could see performing actions as successes, even minor successes, most writers would probably be a little easier about the submission process. For me, it was all about getting over my own hump. I have little fear about submission now, but before you do it, and before you do it often, it's very easy to feel overwhelmed by rejection.

  2. These are excellent rules to live by. Most of the time, a rejection comes in and I send the story back out right away. But some days, I pause and wonder what the hell I'm doing wrong, "I must really suck," I tell myself. I mope for an hour at most and then re-read the story. More often than not, any changes I make are minor and the story goes back out. This is a frustrating business but the hardest part is trying. After all, those that give up will never succeed.

  3. Thanks for your comments, John and digitalinkwell.

    I've had that same experience, of occasionally getting a rejection and having it hit me harder than usual. That's actually what got me started on this post!

    So much of the writing process involves psychology, and it's easy to lose track of that in the sea of grammar rules, submission guidelines, and such.

  4. Excellent post, Michael. I find that form rejections are a completely different beast to personalised ones. Often a form rejection leaves me feeling like the work hasn't even been read, and repeated ones can really get you down. However, when somebody bothers to write just a few words, especially if they outline aspects they liked about the work, as well as why it wasn't for them, it can be uplifting and helpful.

  5. How did you know "It's not personal" is my new mantra?

    Actually, I've only had three rejections. I'd better toughen up. :)

  6. Thanks Michael, for the reminders! :) it's easy to give up. I keep writing despite my insecurities. Now I have to take that added step and go for the submissions! :)

  7. LadyJai, submitting stories is good for a lot of reasons. For one thing, it is a way to (help) gauge the progress you are making with your writing, particularly if you stretch with your submissions and target at least somewhat-challenging markets to start with. You never know, you might get a pleasant surprise at some point!

    It also can help you let go of one story and move on to writing something else. This is something else that's changed at least a bit over the last 20 years. There was a time when you could almost guarantee that your story would be "out" for 1.5-2 weeks while it went (via mail) to the publisher, they read it, and then you got your reply. Earlier this week, I received a rejection in literally under 24 hours. (It was, dare I say it, a lightspeed rejection...) But most times, even now, you're still looking at a few weeks where the story is not in your hands and you have to work on something else.

    It can be hard, especially realizing that the odds for a new writer are that they're going to see a lot of rejections. But, to mangle a Wayne Gretzky quote "You fail to get printed by 100% of the markets you never submit to."

    Best of luck!

  8. This is the kindest approach to rejection that I have ever read and for that, I thank you!:) Great job at finding heart in something that hurts just that...our hearts.

  9. Brynne, I am so glad that you found this useful. Thanks for stopping by and commenting!