Fear of rejection is a real, palpable thing. It keeps people from doing all kinds of things. Hell, it kept me from asking a girl out on a date until I was 18. Everybody fears having their hopes dashed.
In the writing biz, this fear is especially pronounced. You pour so much of yourself into your work, you dream of its potential success, but when it comes time to push it out the door, you hesitate. What if nobody wants it? What if they hate it? The pain at having to face the fact that your stories aren’t as wonderful as you hoped is so terrifying, some people never take their stuff out of their drawer/hard drive.
To be a published writer at all, you have to push past this. After a while, you grow accustomed to rejection. It always stings, it’s always a disappointment, but you understand that a rejection is not necessarily a reflection of your self-worth or talent or potential. There are lots and lots of reasons editors reject stories and manuscripts, and not all of them have to do with the quality of said manuscript. Sometimes they just bought something very similar to what you just wrote. Sometimes they can’t accommodate a story of that length. Sometimes they just don’t personally get it, even though some other editor might. And sometimes the story in question, wonderful though it is, is “just not right for this market.”
This is where we fall into the rabbit hole of self-rejection.
Self-rejection is what happens when you assume a market won’t buy a story and so you never send it at all. You look at the kind of stuff they publish, you don’t see how you’d fit (it’s too good, it’s not like your stuff, it’s not the kind of thing you do, etc.), and so you don’t even bother. The thing is, though, that this is routinely a mistake. So long as your story adheres to the submission guidelines (i.e. don’t send a graphic horror piece to a YA scifi market) and it is the best you can do, just send it. I’ve talked to a lot of editors over the years, and all of them tell me one thing: Just send it. Let us do the rejecting. Let us decide if it’s right for us or not.
Now, I know what you’re saying: “You’re kidding me. They want more submissions? Don’t they get, like, hundred and hundreds?”
Well yeah, they do, but they also want good stories. Right now I am assuming that you’re pretty good at this writing thing. You’ve done your homework, you’ve taken your craft seriously, you’ve revised and revised again. You are of professional caliber – you know it in your bones. Put your Impostor Syndrome aside for a second and remind yourself that you’re good enough for this. Assuming this is all true, then you are already stepping ahead of literally thousands of people who have not done their homework and don’t take their craft seriously and who haven’t bothered to revise and revise again. You’re already near the top.
So send it! Go ahead! The worst that you get is a “no.” And a “no” there doesn’t mean a “no” everywhere. Keep submitting. Keep going.
I’m going to tell you a little story here to conclude: About 4 or 5 years ago, when I had only a few semipro sales and not much to show for it, I wrote a short story called “A Crystal Dipped in Dreams.” It’s a post-apocalyptic piece, but an optimistic one. I submitted it to The Writers of the Future Award and it was one of the finalists, but it didn’t win and was never published. Disappointed, but certain that it would sell soon, I started subbing it out.
It was rejected again and again and again and, honestly, I eventually gave up. The only place I hadn’t sent it was Analog Science Fiction and Fact and they seem partial to hard scifi and more classic stuff than this was. I figured they wouldn’t want it.
Fast-foward to this past February, I was going through old stories that hadn’t sold but that I thought were good, just to see if there were any submissions I didn’t make. I came across this one and figured “what the hell” and subbed it to Analog. I guessed it would be a reject – the story just seemed wrong for them – but guess what? It sold! I just signed the contract today, marking my second sale to Analog and my sixth pro-story sale overall. Just goes to show what I know!
And what I didn’t know, you don’t either. Submit!
Today, in a discussion with fellow writers over Tor.com’s decision to close to unsolicited fiction submissions, I said the following thing:
Well, they’ve got a story from me that they’ve been sitting on for seven months, so here’s hoping!
No less than eighteen seconds after saying this, I went to my e-mail inbox and found a rejection from Tor waiting for me. For some people – perhaps some of you reading this – this seems like some kind of cosmic karmic response to the vocalization of my hopes. “Ah-ha! You should never have said anything! Then it wouldn’t have happened!”
