Rejection, the burden of all writers

Rejection is an inevitable part of the writing life. If you’re not good with rejection, you should never even entertain the idea of being a writer. It never ceases to amaze me just how belligerent some people get about rejections. And often, the most vocal are usually the worst writers, refusing to learn from critiques and improve their craft.

No matter how good you think you might be as a writer, you can always improve. My many years learning and teaching martial arts has taught me that there’s never an end to learning any kind of art. Writing, painting, dancing, Kung Fu – no matter how good you are, you can always get better.

And no matter how good you are, you will always get rejections. I’m sure that even Errol Flynn didn’t bed every woman he pursued.

So rejection is a part of the writing life and you need to get used to that. I remember an old Peanuts cartoon, where Snoopy is cold and depressed so Woodstock cheers him up by making a blanket out of Snoopy’s rejection slips. You can’t do that any more, as rejections are usually via email (even if submissions aren’t), but the underlying principle still applies. When you get served lemons, make lemonade. When you get rejections, learn.

Often a rejection will simply say, “Thanks but no thanks.” But you will occasionally get a few words giving some kind of reason for the rejection. On rare occasions you’ll get a more detailed critique. I’ve found that the more my writing improves, the better class of rejection I receive. That’s moving in a good direction, right? I’ll often get a rejection saying something along the lines of, “This was so close to being accepted, but we decided against it because…” Frustrating as it is, rejections like that are worth their weight in gold. (Well, they’re worth more than that – the weight of an email in gold does not a rich man make, but you get the idea.)

Never, ever just write rejections like that off. Don’t be a princess and harrumph and say, “Well, they just don’t get it. They don’t recognise my genius.” Most likely they recognise a lot more about you than you recognise about yourself. Pay attention to the points they raise, think really hard about any advice they give, try to apply that advice to a new draft of the story. It will make it better, every time.

In my experience, the most painful rejections are the rejections from shortlists. You’ve submitted your work, you’re really pleased with the story, and you sit back to wait. After a few weeks or months, depending on the publication, you get a letter back. It says something like, “We really like this piece and would like to hold onto it for another (x) weeks to see if we can fit it into our publication/anthology/whatever.”

This is great news – if it goes no further than this, remember to be pleased that you got shortlisted. But it really does burn when you get another letter several weeks later saying, “Sorry, we’ve decided against it.” It burns because you know it was good enough to be bought and published, you know they seriously considered it, but in the end something else they received was better. So short of getting a balaclava and a weapon and hunting down all the authors that are better than you, you have to suck it up and move on. Something about that shortlisted story worked, so your writing is going in the right direction. Fan the flames of that near success and keep plugging on and on.

You will get far more rejections than you ever get acceptances, unless you become as famous as Neil Gaiman. He can write anything and it gets bought. In the meantime, you just have to keep playing the game.

I’ve just yesterday had one of those shortlist rejections, which is what prompted me to write this post. It was for an anthology and I thought I was in, but got rejected in the last round. And yeah, it burns. But at least I know that story is a good one. A little more polish and it’ll go out again to other places and we’ll see if someone else will buy it. I have another story that is currently sitting on a shortlist. Fingers crossed that I might be luckier with that one. I also have two or three other short stories out there with other publications that I’m waiting to hear back on.

Four or five stories in circulation and the odds are that I’ll get four or five rejections. But you have to stay in it. I’ve sold work before and I’ll sell work again. Hopefully I’ll eventually improve my skills to the point where I can sell more and get rejected less. Either way, it’s something I’m compelled to do and I love writing. You have to. No one in their right mind would put themselves through this grinder on a regular basis unless they loved what they did.

“Be not afriad of moving slowly. Fear only standing still.” – Old Chinese proverb.


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14 thoughts on “Rejection, the burden of all writers

  1. I think the biggest problem we writers have with rejection is the not so subconscious expectations that we have. That may be stating the obvious, but consider this. We expect work we submit is good enough to be published. Therefore, we expect it to be accepted. It is difficult to stay engaged in the submission process if one doesn’t expect the work to be accepted.

    But that expectation is totally unrealistic when you consider the odds. I won’t say that rejection doesn’t still hurt, but I’ve gotten comfortable with the idea that it’s all about putting my work out there and seeing what sticks. Novel #1 didn’t sell, so I released it as a free weekly podcast – over 2000 people liked it enough to download the whole thing. Some short stories have gotten good feedback. NOvel #2 will be complete this month and another round of submissions will begin once it’s polished.

    If you want to be a success, you have to fail a lot. So consider that when you worry about rejections. To tell you the truth, rejection bothers me a lot less than getting criticism that I am torn about, not knowing if it is accurate or not. I want my work to be better. I am willing to do things to make it better. But in order to do that, I need to develop the ability to determine what criticism is accurate and what isn’t. That is far more difficult than it sounds.

    Thanks for the post.

