When We’re Vulnerable: Atlas or Achilles?

VulnerableI have this friend named Clara. Clara is an unpublished writer, and she and her loyal, dedicated agent have been pitching her debut since June 2012. Since then, nearly forty editors have written kind and thoughtful rejections, most of them including Goldilocks-esque details in their notes. Here are some snippets (and amalgams of snippets):

I loved this narrator and cried in the [X] scene, but I’m afraid the teenage voice would be too hard to sell to an adult audience.

This novel reminds me of John Green/Madeleine L’Engle/E.L. Konigsburg, but the topics feel a little too mature for Middle Grade readers.

[The narrator’s voice] is fantastic, fresh, hilarious and unique, but I worry she’s just a little too innocent for Young Adult readers.

Too soft, too hard. Too hot, too cold. The manuscript has even made it to an editorial meeting or two. But so far? Nothing that’s Just Right.

Each time Clara’s agent has to forward another rejection, Clara feels like she is standing naked and thirty pounds overweight in front of a million people, all of whom are hucking rotten tomatoes and water balloons and Slim-Fast shakes at her and her not-quite-right manuscript.

The weird thing? Clara’s 2012-13 Rejection Tour has only made her want to be honest about her rejection. Not so she can be a whiner or a compliments-fisher, but because she knows, from experience, that when she is vulnerable, when she shares the truth of her rejection, her failure, her shortcomings, most other folks offer empathy instead of disdain, compassion rather than contempt. 

In other areas of her life, Clara feels fine about going public with her shortcomings. Her mental health struggles. Her chin whisker(s). Her old lady bunion feet. Because she’s so up front with her personal issues, it feels a bit disingenuous not to share the details of her writer life.

Of course, vulnerability can backfire. Sometimes, in sharing personal and humbling details of her various foibles du jour, Clara makes others uncomfortable. Other times, people’s thoughtless or awkward responses to her vulnerability make her feel even worse about her shortcomings.

Plus, her author-friends (all of whom have had both smashing success and some pretty humbling bumps in their writer life) have modeled a certain public behavior. With her, they share details of the low moments, the rejection, the book sales that haven’t been so hot. But publicly, it’s good to keep the bumps hush-hush.

Clara gets that. Making one’s failure too well-known might suggest an author is, in fact, an imposter. Or that she is somewhat less perfect than her author photo suggests. Or that a book must seriously stink if it has been so thoughtfully rejected by forty editors.

Plus, we writers are professionals. We don’t hear Bill Gates or Warren Buffett or Barack Obama publicly sharing the areas in which he feels most vulnerable. And we don’t want to hear that vulnerability. We Americans love the rags-to-riches stories, the “Writing Harry Potter while on social security then being rejected by twelve* publishers” journeys, but we do not like hearing about bumps and failure while they are happening. Failure is scary. Even the failure of others can feel terrifying and suffocating.

Still, Clara wonders. If she were able to share the details of Rejectapalooza, many people, certainly most at WU, might feel camaraderie and comfort. Seasoned writers might offer their empathy. Maybe her vulnerability would lead to intimacy and connection rather than public humiliation and sneers. And isn’t that one of the reasons we’re here? To forge connections that make us feel less oddballish and alone?

Plus, Clara knows that being a writer requires a willingness to be vulnerable. Think about it. We put ourselves out there, sometimes only to be rejected over and over. We spend hours and hours doing something that may never be enjoyed by anyone else. We are criticized and critiqued by unhelpful critiquers. We are misunderstood by readers. In fact, most of what we do as writers requires  a willingness to be vulnerable.

Have you seen this TED talk by Brene Brown? One of Brown’s main points illustrates why it’s good and healthy for writers (and all humans) to be vulnerable. Brown explains,

Vulnerability is . . . the core of shame and fear and our struggle for worthiness, but it appears that [vulnerability is] also the birthplace of joy, of creativity, of belonging, of love.

Vulnerability is the birthplace of creativity? Wow.

Brown unpacks this idea: People who refuse to be vulnerable are forced to find ways to numb themselves to discomfort. But we cannot selectively numb ourselves. When we numb ourselves to pain, we also numb ourselves to everything good: joy, creativity, belonging and love.

If we writers work so hard to be invulnerable, if we numb ourselves to “bad” feelings, we run the risk of numbing our ability to be creative. We put up barriers to emotion that most certainly will result in tentative stories and flat characters. Isn’t that, my friends, a billion times scarier than being vulnerable?

Ack! You see why Clara is conflicted?

Please, dear WU reader, chime in with your thoughts: If we need to be vulnerable in order to tap into our creativity, where do we draw the line so we are not too vulnerable? What is too vulnerable? In situations when you have let your guard down, how have you been helped or hurt by someone’s response? Please share!

