Handling Rejection

James Scott Bell

There’s an old Peanuts cartoon, where Snoopy is reading a rejection letter which says Please don’t send us any more. Please, please!
With a wry smile, Snoopy thinks, “I love to hear an editor beg.”
That’s one way to handle rejection.
There are others. We all know rejection is part of this crazy business. Whether it’s agent or editor, the default setting is to say No. Which means you have to find a way to handle the inevitable.
The best way is by continuing to write and submit. Here are a couple of quotes I like on the subject:
Let rejection hurt for a half hour, no more.  Then get back to your word processor. –Jacqueline Briskin
Never assume that a rejection of your stuff is also a rejection of you as a person. Unless it’s accompanied by a punch in the nose. β€” Ron Goulart
No matter how many rejections you’ve received, it’s probably not as many as Jack London, who apparently had a whole trunk full. Or Stephen King, who put his on a spike on the wall until the papers were falling off. They persevered to publication.
You can also look through the legions of rejections famous writers have received. The little book Rotten Rejections (Andre Bernard, ed.) has some gems.
A rejection of Tony Hillerman’s first Navajo detective novel: “If you insist on rewriting this, get rid of all that Indian stuff.”
Or this, for George Orwell’s Animal Farm: “It is impossible to sell animal stories in the United States.”
Maybe the most famous rejection was penned by Samuel Johnson: “Your manuscript is both good and original, but the part that is good is not original, and the part that is original is not good.”
So there you go. It’s universal. It happens. The key is how you handle it.
How do you? Does rejection follow you around like a bad smell, or are you able to get past it and back to the keyboard?

24 thoughts on “Handling Rejection

  1. I realize the intent of this post is aimed at people who have received multiple rejections, but I’m coming at it from a different angle.

    I submitted my manuscript for the first time EVER this summer, after 6 years of work. And I was very kindly rejected.

    Was it slightly disappointing? Of course. But mostly I was elated. I’d FINALLY submitted. And in my own eyes, that at last made me a legitimate writer. In essence, I’d finally earned the right to be rejected.

    Now I’ll have to revisit this “elated” business at a later date after multiple rejections. 😎

  2. It is not the agents/publishers rejecting me so much as it is me eliminating the agents/publisher who are not meant to handle my works.

    Besides to be rejected is to know that they noticed me. My 3 novels have been noticed nearly 200 times. I am feeling the love.

  3. I sent out about a half dozen query letters before finding an agent, so fortunately I didn’t have to go through too much. But one particularly patronizing rejection from an agent–who had asked for an exclusive before even reading my work–stuck in my craw for a long time. I’m a bit of a brooder, so I’m glad I found an agent immediately after encountering Miss Sneer.

  4. You’re right, Jim. Rejection is part of the business. And we all have to deal with it at one time or another. I’ve got a file folder a couple of inches thick with rejection letters. But a lot has changed since King, Briskin, Goulart, Hillerman and Orwell got their rejection letters. Back then, there were two choices: keep writing/submitting or give up. Today, too many writers abandon the legacy route too soon and turn to vanity press and self publishing. The result is a market flooded with books that are not ready for prime time.

  5. There’s a valuable thread in the comments of BK, Basil and Frank. It’s like the the founder of IBM (I think it was) who said to succeed you need to “fail more.” You need to show that you are out there punching. Yeah, you get cracked in the jaw, but eventually it’s you who lands the haymaker.

  6. Kathryn, I think the Sneer family has cousins all over, and they are to be avoided.

    Joe, you’re right about “prime time.” Just because it can be published doesn’t mean it should. Of course there are some who deserve publication who haven’t gotten there yet. To find out if they’re one of those, the writer should at least have solid group feedback and be open and objective about his or her work.

  7. Before I was published, I used to read newspaper articles on first time authors and their writer’s journey. And the ones I most wanted to be like were the ones who had gotten countless rejections and were proud of that. I didn’t want to be the author who got a handful of NOs and gave up. I figured it only took one pair of eyes to say YES, so I kept looking for those eyes and found them. And only an author knows what a “good rejection” is. Before I sold, I was getting better rejections–more feedback, encouragement to send more–but still a NO.

    And with all the time I was spending writing after my workday and on weekends, like I had two full time jobs, I asked myself a question. Would I still write if I never sell? When I answered YES, then I settled in for the long haul, taking pleasure in the thing that had become my life’s passion. I sold soon after that epiphany.

    I had a ritual, however, for my countless rejections. I read them, but shredded them in a ritual meant to disperse the negativity from my house. So unlike friends of mine who kept everything, I didn’t keep one.

    And the other thing I thought about was that I was an avid reader, reading sometimes 5 books a week when I got on a roll. And since I was writing the kind of book I looked for and wanted to read–no matter what the naysayers told me was the trend–I figured I was the market that publishers were looking for. So who would know better than me? It made me more sure of what I wanted to write and I got more adept at following my gut instincts on what to reject for criticism.

  8. BK–Find your own way of dealing with the rejection or critcism. Even after you’re published, you have to deal with negative reviews or potential rejections from houses on other projects. So find a healthy way to deal because it will become a fact of life in some fashion or another.

    And kudos to you for finishing a manuscript and submitting it. That’s a HUGE first step. Celebrate that. But I would also encourage you not to edit the same material, hoping your project gets picked up fast. The best way to learn is to keep writing. The choice I made was to learn by writing the next book. I still learn so much from each one. And when I sold, the publisher had inventory to buy and they did. So my time wasn’t wasted.

    But take the time to celebrate your victories. You can’t imagine how many people tell me they want to publish a book and never even get as far as the first chapter. You’ve written a book, finished it, and submitted it to a house for consideration. That’s really big. An author may not be published, but if they have finished a book and gone through the steps you have to submit it, then I consider them an author who hasn’t found the right house yet. You are already way ahead of the game.

  9. Hey Jim,
    Awesome seeing you at conference.

    Ah, rejection. When I was in the pit of despair over so many rejections I bought the book, Chicken Soup for the Writes Soul(I think that was back in 2000). Beginning on page 332 the authors speak about the Power of Perseverance. I’m sure many of you at the Kill Zone and responding to Jim’s post have read this.

    I love the the one about Louis L’Amour being rejected 350 times before his first sale. He later received a congressional gold medal for his writing historically based novels.

    And on page 340 the Peanuts cartoon strip I love is the one where Snoopy says,

    “Dear Editor, Why do you keep sending my stories back? You’re supposed to print them, and make me rich and famous. What is it with you?”

    It’s taken me 20 years of studying the craft and attending conferences, and actively writing for ten years to finally get a contract. Without perseverance I would have never reached this point. Finding the words, the right words, is still a challenge.

  10. Jordan, that’s a crucial question for writers to ask themselves: would I still do this even if not published? Gets you grounded where you need to be.

    And Jillian, yours is a wonderful testimony. Glad to have been a small part of it.

  11. Thanks Jordan. In retrospect, I have learned it wasn’t a good idea to toil over the same book for that many years. When I’m published that’s one piece of advice I’ll definitely remember to give to seekers. 😎

  12. I’ve gotten supportive critiques and positive feedback on my writing. I can take that to bed at night when the rejections come in. As I get older, I have an easier time believing in myself and handling the ups and downs. I may be getting a late start in writing, but I could never have handled a rejection note twenty years ago.

  13. Love this post! I’ve had many rejections, but things are starting to turn out for me. What I think is a major problem is people don’t know where to submit their work. I’m not saying people are stupid, people submit to places that say in the submission guidelines that they read whatever kind of fiction they write, but there’s more to it.

    It’s about connections, it’s about getting to know people.

    Well there. That’s all I wanted to say. πŸ™‚

  14. Hey Brayden–You bring up an excellent point. And it reminded me of folks who aren’t watching trends of what is selling and are determined to pitch their story regardless, when maybe they need to package their book a different way. I come from a sales background. And my #1 goal was to get the customer to ask for a proposal. Well, it’s the same thing in the publishing industry. All you want is for them to ask to see more, so your writing can speak for you.

    Today’s books are so cross genre. They usually have more than one element to the plot, so why not capitalize on the best opportunity to sell? Instead of stating in your proposal that you have a mystery (which might be a red flag to some houses), maybe your man and woman protags can be spun into romantic suspense story targeted for women readers or take your paranormal and add more world building to spin it into an urban fantasy. I’m not suggesting the proposal be a tall tale. It must be an accurate description of your work, but why shoot yourself in the foot because you want to call your book a mystery when it could have broader appeal.

    It’s my opinion that if an editor is reading countless queries or proposals, they probably are looking for the first thing that flags the work as a rejection. But when they ask for a full manuscript, they are generally looking for a reason to say yes. I know. Optimistic, right? πŸ™‚

  15. Over the years, Jim, I’ve asked literally dozens and dozens of published authors how they got their first agent. And you know what? With only one exception, NONE of them got their first agent by going the prescribed cold-query route. It was all luck and/or connections.

    Which would logically lead one to believe (would it not?) that most agents don’t really read queries anyway, despite their heated assertions to the contrary. Their 21-year-old junior assistant fresh-out-of-college trainee reads them. Or rather, doesn’t read them, merely rejects them all, because he/she doesn’t want to risk recommending a piece of crap to the boss.

    Am I right or wrong?

  16. Well, Mike, that’s pretty interesting anecdotal evidence. I have a feeling the truth is somewhere in the middle. There’s no question meeting an agent face to face, and pitching, and getting an in that way is going to pay off more than the cold query route.

    OTOH, there are so many bad or “plain vanilla” queries out there, most are bound to be rejected.

    I think the really good ones stick out, and even if read by an assistant, will get passed to the agent.

    In fact, there’s an article in this month’s Writer’s Digest about that very thing, queries that came in that agents bit on. They explain what made the difference.

  17. Everyone who has commented seem to handle it so well! I, on the other hand, have lost my footing properly. Since way back, I’m very bad at believing in good feedback, but I instantly accept rejections and bad critique as ultimate truth (this is not only in writing).

    Which means that the twenty or so rejections I’ve received on my Agent Quest really didn’t go down well. I know exactly what I should think, but I can’t seem to believe in those wise words. My heart takes the full hit, no shield up. And it’s not that I take it personally – I rather have them tell me I have a horrid personality, than to not be interested in my writing.

    I’m at the point when I can barely take up a pen (well, keyboard), and can’t read my own words without thinking they’re flawed beyond salvation.

    It frightens me, because writing is the only thing I’ve ever wanted to live for.

  18. I got my first agent from a cold query, and over three years I had something like 165 rejections on three books before selling The Last Family to Bantam. I had 41 rejections on TLF. I still have all of them in a file. I had enough positive rejections that I didn’t feel too badly.

  19. Malin, thanks for being so vulnerable. All writers can understand how you feel. Check out a book by Dennis Palumbo, “Writing from the Inside Out: Transforming Your Psychological Blocks to Release the Writer Within.” Hope this helps.

  20. Malin–Thanks for your insightful comment.

    Writing IS so very personal that getting negative criticism on it is worse than receiving an insult. You open a vein everytime you sit down at that keyboard.

    That’s why I write for myself. And even though I want the reader to take that journey with me when they read my books, I can’t have any expectation they will like what I’ve done. I can’t let myself care about it. Learning the craft of writing is my end game. And that has to be enough.

  21. Sometimes I wonder how often those famous rejections got revised. All those editors that passed up some of our most-loved novels might have actually made those novels better. Rejection gives you something else: A second chance.

    If handled properly, a rejection is nothing more than a letter saying, “You’re not there yet. Try harder.” Some authors get excited when they finish a novel, knowing the vision in their head and on paper. Unfortunately, many don’t get everything perfectly clear on a first draft.

    If you give a novel time, coming back to it at a later date for edits, you are much better off. A second set of eyes always helps. Rejection gives us a chance to reflect and fix, and a good critique always helps. Had those editors picked up Animal Farm the first time, would it have been as good? Or did the writer go through and fine-tweak it into what it is today, only because of the rejections?

    How much did their editor or agent play a role in their writing? Anyway, very interesting read. I completely agree.

    Draven Ames

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