The Rejection Reaction

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.

 

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About Keith Cronin

Author of the novels ME AGAIN, published by Five Star/Gale; and TONY PARTLY CLOUDY (published under his pen name Nick Rollins), Keith Cronin is a corporate speechwriter and professional rock drummer who has performed and recorded with artists including Bruce Springsteen, Clarence Clemons, and Pat Travers. Keith's fiction has appeared in Carve Magazine, Amarillo Bay, The Scruffy Dog Review, Zinos, and a University of Phoenix management course. A native of South Florida, Keith spends his free time serenading local ducks and squirrels with his ukulele.

Comments

  1. says

    Oh, I get it! It’s like somebody telling you what an awful shirt you chose to wear that day. :-)

    Then there’s the legendary agent/editor (?) who just stamped the word NO with red ink on the queries.

    Great post, Keith!

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  2. says

    This is all very child-like, and rightly so.

    I’ve never submitted my writing anywhere and when I begin the process, I hardly expect anyone to see my first novel as epic. Since I wrote my first draft last October, I’ve been studying the craft and this new ‘level playing field’ that writers seem to have had bestowed on them by chance through the internet. It truly is a child’s game for many. The innocent sensitivity of written works, especially novels being like ‘my children’ and so on.

    Who said ‘finishing a novel is like taking a child out in the yard and shooting it.’ (Capote?) He should have added ‘in cold blood.’ Speaking of cold, it would be useful to think of the whole process the way a secret service field agent might – detatched, impersonal and well, cold. It’s just business, nothing personal.

    Myself, I cringe at rejection like anyone, but I don’t believe my ego dances to the attention economy tune. I feel it, but I know what it is, what it’s worth. The attention economy could easily be seen as a war on individuality. Attention and acceptance by others are tokens for the ego coffers. Sure, many great creative works file past every moment, but does it ‘feed our heads’, or is it a glossing mechanism, pushing the true self a little deeper back each day in the urge to share and gain acceptance tokens through the curation and creation. Hmm…

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  3. says

    Keith-

    You nailed it:

    “It’ll be different for me.”

    “I reject your rejection.”

    “Please-please-please tell me I’m not wasting my time.”

    Yes, all common reactions to rejection but also common reasons to query in the first place. I suspect the pre-rejection reasons for sending a query, if writers were honest with themselves, would sound like this:

    “I’m special because I’m a writer.”

    “I dare you to reject me!”

    “I can’t wait, I have to know NOW!”

    The best reason to query is this:

    “I’m exhausted but I’m truly finished. This is the novel I wanted to write. I’ve read every how-to, taken every workshop, filtered critiques, revised until I bleed, finally found my voice, nailed my opening, cracked my main character, made my antagonist real, surprised myself in the middle, wrote a painful-but-redemptive ending…yes, at last I’m done. And that’s all that matters.”

    And that is the true motivation for querying only 0.01% of the time, explaining the 99.99% rejection rate.

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    • says

      Donald, you hit on something with that “I have to know NOW” observation. I am continually surprised how many writers want to start sending their stuff out right away, simply because the act of submitting is a milestone they want to pass – but not necessarily because they’re actually ready.

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  4. says

    Oh, yeah, been there. But once you’ve refined your TEWTLA to the point where you’re receiving personalized rejections, there’s something to be said for looking past “No” and toward those morsels of hope–notes about character, plot, or voice, the things that worked. They tell you you’ve come a long way, baby, but also what not to throw out when you ditch the bathwater.

    Thanks for a great post, Keith!

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  5. says

    . . . and then one fine morning you are not rejected and you resist the urge to say “nya!” because you know that the ones who rejected you did so for their own good reasons and it is certainly not personal or because they suck or you suck or the world sucks or the entire universe sucks. You figure you were lucky that time and decide feeling wonderful and gracious about it is better than the Nya.

    . . . and as one who has to send out rejections for Rose & Thorn Journal, I can tell you — yes, if we send you a letter with comments, then we really liked your story – it meant someone else “edged out that story” just by a hair – maybe we’d already published a similar story or maybe something else. However, much of the time, we are just busy and the form letters are sent to good writers whose stories we liked but weren’t quite right for us.
    MANY GOOD STORIES have been rejected by us and we detest sending those- and yes sometimes we reflect how we make mistakes and reject stories we should have published-we hate that most of all.

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  6. says

    And a Word Of Warning for those taking the internet self-publishing path; you haven’t avoided rejection–you’ve simply bypassed the gatekeepers so you can be rejected by millions. So before you push your baby out into the marketplace, make sure you’ve “read every how-to, taken every workshop, filtered critiques, revised until I bleed, finally found my voice, nailed my opening, cracked my main character, made my antagonist real, surprised myself in the middle, wrote a painful-but-redemptive ending…” (thanks Donald), and THEN had it rigorously edited–by a paid professional if possible. Otherwise your TEWTLA will be the occasion of much laughing and pointing, and come home with a Kick Me note taped to its back.

