25 Things Writers Should Know About Rejection

‘Tis the Month of No Mercy.

And so it is time to tackle the subject of…

REJECTION.

*crash of thunder*

1. As Ineluctable As The Tides

If you’re a writer, a writer who writes, a writer who puts her work out there, you’re going to face rejection. It’s like saying, “Eventually you’re going to have to fistfight a bear,” except here it’s not one bear but a countless parade of bears, from Kodiaks to Koalas, all ready to go toe-to-toe with you. Rejection, like shit, happens. Rejection, like shit, washes off. Get used to it.

2. Penmonkey Darwinism In Action

Rejection has value. It teaches us when our work or our skillset is not good enough and must be made better. This is a powerful revelation, like the burning UFO wheel seen by the prophet Ezekiel, or like the McRib sandwich shaped like the Virgin Mary seen by the prophet Steve Jenkins. Rejection refines us. Those who fall prey to its enervating soul-sucking tentacles are doomed. Those who persist past it are survivors. Best ask yourself the question: what kind of writer are you? The kind who survives? Or the kind who gets asphyxiated by the tentacles of woe?

3. This, Then, Is The Value Of The Gatekeeper

Hate the autocracy of the kept gates all you like, but the forge of rejection purifies us (provided it doesn’t burn us down to a fluffy pile of cinder). The writer learns so much from rejection about himself, his work, the market, the business. Even authors who choose to self-publish should, from time to time, submit themselves to the scraping talons and biting beaks of the raptors of rejection. Writers who have never experienced rejection are no different than children who get awards for everything they do: they have already found themselves tap-dancing at the top of the “I’m-So-Special” mountain, never having to climb through snow and karate chop leopards to get there.

4. It Always Stings

Rejection always stings. It stings me, you, everybody. Nobody likes to be rejected. A writer who likes being rejected is a writer who is secretly a robot and must be smelted down into slag before he tries to kill us all because he hates our meat. Pain is instructive. And it’s not permanent. Not if you don’t let it be. Some writers savor misery like a hard candy endlessly sucked in the pocket of one’s cheek, but fuck that.

5. Five Stages Of Grief

Rejection leads to a swiftly-experienced version of the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. It’s key to get to that last step as quickly as you can reckon. I actually have two additional steps in my personal process: “liquor” and “ice cream.” Your mileage may vary.

6. It’s Never Personal

It’s not about you. It’s about the work. I mean, unless it is about you. I guess it could be personal. If you send a story off to an editor, and you once shat in that editor’s fishtank, well. That might be personal.

7. Decipher The Code, Translate The “No”

Different rejections say different things. Not every “no” is equal. Hell, they can’t be — if I get 200 no’s and one yes, then that single yes invalidates all the no’s. One rejection might say there’s something wrong with the story. Another with the writing. A third likes the story, hates its role (or lack of role) in the market. A fourth rejection is upset at you — something about blah blah blah, bowel movements and fish-tanks.

8. The Truth Hides In The Pattern

Stare at a Cosby sweater long enough and it’s like a Magic Eye painting. Eventually you’ll start to see dolphins and Jell-O pudding cups and the secret Gnostic gospels of Doctor Huxtable. What were we talking about again? Right. Rejections. One rejection is not as meaningful as a basket of them. All the rejections around a single project become meaningful — a picture emerges. You can start decoding commonalities, sussing out the reasons for being rejected.

9. Some Rejections Are Worthless As A Short-Sleeved Straitjacket

Not every rejection — or every person wielding the big red “NUH-UH” stamp — is a quality one. Form rejections won’t teach you anything other than the fact that the editor didn’t have time. Rejections that never come — a “no” by proxy — are even less valuable. Sometimes you’ll receive a rejection that just doesn’t add up, leaving you scratching your pink parts in slack-jawed bewilderment. Recognize that some — not all, not even most, but some — rejections are as fruitful as a shoebox full of dead mice.

10. Beware Snark, Reject Cruelty

Every once in a while you’ll get a mean rejection. I don’t mean a rejection that takes you to task — that’s what rejections should do. I mean a rejection that is destructive over constructive. That insults aggressively (or passive-aggressively). Maybe the editor was having a bad day. Or maybe the editor’s just a sack of dicks. Rare, but it happens. When it does: ignore and discard. You’re expected to be professional. So are they.