*Clara no longer thinks Rowling’s measly twelve rejections is impressive. “Twelve rejections?”  says Clara. “Pish posh. Forty rejections? Now that’s impressive.”


Photo compliments of Flickr’s Richy Schley.


About Sarah Callender

Sarah Callender lives in Seattle with her husband, son and daughter and is currently working on a novel titled BETWEEN THE SUN AND THE ORANGES. Sarah is a terrible house-cleaner, a lover of chocolate and hats, and a self-professed cheapskate who has no trouble spending money on good chocolate and hats.


  1. says

    I’ve definitely found that being upfront about my own Rejectionapalooza has been good. Sometimes I can take the constant rejection in stride, other times I can’t, and I haven’t even gotten the deep frustration of making it all the way to editorial meetings. When I posted a plaintive note on the WU FB page, the commiseration and encouragement was immediate and so necessary. I’ve even put brief notes on my regular FB page, and people have been very supportive, usually sending me links to lists of famous and well-respected authors talking about *their* rejections. At the very least, it provides an answer to, “How’s the writing going?”

    So I’d encourage Clara to be vulnerable with her publishing failures. Maybe start small with other writers, but there are plenty of other professional people who experience frequent rejection (actors, anyone who plays a sport since there’s always a losing side, anyone selling a service or product, etc.).

  2. says

    For Clara and Sarah,
    Wonderful post! I see vulnerability (capable of being wounded) as productive when it’s a transient emotion where it spurs you on to seek new paths and new results. My novel was rejected by about 100 lit agents and at least 10 small publishers that I contacted direct. I rewrote the book, reedited it, repitched it and published it as an ebook on Amazon. I wrote another novel and published it on Amazon. Both are getting good reader and professional reviews, 5 stars, and growing sales. I’m now negotiating with an indie publisher for print editions. Sure I felt vulnerable with the rejections, but we can’t sink into it. If we redirect those feelings and get back on the horse and ride a new direction, we’re much better off.

  3. says

    Does Clara know that her name is derived from Latin, and means: “Bright; famous”? Just for having such awesome thoughts, wondering how her own temporary setbacks and emotional turmoil might actually help others makes her the “It Girl” in my book.

    And yes, I think her sharing is so very helpful. Bright Clara has done a famous job here, inspiring and encouraging others–living up to her name. I’d ask you to hug her for me, but I’m not sure if that’d be awkward. Oh well, do it anyway, please. Thanks.

  4. says

    Cheers to Clara for outing her rejections and facing them dead on! I agree it is a challenge to balance vulnerability against thick-skinned determination. We have all witnessed the fall of talented authors who stop paying attention to their editors and agents and readers and let their skills slide in the wake of successes. Clara is still growing her talent by paying attention to rejections for the WHY. The toughest part is holding the rejection at arm’s length and remembering that the rejection is about an individual’s opinion of a work and not of the writer. Go Clara!

  5. says

    Sounds like Clara feels the book is ready. My advice? Go indie. In August of 2012 I submitted my first book to three agents, all of whom requested the manuscript, and I also submitted it to a publisher. I did not hear from any of them. In October of 2012 I proceeded to independently publish the book as an ebook with Amazon KDP. Within 5 months, I received emails from two of the agents and, more importantly, was offered a 2-book deal and a $40,000 advance from the publisher. Just sayin’. If the book is ready, the readers are waiting.

  6. Carmel says

    Clara (or is that Cl-ever S-arah), they’re not rejecting your baby. They’re protecting themselves. Just as no doctor knows your body as well as you do, no editor knows your book as intimately as you do. If you know it’s good enough and deserves to be read by millions, put it out there yourself. Then watch them come running. We will all be here applauding.

  7. says

    What a strong thing to do – to write this post for all of us to read and thus share our own experiences because we ALL have them. I’m in the middle of the query process for my fifth book – been there, done that sort of experience. Every day I get another rejection letter in my e-mail inbox. At this point I “know” that no agent is going to want it, just like my four other books. Do I stop? No. Do I keep writing? Yes. Because I know one day, some day I will publish all of these books because I believe in them. They’re good. But do I oft times feel horrible and like a loser and depressed? Yes. But I will not let it stop me from writing the best books I possibly can, hoping one day to share them with an audience of more than one.

  8. says

    I think it’s important to show vulnerabilities because they only make us more human and relatable. There will always be critical monsters who stigmatize one’s vulnerabilities but we shouldn’t let them intimidate us or change our behavior. There are many more people who will relate and benefit from the openness. It’s not without it’s risks, but it makes you stronger. You’ll get a lot of support that helps witih the sense of isolation..

  9. says

    Wow. WU’ers have some seriously impressive pluck and drive. I see it in your comments and in your tenacity to keep going. What an inspiration!

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts and your stories. Keep ’em coming. They really will inspire the whole WU community.

