Thoughts on Rejection or …”Oh, God, another rejection. My writing sucks. I’ll never get published. I’m a loser and…”
Guest Post by Lynda Fitzgerald
Whoa, there. I recognize those words. In fact, I’ve used them, but that was a long time ago, before I learned to make rejection work for me. Yes, you read it right. I learned to make rejection work for me. Not only that. I can tell you how to make it work for you. But first let me tell you why I’m the right person to write this article, my credentials, if you will.
I have a Ph.D-equivalency-degree in rejection, and I’m only talking about the writing stuff. The other needn’t concern us here, and frankly, it embarrasses me. I’ve been rejected by approximately twenty publishers and two hundred agents over the years, and not always nicely. I’ve been told that I have no talent and that my work is formula and predictable–and those were two of the gentle ones. One agent scrawled across my query, “OH, REALLY!” Okay, maybe it wasn’t the best query letter in the world, but that hurt. You’d think I’d get discouraged, wouldn’t you?
A little background is in order. I started writing when I was ten years old, mainly short stories and poetry. This went on for quite a while. It never occurred to me to submit what I wrote to a publisher. Well, not until my college English professor encouraged me to submit two short stories to a contest held by the English Department. To my amazement, my stories won first place and netted me a tidy creative writing scholarship.
That success spurred me on to write my first novel, even though the idea of writing novel-length fiction was daunting. How do you keep all those characters straight? What’s a story board? What’s a genre?
I finished that first novel at the age of thirty. I was a proud parent, convinced that it was the breakout novel of the century. Move over, Thomas Wolfe! After all, I’d won a scholarship. This novel was beautifully written and well plotted, the characters fresh and memorable. I sent it to a publisher and got my first rejection letter. Then the second and so on and so on…
I was furious, convinced that no one actually read the darn thing. If they did, they’d be stunned by its brilliance. I think I collected twenty rejection slips on that one before I gave up and filed it in the drawer.
Next plan of attack. What I needed to break into author-dom was something simple. A romance! Surely anyone could write a romance. So I did. The fifteenth rejection I got on that fiasco was a personal letter from the then-editor of Harlequin. He told me that, while the dialogue, descriptions and characters were good, the novel was one big cliché.
That rejection wasn’t painful. In fact, the editor’s praise carried me through the writing of my third novel, IF TRUTH BE TOLD, my first published book. Don’t get me wrong. It wasn’t published right away. It took over ten years and many rewrites for it to find a home. During those years, I didn’t sit idle. More on that later.
The point of all this is that I learned a number of important things along the way, things I want to share with you.
Number one: Your breakout first novel may not be quite as good as you think it is. I had written five additional novels before I took a look back at my first baby. I was aghast. It was trite, the dialog wooden. The coincidences were only superseded by the number of clichés contained therein. Description was nonexistent, and no one in the book had more than two senses: ears and eyes. No one smelled anything, felt anything on their skin or tasted anything they ate or drank. I read somewhere that most first novels are rarely picked up. It’s usually the third or fourth that breaks through the publication barrier. There’s a good reason for that.
Number two: Instead of spending the next year(s) editing and reworking that first novel, consider putting it aside for a while. I know it feels like stuffing your firstborn in the closet, but harden your heart and do it anyway. If you have another novel idea, get busy working on it. If not, write some short stories or poems or articles. Blog. Jot down descriptions of things that catch your fancy. Write. That’s the bottom line. Write.
Number three: DO NOT save all those rejection letters. If you need a record or who has turned you down, plug their name into an Excel spreadsheet and click SAVE and CLOSE. Don’t look at it again until you have another name to add. By the time I began my fourth novel, I had three large paper boxes filled with rejections. I looked at them from time to time, regarding them as some kind of badge of honor. They were proof that I’d tried. Hard. One day I realized the only person I was proving it to was me, and I didn’t need a paper trail. I was focusing on these past rejections rather than looking forward to acceptances. The rejection slips hit the recycle bin.
