Last week good friend of mine’s manuscript was rejected by a publisher with whom he had past success and got along with exceptionally. In fact, he’d signed with this publisher when they were just beginning as a newbie imprint ready to take on the world.
A manuscript may be rejected for any number of reasons. Aspects of the story or writing may be problematic. Or the story and writing might be great, but the genre doesn’t match the imprint’s mission. Or an editor/agent isn’t confident that the book can sell. And sometimes it’s just a matter of personal taste. What one reader loses sleep over might be another reader’s insomnia remedy.
One thing is for sure: rejection sucks. The act sucks. The feeling sucks. The aftermath sucks. Especially when you thought you wrote a sure thing. Especially when you were hopeful or, more than hopeful, longing.
This kind of rejection not only happens with a manuscript, but also with a book. An author may be showered with praise and critical acclaim from editors, marketers, fellow authors, and readers; and yet, the book still manages to commercially tank. Or a slew of scathing reviews file in. I’ve experienced this with one of my own books.
I don’t know of any author who hasn’t experienced some kind of crushing disappointment at some point during their writing career.
So how do we cope? How do we get past the hurt? How do we not internalize it, let it affect our self-esteem and our writing process?
Here are four things that work for me:
1. Look for the Positive Aspects
I try to do this with any negative or challenging situation. For example, if I’m stuck in traffic, I find positive aspects in the comfortable car, good music on the stereo, full tank of gas, no snow or ice on the ground, etc. (Of course, some situations are particularly arduous, like the tragic flooding we’re seeing in Houston.) In the context of writing and rejection, it may be difficult to find positive aspects when a manuscript you’ve pored over for weeks, months, even years, has been turned down. But it’s possible, for example, that rather than your story not being right for the publisher, the publisher wasn’t right for your story. Maybe there’s someone else who will not only be able to see its potential, but also know how to capitalize on it. Maybe the rejection has given you an opportunity to develop the writing, collaborate with someone you’ve always wanted to work with, or independently publish.
If I’m really struggling to find positive aspects in the moment, then I’ll usually trust that they will reveal themselves in time. For example, my decision to self-publish my debut novel, Faking It, following the rejection of some fifty agents, was probably the most positive aspect to have come out of the situation. But at the time I wasn’t sure if I was committing writing career suicide or taking a leap of faith.
2. Be Like Jed Bartlet
At some point, after the sting subsides (and even before), I ask myself the famous words of The West Wing President Jed Bartlet: “What’s next?”
Asking What’s next? is about being proactive. Are there other agents or editors you can pitch to or query? Is independent publishing an option? Is it best to put the manuscript aside and work on something else in the meantime? (Temporarily setting a manuscript aside isn’t throwing it away or invalidating its worth; it’s just taking a break from it and returning to it at another time with fresh eyes and renewed momentum.) Are there lessons to be learned for why a book failed following its launch? Perhaps a new cover design or marketing strategy is in order?
My husband had written a novel that had been rejected by both his agent and his editor. He put the manuscript away and moved on to a new novel, one that was published and sold well. A good friend of his, however, thought that manuscript was excellent, and would occasionally ask my husband about it, urging him to do something with it.
Years later, my husband opened the file, read the manuscript, and saw what his friend had seen in it. He revised and edited the story, designed a cover, and released the book under his own imprint. Not only has Julep Street been critically acclaimed, its story is also more timely now than it was when my husband had first submitted the manuscript.
The point is, you have options. As a writer, you probably have more options than ever before. Explore each one. If you love your story, if you believe in your book, then you owe it to yourself and your brainchild to leave no stone unturned. What’s next?
3. You Are So Much More
As I’d mentioned, at least fifty agents as well as a prominent acquisitions editor had rejected Faking It. Since its publication, approximately 10% of its Amazon customer reviews are 1- and 2-stars. And while each rejection stung, some more than others, it didn’t change the fact that I believed I’d written something good. (In fact, none of the agents or the editor had said the writing was the problem.) Moreover, the poor sales of one of my published titles didn’t change the fact that I’d had exceptional sales of others. It didn’t change the fact that I was a good writer—better than some and not as good as others—or that I loved to write. It didn’t change the fact that readers liked my books. It didn’t change the fact that people liked me.
Because that’s what I believe we internalize most when our writing is rejected: I am not good enough. When I think those thoughts, feel unworthy, I change the thoughts to I am good enough. More importantly, I am more than my manuscript, more than amazon sales rankings, more than other people’s reviews, more than the books I write, more than my career. I am more than a writer. I am so much more.
Perhaps the most important way to overcome rejection is this:
Just as I have yet to meet a writer who hasn’t experienced rejection, I also have yet to meet a writer for whom patience, persistence, and perseverance hasn’t paid off. As in life, a writing career is all about ebb and flow. Embrace it. Jump in. And keep swimming. Or, if need be, just float.
Note that I am not advocating a just-get-over-it approach. I think rejection needs to be validated and recognized, and that you need to allow yourself to feel the pain of it. Lean into it, if you must. However, you don’t want to wallow in rejection for so long that it paralyzes your ability to keep writing or jeopardizes your self-esteem. If these approaches work for you, put any or all of them into effect as soon as possible.
Discussion: As a writer, how have you coped with rejection? Please share in the comments.