From Bile To Buttercream: How A Writer Makes Use Of Rejection

Writing Advice

You wanna be a writer? Then failure is not optional.

You know what? That feels like it needs some profanity.

Revision: “You wanna be a goddamn writer? Then failure is not fucking optional. Shitstain!”

Hm. I think the “shitstain” maybe went over the line. Cut it, and move on.

What I’m saying is –

If you are of the belief that everything you write is going to be a home run, that every ball you hit is going to pop the stadium lights and shower down magical sparks like in that Robert Redford baseball movie, then you are at best deluded, and at worst a dangerous psychotic who believes the cat is telling him to strangle the mailman.

You will write. You will submit. And you will be rejected.

Not once. But resoundingly over and over again. You’ll start to feel like you’re on a carousel ride, and on every go-around someone is punching you in the face instead of giving you cotton candy. The calliope music will be dizzying. The scent of funnel cake, cloying.

Rejection is a default state for the writer.

And so it falls to you to make use from it. Make hay from your failures. Build sculptures from your wreckage. Compost your garbage and let it grow new things.

In the past, I told you How Not To Deal With Rejection.

Now, it’s time to find truth in rejection. Time to find a way to make it useful, energizing, empowering.

Or, as the title says, time to churn bile into buttercream, baby.

“See This? This Is My Battle Scar. It’s In The Shape Of A Rejection Letter.”

See this table full of little green plastic Army men? Right. Let’s pretend a tactical nuclear missile tumbles out of the sky, belched forth from a North Korean rocket tube, and it takes out a good 3/4 of these toys.

*swipes them off the table with an angry arm*

We have now separated the Real Writers from the dilletantes.

I know, I know, it’s not popular to talk about “real” writers. But I’m going to do it anyway, because I’m just that kind of blue meanie. I’m not talking about hobbyists. I’m talking about the talkers. The dilettantes. The people you meet at a party and they tell you, “Oh, I’m a writer, too,” except no they are fucking not a writer, too, because they don’t know shit about shit and they write shit (if they write at all) and they wouldn’t know what being a writer is like if it snuck up behind them and shoved a typewriter up their ass.

Writers write. And writers submit.

And writers get rejected.

It is your battle scar.

Pull a sword from its scabbard and you can see if it’s the weapon of a well-coiffed, soft-handed officer type because the metal is unmarred. No nicks in that edge. No flecks of blood still nesting in the nooks and crannies. A real soldier — the dude out there getting muddy and bloody — his sword looks like hell. Like it’s cleaved skulls and pierced guts.

When you get rejected, it’s like I said in the past — that’s some Viking shit, right there. Sure, you got your ass handed to you, but you still stepped into the ring. You’re no coward. You’re no dilettante.

“Wait, So I’m Not Supposed To Submit My Manuscript On A Roll Of Previously-Used Toilet Paper? Are You Sure?”

I think a lot of writers do not possess the proper cognitive separation of The Manuscript and the Submission Of Said Manuscript. I know I felt that way once when I was a young buck, wet behind the ears and with a full-up diaper and other metaphors of youth and inexperience. I thought, “Well, my manuscript should sell itself. That, after all, is why I wrote it.”

Yes, but you’re ignoring reality just as I once did. The book in the bookstore doesn’t let the manuscript sell itself. It has back cover copy. It has lovely cover art. It has quotes from other writers. None of these things are contained within your manuscript but rather, outside of it. And so you must embrace that.

The submission process is beholden to rules. It is, as the name suggests, a process.

You must follow those rules or otherwise be outed as a special snowflake (translation: jerkoff). You may think it’s unfair. Sure, okay, but you did pass puberty, right? You’re an adult human being? Then by now you’ve surely shed any illusions that life operates by the playground laws of Fair and Unfair.

You’ve been rejected over and over again, it is maybe time to reexamine your method of submission. Does your query letter snap-crackle-pop? Have you selected the correct five pages or chapter to submit alongside of it (if that’s what they asked for)? Are you submitting to the wrong agents and editors?

Sometimes rejection is not a failure of your manuscript but rather, a failure of delivery.

“They Don’t Actually Hate Me Personally, Do They?”

