by Toni Ann Johnson
When Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo (WWS Cofounder and blog manager) posted on the private Women Who Submit Facebook page a couple of weeks ago asking if we wanted to do a monthly rejection brag, I shuddered. Boast about my failures? Uh, pass.
Well. Then I got an acceptance on a short story after 3 years and 56, yes 56 effin’ rejections. And I guess I did brag about it, though it’s not the rejections I was proud of; it was the fortitude.
So here I am, the oft rejected and ashamed (until I’m not) submitter, here to offer encouragement about why you should remain persistent, too.
But before I do that, let’s be honest: sometimes rejection really sucks. A lot.
I’m talking about the rejections that shred your heart and scar your soul. There’s nothing I can say to make those not suck. I won’t tell you to pretend they don’t, or to meditate, or to repeat affirmations, or any other BS that may work for lesser disappointments. For the rejections that wound you deeply, by all means: cry, curse, feel like crap, get counseling, eat chocolate and drink wine.
Just don’t let that be your typical response. Well, wine, chocolate and counseling are okay, but the rest of that nonsense—no. Save that for the serious rejections, or for the ones where the winners are clearly favored by the entity giving the award. Say, for example, the Saroyan Prize, (from the Stanford Library), that tends to honor Stegner Fellows (who went to Stanford) but there’s no mention of that in their guidelines, so you get duped out of the effin’ $50 entry fee . . .
Whups! Sorry. Back to you, and your experience. Consider this:
1. Rejection can make you a better writer. If you keep writing.
If you don’t let it crush you, eventually you’ll pick yourself up from your puddle of tears, and drag your dejected, soggy buttocks back to you computer, and go over your work again. And again. You’ll see if there are ways you can improve it. You’ll revise, and refine, and you’ll keep submitting. Because you know you can do this. You know your work is worthy (or you wouldn’t be submitting in the first place) and you will prove it, because you will not give up. Write + revise + submit x (> 1) = better!
2. Rejection helps you develop grit.
This stuff is not for emotional weaklings. Any writer who keeps writing year after year is going to get rejected at times. This makes us tough. After having our egos crushed, we recover. And then we keep it moving, growing stronger as writers and as people as we go.
Writers who’ve been rejected a lot, and who’ve nonetheless slogged through tough times to find success, develop an inner strength that nothing can shake. We are badass. We’ve been to hell and back, and though we thought it was going to kill us, it did not. No one can f*@k with that writer. Not the peer whose career is soaring (while yours is not), nor the horrible old auntie or uncle who smirks and asks: When are you going to be a bestseller? They can kiss your a$$. For real, though. Because you know your value. You know your time will come. And it will, because you will keep writing and submitting.
3. Rejection makes the acceptances sweeter.
(Okay, usually. I can’t say that the acceptance I received after 56 rejections was “sweet,” exactly, though it might be one day.) The idea applies not only to your writing career, but also to life in general.
If everything were easy and handed to you, you’d have nothing to compare it to, and no way to evaluate why it feels good to succeed. So when you do get an acceptance after a string of passes, acknowledge that. Celebrate. You earned the right to enjoy it.
Also, your writing career is more of a journey than a destination. So, if you think you’re going to be full of joy when your career is where you want it to be, but you don’t cultivate happiness via small successes along the way, you won’t be as good at enjoying success as you expect to be. Celebrate and appreciate your accomplishments, however small, whenever you can.
4. Rejection gives you the experience and tools to create success.
People who are wildly successful very early on can be fooled into thinking it’s easy.
It’s not easy.
Obvious and immense talent at a young age may bring huge rewards, but if it comes before the writer has developed grit and strong sense of who she is as an artist, it can be devastating when the attention and praise ebbs. And it will. (There are exceptions, but for the most part, the tide of success comes in and then rolls out again before gathering the energy to repeat its big splash.)
Sudden success can also be frightening, because the writer may sense that it’s either unearned, or it’s mere good fortune, which is out of one’s control. When the path ascends a bit more s l o w l y toward success, the writer has time to develop in the ways necessary to be confident in what they’re doing, and to remain confident that they can do it again, and again.
