By Tara Masih
I’ve been in the world of publishing for three decades now. I’ve seen friends’ and colleagues’ writing careers both blossom and wilt. Some never even break ground. What mainly separates the successes from the failures (or from those who give up)? It’s often, simply, an inability to cope with rejection. It isn’t that the successful authors are necessarily better writers out of the gate. They are the writers who are passionate about their art, who make the time to submit, and whose drive to publish and improve overpowers their depression at a lack of acceptance. So here are some survival tips for the New Year, with glimpses into some well-established and emerging writers’ and editors’ experiences and techniques of coping with the big “R.”
How to Survive Rejection:
- Never give up. Kathryn Stockett, author of the best-selling novel The Help, is not shy about admitting her manuscript was rejected 60 times before being accepted. She claims her best trait is that she never gives up. Make it yours, too. Easier said than done, right? Remind yourself that agents, editors, and publishers all have their personal tastes in literature. That’s to be expected—you do, too. Find those who share your vision. Do your research, and you’ll cut down on the rejection rate. (And see the great tips on submission that Michelle Seaton offers in her blog post.)
- Enjoy the process, making publication a secondary goal. While publication is of course the Holy Grail, as all authors want to see their manuscripts turned into typeset pages or web pages, try to keep reminding yourself that it’s the process of writing that is magical. It’s the journey through your self, using your creativity, that matters most. Take this belief to heart, and it will carry you through many incidental rejections, because it’s all about you and the story, right? and your discovery of what you can imagine or recreate on your own paper/screen.
- Hold on to your rejection slips/emails. The days of snail mail rejections are dwindling. In past years, it was much more exciting to go the mailbox every day and see if there was a response. Seeing a thin envelope meant probable rejection. An acceptance was more likely found in thick envelopes that included a contract. Today, responses come mainly online. Guessing the likelihood of acceptance now relies on your interpretation of an email subject header. In any case, save those slips/emails. They may not be signs of final acceptance, but they are proof that you are trying, that you are taking part in the process. Lise Haines, acclaimed author of 3 novels, including Girl in the Arena, says she “resided for years between encouraging notes from a New Yorker editor and stock rejection slips from a journal depicting a man about to be executed, a gun right to the temple. . . . The idea of taking all those rejections—the bad ones and good ones alike—and giving up would have been like letting go of my skin or my face or my bones. I got terribly depressed of course, then I pushed on and wrote another story, another book, taking the kinds of risks I had to with my work. When my first novel, In My Sister’s Country, went into print, I thought of pitching the folders stuffed with a thousand ways to say ‘No.’ But strung together, they do remind me that I survived them all.”
Another reason to save your personal rejections is that you never know when you can use them. I used one such rejection as a back cover blurb for my story collection. Before being published by Press 53, the manuscript was one of three contenders for the Tupelo Press fiction prize. The rejection therefore was meaningful and positive, and very usable.
- If you get positive rejections, use them as encouragement. Abigail Cloud, who has survived rejection and been published in such well-respected journals as Gettysburg Review, posted on Facebook that she was excited to get a “positive rejection” to her poetry book manuscript, and how this seemed a paradox to her father. “I admit, it’s a strange concept. Writers, though, are used to seeing forms. Harried editors have time so often only to place a pre-printed and cut rejection slip—not even, usually, a full piece of paper—into a self-addressed, stamped envelope. . . . When a new one arrives, we grow accustomed simply to updating our files and sending the work out again. . . . So, when a full sheet of paper arrives, with a real signature, already this is something special to bounce us out of that normal process. . . . shouldn’t the healthy reaction be joy, even if the ultimate response is ‘no’?
“And my father, to whom I showed the letter, understands now that ‘positive rejection’ is not a paradox. It is instead something that keeps us going, no matter how many forms arrive in the inbox.”
