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25 Things Writers Should Know About Rejection

22 March 2012

From Terrible Minds:


*crash of thunder*

. . . .

 3. This, Then, Is The Value of the Gatekeeper

Hate the autocracy of the kept gates all you like, but the forge of rejection purifies us (provided it doesn’t burn us down to a fluffy pile of cinder). The writer learns so much from rejection about himself, his work, the market, the business. Even authors who choose to self-publish should, from time to time, submit themselves to the scraping talons and biting beaks of the raptors of rejection. Writers who have never experienced rejection are no different than children who get awards for everything they do: they have already found themselves tap-dancing at the top of the “I’m-So-Special” mountain, never having to climb through snow and karate chop leopards to get there.

. . . .

 5. Five Stages Of Grief

Rejection leads to a swiftly-experienced version of the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. It’s key to get to that last step as quickly as you can reckon. I actually have two additional steps in my personal process: “liquor” and “ice cream.” Your mileage may vary.

. . . .

 8. The Truth Hides In The Pattern

Stare at a Cosby sweater long enough and it’s like a Magic Eye painting. Eventually you’ll start to see dolphins and Jell-O pudding cups and the secret Gnostic gospels of Doctor Huxtable. What were we talking about again? Right. Rejections. One rejection is not as meaningful as a basket of them. All the rejections around a single project become meaningful — a picture emerges. You can start decoding commonalities, sussing out the reasons for being rejected.

. . . .

 24. Once Again, Time To Poll Your Intestinal Flora

The writer’s gut is his best friend — over time, the chorus of colonic bacteria that secretly control us begin to work in concert and soon start to get a grasp of what the best course of action is. As the parliament of micro-organisms attunes to your way of doing things and the world’s response, you start to get a clearer picture of how to handle individual rejections and how to move forward. I don’t know that every writer should trust his or her gut from the outset, but over time, you’ll have to. It’ll be that polling of your gutty-works that tells you how to judge individual rejections or rejections as a whole: it’ll tell you if it’s time to put the story in a dark hole, time to improve it, time to be patient and keep submitting or time to find a better and more independent path to publication.

Link to the rest at Terrible Minds and thanks to Jenny for another good tip.

Writing Advice

28 Comments to “25 Things Writers Should Know About Rejection”

  1. Although the most valuable piece about rejection is don’t engage with the negative critics. It rarely comes off well.

    • ABeth–indeed. I wrote a whole NINK column about that, after witnessing multiple train wrecks of that sort. No matter how nasty readers, or a reader, or a blogger, or a chatboard, etc. was about a writer’s work…when the writer engages with them, it always goes badly for the writer. It -particularly- goes badly if the writers loses his/her temper. These writer tantrums get remembered, reported, repeated, and reposted for years afterward… with no mention or acknowledgement of the various comments that incited the rant.

  2. I think there’s some truth here, but at the same time I don’t see much value in a rejection which doesn’t actually tell you why they rejected it. If they say ‘like the characters but there are some big plot holes’ or whatever, then at least you know what you need to work on… if they just send it back with a form letter you’d have learned more from sending it to a critique group.

    Otherwise submitting for the sake of being rejected just seems like an S&M kink to me.

  3. This doesn’t seem to mention the kind of rejection I and dozens of my mid-list writer colleagues have been getting for the last ten years or more: what another writer friend of mine termed the ‘rave rejection’. You’ll know exactly what I mean, if you’ve ever had one. ‘I loved this, couldn’t put it down, stayed up all night reading it, wept buckets over it’ (I’m quoting verbatim from one I received for a novel which I’m about to indie-publish, finally!) … ‘but so sorry. I couldn’t take the sales/marketing department with me. They didn’t see where they could place it/they tried to sell something similar five years ago and didn’t do as well as expected/it doesn’t fit any specific genre…etc etc etc.
    These are the kind of (increasingly common) rejections that are utterly frustrating – there’s nothing to be done with them. Or at least there wasn’t until Amazon came along.

    • Catherine wrote: “These are the kind of (increasingly common) rejections that are utterly frustrating – there’s nothing to be done with them.”

