It took me approximately eleven years to figure out how to tell a story. And though I still have a long way to go and will be improving until the day I die, I think I learned enough about rejection during those eleven years to help at least one person reading this blog receive rejection in a more productive manner.
So let me tell you some things about the R-word:
If you don’t bat an eyelash when someone criticizes your work, good for you. If someone responds to your writing negatively (or if someone doesn’t respond at all) and that doesn’t bother you…that’s fantastic! You’re a superhero! The world is in awe of you! We genuflect at the altar of your imperviousness!
But for the rest of us, rejection is unpleasant. It’s normal to feel frustrated. Most of us, at one time or another, feel like we’re not good enough. And it’s not like other disappointments. It’s not like not winning the lottery (bad luck) or not getting picked for the kickball team (he only chooses his best friends anyway). No, this is something on which, presumably, we’ve spent a lot of time, an endeavor into which we’ve poured a great deal of ourselves, often going as far as sharing secret thoughts or fictionalizing childhood memories. And when we hear “No,” it makes us sad. Or angry. Or something else we don’t want to feel.
Rejection is also…
After about eight years of getting everything I wrote rejected, I told my wife I felt like Houdini. Legend has it he used to allow people to punch him in the gut to show how firm his abdominal muscles were. Legend also has it he died that way. And though I never died from a rejection, I did begin to tense my stomach muscles every time I opened my emails. Because I didn’t see them as unopened messages any longer; I saw them as impending gut punches. If my inbox said “3 Unread Messages,” that meant I was about to receive three glancing belly blows. (Or two gut punches and one email from a Nigerian prince who promised to give me his fortune if I gave him my credit card number.)
I became skilled at timing my ab-clenching at just the right moment. Occasionally I’d receive more than a quick jab from a message; on those rare occasions when a partial or even a—gasp!—full manuscript had been requested by an agent, the rejection would feel closer to a roundhouse right to the jaw or a walloping dropkick to the throat. And I’d be lying if I claimed I never covered my privates in an unconscious gesture of terror.
So yes, rejection can be painful. It can make you wince, grimace, or even experience a debilitating bout of nausea.
But rejection can also be…
Most rejection will come in the form of silence. We live in an ever-expanding world with a population approaching seven billion. And six billion of those people want to write novels. That means that most agents and editors will never read your work, and if they do, you’ll never hear a word about it. You will sometimes receive a form rejection, and like an expert tracker who learns to delineate between an innocuous glop of mud and the steaming spoor of a mountain lion, you too will learn to sniff out a rejection from a distance of a hundred yards. This is useful. It will prevent you from spending hours poring over each adjective and conjunction of a form rejection in the hopes of finding something indicating, you know, a human being behind the words. So most of the time, the rejections will not be personalized. This is because they can’t be. If every agent and editor took the time to personalize every rejection…well, there would be no books.
Occasionally, you’ll receive a vicious rejection. I once received one that read like this:
“No. Hell no. After reading the first page of your submission, I handed it to my co-worker, who said she’d rather spend three hours entering data into the computer than read the rest of your story.”
I’d like to say that this particular rejection didn’t bother me, but it did. A lot. I considered it a cheap shot and patently unprofessional. Perhaps I was just being thin-skinned. Probably I was just being thin-skinned. But it still hurt. So much so that I feel like posting the editor’s and publisher’s names. But I won’t. And anyway, you probably wouldn’t have heard of them. They went out of business years ago.
But in the sea of silence, auto-generated messages, and small people, you’ll also encounter some agents and editors who, for no other reason than they are kind, generous people, will offer you a piece of advice. You might not want to hear the advice because you’ve come to see every kind of rejection one way—as a monstrous, taunting, soul-destroying, blinking red Jumbotron “NO!”
But folks, this would be a grave mistake. Because—and if you haven’t learned this yet, you really, truly need to—you don’t know everything. Most of you are cocking your eyebrows and nodding your heads like I’ve just stated the most obvious fact in the world, but there might be a few of you scowling at your monitors and grumbling about conspiracies and unappreciative editors and myopic agents, and for those of you in the latter group, leave. No, seriously. Leave now. Because if you think you know everything, you’re not only not going to succeed at writing, you’re not going to succeed at anything other than annoying the living hell out of everyone you meet. So go.
Now that we’ve gotten those nabobs out of here, let’s proceed, shall we?
As I was saying, some editors and agents really will take the time to help you. And when they do, for the love of all that’s holy, please listen. No, I’m not suggesting they’re infallible. In fact, I can find something to disagree with on many agent and editor websites. Some of the advice I’ve gotten from agents and editors isn’t worth the lint between my toes. But some of it is worth the lint between my toes. Some of it is so valuable, it just might signal a turning point in your writing career. And that doesn’t just go for agents and editors, either. There are many writers who are even more generous with their advice. And though there are writers who haven’t a clue what they’re talking about, there are indeed those to whom you need to listen. Joe R. Lansdale, for instance. And Stephen King. And too many others to mention.
Which brings me to my last point. You can listen to those who are mean-spirited (though you shouldn’t). You can listen to those who are trying to help (and you should). But regardless how “No” is stated, it’s still “No.” So what do you do with that?
You turn it into fuel.
Because rejection, more than anything, is…
Do you want to be a writer? Because if the answer is anything but an emphatic “Yes,” you don’t have a prayer. But if you do care enough to write, if you do possess the self-discipline to produce, if you do find that delicate mixture of humility and confidence, if you do learn how to learn about writing, and if you do resolve to fight through every single negative thing that stands in your way—if you can master all those areas, you’ll find that being rejected is one of the most liberating and productive experiences of your life.
It should make you want to get better.
Are you stubborn? I am. And I’ve learned to siphon that stubbornness away from the areas of my writing where the trait might do damage; conversely, I’ve learned to channel that stubbornness toward the facets of my writing that will transform the trait into a blessing. Whenever I get a bad review, I read it, think about it, and deal with it accordingly. Is it meritless vitriol? Throw it out with the used bacon fat and the coffee grounds. Is it, perhaps, an observation that can make me better? Then I absorb it, let it help me, and trudge forward with even grimmer resolve.
Success and failure both make me work harder.
And if any of the above doesn’t help you, just remember this: rejection is. Which is to say that it is a part of writing. If you can’t deal with that—in whatever way works for you—you can’t be a writer. I’m not meaning to sound harsh, nor am I attempting to injure your inner child. But to think you’re going to be that one person in six billion who succeeds in the writing industry without struggle is simply not realistic.
I believe in going into situations with my eyes wide open. This is because I’ve been guilty of entering into situations with my eyes squeezed shut. Of thinking I was somehow special, of believing my success was preordained, or even worse, that I deserved success.
And I was a moron. Now, I might still be a moron, but I’m less of a moron now than I was then. And I’d call that progress. If you, also, can steadily reduce your level of moronity, your chances of succeeding will increase exponentially.
I have to go now. I have a novella to edit and a novel to write. Both are under contract. That doesn’t make me amazing or rich or unique. It simply makes me a guy who didn’t give up.
Happy writing. And remember all the wonderful things that rejection can do for you.