Wednesday, August 19, 2009

He’s Just Not That Into You: Dealing with Rejection

By Writer X

As a writer, I’ve heard just about every excuse you can imagine from agents and editors over the years. Things like:

“Your writing is beautiful, but the story didn’t sweep me away…”

Then there’s always the old, reliable ones like:
“I loved your story, but I’m just not the right agent for this project…”

“Your plot was compelling, but I’m not accepting new clients at the moment…”

“Your characters are great, but I’m afraid that the story won’t sell in today’s market…”

“It’s not you; it’s me.”
Okay, so maybe I’ve never heard the last skin-prickling excuse—at least not from an agent or an editor—but I think I’ve heard everything in between. I’ve heard so many excuses over the years that I’ve actually come to despise the word BUT. No kidding. Whenever I see BUT from an editor, I know it’s not good news and it’s like another piece of my battered soul gets sucked away.

Maybe that’s a little dramatic.

But rejection can feel so personal and, hey, it’s my masterpiece that’s getting kicked in the shins!

A wise writer once said that after you’ve received enough rejections to wallpaper a room, the tide will start to turn. For some reason, that little piece of Zen-like wisdom has always stuck with me. Probably because I’m pretty sure that before my luck began to change I could have wallpapered a high school auditorium. But change, it did.

So, two questions related to rejection that I get asked a lot are: How do you deal with it? And, when do you give up?

Like in baseball, there’s no crying in writing—at least not very much. That’s because the more time you spend crying and wallowing in the rejection, the less time you spend writing the next great American novel. Or memoir. Or comic book. Or cookbook. Or whatever it is that you desperately want the world to devour.

Once I started looking at rejection as more of a gift and less of a personal slam, my attitude about agents and editors began to change. Assuming you’ve done your homework and you’re only submitting your work to trusted experts (SEE my earlier post called “The Path to Publication”), any rejection you receive should be treated like feedback gold. You’ve got to remember that these folks are experts and they’re taking the time to read your query, your partial, your full manuscript. They know what sells and doesn’t sell, and they read manuscripts all day long. I suggest that you take their feedback very seriously if you’d like to publish your masterpiece in the traditional way.

Sure, you’ll get plenty of form letter rejections at first but as your writing and your knowledge of the market improves, you’ll start to get different kinds of rejections. Maybe even pseudo-acceptances—or at least the chance at representation or hints of a possible book deal. Glimmers of hope like:
“I like your writing style. Can you send me a partial?”

“I’m not currently accepting thrillers at the moment. Do you have anything else you can send me?”

“Do you have a web site where I can read your work?”

“I like your story. Are you open to making some edits?”
Notice the omission of that horrible little troll of a word BUT.

When you start receiving something beyond a standard rejection letter (trust me, you’ll learn to spot the difference very quickly), that’s when you know that perhaps the tide is starting to turn. It could take a week, a month, a year. Two years. Who knows? It kind of depends how much mental abuse you’re willing to take.

Then there’s the second most asked question: When to quit. Throwing in the towel on a writing career depends on you. I hesitate to tell anyone when to give up because I don’t feel I have that right. It doesn’t matter whether I believe in your writing, but do you? Have you made sure it’s the best it can be? Have you done everything to market it in the best light? Are you constantly honing your craft?

I can tell you that I used to think about quitting. A lot. But then I realized that I’m not much good at anything else, so I simply kept plodding along. And whenever I couldn’t sell a book or a short story, I just figured that my next book would knock someone’s socks off. Or the next.

In the meantime, never quit your day job until you get established. Unless you’re okay with living underneath highway overpasses.

And stay connected with writers and never stop writing. Or reading. That’s key. I probably read—fiction, mostly—almost as much as I write. I love to get lost in a story almost as much as I want to pay attention to a writer’s style—the way he starts a story, how he transitions between chapters, how he develops characters and weaves subplots. Whether he prefers writing in present or past tense. The little things. Reading gobs can also show you what to avoid in books too because—surprise, surprise—a lot of horribly boring books get published every year. Remember that books are subjective. What I like, you may hate. And something like 200,000 books get published every year in the U.S. Why can’t one of them be yours?

