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Dealing With Rejection

Here’s a universal question from longtime reader and friend of kidlit, Siski:

How do you recommend getting over rejection? When it feels like you’ve exhausted all avenues? I know you took time out of writing…does that help bring back your enthusiasm to start over?

This is a great question, especially as we prepare to greet a new year. Of course, I hope 2011 is full of success and acceptance and the fulfillment of publishing dreams, but I know there will also be some rejection. So as we prepare to leap back at it come January 1st, I wanted to share some thoughts on this dreaded topic.

I was at Big Sur a few weeks ago and speaking with a lovely agency client. We were talking about writing journeys and she mentioned the idea of mastery. See, there is a scale of mastery that goes from Unconscious Incompetence to Unconscious Competence. If you’re thinking, “Say what?” I’ll explain:

Unconscious Incompetence: In other words, “ignorance is bliss.” You’ve just started writing and, wow, you’re really good. All your friends and family love your stuff. In fact, you have the makings of a J.K. Rowling or Dan Brown plot on your hands and you couldn’t be happier. You rush off your first draft to the industry’s top agents before revision — hey, that’s what the editor is for, right? — and then…the real world intrudes and gives you a spanking. This is your first taste of rejection, and it strikes you like a bolt from the blue.

Conscious Incompetence: You take a step back. Wow. This writing stuff is actually pretty hard. It turns out you were doing okay but now you’ve started reading a whole lot more and you’re seeing what other writers are doing. You didn’t even know some of it was possible. This is when you realize that you have a lot to learn before you’re “ready for prime time.” Some writers hold off on submitting when they reach this point, as it’s more a time of contemplation and study.

Conscious Competence: You’ve thrown out your first book idea — or five — and now you really think you have The One: the project that will get published. It’s still a bit of a struggle to sit down and write, and sometimes it takes many revisions to really nail something, but your language is working, the writing is clean, and you’re developing your voice. Now you’re ready to start querying again, and you’re energized and feeling good.

Let’s pause for a minute. This is actually the stage where most writers get frustrated. They’ve gotten over their first, ignorant efforts, they’ve done a lot of work on themselves and on their writing, and they finally feel pretty masterful. However, the rejections keep coming. And some of them are vague: the voice isn’t doing it for me, I liked it but didn’t love it, it doesn’t have that je ne sais quoi factor, it’s not competitive in today’s tough market…etc.

Meanwhile, writers at this stage have been reading a lot, are usually following the industry, and they feel like they get it at long last. So why are they still getting rejected? Why isn’t publication, finally, their reward after years of hard work in the trenches?

Because most writers who are functioning at the level of Conscious Competence haven’t reached mastery yet. There’s one more step, and this is the hardest to achieve:

Unconscious Competence: This is when you’re not really thinking…you’re doing. You don’t sit there breaking your brain for ideas. Your characters aren’t flat. You’re not struggling with voice. You’re not staring at the screen and waiting for the perfect image or metaphor or plot point or dialogue or characterizing detail to come to you. You’re just writing. And you’re writing well. Your craft level is on par with already-published writing. Everything just clicks, and you finally have the tools to elevate your stories to the publishable level, with enough authority and sophistication that your manuscripts demand publication. That’s not to say that masters don’t have tough days, but at least they’ve reached their cruising altitude and they don’t mind any slight turbulence along the way.

When I speak to writers at conferences, I talk about authority. Authors tell stories with authority, in an authoritative way. And those are the people I want to work with. If you’re not there yet — and 99.9% of people who contact me aren’t — don’t feel bad about it. In his book OUTLIERS: THE STORY OF SUCCESS, Malcolm Gladwell postulates that it takes about 10,000 hours, or 10 years, to achieve mastery in your chosen field or craft. Other writers say it takes 1,000,000 bad words. Most of the published writers I know say it took them about a decade to get their first book deal.