Rejection demands a shift in perspective. When you go up to a woman at a bar and you say, “Hey, can I buy you a drink?” and she’s like, “Ew,” and then stabs you in the hand with a cocktail fork, you can be pretty sure that her rejection is a little bit personal. She doesn’t like your face, your shoes, your sour milk odor. Something about you personally made her all stabby-stabby.

This is not likely true of your submission’s rejection, however.

Understand that this is a purely subjective industry. It’s nothing personal. You maybe just haven’t found the right editor or agent yet. When I was submitting to agents, I found that some really loved what I was showing them, but I also had rejections like, “I’m just not feeling it.”

Nothing personal. They don’t hate you. Let that lessen the sting.

“Hand Me Some Duct Tape, A Hammer, And That Lemur! There’s Work To Do!”

A single rejection is not particularly useful. Whether it’s a form letter or a detailed analysis, you shouldn’t take it as anything indicative of your manuscript.

But get a bunch of those motherfuckers together and you start to see a picture emerge.

That picture might very well be: “Needs more work.”

And so that’s what you’ll do. This is a good sign. It means you need to slap on some to-the-elbow rubber gloves and get deep in the guts and the junk and the radioactive materials and the rhinoceros uterus and start rearranging parts and wiping away the crap and delivering a squealing rhino baby. Rhino baby? No, I don’t know. I think my metaphor got away from me there. Like a squirrelly gazelle, it leapt from my grip.

What I’m saying is, look at the big picture and decide: do I need to take this back to the drawing board?

Then do that. You have the power to make it more awesome. Especially if someone hands you specific criticisms. Criticism is a blessing in disguise, like a diamond ring in a pile of horse crap. Rescue the diamond. Use the criticism. Huzzah.

“Once More Into The Breach, Dear Friends!”

Rejection knocks you down.

So get your ass back up again. In fact, don’t just get up. Grab that adrenalin rush from the pain two-handed like you’re catching hold of a goddamn screaming bald eagle and let it launch you upward with a mighty shriek and as you land on your feet, start swinging.

Let rejection energize you, not enervate you.

As one project is out there drawing fire, take each rejection on the chin and as you get jacked up, keep writing. Write more. It’s not only a good way to use that energy, but it’s also a good way to remain distracted from the rejections. (This can backfire, too — as you get rejected, you might start feeling like you’re not worth more than a sippy cup full of gopher diarrhea. Man, my dog once rolled around in gopher diarrhea — it was greasy and shot through with half-digested berries. That took a long time to wash out of his shepherd’s coat, so trust me, you do not want to have to clean yourself of that feeling.)

In fact, it’s not just about writing more. It’s about submitting more. Fine. Editor X and Agent Z said “no.” Your ten submissions came back as “Sorry, nuh-uh.” Submit more. You’re not done. You’ve got other avenues. Keep on keeping on. It’s like that Tai Chi move where you redirect your opponent’s attack, using his energy against him. Or something. What the fuck do I look like, a Tai Chi master? Please. I have a writer’s body. I don’t flow like water, move like air. I flow like Nutella and move like a pregnant narwhal.

“Oh Yeah? Ohhh Yeeeaah? I’ll Write Something Even Better, And Then You Can Suck On That Lollipop, Publishing Industry! Boo-yah!”

Alternate version of the above lesson is, your rejections may teach you that this book just isn’t The One. It’s not going to be a bestseller. It’s not going to even make it to the bargain bin.

That’s a sad realization, but an important one.

And once more, it’s time to redirect that energy. It’s time to write a better book. It’s that easy. This one didn’t work, fine. Write a better one. All those successful authors on the shelves? That’s exactly what they did. “Oh, this one sort of sucks, so the next one must suck less.” And on and on until they don’t suck at all.

You have to know when to give up on the book and focus energy on the next one.

“Turns Out, I’m Not A Writer After All. Who Knew?”

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: not everybody who wants to be a writer can be a writer. The numbers aren’t just against you. They’re really, holy shit what the fuck was I thinking? against you.

There may come a point when you have a stack of rejections from multiple projects and they are all uniformly non-glimmering, non-shimmering, not happy rejections. Nobody has hinted at your potential, no letter says that it wants to see more from you in the future, no one offered any notes at all. The majority of your rejections say “FUCK NO” and are written in pigeon’s blood on a postcard.

You’ve had nothing published after repeated attempts across multiple projects.

