Rejection

“I love my rejection slips. They show me I try” – Sylvia Plath

Rejection, it happens to us all.

Allegedly.

Ok, not allegedly. It’s few and far between the writer that puts work out to be published and doesn’t get knocked back with some variation on “sorry, we’re not looking for work like this at the moment” when they put things out there. I don’t need to go through the examples here – the internet abounds with one line inspirational things about Stephen King hanging his rejection slips on a nail until it broke and he had to replace it with a spike, about how many times J.K. Rowling was rejected shopping around Harry Potter, and about Edison and that damn light bulb. We get it, rejection happens. A lot. It’s inevitable.

And that at no point stops it from sucking when it happens.

I’ve been submitting stories to spec-fic mags and anthologies of different stripes for almost two years on-and-off and each one has resulted in a rejection. That’s a hard sentence to write. As in, I’m sort of embarrassed to admit it.

For some reason (ego) I knew that rejection happened to writers, but I thought it was a token thing. I thought people who had the goods would get maybe one or two rejections, like a nod that taste is subjective or their first story wasn’t up to scratch but they’d get there next time. I don’t think I quite understood that for a lot of writers it’s not just one or two rejection slips that indicate that an editor just didn’t get their piece or it really wasn’t a right fit for the issue or anthology they were putting together… it’s a lot1At least I hope it’s a lot. If it’s not a lot, please don’t tell me? I need to believe everyone gets snowed under with polite form rejections that give them no sense of their progress in order to stay sane. Thanks, your cooperation is appreciated!.

What makes it hard I think, apart from the fact that you want something and don’t get it – which sucks and always sucks – is the love and the work that’s gone into it. You don’t just dash off a first draft and then throw it into Submittable.

For me before I send out a story it’s gone through beta reading, my writing group has probably seen it and pulled it apart and then pulled apart the resulting pieced-back-together version. I’ve personally printed out, scribbled on and rehashed the same piece dozens of times2My editing process is partly to blame for both the Amazon deforestation problem and the slight increase in my department’s printing costs. Shhhh.. Then I write up my bio, make sure the story fits the manuscript formatting requirements of the place I’m submitting to, send it off, and wait.

Apart from the suckiness of rejection itself the waiting part is the worst. The. Worst. It’s months in which you don’t hear back and are therefore in that weird internal optimistic place of “well, I haven’t heard ‘no’ yet, so I could still be in with a shot!” and you try not to think about it, but it’s always in the back of your mind.

And then the email lands in your inbox (replace “inbox” with “mail box” if you’re still in nineteen-dickety-two. In fact, waiting for postal mail rejections would have been even worse…) and your heart leaps. It’s schroedinger’s letter – this is it. They’re going to–

form reject you.

“Thank you for your time and we encourage you to submit work in the future.”

It’s that little heart leap in the middle there. That “oh my G–! oh. Well, shit.” that kicks the hurt button.

Now, I usually go on to have a hugely productive day or sequence of days after a rejection letter. I re-work the story and shop it out again, I double down on whatever project I’m working on at the time. I like to think that this is the best possible response in the face of rejection: get back on the horse and ride like hell back to the top of the hill you both just rolled down.

But, I’ll be really honest, sometimes, especially after getting a few, it starts to feel a bit hopeless. I’ve started wondering things like:

“Am I submitting to the wrong places?”

“Is there something wrong with my editing or manuscript polishing technique? Am I unintentionally embarrassing myself and shooting myself in the foot by using comic sans?” (note: I don’t actually use comic sans)

“Am I submitting too early? Am I just not ready yet as a writer?”

“Am I just not that good? Do my ideas just suck? Am I just not cut out for this work?”

“Why am I even bothering?”

It’s a really, really lovely self-doubt spiral that could well eat me alive.

Luckily, I’ve developed coping strategies. They mostly work. By ‘mostly’ I mean “I’m still writing and submitting things into the void and haven’t yet thrown in the towel”. I think that’s the best one can hope for in the face of a wall of consistent rejections with little to no actual feedback about why or how I could improve.

