One of the most excruciating aspects of a writing life is the inevitable rejection and failure that go along with the job. It’s not if you are rejected or if you fail—it is when.
- That manuscript you thought finally might carry you over the threshold of publishing is rejected. 26 times.
- The book your agent and editor loved, the book that landed a starred review in a major journals (or three) has disappeared off the shelves and no one is saying a word about a paperback version, or a possible new contract.
- You’ve gathered your courage, polished your book to a high sheen, hired great editors and pulled together a professional package, and published your commercial series. Over the course of a year, it sells five copies, two of those to your sisters.
The list goes on. It can be a contest loss, a failure to pass even the first round of applications to a prestigious writer’s colony, a mean-spirited review in a popular magazine. It might mean that your agent decides to pass on a book you really love, or your publisher drops you. It never stops, really, the myriad ways writers are humiliated and panned and rejected. It always feels so personal, doesn’t it? Writing isn’t something you do with just a little bit of yourself—most of us are all in, all the time. That’s our blood on those pages, our tears.
Conversely, one of the things a writer must access is a certain confidence, maybe even a bit of arrogance, to get the job done. It’s cheeky of us to imagine that we can sit around making things up and people will want to read them, but you know—that is the job. Having confidence in your story powers is a cornerstone of doing it well.
How the hell do you do that when your guts are spilled over the floor, when your heart is torn to shreds? How do you get yourself back to the page after some big failure or rejection?
I’ve had as much or more failure and rejection as any other writer, starting with that file folder filled with 79 printed rejections at the start of my career, continuing through bad reviews on books I loved (“the point? Apparently none.”), books that died on the shelf in six seconds, contracts that were not reviewed, my agent flatly rejecting something, publishers turning down other projects. Yes, my lads and lassies, I’ve experienced nearly all of them. I’ve had to develop strategies to keep myself moving, even if I’m holding my intestines in my hand as I stagger back to the keyboard.
Here are a few things I’ve found to be helpful:
The Wailing Days
Take a couple of days and rage, grieve, wail, do whatever rituals you’d indulge for a broken heart. Set a time limit, depending on the size of the loss, but keep it short—no more than five days.
Go ahead and feel crushed. Complain to your best writing buddies about the unfairness, the stacked nature of the writing game. Wallow. Eat ice cream or down some scotch. Journal those dark thoughts.
Remind yourself that mostly the rejection is only the decision or opinion of one person, and no one person is going to like all others. What if the first girl you kissed was the one you married? (It happens, but…..) As Susan Wiggs always said on the old GEnie RomEx, “A rejection is simply an invitation to submit your work to the right publisher.”
Get a metaphorical dart board or make something up about your rejection that makes you feel better. I had a series of bad reviews from one publication and it was terribly painful. I finally told myself that the same reviewer was reading the books, and I made someone up—a wizened old litfic dude with tufts of ear hair in a cluttered apartment in some faded apartment in some unfashionable NYC neighborhood (this was back when there was such a thing), furious that he had to read crap to pay his rent. Wow, did it make me feel better! It made me laugh, for one thing, and whether it was true or not doesn’t matter. It removed the painful sense of judgment that could have become a canker of interference in my creative process.
Sometimes, it can be helpful to see if there are any common threads in rejection or failures—but maybe not. What if JK Rowling had listened to the common threads of rejection in her work? What a loss for the world!
Our job is not to judge, but to create. As Andy Warhol famously said, “Don’t think about making art, just get it done. Let everyone else decide if it’s good or bad, whether they love it or hate it. While they are deciding, make even more art.”
The weary inner artist needs some tending at this point. Give yourself the best artist’s date you can think of. If you love planes, go to the aeronautics museum in the closest big city. Take a flamenco class or an art class. Whatever it is that you know feeds your artistic heart. Kindle your passions.
This is also a good time to read the research material you love, or start planning something new. Give yourself a little time to just write for the love of it—nothing for publication or to show, just to remember that you’re doing this because writing is something you do. You love it, or you wouldn’t be here.
Back to Work
The way toward triumph begins by rolling up your sleeves. If you’ve been rejected, is it time to set up a new round of submission possibilities? Are you ready to tear into the book and do some rewriting? Go for it.
Then start something new, something you’re excited about. Write for that one, singular, special reader—your own.
Do you have tricks for overcoming the emotional trauma of failure and rejection? What’s your favorite wallowing ritual?
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