Where Do You Go From Here?

Flowersign
“Signs of Spring” by Mark Jenkins, a sculpture in Washington, DC

I’ve read a lot of posts on rejection, lately, both here on WU and elsewhere.  Understandably– it’s a common topic, because if you want to get into the writing business, the odds are about 99% certain that you WILL face the snake-bite sting of rejection at some point.  And probably more than once– because the truth is that these days (unless you’re outrageously, spectacularly successful, and sometimes not even then) even if you land a publishing contract once, you will still likely have to go through another round of submissions on your second project.  And third, and fourth.  And every time, the spectre of possible rejection hovers near.

A couple of months ago, I read a post by a lovely, wise, talented author whose book was in the process of being rejected all over town, and it took me back to the days before I landed my first contract, when I was in exactly her shoes.  It made me ask myself what advice I would give to my then-self from my perspective now.  I started out trying to frame a comment on her post, but soon found that the comment was evolving into post-length– so here it is.  My thoughts on rejection, having faced it WAY more times than I can possibly count over the course of my so-far 10 years writing career– and knowing absolutely that I will face it again.

First of all, the title of this post– I honestly think it’s the single most important question you can ask yourself in the face of rejection.  Maybe even the most important question of your writing career.  Rejection sucks.  It really, really does.  It’s painful and hurtful and embarrassing– whether you’re getting a rejection from an agent, a publisher, or just negative feedback from a critique partner or writing group.  And I think our tendency as writers (at least my personal tendency) is to want to dig deep into that– think about it, analyze it, describe how it feels, both to ourselves and others.  We’re writers; we process things by putting them into words.  So I get it if rejection makes you feel like hiding under the blankets–or on writing message boards– and constructing brilliant, poetic similes to describe how you felt on opening the e-mail from the agent/publisher/critique partner.  Really I do.  I’d even say go for it if it makes you feel better.  But I think the most important first step you can take when facing a rejection is to ask not, How do I feel now?  (Or the congruent question: What the blankety-blank-blank is wrong with this agent/publisher/critique partner?)  The important question is:  Where do I go from here?

Because it’s 2013 and the publishing landscape has changed spectacularly from the time I first got into this whole writing gig, it would be impossible not to mention the possibility of indie publishing a work that’s been universally rejected, either by agents or publishers.  And this is a perfectly great, valid option.  I truly believe that while some books are a great match for working through a publisher, others are just not– and that is totally okay.  I personally have a series that has garnered zero interest from publishers–but it’s paying the rent and supporting my family, and I’m grateful every day to have had the indie option that a) let me keep my job as an author and b) let me keep a roof over our heads.  It’s actually a great time, these days, to have a book that gets rejected all over town, because you now have options– you don’t have to give up on your story, it can still find readers and even great success.  But obviously even if you do go indie, you still want your book to be as good as it can possibly be.  So I’d suggest reading on, even if you suspect that the indie route is going to be best for you.

I just didn’t love it as much as I hoped.  That’s what a vast majority of rejection letters from both agents and publishers say.  Or possibly, While this book is lovely, funny (insert other positive adjectives here), I just don’t see a place for it right now on our list.  Goodness knows I’ve gotten that response myself– many, many times.  It can make you want to tear out your hair, right?  Because– gah! how is that helpful feedback?  You said nothing but nice things about my book, but it’s STILL a ‘no?’ How can that possibly be? I totally, completely understand if rejection makes you feel that way, too.  Sometimes it really does mean that your book is lovely, funny, and every other positive adjective– just not a good match for the agent/publisher.  In which case, see above.  But just from my own experience, when I’ve gotten those kinds of responses, what it REALLY meant was that my book, while on the right track, just wasn’t yet quite ‘there’.  If I really, really stepped back and looked at the work with a detached eye, I could see the weak points, the flaws, the places where the emotional beats of the story came in the wrong order for maximum effect.

But here’s the good news:  those kind of problems are by no means impossible to fix.  For me, I’ve found that the best way to cope with rejection is to step way back and take a bird’s eye view of my book.  Dig deep into my books on craft and ask myself whether I’ve truly pulled out and applied every bit of wisdom from them that I can.  99% of the time, I discover that despite truly thinking that the work was ‘done’ when I decided it was ready for submission, there are still ways to make it stronger still.