    And I’m still curious . . . has anyone out there been burned by being too vulnerable? Of course, that might be too icky to share.

    I will say that over the past fifteen months, I have purchased myself a Wonder Woman Snuggie AND a Wonder Woman t-shirt. The snuggie’s for winter and the tee is for summer. So yeah, all year round I can remind myself that I may have some rejection under my belt, but I’ve still got my invisible jet!

    • says

      Yes. I was vocal here and elsewhere about the fact that I’d never visited one of the settings in my debut, and wouldn’t you know that’s exactly what an Amazon reviewer pointed at to give me a one-star review. (It’s my only one-star review, but still.) That really bothered me, for a few reasons.

      Proof: One-Star Amazon Review

      The lesson here though isn’t about honesty, but rather that you may want to avoid reviews after your book is published. Or have someone else read them for you, and summarize anything important (like you really need to shape up your villains). Or wait until the book is a faded memory and criticism won’t bother you. Like after your 87th birthday. Maybe then. ;-)

  10. says

    Great post! My hat is off to Clara for being so transparent. We don’t hear enough about the hard aspects of publishing. I’ve been rejected numerous times. I’ve had books published only to see them go out of print. I almost turned down a speaking engagement at a school, because I didn’t feel that I was a “successful” writer. But I went anyway, thinking that perhaps the kids needed to hear a different reality–the power of persistence.

  11. says


    Rejectapalooza…love that. And hate it. Here’s why. (Stick with me, this has to do with being vulnerable in public, or not.)

    Look at how you describe Clara’s response to glowing rejections. It’s not, wow, look how many good things that editor had to say about my novel. No, no. It’s…

    “Clara feels like she is standing naked and thirty pounds overweight in front of a million people, all of whom are chucking rotten tomatoes and water balloons and Slim-Fast shakes at her and her not-quite-right manuscript.”

    Really? Seriously? Here’s an idea: let’s each try actually gaining thirty pounds and standing naked in front of a million people. Then we’d know what that feels like. I’ll bet you it doesn’t feel much like getting a complimentary rejection letter.

    My point is, writers do not hear the good news in rejection. They only hear REJECTION!!! It’s huge, right? No, it’s not. Especially the kind that Clara’s getting. What those editors are saying to Clara is you’re doing great, you’re just not as yet 100% of the way there.

    What is one to make of rave rejections? Especially when they contradict one another? As an agent, like Clara’s, I’m quite familiar with this effect. What does it mean?

    It means that editors are not paid to closely analyze and incisively critique work they cannot publish. Instead they read and react with their gut. “Didn’t love this as much as I wanted to.” Well, that’s true but it’s shallow. It doesn’t get down to the true reasons…and, like I said, why should it?

    When a manuscript is getting rave rejections I usually find that there’s not anything wrong, there’s just not quite enough going right. Such manuscripts don’t need a fix, they need more good stuff layered in. (What good stuff? That’s another post. Or twenty.)

    So, should Clara be honest (“vulnerable”) about her experience, including her subjective experience of humiliation in the face of high praise? Sure, why not. What’s important is for Clara to GET OVER IT. There’s useful information in those rave rejections.

    Use it, dammit. Be a pro. And THAT, the moving forward, is the part I would like to see writers be vulnerable about in public. We all know how huge rejection is. But learning is even bigger.

    Maybe Clara will be vulnerable enough not only to put on a cheerful face (hey, don’t pity me…but pity me), but to dig in, drill down and finally share with us what she’s learned and what she did to grow her storytelling.

    Vulnerable? Vulnerable can mean weak or it can mean strong. I vote for strong.

    • says

      I think there’s a lot to digest here, especially from you, Don–an agent with more experience with rejection than all of us put together. I feel your frustration, and it must be excruciating from your perspective much of the time to feel writers giving up when you want to shake them and tell them to buck up and dig deep and try again and again.

      I do want (need) to acknowledge that I don’t think Sarah Clara meant to write a piece about her every thought on rejection. I’m sure that would’ve been a different piece, with the pluses and the minuses spelled out. Rather, she wanted to hone in specifically on that standing-naked-in-front-of-a-crowd sense of vulnerability. A pretty brave step, in and of itself.

    • says


      Sure, I’d be happy to share what I, Clara, have experienced as a result of this rejection: I have absorbed all the specific, constructive feedback, especially that which more than one editor has mentioned. I have said, “OK. Maybe book #2 will be published before book #1.” And then I wrote book #2, using the feedback from these rejections. I sent off the Book #2 manuscript to my agent last week. But my reaction to rejection? Sharing what I learned from rejection? I guess “what I learn from rejection” wasn’t the point of my post.