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  7. says

    This is hilarious, Keith. Thanks for the laugh.

    I wonder if social media isn’t a bit of advanced prep for rejection. (I’m being delusional aren’t I?) For instance, when I’ve followed someone on Twitter or comment on their blog or provide them with promo, and they’re clearly not willing to reciprocate, it punctured expectations I didn’t understand I possessed. (It’s the hidden beliefs that get most of us.) Then I’ve been in the other position, and found how challenging it can be to set boundaries and protect writing time, knowing that some will take it personally.

    These kind of challenges aren’t the same as getting an R for a piece of fiction over which one has sweated, but they allow rehearsal. In a sense, we get to learn rejection is only a flesh wound. ;)

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  8. says

    Great post, Keith. Writers cannot take rejections personally. This is especially true in today’s genre-driven marketplace. Writers should use rejection as a springboard to improve their work,

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  9. says

    Great post, Keith.

    The Michael Jordan quote is a keeper. I need “I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” posted over my desk.

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  10. says

    I love “Total Literary Awesomeness.” I think you are totally correct about those hidden assumptions. In fact, there is a blog post on the SFWA website (can’t remember exactly the author or what it’s called, unfortunately) that points out that 80%-ish of the world’s population start writing a novel, and eventually many drop out of the race. I think those rejections can be one of those points of greatest drop out, because it can be tough to take if you don’t shift your mindset. Thanks for the tough-love humor!

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  11. says

    I don’t think anything could’ve prepared me BR1 (Before Rejection #1) for how it was going to affect me. You left out a stage I went though: total resignation (maybe others are hardier, and skip over this phase). After about a dozen form rejections for what basically amounted to a first draft, I was ready to throw in the towel. I’d written it, I felt I’d accomplished something big, I had other interests–time to move on.

    Funny thing happened–it wouldn’t let me go. I started lurking on writing sites (including this one) before I started my day of carpentry. I’d sneak my writing notebook out of the drawer and make notes, you know, just for the day I might want to give it another go. Then I had a few positive experiences with beta readers, and I came to the realization that I was all-in, and always had been. I’d just been threatening to take my marbles and go home. Anyone who knew me knew I wanted to continue to play all along. I was treading water in an Egyptian river when I should’ve just rolled up my sleeves.

    Everyone will have their own journey through this mental meat-grinder. There’s no way you can warn them. Nice try, though, Keith. And very entertaining!

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    • says

      Vaughn,

      Boy, I could have written that myself except not, unfortunately, in the past tense but in the present, in-my-face, now. Thanks for helping me feel a little (itty bitty) more normal.

      Julie

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  12. says

    Well said, Keith. I love your comparison to great athletes.

    To further add to your comparison…there were several recent Olympic scenarios in which athletes succeeded following unexpected losses:

    -Swimmer Michael Phelps narrowly qualified for the final round in his 2012 Olympic opening race. He also failed to medal in that race. But Phelps persevered and went on to win an individual silver, 2 individual gold, 2 relay gold, and 1 relay silver.

    -2011 world all-around champion gymnast Jordyn Wieber failed to qualify for the Olympic all-around finals. Yet she persevered and helped lead the U.S. team to gold.

    -The U.S. women’s soccer team has earned several come-from-behind wins and is currently still in medal contention.

    These athletes did not sink amid disappointment. No matter how good you are, you will always face obstacles and will always have room for improvement and greater success.

    I’m a firm believer that success is always possible eventually…

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  13. says

    Loved the “poopyhead” title, especially since that occasionally gets directed at me in assorted less-funny forms. No, I’m not an agent. Just an editor who has to say no sometimes. But I’m also a writer. I get to look at this from both sides some days, which is what keeps me kind (I hope).

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  14. says

    I second the warning to self-publishers. It is not side-stepping all of the difficulties of getting published “for real,” but doubling it. If you think it’s bad to spend two years perfecting your masterpiece just to get a couple of rejection form letters, try sinking another into filling all the roles of a traditional publisher (editing, cover and interior design, printing, marketing) and seeing it slammed right off the bat because it doesn’t have the Knopf logo on it. At least agents and publishers have to be sort of nice to writers who query; newspapers and journals will throw your self-pubbed baby in the trash without opening it. Bloggers and Goodreads folks will turn off the civility filter. Not can, not might, will. Do not do it because you think it is the easy way out. Do it to keep your rights, to control the complete package, to get decent royalties etc. But you have to work for it.

    As for traditional rejections from agents and editors, keep in mind that many of the “nos” don’t have anything to do with the quality of the manuscript. They may not accept that particular genre, or their plate is already full with that type of story (e.g. they’re having a heck of a time selling their other thousand dystopian urban fantasies about sexy vigilante vampires as it is). The intern who processes the slush pile may let his/her personal tastes influence the decisions, or he/she might just be having a bad day. Publishing is a game of chance no matter which route you take.