Just as there comes a time to give up on one book to make way for a better one, there comes a time to give up on one career path to make way for a better one. This is not popular wisdom, of course. Popular wisdom dictates that we all follow our dreams endlessly — except, sometimes, our dreams are callous elves leading us down a path that dead-ends in a pocket of quicksand or a dragon’s crushing maw.

I’m not saying that’s you. I’m not saying to give up easily or even to give up at all. But I am saying that there comes a moment when you have to check your gut and say, “This really isn’t me.”

On the other hand, if you’re saying, “I don’t want that to be me,” then fine. Don’t let it be you. Writing is about failure. It’s about perseverance. But it’s also about improvement. It’s about learning your craft and using the corpses of your failed manuscripts as a stairway to publication. You want to give up on being a writer, I wouldn’t blame you. But if you don’t want to give up, if you want to get published, then you need to take the rejections you’ve earned and use them. Use them to give you energy. Use them to get better.

This is the writer’s thorny path.

16 comments

  • This is a little tangential, but it brings to mind a related topic. I have a sort of predictable cycle it takes me to process unflattering feedback. The cycle goes something like:

    “WTF?! Clearly you have not understood what I am trying to do! What a jerky stupidface.”
    “Hmm… but if I WAS going to do that… hmm, then I could do X….”
    “Awwww yeah, and I’m going to do Y and Z, while I’m at it!”
    “…Whoa, (feedback giver) is actually completely right, as it turns out. I feel awful for being such a prima donna baby about it at the beginning.”

    Now I KNOW I have this knee-jerk defensive reaction, which helps a lot to modulate it and get through the process faster. But it would be nice not to have that flash of resentment at all. (Sometimes I never do think the feedback is right… but even then, one should bear in mind that the customer is always right, eh? Explain why it’s a bad idea if you really feel it is… and then do it anyway.)

    • @Andrea:

      No doubt. I definitely believe there’s a lifecycle to the rejection (or criticism) process.

      Hilarious stuff. Totally worth a blog entry. We should all blog about our rejection lifecycles at some point.

      — c.

  • I used to work as a technical editor; the department was thorough enough that we had people cross-edit each other’s documents when possible.

    That “WTF DID YOU MARK THAT COMMA FOR BITCH” reaction doesn’t get any easier for editors, either.

  • Heh, I posted something like this on Absolute Write not long ago, in answer to the question “How optimistic are you about your current manuscript?” Only without the swearing or the gopher diarrhoea :)

    Not so much optimism as sheer bloodymindedness, otherwise I’m admitting defeat. And as the hero of my novel says, “There is no ‘otherwise’.”

  • My first rejection, I was so pissed I sat down and wrote three more novels, one after the other.

    Now I look back and I’m so grateful they didn’t publish that pig-swallop.

  • Great post Chuck. And thanks for linking up my post about rejection too. It’s true, rejections are battle scars I wear proudly. We all should. Rejection letters confirm what you already know. You ARE a writer, because writers get rejected. I just try and use these rejections as tools.

    One good thing about being rejected today is that it’s cheaper. I used to spend $6 or $7 bucks a week just in postage and lots of time writing out and stuffing SASE every thursday night and send off 10 every friday morning back in the snail mail days of 2003. I remember having to wait MONTHS just to have a query rejected. Now it only takes,…well, sometimes it STILL takes months, but one thing I’ll say is at least you can see what color our refrigerator is now.

  • “I know, I know, it’s not popular to talk about “real” writers. But I’m going to do it anyway, because I’m just that kind of blue meanie”

    Thank you, thank you, bloody HELL, thank you! Ugh, I get so frustrated with that, “there are no real writers” idea. That was the cherry on the top of this already awesome post…except that I don’t like cherries on my sundaes, so I guess that ought to be the sprinkles on my yummy buttercream-iced cake.

  • Hear hear, man. There ARE real writers vs. dilettantes, and there are people who shouldn’t be trying to write…and then there are people who really just need to sit down, shut up, write the damn query letter, and start kicking the thing around to different agents and editors until they find the right one. It’s all a matter of right agent/right editor/right time/right manuscript lining up, in this business, and the only way you can find that magical mix is to suck it up, deal with the WRONG alignments (ie, rejections), and keep going…

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