The Long-Term Effects of Rejection – No is Never the Final Answer
By Jeff Bowles
Every month, science fiction and horror writer Jeff Bowles offers advice to new and aspiring authors. Nobody ever said this writing thing would be easy. This is your pep talk.
To begin with, this article is written with the upstart in mind. The midnight worker, the weekend toiler, the writer who’s still slaving away in obscurity, penning story after story, unpublished novel after unpublished novel, and for whom the word ‘rejection’ has become a special kind of poison.
When I seriously started writing almost fifteen years ago–and by “seriously” I mean “cared enough to finish a single story and try to publish it”–I discovered pretty quickly that receiving rejections was almost as common as losing at a rigged carnival game. I couldn’t figure out why my writing wasn’t good enough, in what areas it was deficient, and to tell you the truth, it would be several years until such things were even remotely clear to me. Regardless, the absolute worst part of it all was receiving the rejections themselves, because I’m kind of a sensitive guy, and damn, they really tended to bruise the old ego.
Writers vary pretty wildly in how we respond to rejection. Some of us never seem fazed by it. Regardless of how often, how impersonal, and how heavy a solid “no” is, these guys seem to take it all in stride. I’ve never been able to tell if the impressive shrug of their shoulders is a put-on, but I do know one thing for certain: I cannot count myself amongst them. When I got rejections, I’d mope and whine and pout for hours or even days. Just ask my wife, who was my new girlfriend at the time. I’d turn into a real bear, and it was because it hurt so much. Like I said, sensitive guy. Plus, no one could get through to me about one very crucial thing: this is the way it’s supposed to be.
If you’re like me, and you tend to take rejection hard—or even if you’re not like me, and moving on to the next story submission is the easiest thing in the world—might I recommend a little tried and true advice. Accept your rejection phase as a given, and if you can go just one more country mile with me, learn to welcome it as a friend. Your rejection phase is helping to make you the writer you’ve always wanted to be. Your rejection phase is purifying your desire to write, and in so doing, allowing you to really decide if a writing career is what you want.
Because if it is, no amount of rejection will ever dissuade you. I thought I’d quit a million times. Now I realize there is no quit. No is never the final answer. And anyone who’s been publishing work for years and years will tell you rejection doesn’t end. Sure, you’re likely to receive less and less of it as you progress, but it’s not the kind of thing that disappears entirely. I know it hurts. Trust me, I’m with you on that one. But unless you plan on going all-indie, it really is a necessary part of your growth as a writer. Kind of a raw deal, I suppose. But then again, nobody ever climbs Mount Everest because it’s easy.
Now a brief word on indie publishing. A lot of older writers—and I don’t necessarily mean older in years, but rather older in experience level or maybe in their stance on traditional publishing—tend to believe that self-publishing inherently makes for worse writers. The idea being, of course, that without the resistance provided by steady rejection, a writer can never become all he or she is meant to become. I came up this way. I’d published dozens of times before I ever self-published on Amazon. The thing is, I don’t necessarily find it to be the case.
Sure, there is a lot of disposable material indie-published on the internet. And yes, I also believe adversity makes us better. But a writer can pick up all sorts of lessons and professional techniques in all sorts of different ways. Every time an indie author publishes something online and gets a few bad reviews, it’s not entirely unlike receiving a standard form rejection. In other words, the negative reinforcement can still become a positive.
All of this might lead someone to ask, what are the long-term effects of rejection? Well, this can go one of two ways. The majority of people who try their hand at writing will never even finish a single manuscript. Statistically, that is absolutely the case. Of those who finish, few will ever submit their work for publication. Now, those who do submit their work (or as the case may be, self-publish it) are likely to meet up with a little adversity. I’d say 90% of them will cut and run as soon as rejection gets too much to bear. But that remaining 10% will soldier on, and they’ll likely receive quite a bit more rejection in the months and years ahead. Is there a long-term legacy of rejection? Yes, there is, but it’s seldom a negative one. I think you’ll find one day that you treasure all those formal beat-downs you received.
