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Accepting Rejection

“You have to know how to accept rejection and reject acceptance.” – Ray Bradbury

Sign Photo by Artist UnknownLike many writers, I’ve slaved over short stories. I’ve revised mercilessly, hacking away at excess verbiage, assassinating adverbs, and weighing the value of every word. Finally, I submit my story with a hope and a prayer. Weeks later, I hear back: a rejection letter. Even worse, it’s a form rejection: a grey, lifeless thing with all the personality of a lump of wet newspaper. Nevertheless it somehow manages to have an impact of a dream killer, the Terminator in email form.

I can read and re-read that rejection, searching for some clue as to why the editor would possibly reject my story. But rejections offer no answers. So at my lowest, silliest moments, I’ve wanted to rage at editors, calling them idiots for rejecting my story, rejecting me.

But the truth is, taking rejection personally and fantasizing about grabbing an editor by his lapels and shaking an explanation out of him is the wrong approach. But that doesn’t mean many writers have this fantasy. In fact, Neil Clarke, the publisher and editor of Clarkesworld, commissioned a special business card to console all the writers who introduced themselves to Neil by saying, “You rejected me!”

A Day Without You - 2nd Phase by ZeeksieFirst off, there’s nothing personal about it. My story—not me—could have been rejected for any number of reasons. My style, my tone, my word count, or maybe my sense of humor wasn’t the editor’s cup of tea. My subject matter might have been too similar to a story the editor accepted the day before. I need to remind myself that me, my personality, my beliefs, my loves and pet peeves had nothing to do with it. And second, because that reaction is filtered through so many other considerations, it’s doubtful the editor could even give me the specifics I crave. And even if I could get a specific answer? It’s too easy. What would I have learned? Proper shaking technique, not proper writing technique.

Instead, I need to take a moment, calm down, and make peace with rejection. It’s part of the process. The story has been rejected, but that doesn’t mean that I have been beaten. From form rejections, to personalized rejections, to acceptance. It may be fewer steps than processing grief, but it probably takes longer.

In his book On Writing, Stephen King writes:

When I got the rejection slip from [Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine], I pounded a nail into the wall above the Webcor, wrote [my story title] on the rejection slip, and poked it onto the nail … By the time I was fourteen … the nail in my wall would no longer support the weight of the rejection slips impaled upon it. I replaced the nail with a spike and went on writing.

And so I accept the rejection (or try to), and I resubmit the story. I try to keep busy enough that by the time I get that rejection email, I’m already working on a new story. And while I pray that perseverance will be rewarded, the important thing is not to be passive in the face of rejection.

Instead, I need to learn for myself why I got rejected. I may have thought my story was perfect, but it’s the editor’s opinion that matters. Can I approach my story with fresh eyes after the rejection? David Farland (a.k.a David Wolverton), a former winner and judge for the Writers of the Future Contest, used to make lists of what judges might look at and then grade his story accordingly. For each category, he came up with a dozen questions and looked at his story to see how well they answered the questions. In his ebook, Nascence, Tobias Buckell collected 17 stories that failed to sell. He arranges them chronologically, so readers can see how he progressed by learning alongside him.

Vintage Typerwriter by hellopineconeLeonardo daVinci is purported to have said, “Art is never finished, only abandoned.” My stories may never attain the perfection I see in my mind. But they can always be better. And in struggling to be better, I will develop my talent. Eventually I will get there. A rejection slip might call for a glass of bourbon, but it doesn’t mean I’m going to stop writing. I’ll accept the rejections for now, because some day, my story will be too good to reject. And that acceptance letter outweighs a hundred rejection letters.

I don’t know if my tips for accepting rejection are the best. But they have helped me, and I hope they can help you. Sometimes simply hearing that you are not alone, that you are feeling what so many other writers have felt, is enough to make things better.

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6 Comments

  1. Publishing is one of those professions that always presents yet another challenge…something more to overcome. First there is rejection, then trying to build an audience, then coping with negative reviews. With each triumph we really just learn that there is a new hurdle waiting at the horizon to persevere through. You have the right attitude – keep working…keep improving…the only way to guarantee failure it to stop trying. I wish you great success in the future.

  2. I had a story I spent five years trying to get published, in which time it accumulated 18 rejections, from various levels of market. I understood why it was a hard sell, but the way it was was the way I wanted it and I still believed in the story. Last year, it was accepted by an SFWA qualifying magazine. If a story’s worthwhile, it’s always worth believing that the right editor’s out there somewhere – it just takes persistence.

  3. Avatar Eric C. says:

    Thank you for reading and responding to my post, Mr. Sullivan! I’ve heard your story of perseverance, study, and hard work in a few interviews, and it’s something I keep circling back to in moments of frustration.

  4. You are most welcomed Eric. I would like to say that my experience is unusual, but persevering in order to achieve success in publishing is definitely the rule rather than the exception…sad to say.

  5. Avatar Dan H says:

    Really nice post, Eric. I’m at the same stage as you, still awaiting that first paid acceptance. Finally made an impact a couple of months ago, getting shortlisted for an anthology, but missed out at the very end. Not sure if that was a ‘better’ rejection than the others, but at least it’s a step forward!

    I think while it stings like anything, rejection ultimately pushes us to be better. For all those form rejections we may get one or two with actual constructive feedback. Use what you think you need, and then keep on submitting. In fact I have a rule that every time I receive a rejection I send the story out again to someone else the same day (revisions permitting). That way I’ve always got hope. 😉

  6. Avatar Shack says:

    Rejection should be what drives us on, inspires us to become better. We keep writing, we keep practicing until we succeed. The only person who can shut the door on your dreams is you. There are no other gate keepers.

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