Most of all, never give up a writing career until you’re ready to give up. And then try one more time.

** Food for thought for the next post: Do you prefer literary or genre fiction? **


StanH said...

WriterX: Always enjoy your post, they have an inspirational groove of “never give up, never give in.” Years ago I worked with an old salesman, who by the way was a WWII Vet., and a millionaire several times over by virtue of the fact of his ability to sale. He had an expression that was crude but poignant, “son you can strike a match off my ass.” What does this have to do with selling a book? I was dragging around with him as a young man and we were working cold sales one day, and getting reject after reject, and of coarse he made me walk into the sale and the rejection. He saw that I was getting down on myself, when he bopped me in the head with his folksy quote and a sustained pep talk. Long story short before the day was done, low and behold I began to sell. To be tenacious in whatever your endeavor will lead to success. Thanks for my morning inspiration WriterX : )

AndrewPrice said...

Writer X, I think that's great advice. I've never really thought of looking at rejection letters as a bread crumb trail showing that you're getting closer and closer, but that makes a lot of sense.

I also think you're right that the advice rejection letters give you -- if any -- is probably really good advice. Being adamant that you are right and they are wrong won't help if they're the ones you need to please to get published.

Thanks for another great article!

In terms of genres, I have been reading my way through the classics ever since college -- long story. I don't know if that counts as literary or not. I do read some genre fiction, but I find most of it too formulaic.

ScottDS said...

Great article, as always. I was struck by this line:

--“I’m not currently accepting thrillers at the moment. Do you have anything else you can send me?”--

I guess it's always important to have something else going on too, right?

I read genre fiction myself. I used to work in a bookstore surrounded by classics thinking, "One day... one day I'll get to the classics: Dickens, Chaucer, Hemingway, Melville, Austen, Dante, etc."

But no. :-) Over the last few years, I've been reading Star Trek novels (the TNG and DS9 relaunches), Michael Crichton novels, and a series of vampire detective novels by Mario Acevedo (they're simply okay, nothing great). So it's genre all the way for me!

(I've also been reading my share of non-fiction. Recent titles include Thieves of Baghdad by Col. Matthew Bogdanos*, Steve Martin's memoir Born Standing Up, and screenwriter Diablo Cody's memoir Candy Girl: A Year in the Life of an Unlikely Stripper.)

*I will buy the movie rights to this book one day. I swear it.

Writer X said...

StanH, I love your story and I can completely relate. My dad is a WWII veteran and very tenacious. When I look at all of the adversity he overcame to get where he got, it makes my struggles look pathetic in comparison. He continues to be my inspiration.

Andrew, you are so welcome and I'm honored to post on your site, as always. I think you will also enjoy the next post where we will delve deeper into literary and genre fiction. ;-) I too love the classics, but I'm also a sucker for genre fiction (not all, though). There's nothing better than losing yourself in a story.

Scott, love your book selection. Michael Crichton is a fav of mine. And, yes, it's important to always have something in the laptop even as you're submitting other finished manuscripts or short stories. In fact, I get really fidgety if I'm not working on a book regardless of what my agent is submitting to editors. I personally also think it's a good idea to experiment in multiple genres and not only focus on one, if at all possible.

CrispyRice said...

Always interesting posts! And, as usual, you reinforce my realization that I would not make a good writer, LOL. I'm glad other people do it, though. :) Aside from the rejection (no, I couldn't do sales either) the things you said you pay attention to when you read are things I can't say I've ever noticed, barring something particularly glaring.

I used to read a ton of sci fi and fantasy, and I like to re-read my old faves, but don't read much new stuff. I love the classics - loved them in HS and college, and still seek them out today. I have zero patience for most "modern fiction" or "beach novels" and that stuff.