Here’s what I would say. No matter how you ply your craft, regardless of whether you choose the path of the traditional publisher or the indie upstart, continuous work, practice, blood, sweat, and tears, are the only things that will make you better. Rejection is at times the name of the game, true enough, but it never has to be the final word on anything. Right?
Until next time, everybody!
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Last week, I received a rejection letter for Delilah from a publishing house I submitted to back in October. Although I know it sounds odd, I was elated. “Why?” you may be asking, and with good reason. Rejections are not something writers are usually pleased about. In fact, just the opposite. But I was pleased with this rejection letter for one reason. It was not a form letter. In fact, the editor took the time not only to read the sample I submitted, but to give me constructive criticism and suggestions as to how the manuscript might be improved.
As a graduate student, my professors drilled the idea into our heads that a personal rejection letter, means your manuscript made it past the slush pile and actually received some attention from the editor. It was good enough that they actually read what you sent. And a rejection letter with personal feedback is even better, because then you don’t have to wonder why they rejected your work, and you can strive to fix anything that needs fixing before sending it out again.
My rejection letter was personal, rather than form, and it offered feedback. How sweet is that? I mean, I’m not happy the book was rejected, but I am happy that somebody read at least part of it, in this case, the first fifty pages. My reaction to this rejection is to study the personal feedback and then really look at the manuscript to determine the validity of the comments. Then revise and resubmit to the next publisher on my list for Delilah.
For those not familiar with me or my writing, Delilah is my 60,000 word western novel about a strong willed young woman, who served two years in the Colorado Territorial Prison, in the late 1880s. Delilah thought that time had hardened her against the cruelties of the world, but she wasn’t prepared for the trip back home and the hardships of the Colorado frontier. She heads to her home in San Luis, with sixteen year old, Sarah. An encounter with two outlaws, who take the girl captive, sets Delilah on a journey into the high country of Colorado mining towns. Along the way she faces wild animals, outlaws and Indians, makes colorful friends, and learns to love again. Delilah is a novel with the true flavor of the Colorado frontier.
A while back, I also had a hybrid publisher, who expressed interest, but wanted me to provide other western authors that would be interested in publishing with them. (To get a better idea of what I’m talking about when I say hybrid publishing, see my article, Hybrid Publishers – What are they all about?). I posted in a few places on Facebook, but did not come up with any other interested authors.
So, this is actually the second personal, (non-form) letter that I’ve received on Delilah. Of course, it would have been better if I had received an acceptance letter, but I believe in myself, I believe in my writing, and I know that one day, that acceptance letter will come. And, if not, I am not beyond the idea of publishing her myself, because I know she is that good.
To learn more about and read updates on Delilah, go to my Delilah Facebook page.
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Back in May, I wrote a post about dealing with the rejection by a publisher of Delilah. My response to the rejection was to submit my novel elsewhere and keep hoping it will get picked up. More recently, I did a post on hybrid publishers, as I explored the concept after I had a hybrid publisher request my full manuscript. Unfortunately, they passed on Delilah, too. It is out to yet another publisher now.
I could go into another post about rejections. Lord knows, I’ve gotten plenty. But I’ve always been one to see the glass half-full side, rather than half-empty, focusing on the positive side to everything, so I think I’d rather talk today about acceptances. I don’t think anyone will disagree when I say acceptances are much better than rejections. You don’t have to be a writer to figure that one out.
You don’t get them as often as rejections, but they’re a lot more satisfying. But there’s a reason I want to write a post on acceptances. If you follow me on Facebook, or Twitter, or Google+, you may have seen my very recent post announcing that my flash fiction western story, I Had to Do It, has been picked up by Zetetic: A Record of Unusual Inquiry.
It’s true this isn’t a big paying publication. I’m certainly not going to get rich from this one little 850 word story. Flash fiction never pays a lot. There’s simply not enough words to make the pennies add up to much, even with higher paying publications. But, I was still elated when I received the acceptance, because my story found a home and people will now read it, and because it is still one more publishing credit for me. I can’t explain the rushing feeling of excitement and pride that small note from the editors brought me. I think most of all, it was thrilling to know that someone else really liked my writing. It was a affirmation of my own belief that my writing really is pretty good.
