Monday, April 10, 2017

The "R" word: REJECTION


JENN McKINLAY: While decluttering my desk awhile back, I found my file of rejection letters. What does it take to be published? For me, I'd say a pound of flesh, a gallon of tears, and an inch of rejections. I have a hide like a rhinoceros, but even I struggled to shake off the "no thank you's" for a solid seven years before I got published.

How did I shake it off? Well, after I shed a tear or two and dramatically cried, "I will never write  again!", I'd get really mad. And I do mean mad like crazy not like angry. Despite my jokester nature, I have a contrary personality and the quickest way to get me to do something is to tell me that I can't. So, usually within 48 hours of being emotionally shanked via letter or email, I was back in the saddle, writing the next idea absolutely positive that this was going to be THE ONE. And eventually, it was. 

And just so you can see how subjective this business is: Here are two responses from editors for the exact same query: One thought the hook was too small and the other thought it was great for a series. (Picture me throwing up my hands here).



How about you, REDS? How did you handle rejection and if you were never rejected, well, you're dismissed. Seriously, go away now.

HALLIE EPHRON: I have a ton of rejection letters. I read from then when I give a keynote at a writing conference, even though they still sting.
 I was giving a talk the other day and a woman in the audience asked me what she should do, her daughter was an aspiring writer who'd been rejected and now was vowing to give up writing. My response was: EVERYONE gets rejected, and if you can't take it, you shouldn't be a writer. Seriously. There's a steep learning curve, and then there are the vagaries of the market, and the intricacies of what's going on at each particular publisher. And it doesn't end with getting to YES. After you get published there's dealing with snippy reviews and nasty online reviewers and disappointing sales and... Nope, not for wimps. 
RHYS BOWEN: The first book I sent to a publisher was accepted. You'd think that would be the end of the story, right? But after that book was published it took me five years to sell another. This was all very long ago but I can still remember the hurt, anger, annoyance when I saw that envelope returned to me. I never once thought of giving up writing, however. I just thought, "I'll show them! They'll be sorry." And I have. And they are. The important thing to tell yourself is that a rejection is just one person's opinion. Some people think it's okay to streak their hair pink. Therefore not all opinions are equally valid. I also tell myself this when someone gives me a snippy review. 
LUCY BURDETTE: I think you're getting the theme here--we all face rejection in this business, but what separates success from failure is a stubborn writer. I would also add for me, rejection meant trying to go back to the drawing board to figure out what the weak spots of my book/proposal were. And then do my best to fix them. Like Hallie, I've kept copies of those early rejections and have enjoyed using them in talks. On a bad day, a rejection might have looked like this:  a form letter photocopied crookedly on the sheet--the only personalized note being a coffee ring. On a good day, I might have received a letter like this: “regrettably, Final Round is not the project for us. We would like to encourage you to continue seeking representation. Another agent is bound to recognize your talent and may be able to offer you and your work the time and attention it so readily deserves.” (This was a real letter!)

The funny thing is, rejection comes every step of the way, even after getting an agent and getting published. Right now I'm working on a book that's been rejected thoroughly, first by my agent, and then after I fixed it and she got excited about it in proposal form, by several editors. Did I have the sense to quit? No. I hired an independent editor and I'm working on revisions. Yes, stubborn. 

JENN: Lucy, I think you nailed it. Tenacity is probably the most common trait amongst writers. 
DEBORAH CROMBIE:  By a weird set of circumstances, I sold my first novel without ever having had a rejection letter. I did, however, have a very good writing teacher when I was working on that first book. The first pages I turned in to him came back with big red UGHS scrawled all over my beautiful prose!!!! My feelings were crushed. I cried for a day, and then I got mad and determined that nobody was going to do that to my pages again. I worked really hard, and the red ink marks got fewer and fewer, until at the end of the course my teacher told me he thought what I had written was publishable. I don't think I've ever been more proud.

