So this happened:
I recently wrote a flash fiction piece I was pretty darn happy with, and submitted it to several publications. I got two responses back. The first said my story had been rejected because my protagonist’s mental state and behaviors were completely unrealistic, that nobody would ever react the way my protagonist had reacted. The second also rejected the piece because they weren’t accepting fiction pieces, but said that my story felt very true to life, and was highly relatable.
Confused? Understandable. But don’t be.
This anecdote illustrates two important truths I’ve learned about rejection: much of the time it has nothing to do with you or your piece, and most of the time it’s based on highly subjective opinions.
A reader’s reaction to a piece is subjective. The first rejection felt my piece was unrealistic. The second felt it was relatable and true to life. Who was right? They both were. For the first reader, the piece didn’t work. For the second reader, it did. We’ve all read stories that we loved and our dear friend hated, or vice versa. There are different styles and tastes out there, and that’s wonderful! So why, when we get a rejection, does our mind tell us that our piece must be bad, rather than just not right for that particular publication?
Which brings me to that second truth: so much of this is about fit and timing. Even if a publication loves your piece, it may not be the right fit for them for other reasons. Maybe they’ve just published five pieces about mindfulness meditation; if so, yours could be a masterpiece of perfection, but that ship has sailed. Maybe they’ve met their quota of short stories and only have room for flash pieces this month. Maybe the reader has been throwing up after eating the wrong street meat and didn’t have the capacity to appreciate your masterfully realistic descriptions of the thanksgiving dinner preparations in your story. You just never know.
I like to think about it this way. When you go into a restaurant, you have room for one meal. You look at the menu, and you pick something, then you eat it. That doesn’t mean everything else on the menu was unacceptably bad and the chefs that prepared those dishes should go out back and shoot themselves. It just means at that moment in time, chicken parm was what you wanted. Same thing with publications. They can’t publish everything, so they have to take what works best for them at that moment. That doesn’t necessarily mean the pieces they turn down are worthless.
Absolutely no piece of writing, no matter how perfect and amazing, can possibly be a good match for every publication out there. I think that bears paraphrasing: the most exceptional piece of writing created on this earth will get rejected somewhere. Lots of somewheres, in fact.
Of course, this doesn’t mean you should just ignore the feedback you get. In the time between the first and second response above, I took a careful look at my character’s motivations and choices. I looked at my reasons for writing the story the way I did (I have expertise related to the theme of that piece), and I decided I believed in the story as it was. In other cases, I’ve made changes based on feedback I’ve received. In fact, if your piece has been rejected numerous times, you should get a new pair of eyes to look it over and be open to making changes. How do you know when to take that advice and when to leave it? Well, that’s a blog post for another time (although you can find a really good discussion of this in Jordan Rosenfeld’s book A Writer’s Guide To Persistence, see my full review here). For now I’ll just say that I try to be honest with myself and listen for advice that strikes a chord in me. If nothing sounds right after I’ve considered it with an open mind, I will choose to keep my original vision. Never make a change just because someone suggests it, always stay true to your vision for the piece.
But what it does mean is you should never tell yourself that rejection = failure, and you should never quit. The great Wayne Gretsky once said this: 100% of shots not taken don’t go in. To put it another way, if you don’t submit the piece, you’re guaranteed it won’t get accepted. The odds are better the moment you submit; the probability of acceptance can only go up. And no hockey player expects every shot they take to go in the net; they know plenty are gonna miss and they’re gonna have to keep taking more shots. Writing is no different.
One member of our writing group (thank you, Julia) reminds us often that rejection is a sign you’re putting yourself out there, that you’re being a writer! So many people never work up the courage to do that, and instead let their fear of rejection stop them from trying to achieve their dreams. If you're getting rejected, it's because you're overcoming those fears.
So submit. Get rejected. Revise the piece if you think it will help. Submit again. And wear that rejection as a badge of honor that only the working writer can claim.
Oh, by the way. That piece that got those conflicting rejections? It was accepted the next time I submitted it. And in the meantime it taught me a lesson I'll hold near to my heart through a lot of future rejections.
Keep submitting, my friends.