by Alex Woolf
No one enjoys being rejected. Writers, who are often a touch more sensitive than the average bear, may feel the sting even more acutely. Which is unfortunate, as the daily work of the writer involves rejection on an almost continuous basis.
There’s the bland “Nos” you get from publishers and agents. The standard email declines from competitions and lit mags. The implicit slow-burn rejection of a Submittable submission that hasn’t changed status for months or even years.
And then of course if you do get a chance of being published, there are other setbacks to endure. The edits come back and seem at odds with your idea of what the book is about. Ditto the cover design. Or someone writes a review on Good Reads or Amazon that seems to enjoy unusual prominence, even though to you it’s doubtful if the person even finished the book.
All these knocks are part and parcel of the writing life, which is why it’s useful for our personal development (and sanity!) to look at ways to grow a tougher skin and learn to roll with the punches. Here, based on my own bittersweet experiences and those of some writer friends, are a few practical pointers…
Find ways to celebrate rejections
Rejections show that you are working hard to achieve your goals. The more you submit, the more you’ll be rejected – but equally, the more likely you are to get another acceptance! So rejections are, in a way, just milestones on the way to your next win.
One way to celebrate them is to give yourself a little reward each time you get one: a dime in a jar that you will spend on something nice when you hit a target amount. Some people defuse the sting by sharing their stats or even aiming for 100 rejections per year! The poet Brett Elizabeth Jenkins set herself this goal and found that as a result she’d “grown as a writer, met some kickass writers, sprouted relationships with a few editors, developed a thicker skin, and learned to take rejection like a champ.” In time, of course, some of those rejections turned into acceptances too.
“I’m not one to brag,” as a writer pal of mine said in a recent tweet, “but you’ll struggle to find a lit mag that hasn’t rejected me.” Remember: the more rejections and disappointments, the sweeter the feeling will be when you hit your goals!
Practice dealing with disappointment
Resilient writers aren’t people who get rejected less; they’re just writers who have learned to cope better with and learn from the experience. One tip here that’s advocated by corporate resilience trainers is to practice people saying No in low-stake situations that don’t really matter, to help you build up your coping skills.
Go to a fast-food outlet and ask them to gift-wrap your burger. Go to a bar and ask the staff if you can have a go at pouring the drinks. Ask your train driver if you can ride up front in the cab with her. These are silly requests, and they will almost certainly get turned down (and if they don’t you might come away with some interesting material!) But there is something exhilarating about daring to ask for unlikely things, and just enjoying your ability to suck up the baffled responses.
Study the nuances of rejection
In the miserable miasma of reading a fresh rejection, it can be easy to miss the nuggets of positivity and constructive feedback that are often contained in the message too. Some messages are form rejections, but it’s well-known that many venues have form messages that vary according to their take on the writer. A writer a venue wishes to encourage, for example, may get a standard message that’s quite different from the standard message that’s sent to a writer that for whatever reason they are never likely to publish.
So once the initial disappointment has subsided, make a point of going back to the message and seeing what you can learn from it for your next project or submission. Sometimes there is a valuable nugget in there (e.g. Try to use fewer adverbs or We felt we wanted to know more about what was happening from the protagonist’s perspective.) These are valuable insights that you can work with.
However disappointing the message, always send an acknowledgment – stay polite and professional. And if a venue says you should submit again, then do so, once or twice more at least. They didn’t have to say that, after all.
Be honest with yourself
Some rejections are frankly quite well deserved. If you’ve submitted the same story or chapters and they’ve been turned down 45 times, it’s probably time (and has been for a while) to look again at what you’re submitting, do some significant rework or even move on.
Also, if you’ve not really familiarised yourself with the market, you are understandably likely to get short shrift.
Remember editors are often aspiring writers themselves, so they know all about rejection and are keen for you to succeed. But at the same time, they have an editorial vision and quality standards to uphold, and they are not easily fooled. A friend of mine received the feedback, “This feels part of a bigger piece.” And it was, of course.
Reach out to others
One of the key characteristics of resilient people, according to psychological studies, is their ability to reach out and ask for help. Writing seems like a very lonely business, on one level, but you can, of course, find common cause with all the other solitary scribes out there who are dealing with their own disappointments. Facebook and Twitter are full of informal networks of aspiring writers who offer each other support and inspiration, and a friendly shoulder when there are wounds to be licked.
Better still, find a writer’s group if you can. I’m part of a fortnightly critique group and we often discuss feelings of disappointment and how best to deal with them. Everyone has different strategies and different experiences that they can add to the conversation. And of course, the practice of reading out often very raw work to others in a safe space, and taking on board their feedback – which, while always constructive, can also often be quite challenging – is another very valuable way to grow your writerly resilience.
Blow your own trumpet
There’s enough disappointing news about that you have no excuse not to celebrate when you get some good news. Got longlisted in a comp? Got a story accepted? Editor asked to see more material? Share it on social, tell your friends, and offer yourself a little treat to mark the moment. You’ve earned it!
Step away from the screen… to step back again
Sometimes you might be so upset by a setback that you decide to open up a new document and start furiously typing away on the next thing, hoping to channel that pain into instant creativity. I’m not sure it quite works like that – the best writing often stems from ‘emotion recollected in tranquillity’, as Wordsworth put it; just venting a load of negative thoughts and feelings may feel cathartic but is unlikely to result in your best work.
You’re better off making a clean break. Go for a walk, spend time with your kids, play some computer games, go for a swim, empty the dishwasher… Try and do something completely different that will switch you off from that negativity altogether.
Then, when it’s time to get back to the writing, you can return with a bit more perspective, some fresh ideas and a new sense of purpose – ready to embrace the next disappointment!
Alex Woolf (@RealAlexWoolf) is co-author of a new comic novel, Kitten on a Fatberg (Unbound). To pre-order Kitten on a Fatberg for a 10% discount, quote KITTEN10.