Rejection is part of being a writer. Unless you’re that one-in-a-billion wunderkind who gets “discovered” while you’re still in high school and goes on to become a literary sensation. Almost everybody who writes stories (or anything) has their work dismissed and sent packing, over and over. And learning to deal with rejection is a crucial part of getting better at this crazy game—both the writing part, and the selling part. But it never gets easy.
In fact, if you talk to almost anybody who became an “overnight” success in fiction-writing, they’ll shake their head and tell you about the decade (or decades, plural) of toil in total obscurity that they went through before they were “discovered.”
I’ve already written a lot about the years and years where I was sending out my fiction and getting almost nowhere, except for the occasional nibble here and there. I had a spreadsheet to track my short fiction rejections and acceptances, and it’s basically a ginormous litany of rejections—I just did a word search on the word “reject” in it, and it appears 472 times. (And that doesn’t include all the entries where instead of just writing “form reject,”I included a note about what the editor had said, such as, “The tone of this piece is right for [our publication], but after a page or two I got bored.”)
Not to mention, I wrote four novels that were never published, despite numerous and frantic attempts to find a publisher for them. I was still getting rejections after I was an editor at io9 and tons of people in publishing knew who I was. I’m still getting tons of rejections for my fiction today. Editors only want to handle work that they feel personally passionate and excited about, and there’s no magic bullet that will ever make every editor feel that way about your work.
(And if you ever get to a point in your career where you really don’t get rejected any more, then you’re going to have other problems—because at that point, there’s probably nobody to tell you that your book is 100 pages too long. But that’s a problem that most of us would kill to have.)
Of course, you can avoid rejection from agents, editors, and other people in publishing, by going the self-publishing route. And you can achieve incredible success that way—just ask Andy Weir, whose book The Martian was originally self-published and is about to be a Ridley Scott movie. But self-publishing doesn’t excuse you from rejection. You still get rejected by readers, by reviewers, by retailers who choose not to stock your book, and so on. There are many, many gatekeepers in the world of books, and the “traditional” publishing industry is just one of them. (Of course, if someone chooses not to review your book in the New York Times,they don’t usually send you a letter telling you so.)
The point is, rejection is part of the process, one way or the other. And I’m a firm believer that learning to stomach rejection does make you a better writer, over time, because it toughens you up and helps you to become more objective about your own writing.
Just like with dealing with harsh criticism of your work, which we covered a while back, getting rejected forces you to have a thicker skin. And deal with the idea that maybe, your work could possess flaws (without just giving up. The “not giving up” part is crucial.)
To become a successful writer of fiction (or screenplays), you kind of have to keep two contradictory mindsets in your head at once.
On one level, you have to think that you’re the best writer to come down the pike since Clarke and Le Guin, and you’re going to astonish everyone with your brilliance. Otherwise, you won’t have the nerve to write down the crazy awesome space opera you have in your head, and send it out into the world.
On another level, though, you have to recognize that you’re still learning how to do this “writing” thing, and your work has tons of room for improvement, and you’re just one struggling writer among millions. So you’re basically applying for a job that has millions of applicants, and a lot of them might have qualifications that you don’t have, like maybe they went to Clarion or some other great writing program.
Dealing with rejection is about managing the balance between those two completely contradictory mindsets. It’s about being absolutely convinced that you’ve written the next Dhalgren over and over again, every time you hit “send” on your next submission—but then when you find out that an editor or agent didn’t enjoy your masterpiece, you have to take that in, and recognize that another human being read what you wrote and did not experience the same rapture that you’d felt on re-reading it before you sent it out.
The sane way to deal with rejection—in my experience, anyway—is not to just shrug it off and say “those fools did not recognize my outstanding brilliance!” Nor is it the best response to take this rejection absolutely to heart, and wallow in self-doubt and misery until you’re unable to write anything else or keep sending your work out. Neither of those two extremes is a great idea.
Instead, you have to take on board a little of the doubt, and acknowledge that your brilliance does in fact have limits, and then go back to the drawing board. It’s a matter of maintaining that balance between those two mindsets—feeding the slight egomania enough to be able to produce the work you’re capable of, while also being able to accept a reality check.
Because if you can’t take a gentle reminder every now and then that you’re not an inspired genius whose very typos are the epitome of awesomeness,then eventually the universe will deliver a much less gentle reminder.
To some extent, getting rejected is part of the crucial process of separating yourself from your work. These stories come out of your head (and your gut and your sore wrists and fingers) but they are not you. This seems like stating the obvious, but it’s actually worth acknowledging.
Creative people often talk about their books and stories and screenplays using language like “My baby”—but if someone put their actual newborn child into an envelope and mailed him or her across the country to be handled by a slush reader and a series of assistants, they’d probably be arrested. Or get their own reality TV show. One of those two things.
Recognizing a separation between your work and yourself is not just a matter of chilling out when people don’t want to publish your work—it’s also what allows your work to be as great as it can be. Your work gets to be out there, being read by people you’ve never met, who put their own thoughts and imaginations into it as well, and this process makes your noodling into a real story.
It’s also important to recognize that people who decide not to feature your creative writing aren’t necessarily even making a judgment about the quality of your work—they’re thinking about a host of other factors, including how well your work fits in with the rest of their magazine, anthology, line of books, or whatever. They’re also going with their own personal tastes and preferences—it’s about whether your work fits, as much as whether it’s good or bad.
That’s the reason why people tell you to read a magazine for a while before you submit your work to it. It’s not so that you can “figure out” what kind of stories they want, and then cleverly reverse-engineer that to create a story that they won’t be able to resist. In fact, one big reason why you should read a magazine for a while before submitting your work is because you might hate everything the magazine is publishing.
And if you hate all of a magazine’s stories, it’s probably not because the editors haven’t received anything good, and they’ll be overjoyed if you send them a story that has everything their magazine has been missing. It’s more that you and the editors of that magazine have wildly different tastes, and they won’t like your work any more than you like what they choose to publish. It took me a ridiculously long time to realize that I shouldn’t waste my time submitting stories to magazines that were publishing work I didn’t enjoy.
One way that I personally learned to deal with rejection was by rejecting others. I’ve been a slush reader for various publications, and was also the fiction editor at a small-press magazine for a few years. I rejected stories from famous authors as well as newbies, and accepted tons of stories from first-time authors, usually because they had something special to them that excited me. (There’s a particular thrill in finding that one story, out of a pile of hundreds, that makes you laugh out loud or run into the next room to show it to everyone else.)
I even rejected myself—I became a slush reader for a magazine, and found a short story in the to-read queue that I had submitted months earlier. And by this time, I knew enough about what the magazine was looking for that I was able to recognize immediately that the story I’d submitted was all wrong. (I wrote myself a very nice note.)
It’s normal to be kind of neurotic about your work, and whether it deserves to reach a mass audience. The tougher you are on yourself and your process of creating stories, by and large, the more you’ll be able todo what it takes to reach that bigger audience. And being able to deal with professionals (and readers) saying that your work isn’t what they’re looking for is part of getting tougher on your own work.
To some extent, just like you have to maintain those two mindsets we talked about earlier—call them megalomania and excessive humility—you also need to keep two other contradictory mindsets in your head. You have to think of your writing as a commodity that you’re selling, to markets and to consumers. And you also have to think of yourself as an artist who’s creating something unique and personal. This is a huge conundrum that everybody struggles with.
But struggling with these things is a huge part of what successful writers do.
Charlie Jane Anders isthe author of All The Birds in the Sky, coming 2016 from Tor Books. Follow her on Twitter, and email her. Read more of her writing advice here. All images via Hangfire Books and Glenn Harris.