  • I put out lots of things at once. I try to keep at least one story in circulation at all times, so that I can always have that little line of hope in place.
  • Similarly, I have lots of stuff on the go and in different stages so I can keep working and polishing and finishing and submitting things. I need a certain level of momentum to remain happy.
  • I write for fun. The most fun part for me is always the first draft. So after a rejection I usually end up creating a whole first draft of something new. It’s like a burst of “screw it! I’m having fun! I don’t care what you think!” productivity.
  • I re-acquaint myself with material I find inspiring (I’ve got a lot of these listed and linked to on my Resources & Inspiration page). I re-read my Laini Taylor list to remind myself why I love writing and what I’m trying to do. I memorise the Dear Sugar letter again.
  • I keep the support network involved. This is particularly big for me, but snuggling my boyfriend and talking about my plot problems, having a writing group to go to and work on the piece again to try and give it a better chance next time, and emailing Felicity to get a personalised “you can do it, dude!” pep talk keeps me sane. It keeps me at it for another day, or another week.

I love that Syliva Plath quote at the top of this post and I come back to it every single time I get a rejection letter. It’s my polestar quote for dusting myself off and getting back to it. I’m trying, I’m working at it, and the proof of that is that I’m putting things out there. I’m finishing work and putting it forward for consideration. That alone is something a few years ago I dreamed about but couldn’t bring myself to do. It’s what the professionals do. They make things and try to sell them. Just like I am. The rejection letters are proof that I put something out there. That I wrote something and tried to sell it. That I’m trying to get better and create things that are up to the standard I appreciate in the work of others. It’s the proof that my writing career already exists. There’s evidence of me trying, it’s the fruits of my labour, the proof of my progress as a writer, and while it’s not the response I want it’s still valuable.

“Remember that the product of your writing career is NOT the books themselves, but YOU. Your purpose in writing is to train yourself to be someone who can write incredible books, and you get there by finishing story after story. Don’t get too bogged down in the project of the moment; keep moving forward. YOU are what you are creating, not the story.” – Brandon Sanderson (AMA)

At that Max Barry workshop I went to a few months back he mentioned that he was on a roughly two book cycle. He’d write one, not sell it, write the next one and sell it3He also mentioned he’d recently broken the streak and sold two books in a row – yay!. Mary Robinette Kowal had a wonderful blog post recently about the realities of being a full-time writer and one of the big takeaways I got from it is that even she gets rejected. Still. Even after you’ve sold the book, gotten stories published, made decent sales it’s no guarantee that someone will pick up your next thing. Getting published once does not mean you’re a sure thing for getting published everywhere else forever. It’s not a guarantee that everything you produce and pitch will get picked up from now on (mega-authors like Stephen King aside). In short, getting published once does not guarantee you’ll never see a rejection slip again. At first I was horrified by this, I’d been operating under the assumption that it was like one of those safety gates at railway crossings. Once you get through you can’t get back out, you’re in. You’ve made it, forever and always.

Which, I almost immediately realised, is ridiculous.

We’re freelancers. Every one of us. We’re selling individual works to publishers. We’re pitching content. That doesn’t change when some of the content starts to hit the target, it just means you’re getting better at doing it. But that doesn’t mean everything will stick everywhere forever. Rejection is likely always going to be a part of my writing life. It comforts me to know that even the pros get rejected. Probably less than I do, but it sort of helps to know I’m doing and experiencing the same things they are.

I believe that if I stick it out and work at it long enough I’ll get there. I believe it because I have to. I have to believe that the many hours I’m spending thinking about fiction, and pulling pieces apart and putting them back together to try and make them a tiny, tiny bit better are worth something – are going somewhere. I have to believe that all the reading and editing and the large amount of my life I spend writing is worth it. In the face of rejection that’s hard! But the only way I have a hope of one of the submission responses I get not being a rejection is by keeping on putting stuff out there. If I bow out now I have that lovely, pristine 100% failure record. Forever.

I’d prefer not to have that. Really, strongly prefer. Luckily, all I have to do to make that happen is to keep trying. It doesn’t mean I won’t ever see a rejection slip again, but trying will be what ensures it’s not the only thing I ever see in response to my work.

“There is an enormous weedout factor for wannabe writers. The good news is that you aren’t competing with every published schmoe out there. You’re only up against the rest of the wannabes, and it’s like the old axiom about being chased by a grizzly bear. You don’t have to run faster than the bear to get away. You just have to run faster than the guy next to you.

Keep trying when the guy next to you quits in disgust. Keep writing when the girl next to you sobs and throws her manuscripts into the fire. Keep conducting yourself like a professional, and you’ll get someone to believe that you are one.” – Jim Butcher

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