How to Face Rejection and Know Your Limits
When I was pursuing an MFA in Fiction Writing, every time I got a rejection letter from a publication, I would tape it to my bedroom wall. By the time I earned my graduate degree, one entire wall was quilted in hard-earned wallpaper.
My attitude was, “I’ll show them!”
When my peers saw it, they had a different reaction. Why would I want to show off my rejections? How does that help?
Every writer must face rejection. It is built into the process. The sooner we accept that the more swiftly we can progress.
By displaying my rejections, I was trying to use them as fuel for the fire of my ambition. I wore the rejections like a chip on my shoulder, and I thought a wave of spite would give me strength, imbue me with righteous indignation, and fill me with energy that would pour out onto the page in swift, exceptional prose.
But my wall of shame did not help me write better fiction. I was going to write stories whether I had a wall of rejections or not. In hindsight, it was a waste of effort, a vanity project, and ultimately my personal monument to missing the point.
I want to climb into a time machine, appear in my old bedroom in a puff of sci-fi steam, and shake my younger self by the shoulders.
“Rejection is part of the business,” I would tell myself. “It is not evil, not a personal attack, and certainly not a billboard announcing your continued failure.”
“These editors are people,” I would continue, breathless and desperate, “and they have their own tastes, biases, distractions, workplace politics, and deadlines. By rejecting me, they aren’t necessarily saying I’m terrible. All it means is the story wasn’t what they wanted to publish now.”
It’s true that rejection can suggest issues of quality. Anytime you get a form rejection letter, you will wonder if the publication was swamped or if they thought so little of your story that it didn’t merit more than a perfunctory, “thanks, but no thanks.”
But, the type of rejection you receive can sometimes offer great feedback if you know where and how to look. It can indicate where you need to focus your edits, or how you can improve your writing for your next project.
An agent who takes the time to send the manuscript back with personalised notes, for example, suggests there is something there worth working on. Often, in those cases, after some revision, you can even send them a fresh version to consider again.
Sometimes even just a handwritten “Sorry!” on a form letter can feel like a small victory and help you face rejection. It means they considered your manuscript worthwhile, just not right for them at that moment.
Most commonly, however, the reasons your manuscripts are rejected are beyond your control. Agents may have placed a similar manuscript recently, may not have room in their catalogue, or may just flat out not publish the type of work you are pitching (which is why it’s so important to vet your literary agents). Just because your work is good does not mean it is a good fit for every publication. And that is ok.
So, what can we control?
We can grow our beta reader group to gather diverse feedback. We can use that feedback to rewrite and revise frequently. We can seek out quality editors to review the manuscript before it goes out. And we can do our homework on agents and publishers, reading other work they have published to get an idea of whether our writing may align with their focus.
When we do these things, we prevent rejections from being self-inflicted. The rest is up to luck, chance, or fate.
Rejection is not fun, and it doesn’t always get easier over time. However, rejection does signal that we are serious writers, willing to take risks for the sake of our chosen profession.
My friend, the novelist David Alexander Baker, once told me a story about how his novel Vintage took 40 rejections before it was picked up by an agent. That’s a lot of rejection to weather just to get in the door, and there was no guarantee the agent would succeed in selling it to publishers. But that is the business. If we’re not ready to weather those storms, then we’re not ready to publish.
So, how can we face rejection as a positive to stay motivated? The trick is to set yourself a limit — whatever you’re comfortable with.
Send out those manuscripts and those query letters, but when you get the rejections, keep a running tally for each piece. For any given piece, set your upper limit of rejections; the number that marks your end of the road. My personal limit is 50.
If the piece has merit and it’s right for the market, someone will likely publish it before it hits your limit. If it does reach the limit with no interest, it’s time to put it away and move on to try again with a new manuscript.
Maybe you face rejection because your manuscript needs more changes to make it viable, maybe it doesn’t fit the market, or maybe it’s just not the right time. That’s ok. You did an important part of the job; there’s nothing to say you can’t revisit the manuscript and the process again later when you’ve developed as a writer, or the market is more primed for your work to fit.
When you set a limit, you have an end in mind. You know how far you need to go. Each rejection moves you closer to resolution, whether publication or relegation. Each rejection inches you closer to a goal.
Framing this painful task in a positive light helps lessen the sting of each individual rejection. You may even find yourself submitting more frequently, recognizing that it is a numbers game, and ultimately improving your chances at being successful.
From now on, think of your rejections as little mile markers on a highway. You rely on them to measure how far you’ve travelled, calculate how much farther you need to go, and then watch them shrink away in your rear-view mirror.