Sunday, June 28, 2015

Let's talk about rejection, baby


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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.
M.

13 comments:

  1. Very sound advice and should be read by all those who fuss about rejection. Most of us can paper the walls with rejection letters and it was, as you say, coz not the right time/publisher. I have a classic on this: my Big London Agent (now ex) told me that Diamonds & Dust (Victorian crime novel) was so 'off'' the genre that there was no point in even submitting it to any publisher, Am now writing bk 4 for Crooked Cat, and making a small living from the published ones.

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    1. Congratulations on your series!! Very impressive and sounds like something I would enjoy, I think I'll check it out. And thanks for sharing your story, I think that's what really helps newer writers get that rejection really, truly is a necessary, unavoidable part of the writing life. For some reason (and maybe this is just me, lol) our brains just don't want to accept that there are factors beyond our control that are playing a role in rejections. :)

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  2. This is a great way to keep yourself grounded. Congrats on getting the piece accepted! Instead of seeing rejection as failure, I try to tell myself that it means that the piece I submitted was not a fit for that magazine/contest at that time. I also remind myself that this is an experience that every writer goes through, so it's not as a sign of me failing. I really liked your menu analogy. I also agree a lot with sticking to your original vision when considering feedback. A writing book that I read recommended doing exactly that. I find that's a helpful way to balance critiques from multiple people without losing your intended story in the process.

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    1. I think it can be sooo easy to love yourself in critiques, like you say. In my other profession, which involves academic writing, you have to take every point made by a reviewer very seriously and address it. It's still and adjustment for me at times to know that when it comes to my fiction writing, I do need to take it seriously, but that doesn't mean I have to address it. What's the writing book you mention?

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  3. I love being shouted-out. Shout-outed. Whatever. All good advice. <3 Thanks.

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  4. Couldn't agree more. Some years ago I had been pitching and pitching and pitching an idea for a book to many publishers. Eventually my efforts resulted in a contract, the book written, and edited.
    Not until it was about to be sent to the printer did I receive a call from the publisher querying one minor detail. I promised a call back after I'd looked through my research files (this included the many rejections I had collected). Before I found the correct date I came across a rejection letter stating it was "a good idea but well outside our field" - I checked the contract and discovered the rejection letter and contract had come from the same publisher and the same person. My momentary incompetence had resulted in sending the same pitch to the same publisher less than 4 months after the idea had been rejected.
    I would suggest it also depends upon the mood of the individual on the day the pitch is read - something I didn't point out to him until I had my printed copies in my possession.

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    1. ROFL!! That is a *great* story. If that doesn't show that persistence is everything, I don't know what does. And smart move keeping quiet until it was a done deal, lol! :)

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  5. I love your analogy about restaurant choices. Very helpful post for those of us getting rejections. And if you don't submit, you can't get those acceptances! Wishing you continued success with your writing.

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    1. Exactly!! Thank you, and same to you. :)

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  6. Thanks for this post. I've been dragging my heels on the formatting of my novel. It's the only (tedious, mind-numbing) task left before publication and I wonder if this is part of the reason why.

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    1. I know I've caught myself taking longer with things than I should in the past to avoid taking that step...And then I have to give myself a kick in the tushie and after I hit the 'send' button ignore the sick-to-my-stomach feeling, lol!

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