100 Rejections. Let’s Celebrate.
I wrote this in 2016, when I was deep in the querying trenches trying to find the perfect agent. My work with YA4YA has me thinking a lot about that period of my life, because I’m trying to figure out the best way to mentor the authors I’ve decided to work with. I can’t say I’m nostalgic for querying. I never want to have to go back to it, but there is something to be learned from all that rejection. So to all of you in the trenches, stick with it. Something important happens while you’re wading through all that rejection, and maybe this short read will give you a little encouragement to keep going.
I won an award for having my writing rejected one-hundred times. That’s super messed up when you think about it—we’re celebrating failure after failure after failure. But people who are smarter than me, who have been doing this job longer than I’ve been alive, who have received many more than one-hundred rejections, are the people who bequeathed it to me. It’s probably the most important award I’ve ever won, and after earning my magic-letter-opener-trophy, I finally understand what they already know.
At the beginning there’s some excitement to sending out stories. It’s the hope of publication (which really means validation) and the newness of it all that keeps you researching markets and writing new stuff. It is easy to be optimistic when you have no idea what lies ahead. A month or two in, every e-mail from a lit journal starts with, “Thank you, but…” followed by any number of reasons you are not good enough. Any excitement you once felt dies. So you take a break. For some it’s a weekend, for me it was two years.
Then you read a book, and that book is total crap—complete rubbish; a fourth grader could have written something better. Yet somehow this person managed to get published? You stop and look at the stories you’ve written, and you know—know down to the marrow inside your bones that you write better than that crap-tastic author. So you start submitting. Again. It’s a little easier this time, because now you have writer friends who you can commiserate with. You have subscriptions to databases so the research of where to submit is more efficient this time around. There’s a whole file folder on your desktop of completed stories to choose from.
Then the rejections begin, again. Every time you see an e-mail you think maybe this is the one that says yes. You get your hopes up and you open it to find you are not good enough again. But now the length of time to emotionally recover isn’t months, it’s days. With every rejection you open, the recovery time decreases until you’re down to minutes.
Maybe fifty rejections in, you write a story and think Damn, that’s good. (It’s possible while you were writing it you started crying, and that’s okay because those are the parts where other people will cry as well.) You know this story is the one, and you send it out for approval. The e-mails come back and this time the rejection is a knife to your heart, and you go back to days on the recovery spectrum. Here’s the thing—you know this story is good. Ten more rejections and you start to doubt yourself, but is it good? You stop submitting, again. You pause and evaluate: why are you even doing this in the first place?
A few months more and that story is still in your head, the one you know is good. You pull it out. You look at the rejections. You realize these rejections were different, they were longer they said “liked the premise, but the dialogue was stilted.” What the hell does stilted mean? You look it up, and re-read your story. Oh, that’s what stilted means… Maybe some of the advice in these rejections isn’t all bad. You rewrite your story. It’s better this time, because you’ve learned from every single story you’ve written up until now. You’ve been practicing your craft whether you thought about it or not. This time when you send the story out you have no doubts. This story is good. Someone will pay you for it. It will go in a book and people will read it.
You send it, and you wait, and you wait, and you wait. You wonder if your story has been forgotten and then five months later there’s an e-mail. “I love what I’ve read. Can you send me more?” You send more pages. And you wait, and you hope, and you wait, and you hope, and you wait. You submit to more places, and you wait. The rejections start again, and they still hurt—but less than before because you still have hope. You know your pages are out there, one person saw your promise so hope and you wait.
Then you hear back. It’s from the person who wanted more pages, and you don’t want to open the e-mail because if you do and they say “no” you will die. They say, “I think you’re a strong writer but I wasn’t quite sure where this would fit on a publisher’s list.” So you stop, and you cry. What does that even mean? A different e-mail comes asking for more pages, and the hoping and waiting begins again. You play this game for months, maybe even years. And somewhere in there a few other stories you forgot you submitted get a “yes” email in response, and then that little bit of doubt dies—just like your excitement did. The rejections continue coming, but now it is different. Now you are different.
Somewhere around eighty-rejections I started to see the absurdity of my chosen industry. Now, instead of getting sick when I open my daily rejection, I may get a quick twinge of yuck or feel nothing at all. Once a month there may be a rejection that sends me reeling back to the land of self-doubt, but by the next morning I am firmly back in my newly won permanent reality. The place where I know my story is good enough, and if I keep sending it out the right person’s going to see it. The whole process of rejection may be ridiculous, but my story is not. I have gotten better and better and better, and I don’t doubt myself any more. The rejections were necessary, because they gave me the strength to stand up for my art. Now I know—the award isn’t for getting rejected, it’s for learning I’m good enough to keep going.