      Yes, rejections like these have been common for many years, and the frequency is growing–in the past 5 years, this sort of “I really like this book, but it’s not identical to what we already know how to market, so we’re rejecting it” has become such a common rejection that it’s a complete cliché by now. (A close friend of mine is in marketing an is BEWILDERED by this common response publishing. She keeps telling me that the purpose of a marketing department is to FIGURE OUT how to market a company’s products, NOT to limit the company ONLY to producing what the marketing department already has experience in marketing… I know, isn’t that just a CRAZY concept?)

  4. Yeah. Well, it depends, doesn’t it. One of the big 6 rejected my novel last year because the suspense genre is very competitive. That can be said if you read the novel where a lawyer is murdered (sorry PG) and still believe suspense novels are illustrated with watercolors of mixing bowls and French hens, vintage postcards, end with a recipe for lemon bars and the rest of the 256 pages is a screwball comedy.

    It’s more like she should be crying about what I thought of her.

  5. There really is only one important thing to know about rejection (you just have to get past all those other things, which are like the 25 stages of denial):

    Rejection has no intrinsic meaning whatsoever.

    It is ever present, even as an indie, you can’t escape it. It’s a fact. It just is.

    It’s not critique (even in patterns), it’s not a statement of your value, or the value of your story. All it means is that your story wasn’t suited to that person at that time.

    Just exactly like the form slips say.

    • This really resonates with Kris Rusch’s blog today, esp where she says:

      “As I said last week, those of us who got our start in the old scarcity model (and that’s all of us up until about 18 months ago) have some built-in assumptions. One of those assumptions is that the folks in traditional publishing know what they’re doing.

      When we writers scale that mountain of slush and finally break through, selling our first article or our first novel, we believe we have finally achieved quality. We’ve finally become good. It’s a dangerous assumption for a writer because if our career tanks, does that mean that we’re no longer good writers? Even if our career tanked because some bonehead in a traditional publishing house screwed up the marketing of our novels?

      It’s insidious, and that attitude alone has destroyed more writers than I care to think about.

      Besides, it’s a fallacy.”

      Rejections happen. Great books and stories get rejected all the time. Happily, writers don’t need to bash their heads against the brick wall of NY publishing forever, if they don’t want to.

      It *is* true that crappy books and stories get rejected all the time, too. That’s where learning your craft and getting feedback from others about your writing is helpful.

      But if you’re good, the signs are there – in requests for partials and fulls, in contest finals, in beta readers who take you by the collar and shake you, saying “When will you finish the next one? I want it NOW.”


      • “have some built-in assumptions. One of those assumptions is that the folks in traditional publishing know what they’re doing.”

        Actually, I’ve never had that assumption. I was raised by a writer, and I’ve been a full-time for over 20 years, and the assumption I have -always- operated on is that the majority of people in publishing DON’T know what they’re doing. When I find someone who knows their job and is good to work with, I try to work with them as much as possible–because they’re rare, and they’re a real pleasure to deal with, making my life so much easier. But they are indeed rare.

        A substantial percentage of people in publishing are there because they got an entry level job which required no particular skills or qualifications (and they indeed had no real skills or qualifications of any kind) and/or they couldn’t get jobs in the field they trained for (my first five editors had all graduated college with degrees in something else, but couldn’t get jobs in their chosen fields). And a too-large percentage of them remained because they were best suited to remain in a poorly-paid field where accountability was marginal and advancement was slow (and mostly based on people above you burning out and leaving). People with more ambition and ability tend to leave publishing and go into more competitive fields with better salaries and more opportunities and recognition.

        Yes, there are EXCELLENT people who gravitate to and/or remain in publishing because they love it. And those are the sort of people I like to work with. But it’s like panning for gold. You have to sift through a lot of rubble to find them. (They also tend to advance pretty quickly, so they disappear from the bottom ranks of the field fairly fast–meaning that aspiring and first-time writers are less likely to have access to them. When applying as a newcomer, you’re usually dealing with mediocre people who don’t know what they’re doing, whether they’re editors or agents. It’s a stroke of luck if (as I did, about 6 months into my career) you wind up working with someone who’s really GOOD during the early phase of your career.

