I feel really old when I think about my history with rejection. When I first got serious about sending queries and submitting work to agents and publications, almost no one in the business used email as a default, and rejections took the form of slips of paper or little cards or photocopied form letters. Sometimes they showed up with bonus grease stains or a brown ring from a jostled coffee mug. One of my writing professors told me that he used to pin his rejection letters to his office wall. Seeing them all the time kept him going, purely out of spite. After I heard that, I held onto most of my rejections as well:
That’s only a sampling. There were a lot. Those slips and scraps represent my efforts to publish several books and a number of short stories. There are probably some poetry rejections in there, too. And those are just the hard-copy rejections; I’ve got tons of email rejections saved, too. I should probably just burn/delete the whole mess, right? Why hold onto hundreds of disappointments?
But I’m proud of that pile. Those notes are proof that I tried, that I’ve been working at this since I was in college. I swept all those NOs up in a folder, tucked them away and kept fighting, even when I was almost too intimidated and disappointed to manage, even when my anxiety disorder tried its best to swamp me into stopping.
Rejection is part of the industry, but understanding that on a rational level doesn’t really do much to lessen the sting. It hurts whether it’s your first rejection or your five hundredth. If you’re thinking about submitting your work somewhere–or if you’re already deep in the query trenches–here are a few thoughts that might help you deal with the lows, at least a little:
–Accept that rejection sucks. IT TOTALLY DOES. Maybe you’ve spent months or years drafting a story. You poured your heart into it. Sharing a manuscript like that in a professional context leaves you incredibly vulnerable, and sometimes all your effort gets shoved aside with a form letter. (Or with no response at all, which I think is worse. Silence is the chilliest form of rejection.) That’s frustrating as hell! Let yourself be mad or upset for a little bit–just don’t wallow. Don’t let it weigh you down. Letting it out is healthier than holding it in and/or trying to convince yourself you’re not feeling it.
–Vent in private. Whatever you do, DO NOT reply to rejections. Even if you’re frustrated. Even if the rejection felt rude. Don’t do it. Instead, find a friend or two who are willing to listen. In person, online, over the phone–whatever works. You might want to talk to someone who’s at a similar stage of the process (in that case, remember to return the favor when it’s their turn to vent). Most of the friends who listened to me complain weren’t querying themselves and didn’t always understand the process, but that worked fine for me. I just needed someone to listen while I went “BLAH!” for a minute or two. So go “BLAH!” and then breathe and let it go.
–Reframe rejections as practice. The critical feedback in this business never ends. If you don’t get used to it, you’ll be miserable. Working through your early rejections will make the edit letters and the unfairly cruddy reviews that much easier to process later on. The rejections typically continue, too, even for a lot of successful writers. They’re not going away, but you can learn to get used to them.
–Remember that if someone doesn’t feel strongly enough about your work to represent or publish it, they’re not the ones you want representing or publishing your work. It’s not personal. It’s just not a good professional fit for either of you. You want to work with people who are going to champion your projects, fight for your best interests, and help shape your career.
–Work on something else. THIS. This is the biggie. Always have another project going. It’s a welcome distraction and a reminder that the story you’re shopping around right now isn’t the end of the road. If this one doesn’t find a home right away, maybe the next one will–but that can only happen if you actually write the next one.
I’ve long since shelved most of the projects that collected all those rejections in the photo, but I didn’t let that pile of NOs stop me. If I had, I wouldn’t have written or sold Spookygirl or Mammoth, and I wouldn’t have several more WIPs on the way. I kept going. So can you. Kate McKinnon would totally back me up on that:
(And hey, if you’re curious about how to avoid the mistakes I made in those early querying days, check out my post on how not to query.)