Dealing With Rejection

Someone in one of my Facebook groups posted a link to this blog about rejection, and any writer, aspiring or otherwise, ought to read it, just for the basics — A really good blog post about being turned down.

Learning to deal with rejection is a very important part of getting ahead as a professional writer. As Chuck says in his post, not all rejections are equal.

How you learn to deal with criticism and rejection is very important. Well before I got serious as a writer, I’d learned to handle criticism.

Criticism is Not Rejection

violin teacher and student

A violin teacher corrects a student.

I started taking violin when I was in fifth grade. For the next five years, I had private lessons, and once I was in seventh grade, I took part in orchestra. When you play an instrument, there are plenty of times when you are going to get things wrong. Especially on an instrument like the violin, where the correct note is entirely dependent on the placement of your fingers. There are no frets to guide you as there are on guitars. There are no exact keys, like a piano or a valved brass instrument. Either you got it right or you didn’t. When you learn to play the violin, you are in for many sessions that seem to be almost constant correction – finger placement, holding the bow, bow pressure.

art instructor critiquing work

An art instructor critiques work.

But in addition to the music lessons, I also took art classes in school. And although I have talent, there were times when I just didn’t “get” the assignment. Sometimes it was because the instructor did not explain the nature of the medium we were working in.

For instance, in eighth grade, one unit in art class was to work in pottery clay. We were to design our sculpture and then make it in clay, shaping and carving, hollow it out and then it would be fired. We had to pound and wedge the clay to make sure all air bubbles were out if it, since it was a rather fine-grained clay.

My initial design for this project was a lively bouncy dog, rather like a Spaniel. But the teacher had me redesign this to something that looks like a stylized terrier. Much, much later, I realized that because of the fineness of the clay, my original design would have been doomed to breakage. There was a reason for the rejection of my initial design – but the teacher didn’t explain it very well at the time.

Fast forward a couple of years to eleventh grade art class. Once again, we were doing a unit involving sculpting in clay. Keeping in mind what I’d learned the previous time, my design this time was of a young woman sitting rather placidly, nothing particularly dramatic. One of my classmates did a design of three boys rough and tumbling in play that was really dramatic. What I did  not realize was that clay we were using in this second class was different in nature, more sturdy and able to sustain a broader presentation (it was also a bit more roughly grained).

I got a good enough grade on my sculpture (ie, it was accepted). But afterward, I wished I had had a better understanding of the nature of the medium. If I’d understood that, I might have retried my original design in a medium better able to sustain it. So, sometimes “acceptance” isn’t exactly helpful either.

There Are Reasons for Rejection Letters

A rejection mug

A “rejection mug.”

By the time I was in college, I was focused on writing. During my undergraduate days, even though I was still learning much about the craft of writing, I was also sending out short stories to fantasy and science fiction magazines. Oh, I didn’t sell anything in this period, but I learned to handle rejections.

I learned that it was not personal, that there could be many reasons why my submission was turned away. One of the things that was a big help in that lesson was the fact that one of the magazines I submitted to had a check list on their rejection form letter. It was a quick way for the editor to let the writer know things like “I can’t read this, get a better printer” (or typewriter ribbon, as it was back in the dark ages), “I like the story, but the prose needs a lot of work”, or simply “This doesn’t fit our needs at this time.” The interesting thing was that as I went along, some of my rejection letters from that magazine began to get a short note scribbled on them as well. Basically, those few notes said I showed a lot of promise, but the craft still needed work.

That encouragement meant a lot to me then, and it helped me understand things from the editor’s side.

When I finished (so I thought) writing The Scribbler’s Guide to the Land of Myth, I submitted the manuscript to a publisher that had put out a book from a friend of mine. The initial editor had really liked the whole book after reading it and had passed it up to the senior editor. But the senior editor had only read through the first section (on the Hero’s Journey), and found it confusing and overly complicated. He also was uncertain about the title, feeling that in this day and age of computers, would people really get the reference to being a “scribbler.”

That second critique I could easily reject, because in the four years of working on the book, when talking with other writers, they had gotten it immediately and smiled at it (which is the exact reaction I wanted). But his first criticism was a blow. Because he was right.

I sat down and reorganized the first section, removing those things which had created the confusion. Cutting and pasting whole passages into new places in the order took a lot of work. But in the end, it was much, much better for the changes.

So then I went back to trying to find a publisher. The second publisher it went to liked it, but it really didn’t fit their catalogue. They wished me well. The third publisher, one well known for books on writing, was a bit interested. I had a couple of phone conversations with that senior editor. But she wanted to break the manuscript into three volumes, and she wanted a massive rewrite to bring it into conformity with their house style (which was rather more A-B-C’s simplicity than what I had written). She didn’t out-and-out reject it. But what she was suggesting I rework my book into being was not what I wanted my work to be. So I let that submission drop — in that case the rejection came from my end of the deal.

The fourth publisher really liked my manuscript. I had a meeting with the editor who read it and the senior editor. And what we talked about was marketing (I’d already started my platform building, which pleased them), and whether or not to publish it as one volume or three. My argument for a single volume was that it was designed to be just one reference book for writers. But I could understand their concerns about trying to market such a large volume from an unknown writer. I was willing to consider breaking it into three units, if they wanted to make a go of it with the text pretty much as it was, which they did. It was exciting! A possible acceptance!

They submitted their slate of intended publications, including my book, to their parent company. Unfortunately, the parent company was restructuring, and so nixed their entire slate.

That was three years of trying to get the book published. It was at that point that I decided to go with print-on-demand, in order to get the thing out. It was always a book intended for use, not to necessarily make me “fame and fortune” (although that would be nice).

I’ve recounted this history as a way of showing that there could be various reasons for rejection. And they’re not all bad ones.

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