I think sometimes we blame ego for dealing with rejection badly– for the inner 2 year old inside us all that wants to thrust out her lower lip and fold her arms and yell, My book is good enough just as it is!  But often I think it’s actually not ego that’s holding us back, it’s fear.  We stamp our feet in the face of rejection and blame the rejector and cling to our work exactly as it stands because we’re afraid– afraid that we can’t actually do better, that this precious manuscript that’s been rejected is absolutely the best that we can do.    Any time I send a book out into the world, it IS the best that I can do– in that moment, at that time.  But life is long, and every day we encounter books and people and situations and challenges that help us stretch our writing wings just a little more.  Feedback from others– agents, publishers, and critique partners– that can help us grow, too, if we’re brave enough to let it.  Can help us see with new eyes and discover that we can find ways to make our stories even better, even more compelling than before.

Writing is a process and a journey, and for me it helps if I can see rejection as not a dead-end or even a bump or rocky patch, but just one more step forward along the way.

What about you?  What helps you cope when the rejections come in?

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About Anna Elliott

Anna Elliott is an author of historical fiction and fantasy. Her first series, the Twilight of Avalon trilogy, is a retelling of the Trystan and Isolde legend. She wrote her second series, the Pride and Prejudice Chronicles, chiefly to satisfy her own curiosity about what might have happened to Elizabeth Bennet, Mr. Darcy, and all the other wonderful cast of characters after the official end of Jane Austen's classic work. She enjoys stories about strong women, and loves exploring the multitude of ways women can find their unique strengths. Anna lives in the Washington DC area with her husband and three children.

Comments

  1. says

    It’s really hard when you have no direction from the rejections. How do you fix something when you don’t know what’s wrong??
    I think, for me, coping with the big R means stopping to look how far I’ve come. I may not be where I’d hoped, but seeing how much I’ve improved since I first started, helps me remember I”m moving in the right direction.
    Awesome post that every writer should read!
    PK Hrezo´s last blog post ..Welcome to My Haunted House …

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    • says

      PK-

      The frustration of rave rejections is understandable. But here’s why I think that frustration sets in: Exactly as you put it, most authors are wondering what’s “wrong” and how to “fix” it.

      When rave rejections happen it’s often because there’s really nothing “wrong” with a manuscript. There’s nothing in particular to point to, explaining why you get contradictory comments as agents and editors grope for an explanation for their feelings.

      When you hear “I didn’t love it as much as I wanted to”, what it says is that there’s actually something to love…just not enough to love. What the manuscript needs is not a fix, but more good stuff.

      Instead of looking for a “fix”, then, a better plan is to look for ways to add to, deepen, grow, enhance and in other ways enrich the manuscript.

      At my agency we get rave rejections every day. Every. Day. It’s the new norm. What they say to me is not tinker but add, not revise but build.
      Donald Maass´s last blog post ..Review: Independent Study by Joelle Charbonneau

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      • says

        Thanks for your insightful words, Donald! As usual, I find your perspective on how a writer can take charge or his or her writing career encouraging. Here’s to keeping the stew simmering…

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  2. says

    The rejections I may encounter now are different from the ones pre-published book era-age. Back before publication, I would never think I’d still be worried about “rejection” and its many forms: a bad review (though I don’t read reviews so I don’t know what the bad review may say but I can’t imagine there aren’t plenty of them about that I could obsess over if I were to read them!), with not receiving the royalty check amount I’d hoped for, not winning some award, not this/not that/not the other. I’d have laughed at myself over those “Nots” pre-publication, told myself to stop yer whining because what else matters but your book on your shelf and “out there.”

    How I deal with all this angst is lots and lots of vodka – ha! just kidding! I deal with it by thinking, “It’s this way now but it could change . . . .” and therein lies the Hopeful Writer.
    kathryn Magendie´s last blog post ..The Lightning Charmer – so it begins . . . Aw Lawd! *Jittery Jittery Jittery* LAWD!

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  3. says

    Great post, Anna. Thank you for your brilliant and insightful POV.

    I know this will not resonate with everyone, but my faith is really the only thing that keeps me moving beyond the rejection. My husband helps, too. And my writing partners. OK, Writing partners, Husband, God . . . I know they won’t love me any more if I have book deal; I know they won’t love me any less if I never get published. So I hold on to that: that my worth is not tied to writerly rejection. Amen!