That probably sounds silly to those who have not yet received an acceptance. (Never fear. It will come.) But we writers are an odd lot, and we are filled with fears and self-doubt. Filled with it. Most of the time we can keep these elements of our inner beings at bay by simply pecking away at the keyboard or filling up sheets of notebook paper, but every once in a while we let our guards down and that’s when they strike. The fear and self-doubt simmer in us, just down below the surface, until they see an opportunity, a weakness, and then they reach up and grab a handful of us and don’t let go.
I think just about every writer worries that the only person in the whole world that really thinks their writing is good is themselves. Friends and family don’t count because they may be saying they like it so as not to hurt your feelings. When you receive an acceptance, any acceptance, it tells you other people do like your writing, and motivates you to get busy writing more.
It’s a good feeling. One I think every writer needs to experience. It can’t happen unless you submit relentlessly and write, write, write. That’s my advice. Write your heart out and then submit like crazy, and never, ever give up. The notes that say, “yes”, make it worth surviving all the ones that said, “no”. So what are you waiting for? Get writing!
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I finished the final draft of Delilah last month. Normally, in anticipation of its completion, I would scour my Writer’s Market in search of publishers and/or agents that might be in the market for a western novel with a tough, spunky female protagonist and make a list of places to send it out to. But, I pitched Delilah to a publisher I felt would be a perfect fit for this manuscript last summer at the Write the Rockies Conference in Gunnison, and got an invitation to send the manuscript when it was completed. That in itself was amazing, because you usually don’t pitch a manuscript that isn’t complete, but I was doing the pitch for practice, and I actually felt like I’d bungled it pretty badly. My perception of my performance must have been wrong, because the invitation to query was forthcoming.
At any rate, I didn’t make the usual list of submissions for Delilah, because I knew where she was going, and I just knew this publisher was going to make an offer. Instead, I spent my time preparing for submission. I wrote a synopsis and query letter, and prepared a brief excerpt to include. So, as soon as the final revisions were completed, I sent off my query.
I also sent a query to an agent I thought might be good to represent me, using Delilah to entice them. I sent it off on April 21, and on April 29 I received the rejection. Man that was fast. I found it disheartening. I know I have to expect rejections, probably a lot of them, and I’ve had many on other works which I’ve been shopping. In my graduate classes at Western State, they warned us to expect them, and taught us to use them as motivation to get it back out to the next perspective publisher or agent. And, you know, that’s exactly what I’ve done regarding all the other works I’ve sent out. So, why is this rejection any different?
I think it was the speed with which I received this rejection, barely a week, which took me aback. You wait for responses from publishers and agents for weeks, sometimes even months. That’s why you send out simultaneous submissions whenever possible. Get your work read by as many possible avenues of publication as possible. It’s common practice, although some calls for submissions specify that they do not accept simultaneous submissions. (If you think about it, it’s pretty selfish of a publisher to do this, expecting to allow them to consider your work exclusively, when it takes so long for them to respond.) This rejection came from an agent, not a publisher, but I wasn’t expecting a reply so quickly. I didn’t feel like they’d even had time to read what I’d submitted.
I’ve worked on Delilah on and off for four years. I could have finished her sooner, but with school and my freelancing, and holding down a full time job, I wasn’t able to work on her, like I did on my thesis, which I wrote in full within six months, (but that’s another story, for another day). Actually, I had a completed draft of Delilah in that amount of time, but the revisions turned it into a whole other story. It’s true. The final manuscript of Delilah tells a different story than the one I set out to tell originally. I have enough cut scenes from the first draft to almost make up another whole book, which I might do, if Delilah finds a home and does well.
So the question remains, why have I not sent Delilah out to more than one publisher? Why do I have this certainty within me that she will find a home with this one publishing house that I submitted to first? I know this isn’t a realistic expectation and I’m probably setting myself up for disappointment. I do. So, why don’t I treat this novel like my other works? And why did the first rejection from an agent hit me so hard? Maybe because I have put so much of my heart into Delilah, but I think you have to put your heart into any work of creativity in order for it to be truly good. I don’t know what’s so special about this novel, but I know Delilah is special. I feel it. If I find a publisher for her, you can read it and then, you’ll know it, too.