        Which is NOT to say, alas, that there’s a substantial generaly improvement in quality in the upper rungs of publishing. I was at a writing conference about a decade ago where the (volunteer) chair had done an EXCELLENT job of recruiting a large number of panelists and speakers from the upper rungs of the publishing industry. For 3 days, I sat through session after session where the panelists from the publishing industry were Presidents, CEOs, VPs, Associate Publishers, VP of Marketing, Executive Editors, Editors in Chief, Pres or VPs of literary agencies, etc. Not the young assistant-editors and junior agents you normally see at conferences who have almost no idea what they’re talking about and who are mostly accustomed to dealing with slushpiles and first-timers; instead, these were people running the companies and running major publishing programs.

        And I came away from that conference depressed and very anxious. Because what struck me, after three full days of sitting through well-moderated sessions with these people (in an audience of longtime pro writers who asked serious questions rather than fawning on them)… was that most of these people who were IN CHARGE of my industry… were mediocre, apathetic, lethargic, jaded, burned out, no-can-do, void of ideas, and (oh, yeah) openly contemptuous of writers. And I realized that THESE people being in charge explained so much of what I had observed about this badly-run industry for the past decade; and it explains so many of the spiraling problems of the decade that followed.

        There -were-, yes, some excellent people on those panels, energetic, enthused professionals with problem-solving skills and innovative ideas. But they were the minority. Most of the paenlists were just… very DEPRESSING as examples of the people running major publishing houses and programs. (Some of them have left the biz since then. Some remain.)

        • I think you’re one of the lucky ones, Laura. I certainly had that assumption – and had to learn the hard way. (Wish I’d read your book about the industry earlier – Rejection, Romance, and Royalties. My husband still cites that raccoon anecdote…)

          Granted, as to your comment below, there *are* some gems in traditional publishing — but as you said, they’re the exception.

          I gave a workshop at a writer’s conference a couple years back with another newer writer called “If we’d known then…” – about what we’d learned so far in publishing. Unfortunately, it was sparsely attended. Writers trying to break in don’t want to hear that it’s not the Gates of Elysium they’re clamoring at. 😉

  6. Catherine Czerkawska, I received one of those about four years ago. “I love the story concept, I love your writing style…but, could you change the POV of the series from the men to their wives and sweethearts? I think I can pitch it better commercially as historical romance instead of historical fiction.” I was tempted, I thought about it for six months. Ultimately, I passed on the agent because it was more important to me to write the story I wanted to write rather than get published. Thanks to the improvement of the self-publishing model (eBooks and POD like Createspace), I can do both.

  7. I heard an agent talk about rejection about 25 years ago. He said “Rejection is to writers what ice and snow are to Eskimos, just the environment in which they live.” Stuck with me a good long time, as you can probably tell. It’s still true in this day and age of easy electronic self-publishing, only these days it’s the readers and reviewers who get to reject you.

    • As someone who writes for an indie review site, I’d also like to add that review rejections don’t tell you much either; in my case, for example, I only review two books a month so I can only accept two a month on average or my review queue grows ever longer. As a result I might reject a good book one month because I’ve already accepted three and then accept a not-so-good book the next month because it was the only one that interested me out of those submitted.

      • Fair point, Edward. I was actually thinking of bad reviews on Amazon, and sometimes even good, thoughtful ones which somehow strike a nerve. I believe that, in general, writers are pretty good at generating their own feelings of rejection :).

  8. This is an older post on Chuck’s site but a good one. I tend to agree.

    It’s certainly not universal, but there’s a noticable tendency in this youngish generation to have a sense of entitlement. They are often raised in an environment where you don’t keep score at competetive tasks and when faced with actual challenges they seem ill-suited to handle adversity.

    So I think there’s some value in the early stages to get that NO so often that it’s burned into your flesh and the wanabees are seperated from the willbes who choose to improve their craft until they see a YES.

    But now, who cares if you can’t write a proper sentence–you still get to be “published” even if you sell copies to your ten friends and then twenty more to unsuspecting consumers who impulse buy on those ten 5-star reviews. Lot’s of self-publishers aren’t ready yet and a bit of NO would be in their best interest.

    So there’s kind of a time and a place. If you’re of the midlisters up-thread getting the “I love it but…” rejections you’ve passed the point I’m talking about.

    (I’m not advocating things would be better if we regressed back to the old ways–but there were benefits and I think that’s why Chuck said what he said.)

    • Sure there is value in getting rejection. I have always said you need to collect 100 rejection slips before you can call yourself a writer. (Negative reviews and snarky comments count for Indies.)