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  15. says

    Keith, you have so accurately (and humorously) described what I think we all have to admit we go through. (And if any writer can’t admit it honestly, then they’re either in denial or inhuman.)

    More importantly, you’ve included a wonderful reminder (along with that great quote from Michael Jordan): life goes on. We move on. And if were doing it right, we get better.

    Thanks for the great post! I’ll definitely be sending this on to some writer friends.

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  16. says

    That secret belief about my Truly Epic Work of Total Literary Awesomeness was SO hard to give up. Never before has anyone described the wonderful, confident, expectant state of ignorance and innocence so well. I almost died of misery when I was forced to accept the truth. The whole awful experience was pushed to the back of my mind for years.

    Now, you have ruthlessly brought it all rushing back. I hurt all over again. Thank you, Keith.

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  17. Jan says

    Thanks for the great post, Keith.

    As Vaughn noted, Rejection Equals Growth. Years ago, I birthed my love-child novel and sent it out. Twenty-seven times. It garnered twenty-three “Um, thanks but no thanks” and four non-responses. At first I was hurt (poor me). I bypassed the Poopyhead phase and went straight to becoming resigned to being a failure. Then, when I was done moping, I started thinking that maybe, just maybe, it really WAS bad and I needed to get my act together.

    I shelved it and started another, taking all the comments some of the agents had very kindly noted into account, learning the craft, and buckling down. I’m sending that one out currently, much happier with it and with myself. I’ve already garnered rejections but that’s alright now. If another twenty-seven or even forty-seven agents reject it, then I know I’ve still got some education to go. And I will get on with it.

    Besides, that will give me the bare bones of at least TWO novels on my shelf that I will be able to use in my burgeoning series when it finally sells! So it’s all good. (o:

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  18. says

    I agree that we–that includes me, also an author–feel that it’s going to be different for us/me when we submit something, but I don’t think it’s because we are so confident in our literary skills. No, I think it’s more basic than that. I’ve gotten more than 600 submissions to my “will I turn the first page” challenge on my blog, and I’m sure that every one of them anticipated a “yes.” The reason why: I’ve worked hard on this, given it my best shot, and I think it works. Unfortunately, not most of the time. That’s why the “outside eyes” of an editor or a good critique partner/group are so valuable.

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  19. says

    As always, you inspire me to keep writing, even through the poopyhead phase. I can relate to everything here. The Jordan quote is inspirational. On my fridge, I have this: “Remember that Thomas Edison tested six thousand substances as potential filaments for the lightbulb before he found the one that worked. He viewed the rejects not as failures but as information that put him one step closer to what would work.”

    After all my imaginary conversations with Oprah and the NYT, after several dozen query rejections, I reached a sort of writing-zen, knowing that this story may never see a bookshelf, but it’s still mine and I’m still going to work on it until it’s Right.

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  20. says

    As someone on the oposite side of the computer screen (namely, the one that has to send out letters such as this), I have to completely agree with you that yes. It sucks. A lot. I tend to do my best to NOT just throw out form-rejections though, although the wording I use for the actual ‘thanks but no thanks’ bit is the same. The ‘likes’ and ‘dislikes’ critique I give are always ‘bespoke’ though.

    ~Sara, from Inspired Quill

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  21. says

    I love everything about this blog post, but most of all the TEWTLA. The opinion that we do have the next Truly Epic Work of Total Literary Awesomeness is so very true. This belief in our work is the reason we write it. If you don’t believe in what you are doing, why continue? And how could you expect someone else to believe in it? I think that as writers we just need to hold on to this belief through the rejections. I am on my first round now and it is just that–the first round. I’ll edit the manuscript again, work out a different query letter, revise the summary, and then try again.

    I view trying to find a literary agent a lot like trying to find the right pair of shoes (which, for a shoe addict like me, is very important so don’t misunderstand!). You want it to be the right fit. The shoe has to make your foot look good and it has to fit your foot in the best way. You don’t want a pair that leaves your toes hanging out or one that will leave blisters. Finding a literary agent is the same way. Does it suck to have to send out query after query, essentially knocking on their email doors saying “Please sir, may I have representation?” like a literary Oliver Twist? Yes. Yes it does. But it is a necessary part of the process. So are the rejections. You want the literary agent that decides to represent you to be excited about your manuscript. You want them to believe in it just as much as you do. That’s why you wrote it–because you believed in it. And that is how they will sell it.

    So I say keep knocking until you finally do find that perfect pair of sexy red pumps that mold to your foot perfectly. It will be worth it in the long run.

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  22. lubowitz says

    this is all news to me. I assumed I was a genius and that everyone wasn’t, and knew it. well this is all very upsetting. I have three pieces out to 30 mags. I haven’t yet received one rejection, but neither have I received an acceptance. resounding silence. when the “uh, nope” letters start rolling in I’ll consult this post like a cyber benzodiazapine. but as of now I’m still expecting a logjam of acceptances. the force of denial is STRONG in this one…

    great post

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