      This phase has just made me think about rejection, how it feels and why it feels that way and what we do in reaction to rejection. One thing I realized: I think it’s a shame that we aren’t more honest with the bumps UNTIL we are famous/successful (however that’s defined). I wanted to share my bumps before the success because it feels good (to me) when other writers share their bumps, and I think it’s kind of irritating that we feel we can only share our rejection AFTER the rejection is over. It makes me feel less alone to hear about the bumps of others, and I wanted others to feel less alone in their rejection. That’s all.

      As for how I feel about my rejection? Of COURSE it feels wonderful to be compared to John Green. I hold tight to those rejections. But rejection does not feel good. Ever. I would love to be more of a Teflon kind of gal, but alas I am not. In fact, if I were armed with more Teflon, I bet I wouldn’t see the world as I do, and then I wouldn’t get to write about the things I do.

      Pity? Ick. Shoot me now.

      Empathy, connection, honesty? Yes, sign me up.

      Do you need me to send you some Trader Joe’s corn salsa? ;)

      • says


        YOU are “Clara”?? Holy bovine! You’re standing in front of the crowd now, for sure, though looking impeccably dressed and together as you always do.

        I like this: “I think it’s a shame that we aren’t more honest with the bumps UNTIL we are famous/successful…”

        You’re so right. Even then there is dishonesty all over the place. I laugh sometimes when I read acknowledgements. First novel: “Thanks to my brilliant, wonderful editor…” Fourth novel: [no mention]

        As far as the public knows, getting published is bump-free. Far from it. Thanks to the bumps I have a job…and an interesting phone bill.

        The dishonesty that bothers me the most is this one: Writing is magic! One day I sat down, started writing and, lo, a novel appeared! I found an agent. I got a publisher. Two days later I was a best seller, la-di-dah!

        Yeah, right.

        Because she is a “friend” of yours, I had little doubt that “Clara” would do exactly the right thing with those rejections: take what was good, throw away what was glib, discern and learn. Now that I know “Clara” is you, all doubts are gone.

        Sorry if I sounded sour. As you can guess, I’ve lived with this for thirty-plus years. I don’t think it’s wrong to feel bad when those rejections come. That’s human. (Though, hey, I love rejection! Yeah, right.) What’s important is to move on. There are stories to tell.

        Congrats on moving on. Here’s to Book 2, which indeed is often the charm.

        • says

          Such a great comment, Donald. Thank you for the encouragement and for the thoughts regarding honesty.

          At PNWA you and I chatted briefly about what a shame it is that published, “successful” authors don’t feel like it’s safe to still need (and get) help with their craft. You mentioned that it would be great if more authors still felt they could go public with their desire to hone their craft, to grow and stretch their talent. It’s interesting to me that often, once someone is published, he dons another one or two coats of armor and keeps mum about the bumps. I’m published! I have arrived! I’ve got it all figured out!

          Ah, writers. We’re a funny bunch.

          Have a great day.

    • says

      Donald’s GET OVER IT is right on the money! Rejection by agents and publishers are common. Once your book is out there there, you’ll probably get a mix of reactions: good reviews, bad reviews, one-star reviews from readers, negative comments from book bloggers. It’s all part of the territory of being an author and we’ve got to be able to handle it productively. How else do you survive as an author?

    • Jeanne Kisacky says

      So on this point–whether the positive or the negative aspect of rejection holds sway–I want to shift the trajectory. I don’t think the helpful issue is whether an author feels the rejection or appreciates the positive aspects of the editorial comments. Every rejected author feels both.
      I think it’s more important to recognize the difference between being vulnerable and being uncertain. A rejection indicates that the work is not quite right, but how to make it right remains elusive. I believe Clara would take every element of positive rejection and render it into gold, if how to render it into gold was clear. Just as I would give a lot (not saying how much) if someone could explain to me why my WIP is not quite right. I feel it, I can’t fix it until I recognize it.
      And sure, the ‘get over it’ approach to rejection is great (I certainly wish I did more of it), but it works best for people who are accurate in their assessments of their own abilities. For less self-aware writers, it can become a huge hurdle to improvement. I have had a lot of students who instantly ‘get over’ my comments on how to write better, and then they never write better. I think that’s where vulnerability might fuel creativity and invulnerability might not.

  12. Robin Yaklin says

    Oh my, a wonderful and thought-provoking piece, Sarah, that is full of philosophies for handling professional rejections. But, you asked for instances of being too out there. When we put ourselves in vulnerable positions there is an expectation of trust, that someone will not go too far. So I say professional rejections. Here’s an instance of too far. A workshop friend met with me privately. She’d seen my recovery from a long illness so I trusted she would be kind in her words. No, her critique comment was that the writing seemed to be that of a ‘brain-damaged’ person. Pardon me for saying, but I am not that bad. A while ago, even made my living as a journalist. I was stunned over her unkind words. Husband was fighting mad. Great. Appreciate that hubby took up for me. The thing is: I had trusted her, made myself vulnerable to her, and she broke that trust apart. With that example, I hope we remember one of the basic elements of making ourselves vulnerable.