Not that I haven't dealt with a lot of editorial criticism in the years since, but I just figure it makes me a better writer. 
HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN:  Oh, I saved every single rejection. And I always read them at seminars--it's such a concrete proof that a rejection is only a moment in time. My rejections all came via snail mail, in a stamped self-addressed envelope, and I'd see that horrible thing peeking out of my mailbox when I got home. Once I wailed to Jonathan: "Charlie McNally is going to DIE! No one will ever meet her!" But eventually people started saying yes. So HA.

My favorite one says: "This is such a terrific book, I couldn't turn the pages fast enough. And you really nail the newsroom setting. Sadly, we just published a reporter book, and there's no room on our list for another."  Probably a big fat lie, but it made me feel better. I love seeing the people who once rejected me. They're always so  enthusiastic. And I never say a word.  It's just completely personal, and unpredictable, and there are so many factors that go into it. It feels like the most personal thing in the world, but it isn't.

Lucy, lemme at that book.
INGRID THOFT: I was rejected a lot by agents, but there was enough encouragement in the rejections that I decided to keep going.  My favorite rejection tale is that the agent who was representing me when I wrote LOYALTY told me, “I can’t sell this.”  I shopped around for a new agent, and she sold it to the first editor she submitted it to.  It really is subjective, and I always remind writers that when they walk into the bookstore, there are probably whole sections they avoid because those topics just don’t interest them.  So it is with agents and editors; some things just don’t interest them.

In terms of feedback, I recommend that after taking some deep cleansing breaths, you review the critique and ask yourself a question:  Do the suggestions put forth make the book better or different?  Better is what you want, but different?  That will just turn it into someone else’s book.

JENN: Better or different? Ingrid, that is a brilliant way to determine whether the critique is valid or not. I love it.

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: You're going to hate me. I submitted the first manuscript I ever finished to the St. Martin's Malice Domestic Best First Traditional Mystery Contest, won, and have been published by St. Martin's ever since. I had one book published, another under contract and a two-book offer in hand when I went looking for representation - I wound up rejecting agents. Then, when my first agent "retired" (long story) I interviewed several other agents and went with the wonderful fabulous (TM) Meg Ruley (who also reps Rhys!) When I'm giving talks to unpublished writers, I try to elide most of this story.

On the other hand, I was rejected by Yale when I applied for their drama program. So there is that.


How about you, Readers? How do you handle rejection?

54 comments:

  1. I think you ladies have hit the nail on the head: refuse to give up and keep trying. Resolve is imperative for many things . . . .

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    1. Joan - you are so right. I think you really can bend an outcome to your will if your will is strong enough.

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  2. My first rejection slip for a mystery novel came several years ago,from St.Martin's. It was devastating at the time, as I've written plays,poetry, non-fiction, a few newspaper articles, employee newsletters and columns all my life, besides drawing and painting. Also self-pubbed a cookbook in 1982. After many tears, I got over it. I continue to plug along, although life has thrown me a few curves in the past few years. We're now caregivers to my aging parents, so my time is limited and consumed with lots of family obligations. But I still write, and intend to continue to pursue my dreams!

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    1. Lynn- That attitude will take you where you need to go. Quitting just isn't an option. And, yes, the first rejection is the worst. They say it isn't personal but it always felt pretty darn personal to me.

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  3. It's absolutely about tenacity, stubbornness, that getting mad and "I'll show 'em" attitude that gets us through. My hardest rejections among the more than fifty agents who said, "No thanks" (or didn't respond at all) to my first mystery were the three who requested the full manuscript, and then declined. Ugh. Even the dear man I lived with said dire things like, "I've heard it's really hard to get published." My response? "Somebody's going to be published. It might as well be me." So there.

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    1. (That should read, the dear man I LIVE with.)

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    2. I love that, Edith! Why not you, indeed!

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  4. So do you think rejection make your work better? My rejections have always sent me right back to work on the manuscript... or at least to considering making changes.

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    1. Yes. Although, I hate admitting it. My writing was vastly improved for being rejected. Darn it.

