I recently wrote this article about rejection for a competition and rather fittingly, it didn’t get anywhere. When I was telling some writer friends about this over lunch a few days ago (I had to see the funny side), they said I should post it on the blog so I’m doing it before I can change my mind (plus it’s the Friday afternoon graveyard slot). I don’t consider myself an expert on anything, but like most writers I know more about this subject than I ever wanted to.
Writing this piece really helped me. Since then I’ve plunged headlong into writing a new novel (update: now my debut Paris Mon Amour), so at least I’m taking my own advice. If one more person finds something helpful here, it will have been worth doing.
All new writers know you have to persevere to get anywhere. The odds of success are terrible, especially if your aim is to have a novel traditionally published. Often the first major hurdle is trying to find an agent; I’ve heard the statistic that one in a thousand manuscripts attracts representation and whether or not that’s accurate, it certainly feels that way.
Getting an agent (if that’s what you want) is a huge step forward, but it’s actually only clearing the first hurdle. Authors face rejection in different forms at every stage of their career. That book may not get published. Your poetry or stories may not be accepted, or succeed in competitions. Sales and reviews may be disappointing. The list goes on…
Clearly, avoiding rejection isn’t an option, but finding a way to cope with it and keep writing definitely is. Rejection has been the unlikely catalyst for positive developments in my journey as a new writer. Although the message of this piece is very much ‘Focus on what you can control’ – first let’s talk about something you can’t.
You cannot fight rejection by pretending you don’t care or that it doesn’t hurt. It does. It can make you feel depressed, frustrated and angry. It can make you feel you’re wasting your time even trying, and question why you’re putting yourself through such an agonising process when the chances of it ever being you seem so low.
The answer is this: you can only be certain you’ll never make it if you stop trying. It’s hard to feel optimistic when you’re balancing fragile hopes against the instinct to protect yourself from disappointment. How often have you heard, ‘I’m not getting my hopes up’? But hope is important and so is believing in yourself, so be sure to celebrate any success, however small. Negative experiences damage confidence and stifle creativity but most of us write because we want to, need to and would ‘do it anyway’. If that’s how you feel, don’t let anything take that away!
By all means get drunk, weep, rant – whatever helps, really – when things go badly. (All of those work for me). Allow yourself to be miserable without feeling guilty or self-indulgent about it; writers are experts at beating themselves up. These are your words, your stories and although it’s nothing personal for the person doing the rejecting, of course it’s personal to you. Sulk for a few days, then pick yourself up and keep going.
Easy to say, but how do you stay positive when all you’re hearing is NO?
The way I think about rejection has changed a lot over the past couple of years. It is tempting to equate it with failure but they are not the same. In most fields, if you put in the hours, do the exams and get the qualification, success will follow – you achieve what you set out to do. The book world doesn’t work like that. As you’re often told by the bearer of bad tidings, ‘it’s very subjective.’ In most cases literary merit is far from the only consideration, so rejection doesn’t necessarily mean your work isn’t good.
It may be an essential part of being a writer, but there’s no point subjecting yourself to unnecessary rejections (now it’s all electronic you don’t even get to paper a room with them). Do your research. Be selective about where you send your writing and follow instructions to the letter. Always behave professionally – never vent in public or resort to rudeness – it’s a small world and bitterness is very unappealing. You wouldn’t be human if it wasn’t hard sometimes to see another author get the break you want so badly, but try to be encouraged by their success and to be generous – next time it might be you.
Being rejected is a disempowering situation so anything you do to take back control feels good. A lot of writers send out a new submission every time they get a rejection, which is great provided you pause to reflect on anything you could be doing better. Don’t sit around staring at your inbox (the endless waiting is torturous) – writing something new is the best way to take your mind off work that’s ‘out there’. Play around with ideas for the next novel, write some new stories, start a blog – it doesn’t matter what you write, as long as you don’t stop altogether, because it can be hard to recover momentum after a long period of rejection and inactivity. And keep sending work out – it was a surprise shortlisting in a major competition which gave me the will to keep writing when I felt like the most hopeless loser.
