Finding the Gems: Rejection as a Polishing Tool
8 Tips to help you deal with the fearsome, ominous, and inevitable Writer’s Rejection — as it crushes you into submission or turns you into a resilient master.
How many times have you been rejected? Have you been rejected? I’m betting that it wasn’t fun at all. I hate rejection; it’s one of those things that strike at my inner core and make me tremble. Maybe that’s why I write: I wanted to put something out there people would love me for and not reject me. Not sure that was it, but it could very well be. How about you? Did you start writing to be loved? If so, how ironic is it that you find yourself in a field where rejection is pretty much… guaranteed? I’m serious. If you want to be a writer you must understand that you will be rejected most of the time. Let me tell you about it.
I decided to write this post after reading another of these messages from people depressed because they got a rejection letter. They actually don’t know how good they have it. Getting a rejection letter is already a big victory: most writers don’t get one — either because they never finished their books, or they don’t submit them, or the publishers or agents they submitted to never even bother to send them a letter at all. So getting a rejection letter is something to celebrate. You must have gone through a lot of hurdles to get one!
And then there’s the numbers game. HARRY POTTER was rejected sixteen times, and ABSOLOM ABSOLOM was rejected over twenty times, the DIARY OF ANNE FRANCK over fifteen times (I’m more or less making up the numbers, but I’m pretty sure I’m close to the truth). Melville once got a rejection letter asking him: ‘Does it have to be a whale?’ At least in some of the stories, there is some poetic justice: it’s said a big executive in a Hollywood studio once got fired for rejecting the script for FORREST GUMP. Publishers and producers are not gods. Many of them are actually perfect imbeciles and the rest have to make very brave, expensive, and critical decisions based on whims and instincts — not an easy thing at all. And they get too many manuscripts. They can’t really read them all. And many of the ones they read are just not fit for this or that company. So it’s a game of chance. It’s a gamble. You need to play and play and play before you get lucky and find the right publisher at the right time, going through the right agent looking for the right book or script. It’s a lot more to do with luck than people think.
So, let’s face it. We’re in a ‘rejection business’. Just like sales, or modeling, or acting. Salespeople know this: they only get an ‘x’ amount of ‘yes’ for every amount of tries. Usually, the amount of ‘no’s’ is a lot higher. When I train salespeople or I sell myself, I always study the numbers. Often I’ll come up with: for every ten ‘no’s’ I’ll get one ‘yes’. This is a normal statistic. And it means that for many salespeople, they will be rejected more than 90% of the time. In my almost 30-year writing career my numbers have been close to that. Actually, even though I did a lot of things — been published in trad-publishing in Portugal, translated to Italian, won awards, wrote produced movies, pitched for Hollywood producers and Portuguese TV-stations, and advertising, and journalism and communication consulting and many other kinds of writing — I can tell you that my success rate is probably less than 5%. That means that at least 95% of the time I’m actually being rejected (and I’m including getting really nasty criticism).
But if that is the case, how do we deal with it? How do we deal with the fact we get rejected every single day? How do we deal with the pain and the sorrow? Well, there are a few things you really need to do — here are some of them.
1) Recognize you are in the ‘rejection business’ — don’t see rejection as an anomaly but as a norm, as something normal. It will happen, period. So be ready for it.
2) Don’t take it personally — sensitive as we are, when someone tells us that they don’t like our work we interpret it as: they don’t like us. And when they say our texts are shit, we interpret that we are shit. But that is not true. It is basically impossible to write something perfect and there will always be someone that doesn’t like what we have written. That doesn’t mean we are bad, it means our work isn’t perfect, period. Room to improve.
3) Develop a thick skin — most people are not trained to give feedback and they feel uncomfortable criticizing others, fearful they will hurt them; so they will be bad at it and become condescending and hypocritical or distant and cold to defend themselves — which will hurt us even more. And there are also those pricks who just want us to know they ‘are in the right’, ‘they know better’. Don’t make excuses, don’t discuss, don’t argue: just listen and digest — use what you find useful, ignore the rest. It’s our job to take criticism and rejection — it’s not other people’s job to do it right.
4) Learn — every criticism, every rejection, hides a learning gem somewhere, something that you will not learn any other way. Be sure you can pick those gems. You will be richer for it. If you get offended and resistant and coiled, you will miss the riches and you will be worse off for it.
5) Don’t get stuck on guilt — you will do better next time. Don’t get stuck on those feelings that you could have done better. Why didn’t you see how bad that line was, why couldn’t you have developed the characters better, why did you use all those clichés? Forget about that. Being a writer is not about writing one text, it’s about writing one and then another and then another, always better, always improving, always evaluating, always analyzing. So put away your guilty feelings and do your job.
6) Let yourself mourn and cry — You have been rejected, it’s painful, you’re not made of stone: so cry, if you must, eat ice-cream, binge watch your favorite series, stay in bed for a couple of days. And then get up and resume your writing. That’s your job. A couple of days sobbing is enough.
7) Get help from people around you — get support. All the great ones had some kind of affective support structure, people who would nurture them and made them feel better when things were bad. Friends, family, teachers, colleagues, other writers: find the people around you, reach out. They are crucial when it gets too much. If you want, just drop me a line… I’ll fly with you if no-one else will (TOP GUN reference for you old-timers out there.)
8) Remember one thing: eventually, there will be winners. After many ‘no’s’ there is always a ‘yes’. That’s a promise. Believe it. It’s just around the corner, so don’t give up.
And that’s it, fellow knights, that’s today’s piece of wisdom. Hope this helps.