The Up Side of Rejection

In the world of writing, rejection is one of those inevitable elements.  No one likes it.  No one wants it.  Everyone is faced with it at some point.

It is – to be a bit cliche’ – a necessary evil. 

Rejection comes in many forms when you are a writer, but you quickly learn that there are good rejections, and there are bad rejections.  The first time I was introduced to the idea of a good rejection, I thought the person telling me about it was delusional. I understand it now.

The worst form of rejection comes when you are a newbie – a novice writer who knows little to nothing about the publishing industry.  All you know is that you have a gut full of inspiration, you’ve toiled for hours at your computer to write this amazing thing, and you’ve sent it into the world carrying all your hopes and ambitions.  The form rejection arrives and threatens to send you into a spiral of depression from which even Prozac can’t save you.

The letter (or post card, or even e-mail) reads something like this:

Dear Author:

Thank you for sending us your manuscript; however, we do not feel it meets our needs at the current time. Good luck in placing it elsewhere.

Sincerely,

Editors

Translation: We probably didn’t even open the envelope before sending this to you, but we are so back-logged at the moment that we are only taking submissions from big-name authors or celebrities.  Come back and try again when you are somebody important.

I know how harsh that sounds, but the truth is that many publishers will not give you the courtesy of even returning your manuscript if they are not interested. If you haven’t published nationally before, if you don’t have an agent, or if you aren’t the most recent winner of American Idol, you’ll have to dig a little deeper to find your way into publishing fame.

A step up from the form rejection is a rejection letter that includes at least a sentence or two from someone who read your manuscript.  This doesn’t necessarily mean that an editor got ahold of it – it may have been a junior editor or even a reader – but at least someone set their eyes on your work before returning it to you and took the time to scribble a few words somewhere in a margin or on the rejection letter itself.

 This is a rare form of rejection.  Typically, if an editor takes the time to comment (assuming it is the editor who wrote on your work), he or she is interested enough to ask for a rewrite – we’ll come back to that thought in a moment.  It has, however, been known to happen.  Recently, I had submitted a manuscript to an agent (refer to my post “Sometimes it IS Who  You Know”), and though she didn’t feel she was the right person to represent my work, she did take the time to offer me some comments along with her suggestions for editors who may have an interest in the piece. It’s unusual to get feedback like that in the form of a rejection, but this is the first level of the “good rejection” that earlier in my career I scoffed at.

The third rejection letter is the best of all – if best is a term that can be applied to being told “no” in some way.  An editor may express an interest in your work, but may also ask for some revisions to be made before reconsidering your story. If this happens, you are left with the conundrum that many other authors have faced: do I agree with the revisions and make the necessary changes, or if I disagree, do I stand by my writing and try somewhere else?  No one can answer this question except you.  If the editor is asking for a substantial change to the story line, to a character, or to a fundamental element of importance to you, you will have to determine how you feel about what’s being asked.  That’s a challenge: compromise your writing integrity or pass up the potential opportunity for publication?

The choice is ultimately yours, and only you can determine what the best course of action may be.  The general rule of thumb is to change what you are comfortable changing, leave the rest, then try again.  Some editors will see the integrity and honor it, others will see it as being resistant to change and label you hard to work with.  There is no way to know what kind of editor you’re dealing with until already into the process.  Even if you’ve researched the editor, talked to people who’ve worked with him or her, or heard the editor speak at a conference, there is no way to predict future behavior.  Editors are human beings afterall (despite claims to the contrary), and they will not necessarily act in consistent ways.

The bottom line, of course, is that rejection sucks.

Totally and completely sucks.

I know a local writer who, having submitted numerous stories to a publisher, received a rejection letter saying “Please don’t ever submit anything to us ever again.”

Really.

I saw the letter with my own eyes.

We’ll come back to this writer in a moment.

As creative people, writers are particularly sensitive to rejection.  We work on something for months (sometimes even years) and then, like having given birth, we show off our “baby” to the world.  Getting a rejection is like someone looking at your beautiful baby and saying “What an ugly kid!” It can be a devastating experience.  So how do we deal with it?

The first rejection letter I ever got was wadded up into a ball and thrown into the garbage.  I was hurt.  I didn’t know enough to understand that I had submitted to entirely the wrong publisher following entirely the wrong process. 

After that, I developed a ritual that I used for many years. I had a gold box with a gold ribbon tied around it.  On the top I had calligraphied the words “One Step Closer.”

 This isn’t the actual box, but you get the idea.

When I would receive a rejection letter, I would open the box, put the letter inside, and say out loud, “That’s one less I have to get.” Then under my breath I would say, “And won’t they be sorry.”

I used the rejections for motivation. The writer I mentioned above (the one who got the nasty rejection letter), also used those rejections for motivation. She began attending workshops, joined writers’ groups, went to conferences, read books, and worked at her craft.  So did I.  After a while, I began getting good rejections, and those were followed by contracts. The sting of the rejection letter diminished to the point where I no longer needed my box. Rejections became an opportunity for learning and growth (and they still are). So now, when I get a rejection letter (or email), I simply file it in a drawer in my office.

Of course, I still mutter, “Won’t they be sorry,” under my breath.

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2 thoughts on “The Up Side of Rejection

  1. Jim says:

    Kim – I really enjoyed reading this post. Rejection does suck and we are constantly at risk of being exposed to it. I like your idea of a box, it puts the negatives into a controlled environment and makes the victories all that much sweeter!

  2. drtombibey says:

    Kim,

    When I get a rejection I always figure my wife and kids love me and we have plenty to eat. As we say in bluegrass; it’s just a thing.

    I’ve learned something from each one, and they make the acceptance notices all the sweeter. I just got a good break, and posted the story on my blog.

    Dr. B

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