Dealing with Rejection
Updated: Aug 23, 2019
When I was in the fifth grade I had all the irrational, white male confidence in the world. I made good grades, won writing contests at school, and played baseball year-round on little league and traveling teams. Then I asked a girl, we’ll call her Ashlea (because her name was Ashlea), if she wanted to be my girlfriend. She said “no,” just like I knew she would because everyone loves me and how could anyone not want to be with me and-- wait, she said what?
With one word, my sheen of invincibility was quickly and unceremoniously washed away. I was gut-punched. Grief-stricken. Inconsolable. But, as our mind is wired to do, I rationalized that it wasn’t me who was the problem. It was her. She must be crazy.
Now, this is an inappropriate response to rejection. But so is self-deprecation. The answer, like most things in life, is somewhere in between. This is especially important for writers. Whether it’s a short-story, poem, manuscript, etc. your work absolutely will be rejected at some point by someone. I’ve had more than 20 short stories published. I’ve had nearly 50 rejections. And, somehow, that’s considered a really good ratio.
Certainly there’s the now-famous story of J.K. Rowling’s 12 rejections when she was shopping Harry Potter. Melville, Hemingway, Vonnegut, all rejected. The list goes on. Not all agents can be Mark Gottlieb. There are some who are going to make mistakes. If someone doesn’t like your work, don’t be discouraged-- maybe it just wasn’t for them.
However, you don’t want to avoid all criticism or setbacks. You want to embrace it and learn from it. If you get several rejections on the same piece, take another look at it. What could you change? Was there something in the final draft that was still nagging at you? Find it. Fix it. Try again.
Sometimes, though not often, agents or editors will let you know exactly what it is they didn’t like about your work. This is, naturally, a double-edged sword. It helps pinpoint exactly what is “wrong” with the writing, which is good; but it also pinpoints exactly what is “wrong” with the writing, which is bad.
The best thing to do in this particular case is be honest with yourself about whether or not the criticism is valid. If it is, swallow your pride and work on your weaknesses. That’s the only way to get better. If you’re in the gym and somebody points out your skinny legs, you have two choices: get mad and refuse to look at mirrors that show below your waist, or get under a barbell and squat until you puke.
Again, from Ashlea to dozens of literary journals to that time I asked my wife if we could follow the Astros for all 81 road games, I am used to rejection. As a writer, you have to be. You have to harden your heart a bit. I once received a rejection that said one of my sentences was too long.
This was new to me because never have I ever (drink) been criticised for long sentences-- at least not since grammar class in high school. Other decent writers who employ long sentences as a literary device include Faulkner, Dickens, Hemingway, McCarthy, O’Connor, Lewis Carroll, Salinger, Tim O’Brien, Bukowski, Audrey Niffenegger, and we could go on forever. The point is, I would be a fool to let this rejection letter influence my writing style. But that doesn’t mean all criticism is without merit. Like anything else, take a nuanced approach. It’s not always black and white. I’ve had plenty of useful critiques from editors. I’ll have plenty more.
So, to recap: get used to rejection, strengthen your resolve, but embrace valid criticism-- and it was probably my bad haircut and thick glasses that ultimately ended my romance with Ashlea before it began.