    And wine. Wine helps too.
    Sarah Callender´s last blog post ..Membrane

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  4. says

    I LOVE your line: “…. afraid that we can’t actually do better, that this precious manuscript that’s been rejected is absolutely the best that we can do.”
    I agree with you wholeheartedly on this one. After having numerous books receive the same rejection “notes” that you spoke of, I have to admit I become fearful that all my work is the best I can do and therefore I’ll never be good enough to get any of them published. I have to go back, let go, experience more life, and edit, edit, edit to make them all better.
    Patricia Yager Delagrange´s last blog post ..The Beatles and Edythe Kirchmaier Have The Same Message For Us

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  5. says

    “Any time I send a book out into the world, it IS the best that I can do– in that moment, at that time.”

    Anna, thank you for sharing! In particular, the phrase I grabbed really sums up how I relate to this topic. I am presently polishing up what will be my third manuscript (but hopefully my debut novel), and my only task, as far as I see it, is to get this story as true as it can be.

    You’re right – it’s impossible to predict how people are going to see it or react, nor how much work needs to be done after it goes through the hands of agents and / or editors, but what matter is that I know I did my part – NO sweeping dirt under the rug!

    And I’m so happy you mentioned indie publishing (given that we follow the above principles). There are many valid companies out there who are small and willing to try something that larger one wouldn’t – I have been so fortunate as to connect with one and released a short story last year. This has given me a sense of how the editorial and publishing process works and an opportunity to build a platform. When it comes time to submit now, I don’t face that dreaded question, “Is the desk drawer going to eat this one too?” Nor do I face the prospect of self-publishing – which takes lots of energy and money if you want to make sure you have a viable product.

    I’m interested to see the other comments to this post! Thanks again.

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  6. says

    You nailed it, Anna! I know you’re right, that fear is at the root of our reaction. And I’ll add another element (for me, at least): Impatience! I know how long each rewrite takes, how much of myself I pour into it. It can be so daunting thinking of doing it again.

    I have to remind myself to stand back and see the big picture. If I’ve worked this long already, and I find the courage and distance to see a way to improve it after a rejection, how can I consider not following through to make it the best it can be? Why would I cheat myself of that?

    Very insightful post. Thanks.
    Vaughn Roycroft´s last blog post ..I’ve Been High

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  7. Deb Boone says

    Anna, I love your question. The obvious answer is, keep writing. But it is so much more than just writing, it’s as you said, “stretching your writer’s wings”. Learning, observing, making sure all the emotional depth isn’t left in the “white spaces”.
    Sometimes putting the work aside, working on something else, reading, people watching in an airport, whatever nurtures one’s inner writer can help to gain enough distance from the rejection to see the work the way a reader perceived the story. Often, I think, it is a matter of needing to get what is in the mind onto the page and not fear the vulnerability. Thank you, Anna, for a positive way to help me face rejection and focus on becoming a stronger writer.

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  8. says

    Anna, your advice is so constructive. I’ve been through some painful critiques and my initial reaction is always to scoff at the reviewer. Then I carefully read the comments and reread my draft. Often the critic’s comments are on target. We can’t fall in love with our prose. The ruthless editor is almost always right. Thanks for a great piece.
    CG Blake´s last blog post ..Book Review: “Waiting” by Ha Jin

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  9. Denise Willson says

    Come on, the answer is clear. Chocolate. :)

    Denise Willson
    Author of A Keeper’s Truth

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  10. says

    I am definitely in the camp of reaching for a book on craft and seeing where I can improve the rejected work. It is not easy to see the work objectively, but time away helps. Thanks for the post.

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  11. says

    Great overview on the rejection process! I like the interpretation of this line: “what it REALLY meant was that my book, while on the right track, just wasn’t yet quite ‘there’.”
    Patricia´s last blog post ..SNOW COVERS LEAVES!

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  12. says

    “…it helps if I can see rejection as not a dead-end or even a bump or rocky patch, but just one more step forward along the way.”

    Love that perspective! Thanks for a wise and inspiring post, Anna.
    Cindy Angell Keeling´s last blog post ..Transformations

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  13. says

    Anna-

    My wife, independent editor Lisa Rector-Maass, has worked with many authors either stuck in rejection hell or stalled in their careers.

    http://writerunboxed.com/2008/08/22/interview-with-an-editor-lisa-rector-part-1/

    The frustration of good writers who are still getting rejected (or dropped) she calls the “third draft” stage, the point at which there’s 10% more to learn and apply but nobody seems to be able to tell you what it is.

