So Your Story Was Rejected, Now What?

My story was rejected today.  I sent the poor thing to six different journals, and my top choice turned the story down cold.  I was sitting in the car while my wife went into the gas station to buy snacks for a short trip home.  Scrolling through my phone, I saw an unread e-mail and immediately noticed the journal’s title splashed across the heading.  With one eye closed and my lower lip quivering, I clicked the message and read aloud:

Dear Shannon Deaton,

Thank you for sending your work to [Redacted].  Unfortunately, it’s just not quite the right fit for the magazine at this time, given the other selections for the next issue.

I wish you all the best in finding a home for your work.

Sincerely,
Editor

This is a typical form rejection letter, not even the kind with a personalized message to give the writer some hope.  It’s a firm “no,” and the message is loud and clear.

So what should writers do when the familiar rejection letter comes rapping at the chamber door?

Sigh.

It’s okay to get mad.  Every blog or journal I’ve read gives the same advice on rejection– Don’t worry about it, get back to work, keep on trucking, put the gun away, etc.  I disagree.  There’s a moment following rejection when writers just need to draw in a deep breath and hate everything about the process.  It’s perfectly justified, and it’s healthy too.  Just take a big sup of oxygen, and huff it out with a fat, grumpy frown.  Normal people do normal things, and it’s normal to be upset when your baby’s tossed with the bath water.  Get mad for a minute.

Self-Reflect.

Think about the rejection letter and consider whether there’s anything useful there.  Most of the time, rejections are impersonal and direct.  They say things like–Good luck elsewhere, your story just doesn’t fit, try again next time, etc.  However, once in a blue moon, a rejection letter gives you useful feedback for future submissions.  My rejection example above notes that my story wasn’t a good fit for the magazine at this time.  I could drive myself crazy wondering if next time will be different, so I’ll only spend about two minutes on this step before moving on to the next.

Smile.

Come on, it’s just the first submission, and you’ve probably sent the story to a half-dozen other places.  Put on your best Joker face, and flash those pearly whites.  It’s one person’s opinion, and due to the sheer volume of submissions, rejection is bound to happen more often than not.  Now’s the time to let the anger subside and have a hearty laugh at the system.  We’re talking thousands of submissions per journal, with only 2-4 getting accepted during any given publication period.  Math is a funny monster, so chuckle in his face, and remember that the more you play the odds, the better your chances will be for actual publication.

Submit.

Get back to work.  Yes, every blog says this, and every blog is right (The other blogs are just wrong when they suggest starting at this step).  When you’ve had your little tantrum, it’s time to get back to the business of writing.  You’re a writer after all, and if you’re a real one, quitting isn’t an option.  There will be more rejections before you’re successful, so increase the volume of quality submissions to increase your chances of getting one through the pipeline.  Above all, remember that you’re not defined by a rejection letter; you’re defined by your grit and passion to continue.  Write, write, write — submit, submit, submit.

Conclusion.

Write for publication, but also write because it’s what you love to do.  When the inevitable rejection comes, just sigh, self-reflect, smile, and submit again.  Somewhere along the way, you’ll see your name in print, and it’ll all be worth the trouble.  It’s always worth the trouble in the end.

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You Can Make It As a Writer

If someone knew the all-powerful success formula for writing, there wouldn’t be so many starving artists and famished freelancers in the world.  Sure, there’s good writing information out there, but writing advice is hindered by the same issues that plague “weight loss” advice.  Everyone knows you have to eat right and exercise to lose weight, and everyone knows you have to write to be a writer.  No one wants to do it because it takes too long and it’s too hard.

Change your mind, and you can make it as a writer.

Some say that writing is easy.  All you need is a piece of paper, a pen, and an idea so charged with electricity it’ll blow your hand off.  It’s easy like freezing in the sun or getting struck by thunder.  As Ernest Hemingway famously noted:

There is nothing to writing.  All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.

There are four qualities you must possess to make it as a writer.  You don’t actually have to bleed, but you certainly must try.

Tenacity (Grit).

If you have grit, you can make it as a writer.  You will be rejected, you will be criticized, and you will fail many times before you succeed.  No other job comes with such uncertainty, but nonetheless, the writer must keep on keeping on.  When your fifty-third manuscript is rejected, you must take a nap, eat a sandwich, and get to work on draft fifty-four.  Dr. Angela Duckworth, a leading psychology researcher says:

Grit is passion and perseverance for very long-term goals. Grit is having stamina. Grit is sticking with your future, day-in, day-out.

