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!

56 Replies to “Dealing With Rejection”

  1. This post is timely and encouraging (I just received three rejections)! Thank you.

    When I get a rejection I always do two things. I send the story out to the next publisher on my list. Then I write a thank you note to the one who rejected me and include another story for them. This gives me a plan of action so I don’t feel helpless. I also make art with rejections when I’ve collected a pile.

  2. Number one best piece of advice whilst moving toward the trajectory: Have trusted people to critique your work — people who will be completely honest. And when they are completely honest, have thick skin! (These people should never include friends or family, btw. Unless your friends and family work for Random House or Scholastic. And even then, maybe not).

    One funny thing I’ve noticed about writing workshops is that the people who were most defensive about their work were often the least skillful and the ones who were most humble and apologetic were often the most talented. It’s a strange phenomenon — not sure if others have experienced the same thing, but that’s been mine. Being able to accept criticism without a) getting defensive and angry or b) falling to pieces is, in my opinion, the first steps toward Unconscious Competence.

    Also, I started and petered out on a bunch of novels trying to find my voice. Frustrated, I took a friend’s advice and wrote short stories for a while. If not for those years writing short stories I would have never finished a novel. It also taught me how to submit and accept rejection. Plus every acceptance boosted my ego on my journey toward novel-writing.

    Anyway, those are my two cents.

  3. I might just print this out and stick it on my wall! Thanks, Mary.

    My response to rejection is to pout, stop writing for at least a few days (and ignore anything to do with kidlit), then to get all feisty and, “You just wait, you publishing industry!” That’s when I get back to it.

    Love to hear how others deal with it!

  4. Oh, and P.S.

    How I deal with rejection: I’m always working on the next project. Then I don’t feel stagnant and I can tell myself (convince myself?): “If that wasn’t The One, then surely THIS will be The One!”

  5. Who knew a post about rejection could make me feel better…

    I intend to send out my first round of serious queries in 2011. A year and a half ago, I was part of the “Unconscious Incompetence Club,” happily submitting a story that I now know was not ready (and not particularly good).

    My day job is in inside sales, so we deal with rejection on a daily basis. Our coping strategy is almost identical to your recommendation: acknowledge it happened, learn from it (What questions did I not ask? Did I sufficiently highlight the benefits? Could I have listened better?), and then invest that knowledge and energy into the next opportunity.

    I also find that a conversation with my colleague and best friend helps as she’s particularly good at commiserating and making me laugh.

  6. As I wallow in Conscious Incompetence, working hard to transition into Conscious Competence, I’m thankful for your post, Mary. You’ve exactly defined the stages a writer needs to go through. I’ve been banging myself on the head, saying “You’re competent. But you need to be spectacular.” Now I see that means I’m on the right track.

  7. I think it’s also important to remember that what works for one agent/editor/person might not work for others. Rejection doesn’t always mean you and your writing are unpublishable – sometimes it just means they’re not right for that person.

  8. Great insight, Erin! Good crit partners can point out my manuscript flaws and keep my spirits buoyed.

    Also, I try to print or keep my rejections in one place and number them at the top with a big fat marker. Cynthea Liu did that (I think). It was so encouraging to see! I hope to look back someday and see how far I’ve come.

  9. What a great post. Very helpful and relevant to my ife lately. I deal with rejection by trying to get better and keep writing. A critique group is incredibly helpful–in pushing me to be better, but also in support during the tough times.

  10. I’d like to echo the point about clinging. I have four novel manuscripts that I chose to shelf, along with a half dozen picture books. If I’d kept cycling on them, I very, very seriously doubt my career would be where it is today.

    But the time I spent on those stories was in no way wasted. Each was a valuable, skill-and-savvy building learning experience.

  11. It’s always nice to hear some positive thoughts on rejection. As for me, inevitably I pout and think to myself that the rejecters just lost out on a really good thing (because if I didn’t tell myself this, I might just give up).

    Then if it’s a personal rejection, I read it over a million times (slight exaggeration) to see if I can learn anything from it and to see what nice things were said about my writing. I keep those nice thoughts tucked away in the back of my mind to help me get over the pouting and the constructive criticism in mind for possible revisions. Then I file it away in a special folder and try to get on with my writing. Always moving onward and upward.

