25 Things Writers Should Know About Rejection

‘Tis the Month of No Mercy.

And so it is time to tackle the subject of…


*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.

* * *

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158 responses to “25 Things Writers Should Know About Rejection”

  1. Great advice. Who would have thought that I am itching to be rejected now? Please reject me! To quote your words: “MERCY WILL NOT STRENGTHEN YOU.” (caps mine)

    Now, I am just hoping this applies to dating also. If that is the case, I will eventually be one goddamn love machine.

  2. Thanks for sharing this, very helpful to see the rejections broken down into categories. For me the toughest ones are the ‘ignores’, they take so damn long to arrive.

  3. How did you know that one of my nick names is Care Bear? I’m totally loveable, hugable, fluffy and sadistic… wait. Anyway, yeah. I agree. Though honestly, I like to reply to personal rejections where they offer me some sort of explanation and advice. It seems to me that this is the least I can do for taking up the time of the editor/slush reader with a story that can’t be published.

  4. Rejection is inevitable. The key is to use it as a tool. Of course, sometimes the trick to not being rejected is, apparently, being lucky enough to either get an editor who doesn’t give a damn, is drunk, or is high on something, if some books are any indication. >.>

  5. 14. “I’s just not for me”

    This can also be translated into “I didn’t read it. I’m not ever going to read it.” The editor has a giant stack of crap on his/her desk and just wants to clear the decks. It’s almost Christmas and he/she has a shotload of shopping to do and end-of-the year office parties to attend. Also, he/she has nto one iota of energyu left to think of anythign to say about it even if he/she did read it.

  6. Wonderful post, Chuck.

    @Victor – Why would editors even bother with writing feedback if they didn’t read your story? Why bother with a slush pile at all if they’re not reading the stories? If your comments make you feel better about rejection in some way, fine, but I don’t get where you’re coming from.

    I’m a slush reader at Apex Magazine. I’m not paid. I read slush at night when my baby and husband are sleeping, instead of writing or reading or anything else I could be doing with my precious free time. I read every story, not all the way through, but until I determine the story isn’t right for us. That may be for technical reasons, wrong genre, uninteresting story line, etc. It doesn’t matter. It isn’t right for us.

    We don’t have time for personal rejections. I used to give feedback when I started slushing over a year ago, but I stopped. Too many writers sent emails back to me complaining about my feedback or calling me names. I don’t need to waste my time offering advice when writers don’t appreciate it (and then badmouth me on their blogs and tweets – yes, we know about that). Take ANY feedback you can get and try to learn from it.

    Check out my blog post from last week if you’re interested in hearing more from a slush reader’s perspective: http://saraheolson.com/2011/12/06/the-slush-readers-advice-for-writers/

  7. I once got two rejections in one day. One said that she fell in love with the characters, but felt it was thin on plot. The other said the plot was terrific, but the characters weren’t engaging.

    Even though this made me want to tear my hair out and weep (and I may have done both, then applied remedy #5 of liquor and ice cream), two editors READ MY STORY and both indicated they’d like to read more of my work. I count that as a win, even if it left me clueless in how to fix that particular story.

    Love your shit, penmonkey.

  8. As someone who is about to willingly throw herself in that dumpster full of glass, thanks for the bracing tips, Chuck.

    Also, what do you suppose it means that I read, “Holy fucksnacks” as “Holy fucksnakes”?

    And that I heard this in my head:

    “Holy Fucksnacks, Rantman!”

    “Shut up, Sobbin’! To the Resentmentmobile!”

  9. Once, again, Chuck — you rock. This is fantastic, and I’m really glad that I read it. I have one very nice, very personal rejection from a major market hanging above my desk. That one gave me hope. Thanks for the kick in the pants, affirmation, and reality check all in one — great post.

  10. That was a good post.

    The agents and editors were usually kind in their letdowns to me, but I’ve got to share my worst rejection ever:

    It was a screenwriting contest I entered some years ago. We all paid good money to enter the contest, and we were supposed to be graded by members of the ______ Film Board, but someone was either too busy or lazy to do the task, and I’m certain they turned it over to their mean third grader.

    The critique was printed sloppily in pencil, with many misspelled words and cross outs. The child (I’m certain it was a very young girl), kept saying, “These are old people! No one cares about old people!”

    The characters were actually the ages of Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt; I guess they have to give up their movie careers…

    I pulled the screenplay apart and used the ideas elsewhere.

  11. You had me at “kodiaks” and then you went and added “karate-chopping leopards” and I was all SOLD AMERICAN! Thanks for another excellent list that lays it on the line.

