This blog was featured on 07/27/2016
[THE WRITER'S LIFE] How to Deal With Rejection

How to deal with literary rejection?

Easy. I’m not going to.

That question was the subject line of an email that taunted me from my inbox. At first I didn’t want to look at it. After the official launch of my first book, I was riding high on the positive waves of the newly published. There had been an amazingly well-attended party, the line graph on Author Central began shooting upward and there were great reviews -- three of ’em! I did not want to read about rejection in any form whatsoever. No sir. Not this girl. No way.

And then I gave in, because we writers are nothing if not our own saboteurs. I got a momentary reprieve: the link in the email led me to a collection of other articles about dealing with rejection. Still reeling from acceptance, I was hesitant to stick my toes back into the vat of rejection with which I am all too familiar. But morbid curiosity tugged at my willpower like a just-opened bag of peanut butter M&Ms. I figured there might be some good advice; why publish an article that would drive writers over the edge?  

And, naturally, there was.

I have dealt with rejection, of course I have. Monumental when legions of agents and publishers turn away all my queries and minute when a friend looks me in the eye and says, “Hmmm...this isn’t quite right.” The amalgamation of advice in the list of articles was good and true. Most of it was the make-lemonade-from-lemons kind of advice that always infuriates me, but then later turns out to be just the thing I need. There is always something to be gained from accepting legitimate criticism. My very first review, albeit a positive one, also contained a disclaimer about the reader’s and my “political differences.” I was stunned. Why had I never anticipated this before? That someone might have largely differing points of view than mine which could, quite possibly, generate a negative response to my work? In my pre-publication world, I was lucky to be writing for a population who I could count on to endorse similar views, opinions, and outlooks as mine. Now that my work was “out there” for all the world (maybe) to read, there might be some backlash to my liberal, sometimes atypical, always idealistic views. Some people might not like me! (I just fainted.)

Criticism and rejection are all part of the deal when you put your insides into words, print them on paper, and offer them up for people to read--and possibly reject. Writers are the toughest thin-skinned people I know. I really don’t know anyone who doesn’t feel the sting of censure when they are putting forth their best work, only to have it be judged not “good enough.” And yet, we keep at it. Every day. All of our lives.

So, about that literary rejection?  Yeah, I’m not dealing with it.

Not this week anyway.

What gives you the strength to keep what criticism you need and discard the rest? What strategies do you use?  

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  • Thanks, Nancy. All the responses are so great. Like your own about having a network of writer and non-writer friends and colleagues. I think it's always a good idea to have at least one person (besides yourself!) who will say, "I will read everything you write!" Thanks everyone for such heartfelt responses.

  • Nancy McMillan

    Great blog entry and excellent responses.  Thanks, Cindy, for the post.  One thing I've found to be critical in maintaining my sanity is having an circle of people in your life who can support you in different ways.  For me, it works likes this: my husband is always able to put a positive (and yet realistic) spin on rejection, although I don't turn to him for literary crit; my non-writer best friend is always supportive and loves everything I write (I know, I know, but I need that sometimes); my writer best friend gets my writing and I can take any kind of criticism from her; then there are carefully selected readers (writers and non-writers) who I've learned to ask to read with questions I've supplied them, so their reading has a focus.

    For rejection from the outside world, I think you have to allow the sting to wash over you, then revisit, as Glo suggested, trusting your own instincts once emotions have cooled a bit>  In my case, I'd run it by my trusted writer best friend for honest feedback.  It is the way of the writer's (and artist's) world to experience rejection and, as Linda pointed out, so often it's not directed at the quality of the writing as a reflection of what the editor resonates with.  

  • Patricia Robertson

    Shoot, looking for the edit button on my previous post. How can you have a web-site for writer's and no edit button? Or am I missing something as often happens!

  • Patricia Robertson

    As a church minister I was instructed on to have a compassionate, tender heart, and skin tough as a rhino's. Guess same applies to writing!   :)

  • I saw what you did there, Pam. Processed right through it before our very eyes! Nicely done! Congrats on keeping your work out there. 

