Joe Barlow Writes

Quirky Books for Quirky People–New Thoughts on Writing and Publishing in the Digital Frontier

Surviving a Rejection Letter

RejectedSo I got a rejection letter yesterday for one of my short stories.

It’s not a big deal. I’ve gotten plenty of them over the years, and this one rolled off my back without crushing my spirits, or initiating a crisis of faith in my writing ability.

As I prepared to send the manuscript off to the next market on my list, it suddenly struck me just how much my attitude towards rejection has changed over the years. I remember the early days of freelancing, when rejection letters would hit me with the force of a sledgehammer. The sense of failure I’d experience upon receiving such a letter could last for hours. Even if I received an acceptance letter for a different piece on the very same day, I would disregard that victory in exchange for reveling in the failure.

Hey, I’m nothing if not dramatic.

Rejection letters aren’t fun. How could they NOT discourage us? The term itself conjures up painful memories of getting turned down for dates, or being picked last for the school softball team. It’s a letter specifically sent to inform you, a writer, a creator, a storyteller, that your work does not meet an arbitrary benchmark of quality.

Or at least that’s how I felt back then.

However, having spent some time on the other side of the editor’s desk in intervening years, I now realize something very valuable — rejections aren’t personal, and you shouldn’t take them that way.

Don’t let a rejection letter utterly derail you. The next time you receive a rejection letter, consider the following:

1. YOU aren’t being rejected. ONE SPECIFIC PIECE of your work is being declined by one particular editor at one particular time.

I once attended a Sci-Fi convention in which novelist Spider Robinson boasted that he had never received a rejection letter, which frustrated him greatly, because he dreamed of wallpapering his office with rejection letters from prestigious publications in order to impress girls.

His story got big laughs from the audience, but I don’t believe it for a second. Remember: a person whose work appeals to everyone must have a bland writing style indeed. 
Even two of the most successful novelists in history, JK Rowling and Stephen King, both received dozens of rejection letters from publishers who considered their work to be below substandard. And let’s not forget that Decca Records turned down a band called The Beatles, believing that guitar groups were on their way out.

2. The rejection isn’t necessarily a reflection on the quality of your writing. 

Consider any of the following scenarios:

– You may have written a perfectly fine story that happens to slightly resemble a different story the editor has already purchased, but which hasn’t appeared in print yet. (Although this doesn’t seem to affect Hollywood: how many similarly themed films open within weeks of each other? Remember Deep Impact and Armageddon? Or Dante’s Peak and Volcano?)

– You may have written a first-rate private-eye story, but the editor, having read thirty of them this week, is momentarily burned out on the genre.

– Your story may have too much humor (or not enough!) to suit the editor’s preference.

– You may have written the world’s greatest western, but Publisher’s Weekly just ran a story declaring the western dead.

– Maybe the magazine has purchased its allotment of fiction for the upcoming year, and has simply decided to reject all stories for the next six months to clear out the slush pile. (Yes, this happens.)

– Maybe you called your protagonist Walter, and the editor has an old boyfriend named Walter, and therefore can’t bear the fact that your protagonist doesn’t die at the end of the story.

Hey, stranger things have happened. Editors are people too, and like all people, they can be extraordinarily illogical when it suits them.

The best thing to do? Send the piece right back out into the world. Do it today. Don’t let the sun set on your rejection. Send your work to the next market on your list, and start crafting a new piece of writing if you haven’t already done so.

What about you? How do you handle rejection? Leave a comment and let me know!

[This post originally appeared on the blog The Coffee House Wordsmith on September 16, 2011.]

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