    • says

      Oh, Robin. Yes, this makes my heart hurt! It’s astounding how insensitive some people can be. What a betrayal. Of course my first thought was this: “Oh, she’s just jealous of you.” My mom would often say that, and I would roll my eyes, but in this case, I think it’s true.

      Thank you for sharing!

  13. says

    A million thanks for sharing “Clara’s” experience. I especially needed to hear the quote from Brene Brown on vulnerability. It is one of life’s many paradoxes that what makes our writing evocative can also be the very thing that makes the publishing hunt so very painful. Thanks for the reminder to embrace the vulnerability, but also to dust myself off and get back on the horse.

  14. says

    Thanks to Clara and Sarah (my sister in terrible house-cleaning) for this awesome post. I’m at the querying, revisions hell stage of things and have wondered on many occasions if I’m wasting my time. This post encourages me to press on and to remember that it’s my time to utilize or waste in search of my goals.

  15. says

    But we cannot selectively numb ourselves. When we numb ourselves to pain, we also numb ourselves to everything good: joy, creativity, belonging and love.

    Powerful stuff! I’ll be watching that Brene Brown video next, for sure. Thanks, Sarah.

    I think vulnerability is a good and even great thing. I don’t think I’ve ever been made to feel ashamed of my soft underbelly here at WU; I doubt there’s a safer place to be exposed. That doesn’t mean I’ve shared everything. Sometimes I hold back if a revealed truth might do more harm than good (“harm” defined as depressing others or myself–or pissing off my publishing team). But sharing things more often than not makes me feel stronger. And as Jan recently and rightly pointed out, the WU community likes to give back, would rather we didn’t all seem scrubbed to perfection. Because we definitely aren’t. I’m happy to see us all wander around in our e-slippers here, bunions and all.

  16. says

    I applaud and appreciate your willingness (correction, Clara’s willingness :)) to give a public face to the rejection rollercoaster writers go through. The reason why? Because it’s not just writing where we experience vulnerability. We are all vulnerable beings and it doesn’t feel good to be rejected, or to feel misunderstood. It’s uncomfortable and icky and nasty.

    You detail well the bi-polar experience of dealing with rejection. Part of us feels ugly and unwanted, and the other part gets angry or tries to be plucky and give the world a stiff upper lip. And that bi-polarness is only exaggerated by the secrecy we might feel pressured to appear publicly put together and strong, because (otherwise) people might suspect we’re a failure.

    Sometimes, it gets to be too much. It’s at those times that I hope Clara is able to give the finger to the emotions and to the negative people who discount her transparency as weakness or whining. There are plenty of people who do need to know they are not alone in what can be a crazy, emotional roller coaster ride called writing – and life.

  17. says

    It’s a fine line to walk. A writer friend of mine just talked about the “failure” of her published book on her blog. It garnered her more than one heartfelt and helpful personal email (one from me) that propped her up and encouraged her and it garnered her some sales from faithful blog readers who hadn’t yet bought the book. In her case, since she rarely complains (and when she does it is laced with laugh-out-loud humor for the reader–so she’s *GIVING* to the reader even as she is ASKING for support–this is the important part) it didn’t bother me. But if a writer continuously ho-hums about a very common occurrence that tons of others are also experiencing, I stop reading them. Those of us still waiting to even find an agent, let alone a publisher, are hurting too. And I guess my silent, suffering German ethic (my grandmother actually said once, “You do your crying alone.”) has me keeping disappointment close to the chest. My philosophy is commiserate with your best friend in private and hold each other up. Everyone has troubles. It’s like wintertime. Everyone is cold. Complaining about it doesn’t make anyone warmer.

  18. says

    When I think about vulnerability (and btw, I adore and love Brene Brown!), it makes me think how I couldn’t have connected with my tribe – my authentic self – my readers, if I had not been honest in my memoir. While yes, some have not understood my memoir or thought otherwise of it, the vulnerability piece of it made me feel really good to make a difference in the lives of others by being open in my own vulnerability.

    -Barbara Techel

  19. says

    First of all, hugs to John-Greenish-Clara, who will one day find her day in the sun. Of this I have absolute confidence, and that might mean she dons sunscreen with another book or another gatekeeper, or it might mean she SP’s this novel and lets the readers decide.

    As to your post, I love Brene Brown. At one point I’d hoped to interview her for WU, but the TED video happened and her career exploded, so she didn’t have time. But wouldn’t it have been grand to have had her tackle the specific issue of writerly rejection?

    I have a medical story about how owning my vulnerability, guilt, shame, and a sense of incompetence were the best things to happen to me and specific patients when we were dealing with a couple of overwhelmingly tragic situations. Perhaps one day I’ll share. So do I believe that possessing a soft underbelly can become a gateway to intimacy and personal growth, to healing? Absolutely. There’s even a book called The Wounded Healer which addresses the subject.