  • Here is what I received yesterday via email: “Thank you for your submission.  Unfortunately, we do not feel it is right for us.”

    No beautiful penmanship on linen paper that outlined the issues with my manuscript. Just a short blurb in my Inbox. I suppose in this digital age one should expect a certain lack of personal touch, and I know I shouldn’t take it, well, personally. Nevertheless, it stings when I get one of these. All my self-doubts creep to the front of my brain, and I want to stay in bed and pretend that I never decided to pursue writing.  I think of those oh so happy times when all I had to worry about was raising kids, managing a house and my own company, cooking, cleaning, running errands, balancing budgets. 

    I have given this a lot of thought, because, as I’m sure all you She Writes gals out there have experienced, I have to do a fair bit of soul searching every time I get a rejection. I have to decide if all of that heartache is worth it. What are those rejections saying anyway? That I'm a terrible writer? That I should give up? Okay, I am being a bit melodramatic. The fact remains that no matter how many rejections I get, I love writing and whether that writing is well received by everyone, gets a lukewarm review, wins honors or doesn't, nothing changes how I feel about the process of writing. 

    One final thought. I am feeling a little sympathy for the agents out there who are most likely plagued by an overload of submissions thanks to that same old technology that plagues my Inbox. At least my rejection email didn’t say, “Thank-you, but the quality of your work is not up to par.” It didn’t say “Thank-you, but your plot is stupid and no one will ever want to read it.” It was simply an email saying, “we do not feel it is right for us.” Okay. Whew! I feel better.
  • Meg E Dobson

    Wonderful topic and greater responds. My first novel will be out in Jan or Feb of 2015. I will keep this link for reference.

    One author answered this question with the words. "My spouse reads them and only passes on the good ones." I suspect I need a spouse!

    I can't help but compare this to the writers positive crit posting awhile ago and smile. I especially appreciate the comment, ". . .writers are the toughest thin-skinned people I know." Or words similar to that.

    What would be worse than s bad review? No review. What if my book hits and not a word comes in? Remeber that old folk tale abiut the slave envying the king, and then the sun beating down on the king, and it continues until it returns to the slave? I think I will keep that in mind when the time comes. There is always something that is worse.

  • I thought it ironic that right after I posted here I noticed there was a new review for my book Dinosaur Lake (the jewel of all my books as it has garnered me more attention, sales and money -and better reviews than any of my other 19 published novels) and it was a bad review (2 stars). It stung. Most of the reviews for that book are very good and it was a 2014 Epic EBook Awards finalist. The reviewer really hated it and gave reasons like "if you write about dinosaurs you better know the science involved" or something like that. Ha, I meant it as a horror novel. I write emotions, not science. I'm not smart enough. I had to laugh because of the timing. To feel better over the bad review I reviewed a bunch of the 4 and 5 star ones and again thought: Everyone has a different idea to what is good or bad in a book. So all we can trust is ourselves. Reviews! Ha! It's like ice cream...some people love vanilla and some love strawberry, cherry or chocolate instead.

    So I took my own advice and let the bad review slide off my skin.

  • I write for me.  I write because I love it.  And I won't let anyone diminish that for me.

  • Mardith Louisell

    This may seem harsh but I try to remind myself that the world hasn’t asked  me to write.  No one has any obligation to like what we write. I learned when I served on a grant awarding board that the differences in sensibilities are immense. Books I thought were excellent, well-thought out, structured, thoroughly probed, others didn't like. Books they liked I thought lacked a good voice. It all depends on where your tastes lie. I had thought there was some gold standard but I saw how truly idiosyncratic taste is. It is hard to keep going no matter what, sometimes even with great reviews, but, as Jill Jepson wrote in another posting today on SheWrites, "What would Diane Lockhart do?"

  • Skye Blaine

    Right on, Mary Lou. (But easier said than done, yes?)