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  5. You are so right about rejections being subjective. I once got rejected twice in one week on the same book. One editor said she loved the plot but the characters were "cardboard." The next said she adored the characters, including the minor ones, but thought my plot was weak. Sometime later an editor asked to see two of my books, then rejected them both. According to the stock rejection letters I received, one book was too fast, and the other was too slow. I resolved to write faster/slower the next time out. Basically I gave myself 24 hours to cry and scream and throw things, and then I got back to work.

    But then . . . things changed. Life changed. And I found that I no longer believed in the stories I was telling. I went back to work full time, I moved, and I paused in my writing to retool my ideas about life and storytelling. When I wrote a new story a few months back, I discovered that some of my friends thought I had given up writing fiction all together. The truth is, the rejections never stopped me, and the stories never stopped unreeling in my brain. I just needed to pause to do other things for a while, until the new stories evolved.

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    1. Gigi- Living a full life - marriage, kids, career, travel, friendships, hobbies - all of it made me a better writer. It also made me realize that if I wrote for myself and no one else, my voice was much more authentic. Keep going!

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  6. Oh I forgot to tell another favorite… Many years ago, Before even Charlotte McNally, I had an idea for a mystery, and wrote about three chapters. I was so completely clueless, I sent those chapters to two agents.
    One wrote back something along the lines of this is such a great plot, but you are a terrible writer. The other one wrote back: wow you are a terrific writer, but this is a horrible plot. It completely crashed me to a halt.
    But A few years ago, I found those pages, and knowing what I know now, looked at them. The first page introduced about seven characters, and I used all of their points of view. at the same time.
    On the other hand, I'm still considering the plot.
    I really think it's indisputable, the only way to get published is to keep trying. Of course, it may not work, that's how it goes. But you won't know until you try it .

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    1. Head hopping! I did that, too, in my few manuscripts. I entered my work in some writing contests and one of the lovely judges wrote, "Honey, you have a way with words but you're giving me whiplash!" LOL - best writing advice I ever received.

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    2. Yup. I had no idea what I was doing, and once someone told me, I thought--ohhhhhh.

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  7. Yes, definitely, and possibly two my time detriment, whenever anyone says anything about my books, it sends me to the manuscript thinking: might that be right? And if it is, what does it mean? I am very happy to make anything I write better, that's the fun part!

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  8. And of course, we're not just talking about rejection of books, you know? There's rejection in everything in life. And in any case, sometimes being rejected turns out to be the best thing that ever happened, right?

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  9. I'm still working on getting my first draft finished, so try not to worry too much about rejection at this stage. I do think about it a little, though, because I'm not very thick-skinned about my writing. Still, I am very stubborn, so there is that ...

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    1. The stubbornness will get you through it, MaryC. With any luck, you'll be like our Debs and Julia and skip the whole rejection part!

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  10. I think I've gained an insight into why you can get two contradictory statements from two different agents or editors for the same work. I've been observing the trials and errors of my next door neighbor and BFF, who has been trying to sell her 1837 house on and off for the past three years. One couple will view it and reject it, telling their Realtor, "It's too small." Another couple will say, "It's too chopped up - I wanted more open floor plan." Another will say, "There's not enough counter space in the kitchen."

    It would drive my friend NUTS because all these criticisms were either things that could be changed fairly easily (a portable island in the kitchen) or were things that were obvious on the Realtor's website and fact sheets (the size of the house, the fact it's not open floor plan.)

    Eventually, I realized that the real reason anyone rejects a house is basically, "Enh...I'm not feeling it." But buyers don't want to say that to the Realtor. They feel they have to give a reason. Thus the seller hears, "I don't like the bathroom" or "This book is really small."

    Notice when an editor or agent is excited about acquiring a book, she doesn't give a list of reasons. She says, "I love it!"

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    1. I love it when they say that! When I threw myself back into the rejection game by writing the rom-com About a Dog coming out in May, I was sweating it BIG time. My agent, who signed me to write mysteries, read it rather reluctantly and then called immediately and said, "OMG, you wrote a perfect book!" Magical moment for sure.

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  11. 100+ rejections before selling a book. And, as Rhys points out, the rejections don't stop just because you're published. Perseverance has always been my middle name, however, so I'm still at it.

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    1. I bet we could compare files, Laura! This job is not for the weak.

