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Where Do You Go From Here?

Flowersign [1]
“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?

About Anna Elliott [2]

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.