    Happy Holidays!

  12. Ace article Chuck, thanks. I’ve been sharing it around all of my networks all day.

    I once had a handwritten “I can’t see how I would sell this” rejection; another time, a spectacularly cruel form rejection sent with two fliers for a ‘how to write’ course…. both for the same piece of work. Beat that.

  13. Rejection only adds to my greatness.

    It’s a tricky mix, to have the extensive humility as this profession requires, yet simultaneously possess a massive ego the size of Texas that this profession also requires. Hence the booze.

  14. Toughen up, writer types. Didn’t you ever kick picked last for kickball at recess? Cut from the junior high basketball team? Assigned to the stage crew when you tried out for the school play? You never asked out some girl only to learn that she was washing her hair every night until you died?

    Some lucky and/or uber-talented fucks get what they want the first time out. The rest of us have to work for it.

    But listen to the rejections, too. If you were the first one cut at basketball tryouts every single year, you probably figured out basketball wasn’t your game. No shame in that. It requires a certain set of physical talents that either the Lord God or DNA have decided not to parcel out evenly. And being tall helps.

    Guess what? There’s a talent component to this writing thing, too. A certain natural facility with language, a knack for finding the narrative thread in things, an ear that tells you this is the right and that the wrong way to phrase something. Can it be developed? You betcha. But some people have the type of mental soil that shit will grow in – most people don’t. If all you’ve gotten are rejections, if that “all” is getting to be a large number, if they’re predominately of the form letter variety with no personal comment from the editor, you may want to take up basketball.

  15. Five stages of grief – you are totally not kidding!! You literally get to the edge of throwing yourself (and your manuscript) off a freakin building. But you’re right, you work through it and accept it and you will be totally bad ass. You’re fearless when you come out of it and that’s when your best work comes to fruition!

  16. A couple points about the points: (point one) Are all writers female? (point 11 and point 13) Why would it be necessary for a writer – whose stock-in-trade is a strong vocabularly – to use a four-letter word when making a point?

    My old English teacher used to say that every swear word showed that the writer was lacking a good adjective from their vocabularly.

    Having just got a publishing contract for my third book, my advice is write a good proposal and don’t get upset if you’re asked to revise it over and over again. My last proposal took 3 months to finish and then I got the contract!

    • Stephen:

      Yes, all writers are female. That’s why I use the feminine pronoun sometimes. It’s not an effort to mix up the pronouns but instead to remind everyone that, yes, indeed, *all* writers are actually women. Well-seen!

      And it is necessary for me to use profanity. It’s in my contract with my audience. If I don’t curse a certain number of times in a given post, the bus blows up.

      For the record, I consider profanity to be an equal and delightful part of our vocabulary as human beings, as necessary as a strong spice in a batch of chili. The notion that profanity buoys weak language or vocabulary is, in a word, bullshit.

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

      — c.

  17. I laughed my butt off through this whole post! I used to be a such wilting wallflower, but you’re right, all my rejections HAVE made me stronger, more badass. No, I don’t want to run out and self-publish. I want to improve my story so that agents, editors and readers will love it. Excellent post!

  18. 4. Not always. Genuinely, not always. Maybe by this point I am rubber and all editors are glue, but I’ve always got my next move planned and getting rejected is rarely more upsetting than getting to a stop light just after it goes yellow.

    7. This way lies madness.

  19. I really enjoyed this. Particularly as I could see a pattern in what was being said. “Not commercial enough for today’s market.” Ok, so I’ve self-published as an ebook and I’ll target the market I think will enjoy it. I’ve taken strength from all the rejections as, truly, I was expecting them. I still think my book is brilliant 🙂 Thanks for the post, Chuck – it’s inspirational!

  20. My reject-ometer currently stands at nineteen which is giving me some cause for concern. More worrying though is my growing desire to reject the first acceptance I get just for some payback. I’m gonna let them down gently though, thank them for their interest and wish them luck in the future.

  21. I notice you tend to use the alternating pronoun method of gender neutrality — my first introduction to that trope was a White Wolf book back in the nineties. Did you pick it up there, or did they pick it up from you?

    Inquiring minds often crave useless information.

    • @CB:

      I’ve seen it elsewhere, but WW definitely did not pick that up from me. 🙂

      They did so purposefully and was a fact I like — I use it from time to time just to ensure that I don’t appear to be speaking purely to male writers.

      — c.

  22. Let’s say you have a manuscript where the message has been overwhelmingly that it is good but that the genre is weird and the publishers aren’t going to buy it. This speaks to self-publishing, I have heard, but anyways. You said that you held out with Blackbirds, but what did that entail? Waiting only or did you do revisions during this time to make it more palatable to publishers or search for different publishers, etc?