Mostly I read nonfiction, everything from Thomas Sowell to _The Zen of Fish_ to a book about the history of the North American locust to _I Hate Myself and Want to Die - the 25 Most Depressing Songs Ever_ to something about Magellan. As long as it's well-written and is something new to me, I'm all over it. Call it the "National Geographic reality TV" genre of books, I guess.

Writer X said...

CrispyRice, you'll notice that most "beach reads" come out around May/June. And that's not by accident. Still, Chicklit (also known as beach reads) has fallen out of favor in the last couple of years, and I can't say that I'm too sad about that. The world doesn't need another dull story about a fashionista or a perfect girl who can't find the perfect guy.

I don't read a lot of non-fiction, although I do like it. I am tired of seeing all of the political biographies, though. Dullsville, IMO.

CrispyRice said...

WriterX, something you just said - "There's nothing better than losing yourself in a story" - made me realize that that is maybe why I don't read fiction much anymore. I have a really hard time "getting lost" in a book or a movie or anything. And the TV I watch is mostly "nonfiction" stuff, too - National Geo and Discovery, etc. Interesting.

Chick lit, gargh! I speak some German and, in an attempt to keep up my skills, I got ahold of a copy of Bridget Jones in German. I couldn't make it more than a couple chapters, even though the whole point of reading it was the language practice, LOL. Blech!

Writer X said...

CrispyRice, BRIDGET JONES in German? That would be painful! Regarding getting back into fiction, have you tried reading books by lesser known writers? Sometimes I think the bestsellers become bestsellers because they've simply followed a popular trend (can you say vampires?), not because they're particularly creative. Still, agents/editors are going to push the books that sell because they, after all, are trying to run a business. It's not always right but that's the way it is, unfortunately.

Tennessee Jed said...

I found this to be a very interesting and informative post. The reality is, as you point out, that the professionals do know what they are talking about vis a vis "what sells" so learning from their honest feedback only makes sense.

As a musician in my youth, I realized that I had some talent. I also realized that making a decent living was not easy and often involved lots of things beside "was I creative and any good." As such, your advice "don't quit your day job" makes sense and ultimately, why I made boring insurance a career and kept music as a hobby.

One popular author I enjoy who writes in the "legal thriller" genre is Steve Martini who has a character named Paul Madriani patterned after himself. He did do one book about the best selling author industry called "The List." I found it entertaining, but wondered how accurate is was about that industry (given Martini also falls into that category. I don't know if you have read Martini or that novel, but if you have, I'd be interested in your thoughts on it.

Writer X said...

Jed, I'm familiar with Martini but have not read THE LIST. However, I went to and read the first few pages. Let's just say that it's extremely rare for a big-time literary agent to come to you. Most contact is handled through email, even the initial offer of representation. I'm sure there's much more to Martini's story than that; I'll have to add this one to my nightstand.

Music, like writing, is a tough career. Glad you still kept at it, even as a hobby. Sometimes when you know you don't have to make a living at it, you might enjoy it more. I always wanted to be a classical pianist but, sadly, I never got better than below mediocre.

patti said...

*ugh* i had some rejection pts reading this article (hey! wonder if i can get some stimulus money for my ailment.) i have felt all you wrote about. plus, i've cried. but i have never stopped writing. just yesterday i felt the pull of another story. in the meantime, blogging will have to be my claim to fame.

Writer X said...

Patti, keep at it! Maybe the pull of your next story is the one that will sell. You never know, right?

AndrewPrice said...

Writer X, Just got back from the day job -- depositions. The classics thing came about because I started in engineering and I soon realized that I was losing the ability to read. So I made a list of the classics and I've been reading through them ever since. Some certainly don't deserve the accolades they've gotten, but most have been very good.

My problem with lots of the genre fiction that I see at the book store these days is that it's so incredibly formulaic that I can often tell you exactly what's going to happen in the next chapter. Also, much of the writing is incredibly generic.

I look forward to your take on genre fiction and/or literary fiction! :-)

(P.S. I hate biographies. . . useless.)

Writer X said...