  2. Those old Chinese proverbers didn’t have a spellcheck 🙂

    It’s important not to underestimate the luck involved in the acceptance/rejection of writing. For instance what if the person in charge of the last round dumped your piece because say one of the characters happened to remind him/her of an unpleasant ex? Just saying!

    Also what’s with the smiley face on the bottom left?

    Finally it’s confusing to have 2 separate buttons, one for submitting a comment and one for subscribing

  3. I totally agree, Alan. And even though this gets recycled as a post on writers blogs from time to time, it is something that needs to be pushed into writers brains until it sticks.

    I get rejections, just as you do, but occasionally I get something which comes across as just nasty. Personalised rejections with useful critiques are priceless, but what about rejections that just point to you needing to dig a really big hole and just bury the shameful piece you submitted, even though other editors have been encouraging, and your feedback circle have been full of praise?

    They hurt. I for one still wonder what I did to personally aggrieve the editor so badly by sending them my work. It takes time, but eventually I move on.

    A friend recently told me something to help in this instance if it happens again in the future, “You have managed to get this far without that editor, and you will continue to move forward without them, so don’t worry about them. It’s their loss.”

    In the end, we must all remember that the rejection is about the work, and not personal (regardless of how it sounds). Take some time to get over that small hurdle, learn what you can from it, and move on.

    Sorry to hear about the short-list near misses.


  4. Edward – You make a good point. Just because we think something is ready doesn’t mean it is. It will often not be ready in the eyes of editors. We need their feedback to improve.

    Michael – You know that incorrect spelling makes Chinese things more authentic. You’re right about the luck factor though – luck is an essential part of selling any of your work. But here’s another old proverb that’s relevant – “The harder I work, the luckier I get.” 🙂

    (BTW, not sure what you mean about the smiley face and the two buttons – drop me an email to explain and I’ll check into it.)

    Brenton – I’ve had a few nasty personal attacks in my time too. Even had someone scrawl all over the novel mss I sent them with vitriolic comments about everything from my characters to my choice of locations. I’d plainly offended their religious sensibilities, but they couldn’t dissociate that from the work. We learn in many ways!

    Thanks for the comments everyone.

  5. I hate to say this, but these days especially, books are like pop music artists–and if you really look at popular musicians right now, you’ll find they are mediocre and inept for the most part. Not to harshly judge her, but take a writer like Stephanie Meyer (of the “Twilight” series for instance: a below average writer writing for teenage girls. It’s amazing how many adults–both male and female–read such drivel. Does she deserve all the accolades? Of course not, but she is getting them!

    The truth is, it really doesn’t matter if you are “good” or not, and you can continually improve to rival any great in history and still be rejected. Some of the worst books I’ve ever read were on the New York Time’s best seller list. It almost seems a better bet to publish your own book and become an expert in Internet marketing like horror writer Scott Sigler did. He gave away 13,000 copies (quite an expensive and risky investment) of his first novel for free to the mob at the Web 2.0 Expo a few years ago. Though his fiction is like reading a video game (like Resident Evil), he still managed to sell millions somehow. A critique is nothing more than one person’s opinion. The trick is to find the right agent who freaking loves your work. Rejection makes me thrive. I went from a lost, homeless, drug addicted freak sucking breakfast from a garbage can lid to designing guitars for Eddie Van Halen. I can do the same thing in writing and I look forward to rejection. I don’t write in a popular genre and I don’t know if that will hurt or help. I noticed your comment above about vitriolic religious criticism. I was recently asked to leave a writing group at a local university because I made the Christian people shudder in disgust over my ideas about post modernism. My goal in life is to make Oprah Winfrey puke–if I can do that, I will be famous hahaha 😈

  6. Great post, and something all creative people should take note of. All art is subjective. In Seattle, there is a bridge with a concrete Troll holding and old VW Beetle created by ‘some guys’, i.e. not regognized artists. The year it was created there was a vote for the public’s favourite piece of art. The troll won and the art institute was up in arms, claiming that the public didn’t know enough about art to make that decision! I guess for them, this was an ultimate rejection and they weren’t gracious enough to accept it.

    Anyway, there is one question that your post raises that is now really bugging me – How much does an email weigh?

  7. Graham – interesting story about Seattle. You’re right – all art is subjective. The real trick is getting your art in front of people that share your tastes and will subjectively know that your stuff is great. 🙂

    As for the weight of an email… I guess if you print it out it weighs the same as one sheet of A4 with some ink on it.

  8. I feel like being a pedant bastard: the weight of an email is probably the weight of all the electrons transmitted through the internet that represent it.

    Which is even less gold than that sheet of paper.

    I’m not at all sorry for ruining this comments thread!

  9. Michael – I was about to reply about the number of electrons etc, but you’ve out pedanted me!

    Good spot on the smiley face! Really not sure what it is, or how you managed to spot it. Probably just a virus or Internet worm…

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