11. Cherish Opportunistic Rejections

Cherish them the way you would a child, or a lost love, or the misery of an enemy as you slowly feed him into a growling wood chipper. By “opportunistic rejection” I mean, a rejection that aims to help you, not just reject you. A handwritten rejection, for instance, one that features an honest critique of your work, is fucking gold. Equally awesome are rejections that help you understand the good things about your story and, further, offer opportunity for future submission. Best of all are rejections that encourage you to resubmit — not other stories, but that story. My first short story on submission got one of those. I played ball. Resubmitted. Was published. Got paid. Freeze-frame high-five.

12. Like It Or Not, It’s Largely Subjective

Storytelling isn’t math. And neither is literary criticism. Any rejection is going to be largely subjective: it’s opinion. Doesn’t mean it’s bad or wrong or has no value, but it helps to know going in that you’re dealing with a subset of opinions — informed opinions, most likely, but opinions just the same. Some rejections are objective, based on harder criteria. What I mean is…

13. Sometimes, It’s Totally Your Fault, Dummy

Objective rejections will take you to task for two primary things: one, you didn’t follow the submission guidelines. (Can I just say: always follow the goddamn submission guidelines? Even if the submission guidelines are like, “Each corner of the manuscript must be dabbed with the urine of an incontinent civet cat and the writer must write his name backwards for the magic to take hold,” you do that shit because you’re not a pretty pretty unicorn, you’re a horse like the rest of us, goddamnit.) Or two, your technical writing ability is for shit, at least in that story. If you can’t put a period on the right place or learn the difference between “lose” and “loose,” then you’re going to earn that objective rejection.

14. “It’s Just Not For Me”

You can read that kind of rejection one of two ways: one, your story was good, but just not for that market/editor/moon phase; two, the editor is uncomfortable with truth or doesn’t want to offend anybody and so is gently limping away from saying anything even remotely offensive or controversial.

15. “I Can’t Sell This”

This is a variant version of the above — but it speaks specifically to market. It doesn’t mean your book or story or article is bad, and hell, it may even be brilliant. That’s not the worst place to be, by the way.

16. Know The Signal To Self-Publish

Rejection as a whole is not a great reason to run out and self-publish. I mean, think about it: “Everyone else hates it, so why not punish readers with it? To the Resentmentmobile!” But — but! — sometimes, the overall pattern of rejection does indicate value in self-publishing. Getting a lot of those “it’s good, but I can’t do anything with it” rejections tells you that the risk-averse industry isn’t willing to, duh, take a risk. So, you can absorb the risk and self-publish. (Or you can continue to hope that good rejections will lead to an eventual patient acceptance — that’s what I did with Blackbirds.)

17. The Power In “Just Not Good Enough”

It’s sad at first. You wrench handfuls of hair from your head. You punch mirrors. You soak your pillow through with the tears of rage and regret. But then comes the realization: this story just isn’t up to snuff. It’s a powerful and freeing moment — freeing because, making a story better is entirely within your power. You can’t change market forces. But you can change the quality of your work. So do that.

18. Criticism Is A Conversation, But Rejection Is Not

Do not respond to an editor or agent and try to “re-convince them” to buy your work. At best it’s fruitless, at worst it’s completely deluded. The desperation wafts off you like dog’s breath. The door is closed, for better or worse, for right or wrong. Trying to kick it down does nobody any favors. Oh! And it’s unprofessional.

19. Just To Clarify: Don’t Be A Raging Dickheaded Moon-Unit

Further, don’t go writing said editor or agent with the desire to rant and rave at them. OMG YOU DONT GET MY BRILIANCE letters will out you as a crazy-headed Martian and will earn you mockery and scorn. Your best recourse to any rejection is to write a politely worded “thank you,” and then move on with your life. Put down the megaphone. Put on some pants. Squeegee the froth from your computer monitor.

20. The Common Bonds Of Weepy Wordmonkeys

Every writer, from the tippity-top of the industry to its sludge-slick nadir, has experienced rejection. Every book, movie, or story you love? It’s been rejected. Probably not once. But dozens, maybe even hundreds of times. It’s part of the writer’s career tapestry, part of our blood and genetic memory. Rejection is part of who we are as creative beings. Might as well commiserate.

