I used to deal in rejection quite a bit. When you’re sending out short stories, that’s just part of the process. It doesn’t feel good. I once got a rejection to an emailed submission so fast, I’m pretty sure I hadn’t yet stood up from my computer since I’d sent the thing.
Yet somehow I had picked up a healthy attitude about rejection from my MFA program or someone who had come to talk to us there. The idea is this: You’re looking for the *right* publication for your story. Editors who reject you—especially those who do it quickly, actually—are helping you narrow the field so that you can find that *right* publication. They’re saying nope, and sitting down, so that you can better see who’s left standing.
Yeah, it didn’t always work.
I do think rejection can be useful. Let’s be honest. Sometimes people need to hear no. Sometimes YOU have needed to hear no. Before your work is at its best, before it deserves all the time and loving attention a book going through publication gets, you need to hear the truth: “It’s not ready. You’re not ready.”
Back last year, we asked for thoughts from “veteran” writers, and my friend Christopher Coake (author of You Came Back and We’re in Trouble) said something then that I want to re-share now. What’s his best piece of advice? He said:
Learn how to hear the word “No.” And I don’t mean this in a toughen-up-and-learn-to-ignore-the-haters kind of way. (The use of the word “haters” is a tactic of the egomaniacal and insecure.) I mean writers need to HEAR it. They need to accept that it hurts, and why. They need to learn to be hurt constructively (without turning bitter and twisted). Writers have to be tough, they have to persevere, it’s true, but “No” is often a message they NEED to hear. So when a writer you admire is speaking at a conference and says, “I had to learn to accept rejection,” she’s not saying, “I kept producing the same stuff, convinced of my genius, until at last an editor recognized how I was a precious unique snowflake and gave me all the money.” Instead, you have to hear what she really means: “For a long time, my work deserved to be rejected, and when I was rejected, I went back to the work and tried to see both the good and the bad, so that I could remove the bad as best I could.” In this manner, publication is earned.
Rejection isn’t easy, but it’s not impossible to live with. Keep your head on straight. It’s not personal, and you can beat rejection—by writing better and stronger stories. But you have to earn it, just like Chris said. You can’t wish your way into better stories. In fact, you have to go through this part, the part that hurts, to get to the part where you know better how to say what you want to say.
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