It’s not enough to crave success on days when you’re hungry for it; you must also crave it on a full stomach.  Write every day, edit every day, submit every day, fail every day.  It’s the only way you’ll ever succeed.

Teachability.

If you are teachable, you can make it as a writer.  We all expect a new doctor to be as knowledgeable as anyone with a medical license, but when we go in for brain surgery, we don’t look for the scrawny kid with a smooth face and a full head of hair; we look for the wrinkled bald man with wisdom and experience sprouting from his nose hairs.  As with new doctors, freshly minted “writers” have much to learn.  John Maxwell notes:

Teachability is not so much about competence and mental capacity as it is about attitude. It is the desire to listen, learn, and apply. It is the hunger to discover and grow. It is the willingness to learn, unlearn, and relearn.

When writers feel they’ve learned everything there is to know, they’ve learned nothing.  To make it as a writer, you must remind yourself that tomorrow’s success depends on today’s growth and learning.

Time.

If you have time, you can make it as a writer.  In my school days, I had plenty time to write.  I wrote during math class, science class, and recess; the world was an open notebook, so I carved my own page.  Nowadays the world is a messy piece of scratch paper, riddled with billing addresses, grocery lists, and phone numbers.  Where is the time for passion?  Dr. Seuss wrote:

How did it get so late so soon?  It’s night before it’s afternoon.  December is here before it’s June.  My goodness how the time has flewn.  How did it get so late so soon?

Writers can’t just find time for writing, they must make time for writing.  There is only so much time in the world, and some of that time must be spent writing (It’s where the term writer comes from).

Talent.

If you have talent, you can make it as a writer.  This doesn’t mean your writing must evoke images of Shakespeare and Dickinson’s love-child, but it does mean you should demonstrate potential.  This potential can be a simple self-acknowledgement, but it must come from somewhere.  Anton Chekhov wrote:

There is nothing new in art except talent.

In other words, the art itself is timeless, but new talent makes the art shiny again.  Talent is the most subjective and difficult quality in this list, for it can be developed but seldom learned.  It’s not impossible to acquire talent, but unlike a cold, it’s not very contagious.

Will I Make It As a Writer?

Only you can determine whether you’ll make it as a writer.  It’s your greatest hurdle, and it’s your greatest motivation–the fear of failure, the dream of success.  With tenacity, teachability, time, and talent, you can make it as a writer.  It’s always been your decision to make.

Are You a “Real” Writer?

I’ve written since the age of four.  Back then, my words were penned in crayon, and they vaguely resembled my first and last name (recognizable only because I also drew myself standing beneath the words with a big smile and a cowboy hat).  In those days, writing was an unexplored landscape, a frontier of endless possibilities and glowing hope.  My four-year-old self would have called himself a “real” writer.  Twenty-five years later, I’m not sure I know what that means.

Unless you’re Stephen King or Joyce Carol Oates, it’s likely you’ve doubted your “realness” in the past few years.  With the onslaught of social media and the constant push to develop a “writer’s platform,” it’s become more and more difficult to explain what “real” writing means.  If you’re published, are you a “real” writer?  What about if you’re self-published?  If you have a flash drive full of unread manuscripts but no actual submissions, are you a “real” writer or just someone who writes?

These are tough questions to answer, but somewhere along the way, I figured it out.

What’s Important to You?

In the daily struggle of reading blogs, tweeting, and doubting our own credibility, writers forgot something important about “real” writing:

To be a writer, you have to write.

When stated outright, it seems obvious.  The trouble with this statement is that most writers feel they must do a hundred other things before they’re allowed to enjoy an hour or two of writing.  Sure, there’s a lot of pressure to keep pace with ever-changing trends in the publishing world (I’m looking at you eBooks), but there’s not a lot of pressure where it needs to be, the pressure to actually put your words on the page.  For every word you’ve written on your last creative work, there are five thousand tweets telling you how it should be written.

The new culture around writing distracts writers from the real task of penning great works.  It’s difficult to write a masterpiece when you’re the servant and not the master.  If actual writing is more important to you than the culture of writing, you’re on your way to becoming a “real” writer.

Why Do You Write?

