Rejection, the burden of all writers

This article was originally posted at Alan’s blog – The Word.


Rejection is an inevitable part of the writing life. If you’re not good with rejection, you should never even entertain the idea of being a writer. It never ceases to amaze me just how belligerent some people get about rejections. And often, the most vocal are usually the worst writers, refusing to learn from critiques and improve their craft.

No matter how good you think you might be as a writer, you can always improve. My many years learning and teaching martial arts has taught me that there’s never an end to learning any kind of art. Writing, painting, dancing, Kung Fu – no matter how good you are, you can always get better.

And no matter how good you are, you will always get rejections. I’m sure that even Errol Flynn didn’t bed every woman he pursued.

So rejection is a part of the writing life and you need to get used to that. I remember an old Peanuts cartoon, where Snoopy is cold and depressed so Woodstock cheers him up by making a blanket out of Snoopy’s rejection slips. You can’t do that any more, as rejections are usually via email (even if submissions aren’t), but the underlying principle still applies. When you get served lemons, make lemonade. When you get rejections, learn.

Often a rejection will simply say, "Thanks but no thanks." But you will occasionally get a few words giving some kind of reason for the rejection. On rare occasions you’ll get a more detailed critique. I’ve found that the more my writing improves, the better class of rejection I receive. That’s moving in a good direction, right? I’ll often get a rejection saying something along the lines of, "This was so close to being accepted, but we decided against it because…" Frustrating as it is, rejections like that are worth their weight in gold. (Well, they’re worth more than that – the weight of an email in gold does not a rich man make, but you get the idea.)

Never, ever just write rejections like that off. Don’t be a princess and harrumph and say, "Well, they just don’t get it. They don’t recognise my genius." Most likely they recognise a lot more about you than you recognise about yourself. Pay attention to the points they raise, think really hard about any advice they give, try to apply that advice to a new draft of the story. It will make it better, every time.

In my experience, the most painful rejections are the rejections from shortlists. You’ve submitted your work, you’re really pleased with the story, and you sit back to wait. After a few weeks or months, depending on the publication, you get a letter back. It says something like, "We really like this piece and would like to hold onto it for another (x) weeks to see if we can fit it into our publication/anthology/whatever."

This is great news – if it goes no further than this, remember to be pleased that you got shortlisted. But it really does burn when you get another letter several weeks later saying, "Sorry, we’ve decided against it." It burns because you know it was good enough to be bought and published, you know they seriously considered it, but in the end something else they received was better. So short of getting a balaclava and a weapon and hunting down all the authors that are better than you, you have to suck it up and move on. Something about that shortlisted story worked, so your writing is going in the right direction. Fan the flames of that near success and keep plugging on and on.

You will get far more rejections than you ever get acceptances, unless you become as famous as Neil Gaiman. He can write anything and it gets bought. In the meantime, you just have to keep playing the game.

I’ve just yesterday had one of those shortlist rejections, which is what prompted me to write this post. It was for an anthology and I thought I was in, but got rejected in the last round. And yeah, it burns. But at least I know that story is a good one. A little more polish and it’ll go out again to other places and we’ll see if someone else will buy it. I have another story that is currently sitting on a shortlist. Fingers crossed that I might be luckier with that one. I also have two or three other short stories out there with other publications that I’m waiting to hear back on.

Four or five stories in circulation and the odds are that I’ll get four or five rejections. But you have to stay in it. I’ve sold work before and I’ll sell work again. Hopefully I’ll eventually improve my skills to the point where I can sell more and get rejected less. Either way, it’s something I’m compelled to do and I love writing. You have to. No one in their right mind would put themselves through this grinder on a regular basis unless they loved what they did.

"Be not afriad of moving slowly. Fear only standing still." – Old Chinese proverb.


Alan is an indie author and publisher with two dark fantasy novels in print – RealmShift and MageSign. You can learn all about him at his website.