- If you get rejected countless times, reassess your writing. It’s fine to say never give up, but there are times when a writer needs to accept that the work they have may not be up to par. Most writers I know continue to work on their submissions for years, even after acceptance, feeling they can always improve. So don’t get egotistical about what you want to stubbornly believe is your final draft. Accept that most writing is never final, even amongst the best. Matt Bell, who before the age of 32 published 3 acclaimed chapbooks, a novella, and a novel, with another novel due out in 2013 (In the House upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods), discusses his early days: “The first time I ever submitted my fiction was when I was 21 or so: I put 10 stories in the mail (the mail!) to 5 magazines each, for a total of 50 submissions sent at once, on the first day of summer. Which meant, obviously, that I got rejections constantly throughout the summer, sometimes multiple rejections in a single day. I took the rejections hard, and in response I went back to work, on those stories and on new ones, without any plans to submit again—and I didn’t, for several years. I think it was good to be crushed then, because it made me take the time to figure out what tools I was missing as a writer, and to work to remedy those lacks. Overall, I know I’m very lucky that I got to start publishing as young as I have—but I’m even luckier that smart and discerning editors kept me from publishing any younger by turning down all of my earliest stories, written when I was at my most imitative, my least accomplished.” At best writing is intuitive, at worst, it’s craft. Know you have to work, and you’ll handle rejections less personally; do the work, and you’ll have less rejections.
- If you get acceptances, let them carry you through what will certainly be more rejections. X. J. Kennedy, one of our most renowned and respected poets, had his first book rejected 16 times before acceptance. It went on to win the Lamont Award of the Academy of American Poets (Nude Descending a Staircase, 1961). Before this success, he wrote during the war. “As an enlisted man in the Navy I kept writing poems and tooling them over, but not sending them out. Then, a few months before I was discharged, I sent 4 to The New Yorker, whose poetry editor, Howard Moss at the time, accepted 2 of them. Naturally, I was heartened, and quickly followed those submissions with about 14 more, all of which Moss turned down. But I didn’t grieve, for I’d had those acceptances, and figured I’d please him again sometime.”
- Find something healthy to do when you receive a rejection. There are two ways to do this. First, have a healthy attitude before you submit. Editor and author Suzanne Kamata, who has published award-winning fiction books and anthologies, treats submission “like entering the lottery. I do study the markets by reading back issues and examining tables of contents so that my submissions are well targeted. However, knowing the odds, and that editors have individual tastes and moods, I don’t expect to ‘win,’ so when I do get something accepted I’m especially happy and I celebrate.” The second way to handle rejection is to do something positive when you lose the lottery. I know writers who take a walk or a run, post something funny on Facebook, send the work out again right away, call a friend, eat chocolate, or have a glass of wine or a beer. Chocolate and alcohol might not be totally healthy, but if they keep you from drowning in your sorrow, and it’s not done to excess, go for it. Celebrate the fact that you tried. Many don’t.
- Know that even well-published authors receive form rejections. Yes, even highly respected and well-published authors such as X. J. Kennedy receive form rejections. “Since those early days, I’ve had scores more of frustrating rejections and am still having them.” But he doesn’t take this personally; instead, he openly admits it and even jokes about it. Never take yourself too seriously, and take heart in knowing rejection continues for everyone who submits.
- Never give up. Back to that mantra. Sometimes, the timing just isn’t right. You can be ahead of the curve, or the market. Steven Pavlos, former editor of Sea Stories, assembled a collection of essays by multiple authors titled Facing the Change: Personal Encounters with Global Warming. He began submitting it about 4 years ago. After 55 rejections from publishers and 12 rejections from agents, he finally received a contract this year from a small press opening up its regional doors to national authors on the subject of ecology. Torrey House Press would not have been interested 4 years ago. But they are now, and after Hurricane Sandy, people are finding the issue of climate change more imperative, so his topic is more relevant today than it was when he began. Pavlos says what kept him going, besides feeling a duty to his contributors, was the fact that “the subject matter is so important —and I believe the anthology’s approach to it is so unique—that I just couldn’t believe that there’s wasn’t someone in the publishing world who would be interested in it.” If you feel strongly about what you have, it’s likely you will find someone else who will, too.
Finally, in the words of Winston Churchill: “Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.” Write this on a Post-it and put it where you can see it every day. If you don’t lose your enthusiasm for the joy of creating and sending your work out into the world, you will become a published survivor. Promise.