There’s something exciting about the process of writing, something that is sometimes hard to define.  That four-year-old in the cowboy hat sure didn’t have a hard time getting excited by crayon scribbles in a three-ring binder.  We know why we write, but we’re sometimes afraid to respond.  Why can’t we just say…

It helps me relax.
It makes me happy.
It lets me share with the world.
It reveals my inner passion

Writers are all too often ashamed to say that the process itself is rewarding, that money couldn’t buy a single word from the page.  In a world where success is judged by sales figures, it’s no wonder so many writers bury their heads in the sand and keep the laptop in the bag.  Those who never try, never fail.

If you’re excited to write because something inside you demands it, something more than fame and glory, you might be a “real” writer.

When Did Your Love For Writing Begin?

As evidenced by the stack of handwritten stories, poems, and plays stowed away in my mother’s closet, I love writing, and I always have.  This passion grew inside me before I knew anything about money or the “good life.”  Back then, I just wanted to write, even if no one ever saw it but me.  In those days, there was something magical about the pen and the page, something that didn’t require 10,000 followers on Twitter or “Best Seller” splashed across the front cover.

These days, everyone toils away on their individual projects, hoping to break big and publish something worth millions; however, somewhere along the way, our young writer was pushed aside and told that writing for writing’s sake wasn’t worth the trouble.  If you can identify the moment this happened, you will find the moment you first asked yourself, “Am I a real writer?”

When our young writer dies, our old writer becomes senile and can’t remember his name.  He forgets what he learned at four years old, how good it felt to wear a cowboy hat and to call himself a writer.  Looking back, that little guy was the “real-est” writer I’ve known.

The “Real” Deal.

In this day and time, you’re either a “real” writer or you’re no writer at all.  Now grab your cowboy hat, and get back to the page.  The world won’t miss another Twitter post, but they’ll sure miss the next great American novel.

So You’re Published, Now What?

It’s the moment every writer dreams about.  You’ve honed your story to a sharpened dagger and finally summoned the courage to share it with another human being.  You write the cover letter, send the manuscript, and wait seven painstaking months for a reply, one you’re sure will end in certain rejection.  At dinner one evening, you get an e-mail from an editor you’d almost forgotten about, and the message reads, “We’d love to publish your story in the next issue of the Joe-Bob Review.”  You’ve done it–you’re a published writer!  Now where do you go from here?

  1. Celebrate:
    Publications don’t come along every day, and the first one is especially important.  All the years of reading, revising, and praying have brought you to the rarest of moments.  Text every person you know or love, and let them hear about your milestone accomplishment.  Schedule an evening out with your spouse and talk about the process, savoring every minute of celebration between spoonfuls of your favorite dessert.  You’ve accomplished a challenging feat, something that only occurs when the moon howls at dogs and the ocean boils with cappuccino cupcakes.  It’s a rare feeling, one you’ll want to remember–live it up!
  2. Consider:
    When the honeymoon ends, you’ll no doubt consider the implications of your great achievement.  If you’re like thousands of other writers, the moment will be hard-won, riddled with multiple rejections along the way.  Use your published work as a benchmark, and consider whether the other pieces you’re shopping around have the same potential.  Although the individual tastes of each editor will vary greatly, it’s often said that “good writing is good writing.”  If you can identify the strengths of your accepted work, you may be able to find flaws in other works (especially those that have been rejected multiple times).  You shouldn’t worry about trying to replicate every nuance of the accepted work, but there’s something that brought it to the top of the editor’s pile.  Find the magic, and rub it on your other stories.
  3. Create:
    Never ignore the natural instinct to create.  Once your work is accepted, you gain a temporary but powerful ego boost with the potential to inspire another successful story.  As a writer, you know that the muse only sings when she’s well-fed, so use your literary high as a rocket to the next level.  Writers spend too much time creating works under self-doubt.  Don’t miss an opportunity to write from the other end of the motivational spectrum.  It’s amazing the quality of work you’ll produce without the specter of uncertainty snickering on your shoulder.
  4. Continue:
    Publication success doesn’t occur with every story.  There are some stories we bury deep on the flash drive, hoping they’ll never see the light of another monitor.  The key to ongoing literary success is to write, write, write.  Success is a great motivator for future submissions, and it should drive us to persevere through the rejections that will inevitably come.  Remember, it only takes two or three good publications to break into the market, and if you can keep in the rhythm of writing and submitting, your skill will continue to increase, even if your numbers do not.  Publication is a game of grit as much as talent.

So where do you go from here?  Celebrate, Consider, Create, and Continue!