21. Bumper Sticker: “Real Writers Get Rejected”

I’ll just leave that there for you to discuss amongst yourselves.

22. Put Your Rejections On Display

Build a wall. A shrine. A goddamn memorial display of all your rejections. Writers need to gain emotional power over their rejections. By embracing them and putting them up for all to see, you claim that power. Show it to others. Laugh at it. Find ways to surpass it. Stephen King reportedly collected all of his on a nail. I might stuff mine in a giant wicker man. When I die, I will be burned alive inside the rejectionist’s pyre.

23. Harden The Fuck Up, Care Bear

Any creative person has to be a little bit hard of heart — how can you not be? You can’t go sobbing into a potted plant every time you get a bad review. Just because someone told you “no, I can’t rep this, can’t publish this” doesn’t mean it’s time to head to the bell tower with a .300 Weatherby and start taking out anybody carrying a book or a fucking Barnes & Noble rewards card. Rejections toughen you up. Step to it. Suck it up. Lean into the punch. We all get knocked down. This is your chance to get back up again with your rolled-up manuscript in your hand and start swinging like a ninja.

24. Once Again, Time To Poll Your Intestinal Flora

The writer’s gut is his best friend — over time, the chorus of colonic bacteria that secretly control us begin to work in concert and soon start to get a grasp of what the best course of action is. As the parliament of micro-organisms attunes to your way of doing things and the world’s response, you start to get a clearer picture of how to handle individual rejections and how to move forward. I don’t know that every writer should trust his or her gut from the outset, but over time, you’ll have to. It’ll be that polling of your gutty-works that tells you how to judge individual rejections or rejections as a whole: it’ll tell you if it’s time to put the story in a dark hole, time to improve it, time to be patient and keep submitting or time to find a better and more independent path to publication.

25. Rejections Are Proof You’ve Been To Thunderdome

Fighters know one another because they look a certain way: busted-ass knuckles, a crooked nose, a scar on the lip, the suspicious gaps where teeth once grew. These are the signs of being a crazy motherfucking bad-ass. You see a guy whose body is a network of scars you don’t think, “Hey, he sure gets beat-up a lot,” you think, “Holy fucksnacks, that guy looks like he got thrown into a dumpster full of broken glass and he came out meaner than ever.” That’s how you need to see rejection. You need to see rejection as bad-ass Viking Warrior battle scars, as a roadmap of pain that makes you stronger, faster, smarter, and stranger. A writer without rejections under his belt is the same as a farmer with soft hands; you shake that dude’s hand and you know, he’s not a worker, not a fighter, and wouldn’t know the value of his efforts if they came up and stuck a Garden Weasel up his ass. Rejections are proof of your efforts. Be proud to have ‘em.

* * *

Want another booze-soaked, profanity-laden shotgun blast of dubious writing advice?

Try: CONFESSIONS OF A FREELANCE PENMONKEY

$4.99 at Amazon (US), Amazon (UK), B&N, PDF

Or its sequel: REVENGE OF THE PENMONKEY

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And: 250 THINGS YOU SHOULD KNOW ABOUT WRITING

$0.99 at Amazon (US), Amazon (UK), B&N, PDF

Or the newest: 500 WAYS TO BE A BETTER WRITER

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120 comments

  • I adore you. Seriously. I know *so* many writers who need to read this. Including me, at least once a year, probably forever.
    I kinda self-rejected my first novel due to finally realising it was, you know, bad. The second one – oh, I wish this post had been around when that baby was getting those ‘we like this a lot but…’ rejections…for years and years and…hang on…it’s still getting those…
    The fourth one got a deal. Persistence? Oh, yeah.
    And hey, now I’m a badass Viking Warrior type instead of just a whingy bint! Yay!

  • This is fantastic. I’m about six weeks into my querying process and have received a few requests for partials/fulls. Still waiting on word from those, but my query with five pages has also been rejected a few times. Every time cuts me, but I try to learn from them. I had a bad one last week that really made me want to give up, but I didn’t. I love writing too damned much, and the new story I’m working on has too much potential.

    Anyway, thanks for this amazing post!

  • I think we are all Care Bears in the beginning… the poor plants and soggy pillows are a mark of our beginnings of a writer… then we come out like Chuck Norris and Mr. T going at it at a demolition debry- blowing the world the fuck up with our awesomeness! (battle scars included!)