    It’s also the point at which many nowadays choose indie publishing. You’re right that it’s a viable option–just, for most, not a great one. There are a number who, like you, are making some money from projects that couldn’t find a home with New York print publishers. There are far, far more who are making little or nothing at all.

    Here’s a question I would ask along with your excellent starter question: Are you content to tell stories at indie publishing level, selling them at indie level prices and reaching an indie level readership? If that’s good for you then good. That’s a question answered. You know what to do.

    If the answer is no, then the next question is: What are those rejections telling me? Probably they are telling you much of what you’re doing right. They’re also telling you something’s missing, without saying what. Where are you going to get that info? Not from your critique groups, mentors or professional friends. If they could tell you they would have done so already.

    Fact is, to write at a level that lands an agent and wins a print contract–never mind becomes successful in retail land–requires first and foremost a willingness to exceed your own expectations, set a bar higher than you believe you can jump, and achieve levels of craft that surprise you.

    The fear you so accurately describe is good to recognize. It’s what holds us back. How can one get over it? One thing to understand is that you are already capable of writing at a level that will get you print distribution, at print prices along with a wide readership.

    Think about it. If that happened for you ten novels into your writing life you wouldn’t be surprised. Naturally it can happen at that stage! It should. Practice and experience make one a better writer, right?

    Right. You are capable. You can grow. You can do those things and the fact is that you can do them now. All that ten novels worth of experience will do for you is gradually lessen fear.

    Craft grows as confidence improves, so why not build confidence and make deeper levels of craft easier to achieve? How can you have that confidence? Give it to yourself. Right now. Today.

    See rejection for what it is. Go further. Embrace fear. Transform it. Apply it to your story, inflict it on your protagonist. What you’re feeling is what your main character needs. See if for the gift it is.

    Feeling a bit more confident? I hope so. Anna has opened the door. Walk through. Then write.
    Donald Maass´s last blog post ..Kris Longknife: Defender by Mike Shepherd

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    • says

      Dear Donald,
      Fantastic and inspirational. I am, as yet, only a would-be writer, having only just begun to Twitter and Blog, but, I can see something building up inside that is eager to reach the heights of creativity. I’m sure your response to Where do we go from here, has the same effect on all others such as me, should there be others such as me.
      Thank you,
      Jean

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      • says

        There are many such as you, Jean. You’re not alone.
        Other Jedi masters feel as you do also.

        Welcome Padawan, the force is strong here.
        Many here, to learn from, there is.

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  14. says

    I’ve matured a bit since I started, so now I can look at rejection and try to figure out what I need to fix. The problem, of course, is determining whether or not to continue meddling with the current ms or move on to something new. There’s a point where it’s just easier to start over, apply what I’ve learned since the last ms, and try again. I’m to the point now where I know I’m a publishable author, kind of like the high school quarterback who figures out that he’s got the talent, now he just needs to learn and master the mechanics. I can be patient. Especially in our industry, where great teachers abound.
    Ron Estrada´s last blog post ..Getting Your Scenes in Order

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  15. Cal Rogers says

    I take rejection as a given and cope with it by having a plan:
    1) Write the best novel I can, no matter what it takes.
    2) Try to get it published via traditional agents and publishers.
    3) If that doesn’t work, figure out what I’m doing wrong and fix it.
    4) If that still doesn’t work, indie publish that novel and start another.
    5) Repeat the first four steps, until a) I have a traditionally published novel, or b) I die grateful that I had a chance to try and content that I gave it my best shot.
    There is no bad result here.

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  16. says

    Very interesting discussion. I started querying in August and I’m finding it scary and exciting at the same time. Exciting because it’s an amazing feeling that I’ve produced something of which I’m proud enough to share it with professionals. Scary, because I tend to not finish things I don’t fully believe in, and my novel is finished and has survived a couple of revision rounds. What if I’m wrong to still believe in its merit?

    I can honestly say that the first couple of rejections hurt, but now I’m getting used to it. The “not for me” rejection is still a bit frustrating, but in the meantime I’ve rewritten my query and also the first scene, and I had those first ten revised pages critiqued by an agent recently in a weekend workshop. It was great to get professional feedback again. She pointed out the story’s shortcomings, said some nice things about my style and characterization (which made me really happy, especially the comment about style because I’m not a native English speaker) and I revised again.