  12. This is an excellent post.

    As for dealing with rejection….truly the best thing about being a writer is doing the writing. I just move on to something else. Really, it’s even easier than it sounds. I love drafting new things! (Revising? Now for me that’s harder than it sounds!)

    Shelley

  13. These stages are described extremely well.

    The problem is? We’re taught that if we’re passionate enough about something and try hard enough, the world will want us to succeed and things will work out. In a writer’s world, perhaps they do…but not in the way we dream they should. But looking at these stages, each one of them is necessary, so it’s good to see where you are when you’re there.

    The first thing that happens with rejection for me is sadness. And then a funky-bad mood. Introspection is next. Was I rejected because it wasn’t a good fit (glimmer of hope)? Or because I have something to fix. At the end, I fix what I can and keep going. Because I gotta write. ๐Ÿ™‚

  14. Writing a new book that nobody has seen yet and therefore nobody has rejected. It’s still clean. It’s still shiny. It’s still good and wonderful and life-changing. ๐Ÿ™‚ And somehow in the writing of something new and different, I get insights on the poor, sadly rejected one. Sometimes to improve, sometimes to hold a funerary viewing.

    I have to say, though–the Conscious Competence stage is the MOST MOST MOST MOST MOST headbangingly hard stage to be in. Just saying.

  15. Boy, are you on the money! I totally agree with you on the phases writers go through until achieving that “mastery” level.

    I learned years ago about this thing called “tough skin.” I didn’t have it when I first set out, ten years ago, which btw means my decade is here! Now I do.

    My motto is…anything is possible as long as you believe!

  16. Fantastic post, Mary. Thank you! One of the biggest problems, I think, is that, as writers, we can’t objectively view our own work. I hate that, but it’s true. And, as others have said, that’s why we need good critique partners. But we also need to just ask ourselves some pointed questions about how much work we’ve truly put into our writing and our projects. I’m really tired of hearing people whine about not getting published when they’ve been writing for a year. I hope they can recognize their unconscious incompetence and move onward and upward. ๐Ÿ™‚

  17. I pretty much expect rejection each time that I send out a query, because it is the only way I can brace myself for what is to come. But, obviously a little part of me dares to hope that something could actually come of it and that is the part that shrivels up temporarily with each new rejection.

    Honestly, I think part of the reason it is so difficult to get published is because it weeds out those who aren’t really, really, really dedicated to their craft. You have to be willing to keep working for a long time and I suspect many people just give up somewhere around Conscious Incompetence. The best things in life tend to take a lot of work.

  18. Funny that you would post this today. Last night I began rereading Novel Metamorphosis, by Darcy Pattison. When I got to the page that describes the levels of competency, I saw that about a year ago, I marked “Conscious Incompetence.” That made me stop and reflect. I think that I have advanced a level, very recently, and I think it’s because I have been reading WAY more YA than usual in a very short period of time. It changed the lenses through which I examine my own work. I’m frustrated, but proud and hopeful at the same time. I shelved that last novel and am now revising my second.

    Rejection used to really bother me, but now I expect it. When I get one, I read it for any clues on what needs work, save it for future reference, announce it to my family as a way of confirming that I am not ashamed, and move on. I don’t automatically resend it to someone new. I like to reflect first, and sometimes revise before it goes out again.

    I still don’t like SILENCE, though. Ugh!

  19. I used to be the author who would cry and mope all the time about rejections. Every time an agent rejected me, I would always feel miserable for at least a day or two until I decided that I needed to improve on my writing and stop worrying about the rejections they kept sending me.

    Right now, I’m in the process of writing my fourth draft and I’m still learning and improving on my writing. I have to tell you, this time off of sending query letters to agents/publishers has put a whole new persepctive on my writing (Along with the rejection letters of course).

    I guess what I’m saying here is never give up and keep writing.

    Dominique

  20. I’ve tried to change my attitude towards rejection. I used to get all upset, use it as an excuse to eat something unhealthy, and stop writing for a few days or a week.

    These days, if it’s a personal rejection, I’m pretty thrilled. If it isn’t I try to file it away so I don’t have to look at it and move on. When I query, I query one or two agents a day rather than in batches. So, my next step is to send out another query or, if I got some good advice, take a few days off from queries, and work on a revision.