      But the reason it’s valuable is because it’s the only way to learn to ignore it. To realize that some people are going to love you and some will hate you, and there’s a whole lot in between. You’ve got to recognize that their world does not revolve around you. Get over it. Get on with doing your work.

      He has some of this message in his post — but imho, the rest is exactly the stuff you have to learn to get over, not the stuff you should dwell on.

  9. Well, certainly, rejection is something you quickly have to learn to just Not Care About to be a professional writer–unless you want your entire writing career for 3-4-5-6 decades to be narrowly based only on your own self-publishing and blogging endeavors, without =ever= being paid an advance for books or short stories, or a fee for articles, or a fee for writing copy, or doing any technical writing, or ghostwriting or work-for-hire, or licensing any subrights of your work (foreign rights, dramatic rights, gaming rights, other derivative rights), and also never being paid a salary in TV, sell screenplays, work for a news organizaton, etc. Bcause as soon as you seek -any- sort of business arrangement where someone is PAYING you to write, they’re in a position to reject your work. So one can only eliminate rejection by huddling with the confines of an -extremely- narrow career focus (i.e. you yourself are the only publisher of every word you ever write, for your entire writing career).

    And learning not to care about rejection certainly also does a lot to prepare a writer for what being published will be like–because the very -nastiest- or most denigrating comments I’ve ever gotten -privately- from editors and agents about my work (and there have been plenty, including things like “it’s such an effort to wade through your prose,” “you’re a mediocre, grade B writer,” “this is a piece of sh*t,” “this is crap,” “no one wants to read something like this,” “I just hate it,” etc., etc.) have never come anywhere -close- the nastiness of reader reviews and blogs–which, unlike my rejections, ALL THE WORLD can see. (I find that professional reviews–ex. Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, Library Journal, etc.–also tend to be less brutal than nonprofessional/reader reviews.)

    Rejections also prepares you for acquaintances and, indeed, total strangers to walk up to you in public, and ofter in inappropriate circumstances (i.e. a party; a public bathroom; an airport lounge) to tell you how boring and putdownable they found the book of yours they tried to read. It prepares you for people asking awkward questions in front of an audience of 100 when you’re on a panel at a con, such as, “Did you really write that book? It didn’t read at all like your work,” and, “Please just TELL us what happens for the rest of the series. A lot of people–me, for one–can’t actually be bothered to read the rest of it.”

    Gettings dozens (and eventually hundreds) of rejections–most of them obtusely dismissive, some of them negative, a few of them very nasty–teaches you early on how to let the rest of that garbage roll off your shoulders when it falls. And it will happen. It happens to almost everyone. It’s just part of the writing life.

    OTOH… that doesn’t, by ANY means, mean that rejections demonstrate good judgment. In fact, in my experience, they often reveal demonstrably poor judgment. Indeed, the authors of any number of well-reviewed and internationally bestselling books and series cite a pre-publication history of rejection after rejection after rejection. And what’s most amusing about that is that, when asked or interviewed, the various editors who rejected such acclaimed and lucrative projects never ante up and say “yeah, we made a mistake on that one,” but instead usually come up with flimsy “rationales” why rejection that now-acclaimed, very lucrative material was the “right decision” for them.

    The notion that when a book is rejected means that it deserved to be rejected is just self-congratulatory nonsense. And as for rejections being HELPFUL to the writer… it happens, but it’s the exception rather than the norm. I’ve had more than 100 rejections, and I can only think of two that were at all educational or helpful to me.

    • Your comment about reader reviews – what blows me away is the hatred out there. I’ve read some pretty hateful, crass, and offensive reviews of books that I thought were pretty good. I agree with you. The nonpro reader/reviewer community is much more harsh than the pro one.

      • There was one recently which went on at length, in lewd language, claiming that I only got published by offering sexual services to editors. I thought that crossed the line, and Amazon evidently agreed with me, since they removed it when I cited it.

    • “And as for rejections being HELPFUL to the writer… it happens, but it’s the exception rather than the norm.”

      Agreed. I never got a ‘helpful’ rejection. The best feedback I got as a developing writer was from entering contests (RWA chapter ones and the PNWA contest), and from a critique group of local writers, both published and unpublished.