Number four: I’m sorry to tell you, but getting accepted by an agent, an acquisition editor or a publisher is pretty much a crap shoot. Of course, a well-written product is necessary, but if the targeted agent/editor/publisher isn’t in the market for a book like yours, you’ll get another one of those pesky rejections. It is not always a reflection on your work. It is often caused by the reading public’s interest, what the market will bear, whether the agent/editor/publisher had a fight with his/her spouse that morning. Or worse, the night before. It’s very much a matter of (your work) being in the right place at the right time, which is why you have to submit and resubmit.
Number five: Don’t quit! A few years ago, I was at the point of despair. I was spending all my free time writing. You know, the time most people spend on dates and watching TV and going to parties? I spent mine writing, and writing was and is work. Some wee mornings, I was barely able to crawl to bed. Why did I bother? No one cared. No one wanted my writing. As I peeled back the duvet and slipped between the sheets, a question popped into my head, and I believe that question–and my answer–changed my life.
“If you never publish a word,” I asked myself, “if you never see anything of yours in print, will you keep writing?” I didn’t have to think about it. Of course I’d keep writing. Writing is what I do. It’s energizing as well as exhausting. It’s empowering, and sometimes it’s just plain fun. Two weeks later, If Truth Be Told was accepted for publication. Coincidence? Probably. Who cares?
Let me tell you that rejection can work for you if you use it to your advantage.
During those dry years when all I received in the mail were various sized pieces of paper thanking me for my submission and telling me that, unfortunately, it wasn’t suitable for them at this time, I learned to write. I took innumerable writing courses, both at colleges and online. I read books on writing, and talked writing with anyone who would listen to me. (I also found out who my friends were during that time; they’re the ones who kept listening.) During that dry spell, I wrote three more novels, each of which allowed me to better hone my craft. I “read like a writer,” studying what worked and what left me cold. I identified many weaknesses in my writing and focused on improving in those areas. I joined a critique group and a couple of professional organizations. By the time my first book was picked up, I felt like an author. I can tell you, there’s no better feeling than that.
People think it’s strange that I keep taking writing classes now that I’m also teaching them, but there’s always something to learn. Take those classes. I can recommend the Ed2Go classes (type it into Google). They have several creative writing courses that are worth taking. There are innumerable online classes, and most college/universities have night classes in writing suitable for the aspiring writer who works all day, as I did. Books on writing abound, and they can be helpful, if nothing else, in inspiring you to write more.
While you’re studying your craft, don’t forget to exercise it. It’s well known that the single best way to improve your writing is to write. Listen to what people say about your work. If one person criticizes a part it, give it your consideration. If five say the same thing, ask them what they mean. They’re probably on to something.
To sum it up, the way to make rejection work for you is to use the time to immerse yourself in writing. Do not get discouraged. Rejection is a fact of the writing life. Allow yourself a good (short) wallow, and then get busy. Read. Study. Whip out a character sketch. Write the next book. By the time my first book hit the stands, I’d written eight novels and loosely outlined three more.
One last thing, and it’s bad news. Rejection doesn’t end once you’re published. I recently submitted a manuscript to the publisher who accepted my first two books and received a gentle but firm rejection. Do you ever get used to it? Does it ever cease to hurt? Heck, no. I kicked a wall and then burst into tears because my toes were throbbing–or at least that’s what I told myself.
What did I do? I sent it to another publisher who picked it up immediately, and I realized I’d truly learned that rejection isn’t the end of the world. It’s just something that happens sometimes to all writers, something that can spur us on to writing better things.
Lynda Fitzgerald is the multi-genre author of four books. Her current book is Live Ringer. The fourth, LIVE Ammo, the second in a mystery series, is due out by the end of the year. Lynda hails from central Florida, and most of her books are set in Brevard County, Florida. Check out her work on her website, http://www.fitzgeraldwrites.com.