    As for how much should one share, I think Ms. Brown is a good authority on this point. She advises us to pick our audience carefully. In my experience, it’s a rare and precious person who knows how to listen and give what is healing and empowering rather than projecting their baggage back onto the rejected one. (I’ve been guilty of this myself!) So rejected writers, in the grip of strong emotions, can unwittingly put themselves in the position of receiving yet more criticism, which in turn can delay or outright prevent them returning to the page.

    I totally hear you about authenticity–I have those thoughts, too–but on balance, for Clara’s sake, I’d want Clara to feel her rejection, share it with a few special people, and then tell the story of how she got over it after the fact. I suspect part of that recovery would involve some defiant writing, but then, what do I know?

  20. Marj Helmer says

    Don Maas said it. Learn from it and move on. All a reader can do is respond from a very personal place. The kinds of critique rejections are very personal and we should appreciate the time and caring that created them. Celebrate rejections! Your getting out there! And after you’ve taken enough punishment, e-publish!

  21. says

    Years ago, I tried to break into the category romance market by writing romantic suspense for Harlequin Intrigue. At the time, Harlequin editors had very, very strict ideas about what they wanted so the books were homogenized although by no means identical.

    Through a series of events including a missing manuscript, a replacement manuscript, then the finding of the missing manuscript by another editor, I got two rejections. Both editors loved my writing but thought my book didn’t fit the Harlequin mold.

    One said something along the lines of, “The romance is stronger than the suspense plot so it won’t fit our line.”

    The other said, “The suspense plot is too strong so the romance isn’t given the attention it deserves so it won’t fit our line.”

    What essentially are two Stepford editors saying opposite things about the same book shows how frustrating and ultimately subjective the rejection process often is.

    The book went on to be published by someone else to good reviews and compliments by readers on how well the romance and suspense blended so a happy ending there.

    On dealing with rejection, I started out in the days when all contact with publishers and agents was via the US mail so I’d pick up my mail at my PO Box then head to the gym. If I got a rejection, I’d let myself rant and rave mentally, as I worked out, on the idiocy and unfairness of these blows to my ego and career hopes, but by the end of the hour of sweating and cussing, I’d usually start a new game plan of a rewrite or a change in direction on my submission path.

    You must get strong in this business, or you’d better find a new direction for your dreams because the rejection never stops, the disapproval never ends, and the rejection of editors is less cruel than the brutality of some readers and authors when you do reach your goal of being published. Just look at the Goodreads controversy on bullying to see my point.

    Otherwise, what Donald Maass said.

    • says

      Yes, Marilynn! The contradictory feedback that we received just shows to go you how subjective our opinions are. Getting published is all about finding that Just Right fit.

      Thank you for sharing and congrats on making your journey a success!

  22. says

    “We Americans love the rags-to-riches stories, the ‘Writing Harry Potter while on social security then being rejected by twelve* publishers’ journeys, but we do not like hearing about bumps and failure while they are happening.”

    So true. (And a bit odd, now that I think about it.)

    Great post. I don’t think there are any easy answers. Ultimately Clara, and every author, has to do what they think is best for them. Whether that means opening up during the process, or holding off until they’ve passed a few of the hurdles, will depend on their situation and personality.

  23. says

    I continue to relate to this writing thing through my other life experience. As an amateur runner and a singer, I’ve learned that to have any kind of success you must throw yourself into your performance with abandon. Running a race, singing before an audience invites an immediate response. Either you win or you don’t, and you know it right away. It’s terrible when you lose and it’s even more terrible because everybody knows it! So, my answer is – if you don’t have to show everybody your dirty laundry, don’t.

    As a personal trainer and weight management coach, my advice to clients was to only share failures with supportive, encouraging friends, mentors, and coaches who can help you do better next time. It seems like WU is a group of supportive, encouraging friends and a safe place, but I would err on the side of caution. There are too many people in the world who feel threatened when others succeed and so enjoy their failures.

  24. Cal Rogers says

    I’ve had several manuscripts edited by professionals and received countless critiques from people at workshops. And I’ve noticed a pattern that repeats in my reaction to criticism. My first reaction is always surprise that anyone could question my genius, then frustration that anyone could be so wrong. This is quickly followed by hurt that anyone could be so cruel, then anger that anyone could be so mean. Once I’ve flushed those emotions out of my system, I return to the criticism with the attitude, all right, what if there’s something to these remarks? The more I gaze at them, the more I concede there may be truth in them. As the truth sinks in, my creative juices start to flow again. Soon I am so immersed in brainstorming ways to fix my errors that I can barely write it all down. At this point I can barely contain my excitement over the wonderful new course my story is about to take. I want to kiss the genius whose brilliant insight saved a hack like me. The funny thing is, this happens every time. I can’t learn to just skip to the middle and let the fixing begin. I have to go through the angst every time. Maybe a good shrink could explain why that is?