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    2. Now we can experience rejection on the internet at any hour of the day! The fun never ends!

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    3. Exactly. PING! No thank you. Yeesh. xoo

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    4. And now look at you, Laura! (And Rhys...)

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  12. Rejection can come at any stage--in your first writing class or first writers' group-- in the form of criticism--the way I have always dealt with rejection and criticism is to step back and ask if the comments have any merit? If so , BUMMER!!! Because we all think everything we turn out is precious, right? ;-) But then, the next thing for me is to determine is whether the piece can be salvaged if the criticism is valid.

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    1. Flora- I love your objectivity. I used to clean when I got a rejection so I could mull it over. Looking around my house, I think I might need a rejection soon. LOL.

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  13. What interesting comments. Rejection is so hard for me, so even if I did have a modicum of talent, I can't imagine writing something and putting it out there to be shat upon. Right now I'm thinking of how Louise Penny says she gets panicky each time she submits a manuscript. Yet we know she could write a laundry list now and get it published. I bet it is the same with all of you. You are your hardest taskmasters.

    I am in awe (strikes starry eyed fan girl pose) at what you all do, and I would never reject a one of you.

    Ann in Rochester

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    1. Ann - you are, as always, just lovely. Thank you.

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  14. I used to save my rejections. One day, my husband asked, "So why are you saving them? One they don't tell you anything because they are form letters. Two, do they do anything positive for you?" He was so right. Into the trash they went.

    Since then, I've gotten a couple encouraging rejections, but a lot of forms and a lot of the "radio silence" type of rejections that are so popular now. In fact, I got a rejection just last Friday on a short story.

    I haven't let it stop me. I'm sure there is some kind of warped writer gene responsible for this - along with a bushel-basket of tenacity.

    Mary/Liz

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    1. Mary - Form letters are the worst! I once got my query back with a rubber stamp that said, "Not for us" with the the agent's initials. Probably should have tossed it but it made me mad to look at it - which was a motivator. Keep going - those encouraging ones mean you've got something!

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  15. Many years -=very many!- ago I took a genre writing course and in the last class, the teacher said, "Raise your hand if you want to be published." All hands up. then he said, "Put them down if you would quite after 5 rejections." None. "Twenty-five?" A few. "Hundred." A lot. He said, "If you put your hand down after 100, you might as well have done if after 5." Lesson learned.

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  16. I learned a very important tip about handling rejection. This is a bit different from rejection of written submissions for publications. When I was a preteen, I wanted to be an actress. I thought that modeling was a stepping stone. I recall a modeling agent saying that models often face rejection. It is NOT personal. I applied that to other areas of my life. When I liked a boy and he was not interested in me, then I move on. When a man I am interested in gives me a chance, I appreciate that more. When I applied to universities, I received rejection letters and acceptance letters. When a door closes, another door opens.

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    1. SO true! Absolutely. You never know what's a good thing...

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    2. Yes - I never would have written mysteries if I hadn't been rejected from other genres first. I resisted trying to write mysteries because I was afraid I couldn't do it. You just never know where your path will lead you even when you start from a place of no.

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  17. I'm so glad you all kept going. So many great books I wouldn't have been able to read if you had quit. (And Julia, that's something! Congrats years later.)

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    1. Thanks, Mark! I am glad I never quit - it would have bugged me forever to wonder if I could have made it if I just kept trying.

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  18. Julia, you're so right. What someone likes is not only totally subjective but utterly random. I think it takes a lining up of stars for the right agent or editor to fall in love with a manuscript--but then it does happen. Thank goodness.

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    1. I agree, Debs. One thing I wish I had done more of is go to conferences to meet other writers and industry professionals - I think it would have shortened my learning curve about the business.

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  19. I think to handle rejection, you must first believe in yourself enough to keep pursuing your dream. If you aren't your most ardent supporter, then I think criticism or rejection could easily dissuade your efforts. A belief in oneself and a passion for the work have to be there. Each of you Reds had that, and look at you all now. And, we readers are so fortunate that you stuck with it and didn't take no for an answer. Julia and Debs, you seem to have escaped some of the rejection part, but I know you both have worked and still work hard to be important voices in the mystery/crime world.