  • Mary Lou Gomes

    These are all great comments but I think that Kathryn hit it on the head for me. We have to write for ourselves first, to feel connected to our work, and if you think about it, you know when you have reached a good place with your writing. You feel good. As for critics, we will always be our own worst critic. So perhaps we should take what we think will help and forget the rest.

  • Michelle

    Good for you.

  • What amazing responses. So much better than the articles I kind of peeked at. ;) The truth is here: all words in response to our words join us on our journey somehow. Making us better writers, deepening our understanding of ourselves or others and ultimately keeping us writing, which I think is what each of you are saying, too. One of my favorite quotes from the movie Shadowlands  is this: "The pain now is part of the happiness then. That's the deal." We can't really choose not to have pain (rejection) we can only choose how we deal with it.

    Dylan, I'll post on the Review page, too. Why didn't I think of that!

  • Skye Blaine

    Glo's comment seems so true. Really solid advice. Give it time. And Linda, too: praise never made us better writers.

    Criticism can vary. I appreciate the constructive kind, but occasionally I've experienced harsh, rather mean retorts. Oh well. Sometimes it says more about the person who made the comment. And sometimes, hidden within the harshness, is truth we need to hear.

  • Cindy,

    I look back over 42 years of writing; acceptance; rejections; bad, good, unfair or even outrageously prejudiced reviews, people who loved my writing or hated it; people who liked my writing but decided they didn't like me or my viewpoints or the way I dotted an i; readers who nit-picked every tiny thing that really never seemed to make a difference in my opinion...and I've learned one thing. IT DOESN'T MAKE ANY DIFFERENCE. PEOPLE WILL LIKE, LOVE OR HATE YOUR WRITING - OR YOU -  and if you're a real, true writer, you just keep on writing your books for the readers you can/do touch and for...yourself. Always for yourself. That's all you ever need to remember.

  • Linda Hallgren

    I'm a slush pile reader for a magazine, and it's made me realize that there are a lot of reasons for rejecting a submission that has nothing to do with the story being bad. This is not to say that there aren't bad stories out there, but chances are you get rejected because your story doesn't "feel" right for that particular publication, or the person reading your submission prefers a different style etc etc. I guess what I'm trying to say is, a flat rejection without feedback is not something worth lingering on.

    Criticism on the other hand I've learned to appreciate. Not saying I'm immune to it, even constructive criticism makes me sad or angry sometimes. But that being said, and while it can be inspiring, praise never made me a better writer. Use the criticism that seems reasonable to improve (and we can always improve), and let the rest of it slide, or let it piss you off. Whatever it is that gets you inspired and keeps you writing, use it for that.

    For anyone that hasn't participated in a writer's workshop, I can highly recommend it. It will thicken your skin and give you a chance to share your writing with people who (hopefully) genuinely wants to help you become a better writer.


  • Glo Gray

    Best way to deal with criticism is "give it time". When you first read it, you react emotionally. Then you go away, mull, decide the criticism was all wrong and concoct reasons why. A bit later, you ponder it a while, and eventually go back and re-read with out as much of the fresh sting. After enough time and enough re-visitations, you can think more objectively about what might be useful to apply to your writing, after all! Other best tip is "expect not to be perfect!". 

  • J. Dylan Yates

    Thank you so much for writing this piece at precisely this moment, Cindy!

    I can think of several people, whom we both know, who will appreciate hearing we share a deep vulnerability to the opinions of others when we put our hearts on the page. It just helps me to know I'm not alone. Will you share this on the "Review" page I just created for SWP authors? So timely! Also, will you share a wonderful review as well? It helps. It really does!!  

  • How do I deal with rejection and criticism? Get flushed, cry, lash out. Try to remember the one person (besides my parents) who said it was great. And most of all, recall when, at age 16 and attending a theater program at Northwestern, our motley group of teen thespians attended a play in Chicago and had vastly different opinions about whether we loved or hated it. Nothing...nothing...will please everyone, and unfortunately we can't muzzle those who didn't enjoy it (certainly a tiny minority). Last, go back and ask my parents to tell me one more time how much they loved it: "PULITZER!"