    • says

      What you describe sounds a lot like the stages of grief. Love your description of the pattern. I’m afraid, for the vast majority of us, angst is a part of the process. Of course the old trope that misery loves company provides cold comfort.
      Best of luck with your revisions!

      • Cal Rogers says

        Playing armchair shrink, I think I’m so passionate about getting the story right, that when I hear I’ve missed the mark, the truth simply hurts. If I didn’t feel the pain, I could never improve.

  25. says

    Thanks for sharing this, Sarah. I think especially with everything being so public and social these days, it’s very easy for us to only see the people who are out there being strong and successful, and assume that they’re never vulnerable. (I wrote about this today on my blog, actually.)

    When I was on submission, I spent almost two years feeling vulnerable, getting the same goldilock rejections you did. In that time I nearly lost faith in myself as a writer, somehow found it again, wrote a new book, and finally my agent sold it. It was quite a ride, and though I didn’t feel I could share it as it was happening, once the book sold I wrote a series of posts on the truth about being on submission. So much of it dealt with vulnerability. I think it’s important to admit that we don’t achieve success through superhuman feats of strength; it’s hard work and perseverance and lots and lots of self-doubt, just like everybody else.

  26. says

    That quote about being vulnerable really hit home today for me. I’ve weathered a lot of stuff in my life, and it’s hard to hurt me, but boy, some of my best writing comes out of that place where I am willing to bare myself … and that is why the good rejections hurt far more than the simple form. It’s because we connected, but it wasn’t a strong enough connection … but this is one of the reasons I write.

    Hugs. Keep writing and submitting.

  27. says

    SarClar, when I read your post, I went right to Satan’s Drawer, to see my sheaf of rejection letters. It’s a sheaf, not merely a folder, because it’s about three inches high. I hadn’t looked at it in a while, because the rejections mostly come in by email now, scowling electrons, they. But the electronic ones have their thorns too.

    It’s funny: I’ve published hundreds of articles, and probably have 15-20 queries out for prose pieces right now. When I hear back from editors “Nope, not for us,” I barely blink. I’m much more of a thick-skinned automaton about articles now. “Not right for that publication; try another, Tommy.”

    But for fiction, it’s different. The 60+ rejections (including the non-responses) for my first novel pushed me to self-pub it. A small press later published a book of my short stories because the publisher liked a single story I’d sent in for an anthology. That was nice.

    Queries or samples (and two fulls) have gone out to 40 agents for my new novel, and none have sent me chocolates or a red Alfa yet. The fiction rejections bother me at a much deeper level, because though I put significant effort into my articles and essays, the fiction means much more to me. It pulls from a deeper, stranger place, and it’s so much harder for me to do (and do well), thus the “no” seems to slice a deeper cut. (But Dr. Freud, I do love my mother and father.)

    Anyway, that’s my long-winded way of saying hang in there. It sounds like you are very close, and you can’t discount the genuine praise you’ve been given for your work.

    • says


      Thank you so much for this comment. Made me laugh and also nod with understanding . . . I don’t write articles, but what you say about fiction-rejections being more painful and personal makes perfect sense.

      I’m sure, in the drawer below Satan’s Drawer, you have your Thick Skin outfit. So neener neener, Satan’s Drawer!

      Happy writing to you!

  28. Sheila says

    Sarah, let me offer a slightly different perspective from most of what I’m seeing here. What I’m hearing is that you have a wonderful book: there are no problems with the manuscript; it doesn’t need revisions. What the rejections tell you is only that corporate publishing can’t figure out how to MARKET it, what slot it fits into in their brand. It’s too dark or realistic for some editors’ concept of Middle Grade fiction, or not dark enough for others. Hmm–that’s pretty much a wash, isn’t it? Doesn’t provide any useful feedback at all, just leaves you feeling full of pinpricks. So here’s the question that’s the crux: how badly do you want to be published by a traditional publisher? If that’s essential to you, then you and your agent have to work on honing not the manuscript, but the pitch: show them where it fits. Or keep your manuscript, your pride, and your sanity intact and contemplate other ways of getting your work into the hands of the young readers who need it. Could this actually be a book for reluctant/remedial TEEN readers, I wonder? Best of luck, whatever you decide is best!

    • says

      Yep, Sheila. You’ve got it right. I could revise this book to fit it neatly into a genre, but then it wouldn’t be the same book. It’s like forcing your kid to go to Harvard when really, they are meant to go to the local art college. And we both know where that kid will thrive and where he will get depressed and angry. :)

      Thank you for taking the time to comment! I do appreciate your thoughts.