4a. That experience leads to clarity about who you are.
You have to write a lot to figure out who you are as a writer. If you’re not clear about what you’re saying, it’s easy to be seduced by people who’ll publish you and pay you if you make certain soul killing changes. Some changes are inevitable and some are good. But some can turn a book or story into something the writer does not intend or even recognize. Those changes can be disastrous.
But if you’ve survived some painful rejections, and you’re still writing, you’ve been developing your craft in that time. You know what you want to say, and how you want to say it. And you know damn well that you have to say it in your own way, or it’s not your work.
You’re not someone who can be bamboozled into some BS for a pat on the head from some so-called powers that be. You have the stamina to hold firm and have patience if you must, because you’re a real writer by this time, and you know how to wait until you feel good about what you’re putting out there.
Now for some practical tips:
Submit A LOT.
If it’s essays, poems or stories you’re submitting get yourself a good list, create a spreadsheet, and submit often, and plentifully, up to 20 journals at a time. Preferably 20 journals of similar caliber, so you don’t get accepted to someone’s blog only to find that The Paris Review wants your story. More than 20 at once can be a pain once you do get an acceptance, because you’ll have to withdraw from each place, which is time consuming. If none of those first 20 accept it, submit to 20 more. And if you have to, try 20 more after those.
When you submit widely, getting rejections isn’t as difficult, because you have so many other places yet to hear from when one passes.
If you get a rejection, but the editor sends you a nice note and requests to see future work, know that you’re on the right track.
That piece WILL find a home IF you keep submitting it. My 56 times rejected story got multiple personal notes from editors with requests to see future work, plus a “higher tier” rejection from The Paris Review. This helped give me the stamina to keep submitting.
If your story gets 40 rejections with no notes of encouragement, take a look at it. Get some notes from trusted colleagues, and consider a revision. It doesn’t mean it’s not a worthwhile story, but if the writing itself is not getting any attention at all, you may need to change the voice or point of view or make a tweak of some sort that improves it so it stands out.
If you get a rejection with a note that you strongly disagree with, trust your gut.
Sometimes people can be wrong. Obviously, if you get notes, repeatedly, about some technical flaw in the writing look at that and revise accordingly. And if you get notes that you do agree with, consider yourself lucky, and make those changes.
But not every rejection is going to be from someone who actually knows what they’re talking about. Be discerning in what you listen to, and keep writing.
When you get a rejection, (or two, or three) that make you feel terrible, find a constructive way to comfort yourself.
Have a ritual in place—go for a walk on the beach, call your best friend, make a nice pot of soup, eat chocolate. Do that thing and then put the pain behind you.
If it’s a short piece, submit it elsewhere, rework it, or work on something new. If it’s a book, either revise it (if you think it’s necessary), or submit to several more places. Don’t wallow. And don’t surrender. It’s a numbers game and you cannot fail unless you give up.
Consider having a buddy to check in with throughout your submission process.
This should be someone you trust, someone who respects your work. I had a check-in buddy while I was submitting a novel. She was submitting a novel, too. We spoke once a week, sometimes every other week, and we supported each other throughout the process. We both found publication. We shared ideas, encouraged each other when we failed, and cheered one another when things went well.
Writing and submitting can be a lonely, and sometimes frustrating experience. Sharing the ups and downs with someone who understands really helps.
So, if you’ve had a rough patch and there have been some painful rejections, know that you’re not alone. HERE’S A LINK to a list of iconic writers who faced rejection and went on to great success.
And HERE’S A LINK to an article by someone who’s been editor of a few literary magazine. It contains some valuable insight on why things get rejected and how to improve your odds of publication.
“If you never get out of line, your turn will come.”
I don’t know who said this, but I love the quote. Yes! Stay in line. Keep writing and submitting, and you’ll make it worth the wait.
Toni Ann Johnson is an award-winning screenwriter and the author of the novel Remedy For a Broken Angel, winner of an International Latino Book Award, a Beverly Hills Book Award, and nominated for a 2015 NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work by a Debut Author. Short fiction and essays have appeared in The Los Angeles Times, The Emerson Review, Soundings Review, Hunger Mountain and others.