    • @Amber —

      I heard similarly with BLACKBIRDS — oh, we can’t sell this, etc.

      I had to be patient until I had not one, but two, publishers interested. Both smaller publishers, but that means publishers that were more versatile and more willing to take on risk.

      I did not revise to try to make it more attractive, though that can happen.

      I could’ve self-pubbed BLACKBIRDS and, I suspect, may have done well with it? But I wouldn’t trade my experience for anything. Happy with how it worked out in all ways. Glad it’s going to the trad-pub route. Happy to be with an author-friendly publisher, too.

      — c.

  23. I am of two minds when it comes to form rejections–ever so grateful that an agent took the time to say ‘no’, and yet frustrated, because saying no without saying why doesn’t leave much to decode what could improve. But I’ll still take a form rejection over none at all any day. For me, the waiting is the worst part. That limbo land does havoc to my psyche.

    Between this post and the Avenue Q soundtrack, my reality check carebear is back in shape and in fighting form. It’s good to remember that no one holds the patent on rejection.

    Oh, and this is awesome: “Everyone else hates it, so why not punish readers with it? To the Resentmentmobile!”

  24. @Sarah E Olson My comments weren’t meant to make anyone feel better or worse about anything. Just a statement of fact in some cases. I’ve had editors freely admit to me that when the slushpile gets too high or they’ve filled an issue they gather up all the rest of the submissions and put form rejections in the SASEs and send them on their way. If you don’t do that at Apex, then I’m more than happy to take your word for it. My comments weren’t about all editors all the time. Just that this DOES happen in some cases. Just another tidbit of information people can take or leave. Writers shouldn’t know this is a possibility? I’ve been doing this too long to be offended or worried about it. How would I even know? Except, as I’ve said, numerous editors have told me they do this. None of them seemed malicious about it. It was just end of the semester/year house cleaning.

  25. Number 23 is my favourite. when writers complain about rejection, I really just want to yell, “Get over yourself and grow some.” I started out as an actress and guess what? If you’re “not right” for the commercial, they tell you to your face! Wimpy writers really should try auditioning for a few years if they need toughening up.

  26. Rejection is the hardest thing to deal with on so many levels and when I first started (go ahead and laugh now) I couldn’t imagine that my precious had been rejected. Looking back, uh, duh. It was crap. It was worse than crap. It was so bad it needed to be completely thrown out with only the idea and the character’s names surviving.
    That book sold. I can’t say why I kept dragging it out and trying just one more time but I did. And ultimately, I’m grateful (because I’m a fucking masochist who enjoys crying in the middle of Iraq about rejections) that I did keep getting back up and trying again, learning something new. That one yes? Oh hell yeah it feels good. It still feels good.
    And I am officially incorporating your steps of liquor and ice cream into my grieving process. This will be hell on the army weight control program but really? they make bigger uniform pants for a reason.

  27. Love the advice. Hilarious as usual too.

    The problem I’ve had with rejection usually comes from the fact that most of the ones I’ve received are forms with my name and the name of the story filled in. I’ve been there before in the slush trenches. Sometimes you don’t have time or the publication you’re working for doesn’t send out notes with the rejections. It can be a little frustrating at times to get nothing more than a “We’re going to pass on this story. Good luck with your future stories.”

  28. Wordity word word & a-freakin’-men!

    I was very lucky to get really awesome rejections (e.g., with feedback) on my first book. I listened, went with my gut and eventually got a series deal out of it. Priceless. (I also got the form rejections, as expected).

    I will say that I had pretty much already developed the thicker critique/rejection skin because in my day job, I did a lot of writing that got reviewed/edited, so the proverbial “red pencil” was familiar to me.

  29. As a writer all I know is rejection, so I really enjoyed your spin on thing. In particular loved your Thunderdome comparison. All around very inspiring.

    I’m not a loser. I am not a loser. I am not a loser. I’m Xena, the Warrior Princess, dammit.

    • Rejected writers persevere too, and still persevere I think you mean the difference between a writer who gave up writing and one that continues after rejection.

  30. Excellent advice. And as another poster indicated, you may have invented the newest Care Bear character. A sorely needed one, to add a little spice.

    I have my first book coming out early next year, but have never received so many rejections as this year. Rejections and acceptances have become completely random. Onward!

  31. I love No. 13 “Sometimes Its your fault”

    If life (including rejections) happens and you have to ask yourself whether you’re cut out to be a writer, the answer is probably no.

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