  29. says

    There are many thoughtful replies to this post, but Tom’s hits home with me. I want anything I create to be insightful and compelling and well-crafted. Yet in the end other forms of writing still feel more like very important assignments – for a job. The fiction comes from a more intimate place, which triggers a deeper emotional response as well.

    I don’t know any way around the emotions triggered during the process, but I am adjusting to their intensity … slowly.

    While I’ve never thought of the angst as inducing creativity, it certainly makes me face the writing head-on to ensure I’m telling the story I feel so deeply. And ultimately that reinforces my belief in the fundamental tale.

    It sounds to me as if Clara has written a book that strikes a chord. As Sheila has suggested, perhaps publishers simply aren’t sure how they’d market it. Her suggestions on how to approach that particular challenge sound quite wise.

    As for the vulnerability, it’s why I write. Yet I still struggle with how to share myself more openly in my waking life. And so I write more. C’est la vie.

  30. says


    Because your post and the comments beautifully address vulnerability and ‘no’, they got me thinking on two related tracks.

    The first is vulnerability and ‘yes.’ We all want ‘yes’ for our work, but if we use ‘yes’ to conquer the injury of ‘no,’ our vulnerability may also suffer—baby and bathwater. You and other wise folks say, as artists (and humans), life and our creativity become rich when we commit to vulnerability unconditionally. Isn’t it true that many of our characters are compelling because they are closed down in spite of success? Drama ensues.

    The other track is the difference between hearing and listening to ‘no’ and their relationship to heart and intellect. If ‘no’ causes paralysis, heart might be hearing in a vacuum. No, no, no! Vulnerability can be crushed. I think Don’s point is to listen to ‘no,’ to engage intellect with heart, IE to be a good student, to learn. Of course, not all editors are excellent teachers—and good ones have bad days—but we can and do learn from all quarters.

    I find solace in comments here reminding us that ‘no’ is part of offering ourselves. My life has been a journey of using rejection as building material for better art. All authors have hit the wall. And success doesn’t ensure more of the same. Death happens! Let’s dance around the grave until it is our time to enter it.

    Anecdote: Having left Hollywood songwriting in my early 20’s because I couldn’t handle ‘no’, when I returned in my 30’s completely willing to hear it, I started hearing ‘yes.’ (My snarky 20 year-old self intended to paper my bathroom with rejection letters after I made it. Poop with which to line the poop room.)

  31. says


    Have you considered the possibility that the editors may simply be wrong?

    Happens often enough.

    Do you know the Dune science fiction epic? The series that won all the awards and is considered a 20th century classic?

    It arrived as a throw-away, printed by a tiny company who published technical manuals for cars, and who were only willing to give it a try because they wanted to see if they could make a bit of extra cash out of science fiction.

    None of the mainstream publishers wanted it. Not one spotted its potential.

    So… the editors may just be thinking ‘Nice, but I’ll never get this past marketing, and it’s not matching the hot trends at the moment.”

    Quality so often comes beneath commercial expectations that rejection is proof of exactly nothing, except a publishing organisation’s unwillingness to take a risk on something they can’t see an *immediate* market for.

    Self-pub will get your book in front of an audience more quickly and more effectively than hawking it around the editor circuit will.

    And since everyone is saying they like your book enough to write positive things about it, it’s a fair bet at least a few readers will like it too.

  32. says

    12? Ha! 40? Double HA and a pish posh to boot. 40 YEARS, girlfriend. My first novel was released two weeks ago, and it took starting my own company to do it. (Your Goldilocks comments were very familiar. It’s not YA Crossover, it really is something different. I think there ought to be a genre for it).
    Here’s what I can offer… you’re right about moderating the public confessions of personal vulnerability, i.e. failure, because those stories are just depressing. But you’re talking about two types of STORY here. In presenting your “personal” public one, be vulnerable, be truthful as much as you need to be, but no need to go all buzz-kill depressing on anyone. In your FICTION, pour your vulnerability onto every page. Let it rain down untempered. That’s where the best, most REAL and TRUTHFUL fiction comes from.
    I loved this post and eagerly await seeing your Goldilocks fiction in the world where it belongs.

  33. says

    Great article!
    I find all my rejection letters or the “we will only contact you if we’re interested” comments from editors or agents eventually, to be hysterical. I’ve received so many, like Clara, accompanied with a variety of opinions explaining why my work would not ‘do’. I gave up trying to decipher their logic.
    Is it based on:
    Limited, “inside the box” thinking by shrinking publications? McNovel plots and superficial “TV” type characters are the only elements that will sell?
    Who knows….
    I, like some of the other writers here, chose to self publish, e-versions, CreateSpace, etc etc… and not wait for approval from one source or another.

    It’s about the creative process, yes? It’s about expressing ourselves in the thrill of being alive and being human.