    What I’m trying to say is… It can always be better. That might be frustrating at times, but it’s actually wonderful because it means there’s still so much to learn. If there were nothing left to learn, I’d get bored with it.
    Andrea´s last blog post ..Another writing exercise

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  17. Ray Pace says

    Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance – rejected multiple, multiple times by gatekeepers who either didn’t have room for it on their list or couldn’t see it for what it was. There are many examples like this – record companies that couldn’t or wouldn’t get the Beatles, mega bookstores that never saw Amazon coming. My point is that the gatekeepers are often way behind the curve, stuck in what used to be.

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    • says

      Ray-

      I like your comment, and you’re right. There are noteworthy examples of good books, some now classics, passed over because they were too new, different, unusual or whatever.

      (Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is a favorite of mine. I read it and college and promptly took apart the engine of my VW. Luckily, it went back together and ran–not well, but it ran.)

      However, from my gatekeepers perch I have to report that “misunderstood” is not the case for the overwhelming majority of rejected fiction manuscripts. Most simply are not fully cooked. A single day with our slush pile would prove that to anyone.
      Donald Maass´s last blog post ..Review: Independent Study by Joelle Charbonneau

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      • Ray Pace says

        I heartily agree, Don. I have sat through enough sessions of writer groups to get a heavy dosage of under-cooked, over-cooked and my favorite, “Hey, this really happened to a friend of mine. I’m not changing a word!”
        I loved the thing about your VW. I did the same with my Yamaha dirt bike and it ran a bit under-cooked for awhile.

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  18. says

    Very inspiring and helpful post. You are so right about setting our emotions aside once we get over the sting of the rejection and looking at the work to see if it truly is the best we can make it. Most recently, I have really appreciated beta readers who help in that process. We think the story is there in all its glory, but sometimes it just isn’t.
    Maryann Miller´s last blog post ..Excuse Me, Mr. Writer

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  19. says

    Can we “Embrace the Naked” Self after being rejected? I strive to be that person. A simple no is tolerable. Constructive criticism is accepted with opened arms. I have no desire to hide from rejection, and when comes, my hope is that I can embrace it with the heart of a learner.

    Will I fear rejection? Yes. Triumphant is my courage. Feel the Fear and Do It Any Way.

    Rejection can breed frustration. If I can’t shake it, record it, and use it for a character’s profile. Let it breed emotional conflict in my story. Let it consume my readers, hook them, and make them prisoner to the teller’s voice (Voice? What’s that?).

    Detachment is not an option! My will trumps emotion.

    In this world of writing, cereal filled similac is my level of nourishment. I plod and patiently wait my day of maturity. Maybe then, I can better relate to the rejected author.

    Probably not though, because of Writer Unboxed

    WooooSaaaaa………………..

    WooooSaaaaa is the text form of Brian King bowing.

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  20. says

    For me I had to kind of take a ‘long haul’ approach to rejection, and realize it absolutely isn’t personal (how could it be?) even though it can feel that way. Between my short stories and novels being pitched to both magazines and agents, I received more rejection slips than I could count. In fact, the agent who finally picked up my debut series was the very last contact in the monster spreadsheet I’d assembled – I’d been rejected by literally every other agent I’d approached. For that reason, I’d already prepared myself mentally to take a completely different project and start again from the beginning, because that’s what it would have taken.

    The thing is, though, (and don’t get me wrong, sometimes after a day of frustrations coming home to that rejection slip felt worse than other times) that by and large the rejections I received were all very professional. In fact, I began to take heart in the ‘businesslike’ trend that emerged from them – in the majority of cases they were less about the quality of the writing and more ‘this isn’t quite the type of material I deal in’ and that sort of thing. Sometimes those kinds of responses would come with suggestions of someone else to try. Viewing it as the business that it is helped me to keep going when I got discouraged or when things looked bleak. It still does. At the end of the day all you can do is just keep writing, keep honing your skills and getting better, and keep moving forward.

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  21. says

    This post is a little depressing because I still haven’t even got those types of rejection letters you mention. Mine are still form rejects or no replies every single time. I don’t want to think I suck THAT bad, but at some point you really have to wonder.
    Nora´s last blog post ..Ego Depletion and The Act of Writing

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