As a writer—rookie or experienced—a rejection notice can sting. I don’t mean the “I found your story lacking believable characters, the plot is unrealistic and your themes smack of racism. Do not submit here again.” I mean the usual “Thanks for sending your story, but…”
Even if you’ve been writing for years and have a stack of rejections taller than you, every now and then you submit to a market you’re convinced is perfect for your story, but 6 weeks later that envelope or email comes saying “Thanks for sending your story, but…”
You tell yourself it’s the process, it’s nothing personal and your story’s terrific, just not “right” for that particular market.
Yet all that rationalization doesn’t hold back those nasty thoughts that your story is crap, you’re a terrible writer and maybe it’s time to give up.
And you hate yourself for having those thoughts and doubts.
So how can you deal? Well, it’s important to understand what’s going on inside your head: you’re grieving. Those thoughts are part of a mental process we all go through. Best to let them play out and not do anything rash.
The Grieving Process
Usually, we talk about grieving when someone we love dies. “Grief” is a heavy, emotionally-laden word not used lightly. But grief can be used to describe any loss, including the lost hope of making that sale, regardless if it’s at pro rates to Asimov’s or the small antho that will pay one contributor’s copy.
Grieving has 5 steps:
Keeping the above in mind, consider the thought process we go through when we get a rejection:
You read the letter, then read it again to make sure you understand correctly: You’ve been rejected. You read it one more time, looking for some glimmer of “Please revise and resubmit” or “We’ve rejected it, but still might buy it.” [This is denial]
But you realize it’s a flat out “no” and so you think “Damn it, three months down the drain when I could have sent it someplace else.” And it would have been nice if they gave some clue as to why it was rejected instead of a form letter. [Now you’re into anger]
Maybe if you’d changed something—amp up the tension, better define the characters, tighten the dialogue. Or was there a typo in your cover letter? [This is experiencing bargaining]
But what’s the use? you think. It’s a crappy story that’ll take too long to fix… assuming you even have the skills to fix it. Maybe all these rejections are trying to tell you something. [You’ve finally arrived at depression ]
But after a while—half an hour, a few days—you calm down, realize it’s no big deal and send the story off to someplace else. [At last, acceptance]
Hopefully, you still have the story and haven’t wiped the hard drive in an outburst of self-pity.
So What Should You Do?
Understand that grieving is like getting nervous before an exam or interview—it has nothing to do with your preparation or competency. It’s how your body deals with stress. Grieving is the same: a process hard-wired into our brains.
When you get that rejection letter and feel angry, think of how you could have improved the story, and begin to question your skills as a writer—don’t fight it. Acknowledge you’re grieving, let your brain work through the process and don’t do anything rash. It’s just how your mind files away bad news.
Resist the temptation to madly revise the story, erase all your stories or announce you’re quitting the writing game. Be aware of the stages as they come, let your brain work, and hunker down until you’re back on an even keel.
You’ll get through it.