Now, as I’m presuming most people are (loosely) rational creatures, I think most of us understand that the real world does not operate like this in any way, shape, or form. My decision to speak or not speak some combination of magic words does not alter space/time; that rejection was coming to me one way or another. Still, it is very tempting to think that way. “If only I did X and not Y! If only I hadn’t told anybody! If only I had told more people! I should have crossed my fingers before I answered the phone!”
“Rejectomancy,” or the collected term for the superstitious habits of authors seeking to make sales and avoid rejection, happens all the time. It happens because publishing is a world predicated on failure – for every successful submission, there are dozens of rejected ones (probably). For every author that “makes it” there are a hundred who don’t. This process is hard on the ego. If you want to be a writer, you need to face rejection and failure with two unblinking eyes: it’s coming, so figure out how to deal with it or find a different profession. The thing is, rejection letters often seem so arbitrary and you so often seem to have no power over them. We authors are victims of the capricious whims of editors the world over! Woe is us! If only there were some mystical way we could feel that we have agency!
I know! Wear those lucky socks! Don’t start a story with rain (ever)! Only check your writer e-mail on Wednesdays! Only submit stories on a Tuesday afternoon! NEVER WRITE IN ANYTHING BUT COURIER! Etc., etc, etc..
The thing is, though, all that stuff is total bunk. It does not, in fact, give you any power. If it makes you feel good, fine, but don’t go around pretending the world operates on supernatural principles that orient themselves solely around the arbitrary choices of one individual. We merely write fantasy, we ought not live there.
If you want to feel like you have some control over your writerly destiny, the first thing to do is work on getting better at writing. That story that got rejected? You can do better. You should do better. Go out and learn how to do better. Write a new story. Send that one out. Repeat.
Also, just because some editor didn’t like your story doesn’t mean that story is bad. Not in the least! Once you get to a certain level of skill (what I would loosely term “professional quality”) – once you are writing stories that are on the same level as the stories you read in the major publications – well, then, sometimes it’s just plain old luck that decides the rejection or acceptance. Sometimes the editor isn’t grabbed by the ending – not that it was a bad ending, they just didn’t really like it. Sometimes the editor just bought a story very similar to yours. Sometimes you’ve caught them on a bad day. Sometimes they have in mind a theme for the next issue and you don’t really fit. From our end, there is often no way to tell if this is the case.
So, if you get rejected, by all means give the story a once over. Ponder on whether or not you can improve it. If you can’t – if you know this is your best work (at the moment) – send it out again. Turn it around. Rejections might sting, but that’s a sting you need to learn how to deal with. Now, if wearing fuzzy socks every time you send a submission helps you, then go right ahead. But always remember: publishing isn’t magic, it’s a business, and a tough one. The best way to win is to keep playing and up your game, and no superstition will ever trump that.
I was interviewed recently by my local newspaper regarding The Iron Ring (psst! Buy it! Review!) and also about my win in the Writers of the Future Contest (pre-order!). It was a great interview and the reporter did a really thorough job (I’ll post here when the article is in print, never fear). I enjoyed it immensely. One of his first questions, though was a question I get a lot and a question, that, I imagine, a lot of writers get asked. The question was this:
Does it hurt when you get a rejection?
Everybody wants to know this. They hear famous author X had their brilliant manuscript rejected Y times and they wonder “how did they keep pushing? How did they know to keep going?” The odds of being successful as a writer seem so bleak, so hopelessly improbable, that each rejection seems like it ought to be another nail in the coffin of your authorial aspirations. Yet, somehow, we press on. So, again: doesn’t it hurt?
This question, I feel, has an answer in two parts. Firstly, yes, it does hurt. It hurts less and less the more you are rejected, mind you – you build something of a resistance to that unique kind of pain – but it always knocks you off your kilter a little. The longer you’ve had to wait for that rejection and the more of yourself you’ve poured into the thing being rejected, the worse the pain. It ranges from something like a slap to the face to a full-on punch to the guts so hard it makes your breath whistle through your teeth.
The second part of this answer goes like this: It doesn’t matter if it hurts. Anybody seriously considering writing knows that it is not a path to fame and fortune. Pick any ten authors out of modern book store and at least eight of them still have day jobs. They take up all their free time writing not because of the glory of it all, but because they simply must write. They aren’t going to stop just because somebody said they stunk. They’re going to get back on that horse to get knocked off again. And again.