  • What I do not understand is this: after the wild success of books-made-to-movies like the Harry Potter series, the Twilight series, and recently The Help (rejected 61 times) why do we not get a feeling agents are saying, “Aha, this manuscript might just be the next whopping bestseller. Tell you what, people, let’s actually read it and not immediately send the standard thanks but no thanks as is our wont.” I bet those 61 agents who rejected Kathryn Stockett are kicking themselves and we won’t even go into the whole HP saga that catpulted Bloomsbury into the stratosphere and made both JK and her agent gazillionaires… Let’s not even mention Amanda Hocking …

  • I disagree completely with #2 – The same piece I send to The New Yorker that is rejected, may be the one selected by The Atlantic. It’s a matter of taste, ultimately, not talent.

  • C.

    “One assumes that if you read this site with any frequency, you will have found some comfort level in the four-letter language.”

    My old English teacher (him again – not a woman either) said: ‘assume makes an ass out of u and me.’ If it makes you any more comfortable, we can assume that he meant ass-hole.

    Stephen

  • I love the image of writers going into a cage/Ninja fight to get their work published (that could make a great story). I think if you’re a story teller there will always be people ready to kick the crap out of you (and your stories) no matter what road you take. After chewing over the pros and cons (and reading over what the different publishers want) my guts insisted that my historical romances wouldn’t find a traditional publisher (no sex…too violent…no plastic plot…anti-heroes…bla bla bla). So I did what I swore I’d never do. I self-published and sent my stories out into the world to find their own readers and they do, but they also find people who aren’t their readers and those people can be militant in pointing out my deficiencies or what they think are my deficiencies. I don’t like having to read that some people think my brain children are mutants (or only worth one star because there is no zero star option), but you’re right, we need rejections to get a more clear picture of what other people see when they read our stories. I had one reader (who liked my stories) write to me and point something out that got my back up. It took me six months of thinking about what she’d said before I relented and acknowledged she was right. I went back and rewrote and I’ve since stamped her advice on my brain and I know my stories are better for it. I think writing does come down to listening to your gut. If my gut tells me the story is as it should be then I will defend my story to the death. If on the other hand my gut has that…Oh please don’t make me write it over…sensation…then I start kicking my own butt! If we could go back in time before the printing press and listen in to story tellers weaving their tales by firelight to weary people in need of entertainment, I wouldn’t be surprised if on occasion we’d see the story teller (having failed to entertain) given a literal kicking. It’s just a part of being a story teller; there will always be people who love the story and people who hate it. We just have to learn to tell whether they hate it because it’s not their type of story or our story is badly written. The former is fine…the latter is a different story.

  • I ADORE this post. It makes me want to roar! It makes me want to wear all of my rejections like a tattoo. I’m in the middle of query hell and this post is EXACTLY what I needed to read right now. Thank you!

  • Great post. Had a friend tell me to check you out after Crossroads. Glad I did. I have trouble finding writers who aren’t afraid of a little well placed vulgarity and wonderful uses of the term “fucksnacks”. Good to know agents are accepting writers with that type of style. Best of luck in the future and I’m looking forward to reading your work in full.

    -jaager

  • March 8, 2013 at 4:12 PM // Reply

    Just got another rejection letter today, and man did I need this post. Thanks for getting my tear-laden ass to laugh, take a deep breath, and write some more.

  • Fuck, yeah.

    I’m posting on this as well — and telling my readers to get the hell over themselves. Where did anyone get the idea that rejection = fatal illness? I think of it as a chronic disease. Pick this profession/industry/whatever you call it, and deal. Both of my (published, well-reviewed NF) books were each rejected by 25 publishers before a good one took it and ran with it. Whew. Good think I didn’t kill myself over the 11th or 18th rejection, then.

  • I get #15 for my humorous middle grade zombie book about first love. I’ve now had two agents tell me they love the premise, the writing, the voice but I DON”T KNOW WHERE I’D SELL IT mantra. I still have a few looking at it but if they reject it too I’m either going to self-publish it or wait a year or two until zombies are back in fashion. Same with a YA dystopian I wrote. It’s been considered by one agent but if said agent rejects it then it’s either being self-pubbed or trunked. I keep going though. I write because I LOVE IT and it’s what gets me out of bed in the morning and keeps me going to my day job. The thought of coming home to my laptop and my characters makes the day go faster. So, quit writing? Nah. Not today. Meanwhile I have another book I’m writing…and that’s the secret to rejection—KEEP WRITING.