    This is a wonderful post. I think I’m at conscious competence and it is head-pounding. I feel like I spend more time thinking than writing.

    Happy holidays everyone!

  21. I really appreciate this post and all of the comments.
    I heard Andrea Brown at a conference, and one of the things she said hit me so hard that it is one of my mantras.
    Read, read, read.
    Write, write, write.
    Revise,revise,revise.
    I’ve heard others say this as well–but the repetition of the words hammers home to me that writing is, at all stages, collaborative.
    Reading makes me a better writer. When I hit a wall, buying an amazing book gives me an opportunity to expose myself to a writer who is where I want to be. I also feel really good that the act of buying a book means that I am supporting the author and the community of people who brought the book to its published form. This kind of consciousness–that I am part of the cycle of creativity and collaboration as a reader–gives me a great deal of joy.

    Having a community of critiquers keeps my drive and inspiration alive. I went to the Big Sur conference, and if I had to choose one word to describe how I felt it would be ‘gratitude.’ Well, okay, two words–‘gratitude’ and ‘wonder.’ The focused attention of other writing eyes and hearts contributes so much to how I “re-see” my work.

    When I write I collaborate with myself. It’s a choice to shut off the inner critic and let the words flow. It’s a choice to put the butt in the chair and put the time in and make it count. This is hard work.

    Finally, I read Publisher’s Marketplace. This reminds me that books are a business with a bottom line. Books are products that need to be sold. Agents and editors and publishers put themselves on an economic line with each client, each book, each deal. When I think of these people and the risks they take, the fact that they have lives and mortgages and college funds and pets, I’m humbled. Rejection at this level is not about who I am.

    These are thoughts and actions that help me; I thank you all again for sharing what helps you.

  22. Great post! I haven’t received any rejections (yet) but I’ve also only met two agents ever. I doubt I’ll go cry in a corner when it happens, especially with your solid advice. Thanks!

  23. I have a paper next to my desk where I keep a running tally of queries and responses. When I get a rejection, I feel a shudder of disappointment, but pulling the cap off my felt pen and adding a little line to my tally seems to help the feeling pass. Those little lines are footprints of progress.

  24. Fantastic post, Mary — it’s definitely a keeper. I’ve heard lots about continuing to work and learn and grow, but haven’t heard about the different levels along the way. Good food for thought to start the New Year.

    I’ve dealt with rejection in different ways, depending on the project and where I was in my writing journey at the time. It’s a lot easier to move past a short story rejection than a full manuscript! But it all still comes back to working, learning, and growing — and Godiva chocolates always seem to help me move on. ๐Ÿ™‚

  25. Great post! It’s true. You think you know where you’re at as a writer, and then time and a whole lot of work changes your perception. Kind of like the whole levels of growing up. When you start to think your parents are smarter than you gave them credit for, is when you start to really grow up.
    I also think that when you do get critiqued and you have the confidence to disagree is a whole new level. I used to change everything when my critique members would bring up things they had issues with. After years of READING(!) I realized that I needed to be more confident in my writing. Not defiant. But confident. A thin line. Not that you don’t take that information into consideration, but that you think about it and move on with confidence bcause you know you’re on the right track.
    ANyway, I’m due. Seven novels, numerous really bad PB’s a few Mg’s. Chautaugua, Centrum with Jane Yolan. 2011 is my year. I claim it. And my current novel. YES!

  26. Excellent post!

    I’m getting my first round of agent rejections right now from my first attempt at submitting. When I get them I try to tell myself two things.
    First, “congratulations on trying.” It takes guts to submit with knowledge of the overwhelming possibility of rejection. Putting my work out there to be seen and judged is hard and if I’m getting rejections, then at least I know I tried.
    Second, “you love writing.” It is essential to remember that I’m doing all this because I’ve found something I LOVE to do…write! I’m writing because I need to write. I’m writing because I love learning to write. I’m writing because I have something to say. And my “something to say” can be written in a million different ways and through a thousand different stories. So, I haven’t found the right way and story to share with the world yet…maybe the next combo will be the one!

