Dealing with Rejection
by Kenneth Atchity
Reprinted from The Writer, February, 1995
If you can't stand - or can't learn to stand - the idea that your work may be rejected, you should give up the dream of writing.
Becoming professional means learning to deal with rejection with dignity and determination. Besides, rejection slips aren't so bad. Over the years, as I've listened to writers complain about them, I've come to realize that we surely prefer them to at least one alternative.
A dark Lincoln limousine pulls up in front of your house in the morning. Your hair is still in curlers as a woman in a severe tweed suit walks up the driveway with a leather attaché case under her arm. "Hello, Jan Matthews," she says, handing you an envelope. "My name is Ashburton Mary Calhoun, senior editor of Pachyderm Books. I wanted to return your manuscript in person to tell you we thought it was awful." She tips her hat. "Have a nice day."
The rejection slip is the industry's alternative to blatant callousness; it's not worth brooding over. Brood over a personal visit from Calhoun, but until that happens keep up your momentum.
Fear of rejection is inevitable for writers, since writing involves an extension of self. The ability to keep moving forward despite rejection distinguishes professionals from amateurs. Rejections can even become a badge of success. All successful writers have amassed a hill of them. The goal is to control the rejection slips rather than be controlled by them. Some people do this by burning them; others do it by using them to paper the bathroom wall. A famous composer is said to have written this letter:
"I am sitting in the smallest room in my house. Your criticism is in front of me. Soon it will be behind me."
When an article or manuscript is returned to your mailbox, you already have your "linkage." Before even looking at the rejection notice, take the manuscript out of the return envelope and slip it into the addressed envelope for the next submission. Put that in the mail and only then, if you must, read your rejection slip. Record it on your submission list so you don't resubmit the same version of a manuscript to an uninterested publisher a second time. Above all, don't let your response to rejection delay getting the manuscript in circulation again. It's not going to get published if it sits around the house.
Rejection slips vary widely. A careful study of them can lead to building bridges with editors. A personal signature can mean more than a completely printed form. But the general rule among editors and publishers (who read countless manuscripts) is not to say more than their time allows. An editor is usually not interested in being addressed personally by a writer unless the editor has included specific comments about how to improve your manuscript with the response. One way of addressing the editor - building the bridge - is to write back asking why your piece was rejected, including a copy of the editor's letter when you do so. Most editors, if you read their rejection letters correctly and query them courteously, will take the time to answer such a question.
Many editors will distinguish between their rejection letters as follows:
1. Lowest level - a printed form - generally sent if the writer hasn't addressed a particular editor.
2. A note with a personal signature - it may still "sound" like a form letter. Polite but no particulars.
3. A note as above, but with particular details about rejection, brief suggestions about needed revisions, and an invitation to see further work.
When they have any interest in your work, they will say so, as in a #3 response. If they send you a #2 response, you may conclude that they found too many things wrong with the concept or execution of your story or manuscript to allow them time to respond in more detail.
The less work needed to make a manuscript publishable, the better the response from a publisher. If you have received less than a #3 response from an editor or publisher, it's improbable that asking an editor why your manuscript was rejected will build a bridge to the publishing industry for your personal network. If the editor didn't find it practical to analyze the shortcomings of your manuscript in the first place, you'll only put her on the spot by asking her a second time. Editors don't want to be hurtful, and the kind of letter they would have to formulate to avoid deepening a writer's rejection wound is also too time-consuming. One publisher relates:
I recently had a three-page, single-spaced letter from a writer reviewing the history of another writer's lack of success in publishing a book and, by implication, trying to get back at me for rejecting it. Did I understand genius and the writer's frustration? The author also wanted to take me to lunch to discuss the book in detail - it was some 800 pages.
Any personal correspondence from an editor is worth a follow-up on your part. But be cautious about how you interpret their language, and don't be discouraged!
Publishers and editors suggest the following guidelines for interpreting and responding to their comments:
1. Consider any editorial suggestions seriously, though you may feel bruised at first. Do they make sense? How could you rectify what's wrong?
2. Has the editor understood what you're attempting to say? How could you make it clearer?
3. If so, only if clarification (and suggestions for change) might change the editorial opinion, write an explanatory letter. But don't do so as a means of self-justification against the establishment.
Some editors may use the phrase, "We can't use it right now" merely to soften the letdown, and many writers take the words as literal truth. However, some editors may mean the phrase literally, so if an editor writes, "We can't use it right now," write back and ask, "When can you use it?" If you receive encouragement from an editor, ask "If I changed the ending (or whatever change the editor suggests), would you be interested in seeing it again?" If you do resubmit your revised manuscript to an editor, query first with a copy of the original rejection letter. Then be sure to note that the manuscript is a revision of one previously submitted.
It's not uncommon for a writer to receive 36 rejections and then be accepted - or 50 rejections in the U.S., and finally be published in England. Be patient. Suspense novelist Elmore Leonard's The Big Bounce was rejected 84 times before it was sold as a Gold Medal Original, with Warner Brothers making the film. Make a chart of submissions and fill in the blanks without thinking about it. Note any constructive feedback and suggested revisions. Modify your submission list if the comments or lack of response in an area you thought might be most marketable for your work indicate the contrary. Unless a half-dozen editors make the same criticism of your work, plan to send it out at least 30 times before you begin major revisions that require withdrawing it from your active file. Frank Herbert's Dune was rejected by some 20 publishers, Jerry Kosinski's Cockpit 36 times - three times by the publisher who eventually published it, once by that same publisher after the book came out!
(Kosinski sent a copy of a typed manuscript, with its title and author changed, to a different editor at the same publishing house; when that editor rejected it, Kosinski sent him a copy of the signed book.)
George Bernard Shaw said that he realized when he was still a child that nine things out of ten he attempted were failures.
"I didn't want to be a failure, so I decided I had to work ten times harder!
Fourteen Reasons for Rejections
by GENE FEHLER
"The suggestions made for revisions will often make the difference between acceptance and rejection..."
* You really don't want to write; you just want to be published.
* You haven't read widely the kind of material you are trying to write.
* You haven't mastered writing techniques.
* You've been too easily discouraged.
* You haven't studied the market.
* You failed to follow up leads.
* You can't take criticism.
* Your writing is commonplace or lacks imaginative spark.
* Your query letters don't "sell" your idea.
* You don't revise before submitting your manuscript.
* You are too concerned with writing for a specific market.
* You haven't learned the editorial requirements of a specific market.
* You make excuses for not writing.
* You may not have the talent or skill to succeed at the level you'd envisioned.