Even if you do get to the “yes” and score yourself a book deal or get an award or something (so, like me), you haven’t succeeded yet. You aren’t done. The real work is just beginning. I’ve still got a day job and I’m working on two separate novels at the same time. In the next two weeks, I need to read 3 novels, grade about 140 pages of student work, teach full time, and turn around the revisions and final copy edits of Book 2. I’ve also got a wife, two small children, and a dog who deserve a little attention. At some point I should sleep and perhaps eat.
And I haven’t, by any stretch of the imagination, made it.
Some people seem to think that writing has some kind of finish line, that it’s a race you can win and then stop. That isn’t how this works, folks. You aren’t writing to win a race. You are writing because you love running. You can’t expect to stop.
This reminds me of a little story I read in Nick Evangelista’s The Art and Science of Fencing. It goes something like this:
A student of fencing traveled a great distance to meet with a great master to see if he had what it took to be great. The fencer showed the master everything he knew, pushing himself as hard as he could. When he had finished, he waited to see what the master would say.
“You do not have the fire.” The master said.
This was like a dagger to the student’s heart, but he could not contest the word of a master. The student gave up the blade and moved on with his life, eventually prospering in business.
Years later, the student encountered the master again. He took the opportunity to ask him how he knew he lacked “the fire.”
The master shrugged. “I didn’t, but if you did have the fire, it would not have mattered if I said you did not. You would have continued learning, no matter what I said. That is the fire.”
I think I have the fire. To be a writer, I think you need it. Rejections be damned.
It occurs to me that, about a year ago (give or take a week), I began writing this blog. This seems as good a time as any to reflect upon it, so here we go:
For one thing, traffic has gone up a lot. Last time I did this (about four months in or so), I was averaging 40 views a day. Now I average between 70-100 and I had a stretch or two there where I was between 300-1000. I don’t think these are necessarily unique page views and, in the scheme of blog-dom, this is really small potatoes, but more is more. Traffic has lagged a bit the last few weeks, but I think that has something to do with the Publicize feature not working right and me not noticing for a while.
Anyway, more views, more followers, and it seems to be more-or-less sustaining itself. Good.
I’ve largely eliminated my fiction contributions to this blog. I still write a little bitty scene here or there, but that’s about it. They do not seem to be missed, by and large, and those posts always got the fewest views, anyway. I try not to take this personally and tell myself that much of the blog-reading world is pretty firmly in the ‘tl;dr’ camp. Anything I post over a thousand words gets fewer hits; attention spans ain’t what they used to be.
In writing news, I didn’t wind up winning the Writers of the Future contest this time around. Though most rejections roll off my back, this hasn’t. This is much because it wasn’t a rejection–I placed as a finalist, which is good. It also means I didn’t win, which my hyper-competitive nature inherently interprets as ‘losing’, even though it isn’t. Finishing as a finalist is a great honor and good for my career…
I’ve landed another story, this time with Stupefying Stories, which is also good. I can now send out all that stuff I was holding back from submission while I was waiting for the contest results, this time with the moniker ‘Writers of the Future Finalist’ attached to the queries, which should help. Onward and upward, though I’m getting very tired of finishing second-tier in my writing career. My novel queries make it past the initial round of readers, make their way to editors’ desks…and then ‘aren’t right for them’. My stories make it through the first round of cuts and I get wonderful, personalized rejection letters. These are good signs, ultimately, but they are uniquely frustrating. I’d almost prefer the form, pat rejections, since then I don’t have to live with the knowledge of just how close I came.
(Actually, no, I wouldn’t prefer that. This frustration in my guts is a good motivator.)
In between my bouts of ‘almost getting there,’ though, there is this blog here, wherein I can publish things and pontificate about stuff my wife would never want to listen to and people read it. That, as it happens, helps a bit and also keeps me in the writing zone, which is important. The semester is looming, and I’m sure my classes will be packed full of students–staying in the zone is very, very difficult, believe me.
Anyway, thank you all for reading. I hope you have enjoyed the blog, and I’m interested to hear your feedback overall or about anything in particular. Thanks again!