I have been writing since I was ten years old, but I didn’t dip my toe into the realm of publishing until I was sixteen. After having written my first non-horror novel, I talked to my aunt about publishing—she worked at a local magazine and had always been a writer, herself. She gave me several books about publishing and even sat me down with the magazine’s editor to pick his brain about the process, and about his recommendations for how I should proceed. I had given him a printed copy of my novel prior to the meeting so that he could give me an honest assessment.
The magazine’s headquarters was in a beautiful Victorian-style home in the historic district, shaded by ancient moss-covered oaks. I had been volunteering at the magazine as part of my International Baccalaureate-mandated community service—organizing files, calling potential subscribers, that sort of thing. The editor was an older gentleman who spoke in a quiet, raspy voice. He always wore a suit; no matter how hot it got, he never removed his jacket.
In that meeting, he kindly and courteously explained the process for both traditional and self-publication (this was back in the early 2000’s, before self-publication had become the viable and more user-friendly option that is it now). Then he laid it on me: this book wasn’t ready for publication. I wasn’t ready for publication. If this book was to be published, it would have to be self-published, which would cost me a few grand (not exactly an option while I was waiting tables at an island-themed restaurant), and even if it was affordable, he wouldn’t recommend it, because my style and content weren’t fully developed yet. In other words, my narrative ambitions stretched far past my technical abilities, and I needed to work on my craft more before publishing could become an option.
This was my first foray into real rejection. I handled it better than I expected, mostly because I appreciated all of the advice and the fact that the editor treated me not like an amateur who would always be an amateur, but as a beginner who showed promise.
Since then, I have dealt with countless rejections. While trying to seek publication for a collection of short stories I completed in 2012, I queried around 100 different literary agents. I received rejection letters (or complete radio silence) from 99. The one agent who was determined to work with me (and who has worked with me on every project since) helped me to polish the collected stories into the most publishable work possible, and still when she pitched the manuscript to dozens of publishers, we received nothing but rejection back. In this situation, the prevailing urge is to feel completely and utterly demoralized; I caved in to that urge for a short while, wondering if I was good enough, if I was ever going to be published, if my stories were ever going to make it out into the world. After a month or two of crippling self-doubt, I found solace in small victories: a few online literary journals published individual stories on their sites, and workshop leaders and professors all had positive things to say about the pieces I submitted for review. And while the big publishing houses rejected my manuscript, many of them cited the same rationale: the work was well-written and ambitious, but too difficult to market or was too abstract. I could live with that.
Now that I’m in the same boat again—anxiously awaiting to hear if traditional publication is an option for my newest novel, or if self-publishing is in my future—I look back fondly on those past rejections, all of which have brought me here and have taught me everything I know about resilience, dedication and appreciation for every small victory. So if you find yourself in that position—maybe you’ve hit a brick wall with finding a literary agent, or every publisher has said no, or you didn’t win the literary contest you entered—and especially if you’re in the throes of self-doubt, here are a few things to remember while facing rejection.
1. Find the silver lining. This is true of any moment of perceived or actual failure: one of the best ways to keep yourself from slipping into depression or insecurity is to find a more positive and more productive way to look at your situation. For me, I am usually able to keep from beating myself up over a failure by focusing on what lessons I have learned from the experience; when you can’t find any other silver lining, this one is always available. I sent my query letters out for literary agents in two phases. The first 50 that I sent out were nothing but rejections or blistering silence, but instead of taking this as a defeat, it inspired me to take a closer look at the query letter, synopsis and excerpt I was submitting to agents. I realized that the synopsis was too vague and that instead of sending the first 15-50 pages of the collection (depending on the page amount each agent requested), which often cut off the opening novella before it concluded, it would be better to send the strongest stand-alone story instead. In other words, my silver lining in that situation was realizing that I needed to adjust my strategy before I exhausted my entire list of agents, learning from my mistakes and improving my ability to communicate with literary professionals.
2. Be resilient. When you’re questioning your desire or ability to write, this tip can sometimes be easier said than done. Resilience is the ability to bounce back after adversity, to get up more times than you’re knocked down, to keep trying and believing in yourself even when the odds are against you. Resilience isn’t a quality someone is simply born with, though: it’s a skill that can be taught and learned, and it requires rewiring your brain to keep it from jumping towards negative / counter-productive thinking patterns. Being in the military, we actually have an outstanding, comprehensive Master Resilience Training program that was first researched and developed by Penn State’s Positive Psychology Center. This program taught me a lot of skills and awareness of mental processes that I had never considered before. If you’re interested in researching this further, please take a look at the following website: https://ppc.sas.upenn.edu/resilience-programs/resilience-skill-set. This site also includes several books that delve into the topic of resilience and its many forms.
3. Have a backup plan. These days, the traditional publishing route is not the end-all, be-all authority on getting your work out there. There was once a time when a writer was more likely to bend to the will of the gatekeepers or never get published at all, because there really weren’t any alternatives. This is no longer the case. From blogs to vlogs, from editing and contributing to online literary journals or underground, subversive magazines, there are many ways to get your voice out there these days. Self-publishing has seen a tremendous boom lately, with self-published authors gaining just as much (and, sometimes, even more) success as their traditionally published peers. Finding success in self-publishing requires a lot of research, planning, diligence and the willingness to branch out into new creative ventures in order to establish and grow an audience. If it begins to look like the gatekeepers of the traditional publishing world are unwilling to open up to you, you have three choices: abandon the manuscript, rework the manuscript to try resubmitting, or turn towards self-publication. Deep down you will know the right path.
4. Keep writing. No matter what rejection you face, the important thing is to learn from your mistakes, improve as a writer by taking valid criticisms to heart, and keep writing. If you have gone far enough as a writer to even face rejection at all—meaning you had a creative idea that inspired you to take up the pen to begin with, and you actually saw your ideas through from the first sentence to the last, and you believed in the finished product enough to attempt to get it out to the rest of the world—then clearly this is your calling. Whether that calling results in the best seller’s list or not, it’s your passion. It nurtures you on a fundamental level, and it is worth fighting for. So even when rejection rears its ugly head, keep writing. Write poetry in your journal, tinker with a short story idea, try your hand at a screenplay for the first time. Start a new novel or continue to work on improving the one that got rejected. Just keep writing. In the end, we all want to be published. However, if that is the only thing that drives you, you may need to find your inspiration again and remember why you started writing in the first place.
Every established author has faced rejection countless times in their careers. Stephen King’s Carrie was notoriously rejected by 30 publishers. Here’s a list of even more oft-rejected works that later found success thanks to the resilience of authors: https://lithub.com/the-most-rejected-books-of-all-time/. Take a page from their playbook: don’t give up!