On Writing: Everybody Gets Rejected

Saturday, July 14, 2012

On Rejection: Or, Everybody Gets Punched in the Grief Bone

In exploring some writing themes this week, I've been asked one question several times:

How do you deal with rejection, and how do you keep going when you want to quit?

It's a good question, but a painful one. Here's the honest truth:

If you want to be published, you are going to be rejected A LOT.

First by agents. Then by editors. Then by readers and book bloggers.

So here's how I deal with it.

1. Separate yourself from your work.
When people offer criticism of your story or novel, they are not criticizing *you*. Learn to embrace criticism, consider it carefully, and use it to improve your writing.

I'm really serious about this one. Until you've made this mental leap, you don't need to bother trying to get published, whether traditionally or via self-publishing. You'll just make yourself miserable.

3. Never, ever respond to rejection with anger.
If you're prone to knee-jerk reactions, put a brick on your knee. You will never get an agent, sell a book, or find new readers by being a defensive jerk. You're never going to change someone's mind on the internet. Responding to an agent's rejection with an inflammatory email doesn't just blackball you from that agent; publishing is a small world, and word gets around. And responding to negative book reviews is like rolling around in chum and jumping into a shark tank.

4. When possible, use rejection to your advantage.
If you are very lucky and getting close, an agent might offer some advice on your writing. And this is great! Remember that these people spend all day reading books. Although opinions may vary, they know their stuff. I even thanked some of the agents who rejected me in the Acknowledgments of my first book. If your agented book gets to the submission table and the editor is kind enough to explain why they didn't buy it, pay very close attention. No matter how talented you are, there's always something about your writing that can be improved.

5. But! Try to avoid reading negative book reviews.
At first, I read the one-star reviews, hoping to find ways to improve my next book. But, honestly, by the time someone gives you a bad review, their complaints are more painful than uplifting and about something that you can't change, like your book cover or, say, the fact that vampires are *so* done. And negative reviews can sometimes criticize the writer instead of the writing, which will feel like a personal attack, even if it isn't one. I believe that once the book is out in the world, reviewers have every right to say whatever they wish... just please don't tell me about it, because it makes me feel terrible.

6. If it makes you feel better, look at the Amazon or Goodreads reviews for your very favorite book.
Chances are, thousands of people hate it. That always makes me feel better. I mean, there are people out there who didn't finish Outlander or thought it was the worst book ever written. Of course people are going to hate my book! No matter how good your writing might be, it still comes down to personal taste.

7. When all else fails, inch towards daylight.
I borrowed this concept from fantasy writer Matt Stover. No matter how bad the situation is, you can probably move one inch, right? Rejection is like that. When I was querying, I sent out a new query every time I received a rejection. It made me feel like there was one more bit of hope out in the world. And when I finally realized that my first book was dead in the water, I opened a blank document and started writing the next book. Any forward motion is better than holding still.

8. Remember that every writer has been rejected.
Isaac Asimov, Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, Stephenie Meyer-- every writer who now lives in their own castle has been rejected by agents and editors, often dozens of times. Publishing is finicky and strange and random. I've never heard of a single writer who struck it big with their first query, their first book, and their first huge sale. Most "instant success" stories involve years of hard, thankless toil and a box (or inbox) full of form rejections.

9. Never make major decisions based on rejection.
If you're going to give up writing, don't do it because of rejection. If you're going to self-publish, don't do it because you're sick of being rejected. Do it because you want complete creative control of your story and are willing to do the work and do it right, hiring a professional editor and cover artist. Don't quit your job or break up with someone or do anything major right after being rejected. Rejection destroys your ability to look at the big picture unemotionally and make informed decisions.

10. Don't think it gets any easier.
Rejection never gets easy. I still cry when I get big edit letters outlining how flawed my books are and how much work they still require. I have books my agent doesn't like enough to move forward. I have books go out on submission and not sell. Revising is always hard. Hitting DELETE always makes me wince. When I'm sitting at a book signing, and someone stands in front of me and picks up my book and then puts it right back and doesn't even make eye contact, it's like being punched in the grief bone.

Every stage of a writing career involves being rejected, and that's why the list goes right back to #1: