Tag Archives: Dealing with rejection

Rejection, with a side of Acceptance

Believe it or not, rejection is an important part of every writer’s life. No one is immune. I was reminded of this recently when I read the editor’s column in the July 2018 issue of The Writer. Nicki Porter described the reality of writing submissions, whether the submission is to a magazine editor, a literary agent, or an editor at a publishing house, the mathematics are much the same. Each receives hundreds of submissions a week. Porter wrote: “The amount of manuscripts a typical agent receives in a year could fill three train cars, but the amount she accepts will fill a tidy desk drawer — and she’ll successfully sell even less.” Rejection, then, is an important part of every writer’s life no matter if the writer is a beginner, experienced, or an award-winning author.

I tend to look at rejections the same way I look at mistakes: they are opportunities for learning, for improvement. Yes, each rejection hurts initially, but I learned a long time ago that the rejection is never about me personally. In fact, the rejection might not even be about my writing. Sometimes it’s about an editor who has already scheduled to publish a story similar to mine in theme or story. Or it could be that despite my research into the publication, my story just doesn’t fit it. Once, I even encountered the reason that the publication had changed hands and editors with an entire new approach to the magazine.

When I suspect the rejection is about my writing, that’s an opportunity to go through the story with a more objective eye, an editor’s eye, and revise and tighten it as needed. If an editor takes the time to write a note, I pay close attention to what the editor says in that note. There was one time, however, that I dismissed the note — it was from a young literary agent writing about Perceval’s Secret that I’d submitted to his agency for consideration. The agent expressed interest, but wanted me to change Evan Quinn, the protagonist of the novel (and the subsequent 4 novels in the series), to a woman because female protagonists were “hot” and it would be easier for him to sell to a publisher. The agent didn’t say that the character didn’t work as a male, or even ask me anything about my decision to make Evan a male, or any other comment specifically about Evan Quinn or the story. No. It was what I considered an extremely shallow comment that totally ignored the amount of work already put into the book and the amount of work what would be required to change the gender of the protagonist, not to mention how the gender would radically change the story itself. Needless to say, after politely declining to consider the change, I moved on.

Photo: aliyasking.com

So, how can a writer increase his chances that his submission will be accepted for publication or representation? Here are three essential tips I see over and over in articles about gaining acceptance of one’s literary work:

  • Follow submission guidelines to the letter. The guidelines are not there to amuse or frustrate you. The agent or editor has created them to make his or her job easier for processing submissions. I judge scholarship essays every year, and it never fails to astonish me that 25% of the submissions never make it through the first cut because those writers failed to follow the guidelines.
  • Submit polished writing. Never submit first drafts. Just don’t. It takes at a minimum 3 revisions — and often far more — to get a piece of writing into publishable shape. Do ask for help in the form of first readers or members of your writing group to give you relevant and intelligent feedback about your piece. Do not rely on spellcheck or grammar check. Read your piece out loud. That is hands down the best way to catch grammar and syntax issues as well as word choice issues. When you submit polished writing, you are also showing that you are willing to do the work necessary to make your writing the best it can be.
  • Be a respectful professional. Forget the gimmicks. Follow the submission guidelines. Provide a succinct cover letter that includes what the editor or agent requests – nothing more, nothing less. If you receive a rejection, resist the temptation to fire off an angry or derisive e-mail in response. Doing that marks you as a disrespectful amateur. Every submission is like a job interview for your writing.

Each writer possesses a unique view of the world, a unique writing style, and unique stories to tell. Be true to the process and honor your own uniqueness by writing what you are compelled to write in your own voice. And while you’re at it, forget what other writers are producing or how other writers’ careers are progressing and focus on your own writing life and work. After all, that’s where you are.

Where I write


Theme: What’s It All Mean?

Consideration of theme comes last in the writing process.  I usually don’t think much about it for a long time even after I’ve finished writing a story.  For the Perceval series, each book has a theme and then an overall theme threads through all five novels (at least that’s the plan).   The theme of a story is what the story is about in the big picture or broader view.  For example, the theme of The Great Gatsby is the corruption of the American dream.  The theme of George Orwell’s 1984 is the possibility of the police state anyplace.  I tend to not think about theme because if one starts a story with a specific theme in mind for it, the story can end up sounding preachy and become a “message” story.   I want to entertain readers, not make them cringe and put down my story. 

Recently, however, theme punched me in the nose.  The short story I’d submitted in January was rejected, leaving me feeling adrift for several days.  The Writer magazine threw me a lifeline, as it has many times in the past.  In the March 2010 issue, “Theme is What Unifies Your Story” by Terry Bain grabbed me around the throat and shook me until I promised to apply its prescriptions to the short story that had been rejected. 

To my huge surprise, as I reviewed the story, I learned that what I had thought the story was about, wasn’t what the story I’d submitted was about.  I should have checked it for theme BEFORE I sent it out.  The rejected story is about the protagonist’s prejudice against someone who doesn’t share her appearance.  While this is a viable story theme — prejudice — it wasn’t what I had been aiming for.  I had wanted the theme to be how imagination opens up the world for people and makes change possible (and sometimes painless).  Elements of my desired theme threaded through the story but need to be brought out to the foreground, and the prejudice elements need to be either eliminated or pushed far into the background.  I have my work cut out for me…..

The editor had been correct to reject the story.  It pays to return to a rejected story with fresh eyes (and some help from The Writer) to find a way to make the story better.  I enjoy the revision process — it’s like sculpting — and working the words, sentences and paragraphs into the powerful story that I want it to be.  A writer’s work is never done…..

The Three P’s

Just what I needed right now: a pep talk via an article entitled “Don’t be afraid of striking out” by Robert Dugoni in the February 2010 issue of The Writer.  The relevant quote for me:

“Writing is also a profession of failure.  Rejection is, at some level, inevitable.  As writers, we can’t become paralyzed at the thought of rejection.  We can’t fear it, or seek to avoid it.  Rather, we must confront it head on, charge into it with reckless abandon.”

Rejection and failure are facts of life.  They make acceptance and success all the sweeter.  But dealing with them is harder in some ways than dealing with acceptance and success (which have their own issues at times).  Dugoni suggests looking at rejection and failure as a baseball player looks at striking out.  One must try in order to have a chance to succeed.  Try to hit the ball.  Dugoni writes on to say that writers need to learn and practice the three P’s as they try for acceptance and success: patience, perseverance and persistence. 

Learning to deal with rejection and failure must have been my karma from a past life and that’s the reason my life’s purpose, my soul’s desire, my bliss, is to write stories, to tell stories to other people.  To be a writer.  I cannot imagine being even remotely happy doing anything else.  However, humans are capable of doing many things, and I’m thankful that I can also do things that will earn the money I need to pay the bills.  I still need to practice the three P’s.

Patience.  Sometimes I may be too patient.  I waited far too long for the agent, to whom I sent the complete manuscript of Perceval, to read my novel and respond back.  Lesson learned: set boundaries.  The agent apparently thought he had no deadline and then clearly forgot he even had the manuscript.  So, it’s perfectly OK to tell an agent or editor that they have a specific amount of time in which to read my submission and respond. 

Patience: I think back to when I first hunkered down in my apartment to write short stories.  I thought I was a brilliant writer and it would be a piece of cake to get published.  That was 1983.  I’ve seen a lot of rejections since then, been struck by various realizations that I was not a brilliant writer and I had (have) a lot to learn.  But I continued to write, because I had to write.  I believed my time would come, I only needed to be patient.

Perseverance seems to be the easy one for me.  I don’t even think about it.  Persistence on the other hand is to persevere again and again, doggedly, stubbornly, to stand firm in one’s resolve.  I must write so perseverance comes easily, but must I submit my stories and essays in order to be a writer?  If publication is the goal, yes.  If sharing my stories is the goal, yes.  I must persist in submitting my writing, in working toward my goals for my writing.  I must persist in my perseverance as a writer.  Persistence, as Dugoni describes it succintly, is to be a bulldog. 

Woof, woof.  This past week, a nagging tug from my imagination regarding the first chapter of Perceval.  The tug wants me to begin that chapter in a different place.  To return to the first novel and make it better.  Suddenly, I’ve rejected the current manuscript of the novel myself.  My imagination pushes me forward, to open a new file in Word, to haul out the paper copy and begin reading with a red pen…..