  10. Speaking only about reader reviews: Negative reviews can serve a good purpose.

    If someone posts a negative review, it might turn off readers with similar tastes. We WANT that! That one negative review might stop ten other negative reviews. Plus, what turned off that one reviewer might actually turn on other readers.

    A “good” negative review might help the author sell books to the “right” people. In the end, that might generate more positive reviews.

    The reviews that are worthless are the “this is crap so I gave it one star.” There is nothing there to warns off readers with similar tastes. The only thing a “review” like that does is bring down the average rating.

    • I agree with C.S. Splitter. I always look for the low star reviews on a story. Sometimes it gives me exactly the information I want. If it rates it low because the battle scenes were too short, I’d be interested. Or if the plot twist didn’t meet their expectations, that might interest me, too.

      I always seem to like the TV shows that critics hate, so I am skeptical about rave reviews on books. And there is that rumor that you can hire people to give you 5 star reviews.

    • Yeah, that’s right. That’s why negative reviews (not hate reviews) are necessary.

  11. Three assumptions I’m seeing here.

    One, that getting published is the end goal. I encountered this definition of success on another forum. Thus the trad. published route requires a lot of work to get published, while the indie route takes all of about one or two months or less to write the story, edit it, and have it come out.

    But getting published doesn’t define success, and that’s the problem here. Getting read and having a good sales history is. And the indie writer has to work just as hard to reach that goal as does the traditionally published author. The fallacy is in measuring success by whether you get published or not. Granted, for a traditionally published author, getting published is a big step that requires jumping through a lot of hoops. But for the indie author, getting published doesn’t mean a lot. Selling does. And the truth is, selling means just as much in defining success for the traditionally published author as well.

    Two, that indie authors don’t experience rejection. If an indie author writes a crappy book, they’ll get few sales and if they do get good reviews, it is from friends and family that have to see them, and don’t want to offend them. Honest reviews will be harder rejections than any editor or agent, because they are public. And too often devolve into ridicule to “entertain” their audience at your expense.

    Three, as already stated by some here, most rejections from publishers tell you squat about what is wrong. And it is a shot in the dark to try to guess, or have your critique group guess, what the editor might have seen that was wrong with it. Because it really doesn’t matter what you or the critique group think, it matters what the one who can pay you for it thinks. And if he/she doesn’t tell you why it was rejected, you have no real idea. It could be they saw a big plot hole. It could be they were chewed out by the boss the day they picked up your manuscript, so nothing was getting through. But there is no way to tell what is wrong from most rejections you get, or even if *anything* is wrong at all. You’re likely to mess up a good story guessing and changing things than you are to make it better.

    I liked one idea an author friend of mine had. Their form rejections should have a checklist of general reasons. Anything from “We already have books like this one accepted” to “The book contained excessive grammar, spelling, and/or typo errors.” It would take all of about 5-10 seconds for the editor to check off one or more that apply and pass it onto their secretary to send out the form letter. But at least the author would have some clue as to why it was rejected.

    But barring that, your gut isn’t going to tell you squat about why your story is getting rejected over and over again. And if it does, chances are it’s wrong.

    • Nice, R.L. – I especially agree with your first point, that getting published isn’t (or shouldn’t be) the end goal. BUT for unpublished authors, that’s often seen as the brass ring. Get a contract and *boom* it’s all smooth sailing from there on out. You’re set now. That’s a myth, of course, but a very pervasive, insidious one.

      The great thing about self-publishing is that “success” can be achieved with much more moderate levels than is required in traditional publishing – both in terms of readers reached and money to the author. 🙂

    • Actually, I disagree about indie authors not experiencing rejection.

      As we’ve all said many times now — the readers are our gatekeepers. And unfortunately, I see indie writers every day responding to the rejections of the market (poor sales, bad reviews, dismissive comments, etc) the exact same way as newbie writers in traditional publishing respond to rejection slips.

      It’s a maturation process — to learn not to let it get under your skin. It’s not about YOU, it’s about the person doing the rejecting, and that is really irrelevant to you.

      • I think R.L. was saying that they DO experience rejection, it just looks different. “Honest reviews will be harder rejections than any editor or agent, because they are public.” 😉

      • Yes, the statement: “that indie authors don’t experience rejection”

        Is one of the assumptions I was listing that the author seems to have bought into. Sorry if that wasn’t clearer.

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