    I don't think I could have handled rejection well in my earlier years. I know in college, I had to take a writing course for teaching English. Looking back on it, I know my writing for that course was only passable, as was others' in the class. A "friend" looked at something I was writing for that course and pretty much indicated that I couldn't write, that it was crap. First, I didn't recognize at that time (I was 21) that the class itself was not conducive to producing good writing pieces, and, second, I didn't realize what a pompous ass that friend was, no matter how lacking my piece was. So, despite being a straight A student in the English department, I let that friend's rejection carry a lot of weight for a long time. When in my later years, my 40s, my professors in my post-graduate studies in college remarked that my writing awed them and actually intimidated them, I felt a bit of vindication. My intent here is not to brag, but to show that growth is possible, and that "ha" is sweet. But, how silly and sad that I had let that one rejection by a friend color so much of my life's path. When I started working with high school students on writing portfolios, I would always search hard for something with which to encourage them. Not false praise, but not a dismissal out of hand. Of course, I also made the students work hard to improve their pieces, impressing upon them that good writing was indeed hard work.

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    1. very good points kathy! You highlight how vulnerable we can be when trying something new. I went to a week-long writers workshop well before I was published and got discouraged by the carelessness of the so-called "mentor." I didn't write for a year after that!

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    2. Kathy, that's a great point, that you need to have confidence in your talents. If you don't believe you can do it, why would anyone else?

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    3. Great pints, Kathy. And for new writers, there is always something to build on. I truly believe everyone has a voice, some are just buried deeper than others.

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    4. *points I wish I had a pint :)

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  20. I still have the 35 rejection letters I received over the course of two or three years, before I finished my first book. Finally, I decided to self-publish the darn thing (in 1993, so long before that was a typical option). (And after that, I was asked to write two more books, by two different publishers.)

    However, I sold insurance for nine years, which included 100 cold calls a week, every single week, either on the phone or in person, walking into stores and offices without an appointment. In all those years, no one ever said to me, "NO! Get out!", nor did anyone ever hang up on me. So I did not count those as rejections, only as temporary setbacks. To me, it meant they were either happy with what they had then, or a family member took care of them, or they just didn't have time right then to talk to me. All of those situations, in my mind, were subject to change, especially since they had not outright rejected me, personally.

    So, in preparation for a writing career, I highly recommend trying to sell something no one wants, that they can't see, smell, taste, or show off to their friends. If you can handle that, you can handle anything.

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    1. wow, Karen, that job should be mandatory preparation for life!

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    2. You're right. That would toughen up anyone - nine years? Good for you!

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    3. Karen, I worked in my family's business as a manufacturer's rep. I made cold calls, too. It does wonders for your confidence.

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  21. Bootstraps. They come in handy throughout life. Oh yes, and starting out wanting to be an actress does not hurt. Rejection on so many levels there. My first (only) agent came to me at the ripe old age of 13. He passed away a few years later and I thought - oh, piece of cake this agent thing. Well...haven't been able to land one since. Did I mention I graduated college in 1974. Let's not talk about rejection. Sigh.

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    1. Oh, that is rough, Kait, and you're right it's always handy to have some sturdy bootstraps.

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  22. I faced a different sort of rejection. Two editors--at two different times--wanted to offer on my manuscript. One publishing house was going through throes of reorganization so they refused to let that editor offer on it. She seemed as disappointed as I was. The second house had put a moratorium on first-time authors, as they were over-bought on them. That editor tried twice (in two different years) to get the company to let her offer. Still no dice. After years under the metaphorical bed, I dug it out and reread it. I was surprised that two editors had liked it, as I discovered it was the bones of a novel and needed extensive revision. Now it's back to the agent search, as over-the-transom doesn't do well anymore.

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    1. Hi, Diane! Great to see you here! I think you're describing that pesky luck and timing thing Debs was talking about. Ugh.

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  23. Thank you for sharing your experience, it's very inspiring to me.
    le lenny face

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