I think we can all agree: rejection sucks. And for most of us, the first few rejections we receive can be particularly painful.
Why does this stuff hit us so hard? I’ve got some ideas about that. So I thought I’d walk you through a few stages of what most writers go through when they first start encountering that dreaded two-letter word: No.
(Note: In this post I’m referring primarily to the process of querying literary agents, but most of this applies to any situation where you’re submitting your work for someone else’s approval.)
Our secret belief
First let’s look at a key element that I think is working against so many of us. We’ve all heard the horror stories. We’ve all seen other writers crushed by rejection after rejection. But in our heart of hearts, I think most of us start out secretly clinging to this belief:
It’s going to be different for me. Sure, those other mere mortals are probably going to hit some obstacles, but my own vastly superior literary genius is going to be the exception. After all, I spent months (or years, or whatever) working on this opus. So what I really need to do is brace myself for the challenge of choosing between all the agents or editors who will be clamoring for a chance to be associated with my Truly Epic Work of Total Literary Awesomeness (or, TEWTLA).”
That dogged belief is why we are so flummoxed when the first rejection comes catapulting in, shattering the fortress of self-confidence (read: self-deception) that we’ve built around ourselves and our TEWTLA.
And then – to our shock and awe – the assault continues. Another rejection. Then another. And pretty soon we start to feel like those 300 Spartan guys with the awesome abs, trying to stave off an invasion by a million unstoppable soldiers (okay, maybe without the whole awesome abs thing). Bottom line, it’s a shock. Which then can prompt…
The poopyhead response
A very common knee-jerk reaction to a rejection is to simply denounce it. Clearly, this rejection was sent by a complete poopyhead, an utter incompetent who has no business pretending to be a publishing professional.
So your next step is to reach out to your peeps – either on Facebook, a literary blog, or an online writers’ forum – and unmask the charlatan. Can you believe this? This illiterate ignoramus rejected my TEWTLA! And immediately your loyal peeps respond with reassurances. You poor thing. What a poopyhead! How can they be so blind to your Total Literary Awesomeness?
We will ignore for the moment that up until you received this rejection, you always referred to this person as your “dream agent.” And we will also attempt to ignore how quickly you reassign the title of “dream agent” to some other agent a little further down your list.
Clearly this is a slippery slope, and at some point you’re probably going to shift your reaction to some form of…
Desperately seeking validation
This is when you start scouring the rejection for whatever morsel of hope or self-validation you can scrape off its surface. Oooh – the rejection letter said “your writing shows promise.” See? She likes you! And look here – it said you have “an engaging premise.” And even here, where it says she “didn’t fall in love with the manuscript,” she still allows for how “another agent might be more passionate” and points out how subjective this all is, which is why “some people may love a book on the top of the NYTimes bestseller list, and others may not.” Awesome! You’re on the right track, right? She mentioned the phrase “NYTimes bestseller” in the same email in which she mentioned your book!
Folks, it’s perfectly natural to try to find the good within the bad. I get that. But I also know how to use Google, which is why within 30 seconds I can confirm that the rejection I just received is exactly what I suspected it was: a form letter.
FACT: Probably 95% of all rejections are form letters. Some are worded more lushly than others. But unless you see highly specific commentary that clearly refers to your work (and not the kind of one-size-fits-all language popular in daily horoscope columns, which the reader then interprets as speaking directly to them), don’t spend much time analyzing the rejection. They all have a one-word meaning: No.
But why do agents bother with all this generic form-letter praise? For the same reason that it’s hard to say no to somebody in whom you have no romantic interest when they ask you out on a date: saying no is awkward. It’s hard. And nobody likes to do it. Not even most poopyheads. That’s why some of them may write a lot of flowery prose that basically says…
I like you, but only as a friend
Okay, NOBODY wants to hear that. But I think all of us do hear it at some point in our lives. So we probably recognize that familiar pain. Please take a moment to embrace that recognition, because I’m going to call on you to do something else:
Remember that it wasn’t fatal. Remember that you got over it.
That’s how this kind of rejection works, too. It’s no fun, but you’ll get past it.
Be like Mike
I’m not into sports at all, although the Olympics always inspire me, reminding me of the incredible dedication and hard work that great athletes put into pursuing their dreams. So I think we writers have something to learn from great athletes. Like them, we’re doing something really hard, with the odds of success stacked against us. Like them, we’re driven to do this.
And like them, sometimes we fail.
So I’ll close with this great quote from basketball legend and former Olympian Michael Jordan:
I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot – and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”
This is a tough line of work we’re pursuing. Because of that, many of my posts are aimed at trying to toughen ourselves up for the task. But I figure a little inspiration never hurt either, hence the Jordan quote. Just don’t expect me to start singing Kumbaya next. Ain’t gonna happen.
Anyway, I hope you find this post helpful, and I welcome your feedback, particularly if you recognize yourself in any of the above observations.
And to each of you, good luck with your TEWTLA!
Image licensed from iStockphoto.com.