With publishing in a tailspin and fewer books achieving commercial success, agents and editors are really focusing their efforts on masterful writers. In terms of your own development as a person, you should strive to be the best you can possibly be. So if you are getting rejected, don’t let it crush you. You’re just not there yet. And you shouldn’t expect to be. Just because some people get published their first time out (ahem, Stephenie Meyer), doesn’t mean that’s the way your story will go. Are you really justified in your angst? Can you say that you’ve put a decade of solid work into your craft?

The enlightening — and scary in a this-is-your-mission-should-you-choose-to-accept-it way — thing is: you can’t control the publishing industry or the “gatekeepers,” but you are in full control of your creative work. So instead of sitting there and griping about rejection, the only empowering, right, and inspiring thing for you to do is to open up your Word doc and start reading, writing, and revising. The power to write something incredible lies in your hands. And if all that reading, writing, and revising sounds like too much work? Perhaps the path of being a writer isn’t the right one for you.

Keep going. The responsibility lies on your shoulders. And don’t be afraid to put down your old project and start a new one. You can’t cling to one idea in this or any other business. If you dig your claws in to something that has been rejected everywhere, of course you’re going to be miserable. Not to mention that if you’re already running out of ideas — and you’re not even published yet — you’re in deep trouble. So cast off your unsuccessful projects and work on something else. Focus on your craft. Plod along toward mastery. I send rejections every single day of my life, but I don’t do it to wound or hurt or ruin. All I’m thinking as I press “Send” is, and I’m very serious here: “Not yet”or “Not yet, but soon.”

Receive a rejection, learn from it if it has anything valuable or constructive to teach you, and move on as you stick with your trajectory toward Unconscious Competence. You shouldn’t view it as a negative thing, and never a personal thing. You should view it as encouragement to keep going and keep growing.

To top off this post, Siski also wanted me to ask: How do you deal with rejection? Post your thoughts in the comments!

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  1. Howlynn Martin’s avatar

    Personally, I don’t count. I know a ton of people put the rejection count up on everything they post. Yes it is fun info. in some ways, but not if they have a magic secret number.

    If it is to inspire others later, great. If it is the permission to give up number, then that is sad. What if rejection number 6000 is the number, but query 6007 would have been the Yes? I have tons of rejections. I just got a very polite one from an agent I respect and I don’t take it as if I have been defriended on facebook.

    I used to play a great deal of golf. I played on the boys team and the girls. I liked to practice and play. Sometimes I played so much my hands were covered in blisters. Sometimes I got blisters from walking. But, I didn’t have a blister count? I had no plan to stop playing when I had racked up a certian number of blisters. The actions that created those blisters always made me better. The blisters themselves were not important.

    I love to write. I might be good at it. I get rejected all the time. I am so thankful that the first 30-40 books I wrote into corners, wrote into the ground and wrote with great joy at that moment were rejected. I am better at it now. Is it good enough? Who knows. Do I love it? Yes.

    I still play golf. I still hope for a hole-in-one, but I don’t count the blisters.

  2. PK Hrezo’s avatar

    Wow, Mary … this was such an amazing post. I love the way you explained this, and I easily identified where I am. I think we get so bogged down with the idea of validation thru publishing, that we forget that our true love is the actual story. How can we improve our craft, and make it the best ever? That’s what every writer should be asking themselves.
    For you to point out that most agents are looking for writers who’ve mastered their craft, is resonating. But it does make me wonder how so many writers HAVE gotten published when their stories are far from smashing.
    Still, if it means my writing gets better because of rejection, than i will take it. Sometimes I feel so close …. then other times, so far away.
    Thanks fo this post. Outstanding!

  3. Hilary Harwell’s avatar

    Great post. Very insightful and encouraging. I definitely have to agree with PK Hrezo – so close and yet so far sometimes..
    . =)

  4. Rachna Chhabria’s avatar

    Great post, Mary. Very insightful and needless to say, encouraging. Rejection does sting and also deflates us big time.

    On another note, what do agents mean when they say that though they liked the story, but they didn’t love it? Is it a polite way of saying, its bad? Or is it something else?

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