Today’s topic is rejection.
It’s probably more than a little cliché and predictable for a writer to write something on their blog about rejection, but whatever. Rejection is an evergreen topic for writers because we’re forced to deal with so much of it on a regular basis. We pour our time and efforts into our writing only to throw it out into the world for complete strangers to judge. In the blink of an eye, writers go from a position of total and complete control over their work to one of absolute powerlessness, unable to do more than wait patiently to learn whether a person they’ve probably never met thinks it’s worth their time.
The odds are not favorable. From a purely statistical standpoint, there are far more people writing than there are available platforms/venues. And then there’s the number of potential readers who will actually give the works fortunate enough and good enough to see the light of day their attention. If they really thought about the sheer scale of what they’re up against, many writers wouldn’t bother writing at all. As a beloved space smuggler once said, “Never tell me the odds.”
But writers should be realistic about the challenge they face. For most of us, rejection is the norm, not the exception. It’s perfectly normal to go through long stretches of rejection, periods of time when you can’t convince anyone to publish your work and can’t get people to read your work when it does get published. Intellectually, you know this will happen and that it won’t last forever. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t tough to get through those stretches. To make a crude analogy, rejection is like getting kicked in the nuts: just because you know it’s going to happen doesn’t make it any less painful when it happens.
I’ve received hundreds of rejection emails, so I’m no stranger to having my work rejected for one reason or another. It comes with the territory of being a writer and that’s fine. Although I’m not bitter about it, rejection still hurts. You get good at picking yourself back up and returning to work, but sometimes you have to let yourself experience those painful emotions. It’s easy to put on a strong face and say rejection doesn’t bother you, but for most people that’s just a form of denial. You’re not being honest with yourself, and as I’ve written here previously, you can only fool yourself for so long.
I met a writer at a convention whose regular writing group read their rejection letters aloud and yelled about them before casting the letters aside and moving on. They do this for two reasons. First of all, it’s just not healthy to hold in the negative emotions associated with rejection. But secondly, they did it to stand up for themselves and their writing. As a writer, you should want to tell an editor why they were wrong to reject your story. After all, it’s your story and you think it’s worthy of publication, otherwise you wouldn’t have submitted it. If you passively agree with the rejection, then you’re admitting you don’t think the story should be published either. Stoically accumulating all of these rejections without any kind of pushback can cause you to develop a negative view of your writing and of yourself. You start to think that all those editors must be right, and that your writing must be terrible so you ought to quit altogether.*
But that’s not how rejections work. Editors reject stories for all kinds of reasons that often have little to do with the quality of the writing itself. Of the hundreds of rejections I’ve received, probably less than a dozen gave an actual, substantive explanation for why the editor rejected the story. Most of the time it’s a boilerplate form letter (“Not what we’re looking for right now”, “Not the right fit for us”, and so on). You don’t know if the editor didn’t get beyond the first page or if it was the last story that didn’t make the final cut. People in the business of giving advice often tell writers they should “learn” from rejection, but most of the time there’s no actual guidance to follow. In the absence of concrete explanations or criticism, it’s easy to simply come away from rejection thinking, “My story must suck”. If you don’t find a healthy way to deal with that thought, it can fester very quickly and turn into “I must suck too”.
And that’s where rejection becomes dangerous. When the rejection letters are piling up and your setbacks aren’t being offset by successes elsewhere, it can feel like the world is caving from all sides. You question yourself, wondering if maybe success is never going to happen, that you’re a terrible writer and no amount of hard work and diligence can ever change that. At your lowest moments, you might even consider quitting altogether.
This is why it’s important to find ways of dealing with rejection. Maybe you have to scream at your computer or break down in tears or spend an hour telling a loved one how much it hurts to be snubbed. Whatever the case, you really should work on finding something that works for you; something that helps you to come to terms with rejection, put it behind you, and move on to the next challenge. If you can’t learn to do that, the emotional toil of rejection will lead to bitterness, resentment, and self-loathing. It always helps to remember you’re not alone. Even the most successful writers in the world have had to deal with rejection along the way.
Rejection is painful, sometimes even traumatic, but you can get through it. Don’t let it become an obstacle that holds you back. But remember to be honest about how it makes you feel. You’re entitled to those feelings even if you don’t have to let them control you. Give yourself the permission to work through those emotions so you can set them aside and get back to the work you believe in.
*Just to be clear, I am in NO WAY advocating that you should go sharing these feelings with the editors themselves. Don’t ever, ever, ever, ever, ever respond to an editor by telling them why they were wrong to reject you. It’s their right to reject your work and they don’t have to justify it to you. And it’s your right to think they’re wrong…in private. Nothing you say is going to change their minds anyway, so don’t ruin your reputation by being a dick.