Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Tutorial Tuesday - The Agony of Rejection

There’s nothing quite so depressing than the words, ‘Thank you for your submission. We don’t think your work is right for us at this time.”

Rejection sucks. It’s that simple. No matter how kindly you’re let down, it is one of the worst feelings in the world. Your baby that you slaved over for months, maybe even years, has been pushed away. I should know about the pain of this; I dealt with 20 years of repeated no thank yous to several books before Alien Embrace was finally accepted.

So how does one deal with rejection?

First of all, go ahead and feel miserable. Cry, pout, yell, whatever. You have every right to experience the disappointment you feel. It’s okay. Just don’t get bogged down in it. A few hours, a day max is what you’re allowed when it comes to wallowing in despair. After that, you’re in Prozac Land and need to speak to your therapist.

Once you’re over the initial shock, remind yourself that rejection of your story is not rejection of YOU. You’re still the terrific person you were before some bonehead editor missed the genius that is your work. You are not diminished in any way, shape, or form.

Neither is your story. If you did your best and had the thumbs up from trusted proofreaders, you can pretty much keep loving your work.

Now let’s look at that rejection. If the editor was kind enough to give you more than the standard form refusal, you’ve been given a gift. Examine what she says. Perhaps she made a suggestion as to what could have made this story worth her acceptance. Perhaps she noted a major story element that she felt wouldn’t fly with her customer base. Whatever details you can glean, see if you agree with the assessment as to why this particular partnership isn’t going to happen.

Sometimes the publisher likes your work, but simply can’t use it for whatever reason. I’ve had editors say no to a project, but also invite me to send them other stories. That at least tells me I’m on the right track with my writing.

Sometimes it’s a rejection that can be turned to acceptance. Last month a friend of mine, just starting out on her writing career, called me when her first article was rebuffed by a magazine. She said, “The editor said that if I made a couple of changes, it would fit her magazine better. Should I make those changes and re-submit it?”

Oh, a resounding YES to that one. If you can make a change that will give you a sale and it’s not going to put you in an ethical dilemma, most definitely do the alterations and send it out again. My friend did so, and she is now about to see her article published. You should have heard her screams of delight on my voicemail.

You really should pay attention when a publisher tells you a few changes would have sold your work, even more so if you’ve been rejected for that same reason before. If their complaint is something you’ve heard over and over again, it’s time to take a step back and re-evaluate. You can whine about your writing ‘style’ and how the publishing world isn’t getting you, but you have to see it from their perspective: it’s all about the sales they can make. What is art to you is business to them. If you’re adamant that you cannot change your way of writing to fit the business, then you need to look at self-publishing.

My background in television and film makes me more amiable than most novel writers when it comes to making advised changes. When I write a script, I am not the last word on it. The director and producer will alter it, then the actors have to put their spin on it, then editing can change it even more to fit time constraints. In contrast, many book writers object strenuously to publishers wanting to make changes to their work, becoming territorial and blind to what might truly help their stories sell. A fellow writer was offered a contract with a major publishing house because the core of his stories was quite good. It was his delivery that was less than stellar, but when the publisher gave him a list of the changes that needed to be made, this gentleman took it personally and refused the contract. He self published instead, and he’s done rather well at it … but I have read his books, and though the first one showed great promise, the next two were honestly terrible. The way he writes is ponderous and tiring, and those beautiful gems that are the underlying stories are lusterless because of the lack of polish. He missed a golden opportunity to not only make a ton of money, but to become a better writer by listening to established pros.

The moral of this story? Get over yourself. No matter how good a writer you are, there is always room for improvement. Listen to what others tell you are problems with your writing and don’t blow off their comments because they’re not ‘getting’ you.

Moving on…

The form refusal is perhaps the most insidious of them all. It leaves you not knowing why the publisher didn’t want your story. It gives you absolutely nothing to go on, no improvements to contemplate. You might have gotten this for no other reason than the publisher was so backed up with submissions that after only a cursory glance, it was put in the reject pile. Do remember that publishers get hundreds of submissions a day, and there’s very few of them to handle that amount of work. This is the most likely reason for not winning the publishing sweepstakes. Also they might have been in a bad mood. Maybe they had a fight with that significant other this morning. Maybe their kid is flunking math. Maybe the boss yelled at them. Maybe they’re just drunk or badly hung over. At any rate, your poor little book just happened to be there when they entered Don’t Give a Shit Land, and out went the form rejection. It happens.

Ray Bradbury, the author of The Martian Chronicles and Fahrenheit 451, was one of my writing heroes. The man was hands-down brilliant when it came to weaving a tale. You’d think a writer of his abilities never would have tasted rejection, at least not a lot of it. You’d be wrong.

One of the things that kept me going for 20 years was Ray’s story of how when he first started out, he got lots of rejection slips. Hundreds. And no sales. It got so bad that he started believing the editors of the magazines he was sending his short stories to would see his name on the return address and toss his work out without bothering to read it. So one day he sent in a short story, using a made-up name. When he got the letter accepting his story, he immediately contacted the magazine to let them know it was actually him.

The only thing you can do with a form rejection is use it in lieu of toilet paper. Toss it and move on, because it’s of no use to you.

Once in awhile, you will be the victim of the really nasty rejection. Some editor will write you a personal note, and it’s just plain mean. Who knows why that happens? Again, maybe this person is having a bad day or is hung over. At any rate, they decide it is in your best interest to know they think you are an awful writer. They will tell you in no uncertain terms you would better serve the world sitting in a corner picking your nose than unleashing your horrific prose on the world.

That may be true. Most likely, it’s not. But seeing those words aimed at you is going to make you feel very small, very bad, and very hurt.

The one rejection I received that kind of fits this description stated, “This story has been done before, and it’s been done much better.” Ouch. Had I not already won awards for my writing and those nice rejection letters that said, “This isn’t for us, but please send us anything else you think we could use,” I might have crawled in a hole and never come out. Brutalized, it took me a few days before I could summon the courage to submit again. But I did, and if you believe in your writing, you should too.

One of the saddest stories I’ve ever heard was about author John Kennedy Toole, who wrote A Confederacy of Dunces. Rejection piled on rejection was the reason cited for his suicide at the age of 31. His grieving mother campaigned hard, never giving up on her son’s dream, and the novel was published eleven years later. It went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and many are left to wonder what else Toole might have produced had he not given up on his writing and his life.

That’s the main thought I have for you here. If you believe in your stories, don’t let even an avalanche of rejections stop you from continuing to write and submit to publishers. It is hard to keep going when you feel like you’re banging your head against a brick wall. Lick your wounds and do it anyway. I sincerely hope you’ll get that acceptance letter sooner rather than later.

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