Andrew, I agree. There are too many tired formulas in genre fiction, particularly in the mystery and women's commercial fiction genres. Even so, if a story can pull me in from the get-go, I'll usually hang on for the ride. A book has to be really, really bad before I'll stop finishing it.

AndrewPrice said...

Writer X, I'm of two minds on that. On the one hand, I hate quitting a book. But on the other hand, there is a lot out there to read and if I find myself truly hating a book, then maybe it's not worth reading.

I've never quit on one of the classic, even though I should have. But I will give up on average books when they turn out to be a waste of time.

(I should have quit Moby Dick, by the way, but didn't. Ever since, I've been suffering from an incredible urge to dig up Melville and smack the corpse around. I wonder where he's buried?)

Writer X said...

I remember MOBY DICK as a kid, but I preferred books like LAST OF THE MOHICANS and CALL OF THE WILD. I think I liked MOBY DICK, the movie, better than the book, as I recall. It's interesting because the classics can get away with much more narrative. People don't seem to mind it as much with the classics, but if you have too much narrative in most commercial fiction, you might as well wave the white flag.

Cronickain said...


Thank you for the advice. I am going to keep plugging away at my detective novel. I too read genre fiction but also love historical accounts. The most recent was We Are Soldiers Still.

AndrewPrice said...

Writer X, The classics definitely get away with a lot more narrative than current fiction. My take on current fiction is that the accepted style basically copies Hemmingway's style, though not with the same attention to detail that he paid to his word choice.

One thing I did find really interesting, Dumas easily could have been a modern writer.

Moby Dick killed me because Herm would spend whole chapters just describing a bucket or a rope. It was like someone dared him to write a book that said nothing but used as many words as possible not saying it.

Writer X said...

ArmChairGeneral, good luck with your detective novel. That is a hot genre, although I think it never goes out of style either. People always love to read a good mystery.

I, too, love fictional stories set against historical time periods. The OUTLANDER series, at least the first few books in the series, were fantastic and I could not put them down.

I've not read WE ARE SOLDIERS STILL but I'm halfway through INSIDE DELTA FORCE, which I'd highly recommend. It's more memoir but it reads like a story. It's hard to put down. Gripping.

Writer X said...

Andrew, LOL. Yes, it would be very difficult today to get an agent to read chapters of rope or bucket descriptions.

Unknown said...

WriterX: I've been rejected in the best bars in California, New York and half the rest of the country. I think some of them have posters of me in their "hospitality rooms." LOL

Seriously, another great article, and good info on not taking things personally. They're not rejecting you, they're merely rejecting the most important thing in your life. Oops, there I go again, taking it personally.

Keep educating us!

Tennessee Jed said...

Writer X - thanks for your comments. Andrew, I understand your comments on Moby Dick. One of the problems of reading, I think, is separating a good story from good writing. I can enjoy a predictable story if it is well written, but have more trouble with a good story, poorly written.

With the classics, part of the problem is that the author may be from a different era when different standards existed. It is hard for a modern reader to understand Shakespeare. Ayne Rand may have had interesting things to say, but like Melville is torture to read. Andrew, weren't you hip to the Classic Comics version of Moby?

Writer X - I love historical fiction. A few years back I enjoyed a trilogy of books, 1812, Eagle's Cry, and Treason by author David Nevin (Dream West about Fremont.) I wonder if you are familiar with them? If not, I think you would enjoy them. They mix fictional protagonists with real historical figures.

Writer X said...

LawHawk, I think I may have seen your photo at Durant's in Phoenix? :-)

Writer X said...

Jed, I have not read the series of books you've mentioned but I'll have to check them out as I love good historical fiction.

You make a great point about predictable stories vs. good writing. A predictable story is something you might enjoy on the beach but not remember a month later whereas a well-written story with deeper themes might be something you read over and over. Anyway, everyone's tastes are different.

I'll definitely check out those books!

Unknown said...

WriterX: Omigod! There too? I though I was pretty much limited to Bullhead City (thanks, Angel) and Flagstaff.

On the other hand, I've written some of my best material on those selfsame walls.

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