  27. Shelley, that’s so true! It is exactly like growing up: I felt mature at 13, 16, 1, 21 and so on. Aged 30, I knew that I’d never truly be mature (the conscious competence stage), and now I don’t even think about it. Guess in growing-up terms, at least, I’ve reached the unconscious competence stage!!!

    Rose, I love your idea of a shiny new MS. That’s what I’m doing right now and it does feel good.

    Mary, thanks again for this post. I’ll be back to read it again each time I need to… not too many times, though, I hope!

  28. I want my first published novel to shine. Rejections mean my work isn’t at that stage yet so I view each pass as another opportunity to create that perfect story.

  29. I’m not subbing yet, but when I start I will keep your words in mind. Practice makes perfect. Now I am off to practice.

  30. Your learning sequence is right, and has been shown in many fields. One thing that does worry me is the notion of how long it takes. Are you really saying that no one over the age of about 50 should attempt to write? Why 50, well say ten years from then to get good enough by which time any agent looking at a possible client sees the age of 60 and figures they won’t have time to make any money out of this client and cynically moves on.
    That would tend to mean that anyone who wanted to write, after a career in something else, should give up the idea, or at least expect a bumpy ride.

  31. Rod — Please don’t project that viewpoint on what I said. There are lots of published writers who have had one, two, three, or more careers and many years behind them. No older writer is going to get a free pass on their writing…they need to reach a level of mastery just as younger writers do…but achieving that is by no means impossible and has nothing to do with age. Don’t put ridiculous words in my mouth. Your portrayal of agents in your comment reveals a negative agenda (“cynically moves on…”). You can believe whatever you want, but nowhere in this post will you find me agreeing with your comment.

  32. Thank you for the amazing post, Mary. I think you’ve articulated this in a really amazing way. In fact, it took some recent rejections to really push me in the right direction: rejection led to working on a new project; the new project made me really *feel* the difference between trying to write well and having the writing and voice just flow out of me.

    In terms of what Rod said, I think people writing at later ages have most likely been *reading* a lot longer than, say, a nineteen-year-old getting into writing, and reading is SUCH a big part of the process. So in that sense they’d be ahead of the game ๐Ÿ™‚

  33. Mary, I came to your post from the Operation Awesome blog and am so glad I found it. It’s very helpful to do some self-analysis (what stage of my writing career am I currently in?), to see my goal (unconscious competence), and to understand what I need to do to get there (basically smart practice). You have a gift for putting things in simple terms. Thanks for your work with aspiring writers.

  34. Chalk up another great post for Mary! =)

    Though I started writing in sixth grade, I consider my “real” work to have started in 2003. So I’ve been working at this going on eight years now. My writing is far better today than it was back in 2003!

    Does that mean I’ve done my time and am ready to land the agent and publishing deal of my dreams? Not necessarily (though I hope so). It’s not just the years, but what I’ve learned during those years that matters. If my writing were the same today as it was in 2003, I’d be no closer.

    The more I read and write, the more I learn. It’s an ongoing process that doesn’t end. I think even an author who has reached the Unconscious Competence stage will continue to learn new things.

    Doctors go through years and years of schooling, but they have to continue to keep up with the new developments in their field.

    So do authors.

    As for rejection, at first I feel a twinge of disappointment (sometimes it’s more than a twinge). Then I let it sit (anywhere from an hour or so to a day) and read through it again to make sure I understand it and to see if there are any words of advice I can use to improve.

    After the second read through, I make a note of the date and any advice given in my notebook, I file the rejection away, and move on.

    Moving on may be another round of revisions (depending on feedback), starting a new project, or sending querying the next on the list (sometimes more than one of the above).

    I know a rejection of my MS or query isn’t a rejection of me, it just means I need to keep trying. I’ll be published someday (because I won’t give up until I make it), and each rejection I get along the way brings me closer to the acceptance I know is out there somewhere.

    Thanks for the question, Siski, and thank you for the answer, Mary.

  35. Great post.

    I’m to the point where I’m grateful for the rejections I receive, because I’d rather have those than no response at all.

    When I taught my children to ride their bicycles, I ran next to them and chanted, “Just keep pedaling; just keep pedaling.”

    Now, for me, the chant: just keep writing, just keep learning, just keep revising.

  36. 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.

  37. 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!

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

  39. 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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