The Art of Rejection
February 18, 2013
“This manuscript of yours that has just come back from another editor is a precious package. Don’t consider it rejected. Consider that you’ve addressed it ‘to the editor who can appreciate my work’ and it has simply come back stamped ‘Not at this address’. Just keep looking for the right address.” – Barbara Kingsolver
Writers compare rejection notices like veterans compare war wounds. And that’s appropriate, I think. The two are very similar, evidences of battles not necessarily won or lost or even stalemated, but simply fought. Both begin as a bitter pain that seems unendurable but, with hope and God and perseverance, may become points of pride later.
See this? we say. Got that one three years ago. Hurt like hell, too. Doesn’t really bother me much anymore though, except when it rains.
For the past dozen years or so I’ve kept my rejections in a file folder that’s shoved into the bottom of an old wooden chest in a corner of my office. The chest is both latched and locked, and there are approximately thirty pounds of books stacked on top.
I suppose there is some psychological explanation as to why I keep that folder as far away and inaccessible as possible. I’ve thought about it. The truth is that I still can’t bear to read some of them and still can’t throw away any of them, and both for the same reason—I fear I will lose a little bit of myself in the process.
Last night I took those thirty pounds of books off my chest, unlocked and unlatched it, and dug out my folder. For the simple reason that there are times in a person’s life when he must pause in his forward movement just to see how far down the path he’s come.
I counted fifty-seven. Fifty-seven letters and emails that chronicled a writer who began as a veritable literary idiot then progressed to a rank amateur and then hardened veteran in need of a miracle. There they were, all of them. A picture of my dreams.
Every writer knows rejections come in three different classes. There are the standard form-letter ones, the more personal ones, and, if you’re especially fortunate, ones upon which an actual living human has scrawled a few actual words with an actual pen.
I had a lot of the first, some of the second, and a few of the third.
Some were blunt. I found one in the stack that was simply a return of my query with “No Thanx” scrawled at the top.
There was lot of “We’re sorry, but this book does not fit our publishing interests.” A testament to my lack of proper research.
One of the handwritten comments said, “You are an excellent writer, but unfortunately our calendar for the year is full.” That one got me through another couple months of No Thank yous.
But then I got this one from a newspaper editor: “I cannot in good faith accept this query. To be honest, you’re just not a good writer.”
That one? That one killed me. I quit writing for about three months after reading that.
Some said I was too country. Others that I wasn’t country enough. Some said my words were too simple and my thoughts too erratic, and others said my thoughts were too simple and my words too erratic.
I wasn’t experienced enough.
My platform was lacking.
And on. And on. And on.
F.X. Toole, whose short story “Million Dollar Baby” became the movie of the same name, gave up writing for boxing when he was a relatively young man. A broken jaw, he said, hurt less than a rejection.
I understand what he meant by that.
And I also understand that the above quote by Barbara Kingsolver sounds wonderful in theory but very, very hard in application. Because it doesn’t matter how hard we try to convince ourselves otherwise, we’ll always fight the temptation to see a rejection as not simply a pass on our book, but a pass on our life.
Go to your local bookstore and you’ll see entire shelves dedicated to the art of getting published. And while many of those books are worthy of attention, the secret is much simpler. Much better.
Write your book. Make it as good as it can be.
And after that, send your queries.
And then, after all that, do one more thing. The most important thing. The one thing you must do no matter how many rejections you get and no matter how discouraged you become.
Always try one more time.
The Billy Coffey Collection