Rerun: To You Who Are Doing Rejection Wrong

I was reminded today in an email about happy I am being a writer, working with other writers and publishing professionals who care deeply about excellence in literature.  As a reader, some of the most rewarding and amazing books I’ve read have been published in the past five years. As a teacher, I am especially grateful to the gatekeepers and writers of the YA world. 

Today’s September Back-To-School Issue challenge is a rerun of a post I wrote a couple of months ago in response to an incident of online abuse hurled at a literary agent by a disgruntled writer. I was angry when I wrote it, but I hope it’s helpful as a reminder that book people are indeed particularly wonderful people.

I’ve been rejected more than you.

I don’t know, maybe I haven’t. But I’d be willing to bet I have and I hate gambling.

I’ve been a writer knocking on the door of the publishing game for nineteen years, nine books, dozens of short stories, articles, and poems. My failure to success ratio is about one hundred to one and that’s all I’m going to say about that.  The only reason I’m mentioning my rejection rate now is because my long history of hearing “no thank you, not at this time” gives me authority to say to you this:

You are doing rejection wrong.

Yeah, I’m talking to you, the one who complains out loud on the inter webs about your frustration with writing, pitch contests, publishers, agents, and editors.

I’m talking to the guy who once in the middle of a writing conference I attended halted the proceedings to whip out his five hundred page manuscript, slam it on the table, and push it across to the highly respected, experienced, and kindly agent who was there to teach us something about writing.

And also to the writer who has been at the practice for a whole three years, has no agent or substantial sales, yet who announced to me quite indignantly that she has decided not to write another novel until she has a publisher lined up who is willing to acquire her work before it is written.

I would be talking to you, failed writer who recently used your blog to denigrate an agent who rejected your work at a conference, but you are clearly a lost cause with a deeply rooted personality disorder and I mean that in the most helpful way possible. (get help)

I’m also mostly talking to you, the one who got a rejection in your email just this morning, the who has written the best story you possibly can but can’t find anyone who wants it, the one who was dropped by your agent because that agent could not sell your book no matter how hard she tried. The one who hasn’t yet succeeded in signing with an agent in the first place.

Here’s what you do: Get a copy of Carolyn See’s Making a Literary Life and read it cover to cover. I’ll wait.

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I wanted you to read See’s book before continuing because first of all it’s awesome, and second of all, ninety-nine percent of my upbeat attitude about my own literary life is inspired by this one woman. Carolyn See, the late great writing teacher and author, talks about looking at your writing life as a glorious affair you are having on your regular day-to-day life. She suggests viewing publishing gatekeepers as people you are trying to woo and seduce with your writing prowess. When rebuffed, you certainly don’t go around complaining that the person who rejected you isn’t cool anyway. That just makes you look like an asshole. (My word, not hers.)

Here’s something else that my rejection record gives me authority to say: Agents, editors, writers and publishers are the most diligent and supportive people of any profession I know. I wasn’t prepared for the level of generosity I’ve met along the way in my publishing journey. It’s been quite shocking.

I’m talking to you, the agent(s) who offered revision advice on my manuscript in the hopes that sometime in the future it would be a story you could take on. You  don’t know me, and you weren’t paid for that work. Yet your insight helped me make my writing better. I don’t even know what to do about that level of generosity except to take the advice as best I can and try again.

I’m talking to the women and men who started their own publishing companies and who have devoted themselves to diverse voices, integrity, and quality in literature no matter what it takes.

I’m talking to the agents who work pitch contests, give feedback to dozens of writers they’ll never meet again, and fill my Twitter feed with helpful information. You do a lot of unpaid work to support the best in writers and that’s cool.

I’ve had several writers recently feature me and my new book on their blogs. For free. Just to be helpful. Then there are the seven writers I admire so much I can barely look at them who agreed to blurb my books for nothing more than the asking. In no other profession have I seen such a spirit of “we’re all in this together.”

And what about the crazy hard work of editing and running literary journals, online and print? Those people are better hippies than me, I’ll tell you that right now.

So how do you do rejection right? I say quit complaining. Buy a literary magazine instead.

Write a review or promote another writer who is doing work you admire.

Write a thank you note to a publisher, writer, or editor who has put out work you love.

Take classes and seminars. Read books. Be humble. Take criticism without arguing. Get better.

Go to a literary event and buy the person’s book and have him sign it and tell him he rocks. Then go home inspired and write a new story, poem, article, or book.

Writing is what we’re here for if we love it as we say we do. As one of my favorite authors, Janet Fitch, once said in an interview:  Life is supposed to support art, not the other way around. Become a better writer and submit something else tomorrow and when that gets rejected say thank you, maybe next time.

The “yes” answers will come too, all the sweeter for being so rare and lovely. Or maybe you will get to a point where all you ever hear is “yes,” and success barrels over your head like a waterfall and knocks you silly. I hope for that for you. But in the meantime, maybe appreciate the process for what it is, and realize that book people are the best people.

After all, you’re one of them too.

Journal Topics:

  1. What have been some wonderful books you’ve recently read? List them.
  2. Consider writing a thank-you note to the author, agent, and editor involved in bringing a great book you’ve read into the world. What would you say to them about how the book changed you and made you feel?
  3. Consider writing a review on Amazon or Goodreads of a book you’ve enjoyed. What would you say to make other readers understand that this was a really good book?
  4. What writer do you wish you could meet? What questions would you ask him or her?

The Ghost Daughter is a book I wrote that some other book people really liked, if you feel like reading it too.

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