  • June 18, 2013 at 8:04 PM // Reply

    Yeeeeesssss. The raptors! Bring on the birds of prey. I’ll show those silly birds the difference between a field mouse and a Tasmanian devil! Xoxoxoxoxox. Deb

  • Fantastic. Also, that first day after the rejection is the worst. It’s like getting waxed or punched. But then it feels better after some wine and a nap.

  • This is so funny! Thank you for helping me feel better. Maybe our words can be a gift to our readers even if we don’t see any payoff as the writer.

  • Your article has spurred me to buy a book from you. Why? I applaud your courage in adding voice to your writing, and I want to celebrate and reward it.

    After a recent round of rejection, I printed out about a half-dozen “chin up!” articles. They were all the same: bland and trying to sell me something.

    Yours stands out as unique, compelling, and *real.* This attribute is something I strive for in my own writing and which I appreciate in others’.

    Thank you for your quality piece.

    Annalisa Parent
    annalisaparent.com

  • March 27, 2014 at 11:26 AM // Reply

    Great stuff, but aside from being a writer, I’ve also been and editor now and then. I really don’t want writer to respond with a thank you, unless I did something above and beyond. I often send out a hundred rejections per week, and the last thing I need is a hundred “thank you” e-mails in my inbox. I have to open them and read them because sometimes a thank you has nothing to do with a rejection, but I can’t usually tell until I do open it, unless it says “Thank you for the rejection” in a the subject line.

    Time is short for any editor. Really short. Thank me if I dissected your story and gave you a lot of feedback other writers don’t get, but for a straight rejection, no, move on. I don’t have time to look at them, and there’s no need to thank me for saying no. Chances are, I won’t remember you or the story, anyway.

  • James A Ritchie, you sound a little mean-spirited to me!
    I just love Chuck’s observations on rejection. They made me laugh at a time when I need cheering up (and what writer doesn’t go through some of those times?). I’m sorry you don’t have time to read the Thank You emails. Get a life, sir. Get a heart, goddammit.

  • March 28, 2014 at 8:08 PM // Reply

    Yeah, they made me laugh, too. But instead of reading this, try sitting in an editor’s chair and having fifteen trillion pointless thank you emails filling up your inbox. You lose your sense of humor real fast.

    I’m not being mean, but you really don’t have a clue how busy it gets for an editor, or an agent. In an entire week, I may have fifteen minutes to read e-mails. Fifteen minutes. The rest of the time, usually about sixty hours of it, I’m doing something else. I’m, wait, I’ll remember in a minute. Oh, yeah, I’m doing my job, part of which is not opening and reading thank you e-mails. Being sorry doesn’t help, and I have a heart. Plus an extremely good life. How can you not have an extremely good life when it’s spent opening thank you e-mails?

    Unfortunately, as much as love reading those e-mails, I do not have is enough time to read them if I want to keep my job. Having the best life on earth, and two hearts like Dr. Who, still doesn’t give me time to read hundreds of thank you e-mail that all say the same thing. . .thank you for rejecting me. Really?

    There’s nothing mean about saying thank you e-mails are not necessary. They are not necessary, and I don’t know a single agent or editors who expects or wants thank you e-mails for plain old rejections. They aren’t necessary, they just clog our inboxes, and make it difficult to find e-mails we much read. Just move on to the next market.

    • April 11, 2014 at 3:26 PM // Reply

      I don’t think you sound mean spirited at all James Ritchie. I have always figured agents had no time to read thank you emails and I have never sent them. The only ones I sent were when the agent was kind enough to give me personal feedback with their rejection. I figure they want to be thanked for taking 5 out of their 15 minutes to email me back with information. Agents and editors are bombarded and I do not want to take any chance that they would somehow remotely remember me in any way as irritating. If I was an agent or editor I would get annoyed with thank you responses too. Reading one thank you isn’t a big deal, but weeding through and deleting several hundred of them takes a lot of time. I hear you James!

  • After receiving four rejections in the last three days for varying projects, this definitely helped me take them in perspective. Thanks!

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