I’ve written before about rejections and how to handle the dent they make in your self-esteem, and I think it’s advice that bears revisiting from time to time. One thing any writer needs to develop (apart from mad writing skills and the ability to respect the deadline) is a thick skin. Not everyone is going to like your writing. Some folk will love it, some will loathe it, some will feel neither here nor there about your hard-won wordage – the only thing you can control is yourself and your reaction.
The thick skin doesn’t mean that you listen to no one – after all, if someone’s correcting your spelling (and they’re correct), it’s not a matter of your artistic integrity being attacked. Be grateful and gracious, say “thank you”. Don’t be embarrassed even if the person is a bit of a douche and is trying to make you feel embarrassed – that’s their damage, not yours, their insecurity, not yours.
The thick skin means that you keep on writing even after you receive a rejection. I do know people who’ve given up after their first rejection. Don’t be one of those people. Write in spite of the rejections because you should always be writing your story – your first draft – for you. You are your first reader, your first audience member after all. We never learn anything without trying and failing – the greatest teacher in the world is failure. Writing is hard, submitting it to another’s gaze is hard, suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous editors is hard; but the important next step is to work out what went wrong. One of the ways you can do this is to read your rejections. Now some writers will laugh and call this “rejectomancy”: a form of scrying as dodgy as peering at the entrails of pigeons, but really there are genuine lessons to be taken away.
So I give you, the Hierarchy of Rejections.
The Bad Rejection
The bad rejection can be a sign of a few things. You’ve sent your sexy nurse story to a gardening magazine. This is also a lesson to research markets and read submission guidelines very carefully. Chances are you may well get a bad rejection from an overworked, underpaid, very tired and impatient editor.
Or it is possible the editor is simply not accepting any more submissions, or stories of a particular type. You might have missed the deadline. There’s also the possibility that your story sucked. It might be a mostly invitation-only anthology with just a few open sub spots, which means you’re competing against a lot of other writers (please note: this is not a reason not to try – by all means submit, it’s good practice and editors may well start to remember your name in a positive fashion).
No rejection should ever say “Please hand in your pencil/pen/quill/stylus/laptop at the door and never, ever write again”, but the sad fact is that sometimes the bad rejection may well be rude or mean. Maybe you got someone on a bad day – you didn’t do anything wrong, you just got caught in the jet stream of an editor’s bad mood (donut shipment didn’t arrive; failure of a project; pet death, etc – you don’t know what’s happening in other people’s lives, so keep a little perspective); or the intern who’s doing the slush reading has an agenda. I once got a rejection letter from the editor of a leading spec-fic magazine that did not mention my story at all, but did offer quite a lot of personal abuse because I had provided an email address for notification of rejection/acceptance in order to save trees. This editor was so moved/offended/drunk that he typed this rejection letter personally, used his own envelope, schlepped to the post office, paid for the stamps himself, and roundly abused me for forcing him to do this. Have I ever submitted to that magazine again? Will I ever submit there again? If asked/begged for a story by that magazine will I ever say “Yes”? The answer to all three questions starts with an N.
The Fair to Middling Rejection
This is your standard “thanks but no thanks” letter. It doesn’t say you’re a bad writer. It just says not this story, not now. Maybe not ever. Maybe you’ve chosen the wrong market. Maybe you need to revisit the story and do a bit of flensing. Maybe it was just not quite right. And once again, some of the reasons listed in the bad rejection section may apply. But do not be downhearted, do not vow never to submit that magazine again. Keep trying.
The Hopeful Rejection
This is the letter that is almost the same as the fair to middling rejection, except in it an editor asks if you’ll consider re-working the story, with no guarantee of acceptance. Depending on the extent of the re-writes, give it some thought. Work out if the time investment is worth it for the pay day, and for the time it will take away from working on other stories. And consider whether this re-working can be a good learning experience for you in terms of craft and editing.
The Best Rejection of All
This is the gold standard of rejection letters, the one that says “Okay, not this story, but please send another.” What this means is “This particular story is not for us, but we like your style and ability so much that we want to see something else from you – yes, you! Yes, this is an invitation to YOU. And you know what? This shows we have noticed your work; we will remember your name and, with any luck, you will now get out of the slush pile a little faster.” These are all good things, dear reader-writer; these are not cause for depression. I have known some writers to get a rejection like this and think “Well, that’s a total rejection.” No, it’s not. The door has not merely been left open, but someone has also made cookies and the beverage of your choice.
Don’t just accept one rejection and assume that’s it for your writing career – your skin cannot be that thin, your ego that fragile. How many rejections are too many? How long is a piece of string? If a tree falls in the forest does anyone hear it? These are questions with either no answer or an infinite variety of answers, all of which may be right, wrong or a little of both.
How much persistence do you have? Because the best friend of talent is persistence. Personally, I give a story twenty rejections – it’s an arbitrarily chosen number. It gives me time to get a story across a variety of markets. If it gets the boot from all twenty then I look at re-writing or re-purposing the story. Sometimes the rejection letters help with this because sometimes you get that rarest of things: the rejection letter with feedback telling you why the story was not right for them. These are rare because editors of magazines, journals, anthologies, etc, don’t generally have time to provide feedback on every story they get. Nor should they have to do so. You want feedback? Join a writing group.
The main thing to remember is this: your writing is not you. At the beginning of your career especially, a rejection feels like someone saying your baby is ugly. You may well be tempted to wander around the house doing an Agnes Skinner impersonation: “A dagger! A dagger through my heart!” The greatest danger is reading a rejection letter and only picking out the negative bits and then translating that negative part into self-loathing – “I’m a bad writer! My stories suck! I’ll never make it! Waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah!” Okay, you get to do this for fifteen minutes – time yourself, then move on. Do it in the privacy of your own home; do not howl online. Then return to writing. Send the story straight back out.
And a golden rule? Do not reply to a rejection unless it is to say “Thank you for taking the time to consider my work.” “Thank you” goes a long, long way. Don’t argue with the rejection. Don’t try to get the editor to reconsider. Don’t write back rejecting the rejection. Don’t blog about the rejection, naming and vilifying the editor – if you’re going to do that, then just save some time and shoot yourself in the foot right now (off you go, we’ll wait). Take Neil Gaiman’s advice. My favourite part is “The best reaction to a rejection slip is a sort of wild-eyed madness, an evil grin, and sitting yourself in front of the keyboard muttering “Okay, you bastards. Try rejecting this!” and then writing something so unbelievably brilliant that all other writers will disembowel themselves with their pens upon reading it, because there’s nothing left to write.”
Remember that every writer at some point suffers rejection – you’re not alone. And remember that it will happen throughout your career. You will never get to a point where no one dares reject you – and you shouldn’t want to because rejections keep you sharp, keep you learning, keep you trying.