Rejection can only defeat you if you let it. It can be surprisingly motivating and inspire you to raise your game. Are you sure the work you’re sending out is your absolute best? I made the classic mistake of thinking my manuscript was ready when it was nowhere near and it cost me a dozen rejections. I didn’t understand how good you have to be to stand out in a world where your submission is one of thousands. Push yourself to become a better writer. Read as much and as widely as you can and learn from it. Be open to tough but constructive feedback from people you trust and get professional input if you possibly can. Surround yourself with like-minded people who understand what you’re going through – this mutual support is invaluable. Writing festivals and courses are brilliant but there are many ways to connect online. There’s no need for any writer to feel isolated.
Sadly there’s no magic formula for dealing with rejection and nothing which works for everyone. It takes time to figure out your own strategy so don’t worry if you’re not there yet. If rejection ever stops hurting, it means you’re free to do something else with your hopes and dreams. But since you’re reading this, I’m guessing that won’t be you.
Don’t just keep writing. Keep your hopes up.
To the many people supporting me or any other writer – thank you.
Would you like to share any tips for dealing with rejection?
My First Year as an Agented Writer
Seven years to publication, seven things I’ve learned (hosted by Writers’ Workshop)
I love this post, Isabel. Agree with all you’ve said. I definitely think rejection can be motivating, too. I once paid for a professional critique, and my god it was BRUTAL. My first reaction was ‘I might as well give up.’ My second reaction was ‘Right, I’ll show him’ (but more sweary than that). The message, as you say, is keep working and keep hoping.
HA! This made me smile as my reaction (not that I said so) to a friend who told me ‘as long as nobody’s paying you to write it’s just a hobby’ was exactly the same. I didn’t expect it to be quite such a struggle to ‘show her’, I must admit…
Great blog, Isabel. I’m very glad you posted it. I had a rejection this week and sulked for a bit. Then dusted myself off and wrote something new for another one 🙂
Oh good, so it was worth posting then! With rare exceptions we’re all in the same boat. Definitely helps to remember that. Good luck with the new story.
Great post, and it might help others to know (from my own experience) that rejection can be a blessing in disguise. I won the Bridport with a story that was rejected (in a previous draft) by Mslexia. So rewrite, resubmit, and you never know what’s round the corner…
Thanks Lynsey, that’s an inspiring story! And congratulations – bet it was worth waiting for that outcome.
I liked how you acknowledged that rejection DOES hurt, even though we know it goes with the territory. I think sometimes we move between extremes of utter devastation and pretending it doesn’t matter, but we have to feel it, pick ourselves up and move on.
I can’t process it and move on unless I allow myself to feel it, and the more respect I have for whoever’s rejecting my work, the more it hurts! Ironically those are often the ones who say the most lovely things (not that I would have it any other way!)
Rejection is part and parcel of our writing lives. I had countless poems rejected when I was subbing to mags, and my first attempt at a novel was rejected. I entered Mrs Sinclair’s Suitcase into the first Mslexia Women’s Novel comp and got nowhere. I think the secret is to accept that the only thing you can do to play your part in the decision making is to write the absolute best work you’re capable of. Don’t be scared to write your heart out and show off a little bit! And be patient and be busy.
Thanks Louise, all of your advice strikes me as spot on, especially the ‘write your heart out’ bit. In fact, I really can’t see the point of writing if we don’t.
Great post. And great advice. The keep on keeping on is what separates people who are writers from those who simply “want to write.”
Thanks, Fiona. So true. That list of successful writers who were rejected over and over is one I found on the Rejections website on a truly terrible day and I think about them and take inspiration from them often.
What a great piece. Thank you. As you say, in most other fields, if you put in the energy and work required, you’ll succeed. I’m finding it very hard to accept that it doesn’t work like that with writing, and veer between utter delight when I win something and despair when I find out I’m not even longlisted. This is a very timely reminder that you have to keep going regardless, learning along the way, and that that’s how those who are successful have succeeded.
Hi Anna, thanks for commenting. I’m glad you could relate to the piece – and that I decided to go ahead and post it! You’re right, coming to terms with how the literary world does (or more frequently doesn’t) reward its authors is a challenge but not something to dwell on. The best advice I’ve ever been given is to focus on upping the quality of my own work AKA the only thing about this whole crazy business we can actually control!
