I’ve been writing and submitting work for a long time. I have rejections slips dating from 1996. This year…2012…marks the year I have officially broken the barrier and now my work is published in a national teen magazine. Let’s see…how many years have I been trying? Let’s do the math. Ah. 16 years.
If I count how many rejection letters I’ve had since then, it totals over 100. Therefore I believe I’m the right person to write about rejection and what to do in order to overcome that voice in the head that whispers, “Give up, you pathetic excuse for a writer. You’d be a millionaire by now if you’d spent those hours behind the McDonald’s counter instead of wasting them in front of the computer.”
First of all I want to mention that like most writers I would write even if I never found an audience. I love the challenge of completing a story. I also get a bang out of creating characters and giving them each a unique voice. I never used to like equations in high school, but now I can’t get enough of “if x happens, then y happens, what is the outcome?” Sound familiar? So giving up writing altogether isn’t in my DNA.
When I first started out, editors only used snail mail, so it would take months to get that rejections slip back. It was often on a small slip of paper, the dreaded impersonal form letter. I started out by submitting a play that had been performed on the college stage–my introduction to seriously considering writing as a career instead of a hobby. I entered contests and submitted work to playhouses, more or less to test the waters.
The waters were choppy, my friends. One of the contests had a form for the judges to fill out that rated the plays from poor to fair. My judge marked my play as being somewhere between poor and fair for character, plot, originality, dialogue and style. Ouch! Her ending comment? “There is no conflict or drama. Characters are very superficial. Get some plays from the library to see the proper format.” Blub.
I reformatted the play, reworked portions of it, and sent it to another contest where I ended up a finalist. What did I learn from the experience? First of all, art is subjective. While one person might think it’s not worth the paper it was conceived on, another might find value in it. Second, that giving up would have prevented me from learning and growing as a writer.
I continued to write, bought books on the craft, took classes on the subject. I continued to submit work that I thought was wonderful, but didn’t move anyone to tears or laughter as I had hoped. The waters remained choppy. I continued to doggy paddle my way through.
Here’s what I discovered as I navigated my way through unfamiliar murky sea: my first attempts were not not publishing-quality even though they were fairly well-written and had interesting characters. I took a job teaching creative writing and became a stronger writer because I could see more clearly what I was doing wrong by studying the work of others who were making the same mistakes I was making. This has to be the single-most important thing I ever did to get me to where I am now. It was the lifesaver ring that kept me afloat while the rejection letters trickled in. There was so much more to learn about writing. And I was learning it in the best way possible…through observation, study, and application.
The rejection letters took a more personal turn. Editors began to hand-write notes of encouragement. A couple of times I came close to having work placed, only to have an editor leave before my work was accepted or an editor decide to use another writer’s work in place of mine. I was close…so very close. I could see land up ahead. An oasis in the middle of the sea.
And then I entered a contest for a magazine and won third place…and a whopping $50! I then placed first for my novel excerpt in another contest. Yes, by now I was writing novels. I’d written three for practice, and was now submitting my fourth to agents (this is in 2003) via a query letter. They all turned it down. I brought the first ten pages to a conference and paid to have an agent critique it. He listed all the problems he had with my storyline and characters…and I was buoyed because now I knew how to improve it! I wrote another novel and submitted my query letter to numerous agents. I received manuscript requests and was ultimately turned down. But I came close, and that made all the difference. (See my post: http://blog.klgore.com/2011/12/10/i%E2%80%99m-not-proud-all-the-wrong-ways-to-deal-with-an-agent/)
In 2009, I found my agent. Two, actually. I chose who I felt was a better fit for me, finally reaching the shore of my oasis. If I had given up after that judge from the play contest told me my play had no plot and dull, one-dimensional characters, I would never have come this far.
So here is my advice:
1) Keep submitting your best work.
2) Keep track of your rejections. Note when they become more personal. This is your turning point! It means you have become a better writer.
3) Read blogs about other people’s rejections. It helps to know you’re not alone.
4) Enter contests. Even if there is not a monetary reward. It could bolster your ego. Plus, it helps you feel productive.
5) Write even as you continue to submit.
6) Join a critique group. Not only will others help you find places to improve your work, by reading other people’s work, you will see where there are problems in your own work. Plus, you can all relate rejection tales of woe and have support for both the bad times and the good.
7) Quit when you’re depressed…but only for a little while. Don’t plod through the depression. I took month long breaks when I became discouraged. When I was rejuvenated I felt ready to continue. Trying to write when you feel like a failure is like going on a diet when the fridge is full of cookie dough.
8) Read really badly written work. It will make you feel much better about your own writing.
9) Remember that all writers are rejected. Kathryn Stockett (who wrote The Help) was rejected by 60 agents. If she had quit, she wouldn’t be doing her happy dance now.
10) Eat ice cream.
Remember, you can have an amazing book that still won’t find a traditional publisher. If you believe in your work there’s always the self-publishing option. Don’t let rejection define you. Sure, you may still have a lot to learn (I do), but you have to keep swimming if you want to get to the other side.
So jump in. The water’s fine.
To read more on rejection letters see my blog post: http://blog.klgore.com/2011/08/02/rejections-is-it-them-or-you/