This post is very timely for me. The agent I previously had a relationship with has just got back to me this week to say that my latest novel isn’t some she feels she can champion. So like you say, it hurts and it’s hard to start from scratch and find the motivation to once AGAIN put myself and my writing out there. But it has to be done because I believe in my work. Keep the faith Isabel!
Very sorry to hear that, Helen, and I can imagine how disappointing that must be. But good for you, believing in yourself and your writing – you’re showing tremendous commitment. I wish you success – you really do deserve it!
Thanks Isabel. I hope we can both blog about success instead of rejection soon! 🙂
This is key, I think: “you can only be certain you’ll never make it if you stop trying.”
Tenacity all round! Thanks for posting this, Isabel!
Reblogged this on L.M. Milford and commented:
More excellent advice on coping when things aren’t going your way, and the only word you seem to hear is no!
Well said Isabel !
You know I know what this feels like too, Isabel. Wonderful, thoughtful post.
Thanks, Kristin, and for being my go-to person in hard times. It’s amazing how much we writers can mean to each other when sometimes others don’t understand.
I started off working in Off-Broadway (or shall we say, Off-Off Broadway theatre, in New York City) and the amount of rejection I faced was incredible. I kept believing that my plays, acting or directing had to have a specific purpose and that I wasn’t beating my head against a brick wall (even though I eventually realised that I was ready to pursue writing novels since the biggest criticism I received about my plays was that they resembled novels more than plays). So, I believe in the power of criticism. However, if you love writing, you must do it. There is no “if” or “maybe” about something you love. Your soul is fed by works of passion. Thank you for this post Isabel! It was needed today.
Thanks for commenting, Britta, and for reminding everyone that it’s not just prose writers who experience rejection. It’s the bane of many creative walks of life and you have to be so strong to deal with it. Totally agree though – I can’t not write now I know how much I love it!
Good post, it brings to mind another very motivating post I read once on Sarah Hilary’s blog (here). Was so thrilled when she got her book deal because her persistence inspired me — and all the more so to watch it pay off.
Thanks Tracey. I was aware of Sarah’s tough road to success and like you I find stories like hers very inspiring. There are so many great writers out there who just wouldn’t have made it to publication if they’d given up at the first few rejections – or even the first hundred in some cases!
Thanks, both. Isabel, I enjoyed reading your piece, very much.
Really, really good blogpost, that absolutely rang true to me. And it’s so important to find a way of dealing with rejection because, as you rightly say, it’s a constant part of being a writer. There are always going to be pitfalls, even when you’re published and a long way down the road, but learning from those early rejections can make the later ones a little more bearable. Good luck!
Great post. It’s possible to go one of two ways when rejection comes: fight or flight. Writers are often very sensitive too, so it requires great tenacity to keep going. It’s such an enormous leap of faith to work for so long and so hard, with no guarantees, but it is worth it when you finally get that ‘Yes!’.
Thanks, Amanda. I can believe the YES moment makes it all worthwhile.
A timely post for me too as for the last couple of months and particularly the week of London Book Fair I had a flurry of activity for my novel which led to three full MS requests with some urgency. And then two No’s coming in this week – one after the other. It’s still out with a few. It was No, not quite, but show us the next thing. I allowed myself a day to feel really down as getting close seemed almost worse to me than an outright No. Anyway, I’m back up and running with more submissions planned after a revision.
I maintain the fact that someone else’s success is not a reflection on oneself – there is enough to go round and I hope I would never ever, like the person in the Guardian article, get bitter. Once that creeps in, it’s over. I am not naïve – I know that getting an agent or even being published is not the end point – and you have to be tough or at least remember why you are writing in the first place.
I really sympathise – it’s been my experience too that the closer you get, the more painful the rejections (though I would have struggled to believe this when trying to get an agent first time round!) The Monday after PMA went out to publishers I got 4 rejections in one afternoon, one after another, SO demoralising after my high hopes…
You’ve made tangible progress lately and you’re clearly ‘in the zone’ with a real chance. I’m crossing my fingers that your moment will come!
Great article! Thanks for this one – I am now enlightened 🙂
Thanks, this really helps me!
So pleased to hear that! Keep at it.